A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Travels in Italy

After getting back to a normal sleep pattern, catching up at work, handling some other pertinent business, and correcting a shitty internet connection, I am finally able to tell you all about my week in Italy.  Without further ado, let’s begin…

Ancient Geek

My traveling companions for this trip were my mother and two pseudo-rellies, Annie and her sixteen year-old son, Harry.  Mom and Annie have been to Italy a f ew times, so weeks prior to our trip, they asked me to pick out some things that I wanted to see and do while we were in Rome.  You’d have to ask them if that wound up being a good idea or a bad one.

I was so effing happy.

As I’ve often professed, I am a history dork, with a particular passion for the Roman Empire.  I am also an early riser, a stickler for detail, completely amenable to walking long distances, and the kind of person who reads every explanatory plaque in a museum.  Rome, needless to say, was a complete overload for me.  I was positively moist at the thought of standing where Julius Caesar was murdered, examining the home in which Augustus hosted dinner parties, and sitting where nearly three-quarters of the city’s citizens sat to watch gladiators duke it out.

It’s a good thing my fellow travelers were or practically are related to me, because I’m not sure they would have tolerated me otherwise.  I had the guide books, the lists, the maps, the pocket dictionary–I was ready to see and do.  I led the charge out to the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Forum, and multiple piazzas of note.  We even walked three miles of the Appian Way, which was awesome.  I think it was only my excellent sense of direction that redeemed me in the eyes of my companions.  Sure, we may have been out where the buses hardly ran without a bathroom in sight, but they were confident that I could get them back to the hotel.

A Sign from the Gods

It was while walking the Appian Way that we had our first divine experience of the trip.  Outside a bike shop which turned out not have a bathroom, we looked at a map to see just how far we were from the city walls.  Under a mile.  Piece of cake.  We were deciding where to head once we were back where bathrooms were plentiful, when our map–and most of my mother’s right arm–got hit from above.  All four of us look up to see a perfectly content pigeon sitting on the gutter, his posterior hanging out directly above us.  We shuffled aside.  The Purel and tissues were out in a flash.  I thought of explaining how the Romans often looked to the flights of birds as portents of the future, but it didn’t seem like the best of times.

Masters of Engineering?

The Romans take credit for a lot of things–statesmanship, military organization, urban planning–and they rightfully should.  Everything they did was precise, efficient, and largely revolutionary.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of engineering.  The Colosseum could take in 70,000 spectators, and they could all comfortably exit in under ten minutes.  The oculus of the Pantheon is as reliable a timepiece as the most expensive Rolex.  The Baths of Caracalla had heated floors.  Yes, the Romans were tremendous architects; but it’s been some time since togas and flip-flops were the dress de rigueur.  Perhaps in their zeal to offer geeks like me a chance to marvel at their ancient skill, modern Romans have done very little to update their city.  Cobblestone is the dominant pavement in Rome.  Sidewalks are virtually nonexistent.  Yet there are cars–tiny, amusing, European cars–everywhere.  A particularly chatty cabbie told us that while there are just about five million people in Rome, there are over seven million cars.  This all made walking around the city a bit perilous.  But out on the Appian Way?  It was like taking your life in your hands.  Listen, Fabrizio, just because you’re near the Circus Maximus doesn’t mean you’re actually racing for your freedom.  You wanna take it down to maybe, I don’t know, 65 kilometers per hour?  And with all your genetically inbred masonry skills, would it kill you to lay a few curbs down?  Perhaps widen that sidewalk so we don’t have to travel single file like legionaries returning from Carthage?  There’s a line between rustic charm and insufficient infrastructure.  You people most of all should know that.

Walking a typical Roman sidewalk

Be Italian

Eddie Izzard once famously joked that Italy is a care-free fantasyland where attractive people ride on scooters all day, saying “Ciao”.  He was almost right.

Based on my experience, the Italians are a friendly, agreeable people who are happy to do anything you ask, provided you have ample time to wait for them to do it.  When you’re on vacation, it’s nice to operate at this relaxed pace.  If I were to find myself living or working there, I’m not sure how quickly I’d adapt.

