Week - end a Rome

Some places have stock sayings or proverbs associated with then that immediately spring to mind. ‘If you are tired of London, you are tired of life’, or ‘See Naples and die’. Rome has perhaps more than most. It wasn’t built in a day; all roads lead to it; when in Rome... In fact, all of these have turned up in song titles- by Morcheeba, the Stranglers and Phil Ochs respectively.

It is also one of those places that writers have waxed lyrical about over the centuries. ‘A poem pressed into service as a city’; or ‘The city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.’ Like Athens, tourists flock to see its antiquities, the Coliseum, the Catacombs and Pantheon. But, like Paris, it has also had an added dimension of chic cool, with its bars and boutiques, coffee bars, the scooters and leather jackets. Think of some of the iconic cinematic images of Rome: the Trevi Fountain scene with Anita Ekburg in La Dolce Vita or Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck whizzing round the streets on a Vespa in Roman Holiday.

Songs about Rome have tended to the romantic. Three Coins in the Fountain set the tone back in 1954, with the song and film actually adding to one of the city’s legends . Since then the story has been that throwing 3 coins in the Trevi fountain is lucky, overlooking the fact that 3 coins were thrown in the film/song because there were 3 characters. By such trivialities are some myths made. (A similar one might be the famous Zorba’s dance by Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, copied by sozzled diners in countless Greek restaurants ever since. According to Quinn it wasn’t a traditional Cretan dance: he made up the shuffling dance steps at the time because he had injured his foot.). A string of other songs took forward the notion of a city of romance. Petula Clark sang of Romance in Rome; Perry Como of Arrivaderci Rome; Elvis Presley promised that he would ’make a wish in every fountain’ in Heart of Rome (unlikely given his lack of travel outside the USA). It took Bob Dylan and When I Paint My Masterpiece to put Rome in a different light.

The song here, Week-end a Rome, goes more for the chic bohemian image. The song has a complicated history. It first appeared in 1984 on the electro pop album La Notte, La Notte by French singer Etienne Daho. In 1995, it turned up - remixed and with totally new English lyrics - as the St Etienne hit, He’s on the Phone. In 2010 Vanessa Paradis went back to the original and slowed it down with a gentle bossa-nova rhythm , with Daho popping up to provide the spoken Italian segments. Daho is only known in the UK, if at all, for his work with St Etienne in the 90’s. Vanessa Paradis, however, first appeared in the UK charts in 1988 at the age of 15 with Joe Le Taxi, becoming one of a small number of artists to have scored a hit there with a foreign language song – joining the Birkin/Gainsbourg collaboration, of course ,as well as the Singing Nun ( Dominique), Kyu Sakomoto ( Sukiyaki,) Plastique Bertrand ( Ca Plane pour Moi), Yolanda Be Cool (We Speak No Americano), and Los Lobos ( La Bamba) amongst others.

With lyrics in French and Italian, some of it slang, it is the general feel of the song that hits an English listener first, making Rome sound the epitome of stylish cool. The general gist of the lyrics seem clear. It is raining in Paris and the song’s narrator suggests that a weekend for two in Rome-perhaps Florence and Milan too - would give a taste of the good life : imagine driving with the wind in your hair and the radio playing. ‘Because we are young, Italian weekend’. In the video accompanying the Daho version, he is seen sitting in a cafe under a poster for the Antonioni film, La Notte (La Nuit), suggesting the ‘La notte, la notte’ refrain has a cultural reference as well.

So far so good, There are, however, some tricky bits. Take these lines:

"Afin de coincer la bulle dans ta bulle, D'poser mon coeur bancal dans ton bocal, ton aquarium."

A literal translation suggests the intriguing statement:

"To jam the bubble in your bubble ,to put my wobbly heart in your jar, your aquarium"

It may well be that it reads differently in French. Or they could be lines left over from a Serge Gainsbourg song.

My own experience of Rome was a day rather than a weekend, during a family holiday in Terracina an hour or two to the south. The Italian couple who managed the apartment in Terracina spoke no English so conversation was comfortingly predictable, with variations on a fixed set of questions. Stanco? (tired). Fame? (hungry). Caldo? (hot). Freddo? (cold). Early one morning the husband dropped us at the local station to get the train to Rome, where we spent a hectic tourist day seeing the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, and Vatican and having gelato and coffee. When we returned late in the evening he was waiting for us at Terracina station and asked us about the day in Rome. Stanco? Fame? Freddo? What he meant was ‘Rome, Pour la douceur de vivre, et pour le fun’

Link to Etienne Daho song

Link to Vanessa Paradis song


  1. Great column Geoff! I'm heading to Rome in a few weeks - my first time in Italy, or anywhere really - so I'll be playing this on my iPod when I'm over there! Thanks for giving me a soundtrack:)

  2. I love the film Roman Holiday. I've never been to Rome but that's exactly how I imagine it will be. Here are the motorcycle shots that Geoff mentions: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxwyMtTTYYE&. What a beautiful film.

