Backpacking Europe 2015- Italy Part 2

January 23rd, 2015

Day two, and I wake up to the sounds of Nadia returning from the market with fresh ingredients for today’s meal. I rise and get ready and she cheerfully greets me in the kitchen with a hot cup of coffee. Well, at least that’s what I thought it was until I took the first sip. It’s espresso in a coffee mug. As in, a coffee mug’s quantity of espresso. WELL energized, I head out for my first day of proper sightseeing.

First stop of the morning is the Vatican. Just steps outside Nadia’s apartment, I arrive well before the crush of crowds is expected to arrive. A short wait in line and I’m through the doors, wandering through corridors, courtyards, and vast chambers, all adorned with some of the most amazing frescos I’ve ever seen.

I’m completely dumbstruck by the collection, and I haven’t even made it to the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel. Some of Raphael’s masterpieces stare me in the face, so much larger and more vivid than any photo I’ve ever seen. Around the corner, a collection of statues from some of the greatest sculptors of the ancient world. There is nothing quite like this place.

And then I make it. The culmination of the walkthrough is being shepherded into the cramped chapel, shoulder to shoulder with all the other visitors, every single neck craned to the ceiling as militant attendants mill through the crowd shouting “NO PHOTO, NO PHOTO” every time a lens dares to turn upwards.

Well, when I hear no, I hear “challenge”. So this blurry artifact, taken from hip height, memorializes forever my moment in this place.

After the Vatican, I beeline for the city center. At this point in my journey, I’ve found the best way to explore a city isn’t to zig zag from one point of interest to another, but rather, just pick a direction and walk. Let the city open up to you instead of trying to become an instant expert. I amble down the crowded thoroughfares and then turn down narrow alleyways impeded by the occasional cluster of cafe tables outside a little restaurant.

I round a cobbled street, an ancient building wall to my left. I can see people gathered in the square ahead of me but I’m not prepared for what I’m about to stumble on.

I round the corner, and the square opens up. Every tourist eye is turned, staring at what the building to my left reveals itself to be. The Roman Pantheon.

To be caught completely off-guard by such a gorgeous relic leaves me awestruck for a moment. I quietly circle the fountain, then walk inside to visit the tomb of Raphael and be completely engrossed in the history that encircles me. I gaze upwards towards the oculus and just let it all sink deep into my memory.

I continue to wander, hitting many of the gorgeous tourist sites along the way. For lunch, I stop at one of the little cafes down a side street. I order one of my favorite dishes, linguine con le Vongole (Linguine with clams) and a glass of white wine and settle in for lunch and a smoke. There’s an older looking Italian woman at the next cafe table over, well-dressed, cigarette dangling from her elegant fingers, a glass of wine in front of her. She idly flips through the pages of a newspaper as she smokes. The waiter is a cheerful, balding, middle-aged man with an electrifying grin. He arrives quickly with the food and wine and then leaves me be, returning only to refill the wine when the glass empties.

With a happy little wine buzz, I continue to wind through the city, aimless in the best ways possible. The winter light begins to fade as I decide to make one last stop, the Colosseum at sunset. Now, I was thoroughly warned by Nadia not to take the subway because of the “gypsies”. But it’s only one stop, so against all advice I hop on.

The car is claustrophobic, and everyone is packed in for the evening rush hour. I zip my pockets shut before I get in. I’m immediately sandwiched between bodies, with barely enough room to breathe. As soon as the doors shut, I get a sense of unease. I notice two men near me glancing towards each other. Then, suddenly, a hand reaches around my waist and attempts to work its way into my zipped pocket. I throw a hard elbow backwards as the train pulls towards the station. I’m completely stuck, and this time, the hand attempts to grab at my camera bag tucked under my arm, at that moment the doors open and I yell “STOP” as I jump off the train. Two Italian men immediately grab the assailant and hurl him onto the platform, screaming profanities at him. He lands on his hands and knees, and I immediately rush out of the station, terrified he may try again. As I emerge, checking my shoulder until I’m certain he hasn’t followed, I blend into the small crowd of people milling around.

There, against a backdrop of pure azure blue, illuminated with warm accent lights, is one of the great wonders of the world.

