Sunday, May 30, 2010

Firenze


Today Italy and I bonded - I no longer felt threatened by the language barrier or the uncertainly of it all, at least temporarily. I felt emboldened and very (!!!) uncharacteristically relaxed and spontaneous, I got up in time to sit on the ptio of my wonderful new hotel room and watch the sun rise while I read my guidebook to pick a destination for a day of adventure. I picked Florence.

I have to take a moment to say grazie mille to all the people who looked at me like I was crazy when I said I was going to Tuscany without visiting Florence (but not to those who look at me like I'm crazy for other reasons). Florence is a lovely city and, though I prefer Rome, I am very, very glad that I spent time there.

The best thing about my trip was my travel companions. I keep meeting the most delightful people and today was no exception - as I left the hotel and climbed aboard the bus to the train station, I started chatting with two girls who had been in Cortona for the boring conference (on microbiology, as it turns out, not mathematics). They're ph.d students but are anything but boring - we laughed a lot today. One was from Thailand, the other from London though she'd been born in Afghanistan. We did a whirlwind tour of Florence, skipping most of the tourist sights (sorry, David! Hopefully you'll still be posing au naturel the next time I come visit) when we all fell in love with the Piazale Michelangelo and its amazing views of the city. Apart from a visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, we spent all our time looking over the city. We took buses to save time (they had a plane to catch; I just wanted to get back to the beautiful balcony at my hotel in Cortona), but got to see a lot of the city that way. Armed with a cheesy but pretty painting of Florence, I returned to relaxation in Cortona.

I love the evenings here - somehow it's even better than sunset at Pacific Beach. Not only does everyone stop their work or studies, but they all begin to mill around. Traffic stops driving on the flat street (it's actually called that because yes, there's only one in this otherwise steep hill town), and everyone lingers in the streets or sits in the sidewalk cafes to watch those walking by. Shop owners leave their stores to talk to neighbors or buy an ice cream next door (or both!), leaving their stores open. Sometimes they put up a sign to let you know they'll be back; other times, you must go in search of the owner down the street in order to pay for something. It's amazing - the trust of humanity makes Cortona seem like you've traveled back in time even more than the Roman roads or Etruscan walls do. The town's people assume that people are the best we can expect them to be, and I love it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

La Dolce Vita


"La dolce vita" is a phrase I've heard several times today, as tourists and Cortona residents alike take time to unwind and catch up on a lazy Saturday. It was Market Day today and, because I seem to be the only tourist who emerges before 10 a.m., I got to shop with Italians. Intimidating, but with every conversation I get a little more confident in my ability to communicate. Not because my Italian is improving quickly, unfortunately, but because a little goes a long way when you can also eloquently speak Hand Gestures. No matter how many times I try to remember numbers in Italian, I forget as soon as I need them. But even the Great Number Block didn't hinder my ability to shop, since ten fingers work to illustrate costs of items in any language! I'll spare you details, but I did buy some beautiful new clothes that may or may not fit in my new suitcase.

I'm fitting into life in Cortona, mainly due to the fact that these are incredibly friendly people. My Denver friends tease me because every time we walk through town people say hello to me - it's pretty amazing! The people who work at my hotel, the waitress who served me the first night here, the girl from the shop where I bought postcards, the owner of the art gallery on Via Nationale - they all say hello and remember me when pass in the street. It may mean that I made some terrible cultural or linguistic faux pas that burned my face into their memory, but whatever the reason, I love it.

I keep adding new waiters to my list of aquaintences, too. My hotel in Cortona costs half as much as my home in Rome did, so I've been eating like a king. (And no, I don't mean "queen" since I think they got royally ripped off most of the time...and yes, pun was intented!) I began at a lovely restaurante on one of Cortona's side streets, where I finally got a taste of carciofi, the famous Italian artichokes. They were worth the wait, despite the fact that the ratio of artichokes to gnocci was high on the gnocci and low on the carciofi. I also ordered grilled potatoes with rosemary...and didn't realize until it arrived that I'd basically ordered Tuscan french fries without realizing it. Old habits die hard...but it was delicious. I've also managed to consume bruschetta (messy but heavenly) and absolutely the best ravioli I've ever had in my life.

One of my favorite things about Cortona is the flowers. They glow from everywhere: windows, hillsides, tables, streets...they seem to love life here very much. It's especially appreciated because - while I didn't want to dwell on this while in Rome - the flowers on my hotel patio there were fake. And not the high-quality, looks-almost-like-it's-real kind of fake - these would have been bought at Wal-Mart if there were Wal-Marts in Rome (thank God there aren't!). But the flowers here are deliciously real, with the exception of some nice, not-bought-at-Wal-Mart fake sunflowers occasionally featured in front of stores or - my favorite - on the balcony of a local real estate agent. Portions of Under the Tuscan Sun were filmed from that balcony which, I think, is a source of pride - even for those who were frustrated with the outrageous changes Hollywood made to their town for no apparent reason (i.e., adding a big fountain in the center of town).

