Sunday, December 4, 2011

Roman Holiday

I booked a guided tour of Italy because I wanted –nay desperately needed—to step out of my pressure cooker life for a week. “Let somebody else drive!” was my simple motto, no small wish for a woman who drives about 30,000 miles a year. I picked Southern Italy as a destination over France and Spain on the theory that while I was guaranteed to see a castles and churches in Spain and France, I was guaranteed to be nose to nose with antiquity B.C. if I made it to Italy. I was also guaranteed to be adrift in a foreign land if I got lost, since unlike French (of which I speak a little) and Spanish (of which I can ask where the bathroom is and tell a defendant “the official interpreter is running a little late, please wait here”), I’m like the lyrics of a Mary Chapin Carpenter song. I “don’t speak a word of Italian.”

What I thought I was signing up for when I dug my passport out of a dresser drawer was something along the lines of the movie “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium,” where you get on a bus with a bunch of strangers at the beginning of your trip and a tour guide shepherds you through all of your travels like Lassie and you make friends and sit back and wait for the next stop, your biggest worry whether your camera batteries will hold out.

What I got was a riff on a group swing dance lesson in a bar, where “change partners and dance” had me connecting with a new set of people on average about every six hours. Disorienting, exhausting, and nerve wracking on many levels. And as is so often the case with the unexpected … so much more interesting that what I ever bargained for.

Day One…we’re not in Wisconsin anymore.

I’m going to skate quickly over the preliminaries which had me stretched so thin that I packed my suitcase in the final half hour before leaving for the airport. The list of what I forgot to bring was longer than the things I brought, and included pajamas, a watch, and a hairbrush. I finally looked at the trip itinerary while between flights in Charlotte, North Carolina. When the man in my life was pulling up to the airport to drop me off asked “what airline are you flying out on,” I didn’t have the faintest idea before pulling out my paperwork. The lapse was symbolic. I got up to speed in Charlotte, however, and discerned that my travel plans included a great many “vouchers” for transportation and tours and included a three-night trip to Pompeii and Sorrento.

After crossing over the Atlantic through the night, I arrived at Rome’s airport and found the tour company representative who would get me to my hotel. My flight had been delayed by two hours, and so the young lady in charge of my transportation directed me to wait at a nearby airport café until a driver could be found. No better time to break into my new collection of Euro notes and buy something. I selected an ice cream bar, paid for it without excessive emotional trauma, and sat down. It was a brand I’d seen in the U.S., but I never found something like this at the local grocery store. Hazelnut ice cream streaked with chocolate ribbons filled out the middle under a chocolate coating. MMMmmm…

My driver showed up. He didn’t speak a word of English, but I showed him the address of the hotel on a piece of paper, he punched the information into a GPS unit, and we were off and running, with me in the leather-clad back seat of a Mercedes sedan. The driver looked like the handsome, dignified real estate manager with a soft spot for Diane Lane in “Under the Tuscan Sun.” There was sunshine everywhere. I could get used to this, I thought.

I checked into the hotel by early afternoon, and got my first major surprise. My room was barely the size of a tiny college dorm room, and felt more like a large closet. It was neat and clean and smartly trimmed, but with a single bed that had as much “give” as an ironing board, and a bathroom I could barely turn around in. “And I paid extra for this?” I mulled as I thought of the extra hotel charges for traveling as a single person rather than half of a couple. I was to learn later from a single traveler who had prepared for her trip to Italy by studying Italian for three years and reading all the relevant guidebooks, that the single traveler in Europe should expect to be considered the orphaned, bastard step-child of the tourist industry and get used to tiny and cramped accommodations.

At any rate, I shrugged it off, changed into a different pair of walking shoes, and asked for directions to the Coliseum which had somehow never made it on to my tour itinerary. How on earth could a trip to Rome not include the Coliseum, I thought, that site of blood and gore and lions and Christians and imperial excess. The concierge pulled out a map of Rome, sketched out our location and that of the Coliseum, and suggested that I could walk. Sorry, I replied, I was just WAY too tired for that. Plan B was to take the subway to get there. He drew the directions to the transit station from the hotel on the map, and instructed me to " take the blue line.”

I set off bravely, studying the map every other step as though I was navigating an unexplored continent. A left turn and a right turn later, I beheld the “Termini” transit station. It was enormous and imposing, with fleets of buses lined up in front. Somehow just looking for “the blue line” seemed a bit naive. I looked around for someone who might speak a little English. A woman of about thirty passed by. She looked unlike a tourist, and best of all, carried two books in English in a see-through shopping bag. I tapped her on the shoulder and asked for directions. She set me aright.

As I descended into the bowels of the Termini station on long escalators, I felt swept along like a lemming. Still, you ride a lot of subways when you grow up in Chicago, and certain principles are universal. I stepped on to a subway car covered from stem to stern with colorful graffiti, and two stops later emerged into the sunlight literally across the street from my destination. I skipped standing in line for a ticket, and elected to just walk around the Coliseum and stare. Utterly awesome to tread upon giant paving stones that date back for millennia. Sitting in the sunlight, with the Arch of Constantine looming tall and magnificent, and the Palatine Hill (where Romulus and Remus were reared by the she-wolf who saved them in Roman mythology) behind me, I had absolutely stepped out of my own world and into something magical. I strolled toward the Roman Forum, but got sidetracked by a beautiful church up a hill. I was completely alone in the church, but the bouquets of white roses decorating the main aisle gave an anticipatory hint that a wedding would soon occur.

