Roman Holiday (Part Four)

[The last of the Italy recaps, finally. Istanbul to follow soon!]

Sunday, 9 Mar: Rome, Sweet Rome

Our plan for Sunday is mighty ambitious. We’ve basically outlined a walking tour of the entire city to see all of the things we’ve missed: we start at the Vatican (where Flatmate Megan attended an early mass – we meet her there), walk over towards the Castello di San Angelo, along the Tiber for a while, across the river, by the Ara Pacis (which is enclosed in a gorgeous modern building with a disappointingly high entrance fee) and the Mausoleum of Augustus, up to the Piazza del Popolo for gelato and a sit at the base of the obelisk, up the adjacent steps and along the outskirts of a part, over and down the Spanish Steps for a quick street-café lunch, to Trevi Fountain to make wishes and throw Euros into the water, back over to the Colosseum and up the Via dei Fori Imperiali to take daytime pictures of the Forum from the Capitoline, then over to the Circus Maximus and, finally, down to the Baths of Caracalla to gawk at the mosaics and accidentally watch seagulls mating.

…For those of you keeping track, we walked ALL OF ROME. All of it. No, really – all of it. It’s incredible, of course, and I’m thrilled that I got to see the rest of the major landmarks (I really don’t think we missed a single one), but by the time we leave the Baths, it’s getting cold and I’m practically dead on my feet. Plus, I’d started feeling kind of ill around lunchtime (the details, you don’t need to know), so I head back to the hostel to lie down for a while, while the other three hit up the Santa Maria Maggiore, the beautiful old church we’ve walked past every day on our way to breakfast. By the time they return bearing dinner, I’m feeling considerably better. We’re all quite exhausted, and spend our last night in Rome on the roof terrace again, huddled in blankets, pondering Deep Things and talking into the darkness.

Monday, 10 Mar to Thursday, 13 Mar: Venice!

From here, our tale becomes simpler to tell. We’ve reached a parting of ways: Flatmates Megan and Eric are headed to Florence and then to Venice, while Flatmate Kathleen and I are going straight to Venice, whence she’ll leave for Paris and I’ll return to London. We arrive by train in the middle of the afternoon – it’s been another grey day so far – and as we make our way through the terminal, we get increasingly confused: there don’t seem to be any directions towards public transportation. “Let’s just go outside,” Flatmate Kathleen says. “See what’s out there.”

The second we step outside the train terminal, the reason for the lack of signage becomes clear. Public transportation in Venice? Consists of BOATS. On WATER. Because it’s VENICE. We can’t help but laugh, a little embarrassedly, at ourselves, because of course it’s boats, duh, canals. But that moment, the two of us realizing exactly where we are, is magical.

We take the waterbus to the San Marco stop, which is within close walking distance of our B&B (that’s right, no sketchy hostels for us – we travel in style. Style that is priced about the same as hostels in the area; we so win at life), and the ride is almost exactly what you’d expect a boat ride in Venice to be. The buildings are old and beautiful and look like they’re just waiting to collapse into the Grand Canal; slender gondolas rub elbows with ugly square-ish boats loaded with fish, the owners of each shouting at each other in Italian; there’s a cold breeze off the water and it smells slightly foul. In short, it’s fantastic. “We’re in Venice,” I keep repeating to myself under my breath, disbelievingly.

We finally find our B&B (a word to the wise: maps in Venice are kind of a joke – while they tell you what’s going on, kind of, they don’t really prepare you for the reality of canals and bridges and bizarre little alleyways bored through buildings) and check in with a sweet young woman who asks us what time we’d like breakfast (“8:30? 8:30 sounds good.”) and whether we’d like tea or coffee with it (“Coffee. Definitely.”). She then shows us the bathroom, and our room, which is directly across the hall. It is also gorgeous. Tapestry walls; a real terrazzo floor; either a real or a fake Murano glass chandelier, but either way I’m not complaining; the most comfortable bedding I’ve ever seen; a full-sized sofa, because in addition to being insanely beautiful, the room is also huge. “This will do nicely,” we say coolly. “Thank you.” The woman leaves the keys with us and leaves the room, closing the door behind her, at which point Flatmate Kathleen and I both whisper-yell at each other: “What the hell?! Who are we?! What is this place?!”

It’s a pretty sweet room, let me tell you.

