"Although there are cobblestones beneath my feet, this journey is anything but rocky..."
The Roman Forum or Foro Romano, was once the political, religious and commercial center of the city and the center of the civilized world. When you visit the site these days, you have to bring a healthy imagination in order to really picture the extent of the grandeur that once was. The city was born right here in the main square, although there are numerous conflicting mythical theories about how Rome was actually founded.
Walking around the Forum, it's easy to get lost amongst giant crowds of tourists from around the world. Even in May, which isn't quite the peak of tourist season yet, there are thousands who flock to these famous sights. So it's really a good practice in serenity and focus. As soon as I walked in, I started to tune everyone out. I stopped listening to international voices and only focused in on the thoughts that ran through my head as I was walking through what was once a thriving political, religious and commercial center. My guidebook was telling me to try to see it through "period eyes." The structures were once white with colorful monuments and buildings mixed in. I was starting to see it…
I used to be easily distracted, which often led to visible frustration and not being mindful of important moments. I used to get really annoyed if someone was speaking like they had a megaphone instead of vocal chords, but these days, I don't let it bother me. I know I don't have control over what others do, but I do have control over how I let it affect me. I really believe that as long as you make that conscious effort to focus, it's easy to clear the mechanism in your brain and remove everything you don't want from that moment. As I sat down on a set of stairs, I was seeing and hearing less and less of the people surrounding me and more and more of what was in front of me.
I was looking at the three columns left standing of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, one of the most photographed sights at the Forum and I was picturing the togo-clad senators meeting at the temple to discuss politics, the weather, and whatever gossip they had to share that day.
The Temple of Vesta is one of Rome's most sacred spots, from what's left of it, you can still make out the circular shape and picture Rome's residents gathering there around the sacred flame that burned within. It was so sacred that it was tended to by carefully selected Vestal Virgins, who were chosen at the age of 10 and required to serve 30-year terms.
According to legend, the virgins took a vow of chastity for 30 years and if they served that term faithfully, they were given a large sum of cash and allowed to marry. (Apparently, 40-year-old virgins were high in demand back then.) So what would happen if the virgins strayed and gave it up before their 30-year term was up? Well, it was bad. They were apparently strapped to a funeral carriage, paraded through town, then buried alive in a crypt. Therefore, if you were selected to be a Vestal Virgin, it was probably a good idea to keep your legs closed. What's 30 years of chastity compared to being buried alive?!
As I'm reading all these stories in my guidebook, I'm really picturing all of it well: the buildings, the senators, the virgins… It's pretty strange to see what's left, knowing what it used to be and I couldn't help but wonder how much longer these ruins would remain. Will the pieces I see now continue to be around for thousands of years so that generations from now, my great, great, great something-or-other would be able to imagine what I'm imagining right now in 2014?
Next, I made my way up to Palatine Hill, which is just to the left of the Forum but often ignored by tourists. Walking up the lush greenery of the Farnese Gardens and a fantastic view of the Forum below it, was peaceful to say the least. It required a lot less effort to focus up there. I was happy to have some time on a bench alone, just basking in the sunshine and the quiet and reading about what I was about to see on Palatine Hill. If you keep walking you can see the house of Augustus/Octavian, the first emperor of Rome and his wife, Livia's house just next door. For an emperor, Augustus lived rather modestly, tucked away from the busy Forum area. Of course when I noticed him and his wife had separate homes, I thought, oh my, wonder what that was about. (Drama!) At the top of the hill you get to see a phenomenal panoramic view of the city and as you can see, it was a gorgeous day! I stood up there for quite some time just taking all this in...
Now, I was on a mission to find Maximus Decimus Meridius and his homies...
The first time I saw Gladiator, I immediately thought of my first trip to the Roman Colosseum. Even now, it stands proud, representing Rome at its most grand. Officially known as the "Flavian Amphitheater," it was the center of entertainment for ancient Rome. Thankfully, as a human race, we've evolved from the time when watching people kill each other was a form of entertainment. (Or have we?) 50,000 people could fit in the colosseum at one time, partaking in the most popular "spectator sport" of the time.
