If the group of 10 Spanish guys staying at my hostel in Rome were anything close to an accurate representation of their nation, I will find Spain the best nation in all of Europe. Though they were fervently loud, they emitted a contagious energy of merriment. Always inclusive regardless of nationality, yet wildly prideful of their own; these ten were so entertaining, I didn’t need any more. In Rome I was staying in a party hostel that I am convinced was created just for the male staff to pick up on girls. For as overtly skirt chasing as the staff was, they also would have won any limbo contest for how accommodating they were.
The leader of the party every night was a 40 year old, 5 foot tall, 90 pound Italian who claimed “I don’t speak English” any time a guy asked for anything, but didn’t cease to hit on the female backpackers in broken English for hours on end. One night he decided to do a huge spaghetti and sangria party. He was in charge of the cooking and this is were I learned the difference between American Italian food and Italian food. Were the American Italians tend to cater to an American appetite of excess, the Italians keep it simple. The sauce may be watery and devoid of anything you can chew, but the flavor is going to leave you writing about it for years to come.
Not all food in Rome is good. Far from it. There are many roach coach type places to eat on the street that look less appealing than the famous child brand “lunchables”. It takes some real searching to find decent food for a decent price. This isn’t Thailand (or the rest of South East Asia to be fair.)
I spent the better part of my 4 days in Rome alone. Put away the tears; this is far from a sad occasion. I actually found a new favorite thing to do in a church (don’t even ask what it used to be.) Nowadays, I like to pop my ipod on and listen to Phil Collins in a church (or other major sight.) Going through the Sistine chapel listening to “easy lover” is something that I suggest to everyone. It’s a lot better than listening to the chatter of tourists and, much more obnoxious, the constant shrill “SHHHHHH” from the security guards trying to maintain authenticity in the “religious?” icon. How come I paid 14 euros if it was religious?
I did a bunch of walking in Rome (when alone, I tend to walk, eat, and sleep faster). I was able to cover all of the major sights in only a few days. This gave me a few days to revisit my favourites (the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Vatican City). The Colosseum is something that everyone should see before they die. It is one of those structures that actually lives up to all of the hype. But buyer beware, Unless listening to Phil Collins, you might want to pop your ears like zits if you have to hear the low rumble of the billion tourists. The Pantheon, in true international fashion, has a McDonald’s facing directly at it. Who said America wasn’t a super power? It turns my stomach to realize that the reason much of the world believes we only eat McDonald’s is because they are repeatedly pelted with the Golden Arches withing throwing distance of EVERY major land mark in MOST of the world. And they love it. The Aussies are obsessed (and obese). The English the same.
Now, when I hear someone claim that we don’t have a culture, I sadly realize that they just don’t count that which they stuff their faces with (while abroad). I’m sorry, but if you are going to be in Italy for a week (or a month), eat Italian food for that whole time. Save your urge for American culture for when you get back home. And it’s not just McDonald’s. KFC, Pizza Hut, and Burger King are frequently mentioned as defensive badges of culture, when I claim that knowing McDonald’s isn’t understanding American Culture.
There have been a bunch of Aussies in Italy who I have met who have ACTAULLY BEEN to America (for more than the obligatory 2 days in Hollywood, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica before boarding a plane to another country.) It is fairly common for Aussies to work in Summer Camps in America to get a little spending cash to see the rest of the nation with. Of those Aussies who I’ve met who have participated in this program, 100% of them have shed their ignorant hatred of America for statements like “I loved America.” “There’s just such a diversity there.” “Each state is like a different country.” “The people were Amazing.”
Wow, I’ve slipped into one of my gold medal rants.
I’ve got a solution to this issue. Take ALL Aussies ( 20 million) and relocate them to America for 5 months. Let them try and articulate an ignorant statement of unwarranted hatred then. Don’t they know that we love them? Well, “we” are those who haven’t been there. Our ignorance errors on the side of positiveness.
