Category Archives: Life

A Very Roman Day

I have often observed that accomplishing any task of note here in Rome takes half a day. Note the ‘of note.’ I do not mean to insinuate that everything takes half a day. I am quite sure, for example, that you can buy a stick of gum or a slice of pizza in less time than that. But the moment you have to go anywhere or get involved in any kind of process, you might as well pack a good book and cancel your appointments for the rest of the day. Doctor’s visit? Half a day. Need a new checkbook? Half a day. Have to pay some bills? That’ll take half a day. The crazy thing is that such services are about a million times more efficient than they were when I arrived here back in the days of mimeograph machines and no cell phones. Took a half a day then. Takes a half a day now.

Friday was a Very Roman Day — a VRD if you will. I was supposed to meet my lawyer at the big post office near Piazza Mazzini to turn over the documentation for renewing my permesso di soggiorno or residency permit. I’ve done this a couple of time before and here is what’s supposed to happen. 1) I give the permit forms plus backup documentation (every contract I’ve signed over the past year; all of my bank information; a photocopy of my complete passport, empty pages and all) to the grumpy postal worker (GPW for short. They are always grumpy — going postal appears to also be a  thing in Italy). 2) The GPW checks that all the necessary papers are present and accounted for and puts stamps all over everything. 3) I give everyone a whole load of money and go home to wait and see whether I get to stay on for another two years. Pretty straightforward, no?

Here’s what actually happened. The first challenge was getting there. Piazza Mazzini is about 15 minutes away by car, 20 bus stops or a €20 taxi ride. I don’t really drive in Rome anymore — long story — and normally I am all about public transportation but — of course — there was a transport strike on Friday. That was annoying, but strikes aren’t exactly rare or surprising in this part of the world and one adapts. The transport strikes usually run from 8:30 am to 5 pm so they only really inconvenience people who oversleep or leave work at a reasonable hour. When I used to commute to work (before my commute was a gentle amble across the hallway from the bedroom to my study) I used to be inconvenienced all the time because I usually did both. My appointment with the lawyer was at 10 so I took a cab.

We met up and idly chit chatted in the queue until the GPW called us forward. He flipped through my information with a telling lack of interest before looking me up and down and asking for my passport. Ulp. I didn’t bring my stinking passport.

The lawyer and I started protesting at the same time. Nothing in the application materials said anything about needing to bring my official passport (as I said, a photocopy of my full passport was one of the papers required). I had done this twice before and no one had ever asked for my passport. My lawyer had done it dozens of times for other clients and nobody had asked them either. Was this a new rule? Not a new rule, sniffed the GPW. Those other clerks had obviously not been doing their job correctly: seeing the ‘true’ passport was THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS.

No amount of cajoling, gnashing of teeth or rending of garments could convince him to let it pass (sometimes that works, but rarely in the post office). So I had to take a taxi home. €20. Grab the passport and come back. €20. When I got to the head of the queue again, the first GPW fobbed me off on another GPW, whom he had clearly warned about me because the first thing she said was, “Do you have your passport? SEEING THE TRUE PASSPORT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS!” The rest of the interaction, i.e. the money-paying part (money for the lawyer; money for the various bits of paper that needed stamping) went off without a hitch (that part generally does). Next, I will have to go to police headquarters with photos (and passport presumably) and confirm that I’m me but that’s not for another couple of months, fortunately.

Before embarking on my fourth and final €20 cab ride of the day, I decided to treat my frazzled nerves to a nice lunch. It was about 1:30 at this point. I stumbled onto La Nuova Fiorentina, an old-fashioned Tuscan trattoria with a local clientele. I had a very nice veal cutlet with tomatoes and arugula and spicy greens with garlic. I could have done without the many African gentlemen lining up to sell me kleenex but after all that queueing I was just happy to sit down. thumb_img_2241_1024thumb_img_2242_1024

When I got home it was, you guessed it, half a day after I’d first left the apartment. In fairness, part of the half a day was taken up by lunch. I do, however, consider lunch to be a necessary reward for successfully dealing with Roman errands and thus a legitimate part of the errand-doing on a VRD.