I photograph it quietly, from a small hill overlooking the compound. Imagining what it must have looked like at its peak. There are few things in life more special than breathing in history like this, alone, at sunset, in a place you never thought you’d be.

Practically drunk on the experiences of the day (and a little the lunch wine), and with the light finally gone, I wind my way back to Nadia’s neighborhood, stopping in the McDonalds for a coffee and wifi. I text Christian to see if he has any evening plans. He says he and some friends are heading back to the bar district we were in the night before and invites me to come along. I happily agree and stroll back to Nadia’s.

This is when I learn the absolute one rule you cannot break when staying with an incredible Italian grandmother in Rome.

Do not be late for dinner.

I open the apartment door at about 8pm. I am greeted by a frustrated scowl and wave of hands from Nadia that I can only translate as “Where have you been?” My face flushes and I try to explain I was out shooting photographs. Then, without a word, she pulls a plate of food out of the refrigerator and throws it into the microwave with a slam of the door. We stand in awkward silence as the microwave hums, the food slowly turning in a torturous wait. Once it beeps, she grabs the plate, plunks it down on the table and motions “Mangia!”. I do not DARE mention I had a snack on my way back. I dutifully begin to eat as she flips on the television and sits watching me. After I finish the first few bites, she gestures towards the clock and holds up seven fingers. “Noi mangiamo alle sette” I don’t need to translate to understand. Dinner is at seven, no exceptions. I motion that I’m so sorry and I didn’t understand. Her face softens and she refills my wine. We watch Italian soap operas as I make sure to clean every inch of my plate. Satisfied, she clears the table and tells me she’s headed to bed.

Around 10, I head downstairs to meet Christian. I slip into the little smart car and we zip back over to Trastevere where we meet up with one of his friends, Gianluca. We sit down at a cafe table and Christian orders a bottle of wine for the table, then proceeds to act as translator since I speak no Italian and Gianluca speaks no English. And then Christian gets up to use the restroom.

Awkward silence.

With effort, Gianluca racks his brain and says in halted English “Do you speak Italian?”. I sadly shake my head and slowly ask “Do you speak much English?” He shakes his head, leaving us nothing to do but stare silently and apologetically at each other across the table until Christian returns. He gives us a strange look until he realizes what happened with a laugh. The conversation triangle continues and we all slowly get used to the awkward rhythm of translating back and forth until it melts into the background.

Soon we’re joined by two more of his friends, both young, boisterous and attractive, and we head off to start the evening. First stop is cheap walkabout beers to drink as everyone debates which bar will be best. It’s in this moment I realize, no matter what the language barrier, arguing over which bar will be worth the time needs no translation, the rhythm and cadence is the same. Finally one is settled on and we head over. Inside is packed with young people, most of them college age. I hear a mixture of mostly Italian dotted with a few other languages here and there. We order drinks and Christian and I sit back as the rest of the group attempts to befriend some cute girls in short skirts sitting at the bar.

After a few failed attempts, we’re rejoined by one of the gents who laughs and says something to Christian, which makes Christian laugh immediately and wave him off. Christian turns to me and smiles as he translates “He says it’s cool that I can talk to you in English”. I certainly don’t mind being the “cool” foreign girl and I can tell Christian enjoys the opportunity to show off a bit. The more we talk, the more I realize how incredibly intelligent and clever he is. We share a similar sense of humor no matter the few language barriers and he makes an effort to ensure I’m included in the rapid-fire conversations. Mostly, we lean back and observe all the people around us, him pointing out who are college girls, who are locals, who’s trying to get laid and who definitely won’t. We write little stories for these unnamed people around us, narrating their desires until one of us cracks with laughter. Tonight I notice his smile, bright, sweet, and genuine.

We down a few more beers and you can feel the deep bond of group intoxication bind us together as we laugh and talk and head back out into the square. The night is cold and we’re all bundled up as we laugh and each of the guys attempts whatever English they know with me. We lean against the statue in the middle of the square for a quick selfie and then all disperse into the night. Christian drives me back to the flat and mentions he may be coming over for dinner tomorrow night after work. We say goodbye and I quietly slip back into the apartment and collapse into a deep, satisfied sleep.

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