Saturday, March 7, 2009

Italy Pictures

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Italy Pictures

Friday, March 6, 2009

Arrivederci Roma‏

So, as I recall, I was rudely cut off by the Internet cafe man at the end of our last email together! And then, I didn't have any time the following morning to finish up. Consequently, I'm actually writing this final email from the comfort of my futon in sweet, sweet Poitiers.

We left off at St. Peter's Basilica, so just to sum up: WOW. UNBELIEVABLE.

I walked around the church for quite awhile in quiet contemplation of the staggering majesty. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to go down into the tomb area so that I could see the tomb of Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately for me, this is the precise moment that the weather kicked into a high gear downpour, and there was a 100 foot uncovered expanse of slippery marble to navigate in order to get there. I tried to wait it out, but the wind was as fierce and unrelenting as the rain. Eventually, I rolled up my pant legs, opened my umbrella, and just took the beating, mumbling "this had better be worth it" over and over again as I swam my way to the door. In fact, it was worth it to see the tomb of the pope I grew up with, but the others weren't particularly interesting. I was sad to note that the modern popes don't get intricately carved designs like the old popes, but rather very simple marble slabs. It was nice to be able to personally pay my respects to Pope John Paul II, though. I wanted to stand by his tomb for awhile and mentally scan through my memories of him, but there was a guard there who eyed me like I was a creepy pope stalker, so I moved on sooner than I would have liked.

After the Vatican, I was thoroughly exhausted, both mentally and emotionally. I decided to catch the bus back to my hostel and free pasta/wine night. The pasta was wretchedly dry and flavorless, but again, free. That day had been notable for two reasons: seeing wonderful historical marvels and getting completely ripped off at the restaurants I had ventured to for breakfast and lunch, so I was due a little free food, even if it was horrible. In fact, let's take a moment here to discuss restaurants in Rome.

I had intended great food to be the centerpiece of this trip. I mean...Italy=Great Food, right? Well, sometimes, but not necessarily great service. This was one of the most stunning realizations for me, actually. The wonderfully friendly and charming Italian-Americans I grew up with were not much like the modern Italians I encountered on this trip. Particularly in Bologna, but even in Rome, there was just a lack of good customer service and an all-pervading sense of trying to squeeze as much money out of tourists as possible.

Case in point: the morning I went to the Colosseum and Vatican, I stopped at the pasticceria that I saw on my first day in Rome, the one with the cannoli shrine. I decided to have a cappuccino, a cannoli, and then I thought I ordered another sweet but must have pointed incorrectly and ended up with a disgusting marzipan confection. At other cafes I had been to, a cappuccino and pastry cost about 5 or 6 Euros total. At the fancy pastry shop where I had gotten a cannoli and another pastry, it was 4.50 for the two. So, imagine my surprise when the elderly waiter brought my bill for 12 Euros!! For a cappuccino and 2 pastries. 4 Euros apiece. I was fuming. 12 Euros on breakfast! And a shitty one at that. The cannoli were not nearly as tasty as the window shrine would lead one to believe, let me tell you!

Another case in point: the same day, I went to lunch at a small trattoria just outside the Vatican. They didn't have a printed menu, just a handwritten menu, in Italian, on a blackboard. I got the squash risotto and was forced to also get a bottle of mineral water (again with the no tap water). The waiter asked if I would like some bread, and so I said sure. I ate one slice of the four that came in the basket; it was stale and crappy bread. The risotto was delicious, though, so I was busy congratulating myself on finding a nice restaurant for once when the waiter brought my bill, which included a 3 Euro charge for the bread. My head almost blew off my shoulders when I saw that. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, taken for a fool, and slapped in the face. I flagged the waiter down and asked him about the charge, which he had neglected to mention. I was pissed I had even eaten one slice of it because then I couldn't even demand he remove the charge due to my not eating it. He told me that they have to charge for the bread because the owner requires it. I told him, "I understand that you want to charge for the bread, my problem is that you didn't tell me there would be a charge at all. You just offered the bread to me. In America, bread is given for free, and I think you know that, and you use that to take advantage of tourists." He just shrugged and said, "I'm sorry." I said, "I don't think you are, but oh well." I was fuming. Still, I had eaten out of the basket and felt I had to pay for it. Not wanting it to go completely to waste, I offered it to the only other table of people in the room, a sweet young Japanese couple. They were surprised and happy to have it. However, I walked out of that restaurant feeling like the world's biggest idiot, practically near tears. It absolutely affected my mood for the rest of the day.

