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)

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Rome VI: the Tuscan whirlwind

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

A moment I never thought I would experience so early in my life, in third person narration:

As the sun set over the Tuscan countryside and her classmates chattered around her, Cierra held in one hand a generous glass-full of Vernaccia and, in the other, a top-notch bite of bruschetta al pomodoro. Top. Notch. She considered the scenery, its vast expanse, its endlessness, its slow-cresting hills and valleys of grape vines – Tuscany is certainly a breath thief. And though she laughed at the house wine-happy jokes flittering around in that cool, 7 o’clock air, she had come to a bittersweet conclusion: it’s all downhill from here, this is definitely the happiest I’ll ever be.

I shared this sentiment with those sitting around me, and a number of them said yes, they were feeling quite the same. It’s difficult to not feel that way when you’re terrace-dining at dusk, being served a spectacular three-course meal after a day of running through the cobblestone streets of San Gimignano, not knowing what you’re running after but finding it all the same. It’s hard not to fall flat on your face in that hilltown, not because it’s particularly dangerous terrain, but because it is so overwhelmingly charming that you can’t help but swoon.

San Gimignano, I think, is my favorite place I’ve ever visited. We spent 24 hours there… plenty of time to do that whole head-over-heels thing. Tower with panoramic views? Check. Grapefruit champagne-flavored gelato? Check. Puppet shows? Check. Medieval fountain? Check. Ceramic shops abounding? Check. Also an unexpectedly high number of medieval torture museums, but I won’t count it against them. Our hotel, Hotel Bel Soggiorno, was a dream with its quaint rooms and many-windowed breakfast dining area that screamed BAM! YOU ARE IN THE MISTY ITALIAN COUNTRYSIDE AND YOU ARE EATING A CHOCOLATE CROISSANT! THIS IS THE BEST MORNING OF YOUR SORRY LITTLE LIFE! (aggressive, yes, but true). The town itself is small, probably walkable from end-to-end in ten minutes, so it’s easy to wander and hard to get lost. The people are lovely. They put up with a group of us sitting in the town square till 11pm on a Wednesday night, wiping our eyes as our wild laughter richocheted off the stone walls. I sat on an old well in the middle of the square while my friends performed dramatic recitations of everything from Keats to Usher, doubled over with my bare feet dangling. Life’s full of beautiful moments.

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We visited Siena the next day, another town with a tower and another town which won my affection (hint: not too hard to win). Under the inexplicably stripey arches of Siena’s cathedral, I sat with my friend until we got kicked out at closing, chattering about the physics of angel wings and childhood church experiences. I’ve noticed this becoming a trend among my friends and me – having meaningful conversations in the quiet of a 12th century duomo or a medieval portrait gallery – and I really like it. There are so many things intersecting in those seconds. Context is cool. So are multi-course meals… which happened again in Siena.

It is around now that my memory starts getting a little blurry – before San Gimignano we had briefly visited Bomarzo, and then we bused to these two hilltowns, and after climbing so many steps and consuming so many carbs and, in the case of Siena’s tower, being confined in very tight, dark spaces, I was understandably disoriented and more than slightly peopled-out by the time we caught our train to Florence. I was ready to stare at the shadow of my own reflection in the window transposed over the passing fields and, not surprisingly, tune in to some bleak neo-folk. It’s a mood. It’s poetic. It’s fine. It was a beautiful train ride, it reminded me how much I prefer trains over any other form of transportation (save rollerskates) and it effectively reenergized me – a similar effect was achieved by a cappuccino the next morning. But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Six other girls and I airbnb’d it in Florence, a decision which in the end garnered many exclaimed “NO REGERTS!” (not a mis-type; this has become an important phrase in our vernacular). Our apartment was close to the train station, our street had an enormous outdoor market, we were two minutes away from the world’s nicest food court, Mercato Centrale – no regerts indeed. The Ponte Vecchio was nice, the sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo was lovely. But Mercato Centrale… that place makes a trip to Florence worthwhile. Pizza, seafood, pastries, pasta, cheese plates, gelato, BURGERS, it is all there, with free wifi for dessert. You order your food and take it to a table in the middle, where barmen in fedoras come around and take drink orders. I am not embarrassed to say we ate every meal here during our stay. I have a lot of Mercato receipts in my purse. They gave me my first cappuccino and I will never forget them.

I didn't just eat, I also took some pictures.

I didn’t just eat, I also took some pictures.