And so, for the next three days, Flatmate Kathleen and I just…relax. We spend our days strolling through the narrow streets, poking our heads into the small artisan-y shops and frighteningly shiny boutiques alike. We head to Saint Mark’s basilica one morning, spend a leisurely few hours admiring the mosaics and browsing the attached museum, are treated to an unexpected performance by a youth choir (those kids were good – the music and the environment were a chilling combination), and afterwards feel completely uncompelled to see any other landmarks or tourist destinations. After our marathon-sightseeing in Rome, we’re content to just enjoy Venice. We decide quickly upon our favorite restaurant and eat there two days in a row, nearly crying when we each order the first salad either of us has seen in what feels like weeks. We buy large chunks of dark chocolate and savor them over a period of days. We partake in a little bit of retail therapy, but mostly we just browse, picking out chandeliers and designer outfits we’d like to own. Someday.

And we talk. Without a laundry list of Things To See, we feel completely okay about sitting down for lunch and ending up talking for an hour and a half. We talk as we peruse shop windows; we stand on bridges and stare down narrow canals and talk; we talk late into the night in our room. Silly things, important things, sad things and happy things – it’s a wonderful period of intense bonding, even Flatmate Kathleen and I were already very close, and I keep having moments where I just stop and think, “Wow, I’m so glad I’m friends with this person.” We talk, and we laugh – more than is probably legal or healthy. It’s really quite lovely.

Our time in Venice is exactly what I need, after Rome. Rome was awesome, but it feels wonderful to actually be on vacation, and in such a beautiful, evocative place. Every street in Venice feels significant, somehow; the small details of the place, carved window ledges and painted shutters, lend a poetic – almost sad – air to the place. It’s a bit sad to see how moneyed and tourist-focused it’s become – it’s a bit like an amusement park, Flatmate Kathleen points out, practically closing down at a certain time each day – but at the same time, there’s no other place like it on earth. I’m okay with it being a bit superficial, because superficial in Venice means something completely different than superficial elsewhere in the world. It’s a beautiful, romantic city; when I reach a point in my life where overseas travel isn’t this one-time thing, I plan to return to Venice for this same feeling of…of peace, I suppose, but in a different way than I’ve ever felt it before.

And that’s perhaps the biggest realization I come upon, over this wonderful, insane spring break: I love to travel. Oh, I know that everyone lists “travel” on their Facebook interests these days, but this is actually a fairly big deal for me, recognizing that traveling is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve always wanted to travel in a very academic sense – I wanted to see Europe, see things like Roman ruins and castles and all of that, and of course I wanted to make my pilgrimage to Ireland – but I’ve never had the same sort of wanderlust that I’ve seen (and, in some ways, envied) in other people. But after organizing this trip to Italy more-or-less on my own, and realizing how possible it is to get around, even in a non-English-speaking country, I’m realizing just how much I love travel. I don’t want to become a nomad – I love the idea and feeling of home too much for that – but I want to be able to go places, regularly if infrequently, to learn and see and eat and gain the wonderful perspective that comes with traveling.

I’m not just talking about overseas, either – there are so many places in the United States that I’d love to see. Sunset magazine regularly features articles for “perfect three-day weekends” in great places around the West – Taos, Portland, Phoenix, Vancouver – and I always loved their compact but satisfying itineraries: dinner here, a museum or two there, art galleries and small cafes and the ever-prized Local Flavor. And why can’t I do that, in the future, once I have a steady job and maybe someone to travel with? What spring break has made me realize is that I can, and in fact should.

On Thursday, Flatmate Kathleen and I navigate our way to the airport (without incident, although it’s considerably more complicated than getting around by waterbus), say goodbye, and I begin the journey back to London. Traveling with company is always fun, but there’s something I love about traveling alone: the rhythm of it, the iPod-induced bubble, window seats and daydreaming and the heady potential of flying through the vast blue sky.

On the ground again in London, I buy a ham-and-cheese pastie for the train and, because it’s not pizza or pasta, it feels like the best thing I’ve ever eaten. It’s remarkable how much like homecoming it feels, riding the Gatwick Express through the extremities of the Greater London area; it’s relieving, even though I’ll have to navigate a crowded Tube with my suitcase and go grocery shopping the second I’m back in the flat. But for a precious thirty minutes on the train, I’m free to listen to music and stare significantly out the window, watching retaining walls and back gardens and storage yards flashing past, tiny slivers of the world that exist for only a moment before they pass by. A middle-aged woman throws a ball for her two dogs in a muddy yard; another woman pushes her child in a stroller while talking into her phone; a gangly teenager, socks pulled a little too high, jogs up a path through the trees. There’s something so fascinating about watching all of these little stories rushing past, something so poignant about this picture of England I rarely get to see – maybe I’m just moody because I’m tired, but there’s a beautiful poetry to the train ride. I turn the volume up a little on my iPod, happy to just sit and watch and end this wonderful break with a little quiet dignity.


1 Response to “Roman Holiday (Part Four)”

  1. 1 pianola April 7, 2008 at 12:36 am

    Eeeh! More general excitement. Venice is unlike anywhere else. I seethe at your lodgings.


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