So, on Saturday, January 30th, I departed New York’s JFK for Rome.
Getting to JFK was pretty easy, as usual. I’ve done the Bedford Hills to JFK transit so often over the years that I have the rail lines and stops memorized, and it was a Saturday so it wasn’t rush-hour crowded. It wasn’t far off that, though, and the E line from Lex & 53rd to Sutphin Blvd/JFK was standing room only for almost the whole trip. And, let me tell you, a packed subway on a mild winter day is not something you want to be warmly dressed for. I was sweating through much of that ride, with my giant backpack standing upright between my knees and my smaller one balanced on top of it and held by one hand while the other held onto an overhead railing. At one point I let go of the overhead railing to check something on my phone, and the train slowed dramatically while I was doing it, pitching me forward. I think that I can lay claim to creditable reflexes, as I snaked my iPhone-holding hand past a couple of fellow passengers to grab a vertical rail a few feet in front of me, stopping my fall without tumbling into anyone and without letting go of the phone (which would have flung it forward into the mass). I held there for 10 to 15 seconds, until the train picked up speed again, and I could propel myself back upright, and shared a grin with a surprised traveling companion. Only mildly embarrassing, instead of the mortifying that flinging my phone or toppling over would have been, so yay, that.
My airline this time was British Airways which, as part of the American Airlines “One World” group, had allowed me to use my frequent flyer miles to fly business class. This may not have been worth it. JFK to Heathrow is only 7-1/2 hours, which is not really that much over a 5 hour LA-JFK flight, and the British Airways sleeper pods were a real step down from the Cathay Pacific pods: cramped, almost no storage, and with a weird partition between adjoining pods that meant I spent the preflight time and the first 20 minutes of the flight mutually avoiding the gaze of the facing pod-person across the lowered barrier. (After that, the barrier could be raised.) There wasn’t much time for napping after the meal and before landing. I did, wonder of wonders, get about 3 hours, which is pretty good for me on a flight, but right at the start, as I was trying to go to sleep, we hit some mild turbulence and a steward made a point of shaking me gently to wake me up (I wasn’t out yet) to be sure I was buckled up! Jesus, dude! If I’d actually been out, that would have been it for me, I’d have been up for the rest of the flight. My body is not forgiving of being startled just when I’m drifting off. And the attendants had a weird, British vibe, that thing where they’re polite because that’s their job but their caring doesn’t go one centimeter past that. It’s all business. Unlike plenty of other airlines (everything Asian, Virgin America, Alaska Airlines are good examples) where they’re either actually into it or they know how to give you a convincing display. That was the least impressive flight I’ve been on in a while, and if I end up flying them again in the future, I won’t bother wasting my remaining mileage upgrading for flights under 8 hours. I’ll save it for future trips to Australia and New Zealand.
I should mention: British Airways also don’t let you prebook your seat until 24 hours before the flight, unless you’re willing to pay some absurd premium for the service. I, of course, did not, and I got perfectly good seats, such as they were, for the two legs of my journey, by booking changing the seats to window seats when I did the online check-in. But the money gouging, for something that every other airline I’ve flown does for free, was super annoying. On the plus side: they have an app that you can use to download your boarding pass, so when you check in you can have your pass on your phone without the need for a printer. Of course, when you actually go to display the pass to security or any agent, you’d better have a working internet connection. Because the app has some short timeout — 5 minutes — after which trying to open it and get your pass requires a re-download. Fortunately, I was suspicious of the app (or any similar app), and used my iPhone snapshot feature to take a picture of the pass, and then used the picture at every gate. But, seriously, why is this rocket science? Download the pass, and keep it for local display. Gods, damn, BA. If it’s a security thing, make me retype my BA password to see it. But don’t force an internet connection, that’s moronic!
If there was a plus side to this, it is that British Airways has a nice business class lounge, and that lounge has shower facilities, so after I arrived in Heathrow at 6:00 am, I was able to become clean and reasonably well fed, if not really rested. (Still a bit sweaty, though, since the shower cubicles didn’t have great air circulation.) Heathrow’s airport security’s a bit sucky though. That was as thorough a search as any I’ve had to go through, and they took out partial tubes of toothpaste and the like for separate inspection, and this was just on a transfer flight where I never left the terminal! (I’ve complained about that sort of thing before.)
The flight from Heathrow to Rome was actually rather more pleasant than the one from JFK to Heathrow. It left at 9:30 GMT, was only 2-1/2 hours and there were no pods; and business class was regular-class seats, 3-adjacent, but with a tray fixed across the middle seat which was perfectly suitable; and the attendants seemed actually friendly! And I got to watch an episode of Lucifer (downloaded onto my TiVo), which was surprisingly entertaining. I have some hopes for this series; not many, but definitely some.)
