Destination #1: Rome

  

To whom it may concern, welcome to my travel blog. I hope you enjoy your stay. 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But how do I know how the Romans do, when they do?

May 1st, 2015.

I have to admit that I am beyond excited. And by that I mean that I get about as enthusiastic as a small child flying for the first time. My eye widen, my face automatically puts on a huge smile that nobody could wipe off, and I am deeply impressed by everything I see, hear and smell. To sum it up, to me travelling equals happiness. Being on airports adds to that happiness. I love airports. I love the feeling you get when you are travelling somewhere. I love how everyone seems so busy. I even love the smell of airports. I am not really sure how to describe their smell, but I suppose it is a mixture between perfume (there are an infinity of duty-free perfume stores everywhere, as if they were going out of style), freshly brewed coffee – in case you have a jetlag that is begging for a cure-  desinfectant and people. Yes, people. You think that people don’t smell? Well, think again. It gets even more complex when people are wearing perfume, but that would be going way too far, so I am not even going to go there. 

So here I am, carrying around my heavy suitcase that doesn’t have any wheels, sweating and secretly cursing that I chose this ancient suitcase (that is definitely out of style) over the other, basically brand new one I have got with wheels. But since it stands for a reason (that I might or might not reveal), I have to bite my tongue and put up with the sweating. 

I check in at the flight company’s counter, where a friendly, dark-skinned woman with a big smile greets me. I present my passport and the online ticket I had printed out beforehand. “Is this a valid ticket”? I ask her in English. – “Yes, it is, but I have to print you a new one anyway”. – “Oh, okay”. – “Do you have any luggage to check in?” the lady at the counter asks. Yeah, yes I do and so I present my old, ancient suitcase that doesn’t even have wheels. “Actually, I do”, I say and this time I say it in German. “Oh, first English, now German?” the lady at the counter is obviously glad not to have to continue this conversation in a foreign language. I smile and admit that I am confused. I mean, it is an international airport we are talking about and I am surrounded by so many people speaking a multitude of languages, that it is no surprise really. “Is my hand luggage alright?” I show her my second, slightly smaller suitcase with wheels. “Hang on, let me weigh that”, she offers. Thank you. I think this lady is very helpful. 7.8 kg. “Yes, that works”, she says. “8 kg is allowed, no?” – I ask. “Precisely”, the lady nods. “Phew, that was close”, I say and at the same time I wonder why the hell I am trying to strike up a happy conversation, which is totally unlike grumpy, unapproachable me. But now I am giddy and looking forward to a million things. The lady smiles and pretends like she hasn’t heard my last words (or maybe she actually hasn’t), hands me my boarding pass and wishes me a great flight. 

I get this elevated feeling, as if I am the one who is doing the flying and not the plane. At the same time my stomach is competing with a thunderstorm and I decide to do something about it. Between all of the bookshops, last-minute-gift shops, shops offering traditional Austrian things etc. etc., I discover what seems to be a small bistro. Even before I know what I want, I take a look at the prices and suddenly I am not hungry anymore. “Do you have anything vegetarian?” I ask. The lady at the counter, who doesn’t look particularly happy about having to work (either that, or serving me) considers for a moment and then says “Only this wrap with cheese”. I am looking at half a wrap for 7 €. I am about to ask if the wrap also contains diamonds, but am able to hold back with a lot of effort. Instead I say, don’t you have a vegetarian ciabatta, as if I was facing my biggest disappointment in life (when in reality I just wanted to distract from my shock about the prices). It works. The lady is sorry. “I am sorry”, she says and I move on with an air of dignity. So I guess I am not eating.

The waiting area is crowded with people. Every seat in sight is occupied and people are standing around, obviously impatient about and annoyed at the apparent delay in boarding. A lady from the flight company approaches me, points at my hand luggage and says “Our flight is completely outbooked, so we are looking for people who are willing to check in their hand luggage with the regular bags.” That was just fine by me, but cheapskate as I am, I asked her for the price. “There is no additional charge”. Swell! The lady wraps a tag around my suitcase, hands me the baggage claim ticket, smiles and leaves . So far, things are looking great.

I spend the rest of my time observing people around me. They are a mix of couples dreaming of spending a romantic vacation in Rome, businesspeople and single ladies in the prime of their years (between 40 and 50), wanting to explore the city’s sights. One of them was constantly calling someone on the phone, updating the person on the other end about what was going on (nothing). The group of women in their prime years start making breathing exercises (at least I assume that is what it was) and start talking about this or that foolproof herbal healing method and other hippie treatments they found in a certain book, but I lost interest. 