To top it all off, I got back to my hostel to discover that the maid that morning had somehow gotten the impression that I had vacated the premises (I suppose it might be difficult to keep track when there are 4 beds in a room) and threw away my 2.50 Euro International Herald Tribune newspaper that I had only read 1/4 of and was saving for my late night layover in Paris. After how much I had been cheated that day, it just made me lose it. I was on this trip on a fucking shoestring budget, and here I had blown so much money so stupidly, and then the maid threw away my $3 newspaper!! I just cried like a baby. And as I was crying, I was saying to myself, "Shannon, you are one step away from completely losing your mind. Crying over a fucking NEWSPAPER. If you are so fucking poor, get your ass back to Korea and quit complaining." sigh It was not a banner moment for me. After I regained my composure, I went to the internet cafe to write you guys and then came back to take a steaming hot shower (I had finally secured a towel from the owner, as the front desk chick still had no clue about anything other that her Facebook status). After my shower, I was slipping around the bathroom floor, so I went to put my sandals on. And realized they were gone. The maid had taken them, too. I was so stunned, I didn't even know what to do. I have had those sandals for years, they have traveled the world with me, they have tremendous sentimental importance for me. And they were gone. I imagined them rotting in some landfill somewhere and my stomach turned. I pictured having a violent come to Jesus meeting with the owner, Frank. Or screaming at the maid, who obviously had a complete lack of common sense. But, it was late, and all I had the strength to do was fall into bed and hope for a better tomorrow.

In the morning (Tuesday), I took my sweet time getting ready. Makeup, pinning up my hair with a mass of bobby pins (which, Jennifer, turned out pretty sweet, if I do say so myself--even though I cheated by holding up half of it with a ponytail holder), the works. Thank god I did, because the maid showed up early, and I was able to interrogate her as to the whereabouts of my newspaper and sandals. After a moment, it clicked in her mind and she started saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry! The sandals are in the office! I'm sorry, I threw away the newspaper. I'm so sorry! I'll bring the sandals back today!" What sweet relief... After that heartwarming experience, my luck with customer service really turned around, and from that point forward, the rest of my time in Rome was spent being helped mostly by friendly and courteous people.

Tuesday was my last day in Rome, for all intents and purposes, so I wanted it to be good. I started off by going to the Campo di Fiori, the main farmer's market. It was drizzling, but not in an overly-annoying way, so I happily walked amongst the stalls. It was mostly vegetables on sale, and not too many vendors, but there were a few cheese and meat booths. I decided to buy some Parmigiano Reggiano off this old lady. Well. I asked her, "Parmigiano Reggiano?" And she (translation) said, "Yes, how much?" I said, "200 grams." This is just a small wedge; I'm going home in the morning, after all. I just want it for the pasta dinner I'm planning to make myself that night. So, she cuts off a piece and weighs it, "400 ok?" she says. "No, 200 please." Cuts it again, "350 ok?" No, but at this point, she won't cut it anymore and I'm forced to buy it. Jump ahead to that night when I get home and unwrap it, only to discover that this bitch sold me Grana Padano, a kind of poor man's Parmigiano. Argh. Anyway, the other vendors who sold me gorgeous tomatoes, basil (the whole plant, roots and all, which I brought back here with me), baby artichokes, and a spice mix for arrabiata pasta sauce, were charming and very helpful.

On my way out of the market, I stopped at a bakery and bought another one of those cream-filled pastries and found out that they are a special treat for the feast of St. Guiseppe. This was the best one I had while I was in Rome, so I was especially pleased. After this brief treat, it was off to the Piazza Navona. Really not much to see there, except that it seems like it would be lovely on a warm summer's night. The fountains were great.

