Archive for the 'Italy' Category



Thank God for San Lorenzo Street Art

The last full day of my trip: drizzly grey and a mounting head cold, city still shuddering from the previous night’s storm. I would not be stopped by the weather or my health (I really should have been stopped by that) or my impending departure or my own crappy attitude. I was going to go out and find something cool. Goddamnit.

It was more than my intuition that told me that Something Cool would be in San Lorenzo. It was Jessica from Rome Photo Blog. Specifically, she told me: “Go to San Lorenzo. Take the number 14 street car. There’s lots of cool street art.” It seemed a good enough activity for my final day in Europe. Because Lord knows I hadn’t tromped around in the rain hunting down street art enough on the trip.

I like Rome’s neighborhoods. I supposed every city has its distinct neighborhoods with their distinct vibes, but for some reason the differences feel more marked in Rome, where perhaps the centuries have dug those differences down deep, deeper than in other places. The center, while magnificent, bums me out and exhausts me, with its gaggles of people and trinket shops. There’s not a lot of contemporary culture to dig into. And contemporary culture is kind of what I’m all about.

Typical crumbling building

San Lorenzo is one of Rome’s hippest neighborhoods. It’s the bombed-out, more gentrified version of Pigneto—or rather, it’s formerly bombed-out and further along the gentrification scale from Pigneto. The working-class 19th-century neighborhood received the heaviest bombing during WWII, and I don’t know if all that crumble I saw was a remnant of that or just a result of the usual Italian building decay. Either way, it was fucking cool. There’s a lot less immigrants than in nearby Pigneto, and the neighborhood seems to have moved deeply into the third stage of gentrification: when the local business begin catering to the new residents. San Lorenzo’s proximity to the enormous La Sapienza university means there’s tons of students and tons of artists, with a proportionate ton of trendy stores and cool record shops and cafes with wifi.

And a whole mess of graffiti and street art.

I hopped off the tram when the walls began to resemble a two year old’s furious crayon scribbling.

I was delighted to see some good ol’ Space Invader the moment I got off the 14. He’d recently come to Rome, and has an upcoming solo exhibition in the city. Word has it (ok, Jessica told me) that Roman street artists are pretty stoked about Invader’s, um, invasion (I hate myself for using that pun)—hoping it’ll lend a little more attention and validity to their own work.

I wandered about a bit, until I found what I was looking for: Something Extremely Cool. Along Via Delgi Ausoni, on a wall surrounding the block-long Fondazione Cavalieri di Colombo, was the best street art I found in the city. It was like the Clarion Alley of Rome.


Hey, Ekua, check it out: a whole wall of Hopnn!





Okay, so the picture doesn’t give you the full effect, but a shadow/inverse of the stencil was actually put on the sidewalk in front of the wall as well—so it felt like you were walking through some weird mirror of the piece. Cool ass effect.




Too cool for just one picture…

This reminds me of Retna:



I’m not totally sure what’s going on here, whether the figures were wheatpastes that got taken down, or if that was an effect was created intentionally—but a pretty fresh, haunting effect, especially given the message written:

But to be fair, most of the stuff on the walls in San Lorenzo looks like this:

Okay, so I’m gonna be the asshole and say it: this is not aesthetically pleasing. But it reminded me of this conversation I had with Pedro at Fame Festival, about the need to create urban spaces designated for street art, like they have in Melbourne or in that tunnel in London. I can totally feel people when they complain about piss-poor chicken-scratch tagging all over their neighborhoods; it’s ugly. But cities need to have some kinda strategy towards graffiti that goes beyond just prevention.

When I was growing up, the Oakland Public Schools had a full-time employee whose sole job was to go around and paint over graffiti on all the school campuses. Which seems like a damn waste of resources. The sad thing, to me, is that these kids obviously have something to say, something they wanted to communicate, and no other way to do it. I think it’s important to create those spaces, walls and zones where they can throw up pieces—to give kids the space to say what they need to say. (I’m assuming this is what’s being discussed in this news coverage of Pedro’s Crono Lisboa project…)

Because you never know which one of them just might grow up to be a dope street artist. And because it limits the amount of tagging elsewhere. And because it looks cool as shit.

