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 IV: hazelnut spread and the unfathomable

After four days of mooching off other people’s wifi, internet has finally been restored to the Temple of Nutella.

Our apartment is rightly named.

Our apartment is rightly named.

We are all very happy, and so are our mothers. Huge shout-out to all of the friends who let us steal their signals, wifi hotspots, etc., and to those who kept us company when we were totally, shamelessly abusing the free internet in our university’s common areas. And a little bit of a thank you to the person who eventually fixed the problem here… after four days.

The time which has elapsed since I last wrote has been positively lovely, for a number of reasons. We visited some ancient Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri and Tarquinia, which I never thought I would do. Cerveteri was basically unreal – we could roam wherever we wanted, crawling into tombs, scaling walls, climbing over mounds and squeezing between walls. There was moss EVERYWHERE, so much greenness, broken up by asphodels and the accompanying bumblebees. I got to whip out my flashlight in some burial chambers, its beam falling on ancient rock and the occasional crab-sized white spider (not my favorite). It’s one of those places that manages to be a playground and an unfathomable thing at the same time – we were running around, adventurous and slightly creeped out, all the while unsuccessfully trying to comprehend the fact that these dark, musty chambers held people and their worldly possessions over a thousand years ago. How can you even begin to understand that, to make it real in your head? It’s insane to think about. On numerous occasions here I’ve felt the need to repeatedly whack myself on the back of the head, chanting “UNDERSTAND THIS! UNDERSTAND THIS! UNDERSTAND THIS!” but, alas, I cannot understand it. History is cool.

Tomb sweet tomb

Tomb sweet tomb

Another great part of this little trek to the Etruscan towns was the drive itself, with the Mediterranean coast on one side and the rolling Italian countryside on the other. Damn it, Italy, you are a stunner. I do truly love the city, but there is something to be said for quaintness. There is also just something to be said for the Mediterranean Sea. You can’t look away.

The rest of my week/weekend consisted of eating food and drinking drinks with genuinely cool people, so no complaints there. We had a girls’ dinner on Friday night, with makeshift gyros and fries – although we didn’t follow my original plan of lamb-napping our gyro meat from a rural town on our way back from Tarquinia, it was some damn good food. Also a damn good vehicle for feta cheese, which was my craving of the week. It was great. I still have a block of feta in my fridge and oh shoot I want to crumble it up and eat it right nooow.

As could only be expected, my cronies and I consumed a lot of gelato. You know, sober gelato, tipsy gelato, chocolate-dipped gelato, NUTELLA gelato. I am never going to be content with American frozen treats ever again. Ever. Even the crappy gelato here is better than the results of a late-night Dairy Queen run in the Ville. Should I go home to my family in June, or eat really amazing gelato every day for the rest of my life…? Hard decisions on my mind.

Today we went to see the Baths of Caracalla, the ruins of which are enormous and magnificent and equally impossible to fathom. Many witnessed me crumble in the shadow of the massive structure, frustratedly groaning “HOW MANY BRICKS” – this was my catchphrase of the day. But seriously, how many bricks? All of them were cut by somebody, transported by somebody, stacked by somebody. These somebodies had homes, and children, and individual life stories. Some of them probably died creating this building which became a social center in one of the largest cities in the world. Like Cerveteri, it is challenging to think about and also quite humbling.

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On the docket for the rest of the week: writing, reading, wining, dining, exploring the Forum and Colosseum… and if I’m being realistic, there will also be a fair amount of watching Catfish reruns on MTV (our only channel in English) and saying ridiculous things to Queen Bae/OG Bae/bromantic interest, Karly, just to get a rise out of her. And maybe I’ll buy a floppy felt hat. That would be nice.

Happy Monday!

Rome II: Pope Francis and the towel shortage

I’m taking a break from my snack break. Yes. That’s a thing.

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Generic brand nutella, shortbread cookies, and pictures of Boy George in the 80s…?

This weekend, my first weekend in Rome, has been full of mishaps and laughter. Our weekdays were filled with walking and eating and writing and learning – we visited the Pantheon, Sant’Ignazio Church, Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, Keats’ House, and various lookout points, the names of which I honestly could not tell you. It certainly kept me busy and happy. I am a very, very contented explorer here, I love simply walking around and seeing what finds me – but after looking out on the Forum for a good hour and battling the Good Friday crowds at the Colosseum (people were leaning on me – I know the song, but the sentiment was not there), I was very ready to sleep. Until noon. Which is what I did.

