Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is it Travel or Travail?

There’s no money we’ve spent, other than the dollars that paved the way for our children to go to college, which has provided more pleasure and imparted more wisdom than what we’ve devoted to travel. And the value returned by every dollar, euro, franc, drachma, deutsche mark, lira, pound, peseta, guilder and dirham exhausted is priceless. Some have questioned why I allocate so much of my earnings to seeing the world when the only tangible result is an overstuffed scrapbook. I have no answer other than, "I’m afflicted with a bad case of wanderlust and travel is the only effective antidote." How do I adequately explain that so much of what I reap from our travel is invisible to the eye: a deep connection to my partner, shared exploits, a sense of adventure, an enhanced understanding of the world, a link with those beyond our shores, a keener appreciation of home and tastes, smells, vistas and memories that will forever be with me.

As you might guess, trip planning and travel imagining are two of my favorite pastimes; even before we make it home from one journey, Joe and I are listing possibilities for where we’ll venture next. We’ve even found ourselves suggesting over the past months: Let’s do this, or let’s do that, on our next Gap Year, which likely won’t be until our working years are behind us. Yes, a rudimentary Gap Year Two list is already underway, should the need or opportunity arise. I know some who plot what they’ll do with their time off just a month or even weeks before they go, claiming they’re spontaneous and never quite know what vacation mood will hit them until their bags are practically packed. This travel approach would never work for me since so much of my pleasure derives from the planning, the research, the discussion, the anticipation of our next trip.

All that said, there have been days on this journey when I wish all the minutiae and logistical details would miraculously evaporate – that they would simply disappear overnight and take care of themselves. There's a reason the word "travel" is derived from the French travail, (work); travel, or perhaps I should say, extended travel, can take an awful lot of effort sometimes. I’ve never characterized our year away as a vacation, from the Latin vacare (to empty), because there’s a fundamental difference between vacationing and traveling; vacations involve getting away from it all and travel entails delving into a place that’s not home. The former is meant to be easy and the latter can be surprisingly hard.

We anchored our year and gave it some rudimentary form with a handful of key destinations tied to specific dates (Paris in September, skiing in northern Italy with the kids in mid-December, New Year’s at the Cavalieri in Rome, the Paris Marathon April 15 and the nine-day Tour du Mont Blanc hike at the end of June). The rest of our itinerary we’ve tackled in six-week slices, filling in the calendar as we go along. But while the flexibility can be liberating, allowing us to follow opportunities that arise (let’s grab that cheap fare and go to London for Christmas), gratify whims that won’t go away (I really must see Morocco) and as our travel moods prescribe (let’s go to Capri -- we’ve been amidst the grime of cities for too long), coloring in the details takes an extraordinary amount of time. Planning for our year would have been a very different effort without the miracle of the Internet. While determining the cheapest, fastest, best means to get where we want to go can take hours, the comparison-shopping capacity of Google is without rival. We often end up sliding down a rabbit hole of online research with little hope of escape, however, as we explore travel sites and chat rooms galore, each with its own advice of what is best. To what little town shall we venture; on what side of the town square are the killer views; in which albergo shall we stay or shall we rent an apartment; how should we get there -- rent a car take a bus or hop on the train; where are the best places to eat -- those where the locals eat; what shall we see and can we fit it all in? We do our best to heed our own advice to avoid travel misadventures. As we stressed with our children before they headed off on a month-long European backpacking trip to celebrate Chris’s college graduation, "Be sure to determine how you’ll leave a place the minute you arrive." Too many times on past travels, we found that the train/bus/ferry wasn’t running the day we’d envisioned departing, thereby requiring an immediate scramble to change our itinerary and adjust plans. Much better to know sooner rather than later as you stand forlorn and waiting on the departure platform, bags packed and arrangements awry.

We’ve Googled away many a day in Wi-Fi powered hotel lobbies, from breakfast until dinner, clarifying where we’ll go and what we’ll do for an imminent, yet still indistinct, six-week chunk of time. In most instances we enjoy such days, relaxing while we jump from site to site, sharing what we find and putting shape to upcoming days. I would certainly never characterize it as work, but it’s one thing to plan a two-week annual getaway and another to continuously plan moving around Europe as modern-day nomads for a year. And then there is our limited supply of warm-weather clothing... There are days when I yet again pull on my worn green REI hiking pants and dingy white long-sleeved tee and I have an almost uncontrollable urge to toss the all-too-familiar garments off the balcony into the dreary winter garden below. I yearn to, at least for a day, have a bella figura, dressed to the nines like the beautiful Italian women in oversized sunglasses, sporty woolen jackets, muted silk scarves and heeled leather boots. The gentle spring sun cannot come soon enough, not only because the warmth will be therapeutic, but the higher temperatures will allow me to dig into the other half of my suitcase -- the one with the sundresses and sandals and pastel chemises that I haven’t worn since last October’s balmy Dordogne sun.

