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I promised a little while ago that I would be writing about my recent travels, and since I’ve already done a piece on London and Paris last summer, I thought some readers might like a Saturday night sojourn to Rome.
This trip did not begin in the most auspicious of ways. While it was a 6 am flight out of Gatwick, I needed to board a train there from my university city by 1 am in order to leave my luggage in storage, collect my boarding pass, and get through security. And if 1 am train rides, when I hadn’t actually slept, weren’t enough fun, I also got to contend with an incoherent, screaming vagrant boarding at one of the stops jumping straight into my empty carriage. Living in a city for two years teaches you to not blink an eye at things that would shock you in a small town. Screaming Scottish man with a beer belly in a fishnet dress and pumps, carrying a Stella Artois; well, it is Friday.
Security generally doesn’t present a problem (unless they spot my Russian visa), despite the fact that my passport photo makes me appear to be recently captured (and possibly dosed on psychedelics) Sadam Hussein, but I made the mistake of leaving an Arabic language children’s book in my carry on. “I promise, it’s just a story about butterflies, really.” My bag was scanned again.
As 6 am flights go, mine wasn’t bad. I had entered some kind of transcendental meditative state because I am incapable of actually sleeping on planes when I felt someone gently batting my hand. A very polite Frenchman asking if he might take a picture of my Bernard Lewis book because it looked interesting. Sure (on the scale of requests from random men in public places, that wins for most anodyne).
My major source of anxiety, once reaching Leonardo DaVinci Airport, was to find my cab driver. As a general rule, I try to take the train where I can in Europe, or navigate the public transport system, but my AirB&B host had offered to send a taxi for a reasonable price, and I was welcoming of the opportunity to get straight to where I was staying in the centre of Rome and waste as little time as possible.
“Good morning Olivia i am Driver” ran the banner across my phone. Once I navigated past passport control, I was greeted by Andrea, a 60 something Italian in a well-tailored long coat who took my bags and smilingly inquired of where I came from while we headed out. On our way to the car, he paused for the obligatory lighting of a cigarette, and then we proceeded. It had four wheels and looked reasonably functional, even if a lot of the floor’s upholstery was mysteriously torn up, so I was happy enough to get in and start our journey, while he had what I hoped was a friendly argument with some kind of parking attendant.
As a rule, I don’t frighten terribly easily. Plane turbulence doesn’t tend to bother me, I’m well acquainted with taking a punch to the face, and I can travel alone with little fear. Andrea’s driving terrified me. With the exception of my week in Russia, I have never been more scared to be in a car. At first, everything seemed fairly standard. He continued to smoke happily with the windows closed, and after some slow-moving, we began to merge onto a highway. With a remarkable lack of caution. I don’t speak Italian, but whatever that angry truck driver shouted out of his window, along with the about 30 seconds he stood on his horn, did not sound kind.
I was willing to forgive this. Sometimes merging onto a highway is a challenge. Turns out that the entire concept of driving, at least driving like the aim wasn’t to have the highest body count humanly possible, was for Andrea. We were approaching what I think was the Spanish Steps, and there was, as one would expect, a multi-lane traffic light, with a red light for our lane. Naturally, we barreled down the hill, across three converging lanes of traffic, four pedestrian intersections, and some kind of bike lane. At that point, I was watching my chances of survival plummet before my eyes.
Roman streets are, as one would think, quite narrow and only made worse by people parking their vehicles along them, and as we cut through a more residential area of the city, my friendly cabby took about as much notice of this as his actions up to this point would indicate. We simultaneously beeped at and sped past a delivery truck on a tree lined two way street with incredibly narrow lanes, and, reemerging again into a more pedestrian heavy portion of Rome, continued at full speed towards an old man crossing the street on a green that had only happened halfway through our journey. He yelled, Andrea yelled back, interrupting his very conversational patter with me, and then turned with a fondly exasperated smile to say “I think that sometimes people here, they want to die.”
Ok, I thought, I get what this is. This man isn’t a taxi driver at all, he’s a mob assassin hired to take out his targets with vehicular homicide, and we’re going to get caught, because nothing about this is subtle, and then I’m going to get to spend the rest of my vacation in an Italian police station, explaining that I am part of neither the Russian nor the Italian mafia, and really seignor, I didn’t want to kill that old man. Well, it’s a way to go.
By what I can only presume was a miracle, we reached my destination in Sallustiano in one piece and paid Andrea for the pleasure of one of the single most frightening experiences of my life. The joy of this was compounded by the fact that I had caught a cold from one of my lovely Russian teachers, who never fails to get me sick, and by this point, I could barely breathe and was concerned I was going to develop pneumonia. I did not care. I hadn’t slept more than 5 hours a night, had a day free of schoolwork or extracurriculars, or not spoken Russian for three months, and if enjoying myself killed me, so be it.