I arrived in Rome at about 1:30 local time (GMT+1), walked easily through customs (I say easily, but I did manage to pick the slowest customs line, so boo me), made my way to the train, bought a ticket, and headed into Rome proper, while sending my host Massamiliano (Max) a message saying that I had arrived and was on my way.
I should mention a particularly vital tool in my navigation of Italy so far, the Rome Toolkit. It’s giving all the information that I desperately want in planning my use of public transit, as well as a bunch of other info about museums and other sights, hours, caveats, and the like. Tremendously useful.
The trains were double-decker, and I made the mistake of seeking out a seat on the upper deck, in the interest of having a better view. (A) There wasn’t much of a view, just a grey, slightly chilly day, train stops, and fairly conventional semi-rural areas turning into fairly conventional city proper. And (B) it was fairly warm up there, so I was treated to another round of sweating. I’d left Asia to avoid all of that sweating, and it seems to have followed me like a karmic groupie.
I got off the train at the stop recommended by Google, which told me to switch to a different train going north for a stop and then walk the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the station had maybe a dozen platforms, and the signage was incredibly unclear about which train was going where — at least, unclear in any way that seemed meaningful to me or matched what Google was suggesting. Eventually, I noticed that one train, due to arrive at about the time I was expecting (only off by a minute or two), had a destination far out into the country but Google Maps said that it was a town in the direction I was expecting to go. So, although it didn’t say it was on the rail line that Google wanted me to take, I took a risk and stepped on, figuring that the stations were probably initially the same, and that I could always get off and go the other way if I turned out to be wrong. (Which would be a nuisance, but not like I’ve never done that before. It took me 3 tries to get off at my Lake District stop in England, many years ago, and I just oscillated back and forth between Edinburgh and Too-Godsdamn-Farsville trying to do it.) As it happens, I guessed right, and the next stop had the name of the stop I was actually desiring, so yay me! I got off and started walking, Google app in hand.
I should take a moment to say something about Rome, by way of setup: Rome. There, that should probably do it. Let’s be real: unlike, say Sapporo, nobody here needs an explanation of what Rome is. In fact, honestly, even the Wikipedia page has so many great pictures, I probably should have saved myself the bother of taking any. I should just stop at, “Yeah, I went to this place here, and saw pretty much what you’d expect to see based on these pictures.” Save you and me both a lot of bother.
But let no one say that I’m unwilling to go to a bit of bother when Words are involved. And, in fairness, there are a few details about my trip not included in the Wiki. For example, what part of town I was in. Here’s a Helpful Map:
I stayed at the place marked with the star at the lower left, just next to the really big park which was on the top of a hill. The train station that I made my lucky guess at is marked by the little blue metro symbol southeast of that star, along the rail line in from the airport about 40 minutes to the west. Then I switched to the line that starts back the way I came but then turns and heads north from there, and got off at the Quattro Venti stop about 6 blocks away from my destination. (FYI, don’t be surprised if that stop sounds like a Starbucks order. Everyplace in Italy sounds like some kind of food. “I’d like the Taranto with a side of Statilia.” It’s, like, a law or something.)
I should point out that nothing on this map is level. If you’ve heard of the “7 Hills of Rome”, I should point out that those are just the original 7 Hills but, like a Robert Jordan series, they just keep adding more on. “Hey, look, there’s another hill after this one we just settled! We should claim that also!” Eventually, if you keep doing that, you end up with a pretty big city. (“What’s that, Wikipedia? 4.3 million people? Cool fact, bro!”) By which I mean to say that there’s a lot of walking up and down slopes and hills and stairs, unless you want to take their terrible public transit system (rumored so online, and heartily confirmed by my host Max), in which case there’s only a moderate amount of walking up and down slopes and hills and stairs, supplemented by waiting for buses and fighting your way onto them. I stuck with the walking. I’m a walker, not a fighter. Plus, I paid good money for these new boots, and these boots were made for walking. Like, literally. So, best to get my money worth.
The part of town I was in, on the west side of the famous Tiber River (aka, Fiume Tevere), is known as Trastavere, and is not as touristy as the east side, but it’s still in pretty easy walking distance from the cool stuff: 35 minutes to Vatican City to the north, 40 minutes to the Colosseum across the river, 60 minutes to the Borghese Gallery to the northeast. My time in Rome was pretty much bounded by these areas, and I walked constantly, for hours every day but one. It felt *really* good, after the relative inactivity of winter. The weather was sunny most of the time I was there, and the temps ran from say, 38-43 in the morning to 55-65 in the afternoon, and probably had average highs in the high 50s, which could be chilly if you were sitting in the shade, but was super comfortable in the sun, and I ended up sweating a lot walking around at speed. I rarely went out in a jacket, I learned quickly that I’d warm up fast. But then I *really* stood out from the locals, who were bundled up like they were Thai natives. (Note to self: take a hint. Don’t visit here in the summer.)
