In the Travel Section of the bookstores across America you will find umpteen travel essays, I suppose written much the same reason as this one is written. Once a trip is finished, what more can you do than to relive the experience through pictures as well as a travel log of some sort? People write of their experiences, and I of mine. Thus I begin to tell of the trip taken in the month of March, '97 to Italy, having obtained a very cheap fare-war ticket, and having a desperate need to get away. Solitude. As an excuse, I called my brother up, who was also planning a trip, alone to Europe, and suggested that we rendezvous in some designated place in Europe. We finally agreed that that would work, but that neither of us would be obligated to showing up, in case our itinerary got so jumbled that we just couldn't make it. I could perhaps entitle this 'How NOT to Travel in Europe, as you will soon find out that I indeed do not have my act together.
I settled on a day pack and one rolling carry-on to take. I try to travel light, washing clothes along the way rather than a suit of clothes for each day. I believe Rick Steves makes the point that for all the people you will see, no one in Europe will notice that you have been wearing the same shirt every other day! Hey... I am not over there to make a fashion statement anyway... and the less I bring the less I have to lug around. So light I go.
So with no guarantee or assurance I would meet my brother, I took off for my destination, Milan. My brother's destination was Zurich, and then to Prague, after which if it worked out, we would meet in Florence on the Ponte Vecchio (The Old Bridge) at a specific time on a specific day.
After driving to where I meet the shuttle bus, I fork over the $44.00 round trip fare that will take me to Los Angeles International where I would catch my early Monday morning flight. I get there in plenty of time. LA to JFK for a brief layover before I board the international flight to Milan. I arrive in Milan on a Tuesday morning, rush to the money changer and buy a few dollars worth of Lira in order to buy a bus ticket to the downtown train station. My plan was to stash my suitcase and go on a whirlwind tour of the historical section of Milan, then catch the train to Rome. Yet as we wended our way through the city, I began to change my mind. For one thing, got to figuring that by the time I toured Milan and rode the four hours to Rome I would really be pooped. Second of all, Milan from the bus just didn't appeal to me. Maybe I was too quick to judge, I'd made my mind up to skip my tour, and board a train outta there immediately.
So I completed the bus ride from the airport that seemed never to end. There must not be any direct way in... no off ramp to the train station. Perhaps the driver was trying to dodge someone. If so, I don't think the devil himself could have followed the bus it took so many turns. But finally we pulled into the station. Now I was impressed as I entered the great train station. I wandered around trying to get my bearings. I read the huge board and saw which train was leaving for Rome and when. I had to hurry and get my bigletto... (that's Italian for ticket) and realized I had to climb all the way down the stairs to the Bigletteria... (the place where you buy tickets.) So I go downstairs and get in line. There is always someone smoking so close to you that you choke half to death. There is always someone with some problem they are working on at the ticket counter that seems never to end. but FINALLY it was my turn, and I was quickly told that they do not accept Visa, only American Express, and I would have to go UPSTAIRS to the money changers to get more Lira for the ticket. So upstairs I rush... this time for a load of lira. Then downstairs again, I buy the ticket (round trip, for I will need to return to Milan for the flight home) and it's UPSTAIRS again, and, in a great sweat, before board the train, seeing that I had about 15 minutes to spare, I stop to buy a jug of water and something to eat on the train.
Now on the train, I travel from car to car dragging my rolling suitcase, looking for a seat. It is full, but finally I spy an empty seat in a compartment that seats six people. I nod at the others, place my belongings on the overhead storage, and wedge myself between a young girl and an elderly lady, both Italians. Across from me is a middle aged American couple with a young boy. We commence our journey in silence, although it is not long that I am conversing with the Americans, learning all about their trip and where they are from. We have a jolly time exchanging stories. They are on their way to Florence, and I tell them I am headed there after a brief stay in Rome. I also am able to share with them a little of the knowledge I have on the art in Florence... or should I say my little knowledge I have of the art in Florence....
I also learn that the journey is longer than I thought. There was another train that was more direct, and less time, but of course I wasn't on that train. So it would be 5 hours on the train. I began to think what a dingbat I was for not flying directly into Rome. But there was nothing I could do to change it, it was just poor planning on my part. So sit back and enjoy the scenery... and finally we arrived in Rome.
Again I confess I was not impressed as we rolled slowly through dilapidated buildings that looked as if the next earthquake would turn it into powder. At last we arrived at the Termani Station, and I pulled my light carryon through the throng of people on to the street outside. I had my guide book with me that would direct me to the cheap pension I intended to stay at. But I was met with an official looking man that approached me and asked me where I intended to stay. My plan was to stay at the cheapest place listed which was a place run by nuns for Ukrainian pilgrims and had an 11:00 p.m. curfew. After all... all I wanted was a bed to sleep in, I was not in need of any ritzy room. The man looked at the guide book with disdain and suggested another hotel... one that I would have my own bathroom and the like. He pointed me in the direction of the hotel he was recommending, and I took my leave of him. As soon as I turned the corner, I stopped, got my bearings, and proceeded to head to the cheap pension run by the nuns.
