Rome & Palermo: Converse, not keds. Scusa, not excuse me.

For this trip, my high school pair of rugged, blue converse took the place of the traveling blue shoes. Fake- keds should at least come with a warning of bound to break after a few months of wear.

But like all things in life, some things go unplanned. You make the most of the lemons life throws at you—the blue shoes you go through.

I spent my first week between Rome and Palermo, accompanied by two friends. I left them Saturday as I continued, alone, for seven days in Florence, Venice and Milan. How different both weeks went, how different travel becomes when it’s done on your own. How lost you get in the voice in your head as you continue, treading foreign grounds, a fresh eye to observe, yet the hint of loneliness that undeniably creeps in.

I look back, pleased with the experience of it all—the adventures the three of us had both in Rome and Palermo, and the intense reflection that consumed my days while in the northern part of Italy.

It’s a lot to document, given the extent of the trip. What should have been 18 days of travel, cut down at the last minute to 14 after a friend canceled for the last leg of the trip, turned into two weeks of some of the most thinking and carb overload I’ve had since leaving for abroad.


Week 1: Rome and Palermo 
Whatever plan of keeping my emotions together got zapped within moments of leaving Rome's main train station on our first day. Because it was there, from behind the rain-streamed window of our cab, that I got my first view of the Colosseum. Blame it on the tears that embarrassingly welled up or the torrent of the downpour outside, but my view blurred. And it was then that I fell in love with Rome. Fell in love with the beauty of the city among the ruins of its past, the, as I would soon discover, kindness and hospitality of Rome’s residents and the splendor of the city's, well really the country's, cuisine. 

Following lunch our first day, Erica and Nathalie headed back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. Never in the mood to pass time napping, I stayed out, working my way through Trastevere's winding cobbled streetswhile shielding myself under my umbrella to avoid getting drenched.

I eventually came to a tram stop and headed to the nearest tabac to buy a ticket. The lady inside, who spoke little English—perfect given I speak no Italian—helped me with the purchase, suggesting that I take a bus to see the Colosseum. Easy enough, she seemed to say. And I agreed readily, looking forward to the opportunity to wander by bus, the idea of getting lost and making my way back. The lady left her spot behind the counter to walk me to the stop down the street. 15 minutes until the arrival of bus 271, so said the board. Not bad, I thought. 

I was still waiting for that bus 30 minutes later, attempting to shelter myself under the small brim of my umbrella. My shoes, by that point, served as holders for the lakes that had taken residence inside the soles of my converse. Shivering from my lack of rain appropriate clothing, yet determined to catch the bus, I stayed, rooted in position, my patience wearing thin.

It took 45 minutes to catch the bus. 45 minutes of standing outside, along the side of the street, watching the trams pass me by as the rain held up, about as stubborn as I.

It took just that day to realize how inefficient Rome’s public transportation is, how arbitrary timing runs by in Italy-- how structure and schedule appear foreign in a country that believes 30 minutes late means on time.

In a way, Italian time and Emma time run on the same wavelength.

I got lost exploring that day, deeming the decision to continue on past the Colosseum a good one, failing to take into account that the weather and language barrier would only make my maze back that much more difficult. I always figure it simple to get lost in a city—the metro will always get you back. I hadn’t realized that Rome does not, in fact, have an extensive metro network. Rather, the city runs on trams, buses, and, for the most part, walking. What should have been a 30- minute ride back turned into a three- hour trek. I came back into our hotel room that evening to find my friends stirring from their afternoon nap; I climbed into my bed, snuggling under the covers, still soaked from the year- long wait it took to catch the right tram back.

It rained Saturday morning too, turning our tour of the amphitheater and Palatine Hill into a balancing act as we gave up all attempt to stay dry, navigating our way through the swarm of umbrellas while trying to not lose site of our tour guide. We met an Israeli family while on the tour, befriending the two grown sons. They joined us for the rest of our afternoon as we went to San Pietro in Vincoli to see Michelangelo’s Moses and wandered through Centro Storico (Rome's historical center). We later regrouped with the boys for dinner, joined by one of my pledge sisters. The evening ended on Capitoline Hill, soaking in the nighttime view of the ancient Roman Forum.  

Capitoline Hill

Spaghetti and sardines. YUM.
We left for Palermo after two days in Rome, staying with one of Erica’s family friends. The family, who live in a large home in the city center, organized for a tour guide to take us around the city, while providing us with suggestions for our first day alone. Their warmth, in addition to the region's traditional food (ALL ABOUT THEIR EGGPLANT AND SARDINES! Literally in heaven), made our stay in Palermo enjoyable. 

