Traveling in Italy

– by Michael!

I, as a rule, enjoy traveling. I very much enjoy traveling to places I know I’ll probably never get to see again. So it should be no surprise to anybody that while I was studying in Florence, I tried to do as much day/weekend-tripping as I could.

Sometimes I went with friends, other times I went by myself, but every time – I mean, every time – something delightful, hilarious, or just plain stupid happened.

For instance, I went to Rome a couple of times, once with my roommate, Tanner. When we arrived in Roma, we checked into our hostel, which might be the source of all grody hostel stories ever, and took off to see the Ancient Things of Rome. We had it all divided up – our first evening, we’d check out the Forum and Environs, then head to the Vatican on Day Two, and on Day Three hit up the Sistine Chapel and maybe the park area before heading back to Florence that night.

So our first order of business was to walk to the Forum, where we could Take In Some History.

On our way there, however, we got quite an education in Roman Economic Practices.

We were accosted a few minutes into our trek by a gentleman in a sleek black sedan, who pulled over and yelled at us in heavily accented English to ask if we had a map, as he had a plane to catch and needed help getting to the airport.

We were American tourists who spoke enough Italian to order coffee. Yes. We had a map.

So we whipped out our trusty street-map of the Capital of the World and, in classic male fashion, pored over it thoughtfully before randomly selecting something that looked large and rectanglish and declaring it to be, potentially, an airport. Our new friend was effusively grateful and asked if he could recompense us for our willingness to help.

I am all about recompense.

“Do you like Versace?” he asked.

Assuming this was a musician I had never heard of, I started to smile and shake my head to indicate ignorance of his music when our new friend pulled out of his back-seat, as if it were an afterthought, a truly beautiful brown leather coat.

Now in general, I agree with Michael Crighton’s memorable character, Ian Malcolm: “Truly, can you imagine anything more boring than fashion?” Clothing exists to keep me from breaking the law when I leave my residence, and that’s really about it. But this coat – it honestly was a work of art, and even a relative Phashion Philistine such as myself could tell.

“It’s yours,” our new and surprisingly generous friend exclaimed. “Probably won’t fit him,” he gestured to me, “but the taller one, fit nicely.”

Our surprise and growing apprehension at being handed a ridiculously expensive article of designer clothing out of the back of a car on the side of the road in a foreign city was probably apparent, as he laughed at our facial expressions and informed us that he worked for Versace and was returning to Milan after showcasing new clothing lines, he had a few “gift and sample” type items left in his car and didn’t really have any need or use for them.

Tanner was still skeptical, but I, being a naïve and trusting soul, said, “Ok, sure – makes sense. Thanks!”

“One last thing,” he said as I reached into the back seat to grab the candy shiny new toy designer clothing. “Do you guys have twenty Euro? I need gas to get back to the airport, that’s all.” Tanner shook his head, as neither of us had brought any spare cash – we were on a very, very tight mutual budget, and had only the bare minimum on hand.

Without a word, the “Versace Representative” sneered angrily, rolled up his windows (very nearly chopping me in half in the process) and drove off in a Mediterranean huff, leaving us stunned by the side of the road thinking, roughly, “Whu?”

This was our introduction to Rome, the Seven Hills of Splendor, and it would certainly not be the last time we found ourselves the targets of skilled and relentless hucksters. Restaurateurs, in particular, would yell at us as  we passed their shops and try to entice us to enter.

Some swore that theirs was the best food in the solar system, or perhaps just in Europe; others indicated that we, by passing them by, were in fact threatening their malnourished children with impending starvation; still others made it very clear that we were clearly of questionable parentage and devious sexual preference if we dared pass their shops. Anywhere we went, we were bombarded with what could be termed “hilariously aggressive marketing,” and our coat salesman was just the first instance.

After touring the Forum, Coliseum, and Palatinate (the latter was my favorite, as we were there for sunset), we headed back to our dump of a hostel to get ready for Day Two.

Now, we had selected this place due to its convenience to the train station in Rome, thinking that this would probably make it easy to get around the entire city and then leave with our luggage on the last day.

We were so, so very wrong.

Florence is a very compact city, and our residence therein was directly in the middle of the “Centro Storico” – we were within a ten-minute walk of pretty much everything interesting in Florence, save the Boboli Gardens, which were a much more arduous twelve-minute walk.

Of course, we applied our by-then intimate knowledge of Florence to every Italian city, because they’re all the same, right?

RIGHT?

So we set out the morning after our arrival and, seeing no coat-selling hucksters anywhere about, set off for the Vatican! I mean, it’s just on the other side of town. Rome’s a bit bigger, so it’ll probably be a good half-hour walk.

Ok, probably more like an hour.

Um, wait, it’s been about two.

