Thursday, March 31, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 3: Things I Learned In Rome

1. The Sistine Chapel is bigger than you think. So is the Pantheon. Trevi Fountain is smaller than you think. The streets in Rome are smaller than you think, which means that the maps are bigger than you think and you will be constantly overshooting your target until you figure that out. The Circus Maximus is big but somehow still smaller than you think. The Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican is a LOT bigger than you think. It’s even bigger than that. The Colosseum is about that size.

2. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to drive in Rome unless you are either a native Roman or a professionally trained stunt driver. Driving in Rome is a delicate choreography of tiny cars, narrow streets, unmarked lanes, steely aggression, and willful disregard for the rules of the road and the laws of physics. Amateurs will just get everyone killed.

3. This goes double for motorcyclists, who recognize no sovereignty but their own.

4. Pedestrians, however, are royalty. Cars will stop for you, no matter how fast they’re going. You just have to be brave enough to step out into the street and trust that those hurtling missiles will see you.

5. The food in Rome is astonishingly good no matter where you get it, but you’ll do better if you eat where the tourists aren’t – even if you are a tourist. Visit the tourist sites because that’s what you’re there to do but walk a few blocks and eat elsewhere. If nothing else it will be cheaper.

6. Our rule of thumb was that we tried not to eat at any restaurant where the menu had been translated out of Italian and into some other language, even if it wasn’t English. It led to some odd pantomiming when it came to ordering sometimes, but overall the food was its own reward. I will admit that we did not follow this rule 100% of the time, but – as noted above – the food in Rome is astonishingly good no matter where you get it so we didn’t suffer for it.

7. Romans do criminally wonderful things with pork. If there is a heaven after this life, it will serve guanciale.

8. Eat what you want. It would be absolutely irresponsible to be surrounded by such food and not try it all. If you’re worried about your weight, well, you can walk it off during your trip or you can worry about it when you get home.

9. Carbonara has no cream. This is not a matter of opinion. This is fact. Do not argue with it.

10. Bring a good pair of walking shoes because you’re going to do a whole lot of walking. According to the small pet demon who lives in Kim’s watch, we averaged about 20,000 to 24,000 steps a day, with my total on the lower end because my legs are longer than Kim’s. You do see the city that way.

11. Use the public transportation system. You learn much more about a place and the people who live there when you ride buses and subways than you ever will in an Uber. Rome has an excellent bus system that covers the whole city and runs frequently and mostly on time. It will take you from almost anywhere to almost anywhere, and GoogleMaps will guide you pretty much inerrantly to the bus you want (though whether it guides you to the bus stop you want is a different question entirely – be prepared to walk fast and/or retrace your steps sometimes). A ticket costs 1.5 euros and is good for 100 minutes so you can transfer to any other bus or the subway during that time. There are two subway lines – which, when you think about the archeological logistics of putting a subway line through a city that has been continually inhabited for nearly three thousand years, is pretty impressive – and the one time we tried it the ride was fast, clean, and trouble free. You don’t see as much as you do on a bus, but it is a lot faster.

12. Romans wear masks at all times indoors, and often outdoors as well. They are required on buses and subways. Covid vaccines are mandatory and you generally have to prove that you are vaccinated before you can enter businesses, restaurants, sporting events (when we went to a soccer game my vaccination status was checked by at least three different officials on the way in), and any historical site that has a monitored entrance. Get it as a QR code on your phone, but bring your CDC card as well since the Italian system doesn’t always recognize the American code. Italy was devastated by the pandemic when it first appeared and Italians know very well that “DON’T WANNA! CAN’T MAKE ME!” is not freedom but is instead the whine of a toddler. Grown-up freedom requires you to balance your rights as an individual against the legitimate demands of the society around you.

13. You will get used to ancient ruins pretty much everywhere you go – in neighborhoods, in parks, by the side of the road, everywhere. The new city grew up around the old one and the old one is still there. After a while you just think, “Oh, there’s another 2000-year-old Roman ruin” and you keep walking.