Exhausted, I finally turned away after lighting a candle for my health, and caught the subway back to the hotel. I passed the arriving wedding party as I walked down the hill, limousines and vans and satin and flowers in abundance. The Termini station seemed the equivalent of a large shopping mall as well as a transit hub, and I ducked into a store in search of a few essentials like a nail scissors and deodorant and a hair brush. I found the scissors, never found a brush or comb, but homed in like a hawk on a display of European chocolate. I left the store twenty euros lighter, but with a substantial pile of sweets and the sudden knowledge that you didn’t need to speak Italian to look at the grocery total on the cash register in a checkout line and figure out how to buy stuff. By the time I returned to my hotel, it was with the newly won confidence that, given a map of the train system, I could navigate from one end of the country to another.

As night fell, I checked out the “rooftop garden” of my hotel, which advertised a happy hour of drinks and hors d’ouevres on signs posted in the lobby. No happy hour seemed in progress, but I introduced myself to a few Californians and ordered dinner and a glass of wine from the bar, sharing my pizza funghi e prosciutto with them under a gleaming white moon. They were leaving Rome the next morning to return to their cruise ship. I sighed, and thought that I’d surely meet my fellow travelers the next morning.

Day Two…viva gelato!!

On my second day in Italy, I was booked for a morning walking tour of “Eternal Rome.” Up at six, I showered and, still lacking a hairbrush, combed my damp hair with my fingers. I was picked up in the lobby by a young man from the tour company who did NOT have my name on his passenger list, and brought to the tour office where the young lady shepherding passengers on to a bus the size of a millionaire’s yacht took my voucher with a quizzical look. I trusted to fate. Why not? I still hadn’t met a soul that I would be traveling with.

Our guide that morning was Marco, who set the tour guide standard for the rest of the trip. Urbane and witty, he possessed a great knowledge of English, a bright yellow umbrella which he raised often to signal his location and, most important, the sense to tell us precisely when he would be leaving a certain place to walk to the next scenic location. We took in Trevi Fountain, Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Pantheon, and ended up at Vatican Square where I saw the pope appear at Mass on a JumboTron. Is there anyone who goes to Rome these days and doesn’t look at the Vatican or the Fountain of the Four Rivers and think “Angels and Demons”?

As I walked, I chatted with a gal from the west coast who was about my age. She was lined up to take a walking tour of the Coliseum later in the day. I pestered Marco to call the tour company on his cell phone to get me on the same bus for the same tour. Yippee, I would finally travel for a few hours with someone I recognized!!

At the end of the walking tour, those of us who had not previously arranged to have lunch with Marco were on our own to get back to our hotels. The map of Rome and its subways was still in my pocket. Eureka, I could figure out how to get there on my own! I set off through the Vatican Colonade, past the Porta Angelica, and down the Via Ottaviano on my way to the nearest subway station. As I walked, I passed a tiny gelateria and stepped inside. Forget tiramisu, forget fancy coffees, if you want the essence of Italian sweetness, it's the gelato. I don’t know what makes it magic, by character it seems like soft ice cream, but judging by the number of places that carry it, it fuels the country. I looked at the colorful offerings, and pointed to a tub full of dark chocolate, labeled “tartufo.” The girl behind the counter cautioned, “that has rum in it.” Aaaaaayyyyyy! I gave her the thumbs up, and nodded happily when she asked if I wanted a blog of whipped cream on it. It was heaven in a paper cup, dark chocolate, rum, nuts, and cream, as the warm October sun reflected off the surrounding stone and stucco. Oh, I thought as I walked and dipped my spoon into the confection, it doesn’t get much better than this!

Returning to the hotel, I filled the time between tours with a trip to the rooftop garden to rest my aching feet. Sitting there on floral cushions in a sundress with a book and a bottle of Arancia, I savored the sunlight and the breeze that rustled the olive trees and geraniums and begonias around me. I seriously thought of bailing on the “Imperial Rome” tour later and just napping on the roof.

I returned to the tour company again for my trip to the Coliseum and the Forum. Running true to form, I was not on the bus containing my new friend, but struck up acquaintance with a pair of gals from England, one of whom, Marge, was originally from South Africa and had developed trouble walking. The irony of that was that we bonded over the fact that she had brought a suitcase full of stiletto heels to wear on her cruise. This particular tour guide was terrible. He was short, and old, and spoke English badly, raced through the sights, and kept disappearing in crowds. If there were any lions left in the Coliseum, we would have fed him to them. Nonetheless, I was in the heart of “Imperial Rome,” where emperors and senators had once trod while ruling an empire, and again, I was awestruck.

I discovered, upon taking the elevator to the rooftop garden again, that the place was closed on Sunday. However, a woman named Mindy had just discovered the same thing, and as we rode the elevator down to the lobby, we introduced ourselves and ended up dining at a little restaurant she had already discovered down the block. Although about half my size, she ordered three courses to my one, finding out later that her eyes were bigger than her stomach. She shared some of her risotto. It was sublime.

Before going to sleep, I packed everything up for the next day’s adventures. This would be the start of my three day tour of Southern Italy. Woo hoo, I looked forward to finally traveling in a pack for a few days!

To be continued…


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Anonymous said...

Mary -

I just found out we're going to be on the same blogging panel at the Writers' Institute at UW-Madison in April so I thought I'd swing by to say HELLO and I got a phenomenal guided tour instead -- WOW! Great site, great post -- I will be back for more!

- Laurie Buchanan

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