Next stop was the Pantheon. Frankly, after seeing St. Peter's Basilica, I was vastly underwhelmed by the Pantheon. I know that it's exceedingly ancient (126 AD, compared to St. Peter's 1626), and that alone makes its construction a triumph...but I just had a feeling like, "Well, isn't that nice..." as opposed to, "Take me home now, Lord." I took the requisite pictures, waited to see if it would rain through the giant oculus in the roof, and then went off to my next stop: gelato.

I originally intended to go to the exceptionally famous "San Crispino" gelatteria, but it didn't happen. Couldn't find the bastard, even though I had its exact street address fresh off their website. But, no matter because I had a backup gelato plan--Giolitti. This place is just as high-end and famous as San Crispino, but I hadn't heard about it until a girl at the youth hostel in Bologna recommended it. Wow, I'm so glad she did.

I got the medium cone, which includes three flavors of your choice. Mine: aranciata (orange) sorbet, caramel, and cannelle (cinnamon). First, orange doesn't begin to describe the flavor in play here. It is like the definition of orange, the universal origin of orange, the perfection of orange soul. Orange of the gods, with candied bits of orange peel thrown in for good measure. The caramel was muted but luxurious, buttery and soft. The cinnamon was intense and spicy, the best version of my favorite ice cream flavor that I have ever had. Previous to this gelato experience, my favorite ice cream was Blue Sky Creamery's in Ankeny/Des Moines. Still is, mostly for its incredibly thick consistency and strong flavors. But this was ethereal, on another playing field altogether. I sat outside the shop, in the cold, happily licking at this giant cone of ice cream before it could melt and run down my arm. Perfection.

After this, I realized I should probably eat some lunch before heading to the Borghese Gallery for my 3pm viewing appointment. I took the recommendation of one of my favorite travel writers and ate at a tiny place near the Trevi Fountain called Piccolo Arancino. The Little Orange. On my way there, I got a bit lost (it's on a tiny side street) and ended up walking along a few narrow alleys. I had to walk by a group of guys, doing the classic standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by thing. I got a couple catcalls, and I thought, "Now I'm in Rome!"

Lunch was delicious, as was the customer service. Small glass of free prosecco to start the meal (nice touch!), carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke) as an appetizer and strozzopretti homemade pasta for the entree. The waitress brought a basket of bread and crunchy bread sticks to the table while I was waiting for the appetizer, but thinking of my previous bread encounter, I didn't touch it. I figured it was free, because of the free champagne, but in the end, there was a 1.50 Euro charge on my bill for it. I didn't even ask for the bread, she just put it on my table! So, feeling totally justified this time, I asked her to remove the charge. Which she happily and quickly did. It's so odd to me, this practice of charging for something without asking if someone wants it, or without telling them the price. I guess it's an easy way to pad a bill, and they hope that the customer won't care or won't notice. 1.50 (or 3 in the case of the other place) on table after table after table must really add up.

After that, I hustled to the bus stop, eager to not be late for my appointment at the Borghese Gallery. Apparently, there is so much interest in this place, and it has such limited space, that only 360 people are allowed in at a time, and only for a two hour window. I got there early, so I had about 20 minutes to sit in the gardens and absorb the calm and refined atmosphere. There was a man playing the lute down a pathway that lead deep into the Borghese grounds, and it lended an enchantingly Renaissance air to the day. Later on, when I saw that no one was giving him any money (he wasn't an official employee, just a busker), I made sure to give him a handful of coins in appreciation for his talent and atmosphere enhancement. Eventually, it was time to go in and stand in the presence of artistic masters.

Well, that's what they want you to think, anyway. In reality, there were very few paintings that I particularly loved. Caravaggio was well represented, although I'm not a fan. The other paintings were from that dark and hazy school of Renaissance art, not particularly moving, but I'm sure they're masterful to a skilled eye. The one thing I did truly love about this gallery was the amount of breathlessly stunning sculpture, quite a lot of it by the ubiquitous Bernini. You just stand and look at his sculptures, such as "David", and you cannot imagine how it is that someone could make marble look exactly like human flesh. The sculptures are detailed to the point of showing the veins in their arms and the flexing of their muscles. Unbelievable.