According to my guidebook, the look of the colosseum says a lot about the Romans. They were great engineers, not artists, so the building is more functional than it is beautiful. (I concur.) The ever present Greek influence is evident in the columns and style of each level. At one point, copies of Greek statues stood tall throughout the building as well. After all these years, only about one-third of the building still stands. The functionality of the architecture is something to be admired. There were multiple ways spectators could enter and exit so the place could both fill up and empty rather quickly. And anyone who has ever been stuck getting into or out of a sports arena can understand how great that is!
If you use your imagination when glancing at the intricate passageways beneath the arena, you can picture the different ways the wild animals and warriors would pop up into the arena, just like in the movie. In all honestly, I did a quick spin around the inside and quickly made me way back out. I've been here twice before and of all the things I've seen and have yet to see in Rome, this is now the least interesting. Funny how things change. This was one of my favorite highlights of Rome the last time I was here. But I'm older now and I see so much more to Rome than what this colosseum represents. I'm extremely grateful for the fact that I live in a time when my entertainment is to go watch guys dunk a ball in a hoop or shoot a puck into a net as opposed to watching men murder each other in the name of entertainment. It just wasn't interesting anymore.
To quote a line from Gladiator: "The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the Colosseum." Legend has it that as long as the colosseum stands, the city of Rome stands. So for that sake alone, I hope it stands forever…
History was never one of my favorite subjects in school. I always preferred English. Anything to do with reading and writing was always more up my alley. Maybe I just liked to make things up or read things other people had made up and not deal with actual facts. Either way, the older I've gotten, the more interested I am in learning about the history of certain things. Since I'm living here this month I decided why not visit the National Museum of Rome and learn more about the history of this great city.
Now I couldn't remember visiting this place the last two times I was here. I want to say it's because we didn't see it, but then again that could just be me not remembering it because I found it to be so boring the first (or second) time around. Honestly, it was still a bit boring today, but I'm glad I went. And as you will see, I definitely know how to amuse myself in any setting. The museum gives an overview of the city's history, almost like you're walking back in time and the statues, frescoes and other works of art are giving you a tour of what it was like back then.
One immediate takeaway: so many of the relics of Rome's history, either came from Greece or were copied from the Greeks, so there's an abundance of Greek influence everywhere. Rome's legions conquered what they believed to be the more-cultured Greek civilizations by adopting the Greek gods, art styles, fashions and even language. No offense to the Romans, but walking through the museum I kept thinking of them as an annoying sibling who copied everything the other (Greek) sibling would do.
It was a little odd to see statues of Julius Cesar and then statues of Athena and Socrates. By the way, my guidebook, "Rick Steves' Rome 2014," describes Julius Cesar as, "a people's favorite. He gave great speeches. Chicks dug him." How could you not love that? For anyone interested in travel books, anything by Rick Steves is a good way to go because it's not only humorous but straight to the point. It gives you the basic info without bombarding you with facts that you won't be able to remember anyway. By reading the few pages on the National Museum, I was able to give myself a guided walking tour of each room and learn what I'm sharing with you in this post.
One of the most popular sculptures in the museum is that of Athena bathing. Can't a girl get some privacy?! The first thing I noticed (other than the fact that like most other statues in the museum, she missing arms and part of her skull) is her curvaceous body. Yes, she has some love handles and fat rolls. So what?! This is what real women looked like, people! (Who wants another canolli?)
I can't leave out my personal favorite, the sculpture of a man who has a head, and no real body but then has genitals carved out of the pillar of marble where his body should be. Now, either someone was super lazy or didn't get around to finishing this piece or he just wanted us to know that this guy was indeed a dude and leave it at that. Ok, we get it.
When reading the placards of many of the sculptures of heads and torsos, I noticed that the descriptions were often vague or unsure of exactly who the head may have belonged to. (A lot of, "Well, this COULD be Julius Caesar, but it could be his third cousin who was born 100 years later." Um, ok thanks.) That got old after a while. If you've seen one mystery marble head with curly hair, pupil-less eyes and a missing a nose, you've basically seen them all.