We were finally able to board and it turned out the plane was big enough for all of us. I had previously checked in online, so I was sure to have a window seat. Next to me, a young couple, presumably around twenty, were eager to loudly discuss their vacation, which included -why would it be any different-eating pizza. The aircraft that goes by the name of Vueling, was apparently operated by a Spanish-speaking crew. One air hostess, a lady with red lipstick and brown eyes, that I immediately liked, was trying her hardest to be friendly to everyone and always put on a smile. The safety instructions were given in both Spanish and English and immediately the youngsters next to me were complaining that “how dare they speak Spanish or English, because they can’t expect everyone to understand that”. The woman in the seat before me, a blonde Austrian woman in her early fourties travelling with her son remarked that she had only understood the first half of what was being said in English. 

On the inside I was rolling my eyes so hard, that they are probably still spinning. Sure, it is not like English is a global language pretty much everyone learns at school, so everybody should just learn German, which is only spoken in about 2 1/2 countries in Europe. I mean, Hitler would have loved that idea, I am sure. (In case you weren’t able to tell that I was being sarcastic, you’d better stop reading because it is only going to get worse). To avoid having to listen to further comments coming from the kids next to me, I took a nap. 

Apparently I fell asleep and pretty much missed the entire flight (which was only 1 h and 30 minutes anyway)… all I knew is that when we landed in Rome, it was already pretty late. There had been a delay of more than one hour. I had told my hosts I would be there at 7 o’clock p.m. Yeah. That was not going to happen. It took me forever to even find the conveyer band responsible for the baggage from Vienna. There were like eleven of them and no screen or sign indicated where one could find anything. There was a screen at number eleven, but it showed all incoming flights at once, so I was none the wiser. Everything was already chaotic and I hadn’t even properly arrived.

 I decided to stick with the few familiar faces I still recognized from the flight and just waited for what seemed like eternity,  but was most likely only thirty minutes. Then the machine finally spit out the luggage onto the conveyer band. I grabbed my suitcase without wheels and my other bag and got the hell out of the airport. 

Challenge number two was going to be how to get to the central train station in Rome, called “Termini”. I left the security area through the Uscita and there were approximately hundred Italian men in black suits holding up cards with people’s names and yelling them out at random. All I wanted was to get to the trains, so I patiently followed the signs, that somewhat contradicted themselves, until I got to the platforms. In Rome, you won’t get anywhere following signs. If you want to arrive at your destination, you’ll have to use common sense and the knowledge of locals. So I asked the ticket guy for a ticket to Termini, and he said “16 Euros”. Cheapskate me was shocked yet again. Are you serious? I thought, “and where is my free Gucci bag?” (Not that I am into that but I am not able to come up with anything as remotely expensive). When I looked at the ticket, I was surprised to find that it was first class. Hey, I didn’t order that. Wow, that totally explains the price. There wasn’t a second class in Italy? I had never travelled first class on any public transport, but it turned out to just be an ordinary train. 

Again, I had to wait for another thirty minutes to get the vehicle going. If anything happens in Rome, it happens slowly. Let us make the exception of traffic, because Italians love their fast cars and don’t care much for traffic lights.

On the way to Termini, I observed the landscape and found the houses in the area to be rather run-down, almost desolate. it reminded me a lot of the suburbs in Greece, that I had seen not even a month ago. There was poverty everywhere and it made me incredibly sad…

 The train arrived at Termini thirty minutes later and there was nothing or nowhere that indicated where one was supposed to go (again), when one was ready and willing to find a bus and people at the information ironically refused to give information (They literally put up a sign that said that). Instead of figuring out the problem by thinking about it, the method I usually prefer, I just decided to act instead by descending down to the metro. By now I was sick and tired of wasting time and if there is any place except for a doctor’s waiting room or Facebook to waste one’s time and try one’s patience, it’s an airport. Also, it was getting darker by the moment. I don’t think I found the metro, but instead I became aware of a sign that indicated that there must be buses somewhere. 

So I first went downstairs, then went upstairs again, got lost and heading into the wrong direction for a while,  before deciding that the signs for the buses pointed into a different direction than where they actually were. 