Finished with my artistic obligations, I retired once more to the gardens and spent a lovely hour just enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, occasionally imagining the grand things I would do as mistress of this gorgeous estate. It was a heady hour, let me tell you. Away from the bustle and traffic of Rome, it was pure luxury to sit in quiet reflection, surrounded by beauty. I also got to enjoy some water from their fountain, said to be the best in Rome. A perfectly lovely end to my time in the Eternal City.

Once back at the hostel, I made myself a dinner of tagliatelli (from my pasta course) with spicy arrabbiata sauce. It was the best meal of my trip, hands-down. LOL :-) After that, it was time to start the packing process and get to bed so that I would be fresh for my journey home. I took the train from Rome to Pisa, and then a flight from there to Paris. My flight was delayed, naturally, and so I arrived in Paris at midnight. My train home to Poitiers wasn't until 6:50am the following morning. I had thought to myself, well I'll just spend the night at the train station reading a book or something. The cab driver who took me to the Montparnasse train station asked when my train was and then casually stated that the station closes at 1am. I almost fainted. I imagined myself sitting outside the station on my backpack for 6 hours, getting robbed or molested in some way. Fuck. And once I was in the station, the departures board listed the last train at 12:30am and the following at 5:30am. I couldn't believe that they would really be closed! So, I asked at the information desk and was told that I could wait there overnight, as long as I had a ticket. Which I did, thank you baby Jesus. The night passed with no excitement, and I was soon headed home to Poitiers.

Which is where I am now, and also, unfortunately, where our story ends. For the time being, anyway. I hope you enjoyed these emails; I know I enjoyed writing them. Take care everyone!


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Walking Through History or How I almost decided to start going to Mass again‏

It is an odd thing, indeed, to spend a day walking through a city that has masterfully combined an ancient past with a high-tech present. Around every corner is either a crumbling monument or an internet café. It is an amazing juxtaposition that never ceased to impress me during my visit in Rome. That I could, in one moment, be sitting on the foundation wall of an ancient Roman temple, and in the next, be catching the "Electronic Bus" to the Vatican. Still, that's what I did all day yesterday...shuttled back and forth between history and the future.

To begin, I thought the Colosseum should definitely come first. It's iconic, it's on every postcard, it's just...first. Well, when you come out of that Metro stop, there is absolutely no denying that you're in Rome. Right in front of you, smaller than you had perhaps expected, is IT. The Colosseum. There's definitely a bit of wow factor involved in seeing it in that first moment, but I have to admit that, once I was inside, I had a little difficulty maintaining my wow. I suspect that, having seen it so many times in movies and History Channel specials, I was a little "over it". Also, let's not forget that all of our modern stadiums are modeled on this thing, so it's not as though we're unfamiliar with it as a general concept. I was bummed not to be walking around with my mouth gaping, but I have to say, nobody else seemed to be too staggered, either. In all honesty, I walked around and took pictures with more of a sense of obligation than joy. My favorite parts were the little details. The written carvings being worked on behind roped-off areas, the brown and white cat that snoozed in the sun while being photographed by a gang of squealing Japanese girls, the stairs covered in moss and leading to nowhere. My most un-favorite part? Climbing the steps to the second floor. Oh god, those Romans knew how to build a step. A tall step. By the time I had climbed all 500 of them (well, it felt like 500), my legs were on fire and I was ready to hurl myself off of some ramparts. The view wasn't even that much improved, goddamn them. I was out of there in short order.