La Nuova Fiorentina. Via Angelo Brofferio 51. Tel: 06 37516181

Broke(my)back Mountain

On the second of July I broke my back. Here’s how it happened. I was in the park with The Morgster (henceforth known as ‘The Assailant’). It was about 10 am and I hadn’t had my coffee. I add these two details because, as anyone who knows me can attest, I am pretty useless before noon and quadruply so without coffee coursing through my veins. And by the way, I was looking at my phone, not paying attention to what might be transpiring around me (Kids! Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t text and walk!). What was transpiring was that Morgan spied a dog with whom he did not see eye to eye. He lunged and because he was on the leash and I wasn’t paying attention, I lost my balance and somehow ended up flying through the air and landing flat on my back in a ditch. At which point Morgan abandoned the argument with other dog and trotted over to sit down next to me like a little gentleman.

Who me? I wouldn't hurt a fly!

Who me? I wouldn’t hurt a fly!

Morgan — sorry, The Assailant — is not a large dog and this was highly embarrassing. Or it would have been  if I had been able to form one coherent thought beyond OWWWWWWWW!!!!! There was a guy hanging out nearby with his own dog and he came over right away to see if I was okay. I quite literally could not speak since the breath was completely knocked out of me. I waved my hands around a bit in an attempt to indicate that I needed a minute. Once I got my breath back I knew that there was no way that I was going to be able to get up on my own. But the nice man stayed with me for the 30 minutes and two false starts it took him to get me to my feet. He asked if I wanted him to call an ambulance but because I am an idiot and had forgotten the first law of back trauma, which anyone who has ever seen even one episode of Emergency knows by heart: don’t get up and don’t move, I insisted on walking myself home. Fortunately, home was just across the street. I’m not sure how I made it: my ears were ringing to beat the band and I could barely see for all of the stars flashing in front of my eyes. Naturally, The Assailant took this moment to have a poop. I’ll go back and pick it up later guys.

Once I got home I flopped down on the couch and passed out or fell asleep because the next thing I knew it was several hours later. The pain was almost unbearable and there was no way I was getting off that couch. I called the Upstairs Vegetarian at work and she came home right away. Then came the ambulance.

That was amusing. In walked a couple of burly fellow, not unpleasing to the eye. They tied me to a plank and then argued a bit as to how to get me downstairs (I’m on the first floor — second if you’re used to American floor counting). They decided not to risk taking the 10 stairs to the lobby and propped me up in the tiny elevator, plank and all, like a flatpack Ikea bookcase.

We went to Salvator Mundi, a private clinic which is nearby, well-known to me and air-conditioned, a key consideration given the extreme heat we’re experiencing this summer.Also, a friend of a friend works for an orthopedic surgeon there. I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t put on the siren, a very familiar sound in the streets of Rome so how come my injury didn’t make the grade? Once I got there, everything happened pretty quickly (another reason I chose the private clinic): X-ray, diagnosis, bill paying. I had broken two vertebrae: the L2 and D12 for those of you who take an interest in such things. I was to spend three weeks completely immobile in bed, after which I could be up a few hours a day as long as I sported a horrifyingly uncomfortable metal brace. If I was lucky and did as I was told, I’d be good as new in 3-4 months.

The UV buggered off to Canada for hols almost immediately but fortunately my cleaner and dog walker (who are married to each other) were able to move into her place upstairs so that they were on hand to take care of the two dogs (The Assailant and his gun moll, the UV’s dog Reina) and me. In fairness to the UV, her buggering off was planned before my fall occurred, she was only gone two weeks and she has been looking after me ever since her return.

When one faces a prolonged period of invalidism, it is only natural to fantasize about all of the things that can be accomplished once the drugs kick in and it no longer feels like you are going to die from pain every time you take a breath or move a muscle. Or at least that’s what I reckoned. Here’s what I hoped to accomplish: write at least 100 pages of my novel (didn’t Marcel Proust and Frida Kahlo get started this way?); work out my finances; figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Here’s what I actually got accomplished: watched the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black; watched all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation (Please and Thank You); read a 700 page book on Gabriele D’Annunzio; had many naps. I also got pretty good at the bed pan and managed to — sort of — keep my sense of humor. I was even able to do a bit of work by propping the computer against my knees and using an external keyboard balanced on a couple of pillows at my side. I’d claim patent pending but the setup gave me carpal tunnel so there are clearly a few kinks yet to work out.