I spend a lot of time wondering how the long-term residents feel about all of the stranieri (foreigners) visiting their town. Until not too long ago, the town had few visitors, but then the invasion started - in large part due to Frances Mayes' brilliant descriptions of the town and Diane Lane's not-as-brilliant portrayal of a completely different story of the same name (Mayes' real story was, apparently, lacking in drama and irresponsible affairs with young Italian men). Everyone seems happy to have the tourists, though...except for one house that had multiple "no trespassing" and "beware of the dog" signs on the gates. Now there's someone who doesn't enjoy camera-laden strangers on the street, no matter how appreciative those tourists may be.

There are certainly lots of tourists here, but they're not all American (I avoid using "we're" since I refuse to think of myself as a tourist even though I am and I've got the camera to prove it). I've met several people from Australia, heard a few conversations in French, and tripped over an entire tour bus of Germans. In my hotel, however, The Americans have invaded. There was a conference here for those studying some specific topic - "mathematics, or something equally as boring," in the words of my delightful but sarcastic concierge. Yesterday, an enormous tour group arrived and, when they return from their daily excursions throughout Tuscany, the hallways echo with their conversations. I work very hard to distance myself from the large groups - they're slightly annoying by American standards, but the concierge thinks they're really crazy because they get up at the break of dawn and then launch into their tours before most Cortona residents have had their first caffe. I greet them in Italian when I encounter them - I'm certainly not going to be mistaken for a real Italian, but at least they'll know I'm not a member of their Nametag Gang. (That sarcasm is for you, Grammie!)

I have, however, befriended the tour guide - a British man who is funny enough to be a character out of Jeeves and Wooster. He's very tall, which I imagine must be an advantage when your job requires dozens of people to see and follow you. This morning, Mr. Guide (his real name is Mick) gave me perfect directions to walk to Cortona's literary mecca: Frances Mayes' house, Bramasole - and he didn't even make fun of me for being enthusiastic about it. (It was even more beautiful than I'd imagined, by the way, but looked very much like I thought it would - a testament to her writing ability!). I confessed that tour groups make me nautious - something he seemed to accept and understand. We sneak in bits of conversation when his lemmings are focused on their own tasks, and he just smuggled me some of the food served for his clients when I was sitting out on the patio. I'm fascinated by his job and we both share a distaste for the snide tone of Too Much Tuscan Sun, written by another Tuscan tour guide. I would be first in line to read Mick's stories, should he ever choose to write them.

I've tuned out the buzz of English conversation coming from the tour's dinner next door, though it's comforting to have so much nearby conversation that I can understand. I spend hours like this, on the hotel patio gazing across Tuscany. There are mountains rising behind mountains, and layer upon layer of scenery that stretches beyond where the eye can see. The details sharpen my vision if I stare longer and longer across the vast countryside - it's as if the landscape becomes an optometrist's vision chart. There at the edge of town is the equivalent of the oversized "E"; keep searching, straining to see the small "print" far into Umbria, in the mountains behind the lake. I don't get a free bottle of contact solution from this visit, but I have the more valuable reward of noticing a tree-lined street miles away that I didn't see this morning.

Friday, May 28, 2010

La Cortona Bella


As I'm writing this, I'm sitting almost at the top of Cortona (it looks like the absolutely highest point is inside a museum on the hill behind me, so eventually I'll make it in there!). My view includes the roof and towers of Santa Margherita, the church of the patron saint of Cortona, and miles and miles of the Tuscan valley below. My bench is what appears to be a stone from the Etruscan times (they build walls and dwelled in this city in the eighth (eighth!!!) century BC), and the air is clear and sweet-smelling because of the wildflowers that cover every spot on the hillsides. There are birds here - thousands and thousands of birds, who swoop and soar over all the rooftops until they must be incredibly dizzy but oh, so happy. The prized and, as I mentioned before, ridiculously large sunglasses that helped me blend in in Rome seem to be silly and overdone in this Tuscan hill town - I've buried them deep in my handbag since the colors of the countryside are worth any wrinkles I may get from squinting against the sun while I'm here.

