Vacanza Romana (Introduction and Day 1)

“Maybe we go to Rome?” “Well, that wouldn’t be my first choice really, but that could be how I will get a shot at making up for my poor Ancient History classes at school. So let’s do it!” That’s how it all started. I hoped that by suggesting this, my smart sister didn’t intend to make me feel stupid, because I did feel absolutely in the dark about the history of ancient Rome (the thought of the modern one and how utterly different it might have never occurred to me at the time!). My whole idea of Rome came down to the image of me in an Ancient History class at secondary school petrified by our History teacher, who was the principal at the time. Somehow the image of this man with a slightly authoritarian air to him really overshadowed the beauty of getting to know that world that I knew now shaped our civilization and I might go as far as to say, that it did the whole fact that I was able to sit here with a roof over my head typing this little story of mine and sharing it with people out there. I wish a 10-year-old me knew as she was standing there answering her lesson gasping for air under a horrid gaze of her History teacher that she would be stepping with her own feet on the land entrenched on a colossal scale with an enigmatic mix of ancient and modern. That’s I guess the beauty of life – you never know what will come your way but neither can you change what is already the past.
We were going on our first trip on our own! No more toxic or just plain quirky fellow-travellers, no more stress and strain of having to make it on time to catch up with everyone else equally overwhelmed with time constraints! We would be doing it on our own because we felt we had done enough of the above! And more importantly, no more coaches as we would be travelling on a… plane! A big big yes!!!! Sometimes we wish we could make time freeze and we were going to make seconds, minutes, hours and days it used to take us to travel float over the weightless sky along with hundreds of kilometers (or miles depending on which you are more accustomed to). That would be our other huge first! Defying the gravity and everything else we thought was not meant to be in this complicated life of ours! I never thought I would be travelling, let alone getting on a plane! I used to see it more than just a means of transport that only a privileged few have the luxury of using.
As I was reading up on Rome and thus making up for what I failed or was too young to comprehend back at school, I realized Ancient History can be fun or, as a teacher in me would say, a deeply educational experience! Why I found doing this essential was because as ignorant as I felt I was, I understood that the ancient rubble of Rome might be grossly overlooked in a rubble of ignorance. What I felt myself learning so keenly was opening my eyes to see, my ears to hear and my senses to feel. Seeing, hearing, feeling in another new way! Third time around in my life! That’s how I knew another adventure was coming and if I was lucky, I would be able to do it in a more profound way with no more strains and coaches! Nero, Caesar, Michaelangelo, Raffael… Don’t know why I should put those remarkable people in this particular order and I did my best to put together a whole string of other big names before and after. You are going to see later in my story why focusing intellectually on anything isn’t an easy thing to do while in Rome. Now my feet (wearing I already knew what) would be stepping on the land these people stepped and I knew I had to have the decency of at least finding out what they were and what moved them in contributing to what Rome is now and what it is we were about to find out! Each place on this Earth has its story to tell, whether an enchanting and fascinating, terrifying and horrible, educational and enlightening, moving and inspiring one or all of these. But there aren’t many places that can compare to Rome, with its grandeur and colossity making us take a glance at wires of times when we can’t comprehend life as we know it existed.
Were we ready to go? We were and I was hoping that would be the most enjoyable Ancient History class I’d ever had. This trip started off pretty much the same the first two did – packing, last-minute double-checking, getting on the train for Moscow. A day here that my sister originally regretted we had opted for got us started for whatever the place our plane was going to take us would bring. I know there are a lot of people out there who are petrified about flying and I’m happy to say I’m not a person to join the club! In fact, I realize that as I grow old, I get more curious about things and generally flirting with danger. So I didn’t see why I wouldn’t do this and to me it was an adventure in itself. You never know when your final day will arrive and I had a good feeling about that day and knew the odds were on my side.