14. If there is a national fruit of Italy it would probably be the lemon. There are just so many lemon-flavored things there, from sodas to gelati to alcohol. As someone who loves lemons, this was a grand thing.

15. Learn the language. I did not do this, and I spent the week muddling through on “Prego,” “Scusi,” and whatever scraps I could remember from Anarita’s class my freshman year of college back in 1984. People were very kind and patient while I slowly figured out how to get close to what I wanted to say – I think they appreciated the effort, particularly the fact that I didn't just assume I could speak English and that would be enough – and eventually most of them did let me know they could speak at least a little English and we could work things out from there. But next time I go, I will be a bit more proficient.

16. I am not Italian. I am Italian-American. These are very different things.

17. When we were there the weather was fairly spring-like for Wisconsin – the highs ranged from 60-70F (15-21C) – but this is still rather chilly for a Mediterranean culture. You could always tell who was Italian and who was a tourist because the Italians a) were generally more stylish than the rest of us (what is it about them that they can do that even while dressing down?) and b) were wearing winter coats even as I was walking around in short sleeves.

18. This was the first long trip I have taken in the Empty Nest Era of my life. Oliver and Lauren were both still in the middle of their respective semesters, as our spring breaks did not align, so it was just me and Kim. There were, in other words, no small children. This meant that I did not need to pack my carry-on with vast stores of snacks for the flights, a fact that I did not discover until well after takeoff.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 2: Testaccio

One of the first things you learn about Rome is that Romans really don’t seem to care much about the exterior of buildings.

In the US, if a building looks shabby on the outside it is probably shabby on the inside, since Americans tend to see the interior and exterior of a building as a unified whole. This is simply not true in Rome. Often we’d be walking through some historic bit of Rome and come to a little piazza – they’re pretty much everywhere – on which would be anywhere up to three different churches, none of which looked particularly impressive from the street. But they’re all open to the public if you’re respectful, so we’d pick one and go inside and as soon as we’d pass through the doorway – BAM! – Renaissance jewel. Beautiful mosaics and sculptures. Floor to ceiling paintings by artists I’ve actually heard of (Carvaggio seemed to have supported himself pretty well by decorating churches, for example) – artwork that would be the prize of any museum on this side of the Atlantic. Sometimes I’d go back outside to look at the exterior again, just to make sure I hadn’t passed through some interdimensional portal to a more well-maintained universe, but no – it was just as plain and worn down on the outside as I remembered.

I found this a great help in understanding our apartment.

We stayed in a one-bedroom apartment in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, which is just south of most of the historic districts (such as the Colosseum and Trastavere) but within easy reach of pretty much everything. There were a pile of bus lines that ran through our neighborhood, for example, and we made good use of most of them to get around the city. And we could walk to most things as well if we were willing to take the twenty or thirty minutes to get there. The weather was gorgeous while we were there – sunny and mild, with highs generally between 60-70F (15-21C) and lows around 40F (4C) – so it was always a great place to walk. But after a while we were reminded that we were no longer 23 years old and took the bus.

The outside of the apartment building looked like this:

Our apartment was the one with the windows on the first floor, to the left of the entry door in the corner. You had to go up a half-flight of steps to get there once you got inside.

And inside? It was gorgeous.

The bottom two pictures are from the AirB&B website, since they’re nice pictures, but other than the random bottles of wine strewn around this is pretty much what it looked like. It was bright, airy, and there wasn’t a single sound-absorbing material anywhere other than the bed and the couch which meant that we kind of echoed a bit sometimes. It was a very comfortable place once you got used to that, and a friendly one.  People would say hello sometimes as we walked through the courtyard. I’d go back.

There was one night where we had simply maxed out and we decided that we’d just grab a quick something on the way back and stay in for the evening. We ended up piled onto the couch vaguely sort of watching Italian television.

This is an experience.