Cortona's immediate neighbor, Camucia, was where my train stopped when I arrived yesterday. I took a treno regionale partly because it is cheaper than the faster, newer trains but mostly because I wanted to see the countryside and towns as we passed through. I saw lots of villages - all beautiful but most did not make me want to stop for long. As we moved from the area around Rome into Tuscany, I saw many delightful scenes and stereotypes: farms and small vineyards, laid out across the hills so it had the appearance of a multi-patterned, asymetrical quilt...an occasional gathering of sheep or cows, a horse eating near one of the rivers...bales of hay rolled tightly into wheels that looked like rolls of unlaid carpet...an elderly man walking down a dirt road with his goat close behind him...sometimes, a fortress-like stone structure or ruins of an ancient wall peeked from distant hillsides.

I didn't know what to expect of Cortona's appearance, so each town we passed provided a comparison for me. It couldn't be like that town because it's higher on a hill...but it won't be much like that town because it has towns below it...it's built within walls so it won't be as sprawling as the village that just went by... Tuscany seems to be designed to outdo the imagination (not to say that heaven can't be better than rural Italy, but the phrase "eye hath not seen, ear has not heard" comes to mind as I try to find an adequate description of the beauty here), so of course Cortona was better than what I'd dreamed up.

After a few confused moments at the Camucia train station (why can't they just have a sign that says all these doors are locked because, stupid,you're supposed to walk around to the front of the building?!), I encountered a delightful taxi driver who agreed to drive me up the hill into Cortona - it was a much nicer option that waiting for the bus, so I splurged. He joyfully began my tour up the hill...after 10 minutes because first he needed to finish his ice cream cone. It's the kind of delay that would generate chaotic rage in America, but in Camucia it was perfect - I was so happy about his childish enthusiasm for ice cream that it was almost as good as having ice cream myself. Plus, this guy was so much like German Perez - I would have waited for him to eat an entire three-course meal if he'd asked me to.

I was glad I took the taxi instead of the bus also because my driver's explanation of the town and the region was so interesting. In a mixture of broken English and some Italian words I could understand, he pointed out the beautiful churches, the interesting shops, the countryside (Cortona's in Tuscany but the huge lake we can see in the distance is in Umbria, the region farther east), and the walls (there are old walls around and throughout Cortona - the larger walls are Etruscan, the narrower walls are from those youngsters in the medieval times).

After my long day and frustrating train ordeals, I had promised myself a quiet evening with a book in my room. That idea disappeared immediately, however - this place is to be explored and befriended. I could stare at the countryside and still discover something new at every moment - the colors change, the lighting changes...always something new in this ancient place.

So refreshed with a new burst of energy and enthusiasm, I ventured out of my hotel in search of food and adventure. I didn't have to wait long! A few steps past the piazza outside my hotel, I befriended a really lovely couple from Denver after we both paused to enjoy the 9:00 ringing of the church bells. These friends are funny and delightful and the kind of people with whom you could never run out of interesting conversation. And - even better - they understand my desire to rudely ignore them completely when I want to be alone (very important, since it's hard to hide in a town this small!). We're having dinner again tonight in the restaurant where they filmed scenes for Under the Tuscan Sun.

My hotel is lovely and my room has green shutters that open onto a patio covered with flowers and enclosed by the stone walls of ancient times. It's very nice but tomorrow I'm moving into a room across the hall where I can view Tuscany right from my window morning, night and noon.

I'm in low gear today, determined to relax rather than rush from one thing to the next - a fast pace is fine for Rome but it's unfathomable in Tuscany and, in fact, there's not that much to do in Cortona so it inspires relaxation. It's perfect. My morning led me up Via San Margherita, an extremely steep but even more extremely beautiful walkway that led to the summit where I am now. There are beautiful shrines all along the road - one guidebook said they depict the seven stations of the cross, but there are far more than seven of them so I'm not sure what they symbolize. I just know they're lovely and they provide the perfect (i.e. frequent!) opportunity to stop and rest on the walk up the hill.

I have absolutely no idea what time it is because I stubbornly refuse to buy a watch - the church bells rang like mad some time ago, so I'm guessing it's past noon. A logical mind might ask why I didn't just count the rings of the bells; the answer, however, is that it was impossible to do so. each bell began at a different time, blending into one another (at one point, I counted to 15 before realizing that was imposible), and the lovely sound echoes off of the surrounding hillsides to create a chorus of bells. One of the bells completely gave up on clearly announcing the time and instead rang quickly and joyously, sounding in a non-stop, sing-song way that sounded as if a child were swinging wildly on the bell pull.

I don't need a watch to tell me that it's time for lunch, though - and besides, tourists keep coming to ask if I know what time the museum behind me will re-open after their lengthy lunch hor. So for now I will stop writing and begin the steep descent back into Cortona's piazzas.

My Roman Holiday

Still a little worn out from the packed day Wednesday, on Thursday I jumped into the tourist madness to see the only two sights I'd always had on my list for Rome: the Colosseum and the Mouth of Truth.