After a hectic day in Moscow we got on the train for the airport and I was starting to feel part of “a privileged few”. It was almost midnight and the foolish me expected to see aircrafts shooting into the night sky as we approached the airport building but what I saw was an exaggerated version of life – people with their own individual stories coming and going probably with huge chunks of these stories packed into numerous suitcases whose wheels rattled against the ground as they touched it back. I was part of it now and there were certain rules to follow and I was wondering what my next step would be. It can all get so bewildering and confusing as you enter a new world. What we had to do was wait. Rome wasn’t built in a day after all… What if the flight got delayed or even worse, cancelled? All we knew was there was nothing we could do at that point. A funny thing about me is that I wasn’t afraid of getting into a plane crash and effectively, losing my life. What I knew I would be uncomfortable with though is getting my luggage and documents inspected. I knew in this respect I was no different from anyone else in this version of life but something about this whole process I find utterly appalling. I know this analogy might be totally wrong and out of place but it all stirred disturbing images of concentration camps in my head. I knew it was all being done for our own safety, but I just couldn’t help thinking of it as something humiliating. Looking back, I realize it should have been seen as something that just had to be done instead of overthinking it and making it a really big issue. Every step we had to take was new and I knew if I got to do it ever again, it should feel to have taken less long.
We got our luggage registered, our passports inspected and we found ourselves in another twirl of this exaggerated life – a duty-free area. There is something fascinating about this world indeed! Multilingual announcements calling names of places all over the world… As we were already queuing for boarding, I got the first glimpse of a real aircraft! It was right there, larger than life, its metal wings poised against the drowsiness of the early morning summer sky. It felt as if it was welcoming me to board this new life, so close and distant as a beautiful Hollywood fantasy. I was awestruck! It was a good while before we actually boarded our plane and it seemed a lot smaller than I had been imagining and felt like a means of travel after all. As I was stepping up the plane, I realized the next time I would step my foot on the ground I would be on the Italian soil! I felt doing something that Hollywood actresses do – turning around and giving Russia one last look before I set off! I thought I had to hold on to this feeling of romance doing this new thing brought because it would slip away if I ever did it again. When we were aboard, I got the first glimple of a few Italians in one space at a time and it felt good! There is something about our nationalities that defines us, something so discernible to an onlooker. Our pilot was giving us instructions in Italian and the enchanting music of this language at the moment sounded a bit terrifying because I was wondering how I would be handling it during my trip and how those beginner classes were probably of no use. It was time for a takeoff and I was focused on how it would feel physically and I had to sit there holding my breath before we finally took off! It felt as if my entire body was rocketed up into the sky filling my limbs with dull pressure. Once you are through that, you feel OK as you would back on the ground except that dull pressure occassionally penetrating your limbs making some of them feel really heavy. That was it, now I knew what being a lot of kilometers (miles) up in the air was like. I virtually had to remind myself where I was. Time does get another dimension when you are up there, feeling almost like a bird. Some two hours and a half later, we were getting ready for landing and I felt almost comfortable with instructions in Italian and them being repeated in hardly comprehensible English. Getting back down on the ground felt less dramatic and it seemed as though the plane landing and my feet were one whole system.
We say “Arrivederci!” to the steward and we say “Ciao, Roma!” Blue skies and hot air were my first feel of the bellissima Roma! The first indication of plenty of sunshine they get here was sun-tanned skin of maintenance staff on the runway, they were my first glimpse of Italians in Italy! Maintenance staff are the last people you see back home from the plane’s window and the first ones you see once you’ve safely arrived in a new land! So I decided I would make a point of focusing on them whenever I would happen to travel by plane again!
When we entered Fiumicino Airport, I was desperately looking around for more Italian faces because that seemed the only way I could make sure I was in Italy and the odds were on my side and I’d safely made it here on the… plane!!! There seemed to be mostly tourists in the passport control area and I loved how this whole procedure seemed more relaxed now. We got our bags in the baggage claim area and were getting ready to venture from the airport that seemed to be a less exaggerated version of life than Domodedovo in Moscow into Rome! I wanted to get some water and there was a kind of a shop and I had to make sure I remembered what the Italian for “water” was. There was a little queue and I had to tiptoe to see the counter and a group of gentlemen said “Prego!” and made way for me. Italians addressing me in Italian in Italy! For the first time! A joy only a language teacher can relish! We boarded a Terravision airport bus to get to the centre of the city. I was loving the air and mostly the trees! Imposing pine trees were the first landmark of Rome and that ancient world I’d been trying to get more knowledgeable about! There was nothing clearly indicative of the ancient times here and I had to let my imagination take over and that’s what I was to find out I would have to do a lot through the course of my trip. A bunch of girls who sounded Spannish were laughing and giggling all the way but I didn’t mind that as much as I would have had it been a bunch of Russians back home because it seemed to be giving an international twist of our experience of the Roman suburbs.
