[Note: The thing about this particular piece is that despite the seemingly helpful sounding title, one really does not have to try very hard to get fat in Rome, nor does one need a guide in order to do it. Nor does one necessarily care to do it. Making this “How To” utterly useless in every way that a How to Guide is meant not to be. In fact, in not a single distinguishable way does this resemble a “How To” guide of any sort.]
If one is not getting fat in Rome, then what may I ask is one doing?
Having been a resident of this fine city and a consumer of all of its consumables, I simply cannot think of how a person with a mouth in which to deposit food can spend anytime here at all and still have loose fitting trousers to show for it. If a person does happen to return home without so much as even a small amount of ‘derriere transformation’, I am lead to believe one of two things must have happened: 1) A 9.0 earthquake buried all food establishments under an endless heap of rubble. 2) Said person was stricken with an intestinal parasite aiding the fast and uncomfortable expulsion of calories.
It’s not that I particularly enjoy feeding myself to uncomfortable levels as some sort of sadistic culinary pastime; it’s just that when I’m in Rome, or anywhere in Italy for that matter, food finds me. I can only assume it finds us all. I am not so much a glutton as I am a victim, an innocent passerby who cannot outrun the speed at which the scent of parmiggiano travels. The olfactory force is too great. It’s a task too big for any one person to resist the hedonism that is three square meals of Buccatini all’ Amatriciana with a side of warm chocolate calzone. The streets of Rome are minefields of gastronomic temptations and I am one of their many casualties.
Let’s talk for a second about Italian social rituals.
First of all there’s the use of the hands. Their purpose goes far beyond conventional acts of holding cutlery and wiping one’s bum and Italians know this well. Whether flailing indiscriminately in disagreement or making demonstrative gestures near one’s groin area in order to communicate the “breaking of one’s balls,” Italians really take advantage of the human body’s upper extremities. They are as much a part of conversation as the words themselves and imagining Italians speaking without their hands is like trying to imagine Asian tourists without selfie sticks. The upper body’s full potential is really being met in Italy, and I think that’s something to consider for a moment.
Secondly, there’s directness. Having lived in Britain for the better part of the last decade and endured many a conversation containing more non-verbal proprieties and unwarranted expressions of apology than actual words themselves, I can tell you this: Bullshitting is hard work. It’s much more time effective, and at times life saving, to know out rightly if you’ve offended someone by adding milk to their tea before water or if your choice of shellfish starter is going to send your dinner guest into anaphylactic shock. Life is short, and if we make the grave mistake of leaving our thought reading devices at home then we’re all just wasting precious life moments imprisoned in an eternal loop of empty verbal gobbledygook. That or we’ve died a slow, suffocating death-by-crustacean. Italians do us all a great service when they get to the point bluntly and without hesitation. In this way, they are the most misunderstood of cultures. Famous for having no awareness of time or respect for punctuality, the opposite is actually true. They have a profound awareness of time. They know once they arrive to their scheduled social engagement they’ll already be saving you both 20 minutes by cutting the introductory bullshit and telling you that yes, your haircut does make you look like your mother. Knowing this, they leave 15 minutes later than you did. There’s no false complimenting or superficial douchebaggery once face-to-face and so based on this widely overlooked truth, Italians are actually always early. Italian tardiness is one of the most undeserved and ill informed stereotypes ever bestowed upon a country. And so, misunderstood and insulted, they carry on telling it like it is and saving us minutes of our lives by simply not beating around the bush, and we repay them by calling them lazy and late. The nerve.
I’m usually not one for sweeping statements of grandeur and exaggerated claims without the support of hard hitting evidence-based research, well not this afternoon at least, but I believe the Italian meal might just be the most provocative act of social rebellion in today’s fractured world. It transcends the mere mechanical act of human nutritional consumption and approaches something much closer to the divine.
Modern society has taken the significance of food and the shared meal out of its cultural context and reduced it to a physiological juggling act of the digestive and posterior muscular systems. If we’re not chewing, swallowing and digesting our meals at the same time as walking, working or finishing some arbitrary chore, then we need to reevaluate our pointless and unproductive lives. Evolutionarily speaking, eating quickly on the run may have been a necessity for our primate ancestors when escaping danger or some Stone Age predatory threat. The only threat we’re faced with today is the decision to have the egg mayo baguette or the tuna club sandwich at the corner deli, so what’s the rush?
