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!

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