Rome VIII: Venezia

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Where do you even start with Venice?

You get up at six to catch a train, where the tunnels make your ears feel like they’re on the verge of exploding and a kid who’s in the process of losing teeth actually loses his breakfast into his baseball cap. The American woman across the aisle from you watches 2012 on her iPad. You move forward to Florence, but upon leaving Firenze S.M.N. you are shot backwards to the sinking city, watching the mist-gulping valleys and fields shrink from view. You arrive dead-tired at Venezia Mestre, and you have a sudden realization that Venice is a lot bigger than “Venice.” You’re not on an island with picturesque canals. There’s a lot of graffiti. And no one is wearing stripes?

Skip a few hours, you’ve checked into your airbnb and you sit on another train, this time gliding across a swampy expanse of water. Tiny islands, verdant, sit still as you pass them – seriously, you should have brushed up on the geography of this place before visiting, you are way too surprised by the layout of all of this. You screech into the station, disembark, hop down some steps, and there it is. That’s the Grand Canal, framed by neverending rows of rust- and blush-colored buildings, broken up by barnacled wood beams reaching out of the water and, predictably, selfie sticks. Walk down the main drag, squeezing through the crowd – there’s a Disney Store here? – and then you sit down to eat a pizza and drink your first espresso shot. You don’t add any sugar or cream because you are a rebel with a cause. What cause? Proving that you are a strong woman who likes strong coffee. An honorable, noble cause.

Aha, the energy hits as you wind into the depths of the island, crossing at least a dozen small bridges. The canals decided the angles and curves of the streets and the city didn’t argue, so you end up going in circles and reaching dead ends where staircases descend into murky water. You take pictures of the shuttered houses lining the waterways, one from one bridge, one from another, but when you look back later, all the pictures will look the same. There’s something that doesn’t want to be captured. The two foot-wide alleyways, Venus in the night sky, the sea foam rushing to and from a mossy boat launch – completely untranslatable, especially with an iPhone as medium.

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You spend four days getting lost – impulsively turning down Isolation Alley, sitting on docks, drinking juuuust enough prosecco to start seeing Van Gogh’s brushstrokes in the ripplings of the Grand Canal. You muddle your way through St. Mark’s Basilica, surprisingly not as much enchanted by the golden mosaics as you are amused by the woman openly snapping pictures with her iPad (always the damn iPads) right next to a “no photos” sign. You wince as you hear the words “pleasure combo” coming out of your mouth at the Magnum cash register, but how else are you supposed to get your salted pretzel ice cream bar and shot of espresso? Later, you shell out twenty euros and no regrets for a gondola ride – you learn that hardly anyone lives on the ground level in Venice because of flooding, and you immediately want to rent a ground level apartment just to show how tough you are. Honestly, you probably wouldn’t last there. No offense.

You see the mainland at dusk, hazy lilac over dry grass. Even after lovingly gazing at canals all day, you are still somehow charmed by the suburban chunks of concrete that many families call home. You’re glad to see a different dimension of Venice, and you’re glad it’s accompanied by the sound of crickets and back-garden get-togethers. In the morning you traverse the city again, admiring papier-mache masks through windows and, come noon, drinking more of that sparkling white wine. Maybe one afternoon, you take a water taxi to one of the smaller islands. Burano? Sure. You skip across the swellings of the sea and find yourself in Candyland, where the only law is that if your neighbor’s house is bubblegum pink, yours must be the color of a canary (unverified, there are probably other laws on Burano). You say to yourself, “two nutella crepes in one day? why not!” and then kind of/sort of regret it as a boat bounces you back to the big island.

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On your last night, you take the elevator to the top of the tower in Piazza S. Marco, and you think about how much you love mist and how thankful you are that it is practically a universal phenomenon. Unlike other cities you’ve seen from an aerial perspective, this one doesn’t even pretend to be on a grid. You stare at the buildings and alleyways below you and acknowledge that, nope, you have no clue where you’ve been walking the past few days. Venice is enigmatic. But you like it, don’t lie.