We’re set with travel logistics through the 18th of March when we leave Italy for a jaunt through central Europe. Planning all the details for Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin and Amsterdam will come soon enough. But for now, we’ll simply enjoy the plans already in place and keep our fingers crossed for a warm southern sun and the commensurate change into the breezier clothes on the other side of the suitcase. No travel travail for now; we’re in southern Italy after all, land of relaxation and la bella vita. I’ll save the work for domani.

Pictures of our adventures:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Visit with Benedict

In the cavernous Paul VI Papal Audience Hall, we watched thousands of Catholics gone wild. There was shouting and singing, dancing and cheering, there were masks and costumes, coordinating hats and T-shirts -- and all before 11 o’clock in the morning. Our visit to Rome would not have been complete without attendance at a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI and so we joined him and 5,000 of his closest friends for an intimate get-together on a Wednesday morning.

The audience hall straddles the southern boundary between Rome and Vatican City just behind the colonnade to the left of St Peter’s Basilica. At full capacity, it holds 6,300 visitors in little wooden chairs bolted to its gently sloping floor but since it is the middle of February, definitely off-season in Rome, the immense hall was only about 80% full. We arrived well ahead of the Pope’s regularly scheduled 10:30 mid-week morning appearance and had plenty of time for quality people watching. There were hundreds of religious in the auditorium: priests in notched collars cheered like sports fans when they saw themselves on the Vatican JumboTron; nuns in navy, brown, gray, black, royal blue and white garb acted like teenagers awaiting the latest teen heartthrob; a large French youth group led by an enthusiastic young priest standing on one of the chairs repeatedly sang the equivalent of a fight song for le pape; dozens of adorable school children in matching yellow caps, most of them licking lollipops and missing their front teeth, chattered away in Italian behind us in anticipation; and, international journalists and long-lensed cameras filled the skyboxes that lined both sides of the great hall. The colorful Swiss guards stood watch in every corner and we were surprised to see them salute and not bow whenever a cardinal in a red zucchetto skullcap passed by. The anticipation of the Pontiff’s arrival was palpable and mounted to a collective restlessness as the appointed start time came and went. The crowd were like guests at a wedding waiting on tiptoes for the bride to appear as all eyes moved to the back of the hall as the expectation that the Pope would soon be coming down the wide center aisle continued to swell. I had attended a Papal audience with Pope Paul VI as a backpacker in 1977 and described to Joe many times how the Bishop of Rome had been carried in on an ornate crimson and gold tasseled throne and down through the mass of in awe spectators to the stage. We, and it appeared that most of the others in the auditorium with their necks craned to the rear, assumed that Pope Benedict would be making a similar entry. Everything is late in Rome, and so it seemed was the Papal Audience as the hour moved five, ten and then fifteen minutes past 10:30. The crowd was indeed getting fidgety and the noise level increased to a new high. I couldn’t help thinking that any minute the lights would go down, the music come up and the Pope would arrive in a blaze of NBA spotlighted glory as the Rock Star cometh. Certainly the audience of the faithful would have been happy with such a grand and celebrated entrance. Finally, at ten minutes to eleven, the lights actually brightened and from the left side of the stage Benedict XVI, in heavy cream vestments, zucchetto cap and ruby slippers, slowly walked, shuffled almost, to the center of the stage and into his Papal seat. The crowd went crazy and the program began.