They seem to like game shows, though their game shows are very different from the ones we have in the US. The one we ended up watching a couple of times was a guessing contest where two people – who seemed like regular cast members – would face a group of maybe ten random Italian citizens who were standing on small platforms. There would be a list of ten occupations flashed on the screen, and – without asking any questions whatever of the citizens – the cast members would have to match the person to the occupation. I have no idea how they were expected to do that. “Hmm, you kind of look like you’d be an accountant…” How does that work? The first time we watched the show the cast members actually won, though not the second time. For the final event of the show they’d bring out someone’s relative – a mother, a son, someone – and the cast members would have to guess who this person was related to among the original ten random citizens, again without asking any questions at all, just kind of staring at them. All the while there would be rapid-fire Italian between the cast members and the host that the subtitles – also in Italian – did not really help with. It was a hoot, really.

The apartment was comfortable and we often slept in and had breakfast there before heading out.

Sometimes we’d just wander around the neighborhood. Testaccio is a very urban place and, as noted earlier, the exteriors of things are often well worn. They’re also covered in graffiti, which is everywhere in Rome except for the historic buildings or churches – those seem to get a pass.

This is the street we were on, Via Giovanni Bodoni.

The arch with the blue writing overhead led to a small courtyard where kids would gather for soccer practice, happily running and shouting and dreaming of becoming the next star for the home team no doubt. There was also a movie theater across the street which was our GoogleMap point since it was more accurate than the actual address of the apartment for some reason.

We really enjoyed Testaccio.

Right around the corner there was a small pasticceria where they served amazing cannoli and other pastries as well as espresso and, for those inclined, sandwiches. We’d go there most days, either on our way out or our way back from wherever was our plan for the day, and eventually I figured out the etiquette involved in paying.

A block further was La Botticella a Testaccio which is the only restaurant we ended up going to twice, mostly because it was really good and really nearby. Oddly enough they remembered us, probably because we were the only people we ever noticed there who didn’t speak Italian. Nobody but us spoke English. We sort of stood out. And yet it worked, for the most part. There is a story there for another post.

And if you went in the other direction there was a small park with a newsstand – an actual newsstand, with magazines and newspapers and everything – where you could buy bus tickets as well. Just to the right of that picture was a grocery store where we stocked up on snacks and breakfast food. It was a nice little neighborhood, and it was a good reminder that for all the tourism that Rome offers people do actually live there. They have normal lives that don’t involve catering to visitors. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when visiting a place.

Perhaps the most interesting place in Testaccio was the Market, though. It was kind of a cross between a farmer’s market and a second-hand mall – if you’ve ever been to Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia you’d recognize the place immediately, though Testaccio Market is a lot brighter – with some vendors having had stalls there for generations. I tended to stick to the food stalls, myself, but Kim was more adventurous. We stopped in toward the end of our stay and immediately wondered why it had taken us so long to get there, so we went back the next day for lunch.

It was very good.

With our base of operations secure, we looked forward to exploring Rome.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Roman Holiday, Part 1: We Go To Rome

When we planned this trip there wasn’t a second Omicron wave of the pandemic happening, nor was there the possibility of a third world war.

We’d renewed our passports over the semester break, since ours were expiring soon and it never hurts to have a ready-made path out of the country should needs arise. Plus we like to travel and see places and people, and having a passport makes all that easier. But when they asked us if we wanted to spend the money on expedited service, we declined. We had no plans. Maybe this summer if all went well, but certainly not before then.

Oh, such innocents we were.

The new passports arrived on a Monday in February, and by that Wednesday Kim had already gotten most of the planning done for this trip. This would be our long-delayed 25th Anniversary celebration, a present to ourselves from way back in November 2020 when we were lucky just to get the Oliver (and Dustin) back from college to have Thanksgiving with us, much against the advice of pandemic experts. No trips were being planned then. But as the Great Enlightened One has said, “That was then, this is now.”

Kim suggested Rome. I’ve long wanted to go to Italy. It’s the country of my heritage, at least on my mother’s side of the family (though my ancestors were peasants in Sicily and Basilicata – I sincerely doubt whether any of them ever set foot in Rome). It’s got great food and a recorded history stretching back thousands of years. You could pretty much drop in anywhere and spend a fascinating week without even scratching the surface. So Rome it was. This turned out to be an excellent plan.