And how was your summer?

And how was your summer?

The memory of the pain has started to fade a bit and I’m back on my feet for at least part of the day. I’m pleased it wasn’t worse, which it might have been given the fact that I am super clumsy and have the bones of a sparrow. I’m sad that I missed most of the summer but, as people have told me, no one has been going out and having fun because it’s about a million degrees outside. I haven’t noticed much remorse on the part of the dog.

The toilet seat

A few weeks back I broke my toilet seat. Not really sure how that happened nor does it seem like a thing that should happen given the tendency of toilet seats to be sturdy But I guess it was old and the hinges were rusty because when I went to set the lid down on what, for Morgan, is a highly interesting water bowl, the lid went skittering across the floor. So it was off to the toilet seat store for me!

I quickly identified a likely candidate and took it to the cash register. I am planning on redoing my bathroom soon and I was pleased to find a lovely little number in a shade of red that would go well with my planned color scheme. “Oh signora,” said the girl behind the counter. “Are you quite sure that the seat you have chosen is the correct size?”

Before I continue, let me explain about shop assistants in Italy. These fall into three categories: the disaffected, the officious and the dedicated. The disaffected really couldn’t care less whether you buy anything or not. They can’t be bothered to offer you any help (that might just encourage you to stay in the shop longer) and are mostly just annoyed that you are interrupting their cellphone conversation. The officious are — I suspect — actually a subcategory of the disaffected.  They don’t seem to be much concerned with making a sale either. But where the disaffected chase you off through lack of interest, the officious win the day through intimidation. “DICA!!!” They shout at you the moment you walk in the door, which roughly translates as “WHADDAYA WANT??” If, God forbid, you just want to browse they will follow you everywhere you go in the store, walking about a half pace behind, breathing hot, clammy breath on your neck and staring daggers into the back of your head. They are the worst.

The third type of shop assistant wants to make a sale but it has to be the right sale. They take pride in their work and they will not be satisfied until they have found the item that perfectly fits your needs. The toilet seat shop assistant apparently fell into that third category. She carefully explained that the store sold over 30 different sizes of toilet seats. It was critically important that the seat I procured be the right size (and shape) for my toilet back home or it would be uncomfortable and slide around and I don’t know what else; I stopped listening at that point. I do remember her saying that I must go home and measure the toilet carefully. Sadly I put back my lovely red seat and trudged off to find a measuring tape.

At this point, I pulled in the Upstairs Vegetarian because I am not very good at practical things (as I am forever being told) like measuring and she was just going to tell me I had done it all wrong anyway. The UV took lots of measurements and even did a little drawing. We went back to the toilet seat store, only to be told that we’d measured the wrong bits. WHAT? It’s not like there are that many bits to measure on a toilet and how come she didn’t impart this information in the first place? She suggested that we sketch an outline of the seat on some newspaper and bring that in later.

Now, drawing an outline of a toilet seat is easier said than done, requiring masking tape, at least two people and a writing instrument that is visible through newsprint and won’t break through said newsprint when it is basically sketching around a big hole. Anyway, we got it done and took a photo for good measure. And off we went, back to the toilet seat store.

These are the lengths to which you must go when buying a toilet seat in Italy.

These are the lengths to which you must go when buying a toilet seat in Italy.

Finally satisfied that we could be trusted with a responsible toilet seat purchase, our dedicated shop assistant pulled out her Big Book o’Toilet Seats. There were indeed at least 30 in there, drawn to scale and each sporting a different name: the Antonio, the Olivier, the Patrizia. She looked in vain for my perfect match and then got up saying,  “I think I have something in the back.” She brought out a toilet seat (this one sadly un-named and sadder still, un-red), I bought it and took it home. But I’ll never know whether she had the measurements of every single stock item memorized so that when she saw our sketch she instantly knew where to turn, or whether she was as bored with the whole escapade as we were and just grabbed a random seat when my specifications didn’t show up in the book, figuring it would fit well enough, which it did. Was she a disaffected masquerading as a dedicated?

