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View from Rome’s rooftops: Singing offers hope but it doesn’t hide fear and frustration

In the space of a few nights, 6pm has become my favourite time of day.

View from Rome's rooftops: Singing offers hope but it doesn't hide fear and frustration
Neighbours in Italy have been joining nightly singalongs to brighten up quarantine. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

That’s the time when my neighbours and I open our windows, step onto our balconies, climb up to our rooftops, and sing.

It all started on Friday morning, when messages started to circulate on social media calling for a “musical flashmob” that evening. At 6pm, said the notes on Facebook and WhatsApp, people should gather from their own homes and make some noise – sing the Italian national anthem, or simply sing.

READ ALSO: Fundraisers and singalongs: How Italians are rallying together amid the coronavirus crisis

I wasn’t sure what to expect that first night I climbed the six flights of stairs to my building’s roof terrace. Ducking under the shared laundry lines, I emerged to hear a chorus of ‘Ciao!’s: from the buildings opposite and behind, people were waving and saying hello.

As a Brit in Rome, in normal times I occasionally find myself exhausted by the sheer number of greetings I’m expected to exchange with strangers every day here. Two days into the nationwide quarantine, I found myself yelling ‘Hi!’ to everyone I could see, blinking back unexpected tears.

We grinned goofily at each other, slightly unsure what to do next. One family waved maracas; a surprising number of people produced tambourines.

Then a woman in an apartment opposite started it: Italy’s alternative national anthem, the partisan resistance song Bella Ciao.

People applauded, they whistled, they banged the ubiquitous tambourines. It sounded like someone was banging a frying pan like a drum.

It was a special moment, one of many that have followed since. Singing together awakened some kind of collective appetite for doing something together at a time when sharing a meal or drinks, even a coffee at the same bar, is forbidden.

As dusk fell, those of us reluctant to close ourselves back in the apartments where we now spend most of our time stayed out for a spontaneous dance party, DJed by an enthusiastic teenage girl on the fourth floor. Nonni who’d usually be threatening to call the police clapped along good-naturedly.

Eventually I returned downstairs, after one final wave to those who remained. “Buona notte!” they called, “a domani!” Good night. See you tomorrow.

We did see each other the next night, and the night after that. The following evening was Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, its chorus a version of what has become the unofficial slogan of Italy’s coronavirus quarantine: “Every little thing is gonna be alright”, andrà tutto bene.

By Sunday my teenage neighbour was taking requests, lining up local classics like Roma Capoccia – ‘Rome, capital of the world’. 

Each evening brings its own treasures, and a few heartbreaks.

There was the moment when a man holding a glass of red wine spotted an ambulance parked down the road and bellowed for us all to join in a burst of applause for its crew.

Then there was the song our DJ dedicated to all the 17 and 18 year olds in Italy who, like her, are in their final year of high school and unsure how or when they’ll graduate now they can no longer attend class.

6pm is just before sunset, when the light over Rome is at its most golden. It’s also the time when the day’s new coronavirus casualties are announced.

Last night they showed a record jump: 368 more deaths in a single day.

As the latest victims were added to the tally, now the largest in the world outside China, some of my neighbours interrupted their singing to call to the few pedestrians on the street below: “Andate a casa!” Go home.

READ ALSO: Your key questions answered about Italy’s coronavirus quarantine rules

Life under quarantine in Italy isn’t all community singalongs and Blitz spirit. There’s fear and frustration as the number of new cases continues to rise, creating perilous pressure on regional health services, especially worst-hit Lombardy.

There’s confusion over what constitutes “essential” grounds to go outside, and resentment of people perceived to be  interpreting the rules too liberally.

We’ve been told it will take at least two weeks before the lockdown starts to show results. Some authorities have indicated that they might resort to even stricter restrictions before then, including a curfew.

READ ALSO: 

For as long as I can’t go anywhere else, I’ll continue to go up to the rooftop, staying at least a metre away from any of my neighbours I find up there.

Our 6pm meetings don’t make up for the sacrifices all of us in Italy have to make during these strained weeks and months, or the far greater one being made by health workers on the frontline. They don’t compensate for the brutal cost this pandemic will exact on Italy’s people and economy.

But they do help make a fearful, lonely time just a little bit brighter. And that’s worth raising our voices for.