Time to head over to the Roman Forum, something I had been looking forward to seeing much more than the Colosseum. It was a bit of a trek to the Entrance to Roman Forum and Palatine Archaeological Area, and once inside, it quickly became obvious that one was required to first enjoy Palatine Hill before heading down to the Roman Forum. Yes, a hill, a huge hill, after all those steps at the Colosseum. Not to sound like whiny, out-of-shape, misery of a baby, but well...FUCK. I didn't want to climb any fucking hill. sigh However, since the ancient Romans neglected to invent an elevator as part of their magnificent contribution to history, there was nothing for it but to s l o w l y climb the stairs up the hill. Once I gaspingly reached the top, I staggered over to the nearest railing for a breather, and stretched out beneath me was a lovely interior field of a villa. Or something like that. I didn't bother with any guidebooks on this trip, figuring I'd just wing it, with common knowledge and high school social studies as my guide. I'll probably just spring for a guidebook next time, all things considered. :-)

Anyway, after taking in the view, I sat on a bench for awhile and then filled my water bottle from one of the ancient fountains built into the mountain. One of the things I had also really been looking forward to on this trip was drinking from some of the fountains around Rome. Apparently, their water is considered to be some of the best in the world, and there are fountains all over town where local people go to fill up large water bottles for their house. If this is true, and I know it to be, then someone should explain to me why restaurants never offer you tap water. In fact, tired of paying 2.50 Euros for a bottle of mineral water with every meal, I once asked the waiter for some regular water and he REFUSED. Said it wasn't possible. But, my frustrating restaurant experiences are a chapter in and of themselves.

Back to the enormous Palatine Hill. It was lovely, quite serene after the bustle of the city, but I could have lived my life without seeing it, to be frank. There were various ruins scattered around it and a nice garden. Gorgeous view into the distance and down into the Forum. Speaking of the Forum, it was there I was trying to get, and after consulting with a similarly hill-hating family from New York, we finally found the stairs down the other side of the hill. Since it had been raining off and on all day, the stairs were wet, and, as some of you know, I am terrified of falling down steps. It was a bit of a nightmare getting down all those steps, let me tell you, but it wasn't as slow-going as it could have been since they weren't too slippery. Once down those first steps, there were more steps, and then more steps, and then a few more just for good measure. The Roman Forum is, after all, a good 25 feet below the modern street level of Rome.

Once I had made it down to the lowest level, it was nice to just be able to stroll from ruin to ruin, pillar to pillar, temple to temple, and imagine the ancient Romans doing exactly the same thing. This was downtown Rome for Caesar, if you can imagine it. The temple of the Vestal Virgins was here! It was, in short, ground zero for the ancient Romans, and that just took my breath away. I sat on a building foundation for a long time, watching everyone come up the path, trying to picture them wearing togas and generally failing.

One thing about the Roman Forum, I am sad to inform the less-coordinated members of my family is that, if you make it up the hill steps and then down the other hill steps, you are still not out of the woods. The ground is sometimes paved with a mix of chunked up red rock sticking up at odd angles, and sometimes with broad slate stones that are usually uneven and certainly not currently remaining in any uniform system. If you stare too long at a passing temple and forget where you're walking, you are, essentially, just begging to fall and crack an ankle. I saw several people nearly accomplish that feat while I was sitting there. I suspect this is why well-to-do Romans would be carried around on a litter by their devoted manservants. OK, maybe I've just seen that in movies, but the idea certainly did cross my mind as I was leaping from stepping stone to stepping stone.

The day was wearing on, but not nearly as fast as I had thought. All that work, and I had only just made it to noon! So, with the focus on history, I decided to head over to the Vatican on one of the cute electronic buses. Thank god I spent the extra 2.50 on that bus map because it has been invaluable to me. There seem to be hardly any tourists on the buses, either, which is another huge perk. Anyway, this was my first time riding the bus, so I was kind of excited to see parts of town far from the Metro. It certainly didn't disappoint. Around the first bend was an enormous monument at the Piazza Venezia that just took my breath away. Enormous, white marble, statues of flying horses on was a gargantuan building that looked like it would be the world headquarters in an alien-invasion movie. As in, they wouldn't even need to ask to be taken to our leader; they'd just show up at this place and expect him (or her) to be there.