The moment I took a glimpse of a church, I knew we were in Rome! Sleepy cafes, a few Italian dons strolling the streets… There is something magical about a summer morning, something to be savour to be revitalized with a smoldering cup of coffee. This is what we were about to do when we arrived in Termini Train Station, an allegedly dodgy area of Rome infested with pickpockets. We were trying to be aware of our surrounding but a little breakfast to get us started on our way to our hotel was much-needed. I’d never thought of Italy as a country with glorious coffee… Pasta, cheese, wine but coffee? We got into this low-key eatery right at the train station, ordered an espresso and a croissant and Mama Mia, we were in Heaven! Right here surrounded by other travellers and probably locals served by two lovely Italian ladies, one of them older who made me think about an Italian household and a younger one. Jet-blackness of their eyes and divinely tasty coffee was my feel of Italy for the moment. They are moments like these when you see your own life as a movie and you feel like sitting back and saying “OK, so what’s next?” That is the sweetness of a beginning. It was us, Rome and a blank sheet between us and now we needed some gallaxies and universes to conspire to fill it with all colours of joy and Roman happiness. For now, we had them to thank for this glorious espresso (we made them two later on!)!
We were set to go find our hotel now which was said to be a 10-minute walk from the train station. Time took another dimension again and you would see why if you’d ever try walking in a summer Roman heat with a suitcase in your hand. I wasn’t grumbling but wanted to get this part of our Vacanza romana out of the way as soon as possible. I instantly taught my sister the Italian for “where” and she tried it on an Italian woman walking by and yes, she was understood but the problem was that the lady answered in Italian as well and all I could understand is “right” and “left” and that left me thinking of how people are supposed to make use of conversation books because saying something is one thing and understanding a response remains a problem not to be solved… We were walking these quite modern streets of Rome along Via Cavour till we made it to our hotel and that was a huge relief! It looked just as in photos on the Internet and I even recognized its reg rug! It was in a street in one of the oldest areas of Rome called Rione Monti just a short walk from the Colosseum! That was a small hotel in the 19th century building. It was about 10 a.m. when we made it there and we were afraid we woudn’t be able to check in so early. The lady at the reception desk was so lovely and her English was so good, I couldn’t help but complimenting it! I wish my students spoke it like she did! She offered us a coffee while she was checking us in and that was another brilliant coffee! I was getting used to that and I’d never cared for coffee too much (remembering how I felt sick on it back in Vienna). All we needed at the moment was a bath and a bed to lie in and what we saw when we got to the 2nd floor was a colossal room! We felt we were being treated as emperors!!! I tried to get some sleep. I’d been awake for over 24 hours and instead I was lying there listening to the sounds of this narrow Roman streets that would be my home for the next seven days. That matched my audio image of Italy…
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A while later we went out for our first walk along the area. We thought of taking a bus tour of the city for us to get an idea of the layout of the city. You really should get used to being near the seaside and how this affects the weather patterns. One minute the sun was shining and the next minute the sky was overcast with thick grey clouds. Before we knew it, it started raining heavily and we had to look for a place to hide. Oriental-looking people emerged from nowhere offering umbrellas to anyone running by. Did they have some secret weather agency? Anyway, I was standing under some building to shelter us from the rain taking in all those buildings. It was raining heavily and passionately… I was in Rome! It was my second time in Italy but it was only then that the feeling of it started kicking in… We decided it might be ages before the rain stopped so we made our way to the train station where we were hoping to hop on a tour bus as the rain was growing less heavy. The first glimpse of the astounding Santa Maria Maggiore as we are walking. After a few doubts, we got on a bus tour and our tour of the city began while we were still looking for a dry seat to take. Every place looks different in the rain and so did Rome. At the time I wish I had