You sit by the open water and watch the sun set gold over the island, intently studying the movements of the waves as they weave into each other. And when you take the water taxi back to the Piazzale di Roma, you feel the sea breeze in your hair and the goosebumps on your legs and you can’t stop yourself from blurting to your friend: “our lives are so unreal.” The sun slips into low-hanging clouds on the horizon, like a coin being dropped in a pocket.

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You take the train back to Rome in the morning, letting Jenny Lewis – “I’m as sure as the moon rolls around the sea” – drown out your rumbling stomach, your constantly popping ears. And soon enough, you are back in Rome and Venice just feels like a book you read in high school English class. In a good way. In a confusing way.

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Rome VII: stalking people and making friends

Rather than attempt a full-on recap, this week I’ll just be sketching out a couple stories. It’s not laziness – I’m keeping the format freeeesh.

Story #1: Stalking Rick Steves

On Monday, we visited the Vatican Museums – more overwhelmingly gigantic and significant than any other collection we’ve seen so far, like probably just a couple levels beneath the Louvre in terms of scale. Nonetheless, my usual “museuming” routine (cappuccino, picking a wing, finding a quirk in each painting I look at, etc.) got me through the first few galleries with no scratches and very little stress, carrying me to the courtyard which houses the “Laocoon.” I stood in front of that feat of twisted marble and listened to a couple classmates discuss its legendary origins, pretty distracted, a mental haze which I was promptly snapped out of with seven simple words: “hey, do you guys know Rick Steves?” I looked at the speaker, answering yes, WHY – “oh, he was just standing over there in the middle” – WHAT

I’ve never ditched a group of people faster. I’d spent my whole life wondering what my purpose could possibly be, and suddenly it was so clear: I had to find and follow Rick Steves, King of Travel, through the Vatican Museums. What was he doing there? Who was he with? Would he hire me as a television cohost/travel writer? I felt like Laocoon himself trying to disentangle myself from the crowd of camera-holding limbs surrounding me, finally reaching an open pocket and – hark! – there was the back of Rick Steves.

In the doorway, black backpack, blue jeans: Rick Steves, my friends

In the doorway, black backpack, blue jeans: Rick Steves, my friends

I stood there, quite unsure what to do with myself. Sometimes I have a difficult time acting normal around, like, normal people, but you throw me in the ring with a pretty famous person and I stoop to levels of awkwardness beyond the capability of most humans. I am painfully aware of this aspect of my personality. So obviously the best option in this situation is to wordlessly hover around Rick Steves and his tour guide for a solid 45 minutes, all the while failing miserably to make this seem unintentional. Rick, if you ever read this: I was not very interested in that tapestry depicting Julius Caesar’s assassination, I was just waiting for you to catch the f up.

So yes, I spent a good amount of my time in the Vatican Museums following Rick Steves around and mooching off his private tour. Did I introduce myself? No, I just let him eye me suspiciously as I trailed through the map gallery and Raphael rooms. Did I learn a lot? Yes, I would highly recommend “tour stealing,” as it is very easy and very informative and less embarrassing than an audio guide. Did I brush Rick Steves’ shoulder and thus gain his travel wisdom? I did indeed brush the shoulder of this legend of a man, but as for the transfer of power, only time will tell. Cross your fingers. Also I got two other pictures of the back of his head #score

