My First Couchsurfing Experience Without my Host

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: April 2012

People: Daniel, Corradino, a Catcaller, and a lost French lady

Lessons Learned: Maple leaf cookies are a hit!  Don’t expect your host to always be available to show you around their city.  Italians speak the language of Romance, nothing more! If you are going to enter a church, make sure you’re dressed for it.  Taste the fountain water.  There are way more Americans out there than Canadians.  When in Italy, take care of yourself by eating regularly.  The best Italian pizzerias are in the most unassuming places.

I woke up at 4am and nobody was up. The noisy street was finally silenced and I knew that my body was moving to a different time.  I paced the halls and went to bed and forced myself to fall asleep again for a couple hours more. I woke up once more at 6am and this time I couldn’t force myself to go back to sleep, despite my best efforts. I walked to the window and undid the shutters and looked out onto the street. There were a few stragglers out going for an early morning jog or doing morning errands, but compared to the evening it was a lot quieter and peaceful. I went to the kitchen and sat on the couch there. Nobody was up and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I was in Rome all by myself and I had no desire to leave the apartment until I received some guidance and advice. I had left my maple leaf cookies on the table before I went to sleep and noticed that several of them were eaten already. I guess they were a good choice for a “thank-you for letting me crash here” gift from my country. I looked at the courtyard and marvelled at the open blue sky and the lush green coutryard garden below.  I had never seen such buildings in my life until I had come to Italy.  In Canada we do not really have many courtyards.

Gio’s other roommate, Corradino*, was the first to get up.  I asked him if he was alone.  He looked at me with a blank stare.  I asked him again.  “I’m sorry” he stammered, “I do not understand you.”  I realized that communication in English wasn’t going to work with him and since I didn’t know Italian, I admitted defeat and went into Gio’s room.  I brushed my hair and put on my best makeup and perfume.  I paired my pretty face with my most romantic looking white ensemble.  I love my white flowy clothes, I like to think they help someone remember the feeling of falling into a young innocent love again.

I don’t know how long I sat there and waited, but Daniel* eventually got up.  I walked back into the hall and exchanged Hellos and Good Mornings. I told him how awful my jet-lag was. He confessed to me how much he enjoyed the cookies and had already eaten many of them. I was hoping he would have had time to come with me and take me on an adventure through Rome. He was so handsome and having him as my guide and companion all day would be a dream. Unfortunately he had to work again that day. Before he made his way to work, he walked with me downstairs to the front entrance of the apartment and showed me the general direction of the major sites.  He then proceeded to walk over to his car, which was parked by the single gas station on the street. I had never seen such a tiny gas station before in my life. It was literally a small hut/shack like building that maybe fit two people inside and didn’t contain any sort of food or snacks.  It was merely a single gas pump on the edge of a street. It was so small and primitive looking compared to our large spacious gas stations, I had to laugh.  I walked with him up to his car hoping that he would offer me ride but he merely told me to have a fun time and perhaps we would see each other again this evening.  Much to my dismay he drove off tending to his conventional responsibilities.

I was left with no other choice but to discover the city by foot with my money belt under my skirt, towing my camera and backpack, as well as the apartment keys that Gio left for me and my guidebook of Rome.  I walked a couple streets ahead until I was standing in front of the Aurelean walls.

There was a grassy patch in front of it that stretched from one end of the wall to the other, serving as public park space called Parco Lineare Integrato della Mura.  There were men sitting on benches reading their papers and smoking and old people walking their dogs.  I followed the walking trail that went through this small park to a noisy street with arches cut into the wall to accommodate the traffic driving in and out of it.

I kept walking straight crossing over a busy street onto a quieter street and I had no idea where I was going.  I walked into a bakery to look at my city map in the Rome travel book I brought along and I asked the man sitting in the shop if he could show me where I was.  He just shook his head and sent me away, “No Inglesia” he said.  “Deutsch?” I asked, he looked at me as if I was crazy and shook his head.  I realized later on that Italians are not keen on learning Germanic languages and prefer rather to have a romantic language such as French or Spanish as their second languages.