Three! Three is the winner! That’s right – our utter ignorance of the geography of Rome led us to spend THREE FULL HOURS just WALKING through the STREETS of ROME.

Now, we did get to see some neat stuff on the way, like the Spanish Steps, several interesting Fountains, and so on. But by the time we got to St. Peter’s, we were too exhausted to do anything but stumble past the Pietà and moan appreciatively.

On the way back to the hostel, we took a taxi. It was worth all eight hundred Euros.

Many other fun things happened in Rome, but I don’t want to take too much time with that here. I will, however, make time to describe the simple elegance of the Roman subway system.

Unlike ugly and overblown noodlefests like Paris or London, where you can’t escape being near the Metro / Tube at pretty much all times, Rome’s subway system demands that you conform to it, rather than attempting to pander to all comers. It’s bold. It’s brassy. And it’s precisely this austere and authoritarian spirit that built an empire!

So that you understand what I mean, here is a map of the atrociously asymmetrical Parisian subway system:

See how it sprawls, meanders, even, with no regard for Euclidean perfection. Likewise with the abomination that seeps beneath Londinium’s smoggy streets:

Cthulhu called. Your map confuses him.

Is it any wonder that their hegemony lasted for a mere heartbeat in comparison to other, greater
examples? Like, say, Rome?

Behold – the utter perfection that is the Roman subway system!

No, really. It’s a big “X.”

What’s that? This looks like it would be utterly useless unless you’re going to one of, like, three places? And having everybody cram into what really amounts to two actual subway lines will probably yield some ridiculous overcrowding that will result in involuntary crowd-surfing and physical contact with gypsies?
You think you’ll ever be a miles with that attitude, son? Drop and give me XX.
Another weekend I went to Vienna with Libby and Cici, the stars of the Apple Pie Debacle, along with Cici’s boyfriend, Steve. Among our many adventures, we ate at a restaurant wherein there was what appeared to be a large bear-skin rug by the front door.
Imagine our surprise when this apparent rug, which had roughly the perimeter and twice the apparent mass of your average Volvo, got up off the floor and ambled over to our table, revealing that it was neither bear-skin nor rug but, in fact, a dog that could substitute as a school-bus for a smallish K-5 institution.
It was ok, though – he just wanted to make sure that our order had been taken and that we were satisfied with the service.
Another fun travel happening was the time I went to Prato. Or tried to, as related in the following dialogue (with convenient “subtext translations” included) that I had with an official at the Florence train station:
Me:
Excuse me, sir, but the train to Prato doesn’t appear to be at the right track. Was it
rerouted to another track?
Subtext: Why, oh why, can you people not either put trains on the tracks you say they’ll be on or actually be bothered to change the [expletive deleted] signs when you reroute them?
Train Station Person:
The three o’clock to Prato has already departed from track 20.
Subtext: We gave you aqueducts, the Renaissance, and lasagna. You want predictable trains? Go to Germany.
Me:
I see. So the three o’clock train to Prato, which was supposed to be on track 12, left from track 20 at some point before now. Now being, as you are no doubt aware, two forty-five.
Subtext: [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [vulgar observation of dubious parentage deleted] [expletive deleted]
Train Station Person:
It was mostly full.
Subtext: You, as an American
student/tourist, amuse me with your frustration, and I get paid for this. I love my job, at which I only have to work thirty hours a week (when I feel like it) and from which I will be able to retire at roughly the age of whenever I get around to it. How’s democracy working for you guys, eh?
Me:
Very well. I understand.
[expletive deleted]
What time is the next train to Prato?
Train Station Person:
Next Tuesday.
Subtext: I am now annoyed with you, and that’s my next day off.
Me
[sound of head exploding]
Subtext: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. My head exploded.
I did eventually make it to Prato, which was lovely even given the three-hour “pausa” taken by the local businesses during the middle of the day. I mean, I’m all for a mandatory hour-long siesta, my friends, but this was excessive.
Once, I traveled with several friends to Genoa (or Genova, if you’re a native), the home of Christopher Columbus and pesto. Just being honest, I think the pesto thing is probably more worth being proud of. At any rate, we went to Geno(v)a because one of our number was entranced by marine biology and they had a famous aquarium on hand, so of course we had to go eat seafood.
Nothing beats going to an aquarium and being able to say to the swordfish, “You? You taste delicious. Keep that in mind if you ever think about slackin’ off.”
Not only that, but the pesto we had with our swordfish was absolutely out of this world – I’m pretty certain that this is still today one of the best meals I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world.
A million memories more! There are a lot of great stories in my head about these travels – honestly, I keep remembering more that I’d love to share. However, all of these pale to my brief but, um, memorable time in Venice.
But that? That’s a story for another week…

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