Riding on this bus was a pure visual feast, but certainly not an auditory or kinesthetic one. The streets in this part of town seem to be as ancient as the Forum itself, and are consequently totally uneven. The bus shook and slammed and banged with every forward roll of the wheels. It was akin to being in the business end of a jackhammer. There were moments when the front bumper would actually seem to slam onto the street. It was madness, but I enjoyed every minute. Especially when we drove by the river. By then, things had evened out so it wasn't quite as noisy of a thrashing. The river area was just achingly beautiful. I wished I could be strolling across the bridge right then, taking a moment to drape myself across the railing and watch the river swish by.

But, 383 years of Catholic history was calling me...yes, that's right. St. Peter's Basilica. There really are no words to describe the smack in the face that waits for you as you walk into St. Peter's Square and see the Basilica in the distance. It's a place you've seen a thousand times on tv, but it's absolutely staggering in person. The scale, the grandeur, the overwhelming feeling of being somewhere important and vital to's more than a little overwhelming. You can see the Sistine Chapel, the building where the Pope lives (how well I remember when Pope John Paul II was dying and all the news stations kept a sort of death-watch camera focused on his window), and just the amazing structure of it all. I didn't know this at the time, but apparently the amazing Bernini was the architect of this outdoor space. It is as masterful as any of his sculptures, but probably even more so due to its scale.

After standing around with my eyes as big as saucers, I took a bunch of photos and then headed straight for the Basilica. Nothing prepares you for it. Nothing possibly ever could. Nothing in all your previous life experiences can prepare you for the vast feast for the eyes that is St. Peter's. It swallows you whole, fills a space in your heart that you didn't even know was empty, and makes you want to convert to Catholicism that afternoon. It is the grandest church in Christendom, and that is no fucking joke. I'll be honest here, folks, I walked in the Basilica and more or less instantly choked up. I'm choking up right now just thinking about it. I'm sure that this has a lot to do with my history as a fallen-away Catholic, but it's also just the building. No, this cannot even be called a "building"...that's far too simple of a word. It needs its own word.

In any event, I walked throughout the church, my jaw scraping the floor as I went. Everywhere you look, things are just in the most massive scale you could ever imagine. It should be the 8th wonder of the world. You will just have to look at pictures of it, because my vocabulary doesn't include enough words to do it justice.

And now, after all this writing, the internet cafe man is telling me that it's time to close up shop. So, I guess that means I'll be finishing this up tomorrow morning before I hit the road back to Poitiers! Argh!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Leave the gun...take the cannoli

Today's update begins right where we left off last time...Roma. Sigh Is it even possible to say the word Roma without sighing immediately afterwards and then imagining yourself zipping past the Colosseum on the back of some modern Roman god's Vespa? Yes, even you guys out there. You know you can't deny it... :-)


I first saw Rome on a sunny afternoon. A sweet and gentle breeze was blowing, the smell of fried dough wafting along the street. I put on my new uber-chic sunglasses (a Roman must) and walked in that direction like I was on a cannoli mission, though, in fact, it was just along the route to my hostel. As I walked by the giant pasticceria, and saw the cannoli shrine in the window, I made a solemn vow to return to this tourist trap as soon as possible.

I say tourist trap, of course, because it was about 100 feet from the train station parking lot. In fact, my hostel is only about a 5 minute walk from the Termini station, in a neighborhood settled mostly by south Asian and Indonesian immigrants. I don't feel unsafe here, but it's definitely a neighborhood set up for the tourist trade that pours forth from Termini on an hourly basis. Every third store is an internet cafe, pizzeria, or cash exchange shop.

I feel the confident walk and icy demeanor I assume when walking the streets here has been key to my success as a single traveler. Were I traveling with a group of friends, I would instantly be recognized as a tourist; on my own, I look just Italian enough to blend into the crowd. Add the sunglasses (when I'm feeling ambitious) and the confident walk (with my serious face on) and I'm a virtual ghost. In fact, I'm proud to report that I have been stopped 3 times by actual Italians asking me for directions, as well as a few fellow tourists! Success!