Side note: While climbing the stairs to see the next floor, I was quite amused by the giant red "Roman Numerals" that marked each floor of the building. How fitting. Did those come from the Greeks too?
Here are some more museum highlights:
Who wouldn't want a set of giant knockers?
Somewhere out there is a pissed off one-armed giant...
This guy looked like he needed a friend.
There's a section of old coins, some of which were giant and heavy. Imagine carrying those puppies around with you to the market when you had to go buy yourself a horse. I also saw some ancient Roman jewelry, which for a former jewelry buyer was nothing to write home about.
Two-plus hours and all that history had made me hungry. Also, Athena made me realize that I have lots of room to devour some pasta without the risk of love handles. So it was off to Mamma Angela's Trattoria, a place I read about on Yelp. As we all know, in the US, people constantly use Yelp. That isn't really the case in Europe, although most reviews you do see are graciously written by Americans on holiday. Mamma Angela had gotten some great reviews so I decided to check it out. It did not disappoint!
I treated myself to a glass of local Rose, bruschetta (which I enunciated perfectly, thank you, Giada DeLaurentis) and fettucine fruitti di mare (mixed seafood). I wanted to try the tiramisu but I was stuffed, so I had to follow it up with an espresso to make sure I didn't fall into a pasta-induced coma. I didn't get to meet Mamma Angela, but she's top notch. If you're ever in Rome, go check out her ristorante.
Those of you who know me, know my love affair with food, so there will definitely be more of these pictures to make you all jealous in the coming days. I just signed up for two different food tours through a highly recommended company called Eating Italy. They walk you through certain neighborhoods in Rome and you basically eat for 4 hours straight. Yes, please! Or I should say, "Si, per favore!"
One thing about me is that I love to learn new languages and I actually learn pretty quickly. Before I went to Paris last year, I studied some basics so that I could at least try to order a glass of wine in French. And locals always appreciate it when you try. So here I am in Rome, and I'm spouting out basic greetings and ordering food in Italian to the best of my ability and everyone is responding to me in English! And here I was thinking my Italian accent wasn't half bad. Apparently, it's bad enough that I have "I'm an American, please respond in English," written all over my forehead. But it's still just the first week, so I'll keep practicing and maybe I can fool someone at some point.
"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R.R. Tolkien
Never did I think I would quote "The Lord of the Rings," but here we are. First full day of wandering around Rome and I couldn't feel any less lost. Although I've been to this incredible city twice before, I'm a mere stranger to these streets and to the tourists and the locals alike. But I feel oddly at ease and at home already.
Being sick with a nasty cold, traveling the long distance, and now jetlag is definitely presenting sleep and lack of energy challenges. But right now, I'm up for anything. It's all part of the experience. I woke up at 3:30 a.m., which wasn't a total loss because I was up just in time to watch my Golden State Warriors play Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA Playoffs via a live stream online. And believe me, when I watch my sports teams, I'm always wide awake!
After the Warriors got an exciting win, I went back to sleep for a few more hours, just as the sun was struggling to come up behind thick, grey clouds. I got up to a cool and rainy day in Rome. After a quick breakfast I went in search of the first of many cappuccinos that will undoubtedly ruin all prior and future cappuccinos I consume in my lifetime.
The keys to the apartment I've rented for the month look as old as the building and there's one of those primal elevators, the kind where you have to open a metal door and then a set of wooden doors within it. (FYI and note to self, the elevator won't move until you close those doors behind you after you step inside. I learned this during the minute or two I was inside waiting for absolutely nothing to happen.) The elevator is just big enough for one person to stand comfortably. If anyone was with me, I'd probably just constantly take the stairs to avoid the slow rise to the sixth floor within a confined space, breathing with another human. Although, I should probably take the stairs anyway…
So without any real plan, I walked outside and then into the metro to buy a ticket and hopped on line A with no real direction in mind. As someone who usually loves to plan and always needs a direction, my current comfort with spontaneity is refreshing and slightly terrifying. All I knew was that other than the caffeine fix, I was in dire need of an umbrella. Luckily there are men walking around everywhere selling them, so after I got off the metro, an endless array of umbrella options came to me.