After a relatively short wait in line, I bought a ticket to enter the site of ancient sport. The Colosseum, as I mentioned in an earlier epistle, is breath-taking and amazing - the fact that ancient Romans could construct something that would survive centuries, generations, wars, natural disasters and, most of all, people...it's just mind-boggling. Especially when you think about how our engineers can't even build Adams Street in a ways that will prevent a big hole from appearing near 17th Avenue every time it rains a few drops.


Despite its amazing structure and history, though, I didn't want to stay long in the Colosseum. It's an arena and if you didn't know better, you wouldn't be surprised to hear vendors selling hot dogs and cotton candy. But it wasn't baseball they were watching - it was sick, inexplicable torture of men and animals. As an addict to politics, the whole concept of gladiators and their battles disturbs me. Roman rulers provided these bloody shows, in part, to cater to the masses - to unite them around a hobby or a "team" (gladiators had the equivalent of fan gear and ad endorsements!) and to help create loyalty by allowing them to participate in that common hobby free of charge. What is it about human nature that could allow so many to unite around the lowest common denominator: the desire to watch others suffer and to have group power over the life or death of another human being? What could have possibly been in the minds of the "vestal virgins" as their celebrity status required them to watch countless bloody fights in one day?

If you're depressed or annoyed by these dark thoughts, you'll understand why I only spent about an hour in the Colosseum.

The Roman ruins brought no such sadness, however, and they enthralled me as I walked toward the Basilica di Santa Maria and the famous bocca contained within. Every time I thought I'd passed the ruins, another would suddenly appear. When I glimpsed the building in this picture, I audibly gasped.

La Bocca della Verite is actually somewhat hard to find - it's in a part of Rome where citizens actually do business. The church is in a corner under a very large, grand building...and a sign on the door of the grand building explains somewhat impatiently, in English, that this is a municipal building for the important municipal business and please, for God's sake, keep walking around the corner if you're a tourist. I laughed when I saw it because I can imagine exactly how some low-level city receptionist finally snapped after a day of map-carrying idiots in "I heart Roma" t-shirts came in an out of her office and slapped a sign on the door in hopes of never seeing one of them again.

The sign did do the trick, though, and this map-carrying tourist walked on to the church. (Note: I was not wearing an "I heart Roma" t-shirt!)

There was a short line and it took a few minutes for me to realize that the Mouth of Truth was there, at the front of the line, right in the entryway of the church. No grand curtains or removable plastic gates guiding people past engraved explanations of the Mouth's history...no, just a gate enclosing the entryway. The Mouth, and the face attached to it, is allowed to look out over a busy street and piazza day and night. If you want your picture with him, please deposit .50 euro in the box and wait your turn in line, mille grazie. My surprise about this is better understood when you consider that I spent 5 euro to have a photo taken with smoking, overweight, cynical "gladiators," and .80 euro just to enter the restroom at the Termini train station. .50 euro to stand where Audrey Hepburn once stood: PRICELESS.

I will spare you the details of the rest of my time in Rome partly because it is dull and mostly because I don't want to think about it. It involved four hours of being jostled among uncaring, impatient strangers at the train station - two hours because I got there early to avoid missing my train, and another two because somehow I managed to miss my train. It was an afternoon full of the sentiments that solo travelers try never to express: frustration, loneliness and, most of all, the desire to get on a train, plain, boat or automobile - any vehicle that will immediately take you home, where everyone speaks your language, you are not limited to parrot-like repetition of the few phrases you know ("hello," "goodbye," "thank you!") and where you never, EVER have to try to remember how to plug something into an electrical outlet.

After a few tears (hidden by my ridiculously oversized but wonderful sunglasses I bought in Rome), I was once again a zealous wanderer ready to take on Tuscany...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cortona

Cortona is literally heaven on earth. It's so beautiful that when I arrived awhile ago I actually forgot about the harrowing task of getting here (missed train, etc...I'll write more about it later but it doesn't even seem important now!).

The Internet situation here is a little tricky - the computer is so old I'm surprised it doesn't rely on DOS. I'm hoping to share pictures soon, though, so you will know I'm in no way exaggerating.

Off in search of food...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To the Next Adventure

I'm checking out of my wonderful "home in Rome" now so I can head to Cortona later this afternoon. I'm not sure if I will have Internet access while I am there - wanted to let you know so my mom, aunts and friends won't worry about my sudden disappearance. Thanks for reading these and sharing my adventures!

Il Cappello di Marcus


I've forgotten to tell you about My Project. My dear friend and mentor Sir Marcus B. left his baseball cap atmy going-away gala last week and, like any irresponsible person who's about to flee the country would do, I kidnapped it.