Anyway, after checking into my hostel, I discovered that I was actually being housed in another building the hostel owns, just around the corner. The clerk lead me over there, where I immediately dumped my bag and headed back to the train station to buy my "Roma Pass", the 23 Euro investment which would get me into the first two museums of my choice for free and then get me discounts all over town. I couldn't find the kiosk when I first came into Termini, possibly due to the fact that it is the most frustratingly organized, and yet huge, train station that I have ever been in. There are about 30 tracks, which is enormous, but, as one small example, I could only ever find one location of bathrooms, hidden clear out in the boonies by track 24--and in the basement. And they cost .80 cents to use, naturally.

So, let us just say that finding the tourism office where I could buy the Roma Pass was almost impossible. Here it was, my first afternoon in the city, and my feet were already steaming from walking around the train station. Around and around in circles, out to the parking lot, back inside, upstairs, downstairs, nowhere to be found. Eventually, I gave up and asked for directions at a ticket counter. The ferocity with which the man barked "Track 24!" at me clearly indicated that I wasn't the only one in the conversation wishing I could have just found that out from a fucking sign. Once at the Roma Pass desk, though, I had a happy little moment when the TV near them started playing an advertisement that used a snippet of the Edith Piaf song, "Tu Me Fais Tourner La TĂȘte", which happens to be my very favorite song of hers. I felt an immediate and intense longing to be home in Poitiers, as well as an irresistible urge to sing along. Happily, the girls sitting at the desk also burst into song, so I wasn't the only weirdo singing along to a tv commercial. Pass in hand, I limped my way out of the train station and back to my hostel, eyeing those cannoli in the window along the way. We would have our reckoning soon enough.

That night for dinner, I decided to play it safe and eat at the pizzeria across from the first hostel building. What a mistake. I mean...I knew better, but I didn't yet feel confident enough in my knowledge of the bus system to really head out into the city to less touristy areas. So, deep breath and in I went, table for one please. I was seated right by the kitchen, which is fine, but at a table that was almost on top of the French couple next to me. They were about as pleased to welcome me into their personal space as I was to be there. Still, this seating trick came in handy when the tourists started flocking in and the staff were able to shamelessly wedge people into every available nook and cranny. The waiter was of the charming variety that stands three feet from your table and glares at you until you indicate that you're ready to order. The pizza I randomly stabbed my finger at on the menu was serviceable, at best. So, spying a dish of grated Parmesan on a fellow diner's table, I had the inspiration to ask for some of my own. The waiter looked at me as though I had asked him to personally defecate in my lap. His upper lip curled back and he snarled, "Parmigiano??" in disbelief. He then looked down at my pizza, as if to verify that it hadn't morphed into some pasta dish which would actually warrant Parmesan. "Si!" I said, brightly, with a broad--and hopefully irritating--smile. With barely contained disgust, he returned with the Parmesan and tossed it onto the table. Unfortunately, it was about as flavorful as sawdust, giving my pizza no help whatsoever. Should have known...

The next day, Sunday, I had planned to go on a tour of Rome's famous fountains and such. This was inspired by the fact that one of their two subway lines more or less goes right by them. The Triton Fountain, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza del Popolo. It wasn't raining when I left the hostel, so I stupidly left my umbrella in my room. It was, naturally, raining by the time I got to the subway entrance, about a 10 minute walk away. Still, I was unconvinced that I would need an umbrella because it was just sprinkling, and in Poitiers, people try to avoid using umbrellas if at all possible. I don't know why, exactly, but I have adopted the habit. People here, however, pop open that umbrella at the first sign of a sprinkle. So, I became an instant target for all the Bangladeshi umbrella hawkers that were suddenly every 25 feet. I couldn't even escape them in the subway.

The metro was falling to bits, but I genuinely loved it. So simple. So easy. So relaxed. Utterly unlike Paris' sprawling madness. In Rome, people stroll through the hallways of the metro, quite casual about reaching the platform. In Paris, the people race through the Metro tunnels with such urgency of purpose that you soon find yourself wondering if there has perhaps been an outbreak of war or typhoid, and everyone is trying to get on the last train out of town. I unequivocally detest the Paris Metro. The Roman metro is so ruinous, and yet, so wonderful in its simplicity.