got my first glimpse of the Colosseum and a number of other places in the sizzling sunshine because its ancient enigma was blurred and it was increasingly hard to make it out and I found myself staring and thinking whether that was it and would my knowledge and mostly imagination be able to see through the darkness of ancient times washed out by a blur of the rain…? Some sights later after we were starting to have enough of listening to our audio guide squeaking from language to language, I saw a true landmark of Rome – St.Peter’s Dome! I’d read about it and how significant it was for Rome as the birthplace of Christianity and what it is now… I was taking it in but failed to see the colossity I’d been imagining it would necessarily have. Our bus stopped there so I was just sitting and staring waiting for the Dome to work its magic on me but it was time to go and it still didn’t… The river Tiber was tiny and a bit depressing flowing under the famous Castle St.Angelo… Was Rome overrated? I took comfort in the thought that I still had time to find that out…
It had stopped raining and we thought we would stay on the bus for another round but then we decided we’d better walk and explore the area around our hotel more. We took our first look at some souvenirs and felt it was now time for our first Roman dinner as the evening was setting in. Dinner is a really magical and tempting experience in the summer Rome. You really feel spoilt for choice with lots and lots of places offering varied menus and the beauty of people-watching. We picked a spot overlooking a big hotel called California. It seemed to be a family-run place, which is quite common for Italy. We were welcomed by a middle-aged lady who seemed couteous and nice. We were seated at a table next to a couple who seemed to be speaking French. Well, we were free to speculate where it was they could come from as they were unlikely to understand. That is really corrupting and you get used to it so quickly… A few vaguely familiar dishes on the menu caught my eye. Choices, choices… I went for a pasta because I couldn’t wait to try authentic Italian pasta and see for myself how different from what is served as one back home. We thought it would go down well with Vino della Casa (home-made wine). It was a dolce Roman evening, another movie-like scene in my life. Enjoying incredible pasta, sipping on a beautiful wine, breathing the air of what to me seemed la dolce vita and learning the Italian for “seafood” (scoglio) as we ordered another dish. We didn’t mind that couple next to us and even street hagglers offering some Asian shawls and one of them screaming frantically “How much? How much? How much?” at this woman next to us after she asked how much one of the items was and obviously wasn’t happy about the price. A senior man, who looked like the owner of the place, waved them off. He looked so elegant and smart with a great poise even though he seemed very elderly. Signore Italiano! Then we witnessed another show-stopping sight. A waiter from a place right across the road started doing a little dance right on the tram track and when he saw a tram approaching, he stepped out and the moment it was gone, he resumed his dance and asked a waitress to swing with him! What a sight! You would instinctively think there was something wrong with him or he was seeking some attention but I guess that was neither of these. I guess he was just living up, enjoying this beautiful summer evening in Rome… The art of enjoying life is something we definitely need to master…
After another round of wine and a little lesson in the art of enjoying life, we decided it was time to head back to our hotel. What a lovely night it was! We sat at the foot of one of 13 ancient obelisks of Rome in front of Santa Maria Maggiore church and I started contemplating on how lucky this nation was living in this superpowerful realm of art… It was everywhere, you just need to reach out and it’s there looking you in the eye, playing games with your intelligence and senses. I felt the art on me that night. Another movie-like scene? Si! When we almost made it to our hotel, I just had to turn back and I saw the Colosseum lit against the night starry sky… What a sight! Does that happen every day?! Don’t tell me travelling isn’t worth it! We wrapped up our first day in Rome with our first try of Italian gelato (icecream) in a shop right across the road from the hotel. Enjoying some views of typical Roman night life from our hotel window was my last wish for the day. Bonne Note, Roma!
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Author: Olga

An English teacher and translator, a keen traveller

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