So, that sets the environment, and I can continue with the events.
Airbnb to the Max
I walked from the metro stop, up a series of hills, towards where I thought Max’s place was. I’d exchanged progress e-mails with him since the airport, and learned that he was having lunch with friends nearby, and would break away to meet me and get me settled. I was a little worried about train troubles making me late, but everything went smoothly and I was making perfect time through this unfamiliar neighborhood, which noticeably featured: confetti on the ground from some sort of recent Carnivale activity, some small children in costumes clearly coming back from such an event (with parents, in case there is any doubt on that score), and dog poop. Guess which one I paid more attention to. Not unreasonably, of course. There’s little risk to trodding in confetti, and while trodding in small children has perhaps the greatest repercussions, they at least stand out more against the pavement and are fairly easy to avoid. But dog poop? Wow. I don’t know if the Romans have any laws about that sort of thing, but if they do they seem largely unconcerned with a life of outlawry. In a long week of strenuous walking I managed to avoid stepping in any, but it was by no means through lack of opportunity.
Arriving at Max’s place at 3:00pm on that Sunday, I saw no immediate evidence of his place at the specified address, and didn’t know what to ring or buzz, so I sent him another e-mail through Airbnb saying that I was there. It turns out, I was just up the street. Somewhere along the line, the Google address I’d been targeting had become something about a block away. But, after telling Max that I appeared to be across from a school (or an insane asylum; they’re often hard to tell apart from the outside, or the inside really), he popped up the street looking for me just as I was heading down to the address that he had just re-sent me.
Max’s Airbnb listing is here, and the pictures are accurate. It’s an apartment (would be 1 bedroom, but Max has clearly turned the living room into a 2nd bedroom to rent out) in an older building, originally owned by his paternal grandmother and inherited by him; his father’s family goes back in that area for 7 generations. Max may well turn out to be the last in that tradition, as he’s a bit addicted to change and (a) might well end up living in another country entirely, and (b) might be so addicted to serial monogamy that he never ends up having kids. He’s 35, and has already racked up an impressive series of international girlfriends, so he could well hit both of those points. Regardless of the fate of future generations, Max himself is delightful. Slightly shorter than me, wiry, good looking, very cheerful and energetic, and with the stereotypically Italian trait of gesturing as he speaks, not just with his hands but really with his whole body. It made me wonder what Americans (and many other nationalities) look like to Italians: unnaturally still and stiff? (I’m sure the British look dead to them, but most of the rest of us wouldn’t be far off.) Italians have a rich vocabulary of gestures, past stereotype and moving towards the realm of full on sign language, and Max explained that he could say a lot of things to his friends in sign only. He works with a tourist agency, and the week I was there his company was arranging a tour for a group of 200 Chinese people, who apparently all expected to be housed together and eat together at meals. (They had to be told that these things were not possible. I guess when your government builds entire cities from nothing, your expectations get a bit distorted.)
The place is, indeed, right across from a junior high school, and thank gods I’m an early riser, because the street gets super busy and noisy from about 7:30-8:30. It’s already at an intersection — not a major one, but street noise was still a constant — but during the school’s start time the traffic noise ramps up mightily, and the Italians do not fear the horn. The window blocked some of it: Max had had new windows installed since he acquired the place, and they were double paned and had a fascinating opening mechanism, which allowed the window to swing to the side if opened in one fashion (in a fairly conventional way), but turn the handle a different way and the window is hinged on the bottom and swings out a foot or so at the top, allowing heat to vent out. Startled the hell out of me when Max casually twisted the handle and the window started to fall out from the wall. He laughed. It seems that Europeans are familiar with that design, but Americans never fail to be alarmed. Fair enough. I’d be milking that reaction too, if I were him. 🙂
There were a couple of other interesting features to the place. The key was one of those old-fashioned keys with a long arm and a crenelated square at the end. The shower was about the size of a phone booth, stuck into the corner of the bathroom and opening at the opposite corner (half of each side rolling back into the other half). It was a clever enough design for the space, but every shower was spent with my elbows tucked against my sides in the narrow booth. Alternatives? Ditch the stupid bidet, move the toilet to where the bidet sits, and make a proper shower stall. (If you *really* want a bidet — I’m not a fan, but YMMV — use one of those Japanese rocket ship toilets that do it all.) The kitchen was perfectly adequate: not a lot of cooking implements, but enough for me to chop salad veggies, and Max had a really great breakfast tea (from a brand called “Royal Tea”) that I really liked, and some yummy honey to go in it, so that was great. And then there was this, which caught my eye as I walked into my room:
And he had a comprehensive booklet he’d printed out, of maps with useful locations, instructions on which very conveniently nearby bus routes to take to popular sights, where good restaurants and grocery stores were, etc. He also walked me to a nearby pizzeria that he loved, and a great gelato place. And he had plug adapters (not that I needed them), and complimentary wine (not that I drank it), and we spent a few pleasant minutes discussing how absurdly expensive he found wine in America and comparing that with my Japanese sake experience. In truth, I found out a lot about Max in the short time that I spent with him, because man can that guy talk. And a mile a minute! And if there was anything I wanted to say, I’d better say it within 1 or 2 subordinate clauses, because if I paused for breath, he’d leap in running another direction from whatever my last words were and I’d never get the thing said. I loved Max, and would happily stay there again, but wow that was a lot of listening.