I made my way back to the busy street, Via dell’Amba Aradam, and proceeded to walk down it.  Eventually it led to the same piazza behind the basilica where I was first dropped off.  I wandered around the piazza and began taking pictures, such as this one of the roof hanging over the rear entrance of the basilica.

I wanted to enter the basilica, but when I walked up to the rear entrance I noticed the sign beside the door, which noted prohibited dress and behaviour.  Like all Catholic religious sites, no one was to enter scantily dressed.  Bare arms, midrifs, and legs were strictly prohibited.  I looked at what I was wearing, a tank top and a skirt that fell above my knees, and cursed myself for not remembering to bring a sweater and wear a longer skirt.  We were told at our class orientation that we would have to bring a few conservative outfits for when we visited the Vatican and other holy sites. But the day was so hot, despite it being cloudy, that the thought of covering myself in full length clothing had not crossed my mind.  Thus, I had to save the trip to the basilica for another time.

Once I was satisfied with my attempt to capture the outside of the basilica in photographic form, I walked once more down Via Merulana turning left at Via Labicana.  As I rounded the corner I saw a small public fountains.

It was gushing a never ending stream of water and I took my water bottle out of my backpack and filled it.  The water was cold and sweet and I had never tasted anything so fresh. Every now and then I miss that water and the fountains scattered across the city.  It’s such an accessible resource, a gift left over from an ancient Empire, that harnessed resources through the use of sophisticated aqueducts.  Throughout my trip I saw the local Romans regularly using the fountains, they are so dear to the city and they were very dear to me.  The water is of such a high quality it is remarkable to find it in abundance in such a large city.

As I walked on I noted to myself how nice it was to walk down Via Labicana with a feeling of ease carrying only my backpack instead of the feeling of stress and frustration that I experienced the day before with all of my luggage.  I would have walked past that same bookstore had I not been distracted by this stone staircase that led up to these beautiful apartment buildings.  I walked up the steps and admired their colorful facades and elaborate use of decoration.

The street eventually led me to a massive park which was full of life.  There were several soccer games going on in these interesting looking soccer pitches that were there.  Instead of the usual grass fields, the game was being played on dirt fields with some painted lines and soccer nets.  As I walked past the fields I saw a man standing thirty feet in front of me whip out his penis and start peeing, it was obvious that he was playing soccer as well and was merely having a pee break but I found it quite odd that he did it right in the open instead of being discrete and going behind a tree or something.  I guess they are more culturally open about that sort of thing than in Canada.

As I walked through the park I found the remains of the baths of Trajan (pictured below), which sadly doesn’t contain a whole lot.  Nevertheless it was very cool to have stumbled upon them by chance.

At the end of the park was a staircase which led down to the Coliseum.

Here the area was thick with tourists and it was at that point I judged it best to flip my backpack around onto my stomach before I went any further.  In passing I heard a Filipino man mentioning my city, Edmonton, in conversation.  “I’m from Edmonton!” I exclaimed,  perhaps it was rude to butt in someone else’s conversation but he didn’t seem to mind.  He told me about his daughter was living there and he seemed really excited to find someone from Edmonton in Rome.  After chatting for a bit we went our own separate ways.  I proceeded to walk around the Coliseum and began taking pictures of all the sites.  I wandered with abandon.  I went anywhere that looked pretty and intriguing, a feat that wasn’t hard to do since there were so many old buildings and churches along the way.  I followed my hungry eyes snapping pictures every which way.  I heard the buzzing sound of tourists, each speaking in a different inarticulate tongue.  They came from all over Europe and the rest of the world.  I said hello to some German tourists here and there and tried to strike up a conversation with some of them.  However, my one year of German instruction didn’t get me too far beyond the usual niceties.  I had also never been to Germany at that point so I had no idea at the time that Germans are not very sociable when they travel, especially not with other German speaking people, so naturally the conversation was quite awkward and lacked the excited flow and charisma of a typical Canadian conversation.  When I did hear English, none of the people speaking it were from Canada.  People who seemed to have a hint of my accent turned out to be American and in closer examination of their speech, I realised that they did indeed have a different accent than me.  Through my travels I have come to realize how large the American population is compared to Canada’s.  When I am abroad I will meet numerous of Americans until I meet a Canadian.  The fact that the American population is ten times greater than Canada’s had never been apparent to me until I found myself walking the streets of Rome unable to find a voice resembling home.