On a related note. As my understanding of Aussie’s blind hatred sharpens, I am able press their buttons more painfully when the opportunity presents itself. When sharing a room with 5, 18-19 year old Aussies (who were very kind and inclusive) for a few days in Florence, I was able to get a huge rise out of them. Keep in mind that they went ape shit when they learned that I was from The OC. When another German girl pegged me as English, I laughed and said “I guess I am developing an accent.” She replied with “Well then, give me a hint of where you are from.” I chuckled and said “WELLLLLL” elongated enough to obtain the attention of all the Aussies in the room and said “We are the BEST country in the world!” an Instant eruption. “I Knew it! I knew you were all the same!” “Here I had met a few of you that I though were alright, but deep down, I knew it!!!”
Ya, I baited them 🙂 Now, Let me be the first to say that this was the first time I have met anyone from Melbourne who indulged in this Jealous Hatred (I continue to Bait 🙂 I still love my Aussies who I met in Japan, Poland, and other less traveled areas. As a drunken Northern Irish guy put in in Poland, “Every countries the same, you’ve got Cunts and Gems.”
Back to Italy. I’ve consoled other travelers on the following opinion and we can all agree “When exiting the train in Rome, you see an abnormal amount of people who are suspiciously standing around. They look like spotters in some kind of organized crime racket. But it doesn’t stop there. All of Rome tends to have these spotters standing on random corners for what seems like the entire day.” Not bad for a country with an estimated 60% undocumented work force. The taxes are so high here, that employers largely can not afford to legally employ more than a few people. But do you feel unsafe? No, not for a second. You just want to hide around the corner and get to watch a real life episode of the Sopranos.
In fact, the people of Rome handle tourists impressively well. One night, when the Spanish had rallied the troops to invade the cities’ clubs, there were about 30 of us loudly loitering in the alley in front of our hostel. We did this because we couldn’t figure out which way to head out to find a club. Our hostel was in a residential area so an old man came storming out. Instead of screaming at us to leave (which someone would have done in America), he brought out a map and started directing us on where the best clubs were to be found. I was so impressed. He knew that if we didn’t successfully find the club, then we were bound to be back outside of his apartment, louder than ever. How beautifully pragmatic?
Well, tourists being tourists. We didn’t find those clubs. But the behaviour remained consistent, each shop owner attempted to give us directions instead of insults.
If only the train system could be this effective in Italy. I was warned far ahead by travelers of the short comings and corruption that riddled the Italian Rail Ways, but when I had to wait in the same, one hour line, 3 times to make my mandatory reservation from Florence to Venice, even I was impressed. The story changed from “We don’t make reservations without your rail pass being Present, to there is no reservation required (second time in line), to 10 Euro mandatory reservation (on the third time where the employee proceeded to sell me the reservation without the presence of the Rail Pass.) On a design level, the Italian trains are equipped with overhead compartments that are two narrow to fit 90% of baggage that people take with them. Because of this, you will see the overhead storage isles empty while you are climbing over all the baggage in the “people” isle. I know it seems more sleek like the Lamborghini, but it doesn’t work. I was determined to make it work though.
I shoved and shoved. My bag was going to fit. It wasn’t about to sit on my lap for the next 3 hours. Slowly but surely, as the crowd of Italians watched with marked interest, I fit my round peg of a backpack into the square hole of a compartment. A short inner roar to the victor. I felt the need to dust off my hands and project “Any Questions?!!”
Lets talk about Florence a little while. Many other travelers warned me that Florence was their favorite place in all of Italy. I wouldn’t go this far, but it is a vast improvement on the quaint scale to Rome. The only problem with Florence is that it is more like a traditional grid of a city. Sure there are many things to see, but at least Rome was mostly wide open spaces. I ended up getting a great Hostel to stay in for only 18 euro per night. This was, oddly enough, significantly more expensive than many of the other options in Florence. I think I read “Pool and Sauna” in one of the reviews online and just booked it without thinking twice.
The hostel ended up having the nicest facilities of any hostel I have stayed at in the past 8 months. This didn’t make it my favorite, but it just had every bell and whistle you could imagine. From the flat screen TV mounted on the wall of my 8 person dorm room, to the 5th story roof top terrace that possessed a view of every major landmark that the city had to offer, this place was plush. They had a fully equiped restaurant downstairs right across form the night club. But the best food I found in the city was a decent walk into the middle of nowhere.
