Friday, July 24, 2009

At last, the recap.

It's weird: I was only out of town and internetless for two weeks, but during that time I really got out of the blogging/reading habit. Well I was reading, of course, but my reading material turned out to be Harry Potter books because there they were, sitting at the Brit's mum's house, and there is something special about reading Harry Potter books in England (unless, I suppose, you're already from there). To sum up: it's been hard to get this post going, and it's been hard to get my vacation photos uploaded, and it's been extra super number one lucky dragon rice bowl with special sauce hard to get back to work.

So about the trip. It wasn't one of those sit back and let everything go trips, nor a relax cozily in the bosom of the family trip, nor a mindless beach trip. It was a super-active look at stuff trip, basically, but I did get a tan despite all my SPF and didn't think about work for two weeks. Overall, a triumph of a holiday.

We had excellent transportation karma on our trip, which was a very important feature given all the running around we were doing. Planes, trains, automobiles, and hikes, and yet we hardly spent any time waiting around or being thwarted by crowds or idiocy. Airport security was a breeze. Even Heathrow wasn't a pain in the ass! I think the worst line we waited in was in the blazing sun outside the Rome airport, where a bus was allegedly departing for the Termini station "in 10 minutes" when we bought our tickets. We finally got on the bus at least 40 minutes later. This was our first taste of Italy and was fairly characteristic of anything there involving process or timetables, though the trains ended up being mostly on time--when they weren't on strike. But all of this makes me sound like a whiner, when really I was happy to go with the flow, figure stuff out, and ask questions when necessary.

People have been asking me what the best part of the Italy trip was--like, what was my favorite thing that I saw or did. Seeing a bunch of stunning and famous remnants of ancient history and spending time with two of my favorite people were kind of no brainers, and highlights that I certainly expected. But I have to say that maybe the very best thing for me was twigging to the fact that international travel is not such a big hairy deal, that I can manage in a country where I understand 90% of the conversations I'm likely to hear but (infuriatingly) can't formulate many useful sentences, and that I really don't mind looking like sort of a dumb ass in situations where I have to ask for help, haltingly, in a foreign language. A dirty secret about me is that being theoretically overwhelmed about some of this stuff may have prevented me from pursuing more international travel when I was younger and less encumbered. And it is one of my few sincere regrets that I never studied abroad during college or before or after or whenever. That was dumb. Not that living abroad is magically off the table now that we're older, but you know what I'm saying.

Anyway, here's a little collection of reminiscences.

Rome. We spent two nights in Rome, near Termini Station. Not the most picturesque neighborhood, but you cannot beat it for convenience. The hotel was very clandestine--you'd never know there was one in the building unless you were looking for it. It was super-quiet, air-conditioned, very roomy for three, and had a street market right outside each morning. And Rome is incredibly walkable, so it was no problem to get around from where we were. We basically just busted out the ubiquitous tourist map whenever we needed to locate ourselves, and then proceeded to the next attraction.

That's right, I'm leading off with the Colosseum, because I think it was the place we walked around the longest. It was very impressive (duh). I had heard all these anecdotes about the cats living all over the Colosseum and was looking forward to seeing them, but we only saw one sleeping scruffy cat in the shade of a Colosseum arch. My impression is that people in Italy love the feral cats. Inside the Palatine Hill, we spotted an old lady sitting on a shady bench with a cat-print bag next to her, and she was feeding a few prowly, bedraggled beasties, something she clearly does on a regular basis. Just chilling under a tree with some strays, you know, like you do on a Thursday. When we were hiking through the hills and trees in Cinque Terre, we actually saw a little, like, cat shrine on the trail, with a sign imploring passersby to leave their scraps of food for the homeless cats. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

More Colosseum.
There used to be up to 70,000 spectators in here. 70,000!

We met up with Dom in Rome. He'd been singing in Tuscany for a month or 6 weeks and finished up his gig and we managed to find him in the train station, despite the fact that his Italian phone number was erroneously connecting us to a very crabby Italian lady who told me, in Italian, to go fuck myself, which was hilarious. There's something so miraculous and also commonplace about meeting up with someone you know on the other side of the globe, right? It was like: look, it's our friendship, but in a different country.

The best ever.
I know I said all that stuff before about really rocking my bogus Italian, but I'm not going to lie, it helps to have someone with you who can speak the language properly. Dom showed us how it was done, so for example I learned to say "sono a posto" (I'm fine, I'm set) if someone is trying to get up in my grill and "help" me buy tickets at the train station (and then expect payment). Dom will also ask anyone for help/directions/recommendations, which was pretty funny when we were outside the Colosseum and he decided to knock on the closed window of a police car, where two cops were specifically not assisting the public and resented having to roll down the window.

