Backpacking Europe 2015- Italy Part 1

January 22nd, 2015

Berlin, Germany

I say goodbye to Berlin in a whiz of steel and graffiti. Cutting it a bit closer than I like to, I rush to the airport, arriving about an hour and a half before my flight. When I get to the check-in desk I’m greeted by a less-than-enthusiastic German woman who briskly goes through the motions. Soon I offload the pack and jet through the security line. My stomach reminds me that no matter how much of a hurry I’m in, it still calls the shots. So checking that I have enough time, I go to the nearest food vendor.

Burger King.

Dear lord, a breakfast burger seems the safest option, which is just a cheeseburger with an egg patty added in the middle. Thankfully, this calorie behemoth is enough to settle the “you haven’t fed me in 12 hours” protest my stomach was making, and for only about 5 euros, though my pride took a bit of a hit. Soon enough the flight boards and I’m in the air on my way to the most exciting chapter yet: Rome.

Fiumicino Airport

Rome, Italy

Bags retrieved, no need for currency (thanks plastic), I hurry off to the train depot to catch a train into the city. Opting for the express train for a few euros more (the irony of this about to be revealed), I hurry to the platform to catch the train. As soon as I hop on, I can feel an anxiousness about the passengers. I settle into my seat and wait for the train to depart.

And I wait.

And wait.

Ten minutes past the departure time turns into twenty and thirty. Passengers are getting on and off the train, imploring to the conductor about what’s the matter. Unfortunately, most of these questions are in Italian so my eavesdropping is in vain. Just as I’m about to get up myself, an English speaking customer makes his move and asks what the delay is. The conductor replies “The train is broken, we will have it fixed soon”. Hearing a giant piece of moving steel you’re sitting in is broken is not the most comforting of ideas. The man asks if there is another train to which the conductor replies firmly “No”. Well, I settle in.

It’s a full hour and a half after scheduled departure that the train finally springs to life, sending the half dozen customers smoking cigarettes on the platform into a frantic dash for the doors. The train rolls away and soon enough the city begins to unfold before us. We cross right over one of the old city walls and the weight of this place hits me. It’s ancient, some of the buildings still standing have seen the rise and fall of the greatest empire of the ancient world. The ground still holds secrets of a time long past yet to be uncovered. I have been looking at pictures and reading stories of this place since I was a small child. And now I’m here. It’s a bit staggering. I disembark the train and head for the metro.

Somewhere Near Vatican City

I step out of the tunnel into the fading light of the Italian sunset cutting through the streets of western Rome. Street vendors are hustling everything from pocketbooks to nut crackers. There’s a portly man bouncing a soccer ball on his head in the middle of traffic during a red light. I head to Nadia’s apartment, the 81-year-old Italian woman I’ll be staying with who doesn’t speak a word of English.

I hit the buzzer but no response. I try a few more times at 5 minute intervals to no avail. So, I do what any trained traveler does in the 21st century, I track down the nearest McDonalds to mine some wifi. A few messages and a Skype call later I get in touch with Nadia, who excitedly babbles something in Italian then immediately hangs up the phone. I take this as my cue and rush back to the apartment.

There waiting for me is a 5 foot tall, silver haired and stout Italian woman grinning from ear to ear. She lets me in and gives me a huge hug, excitedly rattling on in Italian which I can only sheepishly reply to in broken Italian “my Italian isn’t very good”. She laughs and continues chatting away. I catch a few words here and there like “house” “mom” “Patrizia”. She calls what must be the smallest elevator still in existence. Her, myself, and my backpack are jammed into it without an inch to spare. The rickety cage vibrates up to the 5th floor, and not without me making a few silent prayers and wondering what the irony of dying in a tiny elevator on my first day in Rome would be.

She ushers me into the cozy apartment, a bit dusty and worn, but quaint. She grabs my arm and starts pointing out the different features of the house, speaking in Italian and miming the words she can. Her sign language is amazing because I begin to actually comprehend a few things. Especially the last remark. “Mangia?” She implores. Rule one, when an Italian matriarch asks if you want to eat, the answer is always yes. So I emphatically nod and reply “Si si!”. And she scurries off to the kitchen while I unpack my things. Soon she calls me and of course the most incredible spread of food is prepared. Pasta pomodoro, risotto, ham, chicken and cheese. All some of the most fantastic food I’ve ever eaten. We continue our attempted communication through sign language, every once and a while getting some semblance of communication across. After dinner, I head off to a cafe to get some wifi and check emails, as well as reach out to Christian, Nadia’s grandson. He and I met once when he visited the U.S. I’m hoping to score some English translation and drinks for the evening. He happily responds and we make plans for drinks later. 

Around 10, Christian arrives in a tiny, rented smart car. He’s quiet but sweet, slim and well-toned, with a well-kept beard and a smart fashion sense (as is common with Italian men I’ve noticed). I hop in the car and we speed off through the winding streets on our way to his favorite bar district. 

We find a parking place incredibly quickly and soon find ourselves in a piazza, with a healthy number of people, many seemingly young. Then of course Christian asks the question I’ve been dying to be asked “Do you smoke?” Dear god yes, I haven’t been able to find a way to buy cigarettes since Denmark. Christian pulls out his pack only to discover a lone stick, so we head off to the tobacco shop and pick up a few packs. Then we amble over to what looks a bit like a convenience store, but just has refrigerators full of beer. We grab a few and Christian waves away my attempts to pay. We take our beers to the monolith in the middle of the square, light up the cigarettes and settle in. I lean back and look up at the ancient stone statue we’re dangling our feet off of. I can’t believe the history I’m touching.

We talk about his aunt, grandma and my poor attempts at Italian. He asks what I do for work and after explaining, I’m stunned when he tells me they don’t have Netflix in Italy. He’s a bit ashamed of his English, to which I wave off, saying the wrong tense here and there hardly makes him an incompetent English speaker, in fact, he’s quite excellent. After we finish the beers he regrettably says he must head off to rest for work in the morning. As we drive back he offers to show me around over the weekend, which I happily accept. 

That night, I collapse into bed, almost too excited to sleep, but also weary with the sensory overload of the day.

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