As for the city, it's small, largely destroyed from World War II. Michael, our tour guide, explained the government pays for nothing; it's for the city residents to take initative. Residents tend to do, he said, if influenced by personal incentive. And after four days of observation, the incentive seems to be lacking.

Michael, a Palermo native who lived in New Jersey for several years, possesses an evident love, appreciation and admiration for his hometown. For him, the ruins of the buildings create the character of the city. And so in a way, it's nicer to leave them untouched.

We spent the afternoon of our second day at a Hamamm (a Turkish spa), consumed by an uncomfortable fit of giggles when we realized the whole episode would take place sans clothes—well, minus the pair of see through underwear (but actually like a string) we were given to wear. It took all of me to keep a straight face as I lay on the marble of the elevated bath as a woman splashed water over me. You’re supposed to unwind while lying there. But relaxing is one I’ve never mastered. And so I found myself trying to figure out what day my birthday falls on, if I could count, in my head, from today to then. I tried figuring out my schedule and wondering what time I would be done with class—if I should have friends over and if my roommate would be ok with that. If I would go to class the next day and what route I would take from my morning fitness class back to next year’s apartment (which mind you, we haven’t even signed a lease yet) to give myself enough time to shower in between classes.

Right, relaxing and tuning out. Apparently, I don’t even know where to begin.

We returned to Rome after four days in Palermo. We had booked our second hostel last minute, therefore leaving limited options to choose from. We finally booked one a few days before leaving for Italy-- a hostel located near the shadier area by Termini station. The owner of our hostel requested we pay the remaining amount in cash-- which we didn’t have enough of, so he waved it off, saying we could meet him at his restaurant, a few streets away, to pay him the full amount by the evening. We would also move, he said, to a new hostel the following day as there would be restorations in the one for that evening.

And then we asked after the wifi in the rooms. Which we didn’t have, he said. We could visit the restaurant if we wanted to connect to the internet.

Oh, that restaurant. We went each morning and evening to use the wifi. That evening, we paid for our hostel in cash to a group of men seated in the back of the restaurant. They had tagged on charges to the amount we owed and I bit my tongue to keep myself from arguing with them. By the look of the men, it didn’t look wise to challenge their word.

So day two, after asking for a receipt that we never got and two wine bottles given to us as a manner of distraction, a man named Alfredo collected our bags, cramming Nathalie into the trunk, while Erica and I squeezed into the front of his rickety, white truck. He, we were told, would take us to the next hostel.

But like actually, he could have been taking us anywhere. So really, baruch hashem he turned out normal and we made it out alive.
View from inside of the Pantheon.
Rick Steves and Nathalie guided us through Thursday’s afternoon walking tour, working our way from Vatican City to the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.

I loved the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums, yet the hoards of people make it hard to stop to appreciate the pieces. That and the security officers barking “no photo” while you attempt to sneak in a shot of the Sistine Chapel. It amazes me how famous the Sistine Chapel has become—how grueling and tiresome of a task Michelangelo set himself upon, and, out of all the paintings and scenes depicted, it’s the detail of Adam and G-d’s fingers that stand out as the most recognized. What would Michelangelo say had he known? 

Trevi Fountain, too, marked high as one of my favorite sites. I loved watching the swarms of tourists—how, no matter age, gender, ethnicity, all, at a point, turned their back to the fountain, gripping the luck of the coins as they threw them over their shoulders into the fountain’s basin.

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa 
Rome's transportation went on strike the Friday before our departure. I spent the morning at the Borghese Gallery, before meeting up with Erica and Nathalie for an afternoon at the Capitoline Museum. We ended the day on a hunt for Santa Maria della Vittoria, a church designed by Bernini for his piece, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. I had made it clear I was not leaving Rome until we found the church.  No one seemed to know of the church and the directions we received pointed us to all ends of the city center. It’s thanks to Nathalie’s adept map reading abilities that we finally made it there, 10 minutes before closing.
I left Rome early Saturday morning, my bag packed as I made my way to Termini station. I had no way of knowing what the next week would have in store, how different of an experience I would set myself upon.

I settled comfortably in my chair aboard the train, plugging myself into my headphones as I gazed out the window. The scenery outside transformed into a streamed blur before the blanket of darkness hit as we entered the tunnel. The view of Rome disappeared as the train lurched, winding through the tracks, heading along to its next destination.  

Week 2: Florence, Venice and Milan—to be continued!

Palermo. We ate lunch overlooking the water.

Palermo: Gelato in a bun-- the Sicilian way of eating gelato!
Laocoon in the Vatican Museum. 

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