But Italians throw up a big middle finger to society’s devaluing of the meal. Don’t be preposterous they think. Food is to be made with the highest quality ingredients and eaten with gusto. Meals are to be seated affairs shared with other humans. Their indifference and utter disregard for any opposing school of thought on this is more than a simple difference of opinion, it’s revolutionary. It’s progressive. The table is more than a functional piece of furniture in Italy. It is the rebel force leader of a movement challenging all the modern ideas of progress. It is a four-legged symbol of resistance, of community, of our past but also hopefully our future, and of change in a disconnected and disoriented society. Long live the table! Viva la tavola!
Much like I believe the enduring significance of the meal in Italy presents an interesting discussion point for ideas of community mindedness and the values of slow living in the 21st century, at least for those of you who are miraculously still reading this; I too think the seemingly dull observations of a woman walking her dog around the lesser known Roman neighborhood of Piazza Bologna is a relevant topic for today’s garrulous ramblings about…. what is it we’re actually talking about again?
Having lived in the Piazza Bologna area as a young twenty-something student, my lengthy walk to school each morning was an interesting lesson on everyday Italian life in untouristed parts of the city. Hitting the streets was a way for me to experience the goings-on of daily Roman life in an intimate way and I reveled in the opportunity to integrate myself into the morning routines of the people around me.
There was one particular neighbor across the road sharing my same schedule and route down to the minute and street. Completely oblivious to my presence each morning, this woman exited her apartment with her Labrador in tow and headed off into the business of the morning. The first few days I found our corresponding routes uncanny, but of no particular interest as I trailed behind, neither outpacing nor falling behind her and the canine companion. But as the weeks progressed I began to notice the patterns in her morning routine as well as some of the deeper existential meanings behind the habits of this woman. In other jurisdictions this might have been considered suspicious behavior, illegal under some ordinance relating to “criminal stalking.” But as one who is still bearing the emotional scars of having once suffered a maniacal and unrelenting stalker, (it was a wildly predacious mosquito in the end but nonetheless a headache), I would have never engaged in such inappropriate absurdity. I was simply trying to lessen the monotony of a repetitious commute.
And so it went in all of those weeks and months of stalking, ehem, legally observing from an awkwardly short distance, that I picked up on a few recurring themes:
Not once, in more than 90 opportunities to do so if my calculations are correct, did this woman discard of her dog’s excrement. Not once. Instead she left steaming heaps of crap strewn across the pavement as if they were breadcrumbs helping guide her and Hansel back to their starting location in the magical forest. It was as if she believed her dog’s waste might actually be good for the concrete. But someone forgot to tell her that’s garden soil she’s thinking of, not paved pedestrian thoroughfares in urban centres. But still, her complete lack of interest and confident nonchalance in the whole idea made me laugh, and tread more carefully.
In every instance where a small injustice was taking place amongst locals and passersby, she addressed the issues she saw unashamedly by cursing so loudly and savagely that everyone in the vicinity tended to scatter for fear of their lives. One day it was a car driving too fast down a quiet residential road, another was a group of boisterous and unaware teenagers who almost took an elderly woman down with their rowdy curbside antics, another was a moving man carelessly teetering a sheet of plate glass on his head. Whatever and whomever it was committing these sins against society, she was right there with a cutting expletive followed by a lesson on life and proper behavior. Respect your elders! Drive slower! Watch what you’re doing! It didn’t matter the severity or triviality of the offensive act, she was there to uphold justice and she was going to do so using words you wouldn’t dream of saying in front of your mother. It was a riot and an absolute ball watching her passionate tirades as the defender against all evil in northwest Rome.
In between bouts of her gifting the city’s streets with tiny brown nuggets of feces and leaving Rome’s youth population with night terrors, I noticed a particular tendency she had when faced with an unexpected challenge. Whether inconveniently rerouted because of heavy construction work or bruised from a fall caused by her overly excitable Labrador tangling her up in its leash, or even after one of the aforementioned screaming matches with the neighborhood’s delinquents, she would pause for a moment, zip around to the nearest pastry establishment, tie the dog up outside and sit down to enjoy a baked good. It seemed every time something forced her to break routine she went off skulking across the road after some sugar coated comfort pastry. As if all the tensions of these unforeseen events needed to be settled within her and the only way was with the slow release of sugar into her bloodstream. It was odd, if not completely relatable. But it was also a perfectly delicious coping mechanism that I came to see as culturally relevant. And so, once again, Italy showed me how food and its ability to soothe and satisfy can have far reaching sociological effects that shape the very fabric and values of a country or society. Afterall, a well-fed and rested people are a happy people.
In light of all these thought-provoking (and some overwhelmingly irrelevant and verbose) observations of Italian social customs, I’ve been adopting a more thoughtful approach to food, cutting the bullshit level down in my daily interactions, cursing at misbehaving adolescents I encounter, keeping my sense of humour when life’s shit gets dumped on the road before me, and eating pastries in the face of adversity ever since. Because la vita might not always be dolce, but a cannoli always is.