First up were some opening remarks from the Bavarian Pope in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish – he read some versions himself and others were read by his multilingual staff; it was just like a visit to the United Nations in New York. Next up was a reading from Mark 15, again read in seven languages and then came the part of the program with a bit of the circus to it: the introduction of the many groups in attendance from countries around the world. Groups were announced by nation and each that had registered its presence had a moment in the sun; some simply waved, others hooted and hollered and yet others provided an emotional musical tribute to the Pope. The group from Verona was decked out in full Renaissance regalia – elaborate long-beaked bird masks, capes, ruffled, blousy shirts, tightly laced bodices and bejeweled crowns in anticipation of celebrating Carnivale later in the month. There was an entourage of Naples policemen all clad in their blue uniforms with shiny gold buttons and the sole group from the US hailed from Santa Barbara and sang a ballad to the Pope in Spanish. Between announcements of the various contingents, spontaneous chants of “¡Viva el Papa!” and “Vive le pape” erupted across the hall. The Pope acknowledged and waved back at each and every group of admirers. It was quite an interesting gathering, much more like a pep rally than a solemn assembly and I couldn’t help comparing it to a commencement ceremony with friends and families cheering, ringing bells and blowing horns as the name of each graduate is read aloud. As Maslow has taught us so well, we all have a need for affiliation – a sense of belonging to and fitting in with a group and the professor’s theory was in ample evidence as we observed the shared excitement of those traveling together to see il papa at the Vatican. Affiliation on steroids was alive and well and singing for the world to hear in the massive Papal Hall. The audience closed with a benediction for all in attendance and the program ended just over an hour after it had begun.

Our Papal blessing in place, it’s finally time to venture out from under what has become the comfort and familiarity of Rome to brave the wilds of the bottom half of the Italian peninsula – to experience the uniquely charming culture of il Mezzogiorno. Arrivederci, Roma -- it’s time to pack our bags, take the train to Naples and prepare for some southern adventure.

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Travelogue of Miles

Last night we watched Ben Hur and today I ran around the Circus Maximus. We’ve run a travelogue of miles on our journey so far: through the Louvre arches, on the bridges over the Seine, along the Canal du Midi in southwestern France, beside the beach in Barcelona, past the cathedral in Seville, amid the orange groves in the Algarve, above the Arno in Florence and now around the race track of Rome. How will I ever go back to running on a high school track with no magical sights to distract me? The Circus Maximus is now just an overgrown oval in the basin between the Palatine and Aventine hills and very little of its original marble grandeur remains. But as I jogged the sandy circuit I imagined the myriad chariot races that took place there, witnessed by cheering crowds of spectators when Rome was in its glory. The days of the city’s strategic importance may be over, but running past the abundant vestiges of when it was at its peak makes them hard to forget.

I’ve logged dozens of miles under the fluffy, towering, pini romani in the Villa Borghese gardens, our classy neighborhood park, passing by the locals walking arm in arm for their passeggiata, especially on Sunday afternoons. Leaving the gardens, I’ve made my way to the wide road that hugs the park’s winding perimeter down the hill to the Tiber. A six-mile paved trail below street level follows the river and while Rome isn’t Paris and the Tiber isn’t the Seine, it makes for a fascinating run. Because the streets are significantly above water level, many of the riverside sights are obscured from view. But the Isola Tiberina, the picturesque island of stately, ochre-toned villas that sits across from Trastevere in the Tiber, and the Castel Sant’Angelo just outside Vatican City, imperial mausoleum turned fortress and then Papal castle, do appear briefly to spice up the route.

A full month-and-a-half in Rome has allowed us the time to not only run past but also visit so many corners of the city: in its teeming center, along the less-congested periphery and in the lovely hills nearby.

   We explored Testaccio, a neighborhood just to the east of the Tiber, south of the Aventine Hill and home to a colossal mound of broken olive oil amphorae, now obscured by weeds and vines. Monte Testaccio, 220,000 square feet at its base, with a circumference of two-thirds of a mile and a height of 115 feet, was organized by the Roman Empire to clear the city of amphorae debris. It is nothing short of amazing to think that this ancient garbage heap, now surrounded by a vibrant neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants, has sat where it is for nearly two thousand years. Estimates put the number of broken terra cotta vessels in the mountain of fragments at over 50 million, which held 1.6 billion gallons of the precious liquid -- definitive evidence that Romans have long loved their beloved golden oil.

   We took an extended city bus ride to the decidedly postmodern EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), a stark residential and business district well to the south of the city center commissioned by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s as a tribute to twenty years of Fascism in Italy. Although World War II thwarted plans for a 1942 world’s fair, the sprawling complex was originally envisioned as the exhibition site. Much of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s 1960s classic black and white film starring Marcello Mastrioanni and Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg was shot in the EUR. While on the surface the location presented Rome as an ultra-modern, sophisticated hotbed of sex, parties and debauchery, the desolate cityscape was a perfect allegory for the shallow, detached existence of the film’s protagonist. The arched windows of the symmetrical Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, an icon of Fascist architecture, honors and echoes the curving lines of the Coliseum in a four-sided form, celebrates Italy’s many trades and industries and glorifies the importance of work. The austere, white architecture and the wide, geometrical street grid were particularly bleak the day we visited as one of Rome’s rare days of blinding sleet and snow soaked and chilled us to the core. We actually sought temporary refuge in a EUR McDonald’s to warm up with fast-food cappuccinos as all else was closed. The EUR is one of those spots I’m happy we visited but I can’t imagine we’ll ever return, unless of course it finally gets its chance to host a world’s fair in the future.