Yes, I spent my first Saturday in Rome cozied up in my apartment with my two roommates, and I was only awake for 12 hours. I went outside once, for about thirty minutes, to get the aforementioned generic brand nutella and some $2 bottles of wine. I’m sure some people would consider this a grand waste of time. That’s understandable. But it was the perfect lazy Saturday, sitting around with these amazing girls and exchanging life stories, listening to music, eating a home-cooked meal (thank you, Maddy!). First of all, I feel pretty damn lucky to have been put with these marvelous young ladies – I’ve lived with them for under a week, and I already have a lot of love for them in this little heart of mine. Also, it is a huge privilege to even feel like I’m able to veg out on a Saturday while I’m here. I’m going to be here for two months, I am living in Rome. I have a lot of time to be out and about and adventuring. Therefore, it is acceptable for me to spend a couple weekends trying to open wine bottles:

One of my favorite pictures of myself, ever (thanks, Karly)

One of my favorite pictures of myself, ever (thanks, Karly)

Today, though, we went to the Vatican for Easter. The three of us whined and whined and whined as we walked out the door of our building, as we realized we would be standing outside, in the pouring rain for upwards of two hours – a couple of us were actually just getting ready to turn back, opting to watch the whole ordeal from the comfort of our loveseat in our pajamas, but eventually I was dragged down the street to a taxi stop, and at this moment there was no turning back. After a shockingly short ride, our driver dropped us off at the edge of St. Peter’s Square, which was positively teeming with people in an array of pastel-colored rain ponchos. In a few minutes’ time, we had hopped on this plastic-covered bandwagon, doling out five euro a piece to minimize our misery by like… 15%. While I was juggling my purse, umbrella, and jacket in the attempt to don this emerald green rain poncho, the endearingly goofy (and probably filthy rich after the downpour today) salesman skipped over and held up my umbrella to protect my hair, glasses, dignity, what have you, and I think we had a conversation about wrists? Funny guy. I was glad I bought the poncho.

Long story short, I was roughly seven feet away from the Pope today. It was cool. He has a very kind face. I’m still trying to make #moshpitforpapafrancesco a thing, but it’s not really catching on, do you guys want to help me out?

The rest of my Easter Sunday has been spent doing homework, taking snack breaks, and wondering if I can actually pull off this half-up, half-down bun thing. But before I sign off, there are just a few random things I would like to share (in no particular order):

  1. I was mistaken for a local my second day here. Two elderly Italians approached me on a bridge and asked, in Italian, if some dome in the distance was the Vatican. I had no idea. I looked at them sadly, shrugged my shoulders, and said “I do not know,” which was met with a “stop” and the appropriate hand signal from the man. They promptly walked away. I felt bad, but also flattered that I they thought I looked like I belong here?
  2. Back to the nutella. I never eat nutella when I’m in the States – it’s so sweet and peanut butter is far superior. But I had just a little bit yesterday, and it has been nutella on my mind, all the time, for the past 30 hours. I have no idea why this is happening, but I am letting it happen. Ya know. When in Rome [you have to have a spoonful of nutella everyday].
  3. I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ new album the past couple nights, and although I love it and I am inexpressably happy to hear him doing folk again, it has been giving me crazy weird dreams. His eccentricity is like seeping through my headphones or something. What powers do you possess, Sufjan!
  4. Champagne gelato tastes exactly like champagne. Also I am obsessed with champagne and other sparkling white wines, which has seemingly come out of nowhere.
  5. After having practically NO SENSE OF DIRECTION for my ENTIRE life, I am suddenly able to navigate a city I’ve never even been to before. I mean, my track record in Rome is not flawless, but for the most part I have this inexplicable sense of where I need to go in order to reach my apartment – I’m not talking about confidence in my understanding of the cardinal directions, not at all, but rather a “let’s go this way” and an oddly self-assured point down whichever street “feels” right to me. And this method has gotten me home, safe and sound and unrattled, probably a dozen times. I am completely mystified by this.
  6. Either our washing machine is broken or we are incompetent. Either way, we are fresh outta towels, folks. Why? We’ve been using them to mop up the leak from the tub whenever we take a shower, and for obvious reasons we are not going to use mop towels as body towels. So yesterday I used a washcloth, which I’m estimating is 17% of a normal bath towel. Step at me, Bear Grylls. I’m the new woman in town (or rather the wilderness).

And that is all I have the energy to type. More stories to come. In the meantime, here is the Forum (after two seagulls noisily desecrated one of its pillars with their lust for each other):

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