A language barrier would not be an issue.  Thanks to the Wantagh secondary schools’ foreign language department (Signoras Weiss, Parisi, Savino, and Calosso), I can speak and write it quite well, once the words come to me.  Hearing it spoken to me and processing what a native is saying still takes some time, though.  But no matter!  In Rome, as in most of Europe (I imagine with much embarrassment), everyone speaks English!  And they do so with audibly pleasing accents.

I imagine I would have more pocket change than the average Italian, because I don’t smoke.  Over there, they still haven’t gotten those pesky Surgeon General’s warnings about addiction and carcinogens.  However, my spare Euro might be spent ordering clothes from the States, as the average Italian male did not appear to be above 5’10” or 175 pounds.  And those Italians have a very different idea of what “XL” is than my fellow Americans do.

But Izzard was right: they are very, very attractive.

Suck It, Jesus

The four of us on this trip were all raised in the Catholic faith, some more stringently than others.  This proved to be to our benefit.

An example of holy doors

According to Annie, there is a peculiar stipulation in Catholic dogma that any visitor to Rome should take advantage of.  There are four basilicas in Rome which feature sets of holy doors.  These doors, blessed by some pope at some point, are opened once every 25 years.  If a member of the flock passes through each set of doors in the course of one visit to Rome, he or she is granted plenary indulgence…and gets to skip purgatory.  Imagine!  Just by walking through a certain set of doors, you get to cut the line into Heaven!

Since we had already set aside a whole day to visit Vatican City, site of St. Peter’s and one set of the chosen doors, we figured we might as well find the others.  Doing our best Da Vinci Code, we crisscrossed the cobblestones in search of these cathedrals.  Mind you, it was not a “holy year”, and thus the doors were closed, but nevertheless we saw and even touched them all.  Nothing particularly exciting happened.  We weren’t immediately beamed into Pope Benedict’s office or anything.  Who knows if it even worked?  But it was a fun little scavenger hunt, and even someone like me, who couldn’t tell you the real story of Christmas for all the tea in China (“Well, Joseph and Mary needed a place to stay…so Santa brought them a house.”), could appreciate the beauty of these buildings.

Still, it is fun to think that I could be playing shuffleboard on a fluffy cloud with Teddy Roosevelt and Bea Arthur while your wretched soul is still waiting on a line that would make the DMV look expedient.  I’d laugh at you, but they frown on that in Heaven.

" ... Oh, 'push'!"

“But he’s flashing me!”

So much of the historical paraphernalia we saw was literally within arm’s reach.  No one cared if you clambered up the steps of the Curia, placed a flower at the tomb of Pope John Paul II, or tossed that pesky Canadian coinage you’ve had at the bottom of your coat pocket into the Trevi Fountain.  It was all very accessible, with two notable exceptions.  Photography was not permitted in the Sistine Chapel.  This didn’t stop some rather determined visitors, but given that it was an overcast day and whatever electric lighting is installed in that chamber was not on at the time, I imagine these defiant paparazzi wound up not having much to show for their minor acts of rebellion.  Still, it’s a room that is literally painted from top to bottom, and while I still don’t understand how cameras can damage it, I’ve heard it often enough to accept it.  Typing that, I realize how idiotic it sounds.

The one photography ban I was not willing to accept was at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, home to Michelangelo’s David.  No one is allowed to take pictures of David, and the Galleria management has placed the single butchest woman in all of Italy in his chamber to see that that rule is followed.  And, honey, she was not afraid to get off of her stool and enforce!

I’m sorry, but if I knew the Italian word for “bullshit”, I’d call it out.  Blasting a Renaissance painting with the atomic flashes of thousands of self-important tourists’ over-sized Nikons day in and day out?  Definitely something you might want to consider putting a stop to.  Prohibiting photography of a thirty-three foot tall marble slab that for four hundred years prior to this museum’s very existence sat outside under the Palazzo Vecchio, because it might get damaged?  Che palle! (That’s “what bullshit!”, according to one of my less reputable guidebooks)

Meet Kitty

Kitty's keepers

Did I say there were four people on this trip?  There were actually five.  My mother and Annie had some Euro put away specifically for those practical things we all required (subway tickets, museum admission, and goblets of wine).  They referred to this money as being “in the kitty”.  I thought this was a hilarious colloquialism and ran with it.  For the entire week, we talked about Kitty as if she were a real person.  “Is Kitty paying for lunch?”  “Wouldn’t Kitty look lovely in this?”  “Do you think Kitty’s had too much wine?”  Nothing was more bittersweet than when, waiting at our gate of departure from Rome and eating some airport muffins, my mother brushed her hands clean and said, “Well, that’s it.  Kitty is dead.”  Thanks for the memories, Kitty.