When I exited at the Barberini station, it was just a few minutes walk to the famous Trevi fountain. I figured, why not start there? In 1995 and 2001, I contributed coins to that fountain, wishing as all Roman tourist do, to come back to this marvelous, chaotic urban jungle. Rome's history spans thousands of years, and here I am among the 2.7 million residents and countless tourists, new umbrella and goofy smile in tow, looking up at one of the most famous Roman landmarks.
Now as if straight out of a movie, the slow, steady rain turned quickly into a full-blown downpour. I ran and ducked into an open courtyard door with a bunch of strangers because my new umbrella was suddenly useless. I stood there and looked around. Cobblestones, old brick walls, open window shades, concerned faces and a sea of colorful umbrellas shading drenched tourists and their expensive cameras. Pretty much everything was as I remember it. Except maybe all the people taking selfies, (myself included). Not many of us did that in 1995 or 2001, especially on 35mm film that we'd later have to take to the drug store to develop.
Trevi Fountain is majestic, 86 feet high, and over 160 feet wide. Over 3,000 Euros worth of coins are thrown into it daily (with the right hand over the left shoulder, if you want to abide by tradition and do it properly). The city graciously gives that money to charity, but apparently delinquents regularly try to steal the coins, hence this sign, which clearly doesn't stop them. They got 20 whole cents out of me this time around!
After I took a respectable number of selfies (one), I couldn't deny my wet walking shoes and my lack of caffeination. I recalled the initial important task at hand: I still haven't found that perfect cappuccino. Surprisingly, I don't see any coffee shops in the Piazza de Trevi. So I went for the next best thing: coffee gelato! Cause that's basically the same, right? (Just humor me.) It appears that most of the authentic coffee shops don't give you take out cups anyway, you either sit down at a table or stand at the bar and drink your delicious poison. So until it's nice enough to sit outside and sip the magical concoction at my leisure while people watching, the gelato will have to do. Ahh, yes. Gelato in the rain, that has to be in at least one Federico Fellini movie, right? (Frank, stay tuned for my "adventures in dancing in fountains while (hopefully) not getting arrested and thrown into an Italian jail" story.)
Strolling around Rome, I started recognizing the other reasons why my 15-year-old and 21-year-old selves loved it so much, there are shoe stores on every corner! That's surely a love I'll never outgrow. Next thing I know, it's already late in the afternoon and between my internal clock's turmoil, my damp jeans and shoes and my stomach wanting more than just eggs and gelato, it was time to head home to the local market and pick up lunch/dinner.
Successful first full day! Più a venire! (More to come!)
By the way, many of you asked to see pictures of my apartment, so here it is:
If you have the means, business class for international travel is worth every giant bag of pennies or every single one of the thousands of accumulated miles you've saved for a rainy day. I was lucky enough to be able to book business class for this entire trip and the amount gratitude I have for that is off the charts. Not only do you get decent food and a selection of movies, but you get off the airplane feeling slightly human, like your spine is basically still in tact and your lips are nice and hydrated from the extra chapstick you get in your toiletry pack. The ability to lay completely flat and get a decent amount of sleep while you're in the air for a whole day is absolutely priceless.
My British Airways flight left San Francisco in the afternoon on April 30 and flew directly to London Heathrow. I had to hustle through that giant airport so I wouldn't miss my connecting flight to Rome. What I didn't know at the time was that the one suitcase I brought with me for two whole months decided not to hustle with me. When I arrived in Rome, I was bagless.
Under most other circumstances, my former self would've felt agitated or angry. But I didn't. I was too happy that after a year of thinking about this trip and then planning this trip, I was finally ON this trip. I was too happy to be in Rome. I was too happy I got here in one piece. I was too happy I finally watched "About Time" as per my best friend's recommendation and weeped uncontrollably on the plane while also laughing at the fact that she had totally warned me that that would happen. (Thank you Co, my waterworks partner in crime.) So my bag wasn't here. Eh, it would get here eventually.
