Place: Rome, Italy
People: A travel companion/classmate, a Canadian stewardess, and three friendly bookshop workers
Lessons Learned: Caesars bring Canadians together. Always take travel advice from others with a grain of salt. Some Italians might seem harsh and cold but once you get to know them they are warm, caring people and will be there for you when you are distraught and in tears.
When the plane left the airport in Newark, NJ I looked out my window the whole time watching the land mass, called North America, drift further and further away, disappearing from view. My heart was trembling, for the first time I was leaving all that was familiar, home, I was crossing the divide into the great unknown. It was dusk at this time and the sky was getting dark, I was finally flying over the Atlantic Ocean and all that I could see below me was water. I was so excited to see the Atlantic for the first time in my life but my excitement, I must admit, was dampened when Ritchie told me that the novelty of the experience would fade after seeing nothing but water for hours on end. Before we got our dinner the flight attendant asked us what we would like to drink, I got water and Ritchie ordered a Caesar. At that moment the stewardess exclaimed, “You’re Canadian!?” At the time I was surprised to know that ordering a Caesar was a Canadian give away, then again I had never really travelled outside of my country so I had no idea what set us Canadians apart from other people. The stewardess herself was also Canadian, she was from Victoria and had also lived in Edmonton for several years. It definitely was one of those small world moments that made for an awesome flight. For the rest of the trip she was extra nice and accommodating with us and rightfully so. Like any other culture out there, when Canadians meet other Canadians while travelling, we always chat and exchange smiles even though we are complete strangers and likely have nothing in common other than the fact that we are Canadian.
Even though I was tired from flying all day and got no sleep the night before, I was still giddy with excitement. I had no desire to sleep and I have now realized, after travelling for a while now, that I always have trouble falling asleep in planes and this time was no different. Ritchie began to fall asleep, the sky was getting darker so there was nothing to look at below, there was no one to talk to, and I didn’t want to watch TV. Ritchie took a Gravol to help him fall asleep and he offered me one as well. I accepted it and took out my contacts. The Gravol helped me fall asleep for a few hours. When I awoke it was morning time and the monitor in front of me showed that we were flying over Europe. We were over England and about to cross the channel to France. I decided that now would be a good time to put my contact lenses back in. To my horror my left contact ripped in my fingertips. I didn’t think to bring an extra pair or my prescription. I was so screwed. I had never experienced this situation before so I decided to just wear just my right contact. I was still able to see, but it felt weird and awkward to go about my daily life divided between blurry and clear vision. I kept looking out the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of the landscape below, but all that I could see was clouds. The clouds hung in the air for a long time and I was disappointed. I wanted to see Europe and behold its beautiful landscapes. It was only when we got to Northern Italy that the clouds began to part and for the first time in my life I saw her, the majestic Alps on lady Europa. Seeing the Alps for the first time from the plane was simply incredible. Out of all of the things in Europe that I could have seen from the plane, my first glimpse of her were these mountains that I had heard so much about and seen in movies but had never seen with my own eyes. It was so special and surreal, they were so beautiful just as I always pictured them to be and at the same time different from the Rockies. I remember the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw them, “So these are the mountains that Hannibal marched his army of elephants through.” I’ve always wondered if anyone has ever discovered elephant carcases and bones in the Alps and I have posed this question to many of my Classics professors. Thus far no one has ever heard of such a discovery and it is a great disappointment. If someone is going to argue with certainty that the second Punic War occurred, you think that someone would search for those elephant remains in order to argue their existence.
When we landed in the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino (FCO) we were a day ahead of ourselves, the date was now 28 April. It took a while to figure out the best way out of the airport. Eventually Ritchie and I settled for a van which would take us into the city at a cost of 15 euro each. I had a Couchsurfing host lined up with whom I was going to stay with and but wasn’t in Italy at the time. His name was Gio* and he was in Spain for a few days, but he gave me the number of his cousin, Sierra*, and I would have to somehow figure out a way to call her. I bought an international calling card at the airport, but it was all in Italian which did not help me at all. I couldn’t figure out how to use it or how to operate the pay phones there so I just decided to go into the city and sort it out there. I told the van driver that I needed to get to San Giovanni because I knew that the neighbourhood where Gio lived. We got in the van and the driver took us into the city. When we got out of the airport I saw palm trees and for me, it was a surreal moment. The last time that I saw palm trees growing in their natural habitat was the last time I left Canada at the age of five, when my parents decided to do a west coast road trip from our home in Whitehorse, Yukon to Tijuana Mexico.
