The innocents have gone abroad and returned! 🙂 If you don’t catch the literary reference there, I would recommend reading the book. I read it back in high school and really liked it. Mike dislikes the use of the term ‘innocents’ a little given that he’s been to Europe (Germany) before, but given that that was a work trip and an entirely different country, so I think I can safely still refer to us as European ‘innocents’. 🙂
Let’s start at the very beginning: the trip to Italy. People say that ‘getting there is half the fun’. I don’t think the people who say this have traveled for twenty hours in a cramped plane to get to their destination. Mike had some idea of what we were getting into since he went to Germany last year, but I had never been in a plane for longer than five hours. This trip was significantly longer than five hours! For starters we had to get to the airport extra early since our flight was international. Basically, our US driver’s licenses meant nothing. Everything related to passports. Interestingly, however, even though we were advised to be to the airport three hours early for an international flight, we actually got through security just as quickly as we have for domestic flights. What this meant was that our trip began with the two of us waiting patiently in the SeaTac airport for our plane to start boarding.
It was fine though. There were coffee shops in the restaurant that we made full use of. When we got to board I had a thrill of excitement that we were flying in a Boeing 747. I had never flown in a place with two aisles before, so this was exciting.
The eight hours of the flight between Seattle and London was somewhat less exciting. For someone like me who has difficulty sitting through a two-hour movie without getting restless, it was definitely a challenge. I watched a TV show on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me. Twenty minutes. I watched another show. Another twenty minutes. I started a historical fiction book about the War of the Roses that I’d bought specifically for this trip. A hour went by. Ok. Now only about six hours left. I watched the map that alternated between showing our progress across the U.S. and our speed, altitude, and number of miles remaining. We were moving very slowly across the world. Very, very slowly. Then I watched a movie on the in-flight entertainment system called The Intouchables. It’s a French movie with English subtitles, and it was really great! Excellent acting, and it was also based on a true story. But then there were still about three hours left of the flight to London. Mike and I discussed the movies that we had watched. He had watched Argo, which is a new Ben Affleck movie. There were still 2 and a half hours left. You get the idea. 🙂 It’s crazy that people used to have to spend months at sea to get across the ocean. What did they find to do with themselves on the ship? My attention span won’t even allow me to stay in a seat for a 12-hour flight. 🙂
We had a four-hour delay in London, which was just as well because the London Heathrow airport had lots of stores and was pretty interesting. Also, we were starving despite the food on the plane and ready for something heartier!
It was when we were in the London airport that we really started feeling the jet lag start to kick in, but we powered on. We still had a four-hour flight from London to Rome, and despite having been awake for about twenty-hour hours, we were going to land in Rome at only about 6pm local time.
Landing in Rome was surreal. Mike was sleeping as we landed, but I had a window seat and was looking out and watching the lights of Rome get closer and closer as the plane descended. All I saw were thousands of twinkling lights below to indicate the presence of a city. From that height it could have been any city in the world. But it wasn’t. It was Rome, Italy. An incredibly historic city that had been the center of power for the Roman Empire in Biblical times. A place where the apostle Paul appeared before Caesar. A place full of ancient ruins to remind us that we don’t exist in isolation at this point in time. People have lived and died for thousands of years before us, living in very different circumstances and very different environments, but still ultimately they aren’t very different than us.
As we descended lower and lower I was able to see more and more of the landscape. The sun had set, but I was able to see that we were coming in over the Tyrrhenian Sea with its many lighted buoys bobbing up and down and then we were circling back to approach Rome from the opposite side. The green lights along all of the runways stood out in stark contrast to the yellow lights of the rest of the city. Another moment and we were on the ground… officially in the city of Roma, Italia!
Mike and I were pretty tired when we got off of the plane, but there was no time to rest yet! We still had to find our hotel! It seemed as though everyone had warned us about pickpockets in Rome, so we were ultra careful keeping track of our bags. We first went to an ATM and withdrew money in Euros. American dollars weren’t much use to us anymore! Coming from Seattle, we were familiar with buses, and we quickly located one going to Roma Termini train station (right near our hotel). Perfect! We hopped on, exhausted. During our ride the bus passed one giant, ancient-looking arched dome and we exchanged wide-eyed glances with each other. That definitely hadn’t been built in the last couple hundred years!
We became very familiar with Roma Termini station by the time we left Italy, but didn’t know much about it that first night when our bus pulled up to the giant, ancient building with intense rows of huge columns along the front. We were still wide-eyed with wonder at the whole experience. As it turned out, Roma Termini was a travel center for Rome, both for regional and local travel. During our four-day stay in Rome we caught trains from there to go to other areas of Rome (like Vatican City and Trastavere), but then when we left Rome to go to another Italian city we were also able to easily catch a train from there. Everything from the metro subway, to low-speed local trains, to high speed EuroStar bullet trains to local buses departed from Roma Termini station. We definitely benefited from choosing a hotel right near Roma Termini!
However, while on the subject of our hotel and its proximity to Roma Termini I have to spend a little time talking about street navigation in Rome. This is necessary so that Mike and I aren’t viewed as directionally incompetent because we were unable to find our hotel despite it only being two blocks away from the station and despite us having a street map of downtown Rome.
The street system in Rome was not designed by civil engineers. It wasn’t vetted by government officials. It was in place long before there were cars and the necessary consideration of pedestrians. Rome is ANCIENT, particularly the historic district surrounding the train station. This meant several things:
1) There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the direction of the streets. There is no sense of a grid. If you stay on a street for more than a block or two, you are guaranteed it will change direction. Maybe a big change, maybe a slight change. The slight changes are the ones that get you, because they’re not extreme enough for you to register that you’ve actually changed direction. Until you wind up blocks away from where you were actually heading half an hour later.
2) The streets aren’t labeled. At least not consistently, and not well. Banish all thoughts of the nice green street signs in the U.S. that clearly state the name of the road you’re on the one that’s intersecting it. In Rome, if such signs exist, they’re painted on the side of buildings. And it’s often difficult to tell whether the painted signs on the side of buildings are actual street names or whether they refer to the name of the building. And the signs are often so old-looking that you’re unsure whether they’re still relevant.
3) Street widths are not consistent at all, but the streets tend to be one-way and very narrow. So it’s not as simple as saying, “I have to go down this street and take the second right.” The second right might just be an alley and you might need to go on to the next street. Or, the second right might just look like an alley, but actually be the street you want. It’s unlabeled and looks like an alley, so it’s very difficult to know.
All of this culminated in Mike and my looking for the hotel for twenty minutes before we gave up and took a cab. The cab went down two one-way alleys and dropped us off at the hotel literally one minute later. Embarrassing? Slightly. Better than wandering around downtown Rome all night looking for a hotel hidden by windy alleys? Definitely! 🙂 At least a 60-second cab ride isn’t very expensive. 😉
I can’t believe that I’ve written this entire post and still haven’t gotten beyond our first night in Rome. I don’t know how well this bodes for my ability to detail the whole trip without doing one blog post for each day of the trip. We’ll see how it goes. If you start getting bored of my overly wordy descriptions, let me know in the comments and I’ll stick to main events! Also, expect more pictures in later posts… Mike and I are starting to go through the pictures now! 🙂