I am taking good care of il cappello, Mark - it has become my travel companion. Like Tom Hands and Wilson, but without all the lost-on-an-island drama. Il Cappello began it's journey in this bag...mostly because it is funny, and partly because it gives me a great opportunity to say thank you to Alva for the lovely gift of comfortable, travel-worthy pajamas!

Il Cappello's journey continued on the open-air tour bus (it was embarrased but hey, a hat's got to get oriented to a new city somehow and it was still scared of Rome traffic at that point) and then continued on to it's most exciting event: a meeting with an emperor.

May 26 - A Few of My Favorite Things


1. A Dose of Reality. While wandering around Trastavere this morning, I came across a real estate office. The most inexpensive apartment (note: apartment, not mansion!) in Trastavere was 330 thousand euro. There will be no impulsive, Under-the-Tuscan-Sun-style purchases for Beth! At least, not on this trip...

2. Time. It turns out that the European system for time is a very good idea. If, for example, a traveler were to know it is 13:00 in Rome, rather than 1:00, such a sojourner would know that it is, in fact, 4:00 AM in Arizona, not 4:00 PM. Sorry, mom and dad!

3. Clotheslines. There are clotheslines everywhere in Rome - each of the apartments in my hotel building (did I mention that some people get to live here?! Excuse me while I remind myself of the reality check in number 1...) has a clothesline outside their window. The residents hang out the window, drape their laundry on the line, and hope that their underwear doesn't drop down three floors to the spot where Luigi is working on the exterior of the building. (Note: the situation is real, but I just made up the name Luigi for him.) Why don't we have more urban clotheslines at home?

5. The Elevator. I keep seeing ads around town for something called the Time Elevator. It appears to be a 45-minute IMAX-style film about the 2,750 year history of Rome. I'm baffled. Why wouldn't you just walk through the streets to visualize the amazing history?! It's more interesting and, I'm sure, less likely to give you motion sickness.

Moments with Keats, Gypsies, and Superman


Many more miles of wandering this afternoon, and the sore feet and aching back to prove it. My camera died after I wrote the last entry, but not before I got these great shots of the bastione around the top of Castel Sant'Angelo. It's awesome for history's sake, of course, but also because of the many Monty Python quotes that come to mind ("fetchez la vache!").

My next stop was Piazza del Popolo - partly because it's something you're supposed to see in Rome but mostly because it was the closest metro stop. And thanks to the metro, I finally got to meet gypsies.

I've been warned about the gypsies in Rome, who are reputed to be pickpockets, beggars and all-around nightmares for the naive tourist. My first encounter with one of these golden-skinned women, however, was very appreciated. I should confess that I love gypsies. Love the legends about them, love the warnings about them, even love the fear of them. I've always wanted to be a gypsy like those glorified by Aladdin or Shakira: wild, exciting, unpredictable and brave when it matters. So I was somewhat determined to like these women no matter what. My first gypsy friend rescued me when I was gazing with bewilderment at the maachine that was supposed to easily sell me my train ticket to Cortona. She appeared behind me and patiently walked me through the process; only after my ticket had printed did she ask for money and only then did I realize she was not just another helpful Italian. I assume that no one who knows my crazy belief that I can help those who may or may not deserve it will be surprised that I gave her a couple of euros; I did, however, manage to say "no" to all the other gypsies who continued to appear at metro stops.

Armed with a fully-charged camera and a fresh pair of shoes, I journeyed to the Spanish Steps...kind of. I actually got deliciously lost and walked by many of the over-fancy hotels and even, I think, an embassy or two. After such grandeur perhaps it's no surprise that the Spanish Steps were an enormous disappointment. They're steps and, even when backed by a fancy building, are not unlike the amazing architecture all over the city - I really don't understand the fascination they hold for many. As I was dodging groups of tourists on the Steps, however, I did meet Pietro - a very nice older Italian guy (not that kind of older, Suzanne! Just old-enough-to-not-be-threatening kind of older) who lived outside of Rome but had just ridden his Vespa into town to pay bills. (Which does beg the question: what bills are paid near the Spanish Steps?) He quickly gave up on my horrifically basic Italian (every time an Italian breaks into flawless English, I feel a little bit smaller as a person), but before he ran to pay his bills he did make sure that I was able to say what he believed to be the most important Italian phrase: Mi scusi, un caffe, per piacere!