At the vending machine that was issuing tickets, I approached some Italian guy in his late fourties who looked fairly official. “Excuse me. Do you know where bus number 90 leaves?” I am not much into talking to strangers, but this was an emergency. “Bus”? the man looked at me bewildered. I don’t know what the Italian word for “bus” is, but it must sound entirely different to elicit that amount of confusion. I pointed out to where the buses were to give him a hint, and added “Number 90”? This time, the guy understood what I meant and explained to me that I wouldn’t be able to buy the bus tickets at this very vending machine, but that there was an information counter “over there”, where I would be able to purchase one. He pointed into a random direction and added that I would have to wait for bus number 90 at gate C. So I followed the obscure direction the well-meaning Italian had given me, only to realise that everywhere around me the information counters were already closed. Fortunately, there was this one man who  didn’t look particularly happy about having to serve people after closing time, as he constantly repeated. (Then why don’t you just close your shop and go home?). Not only that, but the first of May was also a religious holiday in Rome. So the closing time guy grumpily handed me my ticket and I went to Gate C where I waited for the bus with a motley crew of people from all origins.

 When the bus finally entered the gate, it was crowded right from the beginning. There  were so many people that you could hardly stand. What is more is that the stops would not be announced anywhere (there was also no screen indicating where the journey was going), so people seemed to get on and off the bus at random. As a tourist and non-local, I was royally screwed.

Even more people were trying to get onto the already overcrowded bus. At every other sharp turn the driver made, people were having a bumping festival. I needed to get off. I did know the name of the bus station where I was supposed to get off, but no clue where it was located. Like I have mentioned before, the bus driver was being anything but helpful so after about 10 stops I asked this friendly-looking Italian lady where the Corso Sempere was. The woman in question didn’t really speak English but I got my point across to her, so she nudged me when it was time to get off and said something in Italian that I did not understand.

So here I was in the middle of nowhere and dark was already covering the city with a thick, black blanket. I observed my surroundings, which mainly consisted of some bars. Before I knew what I was doing, I approached one of them. A group of Italian men were sitting around just enjoying their drinks and talking to each other and soon noticed me and my most likely very desperate-looking visage. I asked them if they could help me and they replied in excellent English. It was kind of intimidating talking to a large group of unknown foreign men, but they were being very helpful and gave me precise directions. Thing is, I am very bad at following directions, so all I understood was: walk down the street forever, then go left and you will find a grey building. The men asked me if they should help me with my luggage but I quickly replied that it would not be necessary, mille grazie. 

So I kept on walking and walking and it was getting darker every second. I was tired, exhausted, in bad need of a shower and just wanted to to fall asleep. I passed a bakery (that was surprisingly) open, left my dignity in front of its door and asked the staff if they knew where the hotel was. They didn’t seem to know any English, so with the last energy I posessed, I uttered: “Hablan Español”?  That obviously worked magic and the lady at the bakery said I was heading into the right direction (good to know), but that I needed to keep on walking (by then, every bone of my body was in pain). Out of gratitude and thirst I bought an iced tea.

So I kept on walking and walking and walking and still didn’t seem to be reaching my location, so two passers-by, a woman and her husband, evidently members of the Italian upper-middle-class and as stylish-looking as if they were imported from Milano, were my next victims. I asked them if they knew where the hotel was and they said they didn’t know, but I wouldn’t drop the subject and stubbornly showed them the address. I was too tired for this monkey business. They agreed to help me and the lady even offered to carry the luggage all the way to the front door of the hotel. They arrevederci‘d me with a certain air of superiority, that most likely was supposed to indicate that “Of course people need our help. We are Italians. Poor plebeians!”

Arriving at the hotel, I just rang the bell, waiting for the gates to what seemed to be a monastery, to open. In the main hall, that basically appeared to be a gigantic religious shrine, I first and foremost apologized to the guy at the reception for the delay. He replied that everything was fine and handed me different sheets of paper to fill out. I asked him to translate them to me, but he explained that his English didn’t really suffice for that purpose.

The receptionist scanned my passport as thoroughly as if he were a custom officer looking for fraud, and after an eternity had passed by, I finally received my room keys. “First floor to the right”, he explained and I dragged my heavy luggage up that flight of stairs. Since I was surrounded by pitch-black darkness, I started wondering about the apparent lack of light switches. They were nowhere to be found, so I just fought my way through the dark, trying to find room #112. I pressed the only button that remotely looked like a light switch to me, but it sooned turned out to be the fire alarm. My bad. I tried to pretend like nothing was happening and continued to my room, which was very small but also clean and somewhat neat. I had been informed previously that I would be staying at a religious hotel (that one was not allowed to enter or leave after midnight), so Jesus on the cross didn’t really surprise me.

The one thing that profoundly confused me though was the fact that there was no electrical outlet anywhere to be found. How on earth can a hotel provide wireless internet and forget about the small but significant details like guests having to be able to charge their electronic gadgets to use it in the first place? 

  

Buona notte! 

To be continued…

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