A Walk in the Park
Once Max got me checked in, and we walked to his favorite eateries, I walked with him to the bus stop that he was taking back to his friends and then I went home. I unpacked a little, meditated for 40 minutes or so to rest up, and then headed out to that giant park up the hill; Max had recommended it as a favorite place, and I’d planned to visit when I first saw Max’s listing. Plus, it was one of the few places I felt like going to after a very long day+ of travel. By this time it was around 4:30 or so, and between the cloud cover and the early winter evening it was getting a bit darker, but Max said the park was open until 8:00 and a bit of pastoral nature sounded ideal, so I set out. I’d love to include picture of the park, but of the few that I took, they don’t really look like much in the darkness.
The park grounds are extensive. I’d initially thought I’d walk around the whole thing, but there’s a major road cutting through the middle, and I wasn’t really comfortable yet with Italian traffic. Every country has its own driving style, and between left-and-right driving countries, different styles and meanings of traffic signs, and variable adherence to the laws, I find the best way to approach walking in new cities is a kind of relaxed paranoia. It’s like only taking carry-on luggage when you travel: checking bags is usually safe, but if you don’t give the airline your luggage, they can’t loose it. Similarly, I never assume that oncoming traffic is predictable (beyond the most basic laws of physics and sanity), and I prefer to never give a car a chance to hit me, even by crossing in a clearly marked crosswalk when a car is approaching. Even if it’s safe 99% of the time, you cross enough streets and you’re just playing the odds until one day you lose. The phrase suddenly came to me, as I was plotting a course across a busy intersection: it’s not paranoia, if entropy is trying to kill you.
So, I started to cut south near that busy road, but I wasn’t enjoying the traffic noise much, and thought maybe I should cut away from it a bit, and ended up wandering through the middle of the park in, basically, night time. Only a bit after 6:00, by this time, but really quite dark. No street lights, just diffuse city glow reflected from the sky. I got to what I thought was an exit, but the gate was closed, and I suddenly thought, maybe Max was wrong? Maybe they actually close at 6:00? I hadn’t seen anyone in the park in a while. Well, I could hardly stay in the park overnight… so I scaled the 10 foot gate and continued south. And then realized that I was in an entirely new area, with buildings and lights, and was almost certainly trespassing. So I quickly turned around, scaled the gate again, and kept walking, listening for police sirens for the next 1/2-hour. And I say the next 1/2-hour, because as I continued to try to find my way out, I seemed to be walking forever. The park wasn’t a clear walk in any direction; there were paths, and hills, and impenetrable underbrush between them, and you pretty much had to guess about the paths and keep going (aided, thank gods, by Google Maps, which turned out to actually have the major paths marked on it.) With relief, I reached the place where I’d entered a couple of hours earlier, only to discover that its gate was indeed now locked! I was less tempted to scale this one: it was even higher, and less well designed for climbing. But at least I knew that I was close to the main entrance, which I’d passed shortly after I entered the park. I found my way back to that and — joy! — one of the gates there was still open. And, sure enough, a sign was posted stating that the winter hours were only until 18:00. I’m surprised that gate was still open, but maybe they leave one open longer at the main entrance, for stragglers. (I could have climbed this one, if need be.) So, from there, I walked home, stopped by Max’s pizzeria suggestion for some yummy takeout, watched a little YouTube, took some melatonin, and then slept for 11 hours.
And that’s where I’ll call this episode. There was little or no reading in this travel-packed day, but I have read since, and look forward to reporting on it. Obviously the serious Roman sights are yet to come, and I’ll continue with that shortly. But we’re getting a bit of sunshine in Florence right now, so I should get out and appreciate it. Maybe by spending a few hours in a museum. Ciao!