My five-minute chat with Mr. Vespa ended at Piazza Spagna 26, the house that contains the Keats-Shelley museum and an address that had me baffled until Pierto pointed it out. Keats died there which is, of course, slightly depressing - especially in the room that contains his old bed and a death mask. But the libraries in the museum were amazing and it was worth a few euro to spend some time with the guy who wrote something as wonderful as "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Another hour of being completely lost, this time in the upper-end shopping district. My enjoyment of the window shopping was dimmed slightly by the crowds and constant threat of being run over by a Mercedes. (If I'm going to be hit by a car, I'd really prefer if it were something more unique than a Mercedes. A Ferrari, perhaps?) I did greatly enjoy seeing Superman walking down the street, though - after all, surely he could prevent random Mercedes-linked killings on the street? A small film crew followed him but didn't provide any clues as to what they were doing.

After resorting to tourist-style map glancing and street sign gazing, I was still lost. Every street I thought would take me home instead led further away. Being lost is very enjoyable, though, and every street made it worth the effort. A side street somewhere along Via del Corso became crowded with dozens of people standing in the street, all eating multi-colored gelato. I figured anything worthy of that much attention must be worth trying, so I joined the extremely long line down the street. After all, it had been at least two hours since I'd had gelato. (Nope, I'm not exaggerating the degree of my gelato addiction!) This gelato was indeed worth the wait (when I got to the hotel, I discovered that the place was Giolitti, a place that has served gelatto in that spot since 1900!) Over 60 flavors from which the baffled mind must choose - I commiserated with a honeymooning American couple who were with me in line, but in the end, of course, we were each on our own for this difficult life decision. I finally ended up with lampone and melone - raspberry and canteloupe - and yes, I managed to order the whole thing in Italian! There are no words for how good good gelatto is so I won't even try to express it.

Now I'm "home," relaxing in my hotel while listening to the conversations in the street below my window. I was supposed to join a three-hour walking tour of the city tonight - I'd made reservations before I left Arizona - but just couldn't bear to go. I've been walking around Rome for over 12 hours almost without stop, but mostly I just don't want to share this city with a group of strangers. It was undoubtedly worth the money I'd already paid for the tour to be able to avoid anything that begins with the spine-chilling phrase "Your guide will be carrying a blue folder." Quelle horreur! (Wrong language but I don't know an equally-useful Italian phrase.)

Castel Sant'Angelo

Alas, when I returned to the Castel Sant'Angelo of this morning, it had disappeared! In its place was an old building surrounded by a circus, complete with street performers, t-shirt carts, gelato sellers, and hundreds of people. I'm sure most of the people who are reading these blog entries read my earlier enthusiasm and grimaced knowingly, but I really thought I had found an overlooked treasure! **Insert self-deprecating eye-roll here.** Nevertheless, once I avoided the man selling a bubble machine (no offense, Anna, but it worked better than your system!) and the guy wrapped in a gold sheet to look like King Tut (does he think tourists won't know that Rome isn't in Egypt?!), the time inside the castel was wonderful. I took dozens (hundreds? I stopped counting) of photographs and it's difficult to pick the ones to post here - I love them all. (Dad, I'm sorry for always making fun of you for taking so many pictures of random things!) Walking up the ramp dimmed even the awe I felt on the marble steps of the U.S. Congress - those represent amazing history, but Hadrian's funeral procession happened in this place in 138 AD. It's pretty hard to top the overwhelming sensation of time travel associated with this building. Most of the museum visit blurred slightly - ancient rooms, really old art and military artifacts, busts of ancient emperors. Some moments stood out, though - the angel sculpted by Raffaello in 1544, the view of Rome from the terrace (I took the picture of the crane for you, Jason - it's a global sign of progress!), the small rooms designed to hold emperors' remains, and the pleasant surprise of an outdoor restaurant next to the rooftop viewing area. I'm sitting there now, waiting to have my first Italian spaghetti. I don't expect much - the antipasto that they brought me, I kid you not, was corn nuts in a glass bowl - but I was hungry and hey, there's something to be said for eating in the halls where emperors once walked. Or decayed, as the evidence overwhelmingly suggests.

Roma


Rome is like a drug. It's frightening and threatening at first, but it gets into your blood quickly and then you're hooked. (Note: lest you worry, I have never used nor been addicted to drugs. File this under "imaginative ramblings.") The addiction makes you do crazy things, like spring out of bed before dawn because, despite your still-asleep state and comfortable bed, you suddenly realize that you MUST get to Fontana di Trevi in time to watch the sun's first rays highlight the sculptures. It makes you skip a free breakfast because you need to feel cobblestones under your feet. It makes even the most minimal of preparation routines seem to take forever, because each moment getting ready deducts a moment from time spent out in the car exhaust-filled Roman air. It even causes questioning of basic necessities...do I really need to take a shower and brush my teeth?! (Never fear - I do, and I did.)