I found a random street side stand that was serving something that looked like the servers took great pride in. The people working in the stand served up sandwiches which were filled with stewed chicken and potatoes. This mouth watering meal was all for only 2.5 euro (good luck ever finding that again 🙂 and when the old man handed over the meal, he smiled and welled up with the look of “wait till you eat that! It will turn your whole day around.” And it did 🙂
Just across the street was a local bakery were I was determined to find something that I had never seen before. Inside, was a huge square sheet of what looked like blueberry pie. It had many squares already missing from it so I opted in to try it. With the help of a local woman, I ordered a piece that was the size of a paperback book.
I bit into this unidentified pastry with reckless hopefulness. As it turns out, it was the second best piece of pie I had ever had (second to the artisan fruit pie I had in Guatemala, which is an entirely different story altogether.) Not only was it sweet and descriptive, it contained seeds in it. Each crunch seemed like an edible pit and as it turns out, they were miniature cherries I was eating. It just looked like blueberries.
The next day I met up with the 4 Aussies from Melbourne and went to the “fake statue of David” which seemed like a much better idea at the time considering that the real one was 7 Euros more expensive and you could not take a picture of it.
The following day I went to Venice. Let me be clear about Venice. This is as authentic of a city as it gets. I know what you are thinking (for everyone who has been here). You are thinking “Venice is the biggest tourist trap in all of Europe.” I understand and respect your opinion. Here is were I disagree. Venice is so authentically entrenched in waterways, that you simply couldn’t put enough shops, tour groups, and street performers into the city to negate it’s amusing disposition of “city in the water.” As my favorite black president said “You can put lipstick on a Pig……. But It’s still a pig.”
This is the story of Venice. Dress it up, sell it out, but it still is obsessively impressive. Have you noticed that this is the first city in a long while that I am talking about the actual land (or water) more than I am talking about the people?
A man stands poised in a 45 degree angle forward pulling his oar backwards as he cracks his wrist in a masterful movement. This is the stance of a gondola captain. You can’t fake this. You can’t make this any easier. It’s hard work and it is the way of life here.
Not a place you would want to listen to Phil Collins. Walking through the alleys and waterways, you will hear neighbors singing to each other as they deliver goods. This is far away from the tourist track, or so it seems.
Truth be told, the first day I walked around in Venice, I actually failed in finding the ultra crowded tourist area. I mistakenly ended up only being in the local areas. It was wonderful. Walking through ultra narrow alley ways, the buildings sinking into each other, and the tranquil green water. Every and any corner was a picture perfect scene.
Even the freaking train station feeds directly into the water ways. Just take a few steps outside of the station and you will be withing jumping distance of the first of many canals.
Today is a special day. It marks 8 months of travel. What has changed in 8 months? Well in perspective about the world, many things. But physically, I have wear marks on the hips of all of my t shirts. This is from the friction produced while wearing my backpack. For a while I had gone down two belt loop sizes (though I’ve earned one of those back recently.) I am no longer shattered from sitting in a train or bus for 8 hours. I have grown accustomed to sleeping through 15 other people being present in a room (and often drunk). I can now actually fall asleep in just about anything (boat, buss, plane, train). I also view going to a country, just to get the stamp a bit foolish (though I admittedly didn’t when I first got to Europe.) I have, for the time being chosen to skip Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, and San Marino (all tiny countries that would make someone’s grand total country count easily swell.)
The most interesting thing that has changed is my accent. Now, I have been told by many that I don’t have an easily identifiable Californian accent. This, of course, I am not aware of, because it is something that changes ever so slightly every day. What will I sound like when I come home? This brings up a great point that I discussed with an Aussie from Perth that I met in Rome (Yes, Italy is 99% Aussie travelers.) He said that he had been traveling and working for 2.5 years now and that he is reaching the point that he is beginning to fear loosing his identity as someone from Perth. “You begin to loose something. Almost the scent, you know? The innate ability to mix and relate with your own. I’m not home sick, but I have finally begun to hear the calling. And there is a big difference.”
Being away for only 8 months, I only partially understand what he truly means. Tomorrow I’m off to Slovenia! And yes, I had to wait in 4 lines to get the train sorted out to do so. That part, I will not miss about Italy.