Saturday, September 16, 2006

Travels with Cyndi: Rome, Day Two

"So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land." -John Steinbeck

"Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city." -Anatole Broyard

The photo of us taken in front of the Pantheon. Obviously the photographer didn't notice the pantheon in the background, as he failed to include it in the photo.

Read about Day One here.

Our second day in Rome went by fast. We only had until around 4 in the afternoon to bum around Rome, since we needed to catch evening trains back home. Since the day before had been spent wandering, today we had a minor list of sights we wanted to see. As I've found, when visiting Rome, cramming a day too full is useless, as it will become uncomfortable and frantic, and in the history books, that day will be chalked down as forgettable. It's the slower days that work best, when a traveler can let Rome in and wander. If I were offered a full month in Rome, or a year even, I think I would try to discover one or two new things a day, and then let the rest of the day discover me.

So Cyndi and I were starting out right: just a couple of things to do, and then, if we had time left, we'd do a little more. We started off heading toward the metro, and we thought we'd pass by way of one of the city's gates that we had gone by the day before. I didn't realize that Rome had these elegant city gates, and the one we visited that morning, Porta Pia, was one of those things that, in Rome, you come across without even thinking--just another example of the city's excess of beautiful things. How can a city really hold all of these treasures? I wonder, isn't there a limit on a city's treasure chest?

Now, I told you about the previous day's American accents. I hoped to blame that all on a lack of sleep, but this new day we had slept quite well--yet somehow the accents came out again. Perhaps we did just simply look like lost tourists as we talked loudly and obnoxiously in different accents, but, passing Porta Pia and seeing the British Embassy, we immediately broke out into our attempts at British accents. I apologize now to anyone who IS British: hopefully the Romans won't give you dirty looks based on having met US on this two day trip! We decided this was the perfect photo op, and, with our cameras almost ready, we started to pose. Immediately, nearby guards stopped us.

"No photos!" they yelled.

"What?" we asked, still in British accents. "No photos? In front of the Embassy?" We looked at each other with overly astonished faces, as if we were being kicked off our own territory. Of course we're not British, and it was in no way our territory, but still...

"No photos!" the guards continued. We knew we had no choice in this, although we were both tempted to take quick photos just to be difficult. We didn't, though. Instead. we looked at those guards with frowns on our faces and walked away, all the time muttering loudly things about the Queen and the Homeland in our horrible British accents. (Again, my sincere apologies to all British people out there!)

Our next stop was the Colosseum, just to take a couple of pictures (for me, it's the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, and the Trevi Fountain that are every time musts in Rome. For Cyndi it's the Colosseum), and then we headed to the first place on our list: San Clemente. I had read about San Clemente first in H.V. Morton's little bible on Rome: A Traveller in Rome,. It is a church built on levels: one level so ancient that it represents a pagan temple, another level representing the very early church, and then the most recent level, a baroque conglomerate of styles. I've heard the church called "Rome in Miniature." Everything about Rome, all of those layers of different eras, are represented at San Clemente.

The church was amazing. We explored the upper level and then immediately headed downstairs to see the lower churches. We explored the 4th century church and its ancient frescoes, and then we went even lower, into what must've been one of Rome's earliest layers, exploring the temple dedicated to the god Mithras, where a shrine still remains. We walked through the maze of ancient rooms and eventually came across water running--a spring! Here, on the early floor of Rome, water rushed through--that famous Roman water. Clear and drinkable. We watched it as it continued, in awe of where we were.

As we left San Clemente, taking some last pictures, we remembered that we had something else on our list of things to see: the Pyramid. Yes, Rome has a pyramid. There's a metro stop that goes straight to it, and we jumped back on the metro at the Colosseum stop, looking forward to seeing a pyramid--a real pyramid! We got off at the metro stop, hurried upstairs and hoped the pyramid would just be there waiting for us--and maybe there would be sand and camels too.

There was no sand, and no camels that I was aware of. But there was a pyramid. I think we had expected something else, but here was this massive pyramid skirted in by a very busy road, no little "read me" guides, nothing to explain the presence of the thing. Still, it was indeed huge, made with blocks of marble and shining white, reflecting that day's hot sun. We walked around it, risking our lives passing the Roman streets, but there was no little museum, no place to enter, to understand better the strange presence of a pyramid on the traffic-tied streets of Rome. We shot some photos of ourselves, the pyramid, and the nearby city gate (no guards to yell at us this time), and we sat down on a bench, a little disappointed.

