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!


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