The driver was speeding down the road weaving in and out of traffic. It was so different compared to Canadian drivers who, in my opinion, drive so slow and cautious it can be painful at times. It was an interesting drive, a highlight for me was seeing Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana from the highway, a neo-classical high rise building erected by Mussolini during World War II; it was definitely further away from the city centre than I thought it would be. I was just starting to enjoy the sights and architecture when the van stopped and let me out. I had no idea where I was. All the driver told me was, “Here you go, San Giovanni.” I got out and Ritchie stayed in the van, which was going to take him to his hostel near Termini station. We said our goodbyes and agreed that we would see each other once more when our study tour commenced on 2 May.
I was here and it was beautiful, there was a piazza behind me with an Egyptian obelisk and a basilica behind it. I later found out that I was in Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano and I was in the back part of the famous San Giovanni basilica (Basilica of St. John Lateran) (basilica and obelisk pictured above). I would have loved to stop and take pictures but I had no time to lose, I had to find a store that sold cellphones and get a hold of Sierra. A friend of mine that had been to Rome before told me that I would have no problem finding cellphone shops once I arrived and that they would be everywhere. I saw no cellphone stores where I was so I went and crossed the street to Via Merulana. A classmate of mine who had also been to Rome before told me that the drivers were scary there and that no one followed traffic rules. I assumed that meant that they also took no heed of whether lights were green or red. I now realize that all of these things that these people told me of Rome were not very true or accurate. I ran across the street scared for my life thinking that there was no organization of traffic and it would be a jungle of cars. I had no idea whether I was allowed to cross at that moment or not, I just did it running with my large suitcase in hand fearing for my life. I must have looked so ridiculous. The truth is Italians don’t follow all traffic rules and they treat them as mere recommendations rather than rules, but on such a busy street they still do stop behind the light especially during the middle of the day and if you are a pedestrian you have to be careful and always look drivers in the eye and be mindful of everything going on around you, something that not all Canadians do since our laws protect pedestrians more than they do in Europe.
I saw these two ladies on the other side of the street and they both had blonde hair. I assumed that they weren’t Italian, and thus, must know English. It was an assumption that I now know is completely ridiculous. I always thought that Italians almost never had blonde hair, all the ones I had encountered in Canada had dark hair. I realize now that it was a stupid assumption to make and it is just as stupid as people assuming that all Germans have blonde hair and blue eyes. These two women were Italian and like most Italian people I encountered in Italy, they barely spoke English. I asked them where I could go to get a cellphone. They had no idea what I was talking about. I made a phone motion with my hand and it took them a while to figure out what I was talking about, “Oh a mobiiile” They gave me directions and I barely understood them, their accents were so thick and their English very broken. I thought that they told me to turn left so at the end of the street I turned left onto Via Labicana. I now know that she probably meant to direct me to Via Manzoni which is right turn off of Via Merulana and houses more shops on that street than Via Labicana. Nevertheless, I turned left.
I saw shops but none of them were selling cellphones. There was an internet cafe so I went inside and tried using the phone there but I couldn’t figure out how to work it. The man working there was also quite rude and not very helpful. He was chatting on his cellphone the whole time and seemed pissed off that when I asked him how to make calls. I was frustrated and confused so I just walked out onto the street again. I went into a few other shops to ask people for help but everyone shrugged their shoulders and couldn’t really speak English, nor could they understand me. This road, I found out, led to the Coliseum and I could see it getting closer the further that I walked down the street but I didn’t want to see the Coliseum right now, I wanted to see a cellphone store. I was getting more frustrated and upset by the minute. I was scared and alone in a big city and I had heard many things about thieves and gypsies in Rome so I was terrified that I would get jumped or robbed somewhere. It was so obvious with my clothes and my suitcase that I was a tourist and wasn’t from there. I couldn’t have been a more obvious target for robbers and I needed to get a hold of Sierra in order to feel safe again.