I left all of the logistical planning to Kim, for several reasons.

First, because it needed to be done right and there was no way that was going to happen if I got involved. I don’t mind travel once I actually get on a plane or a highway. I like being other places. But the set up for such things – scheduling flights, booking lodging, figuring out schedules – makes me insane and my general reaction to it is simply to write the whole thing off and go about my life. Kim seems to enjoy the intricate planning that it takes to make all of this happen (though all of the Covid documentation was wearing on everyone, I think) and she’s good at it, and those are some sterling qualifications as far as I am concerned.

And second, because it has been one hell of a year or so for me, even over and above the whole “once in a century pandemic” and “attempted Fascist coup” thing that has dragged down most people you meet in the US these days. Last spring I had 150% of a job thanks to a couple of last-minute classes added to my schedule (“Sure, I can do that! How am I going to do that?”). The summer was equally busy. My autumn was stressful for other reasons. Christmas was full of Covid. I am, to be honest, fried. And adding travel to that was a hill to climb. I knew I’d enjoy it once I got there, but until then it was simply another thing to accomplish.

So leaving all of the planning to Kim was the right idea. And, for the record, I did enjoy it immensely once we got there.

What can I say, gents? She’s mine.

I will admit, however, that I’m not sure why anyone thought that putting the task of explaining and guiding travelers through all of the new and constantly shifting requirements for travel in this pandemic age into the hands of the airlines – organizations renowned for their utter inability to grasp the concept of customer service or even reliable telephone systems – was a good idea. More on that when I get to the part about coming home (spoilers!).

We left Our Little Town last Thursday, heading toward O’Hare. For those of you who have not had the experience, O’Hare started out as an orchard a hundred years ago (that’s why it says ORD on your luggage tags when you fly in or out of the place) and is now a standing testament to what happens when you concentrate stress and anxiety into a loud and utilitarian space. Among other things, the prices for food go up.

We parked at one of the places that does that for you, took the shuttle bus over to the airport, and got our boarding passes since the airline we flew out with only let you get vouchers for boarding passes ahead of time. I think they do this in order to confiscate your carry-on luggage and turn it into checked luggage. At least that’s how it happened for us. But it’s free if they do it, and it meant less to carry so that’s fine.

The flight out was the most profoundly uncomfortable flight I’ve ever taken. It was hot and poorly ventilated, with no air nozzle to point in your direction. The seats were narrow and crammed together so tightly that when the person in front reclined their seat even a little bit there was no room for you to open a book. And you need to wear a mask the whole time – something we got used to during this trip, to where it once again feels odd not to be wearing one – so the general sense of too much warmth never really let up. There was no sleep whatever for me on that flight, which I sort of expected (I don’t generally do well trying to sleep on planes) but which didn’t really need to be emphasized so much, I thought.

On the plus side, the food was good and they gave us real forks and knives, something I hadn’t seen on an airplane since the early 2000s.

We stopped in Zurich for about an hour and a half and then took a much more comfortable flight into Rome (it's amazing what a couple of inches of space and good ventilation will do for a weary traveler), arriving sometime Friday afternoon. After walking for approximately a hundred miles to collect our recently checked bags, we set out to find our Air B&B.

Rome’s airport is not actually in Rome. It’s about a 25-minute ride away, on the coast near Ostia – and if you know Roman history, that’s surprisingly appropriate since Ostia was traditionally Rome’s port city gateway to the world. It did mean that we needed to get from Point A (the Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino airport) to Point B (the Roman neighborhood of Testaccio, where our Air B&B was located) in some fashion, but fortunately Kim had figured out that there was a commuter rail line that ran from the airport to Trastavere, the neighborhood directly north of Testaccio, and for a reasonable fee we could just take that.

The train ride was fast and interesting, and gave us a glimpse of the Italian countryside, which as near as I could tell was green and somewhat blurry as we were moving through it at a rapid pace.