   We hiked up the Janiculum Hill rising behind Trastevere on the west bank of the Tiber on a glorious winter day. Although the second highest hill in the contemporary city, it’s not one of Rome’s proverbial seven hills since it was on the other side of the river outside the ancient city’s original boundaries. The Janiculum is home to the renowned American Academy in Rome, the Fontana dell'Acqua Paolo, a monumental baroque fountain built to celebrate the reopening of an ancient Trajan aqueduct, the American University of Rome, host of many study abroad programs and one of the best viewpoints for a stunning panoramic view over the countless domes, campanili and piazzas of the city.

   We followed the English literary trail and visited the pastel Keats-Shelley Memorial House on the edge of the Spanish Steps in which the young English poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821. Keats was buried in the small Protestant Cemetery of Rome, a peaceful, verdant spot, under a simple tombstone which reads: “This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone -- Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. The final line was all the poet wanted as his epitaph, but his close friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown who cared for him in his final days added the additional clarifying text. We lingered at the foot of his grave and felt Keats’ sorrow when he died, convinced that his writing had made no literary mark whatsoever. If only he had known... In sharp contrast to the writer’s modest resting place is one of the more quirky sights in Rome: a massive, out-of-place pyramid built into the Aurelian city walls. Looming next to the Protestant Cemetery at 118 feet tall and 97 feet wide, the circa 12 BC ashen marble monument houses the remains of Caius Cestius, a Roman magistrate known not for his achievements but his wealth. Undoubtedly the size of one’s tomb does not the man make.

   We wandered up the streets of the exclusive Aventine Hill and were rewarded with two incredible views not often seen by tourists: one magnificent and one in miniature. The first was a broad vista over the city from the Parco Savello, a walled garden of leafy orange trees that looks west over the Tiber towards Trastevere and Vatican City beyond. The next, through the Aventine Keyhole Gate down the street, was a perfect, oval view of St. Peter’s. What a delightful surprise to find the peaceful, deserted square, peep through the tiny opening of the locked gates of Santa Maria del Priorato, and discover the celebrated basilica perfectly framed like a Victorian cameo at the end of an alley of impeccably trimmed trees. Rome is filled with artistic treasures on a massive scale but the inspired vision that went into creating this flawless sightline was something special indeed.

   We walked several miles along the rutted Appian Way out of Rome, possibly the most historic thoroughfare in the world. One of the earliest and most prestigious roads of the ancient republic, the Via Appia Antica connected Rome to Brindisi on the Adriatic coast, the port in southeastern Italy that was and remains the maritime gateway to Greece and Egypt. We started our bumpy hike at the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, erected for the daughter of a wealthy Roman aristocrat, and made our way over a long stretch of the original broad paving stones now worn to a shine by the paces of thousands of Roman centurions and over two millennia of use. The aura of ancient history surrounded us as we strolled under the majestic cypresses so characteristic of the Roman countryside and made our way along the age-old road flanked by fallow fields dotted with ruins, temple fragments and tombs.

   We took the suburban train east to the medieval hill town of Tivoli, about 20 miles out of the city at the edge of the Sabina Hills, to see the lush Villa d’Este and the sprawling Villa Adriana. I had fond memories of making a solo trip to the former on my 1977 backpacking trip and was looking forward to sharing the Renaissance palazzo, its lovely terraced gardens, spectacular waterfalls and gushing fountains with Joe. But a joint visit will have to wait for another day, since upon arriving we learned that the Villa was closed due to ice and snow <sigh>. Not to be discouraged, we hopped on the first bus from the town square and headed to the Villa Adriana, Emperor Hadrian’s 300 acre complex, a winding four miles outside of town. The emperor was an architect with wanderlust who traveled to every corner of the vast Roman Empire, from Britain (where he built his famous wall), to Egypt, Jerusalem and Athens, and then embellished Rome with the Pantheon and his grandiose personal tomb (Castel Sant'Angelo). The Villa Adriana, his expansive country complex from which he oversaw all-things-Roman, was built at the height of the empire and allowed him to rule from outside, but still close enough to, the capital city. We wandered through the remains of the fascinating property dotted with pools and decorated with replicas of the structures the emperor had seen around the world and liked most. Hadrian’s Villa was the Roman version of Versailles built long before the Sun King arrived on the scene in France. We could only marvel at the extensive estate and imagine its heyday magnificence.