"Well, I guess that's the whole pyramid," I said. "What now? Lunch?"

And it was settled. We'd end our day of sight seeing at Hard Rock, just the way we had begun these two days in Rome. With onion rings and salads and drinks with refills, we drowned into the air conditioned state of being American again. We even ended the lunch with strawberry shakes ( I wouldn't reccommend this: somehow Hard Rock can do everything else alla Americana, but they didn't have the right recipe for milkshakes--they tasted more like heavy cream shakes. Get the brownie sundae instead).

And after that oasis of Americana and two days of wandering through Rome, seeing a few new places and happily returning to the old, we found ourselves at the train station again. How could the time have passed so fast? Hugs and goodbyes, we promised to do this again. And we knew we would, because Rome is always here, is always accepting--ready to take in even two loud and laughing Americans. Strange accents and all.

Cyndi, when shall we go again? :)


Check out more photos from the trip here, at my flickr account.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Travels with Cyndi: Rome, Day One

"So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land."-John Steinbeck

I must admit that, if pressed to give you a favorite city in Italy, I'd say Rome. Over the years, I've developed a little crush on it, and that crush has eventually grown into all-out love. It's a crazy, wonderful place, and if I get the chance to go there, I almost always take it. Yesterday, talking to one of my English students about travel, I told her about this crazy love I have for Rome, and she got the same look in her eyes that I do, the same smile on her face. "Rome!" Just hearing it is enough to remind you of its beauty. All of this talk of traveling everywhere else, when Rome is the one place I can go back to again and again.

So when Cyndi and I decided, who knows how long ago, that we wanted to go to Rome for a couple of days, I was more than happy to comply. We decided that we were in need of some serious American food--the kind that you can only get at a restaurant. With its free refills of iced cokes, its gaudy decor, and its bilingual menus, The Hard Rock Cafe stands out as one of the only truly American restaurants in Italy. Sure, back home in Indy I ignore the place completely, but here in Italy, going there becomes a journey, as high on the must-do list as the colosseum. It's kind of embarassing, really!

So Cyndi and I decided, on a hot hot day in early August, that we needed those iced drinks with free refills. We met up in Rome at the train station, both of us making journeys that stretched into the 4 hour range. Waving each other down and grinning like school kids, we took our luggage and began the walk to our hotel. Cyndi had spent the days prior to this little journey planning everything out, and she had successfully booked us at the Hotel Brasile, a hotel that fit our standards of 1) air-conditioned rooms, 2) general proximity to the Hard Rock Cafe and 3) a private bathroom. Upon arriving and taking about fifteen minutes to figure out how the lights work, we dropped off our bags, grabbed our essential walking gear, and headed out the door. At the front desk, they gave us a couple of maps, and we were off.

On the phone, days before this trip, we had talked about how many of our meals we would eat at Hard Rock. "Is once enough?" I asked, doubtful. In the end it wasn't. That day we had lunch there, starting off with a big basket of onion rings and barbeque dip, and immediately deeming it "very American" and "good." As if we were true restaurant critics, we observed our surroundings, rated the wait staff as decent, picked through our meals, tasting every bite, and used up as many napkins as we could (okay, so perhaps critics don't do that, but we did!). And despite the fact that I couldn't get my "usual" (garden burger sandwich and fries), the lunch was great. Leaving, we felt sick to our stomaches: another sure sign that we hadn't just eaten a plate of pasta. We had dined in true, American style.

Everytime I go to Rome, I feel lost if I don't see those typical tourists stops. I don't know why--by now I've outgrown the novelty of the Trevi fountain, and the Spanish Steps are just that--steps. But still, it's something that I feel the need to do, to go back and make my wishes in the fountain, to look out at Rome from those steps. Cyndi and I wandered through Rome like this, stopping for a photo-op near the Trevi, staring, awed as always, at the sheer beauty of the Pantheon. To add something new, I took Cyndi to Campo dei Fiori, one of my favorite underrated piazzas in Rome, we stopped and cat-watched at the cat Forum, and we sought out, through small streets as the sun set, Rome's charming turtle fountain, framed by its own pleasant piazza.

That evening, tired and still stomache-ached, we risked it and got gelato cones at Rick Steves' favorite Roman gelateria. We ate our gelatos and made our way to the Spanish Steps, passing from daytime Rome to the beauty of its nighttime, lamp-lit streets and piazzas. Rome at night takes on its own personality, and it somehow outdoes the daylight.