The moment I stepped outside, it began to rain, like the almighty himself was conspiring against me. However, Rome on December 13th was a balmy 60 compared to drizzly England’s 31, and you probably could have gotten me to go out in a bathing suit without complaint. (Yes, I was that 6-year-old who’s dad let her run around in snowbanks in a one-piece in the middle of a Massachusetts winter, which probably explains something about the way I am now). When I travel with others, I always try to have a solid game plan, good backups, and everything planned down to a half-hour. Alone, I’m more inclined to pick a few things that I want to do every day and enjoy where the spirit, and my naturally lackluster sense of direction, takes me.
Knowing that I probably would only make it to five that night feeling so miserable, I opted to keep things simple. I strolled happily from Trevi Fountain to the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps and then to the Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco. The general pattern, when I travel, is to take one set of pictures to keep and one for WhatsApp (dad and my friends), so that everyone knows that I’m alive and can see where I am when they want. My dad has pictures of Heinz Ketchup in Russia, every inlaid door and floor in the Hermitage (he’s a cabinet maker), me leaning out of the window of a castle in Austria, and two friends and I dolled up to go to a Michelin star restaurant in Paris, among many others and refuses to delete any one of them (in fact he figured out how to transfer pics from his phone to the computer just so he could save them), so I feel obligated to take as many neat and funny pictures as I can. And I know he feels better when I travel alone, having updates every few hours. Feeling cliche and quite sick, I retired to my hotel room with a baby tub of gelato, a sleeve of rice cakes, a psychedelic shower, and The Godfather.
Public transportation has a great reputation in Europe for Americans, sometimes deserved and sometimes not, but I opted to avoid it on my journey through Rome. If I wasn’t obligated to be anywhere at a certain time or meet anyone, I was going to walk as much as I pleased, which turned out to be 50k steps. I began my day at the Pantheon, trying to artfully dodge Arab trinket sellers (I’m much better at souk negotiation in Hebrew than Arabic, much to the consternation of my Arabic instructor), and made a game plan from there for where I needed to stop to buy Christmas gifts. Looking back, it’s a minor miracle that the Italian border police let me carry on a backpack with foil-wrapped espresso, at least 4 different glass bottles of alcohol (or booze, as my dad so tactfully puts it), high end colored pencils and a sharpener, a bunch of chocolate bars, and a silk tie with a few different tie pins.
From the Pantheon, I made my way through various ruins dotted throughout the city, and then a few miles to one of the ancient baths of imperial times. I parked myself on a low wall, watching the sun reach its peak in the sky, a few busloads of unhappy school children herded grumblingly into the complex, and Vespas and sports car speed by on the road below, with no particular feeling of a need to move. Why get up and spoil the view? Eventually, I found the strength of will to buy a sleeve of roasted chestnuts made by an elderly gentleman at the base of the baths, and visit a few more museums and art galleries. With a liberal amount of ‘talk by pointing’, I managed to purchase a box of homemade pizza and a soda to take back to my room and sat in the large window looking into a shared courtyard. While I had brought a dress so that I could go out for a drink and maybe to dance, I was felled, especially after so much walking, by illness and ended up spending most of the night working on a project due the next week and drifting in and out of consciousness.
Although I was disappointed by my inability to enjoy some of the nightlife (I had opted, with my female friends, out of clubbing with the boys from our class in Russia because of some already very unpleasant male interactions, so I hadn’t had as much opportunity to sample as I might have liked), I was determined to make my last day meaningful. It was a Sunday, so naturally, even if I had a less than sunny view of Pope Francis, it was time to get a blessing in Vatican City. Having dealt with French riot police, the Italian police and military and a quick run through metal detectors felt like getting off easy, and I will admit as a Catholic it was quite magical to see the Vatican in the flesh. Especially after having lived for two years in a country where I was a majority, having come from very Catholic Massachusetts, it felt revitalizing and comforting to be there, and even to receive a blessing with so many other faithful. My dad still made the obligatory jokes over text, but I was a lovely, floaty kind of happy and almost missed 6’3”, 65-year-old man in a jean mini skirt and stilettos playing the accordion outside of the square. Living in a city does that to you.
The rest of the day I was content to wander, and I even put in my headphones that night to listen to Via Veneto by Dean Martin while I walked along the Tiber on my way back, and grabbed a small limoncello gelato to enjoy along my way.
Bright and early, though not quite chipper, I went to meet my taxi driver the next morning at 5:45. We took the scenic route back through the city, speeding passed the colosseum and a handful of other monuments lit brilliantly against the dark morning sky, and turned onto the highway to return to the airport, with relatively less danger (and few cars) then there had been on the way in. Exiting the eternal city in that way was as cliche as any movie, but also just as magical.