I’m not sure what all that has to do explicitly with San Lorenzo, except that I was thinking about that as I wandered around the neighborhood. Here’s some more stuff I spotted:

This C215 piece was actually on the wall of a church. It blended so well I wasn’t sure if it was street art or the church’s actual art work until I saw the signature logo:


Lots of stores had pieces on their shutters…




But I think my favorite might have been pieces that worked with the crumbling facades of San Lorenzo. I get pretty stoked on well-done site-specific street art, when the environment and the art interact with and inform each other…



Walking around there, damp-footed and achy-throated, I had to say a little thank you to San Lorenzo, for giving me one last cool adventure on my trip. And for reminding me that Rome is more than history and monuments—that it’s a damn big city, and a damn great city, and that there is contemporary culture—just beneath the surface, below the rubble, just a short tram ride from the center.

Albanian Death Flu, and The End to a Charmed Trip

Dog is my co-pilot?

It had been the best trip I’d ever been on. And, you know, I’ve been on a few trips.

But at last it happened: the perfect constellation that had hung above my trip cracked, shattered, rained down in a million filaments on to my cigarette-stained clothes until the smell writhed back out of rank layers. Not that I could smell it.

On my best trips—well, no, even on my worst trips—I don’t really feel in charge. That’s one of the things I love about traveling: it shatters any illusions of being in control, of running the show, so to speak. Serendipity drives the car; you just ride shotgun.

And I’d been really quite pleased with Serendipity’s navigational prowess on my latest trip, taking me to random small towns, big crazy cities, introducing me to rad people, giving endless writing material, keeping me in good spirits. I approved. “Job well done.”

But on my way back to Rome, something snagged, tripped, pulled the plug. It was my attitude. And my health. Things were no longer going my way. And so I ended my trip slumped over in a plastic airport chair, achy-boned, runny-nosed, sleep-deprived and pissed as fuck.

I didn’t want to leave Tirana. The only date I locked myself into on my itinerary-less travel was my flight from Tirana back to Rome, mostly to avoid another sleepless, freezing cold ferry ride. It was a cheap ticket, the kind you can’t change—so when I had to pass on the opportunity to drive up to Shkoder to get tattooed in an abandoned bunker and instead fly back to expensive-ass, whacked-ass Rome, I was slightly bummed. To say the least.

On the flight, I began to feel a tickle in my throat. I coughed. I assumed it was the result of the pack of cigarettes I’d smoked in the previous 48 hours, or the succession of late nights, or the guzzling of tap water that I wasn’t really supposed to be drinking. And it probably was those things. It was also the beginnings of what I’ve dubbed Albanian Death Flu (incidentally, also the name of my new metal band).

It started slow and steady as a rumbling drum beat—the amplified echo of my own heartbeat in congested ears. It’s okay, I could power through. I had a few different friends that also happened to be in Rome at the time that I wanted to meet up with, some events I wanted to check out; I’d fill the time.

It was like a see-saw: the more things unraveled, the shittier I felt. Or the other way around. Whatever. I never got in touch with any of my friends. The events either fell through or were kinda lame. After blissfully cheap, tourist-free Tirana, Rome was an expensive, American-swarmed jolt to my sick system. And I wasn’t helping myself any. I was cranky, torturing myself with the shoulda’s and why-didn’t-I’s. Serendipity may have been driving the car, but I was being a pretty big backseat driver.

It all came to a fevered pitch at the airport. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, six hours of tossing and turning and coughing and groaning. The overpriced train ride to the airport had robbed me of my last few Euros, so, with no cash for breakfast, the post-nasal drip stirred in my stomach in an unsettling stew. And I had no patience for my fellow travelers.

Rome is a most beloved destination of Americans, right up there with Paris and Disneyland. But it’s a pretty culturally conservative place—not a lot of contemporary arts or music going on—so it doesn’t tend to attract our most dynamic demographic, what I call our A-Team. It’s most popular with the Joe-and-Marge-from-Iowa demographic. Not that I have anything wrong with Joe and Marge; it can be, actually, just as culturally fascinating and foreign to observe them as Romans.