Story #2: My First Italian Friend

There is a restaurant near our apartment whose sole commodity is french fries – the place is called “FRIES: delicious potatoes.” It is great, we need more things like this in the States. Karly and I decided FRIES was a necessary pit stop today (on our way to gelato, no less), and so we went, got our FRIES, and sat in the square. We were picking through the last remnants when we were approached by a spunky little girl on her bike, brown hair in a ponytail and inquisitive look on her face. “Patatine?” she asked, gesturing to our nearly empty cones of fries, and I answered “si.” One point for me. I know the word for french fries. But then she started speaking quickly in Italian, and that one point disappeared and I quickly plummeted into the negatives. In gruesomely butchered Italian, I asked if she spoke any English – haha nope. This girl was like seven, maybe eight. She shook her head. “Italiano.” For some reason or another she decided to stick around after this linguistic chasm was revealed, probably either to laugh at us or pilfer fries. Regardless, I was determined to converse with this little girl despite my tiny, tiny bank of Italian words and phrases. I told her I was American, following that with an “e tu?”, which I’m not even sure is a thing in this language. She looked confused. I pointed at her, “Italiana?” “Si, Italiana di Roma.” She then asked where in America we were from, and I answered Seattle, not expecting her to recognize the name. “Oh!” her face brightened, “iCarly!” A resounding “si” from Karly and me, along with some laughter. So cute.

It did not take us long to exhaust that line of conversation, so we moved on to names. She didn’t like the English pronunciation of my name, as evidenced by a grimace when I presented my ugly, un-rolled “r,” but she accepted once I tweaked it a bit. She didn’t like Maddy’s name either, so we opted for some variant of Madelena. Caitlin was changed to Catalina. Following introductions, one of my friends tried to ask “how are you” and was promptly corrected by our new friend, Adelai, with a head-shake of disbelief and the correct pronunciation. This girl’s sass game was admirably strong. And after establishing that we were “tutto inglese,” she peaced out and rolled away on her little bike. There’s only so much you can say with such a huge language barrier. But I was very impressed with Adelai’s dauntlessness in carrying on a conversation with us, and I liked her spunk. A lot. The other girls got the impression that she hated us, but I think she found us endearingly clueless. I’m fine with that.


I won’t go in-depth (I’m tired and coming down with a cold, my bed is calling very loudly), but I can’t post this without mentioning our visit to Tivoli today. The Renaissance gardens at Villa D’Este are beyond any words I could put here, so I’ll show you some pictures. Maybe you remember a certain movie from the early 2000’s with a scene shot here? No? Hilary Duff???

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And here is the back of me (s/o to Karly for accurately capturing my spirit)

And here is the back of me (s/o to Karly for accurately capturing my spirit)

42 hours with the Glaswegians

After the flight debacle which seemed like it would never end (and, in all honesty, it didn’t), I finally touched down at the Glasgow Airport, where the woman working at border control confused me by being incredibly stern and then underhandedly complimenting my taste in glasses. Shook it off, grabbed my bag from the carousel, and awkwardly hired myself a cab – into the city I delved.

Glasgow is a really cool city, contrary to what I’ve heard from some people. Being a Seattleite, it feels pleasantly familiar – I mean, there’s a substantial amount of rain. But there’s also a similar cultural vibe, as it’s a city that feels like people actually live there, it’s not just some tourist trap gallivanting around under the guise of authenticity. They have amazing restaurants and pubs with genuinely good food, and the people are SO nice (there is one specific instance of this which I will share later). Also, damn. Dat City Centre.

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As if all of this was not enough, I showed up to my quaint hotel and was promptly enveloped in the arms of my best friend, who I’d not seen since January. She smelled nice. And she hugged well. Umulu, I missed you.

Because of the Flight from Hell and the ensuing nail-biter-of-a-layover in Amsterdam, she had already been wandering around Glasgow a day before I arrived. Disappointing, but she also had scouted out the places worth seeing – we hit the high street (BOOTS! why oh why does this store not exist in the US), the Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis (look up pictures of this place – it is insane), the City Centre… a good, quick little tour. This was followed by a charmingly typical pub visit, complete with a couple o’ pints and slightly inebriated men loudly reacting to a football match. We were even given wristbands by one of the barmen, and as he handed them to us he animatedly explained they’d be giving out “FREE PINTS IF SCOTLAND WIN!” I found this tiny little grammatical difference – treating Scotland’s team as a plural noun rather than singular – pretty damn endearing, although I can’t explain why. I’m a nerd, guys.