I was informed that my bag was indeed on the next flight out from London and would arrive within the hour. Fabulous! Time for one of my favorite things ever: people watching. I saw a group of elderly couples from a tour all helping each other collect their bags. I saw parents holding the hands of sleepy children, slowly sucking on pacifiers and holding security blankets. I saw Italian women channeling their inner Donatella Versace with platinum blonde hair, leather pants and high heels. Next thing I knew, my bag had arrived. Boom.
Being that I was already late meeting my landlord to get my apartment keys, I decided to take a taxi instead of trying to figure out which bus/train to take into the San Giovanni neighborhood. As soon as I showed the cranky driver my address he started complaining about how much traffic he'd have to endure to get me there. I just smiled at him and nodded. All good buddy, just go. We'll survive. And that we did. Some Google map action, a couple of side streets and (voila!) that wasn't so bad, was it buddy? As soon as I gave him a 5 Euro tip, he was my best friend and gave me his card, in case I ever needed another ride somewhere.
Now, the apartment.
I spent months trying to find the perfect place on Airbnb and every bit of research was worth it. This place is superb. Major street, one block from the metro. Sixth floor, newly renovated apartment with all the windows facing a quiet courtyard. It's clean, it's comfortable and it's the perfect size, just small enough to be cozy and big enough to not feel claustrophobic. There's a giant supermarket across the street, a gelato shop next door and pizza by the slice around the corner. Jackpot! I couldn't be happier with my choice.
I'm in Rome, people. I'M IN ROME. And this is home for the next month…
Ever so grateful.
I'm finally doing it. My own personalized version of Eat Pray Love. A three-part trip that will enlighten, improve and challenge me in every way.
DISCOVERY: Deciding where to go on this soul searching, Ph.D. lesson in myself has been more challenging than I expected. Rome was always a clear choice, the absolute no-brainer. Ever since the first time I saw Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, ever since I first stepped foot on the Roman soil at 14 years of age, I knew there was something magical about that city. The second time I went after college, I felt an even stronger connection. I spent days with nothing but a map, exploring and taking it all in. When it was time to leave, I knew I wasn't done. I knew that one day, I would go stay there for longer than a few short days. The third time will be the charm. I'm ready to immerse myself in the culture, the atmosphere, the food, and to do as the Romans do. I'm going to take my time really discovering what it means to be a resident of Rome, the ins and outs, the daily routines and the way of life, all while relying on no one but myself, my instincts, my guidebook and my sense of adventure.
EXPLORATION: I wanted the second part of the trip to be about exploring new places I've never been. My list of places in the world to visit is ridiculously long, and although I wanted to cross a few of those places off, I also didn't want to cram too much in. I already know what it's like to tour too many places in a short amount of time and have any and all memories end up mashed together into one blurry flashback. So I decided on just three other European cities: Prague, Berlin and Munich. I'm spending 4 days in each city so I can see the sights and experience the culture. I also wanted to experience long train rides through the European countryside and so I'm taking the Eurorail from Prague to Berlin and then from Berlin to Munich, to add to the adventure.
EXHILARATION: Finally, after 6 weeks alone in Europe, I can't think of a better way to end my trip abroad than with a few weeks in Brazil, surrounded by family, friends and millions of soccer fans who are flying in from all parts of the world to attend the World Cup. As an avid sports fan, I know the thrill that comes with experiencing live competitive games. It transports you to a world where nothing exists but the battle between two teams, heart palpitations and thousands of other fans sighing, yelling and holding their breaths at the exact same times you do. Brazil will be electric with World Cup hysteria. This only happens once every four years, and this isn't just soccer. This is soccer IN BRAZIL. I can't wait to experience it with my family and friends
Well, folks. April 30 is just around the corner. I'M READY.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” - Ernest Hemingway