It’s just that Joe and Marge don’t travel much. They get stressed out easily, and they bicker with each other. They aren’t as adept to rolling with cultural differences, and feel it necessary to (loudly) point out contrasts and the discomfort those contrasts provide. They get lost easily. They aren’t urban people, and they get confused by public transportation, crowded spaces, the Italian irreverence for lines at espresso counters.

All this I’m more or less willing to take in stride. Except when I’m sick, nauseous, sleep-deprived, and generally fighting the gods of circumstance. Then I sit in a plastic airport chair with steam seeping out of my ears and one eyeball slowly twitching.

I gave up. I couldn’t fight it anymore. My body—and Serendipity—were trying to tell me something: the party was over. It was time to slow down, sit still and accept what came my way.

I went to a pharmacy and bought some mystery Italian cold medicine on my credit card. I changed a little cash back into Euros and bought a stale, overpriced panini. I moved over to an empty gate and slowly munched my bread in relative peace. Then I boarded my plane and promptly passed out in puddle of drool and sneezes (yeah, I was that person).

Even great trips have bad moments, and every trip, even the best, has to end. I suppose the trick is letting that happen gracefully. Still working on that one.

The Foreigner at the Party

Tirana and Rome don’t have much in common—except that it’s absurdly easy to stand out as a tourist.

They come at it from different angles—Rome because there’s so many goddamn tourists (really, do Americans realize that there’s other countries in the world?), and Tirana because there’s so few goddamn tourists (really, do people realize how amazing it is?). But the effect is the same either way: you aren’t ever, ever going to blend in.

Some travelers get bummed out by this, and do everything within their power to fool themselves (and themselves only), acquiring affected accents and scarves for the local football team. But I say fuck it—no one’s gonna buy it anyway. So you may as well just dance.

Friday night felt like a riot in Tirana: chanting crowds, police sirens, streets shut off, smoke billowing and fireworks flashing. It wasn’t a riot, just the Albania-Bosnia football match. The insane energy of it all is a little anxiety-provoking for an American—if it were Oakland, someone would have gotten shot.

Our little clan from the hostel walked through the raucous roads; some had picked up Albanian flags along the way, but it wasn’t any use. We were varied races and ethnicities, all speaking English, and the stares we ellicted became almost laughable, necks craning and feet stopping cold.

“Hello, hello,” shouted a voice from a drunken crowd, as though to point out that we were different and didn’t belong.

Everyone got quiet and a little uncomfortable. I gave a stupidly exaggerated wave. “Howdy!” I exclaimed in a Southern accent. “How y’all doin’?”

And we all had a laugh.

We didn’t end up getting into the stadium. It’s my absolute fate with football—I’ve never managed to actually see a match. So we marched across town to a bar to watch it on TV, amusing everyone with our mispronounciation of “Shqipëri,” the Albanian name for Albania. One of the waiters was so amused he bought everyone at our table—fourteen of us—a round of drinks. Sometimes it pays to stand out.

After the match we went to another bar, an underground spot near the Opera House, walls covered in the photos of the artists that used to hang out there (as well as a healthy layer of cigarette smoke). A DJ was playing drum and bass from his glowing white laptop and everyone was dancing, arms raising to graze the low ceiling.

Again, we were the only foreigners. But the good news is, the language of dance is universal.

So universal, in fact, that everyone was shacking up, disappearing from the dark room in hand-holding couples. At one am, it was just me and the gay Dutch dude left. “We’re dropping like flies!” I screamed over the music.

He kissed me on the cheek.

Saturday took me back to Rome, throat sore and heart heavy, sad and actually a little ill to be leaving. I met up with my couchsurfing host in the evening; we got in the car and drove. And drove and drove, into the damp-smelling dark, street lights thinning and stars appearing. A friend of his was having a birthday party at his parents’ country home.

My first clue that I was somewhere I seriously didn’t belong should have been “country home.” Or the red-candle-lit driveway, that rambled on for half a block. It was dark, so I couldn’t see the house I walking into, but I could sense its presence—something large and sturdy and stately.