  3. Ah, the Zorba Dance! I've seen people doing this and never knew what they were up to! After a little Youtube searching in response to Geoff's column, I found out! It's this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AzpHvLWFUM - and it's very funny that he made up these dance steps because he had an injured foot!!

  4. I did a cover of When I Paint My Masterpiece - www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9JT0PC48Vw& and here's a more recent version - www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QdNte_q21w. The second show was for Justice Through Music, http://www.jtmp.org/about.htm, an organization that you and your readership might appreciate, Geoff.

  5. Hey, thanks for that reference on Justice Through Music and link to the song.
    I hope you have a good time in Italy, Desiree

  6. "unlikely given his lack of travel outside the USA" - cuttingly funny:)

  7. The Phil Ochs song that Geoff mentions is interesting too - and really really long. Here it is in two parts for anyone who is interested:

  8. What a wonderful column, jampacked with such rich history and cultural reference - thank you Geoff!

    And I love the word "sozzled" - much more fun that the American "wasted." :)

  9. For some reason, I hadn't realized the St Etienne song He’s on the Phone was based on this, although I guess it's obvious now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OgV4F7JzVc:)

    Thanks for the column as always Geoff!

  10. What a wonderful story, about the gentleman and the English/Italian communication through questions about being hungry or cold!! And what a poignant, nice suggestion, that the questions really said "Rome for the joy of living, and for fun" - wonderful!

  11. Geoff, I speak French, and I agree that the literal translation of this seems strange:

    "Afin de coincer la bulle dans ta bulle, D'poser mon coeur bancal dans ton bocal, ton aquarium."

    It's slang though, and translates as:

    "So I could hang out with you
    I could put my heavy heart in your jar, your aquarium"

  12. Here's a translation of the song, which as Geoff notes, is hard to translate because of the slang........

    Weekend in Rome, both of them alone
    Florence, Milan, if there's any time
    Italian weekend, in an expensive car
    A melodramatic song on the radio
    Italian weekend, it's raining in Paris
    happiness, sighs, songs for laughter
    Italian song, Italian song for a journey
    Weekend in rome
    So I could hang out with you
    to put my sad heart in your jar, your aquarium
    Two people eloping, the rain startles me
    the grayness is poisoning me, weekend in Rome
    for the joy of living, and for fun
    because we are young, Italian weekend
    to find smiles again, I prefer to tell you
    I almost lost my calm
    I almost lost my calm
    Oh I would like, I would like
    i would like to hang out with you
    to put my sad heart in your jar, your aquarium
    Italian song for a journey
    Oh, I would really like
    I would really like to hang out with you
    and to be with you who resembles no one else.

  13. Terracina - a glorious city. My photographs are here for you to see:


  14. Great example of French New Wave Pop, Geoff - thanks for the backstory on this song and its various versions!

  15. Not sure if you ever saw the brief Guardian column about songs on European places, but it mentioned the Etienne Daho version of the song as an example, Geoff:


  16. Thanks for writing about this song Geoff! I am a huge Lio fan - she does the spoken word part of the Etienne Daho version. She's a Francophone pop icon, and it's worth listening to one of her earlier albums - here's an example of one of her songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYuPV1MPodI

  17. Merci Geoff! Etienne Daho.... 1984..... Un peu de nostalgie... Souvenir d'adolescence!

  18. I never knew that Saint Etienne’s “He’s on the Phone” was a cover. I am a horrible fan!

  19. Don't forget too about the version of "He's On The Phone" by Princessa, a Spanish pop legend (she dabbles in Italian disco, Spanish trance and Swedish pop as well):


    Now even though I love Saint Etienne, I think I actually prefer Princessas version. I'm not sure I know why...I think it might be the pronunciation of Leicester Square and instead of saying the 'shoes in hand' it sounds like 'cheese and ham'. Which is fantastic.

    Plus, how great is it that we're talking about the French original, the British cover and the Spanish cover of the cover!

  20. Hi Geoff!
    i am a regular visitor to your blog, and i can't help being constantly amazed with your posts. while i don't have the opportunity to travel yet, i keep track of the songs and places. your blog has let me see the world, and i just can't wait to get out!

  21. Rome is my favourite city in the world. Thank you for this piece of its soundtrack! Here are a few of the things I often remember about the city:

    Every public clock set to different times

    A gang of five ten-year-old girls adeptly pick-pocketing strangers at the Trevi Fountain.

    Porcini mushrooms the size of a baby's arms at the Testaccio Market.

    Mind-rattling church bells at 7 a.m.

    An accordion, bass, piano, and violin providing music for two tango dancers at the foot of the Pantheon one evening. Their shadows were cast large on the facade and columns while hundreds of onlookers watched.

    The hypnotizing swarms of starlings, performing seemingly effortless acrobatics at sunset in the skies over the Tiber.

  22. Here is a song I wrote about Rome:


  23. Geoff, I also think it's worth mentioning that the whole album that contains the Vanessa Paradis version, "Couleur Sur Paris" by French supergroup Nouvelle Vague, is an attempt to fuse two eras of music - today's popular artists singing songs from the golden 1980s age of French pop. It is, I think, a commentary on the post-punk age.