I came across many beautiful sites on my random and unchartered walk.  I came across the Arch of Constantine (Arco di Constantino)

I walked down the Via dei Fori Imeriali (The Road of Imperial Forums).  I saw the remains of the various forums commissioned by various emperors (Augustus, Trajan, Nerva to name a few).  I didn’t know whose was whose until I went back there with my study tour and was given a very in depth orientation and explanation of the sites.  Sadly the forums had been reduced to piles of rubble from all the years of Romans pilfering the marble and other valuable building materials and using them for other structures.  All that remained were random fragmented sections of standing buildings and scattered remains of stones and columns.

I came across the Column of Trajan…

…and the Arch of Septimius Severus (Arco di Settimio Severo).

After wandering around for some time I found myself at the famous Piazza del Campidoglio designed by Michelangelo on the Capitoline Hill.

I was taking a picture of the statue of Marcus Aurelius perched upon his steed when an older man started chatting with me.

He asked me where I was from and whether I had been inside the museum yet.  I later found out the museum he was referring to was the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitilini).  He told me that I had to go there in order to see the real statue of Marcus Aurelius, the one that I was currently taking pictures of, was in fact a copy of the one inside.  Although he seemed nice I felt nervous talking to this man and I was unsure of whether he was a genuinely nice person or if he was just preying on me because I was a woman traveling alone.  I have been told by others to be careful who you trust in Europe.  It was different than in Canada and you always had to be on your guard.  I didn’t know what to do or say so I thanked the man for this advice and continued walking on taking more pictures of the statues placed around the piazza.

I walked down the steps onto the sidewalk and made my way to the large white building situated on the right side of the piazza, a looming and dominating structure that demanded attention and acknowledgement, Il Vittoriano.  As I walked up to the top of the building’s steps I came across a long line up of people waiting to board a glass elevator, which apparently takes you to the top of the building and you get a good view of the city.  I didn’t bother to wait in the lineup, it seemed like too much of a wait and hassle, but I’m sure it’s nice to see.  Although I was not at the very top of the building I was still quite high above the buildings, enough to look at the skyline of the city around me.  There wasn’t any trace of a modern skyline with ominous steel and glass skyscrapers.  I saw the outline of a city that had so many churches.  It felt to me that there were more churches here than people.  One would have to spend ages in the city in order to visit them all.  As I was marveling at all the sites around me, I came across an open door leading into Il Vittoriano.  My curiosity got the better of me and I couldn’t help but to walk inside.

The innards of the building revealed a beautiful museum full of quaint artifacts.

I started taking pictures until I saw two curators look at me.  They seemed to be walking in my direction and in my scared state I thought that I had done something wrong by trespassing into this museum and I walked hurriedly along to avoid confrontation.  I later found out that on the last Sunday of every month all the city museums in Rome are free, including the Capitoline Museums,  where the old man suggested that I check out the museum because it wouldn’t have cost me a thing.  Silly me, I had done nothing wrong and yet thought that I was a rebellious badass for walking through an open door that signalled to the general public “Come inside, have a look!”  When I walked out of the building I came across the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded 24/7 with a flame by it that never goes out.

I walked all the way down Piazza Venezia and made my right down to Piazza Santi Apostoli and came across Museo delle Cere, Rome’s Wax Museum.  I took pictures of all the funny looking statues in the museum’s front windows and lobby, but was too cheap to pay admission to go in.

I had to save my money for the museum admissions I would have to pay throughout the duration of my course.  As I looked at myself from the shop window I realized to my horror that the hot weather had my caused my make-up to melt.  My once pretty face now looked clownish and I had to go over my lips and eyes with my fingers and smudge everything back into something more normal and presentable.  I felt so embarrassed that I had walked around looking like a hot mess the whole day.

At this point in my walk my feet were getting tired, I was starting to feel hungry, and my jetlag was starting to kick in.  Again I took out my book with its map of the city centre and tried to navigate where I was and how I could get back again and again I found it hard to figure out where exactly I was.  I asked these ladies having a smoke if they knew where the nearest Metro station was, which would take me to San Giovanni.  They pointed me in the direction of the next A Line station, but it was quite far away and in the opposite direction of where I had just walked from.  I didn’t want to walk any further north, so I decided to turn back in the direction I came from and retrace my steps back to Gio’s apartment.