How are you spending the time in quarantine in Italy? Get in touch and share your survival tips.

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ROME

What are the best Rome neighbourhoods for international residents?

Whether you're moving to Rome for the first time or are looking for a new neighbourhood to live in, here are five of the best 'quartieri' for foreign nationals.

What are the best Rome neighbourhoods for international residents?

Testaccio

Testaccio is a historic working-class Roman neighbourhood that’s become increasingly popular among international residents in recent years.

It’s surrounded on two sides by the Tiber, meaning you can walk along the river into the centre of town; and has good transport links, as it’s right next to both Piramide metro and Ostiense train station.

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With its bustling food market and old-school Roman restaurants, Testaccio is a foodie haven, and you’ll often see food tours huddled around the market stalls nibbling on supplì and pecorino (though it’s mercifully otherwise relatively free of tour groups).

Testaccio's historic food market is a major draw.

Testaccio’s historic food market is a major draw. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

At one point it was ancient Rome’s river port and a commercial hub, so you’ll also see interesting Roman ruins like Monte Testaccio, a little hill formed entirely of broken clay pots (a 2000-year-old trash heap) or historic archways that made up part of the old quayside.

Trastevere

Located just across the river from the city centre, Trastevere is one of Rome’s most picturesque neighbourhoods, with the characteristic cobbled streets, terracotta-coloured dwellings and draping vines that many foreigners think of as quintessentially Italian.

READ ALSO: Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome

That also means it’s extremely popular with tourists and foreign students, who throng its piazzas and labyrinthine alleys year-round.

There’s no shortage of restaurants and bars in which to while away lazy afternoons and evenings; in fact there’s little else, and you’ll have to do a bit of digging to find ordinary shops and services.

Trastevere is popular with tourists and students.

Trastevere is popular with tourists and students. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Its central location means Trastevere has less of a neighbourhood feel than somewhere like Testaccio, but if you’re looking for a buzzing area that’s just a short stroll from some of Rome’s most famous monuments, it could be the place for you.

Pigneto

If you’re moving to Rome but wish you were in Berlin, you might want to venture east of the centre to Pigneto, where the cool kids go.

Its grey apartment blocks and grungy aesthetic might not make it much to look at, but its cheap(ish) rents and refreshingly un-stuffy vibe are attracting increasing numbers of young people.

Pigneto makes up for in coolness what it lacks in beauty.

Pigneto makes up for in coolness what it lacks in beauty. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Pigneto’s main strip of bars and restaurants, relatively quiet during the day, comes to life in the evenings and especially on weekends, when it turns into a vibrant party hub.

As well as having a fairly youthful population, the area is more of a cultural melting pot than many other parts of the city – though for a truly international experience you’ll want to go even further east to Tor Pignettara, where you’ll find some of Rome’s best non-Italian food.

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Monti

Just a few hundred feet from the Colosseum, Monti is practically in the city centre, though it’s still managed to retain its own distinctive personality.

It’s a trendy district where you’ll find a mix of stylish wine bars, chic restaurants, vintage clothing stores and high-end boutiques.

READ ALSO: ‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Monti’s prime location means rents are high, and you’ll sometimes have to contend with crowds of tourists as you push your way to your front door.

But if you want to live in a fashionable and attractive neighbourhood that’s in Rome’s beating heart, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option.

Rome's trendy Monti district is a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

Rome’s trendy Monti district is a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Prati

Heading to the northwest of the city centre, just east of Vatican City, sits the elegant residential and commercial district of Prati.

This neighbourhood’s broad avenues, attractive residences and upmarket shopping streets have historically made it preserve of upper-class Italians, many of whom work in surrounding offices or the several courthouses that fall within its boundaries.

Prati’s grid-like shape and heavily-trafficked roads mean it doesn’t have much of a neighbourhood feel, but it has plenty of sophisticated restaurants, cafes and bars.

It’s also just across the river from Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s largest and most attractive parks, with easy access to the world-class Galleria Borghese art gallery.

READ ALSO: Six essential apps that make life in Rome easier for foreign residents

Rome's Prati district is just across the river from leafy Villa Borghese.

Rome’s Prati district is just across the river from leafy Villa Borghese. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.
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