Morgan and Hugo

My dog Morgan loves to be the centre of attention. He adores having people make a fuss of him. At the dog park, he is certain to greet all of the people and to give each of them ample time to admire and pet him while he rubs against their legs like a cat (one of his many nicknames is ‘Morgan the kitty-cat.’). Or if there are people sitting at one of the picnic tables in the dog zone, he jumps onto the table and starts licking their faces or poking them with his paw if they are not sufficiently awestruck by his cuteness. When I have friends over, he basically goes from lap to lap. After his big sister Lula died a few months ago, I was afraid that he would be distraught, as Lula had been when her brother Shipy ran away several years ago.

Morgan and his big sis

Morgan and his big sis

And he was distraught (and for several weeks he did this thing of sitting in front of the bookcase where I put her ashes and staring at the urn for moments at a time). But it didn’t last long. To be honest, I think he was actually pretty happy not to have to share the spotlight with Lula anymore. The problem is that he no longer has her to play and hang out with 24-7 (which is precisely the number of hours of the day and days of the week that he needs to be entertained). Which leaves me to be chief playmate.

If I happen to be sitting at my computer — as I usually am — he sits next to me and looks at me with intense doggie concentration until I react.

Play with me now!

Play with me now!

If I don’t react fast enough he starts to whine. If I’m on the couch he goes to his toy box and pulls out the toys, one by one. He also spends a lot of time staring out the window at his friends playing in the park. And whining.

What am I missing out there? Everybody's having fun but me!

What am I missing out there? Everybody’s having fun but me!

So you can imagine my delight when he started to bond with one of the stray cats who hang around our building. There are about five of them — brothers and sisters whose mother was hit by a car. They are about a year old. One of them is particularly friendly and handsome and this fellow has taken a shine to the Morgster. He runs out whenever we come by, often accompanying us on our walks. The dog and cat sniff each other’s bums and sometimes engage in a bit of good natured wrestling.Morgan and Hugo check each other out.

Morgan and his cat friend check each other out.

I’m not quite ready to get another dog and, even though I’m not much of a cat person, I was pretty happy about the idea of bringing home a buddy for my pup. Woohoo (I thought)! The whining ends here.

I got in all the gear — hot pink cat carrier, bowls, food, a very cute kitty litter box (I know that sounds weird but this one has cat drawings all over it) — and set off to bring Hugo (which is what I named him) home with the assistance of the Upstairs Vegetarian.

The Rolls Royce of kitty litter boxes

The Rolls Royce of kitty litter boxes

Hugo did not like this plan AT ALL! After several attempts, which featured lots of banshee-like crying and scratching, we got him into the carrier and then into the apartment. Thus ensued ten minutes of pure bedlam: more banshee shrieks; Morgan chasing the cat and jumping all over him. Hugo was terrified and Morgan was protecting his territory like the little alpha dog drama queen he is. We finally opened the window and the cat jumped out to freedom (I’m on the first floor; it’s an easy jump). I guess it was not to be. The interesting thing is that by the next day all was back to normal. The two still play together and Hugo still comes with us on walks. I’ve been advised to put some cat food on the window sill and see if he comes inside to check it out but I fear that once an outdoor cat, always an outdoor cat.



For Lula

Here in Italy, it is fairly unusual to see an obituary in the newspaper unless the deceased is someone famous. Instead, people hang small posters on public notice boards with a photo, basic information about the person and the time and place of the funeral. I’ve never actually noticed this in Rome but you see it in small towns all the time. I took a bunch of photos of these manefesti funebri when I was in Puglia last summer. After the funeral, mourners are usually given a ricordino, a wallet-sized laminated card with a photo of the dear departed, birth and death dates and usually a prayer.

Puglian death notices



Nor was this guy a spring chicken.


Puglian death notices

Dogs don’t generally rate newspaper obituaries or manifesti funebri but I guess if you’ve got a blog you can do what you want. My dog Lula died just over a week ago. This is for her.