    Other great songs on the album include Camille’s funky version of TC Matic’s ironic political underground hit of 1983 'Putain Putain', Melanie Pain’s sultry version of Maris-France’s iconic 1977’s hit melancholic song 'Déréglée' and Coralie Clement’s 'Je Suis Déjà Parti'.

  24. Hmmmmm, Vanessa Paradis is an amazing singer with a sweet and clear voice, but her version sounds to me a little too much like the type of music that can be heard in a hotel's elevator....

  25. I love the album from last year, that had the Paradis version. And I recommend Hugh Coltman's "Amoureux solitaire" - the very cool vibe of the bossa noa rhythm makes one forget about how sad the lyrics can be.

  26. I used to really like Etienne Daho, especially his Tombé Pour La France (1985). But he seems to have got a bit boring in the past decade..... A bit bourgeois maybe.

  27. I love Etienne Daho's husky bass!

  28. Geoff, I highly recommend you checking out Etienne Daho and Jeanne Moreau's new album together, adapting Genet’s Le Condamné à Mort: I don't think it's out yet but it will be amazing I think.

  29. Ahhhh, c'est horrible - Vanessa Paradis massacre WEEK END A Rome!

  30. Don't forget as well the Daytrader EP, 'Last Days Of Rome'..... for your list of Rome music (maybe - it's not yet clear to me if the album actually has anything about Rome, or if the title is a metaphor!)

  31. I'm also pretty excited about Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi’s ‘Rome’ album - which was actually written and recorded in Rome. They used vintage equipment from the city, local musicians, and recorded in an ancient catacomb there. It's due out some time this year, and features as main vocalists Jack White and Norah Jones.

  32. And for an Italian song about Italy, there is In Italia by Fabri Fabra featuring Giana Nannini - it's not exactly poetic when translated into English, but the melody does get pretty deep into your brain:

    There are things nobody will tell you
    There are things nobody will give you
    You were born and you died here,
    you were born and you died here.
    Born in the Land of half-truths.

    Ci sono cose che nessuno ti dirà…
    ci sono cose che nessuno ti darà…
    sei nato e morto qua
    sei nato e morto qua
    nato nel paese delle mezze verità

  33. I do think this French take on Italy is a million time better than the American take, perhaps most obviously in the song "That's Amore":

    "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
    That's amore!
    When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine
    That's amore!
    Bells will ring ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling
    And you'll sing "Vita Bella"
    Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay
    Like a gay tarantella.

    When the stars make you drool just like pasta fagiole
    That's amore!
    When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet
    You're in love!
    When you walk in a dream but you know you're not dreaming signore
    Scuzza me, but you see, back in old Napoli
    That's amore!"

    Trust us Americans to focus mainly on Italian food!

  34. There is also Canadian Doug Folkins' fifth album, Another Last Call, which has the song Streets Of Rome, a Celtic flavored song.

  35. I'm writing a song focusing on the different parts of Italy at the moment. Rome is dirty, grungy, and battle-scarred in the song, Florence is too short and whimsically happy, Venice is a calm, ambient pop section. The countryside, a repetitive ambient-ish composition, will open and close the piece.

    In fact, I'm trying to write a whole album of songs about places, inspired by your column. I did London already - it is a baroque, orchestral pop piece. It reflects the rainiest scenes in 101 Dalmatians. And I'm working on Stockholm next - which will be a big, blinking lights, synth and guitar battle to the death, kind of dong - a song that summons God, and then neutralizes him in the last part, a quieter part, representing the snow covered thatched roofs. Then I might try Athens, which will be something nihilistically ambient.

  36. Yes I do think the French songs on Rome are a lot more descriptive than most of the English/American ones.
    Thats a great list of memories, Roberta -very evocative

  37. My friend, the rapper Eyedea, aka Micheal Larsen, had an album titled When in Rome, Kill the King. Michael died last year at the age of 28. (http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/music/105225439.html). The tracks aren't about Rome in the way the other ones mentioned are though.

  38. It's definitely true that we owe much of our image of Rome to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which helped create the image of Rome as a carefree city where ancient art mingles with modern pleasures....

  39. When I went to the Trevi fountain, it seemed like what people do and believe is that throwing two coins will lead to a new romance and three will ensure either a marriage or divorce. Another version of this and probably the one that we saw more people doing is that it is lucky to throw three coins with one's right hand over one's left shoulder into the fountain.

    In fact, it is estimated that 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day, which is used to subsidize a supermarket for the needy. Although there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain, which we witnessed. While seated there I watched this old guy who had what looked like a metal antenna that folded up enough to go in his back back and it had a good magnet in it, because he would walk along the edge and look in to see if there were any close coins and then if there were he would pull out the coins with it. He was smiling and laughing like nothing was happening, and he didn't get into trouble.

  40. I just finished Frances Mayes' book, UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, which maybe you would like Geoff.

  41. Thanks for link-I'll look it out