We arrived at Trastevere station and set off for Testaccio, about a 15-minute walk according to Google. And here we ran into what would be a recurring theme, at least for me.

I normally have a pretty good sense of direction. I can read maps pretty well, I generally know where I am relative to other things, and I am good at finding my way from place to place. This did not apply anywhere in Rome. The streets are small and there isn’t a straight stretch longer than a hundred meters in the entire city. I couldn’t even orient myself in the apartment consistently, which was a bit of a surprise actually.

What I’m saying here is that it took a while to get from the train station to our apartment, and in the process we saw a fair bit of the modern end of Trastavere. Modern Rome looks a lot like modern New York or Philadelphia or Paris, as near as I can tell – big, energetic, messy, covered in graffiti (though never on historic buildings), and full of the kind of life you can only get in big cities. I love it, though it can be tricky to navigate.

Eventually we found a bridge across the Tiber and headed into Testaccio, which was a much easier area to find your way. After a few minutes we turned up at the gates to the courtyard where the apartment was, met our host Stefano, and went inside.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

News and Updates

1. As of this writing, Kyiv still stands.

2. It’s very hard to focus on other things when you know there’s a barbaric war going on – and yes, I am well aware that there are barbaric wars going on all the time around the globe, but this one hits me harder than most and if you find that problematic I will thank you to keep that particular bit of information to yourself as I have my reasons – but the world continues to make demands anyway. This is one of the things wrong with the world.

3. With both of my kids in college now, spring break is A Thing more than ever. Oliver and Dustin spent the last week or so hanging out with us for their spring break, livening up the place a surprising amount for two relatively quiet people. It was good to have them here. They left to go back to Small Liberal Arts College today and the place seems much emptier now. Lauren’s spring break started yesterday but she is spending it in Texas visiting Maxim’s family and by all accounts having a grand time there. For me and Kim, spring break starts next week. There will be bloggage about that, no doubt.

4. I have a theory that there are only seven hundred people on the planet. They all know you and they all know each other. There are some issues that I need to work out about this theory (why can’t I find parking?) but every so often I find more evidence that this is true. For example, last night we drove up to see Helena in her play. She did a wonderful job and we enjoyed it very much!

But here’s the thing. Helena is the daughter of our Swedish friends, Mats and Sara. Mats met Kim when he was an exchange student in her high school (graduating class: 63) back in the early 80s up in northern Wisconsin, and now it is Helena’s turn to study abroad. It’s pretty random where they put you on these programs, and a lot of it depends on where they can find volunteers to house you. So it was really a bit of a surprise when Helena discovered that one of the teachers in her American high school is Paul, who was a friend and classmate of Mats and Kim back in the day.  Kim had not seen Paul in Many Moons, and we met him and his wife Lisa for dinner before the show. It was a grand evening all around, I say.

5. I finished my second book of the year today. Granted, it was a dense (though well written) anthropological study of, well, all of human history and every society within it, so I knew going in that it would take some time. But last year I hit this milestone around January 8, so I suspect this year’s book list will be rather shorter than usual. Oh well. It’s been that kind of year.

6. It was winter here right up until late last night, and now it is spring and looks to remain so for a while. I’m sure there will be one more dip in the temperatures and perhaps even another snowfall, but we do seem to be heading toward warmer weather.

7. I’ve spent most of the last four weeks cycling two different cars into various car repair shops. Neither of them is actually fixed at the moment, though there is light at the end of the tunnel for one which means that I can then get the other in for what might be its last visit for a while. It does get tiresome.  And expensive.

8. Can we all just agree that Daylight Savings Time is silly and forget about it? If we all decide to ignore it maybe it will go away.

9. They’ve lifted the mask mandate down at Home Campus for most spaces, which has caused various bits of Upheaval in some quarters, but for the most part it seems to be going well so far. The transition went more slowly than I thought it would but I suspect that this is because they made the announcement by email and students don’t read emails anymore. Emails are things their parents told them about, like boiled sweets and paper maps. So it was a gradual transition, which I suppose is for the best.