After my pilgrimage to "my" Trevi (where I threw in a 2 euro coin - since a small coin is supposed to ensure your return to Roam, I thought I'd up the odds just to make sure I really do get to come back), I wandered through the streets toward the Vatican, watching the city come alive. It was exactly like the opening act of My Fair Lady: store doors rolling open, fruit vendors pulling from their vans brilliantly red berries, fluffy green lettuce and their famous green-purple artichokes from their vans, newspaper deliveries being tossed from the open windows of cars so small I'm not sure how many newspapers they could hold. It took all my energy to keep from bursting into a loud and possibly on-key version of "Wouldn't It Be Loverlyy," but I managed to only hum it as I walked around.

I made it to Vatican City before 7, but not before the international crowds had begun to arrive. (Note to Katy: prepare youself. This story doesn't end well for good Catholics.) I had my first conversation with a group of truly wonderful nuns from all over the world - I was directed to the group by a nun who spoke no English. I complimented the nun who answered my questions on her impeccable English, only to realize that she was holding an American flag. I guess all roads really do lead to Rome! I felt very foolish...next time, I'll just stick to the question about habit-covered hairstyles! Anyway, after brainstorming with a whole group of nuns, a lovely gentleman from Spain and an even lovelier Swiss Guard (how DO they make those tutu-like uniforms look masculine?), I discovered that I was supposed to be standing in the line with the nuns and Spanish man and that my advance order of a ticket for the Papal audience didn't let me cut in line at all. So I joined the line (I'm stalling because I'm trying to break this to you gently, Katy.) After only 10 minutes of standing in front of a loud eastern European couple (who didn't speak English but were covered head-to-toe in New York City tourist apparel so I guess they're on quite a vacation!) and in back of an entire group of teenagers from somewhere (I don't know what language they were speaking but then again, I never understand a word teenagers say even in America), I gave up and wandered down Via Borgo Pio toward the river. It was a decidedly sacreligious decision, but I didn't want to spend the whole morning in line with 10,000 others. (I'm really sorry, Katy! I have carried postcards around for you and Bill, though, so they will at least have the aura of the Vatican. It's certainly not the same as a blessing, but since I threw 2 euro into Trevi, I'm pretty confident that I'll be back to hear the Pope another time.)

My destination after leaving the Vatican was Castel Sant'Angelo, which I expected to be worth a glance before heading across the lovely Ponte Sant'Angelo. I fell in love, though - even more so than when I met "my" Trevi. Castel Sant'Angelo is the remains of years of really rich, powerful people trying to one-up the former rich, powerful people. (For a more accurate and thorough description of this building's amazing history, visit wikipedia.) Whether due to the early hour or the draw of more famous sites, there were no other tourists anywhere to be seen. Instead, I was accompanied only by Italians out for morning runs and dogs out for...well, you know what dogs do on morning walks. (Feel like relieving yourself, Fido? Let's go to the place that was built in 135 AD...ahhh now that's a good boy, now I have to go to work. Ciao!) I walked around the entire building, every step more enthralled with this place that seemed to be forgotten. So imagine my joy when I sighed, put away my camera and prepared to step across to the bridge...then found the door to a museum that's inside the castle!!! I didn't get far, since I was shooed out until the museum opens at 9:00. But my quick glimpse of inner stone stairways and aging statues tells me it will be worth the wait.

In the meantime, I've wandered. I crossed the Ponte Sant'Angelo, guarded by angels who each have their own personality. (I'll let you guess which I labeled "Holy Angel," "Angry Angel," "Perch Angel," and "Gay Angel." The real guards of the bridge, though, are St. Peter and St. Paul. I took a photo of one of them but felt as if he wasn't pleased by it. They're both quite stern.








Many streets and several bridges later, I finally reached Ponte Sisto, the entrance to the Trastavere neighborhood. I've been sitting on a lovely cafe patio for awhile now, surrounded by the sexy magic of Italian conversation as I watch people live their lives right in front of me. The woman walking the black and white dog with only three legs...the polizia popping in for a quick espresso before returning to their task of sitting in their cars on street corners smoking and watching tourists try to navigate walking through traffic...the three women laughing at their small children who swing their feet from stroller seats, then those same women laughing at each other as they return with empty strollers after dropping their kids off at daycare...the big group of art students who are standing in themiddle of the road sketching a building...the man walking back and forth with countless boxes of San Pelligrino bottles for delivery to a ristorante behind me...all of it has a calm, yet bustling rhythm of its own.

And it turns out to be okay that I left my watch at home, since I didn't need it anyway. Not only do the glorious church bells toll each hour all over town - they also ring to mark each 15-minute increment! It's amazing and very useful. They were looking out for me, those ancient Romans who built all these wonderful churches.

Now my iced tea is gone and the art class has finished their sketching and moved out of the street, so it's time for me to begin my wanderings again. On to the Castel Sant'Angelo museum!