Over the last 5 months I’ve aimed to capture as much as possible of the diversity of people and places in Vietnam. It’s not nearly enough time to document the length and breadth of an entire country as teeming with culture and landscapes as Vietnam, but hopefully thus far I’ve captured at least a small fraction of its magnetism.
See the full gallery here.
A Hmong woman I met in a village just outside of Dong Van in Ha Giang province. She had no problem with my camera and just wanted to know as much about me as I did her.
For more images from my travels in the deep north of Vietnam head to the gallery: http://www.annieoswald.com/vietnam
People from the Mekong Delta are known in Vietnam as the friendliest anywhere in the country. Their reputation of being warm, generous and hospitable precedes them. I experienced no different in my time there.
Worshippers at the main sanctuary in the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. The statues in this temple are shrouded in a thick fog from the incense that burns around the clock and leaves a lingering scent of sandalwood and burning timber. It all adds to the sense of reverence and mystery as one enters the temple. Quiet and dark, one enters near a Chinese inscription that reads “The Light of Buddha Shines on All.”
Two men play Xiangqi, a traditional Chinese board game very popular here in Vietnam and in many places with large ethnic Chinese communities. Also known as “Chinese Chess.” You can’t walk around Saigon very long without seeing pairs of men playing this game out on the streets.
The beaches at sunset here are like family reunions everyday. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and groups of friends together enjoying the last moments of light and washing away the day’s inequities with sea air and togetherness. A sense of community is woven into the very fiber of this place.
Charlotte and Marcus (known to some of us as Charcus or Marlotte) recently got married in a small village in the Pyrenees region of southwestern France. Marcus’ mum and dad retired to a beautiful farmhouse down a country lane in the village of Caubous, where one of the most charming and delightfully bucolic weddings I’ve ever experienced took place.
About 1.5 hours southwest of Toulouse are a cluster of villages lying in the shadow of the mighty Pyrenees mountain range. Forming a natural border between France and Spain, this mountainous corner of the country has all that you’d expect of a jaunt to rural France but is unspoilt by the crowds you’d find in more well worn parts.
The neighbouring village of Castelnau-Magnoac was the epicentre of pre-wedding festivities and guests descended upon it for morning rituals. The village ticked away as normal with the busyness of the morning market and villagers running their weekend errands. The square was occupied with stalls of fresh produce, cheese and baked goods and the cafes warmly welcomed us visitors in for pain au chocolats and cafe au laits. The fogginess of early morning eventually gave way to sunshine and newly energised from a quiet breakfast overlooking the village centre, guests readied themselves for the celebrations to begin.
The ceremony took place in the village church down the same lane from the farmhouse. Guests as well as locals piled in to see Marcus and Charlotte join hands in marriage and exchange their vows. As no one had gotten married in the village for well over a decade, this was certainly an event not to miss. Surrounded by loved ones, they became Mr. and Mrs. Littlejohns, and not a dry eye was found. The exit from the church to reception saw the entire wedding party walking casually in the warm afternoon sun towards the house.
From this point on you were in a dream. There was light music in the background being played by Charlotte’s talented musician friends, a lemonade station upon entry to the property, an aromatic hog roast greeting each passerby as well as mason jars filled with floral delights leading you up the gravel drive and into the back garden. Canopied by an old, blooming tree whose reach extended across the entire cocktail area, each guest nibbled on canapes, sipped champagne and thanked themselves profusely for having the good sense to RSVP “yes” to an affair such as this.
With atelier stations serving shaved jambon, smoked salmon, and other grilled selections all overlooking the surrounding countryside, the atmosphere was not surprisingly one of satisfaction, excitement and utter class. The evening carried on as entrees were served, wine was drunk and meaningful words were spoken. Music carried us into the night and joyful proclamations of our affection for them both were communicated with drinks in hand and songs in our hearts.
Marcus and Charlotte throughout the day were as they always are, present in the moment and the absolute picture of ease and contentment. Both from sporting backgrounds and years of experience managing athletes and the events that promote them, these two are usually more comfortable in the background. But for those that know them well, we’re aware of the paradox of this. Two people as highly intelligent, openly warm and generous, unendingly interesting in thought and conversation, exceedingly talented in life and work, and absolutely lacking in ego and self-importance, never successfully fade into any background. Their brilliance shines wherever they choose to stand. And standing together on this Saturday there was never a more perfect day put together to symbolise the internal and external converging of two synchronous souls and the celebration that should follow such a life-affirming occasion.
Lots of love to you both. It was a privilege. xxxx