10. The longer Kyiv stands, the worse it gets for Putin and his regime. And the worse it gets for those assholes, the worse it gets for their willing stooges here in the US. Slava Ukraini.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Lost in Time

I have lost all track of time.

I spent most of last week about a day or two off, one way or another. This week I was so convinced that Tuesday was actually Thursday that I actually logged in to my remote class to post revised due dates for an assignment because I was sure I had gotten them wrong on the original announcement for it.

Turns out it was Tuesday all along.

I’m not used to losing track of time. I’m a historian, after all. Keeping track of time is one of the requirements of the job (though not keeping track of dates, really – that’s why there are reference books). I’m used to being able to know at the bare minimum what day it is, and usually I can tell you the time to within ten minutes without checking. But the last two weeks have been one unbroken blur.

It started last Monday when my remote class was taking an exam. I don’t log in for those – there’s precious little point to me staring at them for 50 minutes while they write since I can’t really see them that well anyway (on my screen an entire class is shown in a space about two inches by three, and I’ve got five separate classrooms to keep track of). Besides, there are facilitators on site who handle that. It’s a good system. But that meant I didn’t have an actual class with them until Wednesday which threw my whole week off, and then the next.

Oliver came home for spring break last Wednesday as well, which has been lovely. He and Dustin got here late that evening and we’ve been hanging around as much as possible. We don’t do a whole lot – there’s a lot of companionable silence, along with a few hockey games and one round of Carcassonne so far – but that’s kind of the point for spring break. It’s been a nice change of routine, which is a grand thing but also doesn’t help with keeping track of time.

Don’t even get me started on the news.

I suppose at some point I will reorient myself and know without checking what day it is again. I’m hoping this happens soon, since there are a few things I want to get done and the possibility that I might try to do them on a completely different day from the one where they are supposed to get done is a bit sad. But so it goes.

Time is an abstraction in the best of circumstances, but sometimes it is more abstract than others.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Resistance, Support, and a Reminder














Washington DC



St. Petersburg


And a reminder:


Thursday, March 3, 2022

The People You Get to Know

It’s odd the way you get to know people online.

A while back I found myself becoming interested in vintage photography – mostly early 20th century urban street scenes, though to be honest it’s all interesting to me. I’m a historian. Seeing how people lived, even just the tiny window that a photograph opens, is fascinating in its own right. Many of the photographs I’ve found while pursuing this interest are now in the PowerPoint slides that I show my history classes and while I don’t make too much of a fuss over them in class my impression is that the students enjoy seeing them as well.

One of the best places to find such things is on Instagram, which is full of people who love these old photographs, who seek them out and forward them along for the rest of us to enjoy. I’ve signed up for a bunch of these pages now and I’m always happy to see what they send along each day. It’s a nice break from the madness of the world.

I’ve never met any of the people behind these pages. They give you a window into their world with what they post and you feel you know them a bit in that strangely distanced way that one knows anyone on social media where you only see what people choose to show you, but many of them live in other countries and even those who might be close by are living their own lives. You do get to know them a little that way, however, and that has to count for something.

One of them in particular posted a link to her personal page at one point, so I figured why not and followed her there too. She’s an elegant young woman, rather cosmopolitan – she speaks at least three languages that I have seen – and she has a knack for finding interesting photographs. There’s a lot of overlap between the two pages she runs, but on her personal page she will sometimes let you into her life a bit more. Once she took us on a photographic tour of her hometown.

She lives in Ukraine.

Since the Russian invasion she has focused on bearing witness – on posting the things outside of her window, on reposting the things her friends and colleagues have posted, and on spreading the word of what is happening to her country and how people can help.

I do not know this person, not really, but I worry about her and I hope she is safe, and every so often I will reply to one of her stories to let her know that neither she nor her fellow Ukrainians are forgotten, that I and the vast majority of the world are doing what we can, even if all that means is reaching out to someone we only know through social media posts and offering support.

When all this is said and done, when Putin is gone, the invaders are removed, and Ukraine is calm again, I hope she can go back to posting her photographs. I think we’re both looking forward to that.