Our Kitty had class!

“Remember: If anyone asks, your name is Giancarlo Ferucci.”

Despite all the fun we had, the greatest adventure of the entire trip took place on our first night in Rome.  Harry and I were going to a Serie A soccer match, Roma vs. Palermo at the Stadio Olimpico.  The tickets were purchased months ago, and it was pretty much all that Harry was looking forward to.  He was excited; I was nervous.  Having only heard horror stories about European soccer matches, the mothers had declared that my only responsibility for the entire trip was to see that Harry got home from the game alive.  Despite the fact that the crowd was no rowdier than the Bleacher Creatures in the Bronx during a Yankees-Red Sox game, that was easier said than done.  Although, getting in proved to be just as difficult as getting out.

Harry, outside the Stadium, before the trouble started

My brother had attended a match in Milan last winter, when he cut a swath through Europe that was only slightly less destructive than Sherman’s march to the sea.  He advised Harry and I to bring our passports to the game.  Sure enough, when we finally found our specified gate of entry, we were expected to produce ID.  The security gal took our tickets and passports.  “These tickets are no good,” she said, casually.

I thought she was ribbing us for having shitty seats.

“No.  See?” she says.  She points to the tickets.  “These tickets are not in your name.”

“Oh, no, they were ordered for us before we arrived,” I said.  Harry, ever the dutiful son, had brought the e-mail confirmation with him, at Annie’s suggestion.  With trembling hands, he shows it to the gatekeeper.  I wait as she reads it, perplexed.  If the tickets have Annie’s name, and Harry’s here with his passport, can’t she see the identical last names and put two and two together? I’m thinking. If anything, I’m the one who will have to do some song-and-dance.

Our lady friend is still shaking her head.  She hands me back the tickets, pointing to the lower left hand corner.  “These are not the same names,” she says.  I look.  The two tickets, which Annie ordered and which were delivered to our hotel with mine and Harry’s names on the envelope, are apparently registered to Angelo Grasso and Giancarlo Ferucci.

“Oh, fuck…”

I’m out of ideas.  Harry’s looking at me like a kid whose parents have just told him they’re taking his Christmas puppy back to the kennel after it chewed up one too many throw pillows.  I quickly, carefully, and succinctly try to explain to our stone-faced friend how we came into possession of these tickets.  She stops me with a raised hand after a few moments.  She hands us our passports and the confirmation.  She steps aside.  “Enjoy the game.”

We “Mille grazie!“-ed her until she was out of sight.  But that was only the beginning.

Our section, right behind one of the goals, was easy enough to find.  As for our specified row or seat…well, I’m still wondering.  The names on the tickets weren’t the only things that didn’t match up.  I’m convinced our seats were for another stadium.  With the game underway and not wanting to stand out as easily targeted foreigners, I nudged Harry towards the nearest empty and desirable seats (twenty rows back, on the aisle) and we sat down.  “If it turns out we’re in someone’s seats, just say “Mi dispiace” and follow me,” I said.  “Got it, Angelo,” he replied.

The rowdy Roma crowd

No one ever did come to claim our seats.  We got to see a great game.  Roma beat Palermo, 4 – 1.  Each time Roma scored, our section would erupt.  After cheering on the player who scored, the Romans in attendance (a young crowd all around) would congratulate each other, and then turn to the designated Palermo fan section and begin hurling a flurry of slurs, euphemisms, and obscene gestures their way.  One looked like a fanning of the crotch, and I still don’t understand its purpose or significance.

With less than five minutes to play, it was clear that Palermo was beaten.  Just as Harry and I were about to congratulate ourselves for having blended in so seamlessly with the locals, we found ourselves ducking for cover as a tremendous boom thundered through the arena.  We can’t die here, I thought.  We haven’t been to all of the holy doors yet! Realizing we were still alive, Harry and I looked up to see that fans had rather casually, and with no disciplinary response from the numerous security officials placed throughout the stands, tossed lit firecrackers onto the track which ringed the field.  And the Detroit Red Wings thinks octopi are a hazard?