It wouldn’t be Italy if there wasn’t a museum involved, so a group of us hit the Uffizi this morning. Let me just interject here: Florence, at least on weekends, is an incredibly crowded city. There was not a single place I visited where I wasn’t at least vaguely terrified of being trampled. Shopping at Zara was by far the most extreme example of this, but the Uffizi Gallery put itself on a pretty high level of craziness, its corridors thronged with large groups of people in blue headphones. Practically every picture I took has a stranger’s shoulder in it.

If Caravaggio had wanted your beautiful shoulder in his painting, he would have asked, okay

If Caravaggio had wanted your beautiful shoulder in his painting, he would have asked, okay

Petty complaints aside, the Uffizi Gallery was a great place to spend a few hours. Museuming is an enjoyable activity, especially when artists are sly and sneak bizarre things into their pieces – fat-mouthed dog monsters lurking in the shadows of a three-paneled Madonna and baby Jesus painting, a blurry centaur all but blended into the background of an otherwise un-mystical landscape, a small lizard crawling over a skull at the foot of the cross. Like a meatloaf in a fruitcake. I also saw some Botticelli and Caravaggio and Michelangelo and all that jazz. I should ditch English and History and just become an Art History major. I know three whole artists.

Anyway, the whirlwind of travel has ceased momentarily, and I am back in Rome. Back in the old rhythm: staying up much later than necessary and eating nutella with a spoon. I’m suddenly struck by how insane it is that I’ve developed any sort of rhythm here. Have I really been here long enough for that? Tomorrow will mark the one month anniversary of my intended departure, the next day my actual departure. Surreal to say the least. Without a doubt, this has been the most eventful month of my life, and I have learned so much about writing and people and being happy in situations which are not ideal. All valuable, I’d argue. I’m ready for more.

Rome V: predictably, mosaics

How about dem mosaics

As my mother so gently pointed out the other day, it has been over a week since I last posted. My b, mom. Rome is a very distracting place to live. Distractions:

  1. Gelato
  2. Literally underground dance clubs that look like fancy caves, where drunk people try to steal your hat off your head and think it’s hilarious
  3. Mosaics
  4. Access to parks that are probably exact replicas of the fields in Heaven
  5. Street musicians playing “Hotel California” because that’s apparently the only song American tourists could ever want to hear

Needless to say, it has been a very good, very full third week of living in Rome (sidenote: how have I already been here for three weeks). I’ve had even more opportunity to sharpen my museum-going skills, thanks to the Museo Capitolini and Palazzo Massimo, and I must say I’m getting pretty good at standing and staring at objects. I’m a little over vases, but bring on the mosaics. All the mosaics. HOT DAMN MOSAICS. I walked into S. Maria di Trastevere the other day and I think I almost exploded:

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Unf – wall-sprawling mosaic

My sandal tan is getting stronger every day, and my shoulders are beginning to collect freckles. I owe this to the ancient Roman Forum and Colosseum, which were immense, unbelievable, and forced me to be in the sun for an extended period of time. That was a good day.

Actually, every day here has been a good day. I’ve managed to meet some really kind, engaging, interesting people in the past few weeks, and we like wandering and eating food together. I think this is the magic recipe for happiness. I’m also feeling incredibly lucky to be studying something that constantly excites me: writing. Obviously I enjoyed writing before I came on this program, but I was, as many will remember, so uninspired it ached a little bit. Aside from some angst-driven poetic pursuits as a 19-year-old, I have been prose, prose, prose, all nonfiction as well, blogs and journal entries and essays. And having taken precisely zero creative writing classes and not putting in the effort on my own time, I was afraid to foray into the world of rhyme and broken lines. (also I thought it was pretentious). But now I’ve thrown myself into this head-first, no practice, just trying things out and seeing if I like them. I like them. Sometimes I stay up till 1am, meticulously stringing words together, because it is fun for me. And guys… this is my schoolwork. I am constantly reminding myself to savor this, because when will this ever happen again, being in the most beautiful city ever with writing as my sole responsibility? I generally like to be an optimist, but I think this is probably as good as it gets. Money well-spent, eh mom and dad?

Anyway, the love has not faded. And it is about to expand: tomorrow marks the beginning of a 5-day meandering through some north-of-Rome hilltowns, culminating in what I assume will be a wonderful Florentine weekend. I’ll leave you with some pictures and come back with some new stories –

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PS: I haven’t made any music recommendations lately, so even if they merely echo through the void and no one ever takes my advice, I will make my current recommendations.

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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.