P.S. After I typed all this, I realized that there are two different people named Kathy who I know are reading at least some of these blog entries. Aunt Katy, I'm sorry if you thought I kept dropping your name in vain! Though you are much more patient than I am and would have probably stuck around to hear from the Pope, my apologies in the initial entry were targeted at Katy the Senate Ruler.

P.P.S. Craig, remember how you got that graffiti-removal program through the legislature a few years ago for Pima County? I think there's a career for you if you ever want to move to Trastavere!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pizza

Le Grande Orange actually does a pretty good job of holding its own against comparisons to Italian pizza!

May 25 - A Few of My Favorite Things


1. The Colosseum. There really is nothing to prepare you for the first glimpse of this place. I lost track of where our tour bus was on the map so was completely caught off guard by the arches rising from around the corner as we turned. I will confess, I promptly burst into tears. It's the grandest thing I have ever seen.

2. The marble staircase. My hotel doesn't have an elevator, so these stairs curve up five floors. It will take your breath away in more ways than one!

3. Church bells. They're everywhere and their music makes everything magical.

4. Cobblestone streets. They're hard on the feet but absolutely beautiful to the eyes.

5. Shoe stores. They, too, are everywhere!

How to Be A Tourist 101


Long flights tend to create a sense of timelessness. One's watch, even if one had remembered to bring it on her trip, is no use because it only reflects time at the point of departure or arrival, but never serves to pinpoint one's place in the universe. On-flight movies onlly exaggerate the sensation, making reality still more distant.

Can I just interrupt and question WHO thought it was a good idea to show an Amelia Earheart movie film while traveling over the Atlantic? Probably the same person who designed the USAirways cabin to remove any square inch of personal space or comfort. Sorry, Cheyenne...!

Anyway, in spite of US Airways' desire to ruin the first leg of my trip, all it took was a very dramatic, very breathless run across the Charlotte airport to board my flight to Rome just as the doors were closing.

The first day in Rome has been, to put it mildly, interesting. A shuttle ride with two teenagers from Finland who were quite possibly high on an illegal substance or two, a moment of being stranded without a map somewhere in the city because a shuttle driver's mother died and he couldn't finish delivering us, and a very long, scenic and completely carsick taxi ride through the city...but I arrived at the oh-so-lovely Daphne Hotel. I'm sitting on the shared third-floor balcony as I write this...as you can see from the photo, it's too small to be shared. **Please don't criticize the horrific self-portrait abilities...there are going to be many more off-center shots!*** There are only three rooms on this floor, however, so I feel quite generous in sharing "my" balcony.

Here are some of the interesting sights from today:

Nuns. There are nuns everywhere, and all I want to do is to go talk to them and ask important, deeply spiritual questions such as what do you do with your hair under that habit? Do you ever read newpapers? What, exactly, ARE you doing at the Trevi Fountain? And my favorite question: are you really so focused on God that you didn't even notice that the Italian guy who just walked by you looks like something out of a movie?!

The most shocking thing about Rome, apart from the life-threatening traffic, of course, is the graffiti. I can appreciate some good urban wall art, but can't grasp the thought process of someone who sees a wall that has ben around for centuries and decides the best way to celebrate history is with a can of spray paint. To quote my dear friend Seth Myers: "Really? REALLY?!"

I had expected my first day here to be lonely, but that has been far from the case. On the plane I befriended a professor from NAU (on the flight to Rome, that is - on the flight to Charlotte I befriended then de-friended an 80-year-old man from Naples who spoke no English but thought it was his hands' duty to guide my butt into the seat anytime I left then returned to my chair. Welcome to Italy!) My new friend (her name is "Octavia," isn't that beautiful?! I could never be exotic and complicated enough for a name like that) is staying across town but we're meeting for dinner tonight. The one flaw with my day is that I have not yet had gelato. I plan to fix that shortly.

I also befriended a rich, bossy American couple on the tour bus. At first I thought they were impatient, but grew to really like them - especially after they had the patience to pick tree leaves out of my hair when I had an unexpected run-in with a branch while on the top of the double-decker tour bus.

I must go for now so I can find something unwrinkled enough for my first dinner in Rome...bonna serra! Or buon giornio, for you Americans who are still in bed right now.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

This is NOT a step toward facebook!

I'm not shy about sharing my hostility toward Facebook, Twitter, and the many other ways the Internet provides to waste time and share way too much information about oneself, but this does seem to be a much better idea than attempting to add pictures to a Word document in order to share them with you. (That's code for "yes, Anna, you were right - thanks for the blog suggestion.") I'll use this as my connection to home, family and friends while I wander - I hope you'll enjoy it!