I super heart these flowers and they were everywhere.
So anyway, we walked. We walked and walked and walked. And it was HOT--not any hotter than it gets here in the worst of the summer, but crazier somehow, more intense and merciless. (That's why I look like a greaseball in most of our pictures.) But that's what we like to do on vacation: walk around and look at stuff and hopefully eat well. We don't really shop--that's something I do on my own, but not really when I'm with the Brit. I mean, we've never been shopping in London, other than like two stores. This time around was no different, though both of us managed to buy Clarks in Saffron Walden before we flew home. Also, funny British candy (for the kids) and non-exported scotch (for my dad). I also bought an Italian Vogue in the Pisa airport.

Constantine's Arch.
We pretty much lost our minds taking pictures the entire time we were there. I knew this was happening but was powerless to stop it. There was another amazing view through every arch, another piazza around every corner, another cathedral, another fountain, another statue, another patinated old apartment building in some glorious Mediterranean color.

We also, thanks to Dom, connected with another friend from an opera thingie we both did 6 years ago, who's been living in Rome ever since. So I'll also freely admit that it really helped to have someone on our team who's been living in Rome and who knows the proprietor of an amazing restaurant and can also tell you where to get gelato. The restaurant, for your reference, was Ai Bozzi in Trastevere. It was the only truly excellent food we had on the trip, though lots of other places were very good. But it's likely I won't get fresh porcini mushrooms like that again. Really. They were that good. We feasted so hard I didn't take any pictures. The waiters just kept bringing starters: eggplant, zucchini, seafood, unbelievable ricotta, along with a light sparkling house wine that was perfect for the evening, for sitting outside in a piazza under the umbrellas.

(pardon the awesome camera work/video quality)
Besides the accordion band, which was like a parody of what you imagine you'll see on an Italian pedestrian street in the evening, there was a man selling bunches of lavender, which ditto. But it wasn't made up. It was all real. Once the sun starts to go down, everyone is outside. That's a wonderful thing about Italy.

Or they might just be out to maybe see Michelle Obama.
The crowd was for Michelle Obama.

See that little yellow-clad niblet at left, at the base of the column? Well, here's the actual deal. The G8 spouses and families had been foiling our touristic aspirations in Rome (e.g., shutting down the Colosseum), so we knew they were there. And frankly, I don't know what other statuesque African-American women in yellow would be cruising around the Pantheon with a security detail and a massive assembled crowd during the G8 summit. And I do know for a fact that Michelle visited the Pantheon that day. But in the photos I saw, she was dressed in black and was with her kids. So was this a decoy? Did she go twice? WHO CARES. LET ME HAVE MY AWESOME ENCOUNTER. As they say in Italian, "se non e vero, e ben trovato" (if it's not true, it's a good story).

The Pantheon

Spanish steps.
The Spanish Steps

Gelato was an important component of my vacation--less so for the Brit, who is more interested in the savory than the sweet. I felt free to get some whenever. Most of my Italian practice may in fact have been gelato-related. Good news for vegans: the fruit flavors are generally senza latte (no dairy). You have to ask, but every time Dom asked, they said yes.

Giolitti, gelato.
That's Giolitti, where I was instructed by our friends to be aggressive at the seething counter, and ordered two cones with three different flavors each. I was proud.

Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona

There's more I haven't written yet, about the generally tacky look favored by Romans, about the profusion of harem pants and gladiator sandals and bra straps and what Dom calls "Tracy Gold glasses"; about the cobblestone streets and the intersections guarded by painted saints or inset mythological fountains at each corner; about brusque pizzeria proprietors and endless pizzas (not that I'm complaining); about so many overwrought marble and gold church sanctuaries that you lose track of where you've been and what the significance is; about running into people from Dom's program 3 times in different parts of Rome; about spaghetti cacio e pepe and Italians cooking the hell out of their vegetables; about getting the best night of sleep on our entire trip the first night in Rome, in a hotel room with two big mens. A lot happened and then two days later, we were on a train for La Spezia, hurtling 4 hours north to get to Cinque Terre. That's for the next post, and I promise it won't take me two weeks to get to it.

(Italy pictures, in the meantime, are here, and England pictures are here.)


  1. Good photos and storytelling, and I love that you mastered a complicated multi-flavor cone order. That is a nice little boost when you're learning your way. I have never been to Italy!

  2. Whoohoo for senza latte, which is now my first Italian lesson. The general tacky look cracks me up and that illuminated photo of Dom made ME sing opera and girl, you don't want to hear that. But great photo. Waiting on more . . .

  3. yay, great recap! Love love love.