Lovely Lulabelle

Tallulah Bankhead Raymond died on 5 February 2013 at 4:00 in the afternoon. She was 15 years old. I found Lula in a cardboard box in Campo di Fiori when she was just a few months old. She had been dumped outside a dog shelter along with her sisters and the shelter people brought the puppies into town and were offering them to anyone who could give them a good home. I had lost my dog Badger just a few months before and although I enjoyed the freedom from responsibility and the spontaneous life of the non-dog owner, that really paled by comparison to how great it is to be one.

Lula was never an easy dog. I imagine she’d had some serious traumas before she found her way to that box in Campo di Fiori. She was scared of so many things — long-haired German Shepherds, thunder, the handsome vet, bald headed men, blue eyed dogs. For the first few years, she hid under the bed when anyone came over that she didn’t know. I put her through two years of doggie therapy — yes, I am serious — and that helped a lot. She never lost her initial fear of strangers but she’d usually loosen up with them after a bit of time.

About 8 years ago, Lula was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease, which occurs  when the adrenal glands don’t produce sufficient steroid hormones. President Kennedy had Addison’s. Lula took pills and had injections every day for the rest of her life.

Lula was not an easy dog nor did she have an easy life. But she was incredibly loving and loyal and sweet. She loved Morgan and she loved me. She loved her Aunties. She loved to swim. It’s very quiet around here these days — Lula was a barker — and we miss her so much. I keep seeing her out of the corner of my eyes and expecting her to greet me at the door.

Now here’s a thing. I had Lula cremated and they brought me her ashes in a little box earlier this week. I put the box on the top of a bookshelf in the hall. The first time Morgan passed by the bookcase he did this.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At first I thought it was some crazy coincidence. Maybe there was a ball or cookie on the bookcase that had caught his eye? But now I’m not so sure. Since Tuesday, literally every time I have brought Morgan in from a walk and he’s passed by the bookcase, he sits for a minute and stares at Lula’s ashes. It’s creepy. But it’s also pretty wonderful.

The Morgster has a moment of rare silence for Big Sis.

The Morgster has a moment of rare silence for Big Sis.

My lovely girl

My beautiful girl

My most humiliating moment ever

I haven’t written in ages. It’s been an awful 2013 so far, what with family illnesses — both in the human and canine sectors — work challenges, and financial worries. I’ve already broken my one and only New Year’s Resolution, which was to write in this blog more often.

I feel bad. So I’m going to try to make it up to you, loyal readers, by giving you a gift.

Spare a thought for Lula, who is not doing well.

Spare a thought for Lula, who has a tumour on her heart and is not doing well.

Yesterday, I was taking the dogs for their Sunday morning constitutional. I had just left the park and was proceeding down the sidewalk across the street from my house. The sidewalk runs alongside Via Vitellia, a very busy and fast-moving road. The next thing I knew, I was flying through the air.

I still don’t really know what happened — I must have tripped on the ancient and crumbly sidewalk (I do that a lot and also fall down — it goes with the territory of being tall, clumsy and having dogs). I was wearing a pair of loose drawstring pants, which got caught in the cracks in the sidewalk, I guess. As I was hurtling towards the ground, my pants stayed put. I ended up flat out on the sidewalk, my unclad butt in the air for all to see and my pants around my ankles. Fortunately, I was wearing a longish jacket but for sure there would have been a few seconds there when I was mooning Via Vitellia, which was — of course — crowded with people driving to church or the soccer game or Sunday lunch.

Only one guy slowed down his car and, as he did, I could actually see his thoughts flashing across his face: “Should I stop? Maybe she’s hurt? But how can I help? She’s not wearing pants! Not sure how to handle this. I’d best move along.” Can’t say that I blame him. I must have looked deranged.

Meanwhile, the dogs were standing patiently by, observing me with their heads cocked to one side, as if to say “Whatcha doin’?” I pulled on my pants and ran home as fast as I could.

That story is my gift to you. Everything bad that happens to you this week will simply pale by comparison. You’re welcome


Random Indonesia

I’m in Indonesia for a few weeks of work and I’d like to share some observations with you. As always, I will do my utmost best to avoid alienating an entire country by making outrageous generalizations.