Once the game was over, we began the futile search for merchandise that would fit my dear little younger brother.  Satisfied that my conversations with local merchants had taken up enough time for most of the crowd to disperse, Harry and I then looked for a cab back to the hotel, where our mothers waited for us.  Our cabbie to the stadium had said we’d have no problem getting a cab after the game.  Well, clearly his shift was up, because there was no line of empty taxis waiting for us.

Not knowing the bus routes, Harry and I were just preparing to start walking in the general direction of our hotel when a cab drove by.  There was no obvious way to tell if he was on duty, so I just took a chance and stuck my arm out.  To my surprise, he stopped.  Also to my surprise, he had someone in the front seat.  I tell him where we’re going and he nods.  “Yes, of course, get in.”  I reach for the back door, but he stops me.  “One of you up front with me, okay?”

Cause for alarm?  It could have been, had the passenger in the front seat not gotten herself out and nonchalantly slid into the back of the cab.  Figuring if someone’s going to have to plead for mercy in the local language, it had better be me, I take the front.  Probably cursing me up and down, Harry gets into the back with Mystery Chick.

Our timely cabbie turns out to be very friendly.  “You were at the game?” he asks.  “Si,” I say, trying to simultaneously be polite and make him aware of the fact that if he and Bonnie Parker in the back are planning on plotting against us, I’m going to be able to pick up on some of it.  “So were we!” he says.  “This is my girlfriend.”

I immediately feel Harry’s awkwardness multiply.

Cabbie, who speaks near-perfect English, starts chatting us up and down about Italian soccer.  Occasionally, Harry pipes up with an opinion.  I’m glad to know he hasn’t thrown open the door and tuck-and-rolled on me.  We wind up having ample time to discuss the finer points of the match, as the traffic is ridiculous.  It would be like me taking a cab home from a Yankee game.  Just sheer bedlam, made none easier by the Italians’ disdain for traffic regulations.

Conversation turns to where we’re from and what we do.  I tell Cabbie that I work in New York in the entertainment industry.  Suddenly, I am this guy’s best friend.  He wants to know who I know, what I’ve seen, what’s good, what’s bad.  He even asked me how he could audition!  I think both his girlfriend and Harry are rolling their eyes at this point.

Awkward conversation continues as we finally break through the gridlock and cross back to the other side of the Tiber River.  “You like Shakespeare?” Cabbie asks.  “Sure.  I love it,” I reply.  “They have a Globe Theater here.  I’ll show you.”

Before I can ask for clarification, he turns down a road that takes us into the Villa Borghese, a massive city park that, at this late hour, is poorly lit and completely abandoned.  As we bounce down a road lined with maimed statuary, I look around my feet for a blunt object.  He brings the car around a turn and stops, its headlights shining upon an honest-to-God life-sized replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

I’m still trying to appreciate the irony of dying here when he says, “Nice, right?”

Satisfied that this guy isn’t an axe murderer, I’m nonetheless convinced now that he’s taking us for a ride.  I’ve got cash on me, but I’m not happy about having to offer it all up to this scam artist when we finally do get to our destination.  Putting my best game face on, I say, “I want to go to my hotel.  Now.”

He seems genuinely hurt as he puts the car in gear.  We rocket out of the Villa Borghese and travel the final few minutes in virtual silence.  He pulls into a narrow street, telling me that this is where he and his girlfriend were headed, but our hotel is only two blocks away.  Glancing at street signs, I can tell he’s not lying.  “All right,” I say, bracing myself.  “How much?”

“Fifteen Euro,” he says.

“Fifty?!” I say, having expected only the worst and prepared myself for an argument.

“No, no.  Fifteen.”

I’m so relieved that I had him a 20 Euro bill and tell him to keep the change.  His eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.  While he’s still stunned by my generosity, Harry and I get out of the cab, he moving at a far brisker pace than I.  Sure, the guy may have scared us half to death and taken up almost forty minutes of our evening, but I figure this story was worth 5 Euro, don’t you agree?

Here’s some more pictures of our travels.  Ciao, amici!

A World War I memorial in Rome
Floor seats at the Colosseum
The Pieta
The main dome of St. Peter's
Palazzo Vecchio, Venice
Night train back to Rome

~ T

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