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.

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