I was in Rome! Now I was absorbing the city as I was heading down the street. All of a sudden another man approached me with a small box of Kleenex in his hand. He was pulling one out and telling me he wanted to help me. I was somewhat startled as he pointed to some brown liquid that was on my jacket. Then he showed me that it was on my suitcase, and told me it was on my pack! And this fine man was there to help me clean it up. But I somehow sensed that this man that was so nice to help me clean up this mess was also responsible for getting it on me also. So instead of stopping, I told him I was 'outta there' and immediately he melted into the crowd. Yes, it was a team working together. Throw liquid on a tourist, and while they are getting cleaned up, someone else appears to hike their bag away.
At last I find the street I am looking for, and the address of the Soure di Saint Anna but alas! It is locked up. Closed! I am foiled here. Never mind that fact that I had no reservation anywhere... I who flies by the seat of my pants cannot see 5 minutes past my nose most of the time.. And no, I couldn't even call at the train station, which really is the wise thing to do. So I bear the brunt of times such as these. I realize how tired I am, and the thought occurs to me that perhaps I should have gone to the hotel the man was trying to point me to. Never mind the fact that the cost would be the difference between around $100.00 per night between the two places.
But before I capitulate to the expensive hotel I decide to try another recommendation in the guide book, and this time head for the Hotel Flavio which was nearby, and although not as cheap as the the Soure di Saint Anna would have been, it was still cheap. After dragging up and down the streets like a dragnet trying to find it I finally find tucked neatly in a little alcove of the alley way the Hotel Flavio that I had been looking for. With apprehension I approach the desk, for I am too tired to go through another hunt. I repent of my ways. I will call next time! I will buy a phone card first and at the train station I will CALL before I embark through strange streets to who knows where! And there is ROOM! Hurrah! The Great God of Heaven heard my prayer... or he just shook his head in total pity, or both! I am given the key to room 7 on the 3rd floor, am pointed to the elevator, and as the door closes I am whisked upstairs, OK, I land on the 4th floor and decide to take the stairs down a floor. In Europe, the first floor is the 2nd floor, so I overshot it by a floor!
But I find room 7 on the 3rd floor (the second floor) and I take a little time to wash up, wash off whatever was thrown on my belongings and me, Lay down on the most comfortable bed on the continent of Europe, and fall asleep. Oh that pillow. Now in America, at a cheap hotel, even an expensive one you are likely to get a foam rubber pillow. This one was duck feather, the kind that keeps its shape. It happens to be the kind of pillow I like the best.
The Hotel Flavio! Not the Ritz by a long shot but what do you expect for thirty buckaroos a night? But one thing about Europe. My experience has been that a $30.00 hotel in the U.S. can be a horrible place, whereas in Europe albeit humble, is generally very clean. Such was the hotel Flavio. And very quiet, for the most part, except for the fella that lived across in the other building. I was awakened in some horrific hour an argument at top vocal chords, of course in Italian. He carried on for quite a while, and then it died down. I don't know what it was that made me think that his harangue blended in with the antiquity of the city... like perhaps a stray cat that belongs amid the ruins of the ancient Forum, but it really did fit the decor perfectly. I wondered who in Rome arranged it? Since I failed to bring an alarm clock or even a watch for that matter, (just a Sony Walkman with a digital clock on it that I hadn't set yet) I was laying there wondering what time it was... actually wide awake at this point, when somewhere in the not too far off distance I heard a jackhammer blasting away. Well, with this noise, I figured it must have been early morning... perhaps 6:00 or maybe even 7:00. So I decided it was time to start my day in Rome.
Now this essay is not intended to be an authoritative commentary or travel in any sense. It is just my experience and my observations. And here inside my humble little room I begin a philosophical experience as I ponder the two plumbing fixtures there with me. One is a sink, pure and simple. But next to the sink is another fixture, which still has me baffled as to its function. The reason I do not know is 1) I cannot figure it out, and 2) I am truly afraid to ask... especially when there is a language barrier. So I sit there and contemplate this apparatus. It is somewhat shaped like a toilet, and is as low as a toilet, yet has no toilet seat, no swirling drain that holds water, but instead has regular sink drain with a plug on a metal chain, and there are hot and cold water faucets on it. I sat there and thought, what in God's green earth could that thing be used for? It looked like a cross between a toilet and a urinal. Do you pee in it? Do you wash your feet in it? I saw absolutely no earthly function for it at all, except for perhaps washing feet. I was told that the shower and toilet was down the hall... and at this juncture I will leave the reader up to their own imagination as to whether or not this apparatus or even the sink for that matter would have been used as a urinal, given the handy jobber that us men are endowed with, faced with using the former or the latter or traipsing down the hall to pee in the wee (again no double meaning intended) wee hours of the night. We leave you to fill in the blanks there. Be that as it may, I gathered my essential things for taking a shower together, and there, down the hall the drama continues!