Indonesian cats have really weird tails. Unlike most cats I’ve known, Indonesian cats have short stubby tails. Not stubs such as the tails exhibited on the hindquarters of felines hailing from the Isle of Man (Hi Ellen!). But stubby as if someone chopped off their tails in a fit of pique. In fact, that’s what I thought when I saw my first Indonesian cat. “Now why would someone do that?” I wondered. But they’re all that way. And it looks most odd.

I got many funny looks as I chased after Indonesian cats, attempting to get a photo of their tails. They are swift moving little buggers! This is the best I could do. Stubby tail encircled for your educational pleasure.

Indonesians who live along the Kapuas River in Central Kalimantan are agile and fearless. I spent several days visiting a number of villages and hamlets along the Kapuas River. Travel is by boat only; there are no roads to speak of. During the rainy season, the river can rise by as much as a metre. For that reason, all of the houses are on stilts and to get to the main road (such as it is) from the dock you need to scoot up a little plank suspended over the muddiest dankest looking river water you have ever seen in your life. Probably filled with millions of gigantic alligators like this one. Inevitably the plank is made from rotting wood that shatters under big clomping Western feet, plus there is nothing to hold onto unless you count the many Indonesian passers-by whose hands I clutched as I climbed and descended plank after plank after plank. I am clumsy at the best of times and, laden down as I was with computers, cameras, digital recorders and all sorts of other valuables, I broke out in a sweat each time we hit a new town and faced a new plank (also, it was 1000 degrees). But, amazingly I managed to keep to my feet, much to the disappointment of the hordes of children who ran to the docks in every town to laugh at my efforts to climb to street level. How did they know? Was someone phoning ahead in a place with no discernible phone signal? “Quick, run to the dock. A big tall white woman is trying to climb an 8 inch-wide walkway made of toothpicks held together by Kleenex® and suspended 30 feet in the air over a vat of snapping alligators. She’ll never make it, the clumsy fool. Mwaahaha.”

So scary.

Indonesians have very strong calf muscles. Squat toilets are not exactly unique to Indonesia. You can find them all over, including in many public restrooms in France and Italy. Usually there are on-site alternatives or you just mosey on to the next bar to find a ‘normal’ toilet (albeit, usually without a proper seat, but whatever). It’s the same way here, at least until you get out of the city at which point the squat is your only option. Decorum forbids me from dwelling overlong on this cultural marker. Suffice it to say that you are strongly advised to bring along a flashlight if you are spending the night in an Indonesian village (and it would be good if you could make friends with one of those stubby-tailed cats and convince him to reconnoiter for you before you enter the possibly rat and lizard infested loo). You won’t find toilet paper. After you have squatted and done your business, you are expected to wash yourself off with water scooped from the nearby bak mandi (bath). That’s why Indonesian bathrooms are always sopping wet. The washing off is traditionally done with the left hand and so anyone who tends to favor their left hand, i.e. a left-handed person, e.g. me, is thought to be unclean. Story of my life.

Squat toilet/bak mandi. ©Claud334

The use of the bak mandi is not restricted to the post-squat rinse. To take a bath, you douse yourself with water from the tub, lather up, rinse and repeat. The water is (usually) clean and (always) cool and a bak mandi can be refreshing, albeit extremely messy. I was, however, constipated for three days. Last thing: people who have only ever known the squat toilet are understandably confused when they see the other kind. So they may need some gentle instruction, as can be seen on this sign found in a bathroom at the local airport.

The other panels also provide helpful toilet advice. e.g. do not throw your syringes, coffee cups or soda bottles in the bowl; do not use the squirty thing facing forward.

Indonesians have asbestos tongues. Do you see the devil’s red mixture in the picture below? That is called sambal and it is a major Indonesian condiment, served at every meal.

Sambal: the devil’s condiment

Sambal is also popular by the way in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, the Philippines and, for historical reasons, the Netherlands. Here is a typical recipe: Take 1 million of the hottest fresh chili peppers you can find. Mix with garlic, shallots and shrimp paste. Eat. (If you have a normal tongue) Die.

According to the Internet, Indonesia boasts as many as 300 varieties of sambals, ranging from the mild (which I have yet to encounter) to the very hot (been there!). Different varieties employ different types of chilis and may also feature add-ins, such as tamarind, peanuts, lemongrass, durian and the wonderfully named green stinky bean (Parkia speciosa).