After a total of forty-four days of exploring la città eterna, we’re going to finally have to pull up stakes. On last Sunday’s long run, my breath visible in the chilly air but my workout clothes heavy with sweat, I passed the now familiar sweeping rooftop vista from the edge of the Borghese park. I then peeked down the narrow vicoli, the residential alleyways at the base of the Spanish Steps, catching glimpses of domestic Roman life as I ran by and realized just how much I’m going to miss this pulsing city. While its ancient sights have always fascinated me, this time they gently made their way under my skin as they became part of the fabric of our every day and opened my mind’s eye to the millennia they have been there. I found it easier than ever before to visualize the Pantheon, Coliseum, Imperial Forums and all the sundry fragments of walls, columns and friezes that dot the city landscape as they were when Rome was the center of the universe. I’ve always known I could live in Paris and now I know I could live in Rome. With so much yet to see (and so much yet to eat), I need to get moving to start my Sunday run. Where will it take me in this immortal city today?

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chaos Thy Name is Rome

After just a few days in Rome, we recognized that rules, regulations and directive signage mean little. There are the police barriers that no one observes; double-parked vehicles that line almost every street – the owners of the trapped cars leaning on their horns until the double-parkers appear and move the offending vehicles; motorini, the omnipresent motorbikes, zip up onto sidewalks when convenient; and signs in banks and theaters that attempt to direct how lines should be formed are simply ignored. A simple “scusi” or “permiso” appears to be a license to cut in line, especially if one is an elder. The senior generation is a brave lot here in Rome, commandeering your seat on the bus even before you have a chance to offer it, jay walking across busy streets as traffic obediently halts in response to an outstretched arm and making their way with a permiso to the front of the pack that passes for a line at a retailer. Many of the women are clad in fur (the animal rights movement has clearly not yet reached the elder generation in Rome, nor, as a matter of fact has it gotten through to the younger set either) and the men are always dressed properly in a long wool coat and hat.

Walking amidst the helter-skelter of Roman traffic can be an interesting and often dangerous undertaking. The blasé attitude of pedestrians makes matters even worse as they weave in, out and around the obstacles, seemingly oblivious to the potential perils. They also tend to stop when and where they want, mid-sidewalk, and always on a cell phone, even if they block a tight sidewalk as other pedestrians attempt to pass by. “The oblivious Romans,” we like to call them. We’ve found that it takes a fierce level of concentration to make our way around the streets, especially during the evening rush hour when every square centimeter of space is clogged with traffic -- it engorges the streets and chokes every intersection, both large and small. It can be nearly impossible to simply cross the street as cars are parked as tightly as sardines along every curb, even through the crosswalks, with no wiggle room between them. Squat smart cars are parked sideways along the street, their rear tires snug against the curb and their bumpers extending over the sidewalk, squeezed into impossibly tiny spaces. We once had the privilege of being passengers on a bus that got stuck across an intersection, unable to make a left because cars parked illegally and all askew on every corner just wouldn’t allow the geometry of the turning vehicle to work. We sat on the bus for fifteen minutes, chuckling at the craziness and listening to the blaring horns of the cars piling up behind us until the driver of one of the cars on the far corner finally materialized, sped away with no visible sign of remorse and allowed us to pass on through.

Roman retailers’ opening hours are flexible and subject to interpretation no matter what the signs indicate, but closing times are sacrosanct. Come 1pm, for example, the appointed time for the daily lunch hour, the door will be barred, shut in your face, and you’ll be told to come back later, per favore, the risk of losing a sale much less important than the imminent enjoyment of a meal. I headed for the Poste Italiane to mail some postcards last week and arrived at 1:37pm. Much to my surprise, a big yellow sign on the door said Chiuso – 1:35PM. Who closes at one thirty-five? Apparently this particular, very-busy branch of the Poste Italiane, whose normal daily hours are limited to 9am to 1:35pm. The following day, I left our studio at 12:30pm, in plenty of time to reach the post office on what I thought would be a routine errand. However, en route, a renegade motorino whizzed by me so closely that it drove me into the ever-present bright orange plastic netting that ropes off so much of the Roman sidewalk (although no repairs ever seem to be in progress behind it). The netting grabbed the button at the end of my sleeve and proceeded to snap it off as I walked forward, which in turn tore the sleeve of my raincoat. I watched my black button spiral behind the netting, roll along the pavement and drop through a grate. My tattered sleeve hanging, I pushed through the throng of smoking teens shrouded in a noxious cloud of smoke during their lunch break outside their high school next to the Poste.