As I walked down Via Labicana, all the stores were closed up since it was a Sunday, so I was not able to go back into the book store.  A creepy dude on his bicycle took notice of me and liked what he saw enough to shout out “Ciao Bella” at me.  Italian men love their catcalling and this guy was just one of many I would later encounter on my trip.  I was nearly back at the apartment going down Via dell’Amba Aradam when a French lady came up to me asking me for directions in broken English.  When I told her I was Canadian she hoped that I was one of the French-speaking ones.  Embarrassingly enough I do have French Canadian heritage, but I don’t speak a word of French.  She showed me a map and pointed to where she wanted to go, the basilica.  I pointed down the road, “You’re nearly there, go straight” I said.  She nodded her head and went in the direction I showed her.  I felt good that I was able to help someone that day so that they wouldn’t have to walk around aimlessly and scared like I had done a few times earlier that day.

When I was back at the apartment I shoved the key into the lock and had the hardest time unlocking the door.  Both the key and the door were hopelessly old fashioned and I had never encountered such doors in my life.  I banged on the door hoping someone would be there but all I heard was silence.  After much trial and error I finally was able to get into apartment.  When I looked at myself in the mirror I saw more of my makeup had melted.  In addition to this, my left eye had now become red from the strain.  For those of you curious what happens when you walk around wearing only one contact lens as your only source of vision, that is what happens, you get one red nasty eye.  I took out my contact lens and poured solution onto my poor red eye.  Thankfully the red was not permanent and it went away quickly once I doused it in contact solution.  I cursed the Catholic Romans for having not having any businesses open on a Sunday.  I badly needed to go to the Ottica (optometrist) but none were opened that day.

I didn’t want to leave the apartment again since I had such a difficult time getting back in the first time, so I waited until Daniel came back from work.  He asked me how my day went and I told him of my sightseeing adventures.  I’m sure he has heard from countless other people by now of the same experiences as mine, seeing the Forum and the Colisseum.  Everyone did it, I was no different.  He asked me if I had anything to eat.  I admitted to him that I had not.  He then scolded me for such carelessness.  “That is so unhealthy, you have to eat! That is no way to live life.” He then proceeded to ask me what I wanted to eat.  “Pizza” I said, “I want to eat real authentic Italian Pizza.” “Ok” he said, “There is a pizzeria downstairs but I don’t like going there, they are always so loud at night so I don’t want to support them.  There is the restaurant downstairs, they make an alright pizza.” He brought me the menu to look at, but it was all in Italian.  I asked him what everything meant.  After discerning what was what, I settled on something simple and basic, ham pizza.  Once I made my decision, Daniel was on the phone with the restaurant downstairs and ordered the pizza for me.  “It will cost 5 euro” He told me once he hung up the phone.  As we waited for the pizza to be ready Daniel cooked supper and told me a bit about his life.  He was 31, ten years older than me.  He was originally from Bologna, in the north, and he came to Rome to study. He worked at the hotel and was good at it because he was able to speak five languages.  Although he was a student he never went to class because he was too busy working so that he could get the money he needed to pay rent and afford to live.  All he did was teach everything to himself by reading his textbooks in his spare time.  He showed up to the tests and was able to pass them.  It sounded like such a hard and strenuous lifestyle.

After several minutes of talking we went downstairs to the restaurant called Romole E Remo to get my pizza.  I paid the 5 euro and went up with my pizza and ate it in the apartment kitchen.  The ham was so different from back home.  It was very thin, the crust was thin too, but nevertheless tasty.  For my first Italian pizza I must admit this pizza was the best I had throughout my trip.  I got it at the most unassuming restaurant in a little neighbourhood tucked away from all the tourist commotion, and I later came to learn that all the best Italian food can be found in such areas.

Once I was done my pizza I was very tired and exhausted from the jetlag as well as from all the walking I did.  It was just the beginning of a new world experience and I was excited to see what else this city had in store for me.

In My Next Post: How I spent my day looking at basilicas and enjoying Italian cuisine and shopping.

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