Brennan is no more. Now there is only Bernardo. Bernardo is the Italian name I was given by my host Maurizio, who warmly opened his door to me when my Vespa was broken and I had nowhere to turn. “God really wanted me to see The Vatican,” I wrote in my journal on my last night in Rome. I said this because all of my worrying about the condition of my Vespa turned into a minor nuisance and an extra day to enjoy Rome/Vatican City. I was freaked out driving to Rome. I was leaking both oil and gas… badly. There was a big mess under my bike when I left Siena in the morning. I had to stop for fuel four times in about 250 kilometers. When I did get to Rome it took almost an entire tank to get across the city. I remember playing games with myself. Trying to convince myself that it was alright, that I was imagining the loss of fuel… that I was driving uphill. But I knew there was a problem. I swore to myself I would have it looked at as soon as possible. Of course we were at
the end of the holiday season and then a weekend, so I had to have it looked at on Monday, which was the day I was supposed to leave, so I immediately decided to plan for a third day in Rome.
When Alex arrived on the train, we parked the bike and left my stuff in a place where it could have been robbed, and wandered down a nearby street until it started to rain. Having nowhere to put it securely, we dragged about 30 kilos of luggage along with us. When the skies opened up, we ducked into an Internet café with an all-disco soundtrack. It took exactly three songs to make a disco fan out of Alex. Bored, with time to kill, we lurched our way down to the remains of an old castle. The castle wasn’t interesting, but the pyramid across the street interested us. I was intrigued by a plaque that honored the Americans who “liberated” the city in WWII. I found it interesting that they honored the Americans for defeating the Italian army.
Our host, Simonetta was a strong and opinionated woman. A retired physician, she knew what she wanted in life.
She explained to us that she didn’t want to be responsible for her guests, or to give them personal tours. She wasn’t a SERVAS member to try and meet people, and she wasn’t impressed by the stories people told her when they came. She simply liked being of service when she was available. She liked the feeling of helping in the small way that she could. I was short on bread and had no idea it would cost to fix my bike, so when Simonetta suggested we go to a nearby restaurant, I asked if there was a place nearby that I could buy some pasta to cook at home. She said no and then insisted on cooking a meal for us. We were flattered and tried to help, but she said her small kitchen was best navigated by one person who knew where to find everything. Simonetta also told us that a new guest would be coming after our second night, and if we needed to stay another night we would have to find other accommodations.
Rome on a Saturday night
After dinner, we went out wandering to see what a Saturday night in a “local” part of Rome
looked like. It looked pretty good actually. Every restaurant in Rome is apparently looping Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and the song will always remind me of Italy. In one of the most “touristy” shops in the entire city there was a room full of childrens toys. Alex giggled and asked if I could spot the one item in the room that was terribly out of place. Someone who was either clueless or with a taste for black comedy had placed a pair of pink fuzzy handcuffs in the room next to the toy Roman soldier helmets and Barbie dolls (maybe the helmet and fuzzy handcuffs go together…). Back at Simonetta’s house, my room had a very comfortable bed, and the smallest “bathroom” I have ever seen. Literally the size of a gnome’s closet, it was a comedy act when I actually sat down and used the toilet. I laughed the entire time, thanking my parents for my thin genes. I also laughed as a took a picture of the slug that was crawling on the bathroom door. My lense doesn’t have a macro setting, so it didn’t come out very clear.
were trapped at an endless, meandering market, selling every kind of trash you could ever be convinced to buy. It was certainly the biggest I had ever encountered. Most of the junk was cheap Chinese-made clothing. All the tourists were patting themselves on the back for being able to “talk down” the sellers, but from my perspective, there is no “good price” on something that will fall apart the second time you wear it anyway; I bought a scarf. My mother, who has been of unbelievable assistance on my endless journey, had asked me to look for one item for her. She asked for cameo jewelry (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameo_(carving)). When she had visited Rome 35 years ago, cameo jewelry was everywhere. I searched every booth in a two kilometers radius and not a single cameo! Who thought that fashion could change in 35 years. Don’t worry mom, they should be retro again shortly.
Romans have a dangerous and unhealthy affection for dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I like many dogs, maybe twelve of them. Anyway, what I mean is that Romans like to have their dogs with them where they shouldn’t. I saw a couple of people at the market
who brought their dogs with them. “Awww, isn’t that cute?” No. It’s selfish and dangerous. There are 400,000 people walking around that market, and I actually saw three of them kick the dog (either intentionally or unintentionally - it is going to happen). Then I saw someone else riding on a Vespa, with their little Chihuahua (or whatever) perched on the foot rail. Another example of someone “loving their dog,” but putting the animal in a perilous situation. If you love your dog, people, don’t set them up to get maimed.