When I finally arrived at my destination, the place was mobbed with no hint of anything resembling a line. There were six cashiers operating and it took me some time to get my bearings, negotiate the melee and realize that I had to grab a number from the dispenser in order to be served. At the far end of the room, a big screen TV mounted on the wall but tilted such that it was close to facing the floor indicated which cashiers were serving which numbers. I jostled for a position right under the screen in order to actually be able to read it and after 15 minutes my number finally came up at cassa #4. I obediently approached the designated cashier but he continued to serve another customer and waved me away: “Go to the next cassa and he’ll help you.” My ear has become attuned to basic Italian and so, although puzzled at why my number had come up if my cashier wasn’t ready for me, I followed his directions and patiently waited in front of cassa #3 to my left while he finished taking care of his current patron. It was at long last my turn but as I approached the clerk, an elderly woman appeared from nowhere and slipped in front of me, shoulders draped and head covered in mink and forcefully asserted, “scusi, permiso.” “Where’s your number, Signora?” I wanted to bark at Ms. Entitled, but held myself in check. After another ten minutes and just before the 1:35pm closing, I finally had my long-awaited audience with a postal clerk. I headed back to our apartment, smelling of smoke and clutching my ragged sleeve. Who knew mailing four postcards would take two trips to the Poste and be such a drawn out, treacherous mission?

On a sunny but brisk Saturday morning, we decided to escape the craziness of the Roman streets and head out of town. We settled on Frascati, home of the eponymous white wine we learned to appreciate on a backpacking trip to Rome with our kids in 1999 and located in the Castelli Romani, the hilly wine-producing area about 15 miles to the southeast. Arriving at the Termini with plenty of time to spare, we were happy to see that our train was already in the station waiting on the track and so we climbed aboard. We settled in but were curious about why no one else was in the car: we had understood that Frascati was a popular weekend get-away, but then again, we were early. Finally two teenagers joined us and we relaxed, enjoying the sounds of their enthusiastic chatter. Five minutes before departure time, a friend of our fellow passengers jumped aboard and excitedly exclaimed in Italian, “It’s not this train, it’s the one ahead of this.” Along with the teens, we grabbed our coats and backpacks and joined the others flying down the platform past about six cars to reach the train that would actually be heading to Frascati. There had been no indication anywhere that there were actually two trains on the track and not just one long one and that it was the second train that was heading to our destination and not the first one that was parked all the way in the station. We hopped onto the train just before it departed, astonished that we’d actually made it aboard in time. Had we actually been naive enough to think that taking the train out of the city would allow us to dodge the chaos that is Rome?

Pictures of our adventures:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Super Bowl Sunday and Snow

Rome hadn't seen more than a smattering of flurries in 25 years and it had no idea what to do when four inches of snow fell last week. The city skidded to a standstill for about 4 days -- a full day for every fluffy inch. We witnessed the gridlock in the streets, waited for busses that never came and imagined Vespas veering off the Via Veneto as they careened down the winding hill. As kids will do the world over, Italian children giggled while catching snowflakes on their tongues and leaned out of apartment windows, arms outstretched, marveling at the sight of their first real snowfall. Snowmen with olive eyes, carrot noses and pasta smiles appeared on corners next to blackboard trattoria menus on sidewalks transformed into seas of umbrellas. The Villa Borghese took a brutal beating with pine, cedar and giant magnolia branches bent to the ground under the unaccustomed heavy weight of sleet and snow. The park was strewn with broken branches and paths were blocked by upended trees and snapped limbs. Nighttime temperatures plummeted to the 30s so when heading out in the evenings, we now wear our warmest apparel. While we wisely packed in layers, we each have only one supremely warm fleece or angora and so these have become our obligatory everyday uniforms.