Now these Europeans... they don't do things on the scale us Americans do. The bath towel that was left in my room was more like a dish rag... and there was no floor mat! I am beside myself how these fastidious Italians put up with this! And the toilet... again no lid, not even a seat! Next to it another one of those strange contraptions that was in my room. And no familiar pool of water in the toilet... at which part I again must leave the reader to their own imagination here... of what it must be like to use a dry and empty toilet. In all due respects (no double meaning intended) to the Europeans it's sort of like the dog finding his spot on your lawn to do his thing. It sort of reminded me of the experiences camping... when nature calls... you know, in a big way... so you traipse into the woods armed with nothing more than a little orange shovel and a roll of toilet paper!! Talk about being one with nature!!!
Well, 'nuf said. Now to take that shower... or bath... since although there was a removable shower nozzle there was no shower curtain. Let the reader remember that if you use the shower nozzle you better aim it well or you'll have water everywhere, and be reminded that all you have is a small dishrag in which to mop up all water. So I stand in the tub, turn on the water, and commence to having what amounted to a sponge bath. I soap myself up real good, just like I was in a shower, then cup the water with my hands to pour over me to rinse off the soap. And yes, I will even dare to put the plug into the tub to let it fill up a bit, adverse as I was to this ordeal becoming a bath, since the idea of sitting in a tub shared by others does not set too well with me. Bad enough in a hotel with a private bath! How well was it cleaned? then the thought occurs to me... perhaps that is what the shower nozzle is for... for me to clean the tub with myself before I take my bath! So I use it, squirt it down real good, but now the truth comes out. I feel rather stupid sitting in a tub! Where's the rubber duck to play with? I'm just not a tub person. Others may take a bath... I like a good hot shower. Well, I am clean enough now anyway, squatting in ankle deep soapy water like a chicken trying to act like a duck. So I use the detachable shower nozzle to give myself a final rinse off, pull the plug on the tub, and stand there drying myself off with the dish rag. And now... since I absolutely recoil at the thought of stepping on a cold linoleum floor, I toss my dirty underwear... yes I confess... my DIRTY UNDERWEAR onto the middle of the floor, wipe my foot, and gingerly place it upon the underwear, then dry my other foot, and I am out of the bathtub. And there I stand on my dirty underwear... like I was stranded on a small island surrounded my piranhas. Yes... I know... the notion of me being some bold traveler is thoroughly dispelled. Somewhere years ago I read where Jacqueline Onassis used seven towels... SEVEN TOWELS for her bath! I confess that oft times when I crawl out of the shower even at home in less than ideal times... and step onto the bath mat I am reminded of that. Here was by far less than the ideal. And there, perched upon my underwear I am reminded of the pink flamingo... that balances upon one leg. I do the same as I very carefully put don my garb for the day.
I turn now to the sink to shave, which is never a pleasant experience when the water is not hot enough. Oh the pain dragging a razor over stubborn whiskers. All that comes out of the faucet is a trickle of luke warm water, but I manage. I gather up my stuff, mop up the water upon the ground with the wet underwear, pick them up as gently as possible, and scurry off through the hall to my room.
Just before I depart for the day I fill the sink up with water, add some laundry soap, and one at a time wash out my dirty clothes (underwear included) wring them out real good, repeat the process several times, and hang them on hangers to dry. With that chore done, I pack my day pack with the belongings I am likely to need, open the door and walk the two flight downstairs to exit the hotel. The attendant, who wonders what I am doing at such an hour, meets me. I ask him what time it is, and that is when I realize I am a bigger idiot than the fella with the jackhammer, for it was only 1:30 am. With that information, I sheepishly make gestures attempting to show that I am messed up time wise because of my flight over here. I wonder what he thought I was doing. Another blot for the American tourist. And with that, I crawled upstairs again to wait a more decent hour to begin my trek for the day. I decide to just lie down in my clothes. But before I do, I set the time on my Sony Walkman cassette player. Laying there the magic of Rome began to work on me. No... Rome wasn't about to disintegrate. Rome thrives... it works... it lives. It was so old... so antiquated... I couldn't help but to think perhaps I am in the most beautiful city in the world.
(to be continued when I get 'round to it... or when I think you can stand some more...)