We walked into a huge living room, exposed wooden beams and tasteful vases. The crowd was art-opening-hip, wine glasses and expensive haircuts. There was a DJ. There was actual porchetta—a whole pig—being sliced by a little old lady in an apron.

I was in Toms and (again) a Talk Is Poison shirt. I still stank from Tirana’s cigarette smoke, dirty hair stuffed under a beanie. Even in the States, I’d stand out in a party like this.

But I didn’t get any snotty vibes from anyone, so I shrugged and grabbed a plate. I couldn’t really talk to anyone, but I smiled a lot, and people smiled back. No one seemed to mind me too much. It was one of those isn’t-it-funny-where-travel-takes-you moments: if you’d ever asked me, “Hey, do you think you’ll ever end up at a super posh party in a villa outside of Rome?”, I’d have answered, “no.”

After the pig was picked apart, the lights went down and the dance songs started cranking. Good time stuff: “Surfin USA,” “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun,” some old rock n roll hits and a couple Italian songs to round it out.

And I danced again. It didn’t matter that I was dirty and foreign and didn’t belong. There was a good time to be had, and sometimes, in the midst of a really good party, the only thing the really “belongs,” so to speak, is fun—the boom of the bass and the way your shoulder dips to the beat.

Filling the Fame

The hunger, that is.

Okay, so let’s make a deal. I won’t torture you all with never-ending posts about Grottaglie/Fame Festival/one of the best travel experiences of my life IF you all check out my coverage of the festival on the following links:

Hi-Fructose Basic summary with some pics

Hi-Fructose My interview with Fame organizer Angelo Milano.

Huffington Post More narrative coverage of the event, my favorite of the write-ups I’ve done so far.

Since I have no way of actually enforcing this deal, so we’ll work on the honor system. Okay? Okay.

(And, yes, I’ve been a busy girl. Loving my Netbook, and loving free wifi!)

Grottaglie Or Bust!: Fame Fest ’10

Siesta-dazed and still covered in little bits of glitter, I’m holed up in my hotel room in Grottaglie. Laptop on my lap, balcony door open a crack, listening to the moan of the fan, I don’t know where to start.

I could spend the next two months writing about this weekend, here in this random little Puglian town, wedged between plastic-tarp-covered vineyards and industrial, cloud-coughing skylines. It’s at times like these when you realize just how insufficient your own words are—how close they can sometimes come to capturing this thing, this thing you’re always circling and chasing, but that ultimately always goes “fluttering through your nets,” as Virginia Woolf said.

This weekend has been a little of everything I love in travel: discovering killer art, adventuring around abandoned buildings and ancient caves, eating great food, meeting awesome people. I came here for the opening of Fame Festival, a DIY street art event put on by the one-man-powerhouse/party Angelo Milano, that is slowly transforming the forgotten little town of Grottaglie. I’d been following the build-up on various art blogs, and it seemed like a pretty damn good excuse to go on an adventure.

There’s about 100 different angles to write about this from, and I’m sure I’ll be torturing everyone with posts for months on end. So instead of giving the 3000-word play-by-play (you’re welcome), I’ll give you the highlights. And some pictures.

Fame Festival
“Success, celebrity” in English, “hunger, starvation” in Italian, Fame Festival is the blood, sweat and glitter (more on that later) of one dude, Angelo Milano. Three years ago, he started inviting international artists to his little hometown for short residencies. The artists produced prints at his studio, Studio Cromie, produced ceramics using the town’s ancient ceramics studios, and threw up street art pieces all over the city. The festival has grown, gained a fair amount of notoriety, and a small crew of artists/collectors/enthusiasts/fanatics make the mission down to Grottaglie for a complete and total adventure.

Angelo welcomes you with all the enthusiasm and graciousness in the world, arranging hotel rooms and rides from the airport. On the evening of the preview, he takes the gang load of visitors back to his grandmother’s house, where his dad shakes your hand and his mom cooks a huge traditional Italian dinner. The opening party is complete with DJs, Puglian wine and a diverse mix of locals and art lovers; you then trek across town to Studio Cromie, where Angelo goes ape shit on the dance “floor,” dumping about 8 bags of glitter on everyone and generally having about as much fun as humanly possible.