Now, first I must say that Cyndi is a good friend, and sometimes we get along too well--our senses of humor correspond too much, perhaps. Luckily, when we are with our husbands, they just nudge us in between our laughter and joking and remind us, in not-so-subtle ways, that we are embarassing them. But on our own, we must be complete distractions--passersby just staring at us like we are insane (and we AREN'T insane! really!). This happened in Rome, of course--in pure sleep-deprived bliss, we decided to play American tourists. We began to speak in Italian, but with thick, purposeful American accents, saying as many things as we could, slowly and with hoosier-twinged ciaos and per favores, and laughing outloud between sentences. We found this to be completely hysterical, and therefore kept it up, almost begging for people to stare at us. (Still thinking about this now cracks me up.) When American accents weren't funny enough anymore (let's say about an hour later), we switched to any other accent that we could muster: German, British, Australian, Boston, French--nothing was off limits.

And so the rest of the evening passed like that--on the Spanish steps we even called our husbands and assaulted them with our accents, giggling and surely inviting stares from nearby Spanish steppers. Luckily Danilo and Antonello are very good sports, and they are on our same wavelength--they laughed too.


Cyndi has a few entries from our trip to Rome: no place like Rome, part one, and part two.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Brown County Story: Part II

The summer has come full circle. I spent some of June's first warm days in Brown County, Indiana, and enjoyed the cooler days of Labor Day weekend there again. It was a perfect mini-break to separate my last day of work and work from the this month of preparation for heading to bell'Italia for grad school.

Climbing Browning Mountain and hiking part of the Knobstone Trail in the Hoosier National Forest made my head stop swirling around grant reports and workshop plans. Well, walks in the woods did part of the angry bee stung the top of my head without warning. It hurt, but it was like a slap in the face from nature. "Stop thinking about last week and old jobs! No more 'to do lists' for now! Enjoy this!!" I scratched my head and let the soft wind and new wildflowers fill my thoughts.

Later, wine and dessert were the highlights of dinner at Story Inn. Tasty food, if somewhat overpriced and over-lauded, hit the spot after the hikes, but it was the rich wine that made my head stop itching (ironic, isn't it?). In keeping with the theme, an over eager kitchen runner kept over filling water glasses and then stealing silverware before I'd even had a chance to use it. She did spill a useful secret though. "The desserts here are excellent. They make them almost every day!" Hmmm...almost every day? She grabbed the dessert spoon another staff member had just given me and skipped away.

Because the head waitress was friendly and because of my second glass of wine, I answered her question without any polite embarrassment. "Would you like to hear about our desserts tonight?"

"Sure. Which ones were made today?"

She answered just as freely. "The peach cobbler. It's served with the best vanilla ice cream I've ever had."

"Deal. And could I trouble you for another dessert spoon."

While waiting for fresh cobbler, I listened to a Russian couple play a soft piano and violin duet in the restaurant's corner. It's usually all but impossible to make a sequel that's at least as good as the original, but this Brown County Story: Part II was even sweeter than the first.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Travels with Cyndi: two days in July

Here we go. I'm finally getting around to posting about my summer travels. And wouldn't it be true to say those travels started a couple of months ago?

"We do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
-John Steinbeck

The four of us on a canal bridge in Comacchio

This was back in July. Around the 4th of July, more specifically, and Antonello and I had been invited up to a barbeque celebration at Cyndi and Danilo's in Fusignano. As always, we look forward to our little adventures with Cyndi and Danilo, and, packing up the car with our stuff, driving, windows open, on a beautiful day in July up past all of the beach towns toward Emilia Romagna, we sang along to mix tapes and radio songs, and we chatted about summer. Really, now we were in the heart of summer. Here we were, in the middle of July, and it was a glorious time of year.

Cyndi and Danilo greeted us outside when we pulled up to their house, and we immediately invaded their kitchen. As guests arrived, we all pitched in a bit to prepare and entertain, laughing and drinking glasses of wine, meeting new people--the fun of cookouts. Cyndi had been working on this cookout for a while now and had prepared it in true American style: baked beans, coleslaw, hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill, potato salad. I couldn't wait.