When we did arrive at The Vatican, I saw more people than I’d ever seen before in my life - yet not as many people as I would see a couple of hours later when we reached that Spanish Steps. There are no borders marking the entrance to The Vatican. You simply turn a corner and BAM!, you’re in another country. There’s 50 million people on a wide prominade, and a big open square - that’s St. Peters square. I should mention that it isn’t a square. It’s a giant, round open plaza with a huge fountain and columns all around. There was a Nativity display in
the middle because of the season. Alex said she expected something more with the nativity display, like live actors. Come on, you’re the freaking VATICAN, why should you be outdone by the First Baptist Church of Birmingham Alabama?
Breezing through Rome
We walked to Castello D’Angello nearby, watched ice skaters along the river, crossed an ancient bridge to walk through Piazza Navona, and saw the Pantheon. I was extremely impressed with the Pantheon, and I hope the video I posted here does it justice. A massive domed building with 3D texture inside.
Human zoo no. 2
We wandered past the most luxurious fashion stores I’d seen since the Champs-Elysees to find the Spanish Steps. I was impressed to see the Oregon Scientific store, located right in-between the Prada and a giant MacDonald’s, at the base of the steps. There were more people in the square outside the Spanish Steps that day than there were registered health insurance industry lobbyists in Washington D.C. last year; probably 7,000 of them. We dragged ourselves up the stairs and parked on a platform perched above the crowd. This weird English couple caught my eye. The woman was posing with a rose, kneeling along an
impressive stone wall. I decided that these were some goofy tourists I could relate to. I called out to them, somehow knowing that they would speak English. Something to the effect of “Hey you! Take our picture!” We gave them our camera, and they took the picture you see of Alex and I. We returned the favour, and took a picture for them too.
I was beyond hungry. We didn’t want to get ripped off on food again, and we were in one of the most well-worn tourists districts on the planet. We kept trekking on further and further, following our noses. We found a beautifully manicured park, and while we looked for the entrance, I reached above my head and pulled down a very unripe mandarin. I grimaced as I struggled to swallow the tart flavor. Walked along the cement pathway of this inviting park, lined with Super Mario-style trees. But instead of eating at this wonderful park (overpriced concessions), we found a supermarket underground and popped out in a dirty, nasty, forgotten patch of greenery, where we shared a post-apocalyptic concrete planter with a straight-up bum. While we ate, bumkins was actually hiding his prized possessions
BmYeah Lisa likes Jazz, she's our number one fan - but you know I'm bad because I do the ____
(in a grocery bag) in the bush nearby. We pretended not to notice, but were secretly intrigued as to see what he’d he just packed away in there. While we were at the supermarket picking up some pizza at a great bargain, I had the pleasure of listening to this angry bum with an awesome voice (who sounded exactly like Watto from SW:Phantom Menace) growl angrily in Italian at the guy behind the counter (included here for your listening pleasure).
Random poetic moment
I must have lied to myself when I perceived you Attributing qualities You did not possess
Perhaps there were seedlings That never sprouted Or simply have not yet
There was one last monument to see: the Colosseum After a lifetime of hype, we were prepared to be let down. But we weren’t. This ruin, at sunset, was every bit as magnificent as it appears in all the films. It was closed when we arrived, but we walked the entire perimeter, and it became my favorite photographic subject of the entire trip thus far.
Finding a home
I was still looking for a place to stay the next night at, and so
was Alex. Simonetta told me I should give up trying to call on SERVAS people, because absolutely NO ONE would accept someone without any notice. I was beginning to think she was right, as I hammered through about 30 different people - all with perfectly plausible reasons for being unavailable. Then the world turned. I called Maurizio and Maria, from the Southeast edge of Rome. A retired couple in their 70’s, they became my new grandparents. Simply wonderful people, Maurizio (though he is very humble about it) speaks excellent English. He and his wife said it wouldn’t be any trouble at all to house me for an extra day, while I got my bike fixed. Maurizio is a true Roman. His family, possibly until the time of antiquity, comes from Rome. As he shared his stories as a Sheraton hotel manager with me, I could imagine him with a wreath behind his ears, eating grapes with Caligula. Maria is a German Czech, raised in West Berlin. Alex and I unceremoniously parted company with a simple hug and the hope that we’d cross paths again soon, as Simonetta led me in the direction of a nearby mechanic shop. Simonetta and I
had lost each other the last time she tried to lead me on foot, so I tried to get her to describe the directions so that I had a general idea. She insisted that it was unnecessary to describe the directions, and of course we immediately lost each other again. Luckily, after waiting at the place I thought she had pointed to for 10-15 minutes, some people nearby were able to guide me to the mechanic shop. My bike was fixed the same day. The mechanic immediately fixed my leakage problem by replacing a rubber hose, and was willing to let me go for free. However, I insisted he fix the front brake also, which had become a loud and dangerous nuisance. Fixing the break took most of the day, but he only charged me €30. I was so grateful that I tipped him another ten, which was still a hell of a lot cheaper than the €100 I was afraid I would have to pay.