Once out of the Metro, I was immediately by the Triton fountain. In the drizzle, it wasn't much to behold. So, quickly on to the Trevi Fountain, with a stop for lunch at a small trattoria along the way. Had my first plate of bucatini all'amatriciana, a famous Roman pasta dish. The service was friendly (the first I'd had in Italy). As I came out into a more forceful rain, it quickly became evident that I would have to cave and buy an umbrella from one of the 200 men offering them to me. I bargained one guy down to 3 Euros for a small umbrella. Not a bad price for something that broke about 45 minutes later. I walked down the street toward the fountain, hearing it long before I saw it. I felt a child-like sense of anticipation at seeing my first "real" Roman attraction...something I had been looking forward to seeing for years. And wow. It did not disappoint. It's at the end of a side street, not in the middle of some grand piazza, so you really have the sense of just finding this stunning fountain in the middle of a random neighborhood. You and about 500 of your closest friends, because of course, every other tourist within a 5 mile radius is there to be dazzled, too. I stood around for quite awhile, gaping and taking the occasional photo, just absorbing the scene. Then it was time for me to do the inevitable coin toss over the shoulder and get a move on.

Next up--The Spanish Steps. In the rain. Blah. I couldn't have been less impressed if, well, if they'd just been a bunch of steps. In the rain. I took a few obligatory photos, and promised myself that I would return on a bright and sunny day, to sit on the steps and eat gelato while mocking my fellow tourists.

I then continued on to the Piazza del Popolo, which might have been interesting if I knew anything about it and the sun had been shining. But, being woefully ignorant of its history, and carrying about 3 pounds of rainwater on the lower half of my jean legs, I decided to just take a few pictures and head home.

Getting out of the Metro at my stop, I impulsively decided to pop into this shopping area called the Gallery something or other, in search of a towel. I didn't bring one with me (only have my backpack), and the other hostels I had stayed at either offered free towels or towel rentals. When I had asked at my hostel the night before, the vapid girl behind the desk managed to tear her eyes away from her Facebook page just long enough to tell me that she didn't know anything about towel rentals. Unfortunately, this Gallery place didn't have towels, but quite happily, they did have a fantastic pastry shop. I was unable to resist the lure of cannoli and other various sweets, eventually settling on one cannoli and one other Sicilian pastry that was like a giant puffy donut pouch filled with sweet orange flower custard. They wrapped it up all fancy for me, and then I promptly walked back to my hostel and devoured it like a savage. After taking some lovely photos, of course.

For dinner, I decided to eat near to home (my feet were ready to explode from walking all across the city), and ended up at the Rosticceria two doors down from my hostel. I had originally thought I'd get a roast chicken or something, but I ended up getting a pizza, two giant suppli (tomatoey rice balls, with mozzarella in the middle, rolled in crumbs and deep fried), and a wedge of cherry tart. For 9 Euros, not bad. What was a little odd was having to wait for this while being forced to make conversation with this guy who was standing in there drinking wine and chatting with everyone like he owned the place, which he patently did not. Tall, black, well-dressed, and with good English, I couldn't imagine what on earth he was doing in this dive of a place. Still, it was annoying that he wouldn't leave me alone to just wait for my pizza in peace. Instead, I had to hear about how this was the best cafe in town and how he knows the original guy from CSI. "The one with red hair!" When I said, "David Caruso?" he just said, "Who???" LOL Anyway, someone came in just as my order was up, so I was able to flee while he was momentarily distracted.

I ate at the hostel, and shared some wine with two of my roommates. Lilly and Szaby from Hungary. Their English was almost completely fluent, a product of having just spent a year living in Scotland. What is it with everyone wanting to live in Scotland?? ;-) Anyway, it was truly lovely to chat with them that night and this morning, as they were both very friendly and outgoing.

So, that takes us up through today, Monday. I'm afraid I just can't type anymore, and you probably want a break yourself! Today was very interesting, though...the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Vatican. What a fucking day. My feet are about ready to fall off. But, I did manage to finally get a towel (more on that next time), so I'm off to have the hottest shower of my life.

I hope all of you are well! Buona Sera!