You see everyone stagger around town with glitter stuck in their hair the next day. You’re given, on preview night, a map of the city marked with all the street art pieces, and you wander around, ticking off the 60+ list and snapping photos. It’s like a treasure hunt.

Coolest part: adventuring around an abandoned monastery filled with art.

Grottaglie
The town itself is awesome. Not in a knock-your-socks off way, but in a slow, subtle way that sneaks up on you. It’s got an old town, complete with winding roads and a couple UNESCO sites, as well as a new part, devoid of billboards and with only one corporate chain. The whole town siestas from 12-4. You can get dinner at a restaurant for 6 euros. Old women say, “Ciao, bella.” Teenagers hang out in cafes til 2am.

The city’s surrounded by ancient caves that were inhabited until just a few decades ago, when the Italian government kicked everyone out. You can go and poke around in them, see the remnants of old cooking areas, frescos peeling off the walls.

The Peeps, and The Adventure
So what kind of wingnuts travel all the way to bumfuck Puglia for an art festival? Awesome ones. I met so many fresh people, one of those this-is-why-I-travel experiences that you know is going to linger with you for a long time.

There’s also the adventure aspect. No guidebooks mention Grottaglie. The bus from Naples dropped me off on the side of the road; luckily I’d had the wherewithal to print out a Google map the night before. You traipse around the random town that epitomizes off-the-beaten-path, and it reminds you, again, why you travel.

Street Art
I’m no expert on street art, but I got to meet a lot of people who were. And it’s clear that we’re on the brink of something, something bigger than just the art world. Street art is a kind of dialouge with a city, and it’s changing cities. Street art as architecture, urban development, tourism—there’s a lot to discuss.

But right now, legs crossed on this hideous hotel bedspread, I’m feeling incredibly tired and incredibly grateful. I gave myself an extra day here, to hang out with the wifi and sleep, before I take off for Dubrovnik tomorrow. But even if I were going home tonight, it would have all been worth it. Fame Fest was one of the best parties I’ve ever gone to, and one of the best adventures a traveler could hope for.

See Naples, And Then…

Die, the saying goes. They’re not fucking around.

I’d really wanted to go to Naples when I was last in Italy. But my then-boyfriend read the LP description—chaotic, dirty, somewhat dangerous—and nixed the idea. He liked Copenhagen, Scandindavia—clean, calm, safe cities filled with bicycles and crisp air, low unemployment and Nordic blondes with pale beautiful skin.

He can have it. Give me Naples.

I got out of the Metro stop and walked the five blocks to my hostel. It took about that long to totally fall in love with the honking, swarming, spinning mess of it all, wedged with sharp shadows and bright sun between stories of faded facades that seem too tight, haphazard, overgrown. There seems no law or order to the flow of life on the street—cars and motorinos and pedestrians—but rather a kind of rhythm. Not a heartbeat, even and steady, but a wild palpitation, erratic and oxygen-deprived, that somehow keeps beating, keeps from careening.

It only seems like chaos. There’s something actually there, holding it all together.

I want it.

Give me traffic and noise. Give me trash piles and laundry lines. Give me jackhammers and roaring motorbikes. Give me a honk of warning but don’t slow down.

Give me scaffolding and shadows that swallow whole streets. Give me littered ruins surrounded by sidewalk. Give me a small dead bird flattened against the black stone of the street. Give me the smell of fish in open-air markets.

Give me gypsy beggars and business men; give me round bellies on white rocks, tanning in the sun. Give me a woman bathing in a baroque fountain. Give me stray dogs sleeping. Give me 1000 cigarette butts and worn skin on beautiful women. Give me immigrants selling purses; give me hustlers pawning cans of salt.

Give me graffiti. Lots and lots of graffiti.

Give me Naples—give me this city and its swarm, give me something inside my own soul.

Pigneto: The Rome For Outsiders, and Me

Here’s a little rule of thumb I learned yesterday: if a neighborhood has a shitton of street art, it’s probably the neighborhood I wanna be in.