Another type of professional waiter
I had meant to see the Sistine chapel, but entered the line to see St. Peter’s Basilica. The line is so intimidating that there are professional “line waiters” who
will sell you their spot for €10. I got to hear the pitch several times, given to those around me. I was hoping he’d give me the pitch, and I was going to record it. It goes something like this (urban London accent, think Snatch): “Right then. Say, do you want to skip the que? It’s ‘bout two hours from this point. You can cut right up to the gates.” I just wondered if they did this every day. When I actually did reach the front of the que, I saw one of these “cutting clients” get torn a new one by somebody who had waited in line. There were threats of violence, and plenty of foul language; I enjoyed it thoroughly. Hey, when you wait in line for a few hours, entertainment is entertainment.
Inside The Vatican
I had no idea where I was going. I just followed the lines forward. The line led me up 550 ancient steps to the very top of the basilica, where I looked down on the masses in the square below. Inside, all the walls are mosaics made of mini tiles. There must be millions of rocks to create these images. The ceiling
has elaborate paintings, though I can’t imagine how it was ever done. It must be 200 meters above the floor. In the center of the floor, it descends down nearly another 100 meters to the basement below. When I finished my tour, I hoped to see the sistine chapel. Then I saw that the line for the chapel was as equally intimidating as the one for the basilica, so I abandoned the attempt for this trip. Maurizio said he was born about 500 feet from the sistine chapel, though he has never been inside. He seemed a little embarrassed to tell me that. Outside the basilica, there was a group of singers gathered together, singing and strumming folk music. It was unexpected, and drew a small crowd together. I listened for a while, and then moved on to see people chatting with the Vatican Guards. Vatican guards, if you’ve never seen them are usually just theology students dressed up in odd-looking renaissance clothing with silly berets on. They look more like your history professor than intimidating figures.
Random street junk
With an eye on my finances, I had a humble, American lunch of pizza and Peroni. I found a tiny,
B-treeThese are totally the trees from Super Mario Bros.
off-the-path pizza shop and started with a single slice. I took it out to munch under an overhang along the sidewalk. The pizza was delicious, and soon it was gone. I went back and ordered another. Then I went back and ordered a few slices of foccocia bread. The proprietor was very happy with my continued patronage. A couple of blocks away, I saw this enormous overweight man, dressed like a Greek sea captain, playing the violin. Amused, I reached for my camera to record the performance. I planned to give him money after his performance, but immediately upon seeing the camera he stopped playing and turned around. I tried to explain that I wanted to contribute, but he pouted like a big baby. You know those superstitious mariners, he probably thought he’d be swallowed by a giant squid if I recorded him. Maybe it was his secret shanty that brought all the fish out, and if I recorded it, it wouldn’t work anymore. Who knows? As I walked away, he started calling out to me, trying to get me to come back, but that’s not how I roll.
Later that night, Maurizio asked why, of all places in
Italy, I was heading to Calabria? He said it was perhaps the poorest and least developed part of the country, with a heavy Mafia presence (called ‘Ndrangheta). And of all places in Calabria, the area I was headed for (near Locri) was known to be particularly bad. [It has become clear that to tell most Italians that you've come to their country and your destination is Calabria, is kind of like telling an American that you are from Kenya and your destination is Utah. It always invokes a confused expression.] The mafia presence was news to me, but I explained to Maurizio that Sant ‘Agata is where I was from. It is where my grandmother’s blood trail leads me, and I don’t get to pick and choose my relatives. The next morning, I loaded the bike for the long ride to Napoli. Maurizio and Maria tried to talk me into staying for lunch, and as much as I would have liked to, I had to beat the sunset or else drive in dark. As it turned out, I would need every minute of sunlight I could get. To be continued...
There's a big world out there, and I'm just a small man in the middle of it. I'm crossing Europe on a Vespa, and writing at least one book.
As a journalist and ethnomusicologist, I'm digging up all the music I can find along the way, and looking for a way to bring it to YOU.
I'm traveling with help from a hospitality association called SERVAS. Look it up; it might work for you too.
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