This marked the beginning of a leisurely evening spent in various restaurants throughout the City Centre – Em and I are both of the mindset that food is an integral part of any travel experience, valued over souvenirs and the like, and thus it is well worth spending a pretty penny on. We decided on a place called Slouch for dinner (she voted because of the menu, I voted because of the name). It was a trendy basement bar and cafe, with wallpaper and enormous booths and LIVE MUSIC. If you know me at all, you know I am a sucker for live music. So with my gourmet mac and cheese, my fancy cocktail (called the “personality crisis”), and my live acoustic set, I was a happy, happy girl. This feeling stuck with me through the champagne and chocolate fudge cake at a swish little Italian restaurant, although this is not a surprise. Friends and food. That’s what life is all about.

Shockingly, the next morning started with food. I know. Also three cups of apple juice. We embarked on an absolutely frigid doubledecker bus tour of Glasgow, which was SO COOL and I took too many pictures. I love cities that embrace the old and still let the new move in, and that’s exactly what Glasgow is. Such a fusion of time and culture. And speaking of fusion, we paid a visit to Kelvingrove, a museum which has everything from Monet paintings to stuffed flying possums to a really old coffee pot. While walking through, part of you wants to say “why…?”, but most of you wants to say “YES!!!!” Take a gander:

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IMG_0300Overall, Kelvingrove is a worthwhile stop if you’re ever in Glasgow, and it’s located near the absolutely stunning University of Glasgow campus. I thought my school in Washington was old and beautiful – haha NOPE.

The rest of our second and final day together consisted of afternoon tea (as could only be expected with my classy-ass hooligan friend), two more trips to Boots, and a very sad goodbye at the train station. Frown selfies were taken. The sadness was real. I dragged my suitcase out into the rain and wind, caught the shuttle to the airport, and said “seeyalatah” to Glasgow.

Now for the really enthralling chapter of this saga: a solitary all-nighter at the Glasgow Airport. My flight through Amsterdam was scheduled for six in the morning, so I figured it would “make sense” to just hang out at the airport for twelve hours rather than pay for a hotel nearby – I think I was right. I don’t know how many people would enjoy spending an entire night in a relatively small airport on their own, but it was honestly one of my favorite travel experiences. It was like seeing Disneyland after closing. I hung out at Starbucks and blogged, set up camp in the women’s bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth, bought myself a mix-and-match meal from TESCO at 2am… I was basically living the life. It was quiet. I had a multitude of outlets to choose from. Didn’t sleep a wink, but whatever.

So. Walked my luggage over to the check-in desks right when they opened at 4am, a smile on my face, knowing my travel woes had ended when I left Dutch soil. I say “knowing” because I was confident – not because I was right. Yes, dear friends, it happened again. Took my bag to the counter, handed the woman my boarding pass, and was immediately sent to the special services desk (I should just start going there first). I was informed that I would not be able to connect through Amsterdam for some reason I did not understand. I was very lucky that they automatically rebooked me on a flight through Heathrow, but the situation was still enough to send me back to Starbucks, frazzled and searching for an outlet, probably with zombie eyes. I collapsed in the corner and heaved my laptop out of my backpack.

This is when I will show you just how lovely the Scots are. While I was sitting there in my distress, a barista walked over to me and took my order – from my table. I began an attempt to respond, quite inarticulately, and then paused and said “wow, thank you for actually coming over here and asking,” to which he replied, “of course, you looked busy.” I explained the issues with flights and he was so nice and asked me questions and talked to me about Seattle – basically made my morning. Single ladies, if you’re ever in the Glasgow Airport, go to Starbucks and HUSBAND HIM UP. I should have. Except he’s probably ten years older than me.

And the rest of the morning is not very interesting, with the escalators and security and sitting in a terminal for an hour. The flights themselves I will probably include in the next chapter: arriving in Rome. Still can’t believe I’m here. No details yet.

I will leave you with what I assumed to be the “American” section of the TESCO in the Glasgow Airport. I laughed a little bit.

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Peanut butter, sugary cereal, poptarts, candy, and beef jerky: we literally eat nothing else.