Two days after the momentous snowfall, we donned our cold weather attire and headed for The Scholar’s Lounge to watch Joe’s beloved NY Giants take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Just off the hub of Piazza Venezia, Scholar’s is Rome’s most popular Irish sports pub among American study-abroad students; it serves hearty pub grub, broadcasts all the world’s major sporting events and is just across the Tiber from Trastevere, home to many US university programs. We arrived at 9:30pm, a full three hours before the 12:30am kick off and still only managed to secure one bar stool for the two of us. Ninety percent of the crowd was under 25 years old and we were two of the very few over 50. I hadn’t been in close contact with so many 21 year olds in a very long time (nor, for that matter, in a bar bathroom with an over-served coed losing her lunch)! We met two energetic young women from the University of MD (one from Smithtown, our NY hometown) and attempted to chat over the deafening music with several lovely girls from Boston College whose Claddagh rings, highlighted hair, crew-neck sweaters and perfect teeth gave them away as being from an elite New England school. There’s a palpable energy in a room filled with Americans, especially those eagerly awaiting the start of a major sporting event and lifting their glasses with the steady cadence of a college crew team. It’s difficult to describe the sense of camaraderie that filled the place as all erupted in the singing of “Sweet Caroline,” special for us for obvious, heartfelt reasons. But then came the musical highlight of the evening: all in Scholar’s, Giants and Patriots fans alike, enthusiastically belted out The Star Spangled Banner along with Kelly Clarkson. Singing our national anthem so far from home in a bar filled with homesick American expats was an emotional experience we’ll never forget.

The whole night was terrific and our resolute support for our team was rewarded with a come-from-behind Giants win. Great game, great people, great music, great drinks... terrific time. We had fun walking through slushy 4:30 am Rome, exhausted but still reveling in the G-men and their victory, to catch an early morning bus back to our apartment. We spent the next two days sleeping even later than usual and recovering from the revelry of our Super Bowl all-nighter. What fun it was to be college kids again.

Pictures of our adventures:

Hibernation Time

It’s such a luxury to be awakened by the sun and not an alarm, knowing that there’s absolutely nothing we must do that day. After 33 years of an alarm clock, a baby’s cry or a child jumping in our bed to start our mornings, it’s taken us some time to get used to the freedom of being reprobates with loose agendas. But we’ve taken our languid days to a new level in our relaxing apartment in Rome. We’ve decided to follow nature by hibernating for the heart of the winter, moving slowly in the Eternal City where we’re perpetually resting up and taking it easy for adventures yet to come.

It’s been nice to set aside the rigors of travel for a while and we’ve spent many a day simply rising late; having a leisurely breakfast in our cozy studio; listening at noon to what we’ve started calling “Afternoon Edition” on NPR (our television broadcasts the audio); catching up on emails, blogging and our journals; finishing those classic novels we promised we’d read while abroad; and then enjoying warm cups of afternoon tea. Many hours of these lazy days have been spent planning our itinerary and reserving trains and hotels for the peripatetic weeks in southern Italy that will follow our stay in Rome. We’re just so pleased for now to be in one place for a month with no planes, trains, automobiles or baggage dragging to worry about. When we imagined our year away, we more or less brushed over the winter months, knowing we would be in Italy but not really focusing on the potential reality of the cold. But now that we’re here, in the company of a reluctant sun and an unusual cold snap for this part of Italy, we’ve decided to simply hunker down for the winter with our most difficult decision each day being whether to eat in or go out. Interspersed with our warm days inside are those where we’ve forced ourselves to don our hats, scarves and gloves and braved the chill to discover the nooks and crannies of Rome often overlooked by those with limited time in this sprawling city. It truly is a glorious insalata mista of a metropolis since it’s been here for so very long and offers sights from almost every century of the past three millennia.

Our rental is on Via Flavia, not far from the American Embassy on Via Veneto and just inside the city walls near the gardens of the Villa Borghese. It’s a spacious studio on the top floor of a five-story building with a red-tiled terrace that provides plenty of natural light and a place to hang our laundry. In an unusual twist, we reach our apartment through the lobby of the Hotel Medici and take the elevator to the privately owned 5th floor residences. Different, yes, but it’s awfully nice to have 24-hour security guarding the building’s entrance and someone at the front desk to greet us with buon giorno and ciao as we pass by. Somewhat off the tourist track, our neighborhood is quiet and safe since embassies and Italian government buildings surround us. It’s also filled with homey restaurants and we've been diligently working our way through them. Thank goodness we’ve also been conscientious about our marathon training because we’ve consumed a hefty amount of hearty pasta of all shapes and sizes, some of which we’d never had before: spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghettoni, gnocchi, bucatini, bavette, capellini, cavatappi, tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelle, pappardelle, penne, lasagne, linguini and my all-time favorite, strozzapreti. Just listing them broadens my hips but at least I’ve managed to satisfy any sweet cravings with Limoncello nightcaps -- not quite as creamy and luscious as tiramisu but with a whole lot fewer calories. Having the beautifully shaded and classy Villa Borghese nearby for our runs has been a godsend for burning off the extra carbs.