It’s funny coming back to a place; I never really do it. I was interested to experience the difference. Three years ago, Rome was hands down my favorite European city—probably because it was the most vivaciously chaotic of the cities I’d visited in Europe. Life was different then; for one, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend, who I’d break up with a month after returning home. Nuff said.

Rome didn’t seem so intense and frenetic this time around; it felt much more manageable. I landed with 8 hours of scattered sleep within the previous 48 hour period, and decided to power through the day in order to acclimate myself to the time difference (it worked).

I wandered through the city in a haze of memory, surprised by how my legs took me to all the familiar spots—muscle memory of a city. There was the Colosseum, aching in its magnificent crumble; there was this piazza and that piazza; there was the terrible Chinese restaurant I dragged us to in a vegan moment of tofu craving. It’s funny when a place has only existed in your mind, at one very specific time, funny to see it still going on, living and breathing, like going back into a dream that had kept on dreaming without you.

I remember my dad saying that Rome made him feel his own mortality, and I can definitely say that’s still true for me. There’s something about the ancient greatness, the ruins and remains of glory, that really serve to check you. Just in case, you know, you got to thinking your shit really mattered, there’s Rome to remind you how inconsequential it all is—how small, how much of one shining moment you are. All your joy and heartbreak, your own impending ruin—it will all come and go, and Rome will still be there. You’ll be lucky if your bones last as long as Rome’s.

That being said, Rome isn’t really about anything I’m about. It’s one of the world’s great cities, and has been for thousands of years, and I love it for that, but everything that I get stoked on—diversity, punk rock, hip hop, street art, tattoos, counterculture—Rome doesm’t give a shit about. Why should it? It had Julius Caesar; Rome doesn’t have time for trends.

Walking around center, you get to feeling like an absolute slob—an(other) American slob. Everyone has so much style and grace in Rome; how do their clothes fit so well? How do they all look so effortlessly chic and beautiful, and what the hell is wrong with you in your Toms and Talk Is Poison shirt?

And then you take a rickety street car down, along desolate tracks and amid rows of block buildings, into the rundown side of town, and you realize: that’s because all the Romans in the center are rich. Rich people of any culture look good, and are inherently alientating (to me at least). You get amid a neighborhood a little more like your own, and you realize there’s more to Roman life than tailored suits and killer shoes.

Pigneto is the Mission Dolores/Williamsburg of Rome—an old-school, traditional neighborhood first overtaken by immigrants, now overtaken by hipsters artist types otherwise entirely abscent from Rome. Along its shady streets, you see little old Italian men shuffling around; African, Chinese and Bangladeshi immigrants hanging out, free of their blankets of goods to sell; young Italian sitting in doorways smoking. I love dynamic cultural collisions like that; they’ve been known to bring much of the forementioned things I love. Including street art.

I’d headed out to Pigneto in the first place to meet up with Jessica Stewart, who runs the very kick-ass Rome Photo Blog, covering contemporary art, street art and other radom wonderful things around Rome. I had some time to kill before we met, so I roamed around and took photos.

Swear I saw stuff from this person in Brooklyn...

Loved this series

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I met Jessica at Necci, a bar/restaurant that’s been around since the 1920s and was featured in an issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller last year. We sat at a table under a tree (which only kind of shielded us from the rain) and she told me about the neighborhood, about the art scene and ex-pat life in Rome.

“Rome is a very play-it-safe, stay-with-the-pack kind of city,” she told me. She spoke about the city’s slowness to accept street art in its galleries. “It’s a very traditional city. It’s hard to impress people in Rome—you know, when you’ve got the Colosseum right there, it’s hard to feel like you can do anything in comparison, or anything that matters.”

There were, she told me (and as she’s documented on her blog), a small handful of artists, living out in Pigneto and San Lorenzo, that were doing their own thing. And acceptance was growing, along with recognition.

“The one thing one of the artists said that was true,” she told me, our shoulders hunched under the branches and drizzle, faces half-lit from the barroom light, “is that, if you can make it in Rome, you can make it anywhere.”

It seemed true enough.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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