I walked into a book store on 114 Via Labicana called Punto Einaudi and asked the three men working there where I could get a phone. They replied, “I’m sorry but we don’t really speak English.” I was so fed up with Italians that day and the fact that no one was able to help me or understand me. I then broke down and began to cry. The men working there panicked and sat me down on a chair and told me, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” One of the men asked me what I needed, “A phone,” I said. “You want to call home?” “No!” I replied, “I need to call someone here, in Rome.” “Ahhh ok” since I wasn’t going to rack up his mobile with long distance minutes, he willingly gave me his cellphone, which I used it to call Sierra. Thankfully she answered, “Pronto”. I stammered a reply, “Hi Sierra, this is Amie.” “Hello Amie,” she spoke warmly, “Welcome to Rome.” I told her that I didn’t know where I was but that I was close to Coliseum. “Oh” she exclaimed, “You are very close to where Gio lives.” “Really!?” “Yes,” she assured me, “This is very good, I will meet you at the train station across the street from the Coliseum in half an hour.” I hung up the phone and I was so relieved, I wasn’t going to be lost in the city anymore and I wouldn’t have to continue wandering the streets alone like a vagabond.
While I was on the phone with Ciara, one of the men had sneaked out of the store and went into a cafe a couple shops down called Ciuri Cuiri and he came back with a bottle of water for me and some little baked treats. It was the sweetest gesture and it warmed my heart. I sat there with these men and they chatted with me and asked me what I was doing here and where I was from. I tried one of the treats although I wasn’t hungry at all. I took a bite and one of the men nodded and smiled, “You try, very good, from Sicily.” So this is how the Sicilians treat their sweet tooths. When I told them I was Canadian, one of the men looked at me and guessed correctly what my heritage was, “German and French.” Indeed I am, I was very impressed that he was so skilled at reading faces, he said to me, “My wife is German, you got that look.” As I was talking to these men and killing time until I had to meet Sierra at the train station, I felt so fortunate that my path intersected with such genuinely good people and I wanted to thank them for taking me under their wing as a strange foreign tourist. I had brought a package of maple leaf cookies as a thank you gift for Giovanni and his roommates for hosting me, but I took them out of my suitcase and offered them to the men. Only one of them took a cookie but he seemed to like it. The whole time that I sat in this book store the men were doing everything to calm me down, “Relax, no problem, don’t cry it breaks our heart.” It was this moment followed by many others that have shown me how relaxed Italians can be and when I went back to hectic Canada culture, I missed their easy going way of life dearly. When the time came closer for me to leave, two of the men brought me into Ciuri Cuiri and they carried my suitcase for me and bought me an espresso. I had always heard how amazing Italian espresso is and it was on my bucket list of things to try. I will never forget that first time I tried one with these men. It was so strong and lovely. I couldn’t have had a better first Italian espresso. I was so grateful that I found these men and that they were so kind to me, even though I was a silly tourist.
Weeks later during a heavy rainfall, I was walking down Via Labicana on the same side of the street as the book store, shortly before I was about to leave Rome. Although I was completely soaked to the skin and not at all presentable, I wanted to see those men again to thank them for what they had done for me, but neither of them were there. I awkwardly asked the one man working there if he had any books in English, he shrugged his shoulders and I walked off disappointed. I don’t know if I will ever see them again or if the book store will even be there when I get back but I never forget about these men and their kindness. Some Canadians argue that we are the nicest and most polite people in the world but I truly believe that every culture is kind and sometimes I have met people that are just as nice as Canadians, if not nicer and these men were a fine example of Italian kindness and hospitality and in some ways I thought that they outdid Canadians in this moment. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart and when it was time to go I said goodbye with a warm smile and walked towards the Coliseum with my suitcase dragging behind me.
*Name has been changed
In my next post: How I met Sierra and the wild key chase we later embarked on.