Our Roman pied-à-terre is indeed convenient, comfortably cozy and the Internet is rock solid, but what we actually love best about the place is Stefano, our amusingly charming landlord. Without him, the apartment would be just another worn-around-the-edges place to stay, but with him it’s been a memorable, and continually comic, experience. Stefano is a 50-something composer of movie scores (he did Tea with Mussolini), teaches at the university in Perugia once a week and although he lives nearby, spends most of his time with his girlfriend who lives in another of the 5th floor apartments. He’s tall and handsome in a rumpled, absent-minded professor kind of way, speaks quirky English with a lovely Italian accent and apologizes repeatedly that he’s a musician and not a very good businessman. Our initial taste of what renting from Stefano would be like came before we even checked in. He readily and graciously agreed to store our large duffels for five days while we traveled with our small bags to Florence with Jeff and Stacey, but he needed to “request a favor.” He had lost his wallet the day before and asked if it would be possible for us to pay the balance of our rent in cash when we dropped off our luggage. “No problem,” we agreed, “happy to help.” (Little did we know that in the ensuing weeks, Stefano would lose not only his wallet but also his phone, TV remote, computer power cord and keys!)

When we arrived on the first day of our month’s stay, Stefano apologized for the less-than-stellar condition of the television (we saw no problem), clothes washer (he claimed it leaked) and refrigerator (definitely on its last legs and barely staying cool) and promised to replace them all within the week. Ten days passed and while we heard all about Stefano’s lost items (he had to borrow the portable phone from our apartment when he lost his cell), there was no mention of any new appliances. When we finally broke the sad news to him that the old fridge really was on the verge of collapse, he apologized profusely and came right over to take some measurements for a replacement. We headed out for the day and when we returned, found the freezer open and defrosting and a note that our food was in a fridge in a closet across the hall. He added that he hoped we didn’t mind that he’d put a load of clothes in the leaking washer and had borrowed some of our laundry soap. What could we do but laugh? Stefano stopped by the next morning to pick up his wash and inform us that the new fridge had indeed been ordered. “I have chosen the quickest delivery -- 48 hours -- but do not forget that we are in Italy, so we really do hope for 48 hours!” Two more days passed with no new appliances. Every morning Stefano knocked on our door to express how embarrassed and discouraged he was about the appliance merchant he’d selected. When I attempted to ease his frustration by asking him not to worry, he responded by cooing, “Marianne, you are so gentle; thank you for being so gentle to me,” (the English false friend of the Italian gentile, meaning kind). With each morning visit came a piccolo request. First, he asked to borrow one of our Mac power cords because, of course, he had lost his. His computer was out of juice and he needed to check on the progress of the delivery online. The next morning when we greeted Stefano, he asked to rifle through the bottom drawer of the apartment’s sideboard to try to find an extra TV remote control; his girlfriend had misplaced hers (or perhaps it was he?). “You rented my apartment for your holiday in Rome and all you see is my face,” he lamented. On the third morning Stefano declared, “Definitely tomorrow – the new machines will definitely arrive on Friday.” But then it snowed and all of Rome came to a standstill including the delivery truck with our shiny new appliances. After yet a few more days, we had a knock at our door late in the afternoon and there stood an ebullient Stefano with a new fridge, TV and washing machine in the hallway. We set aside our plan to eat in and decided to leave Stefano and the long-awaited machinery by themselves while we set out to find ourselves dinner. When we returned later that evening, two of the three appliances were in order: the new television hung on the wall and the new refrigerator hummed away snug in its place but the new washer was noisily dancing across the bathroom’s white tile floor and just as we arrived, banged against the far wall as yet another load of Stefano’s laundry steadily spun in the machine.

Ah, Stefano – you are a delight to deal with and thanks to you, Italy continues to be a funny place that always manages to make us laugh. What will your knock on our door tomorrow morning bring?

Pictures of our adventures: