Sunday, July 28, 2013

Part I: Rome if you want to

This post will be in 4 parts: Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, England.

My first slice of pizza in Rome

Airplanes are magical, aren’t they? About 22 flights ago, I am en route from Houston to Dubai. We are about 9 hours in, and at 2 am we begin to dance with a fair amount of turbulence. In my experience, it is a terrifying amount of turbulence that lasted for 2-3 hours…a geologic amount of time when you are in the air. I checked the in-flight route after checking my pulse (120) and we are somewhere over the Alps. My mind goes instantly to the part in the movie, Alive where the God-forsaken survivors finally succumb to eating the frozen butt cheek meat of their fellow downed passengers. Tears well up and I brace myself by gripping the arm rests and putting my feet against the seat in front of me. The cute little boy-child who shouted incessantly for the previous 9 hours is now screaming every time we hit an air pocket. A fleeting thought enters: “If I survive this thing and we’re stranded, I’m gonna bite his little frozen butt cheek first.” It is a low point. Crew members are asked to cease service and batten themselves in several times. I try my mantra: “rutted road, country bus, rutted road, country bus.” Don’t ask. It works often, but not when your stomach feels like it’s touching your uvula.
In love with the rooftops of Rome

When I get to my modern box of a hotel room in Dubai, I genuflect on the floor, face down and cry. I think of how I could make a life for myself in Dubai. I will not fly to Cape Town. There must be another way. A boat perhaps or maybe now is that moment when I decide to ride a bicycle from Dubai to Cape Town. I make international news, say I am riding for world peace or the Tranquilizers for All Association and no one is the wiser that I am just cycling away from my terror.

I still fly. I can’t say I enjoy it, but it is a bit of a necessary component to international adventure. Recently, I went on a sort of unofficial boot camp to face my fear of flying: 10 flights totaling 30 hours in 20 days. The first stop is London, just for the night. I have my first, and what I believe to be the best, tea and scones with clotted cream & preserves. I don’t make a habit of eating anything with the word “clot” in it, but this is exceptional.

The next morning is flight #2 to Rome. I take one bus and one train to meet my Italian friend that I met in the Bahamas in 2009. If I could have a younger Italian sister, Laila would be my first choice. She is sarcastic, loves pizza and coffee as much as I do, and rolls her eyes every time I try to correctly pronounce scordatelo, which roughly translates to “forget it.” Want to wait in a queue of 400 to go inside the Coliseum? Scordatelo. Want to wait in a queue of 1,053 to walk through St. Peter’s? Scordatelo. Want to buy a rose? A pope keychain? A squishy plastic pig that squeals when you throw it on the ground? Scordatelo. My favorite Italian word by far. I am in Rome for 3 days. While Laila works at the Explora Il Museo Dei Bambini Di Roma, I go on a 5-hour walkabout. Piazza del Popolo yields an array of iPhone-weilding tourists, gelato-eating locals, Michael Jackson impersonators, and teens playing tongue hockey under a sculpture that is most certainly judging them. As I roam through Rome, I cannot help but notice all of the graffiti. Is this not a global mecca for art? The graffiti is lifeless, flat and unintelligent. Banksy needs to organize some kind of intervention. I weave through the Piazza di Spagna like a lonely sardine in a shoal of thousands donning fanny packs, big bellies and fat cameras. 
Piazza di Spagna

After climbing several stairs, and going through the guantlet of smiling Pakistani men selling red roses, I stumble into the Villa Borghese and lie down in the grass. I teach myself a few things from my Italian phrase book that I will never be brave enough to use. I feel that I am ultimately wired like David Sedaris when it comes to language. My heart is in it, but my tongue mangles my well-intended pronunciations. As I butcher Italian under my breath, I ponder the landscape and watch people sitting, walking, riding and running. I watch one particular couple, on a pedal-power quad bike go over a bump in the road, which dislodges an object from the back of the bike. They carry on and I look all over the place to see if anyone witnesses it. My instinct is to yell and get their attention, but pride keeps me silent. I don’t want to give away that I am an American. “Hey y’all! Scusi!” never crossed my lips. I get up and walk over to the object. It is her purse. Again, I canvass my surroundings like a monkey about to take a sandwich off a table. I pick up the purse and bring it back to my tree: phone, ID card, wallet. I wait for an hour to see if they backtrack and then walk on to have a glass of wine on a rooftop bar. Just as I pull out their phone, it rings. A phone call from “My Love.” I answer and a man speaks. I reassure him that the bag is in good hands. We agree to meet at the obelisk, which is the equivalent of saying you will meet someone in Manhattan at the tall building. We are both Rome rookies, so I chug the wine, pay the bill and walk to meet them back in the Piazza del Popolo. I find the happy and relieved couple from Portugal. She is in a sweet white dress above the knee and he in a bowtie. They got married in Rome this morning. I give them both big hugs. We are all smiles for a few photos. He buys me a Pakistani rose and we part ways.
Me and the Newlyweds

In my estimation, I believe I rode the train 10 times, rode on a bus 14 times, traveled in a car 3 times, and walked about 11 miles. I attend one Buddhist meeting and watch an episode of Little House on the Prairie, both of which are in Italian and make me smile. Nothing like hearing Laura say: "Bene, ogni volta che ti infili il naso in aria con me, Nellie Oleson, che sta per ottenere un pugno!"  
Laila and I in an ocean of tourists gathered around the Trevi fountain

The food was by far, the best thing about Rome. Yes, yes, the historical architecture isn’t bad either, but when every landmark is literally crawling with tourists and accented with swindlers dressed in everything from mock Hari Krishna costumes to gladiator apparel…it just makes you want to sit on the steps with another gelato and call it a day. In just 4 short days in Rome, Laila assists me in consuming 9 slices of pizza, 3 bowls of pasta, 12 espressos, one lemon gelato, and 2 supplis (foodgasmic fried balls made of rice and cheese).
My free bag of pasta in San Felice
During my short time in Italy, I stay in Sacrofano with 3 lovely ladies and 4 cats. In Sacrafano, it seems everyone has at least a few olive trees, in which they harvest and take somewhere to get processed. Their 6-7 trees provide them with about 35 liters of oil per year. I stay with Laila and her mom in her hometown of San Felice. If you think of the shape of Italy as a boot, this sweet little coastal town is located near the shin. I buy 2 pairs of crocheted earrings that Laila’s mom made and gladly received a free bag of homemade pasta from a sweet old lady in a white coat. The best parting gifts ever. As I hug Laila good-bye and board my 14th and final Roman bus ride, I think, “How about another plane ride?” And as the Italian stone pines whiz past me on my very fast bus, I say under my breath several times to refine my annunciation and animation, “Scordatelo