Cyndi's guests were fun to meet, too: one couple was from Fusignano (Antonello was grateful to finally speak Italian with someone!) and the other couple was from near Rimini. The Rimini couple included Karen, an American friend of Cyndi's, and a lost contact of mine from early Long Trip Home days. Of all holidays, the 4th of July was a great one to meet another American, and Karen more than won our hearts with a keylime pie she baked! After a great dinner outside by the grill and pieces of refreshing keylime pie, the evening ended with a stroll into Fusignano. As it finally got dark, we headed back to the house and Cyndi and Danilo's friends released huge tubes of "fireworks" made up of flying confetti. Not your typical fireworks show, but fun nonetheless.

The next morning's decision to take a daytrip somewhere before Antonello and my drive back home was pretty unanimous, and Sunday morning decided to cooperate with cloudless skies and plenty of sunshine. We drove, convertible top down, hats and sunglasses firmly in place, to Comacchio, a very charming canal town nearby, famous for its eels. Upon entering our first fish market (what was I thinking? I'm a vegetarian! What was I wanting to buy?), Cyndi and I eyed the eels warily. They seemed to be quite alive still, squirming all over the metal countertop. We watched as someone bought an eel, and we asked each other, "I wonder what they do with that live eel?"

Our answer came when we saw one of the store owners slamming the eel against the cold tiled floor repeatedly, and Cyndi and I ran out of that store like we had just witnessed a crime. We were both freaked out and shivering despite the glaring heat. The customers purchasing their very fresh eel laughed at us silly Americans, and Antonello and Danilo just shrugged and rolled their eyes, embarassed as they often are by their weenie American wives. What a way to start a trip to eel-town.

The rest of the day was fine, though, and Comacchio is actually a very pleasant place, despite the fish markets. It's canals and arched bridges are reminiscent of Burano, or one of the other Venetian islands, and the colorful buildings add flavor. We ate lunch at a pizzeria, compromsing for the boys--Cyndi doesn't eat fish either--as they ordered their eel delights, and we stuck to regular pizzas. After strolling a bit longer, peering into shops and taking enough photos to last a whole summer, we left the sunburnt town behind.

above: the Abbazia di Pomposa and a canal in Comacchio
below: our "knights" (in shining armor?)

Before heading home, we decided to go to the Abbazia di Pomposa, a well-known abbey nearby. I slept on the way over, so upon arriving in the parking lot and waking from a heat-induced slumber, I didn't have the faintest clue where we were. That soon changed as we walked over to the pathway and had a clear, gorgeous view of the abbey, standing in the middle of endless flatlands. Exploring it, we got to take close looks at the frescoed interior, beautiful and rather intact, despite the passing of the years. It was a great place to end our little daytrip.

We went back to Cyndi's house, said our goodbyes and gathered up our things. Waving as we opened the car doors to head out, Antonello discovered paper confetti from the previous night's fireworks on the floor of the car. It had filtered into the trunk too. We laughed--this way we could take a little bit of the 4th of July back to Macerata with us.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Of Thee I Sing

"America was established not to create wealth but to realize a vision, to realize an ideal--to discover and maintain liberty among men." -Woodrow Wilson

"...the City of New York, the noblest of the American symbols." -James Morris

It's been five years since those attacks, and despite the physical distance between me and America today, I feel very close. Everyone can remember that day, where they were, what they were doing--exact, precise moments--when they heard about the first plane hitting, and to relive the entire day is dreadful. It really breaks your heart. And still, it was five years ago. Five years with lots of events taking place within them. Five full years. Why, then, does it seem just a moment ago?

Today I went to have an eye exam for upcoming driver's ed lessons, and there was plenty of talk of America. It's not every day that an American walks into the license bureau, and of all days, today. The doctor asked me where I was, what about it, and more, and I always feel like there's a sudden need to talk about it, to explain where I was living, what I was doing, to make someone who isn't American understand what it all meant and how terrifying it all was. I have too much to tell. All of those memories are stored somewhere, and they come out today and some other days, as vibrant and as loud as they were then, even if the years should fade them.

So, in the middle of Macerata, in the heart of Italy, I talk about that day, remembering. Who doesn't? I think, today, all Americans--from every sea to every shining sea--must have taken time to remember.

Check out Cyndi's blog: she did a great job talking about that day in her recent entries. Also, be sure to check out flickr and its photos which recall events from that day.

A few more blogs I read (that you should too!) that talk about this day: my brotherPaul's locussolus blog, Gia's blog, and Sara's American Girl in Italy blog.