Installment Three: When in Rome, day 1

A little Italian countryside on the train from Rome to Florence

Last Thursday, at around 11 p.m., Steph and I had made it to our final European destination—romantic, wonderful, beautiful Rome, and as tired (and sweaty and dirty) as we were, we were really excited to be there.

So remember that backpack that I mentioned back in Paris? The one that had all the travel documents in it? It also had detailed directions of which train to take from the airport into Rome, and walking directions from the Termini to our hotel, hotel Le Petit, which was only about an alleged 7 minute walk.

But the thing was, had our flight left on time, we were supposed to have arrived in Rome around 7:30 instead of 11 p.m., which would have made it a bit less sketchy for us to fumble our way around a foreign country, and find our way from the train station to our hotel (I can now tell you, having lived through this trip already, that it’s laughable how close our hotel was to the train station. Make a right, walk five minutes, make another right and you literally walk right into the train station. But at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, after picking up our luggage, we had no way of knowing how easy it would be).

So as we entered the main part of the airport (no customs, no luggage check, no passport stamp. What’s up, Italy?!), I started to wonder if taking the train was really the best idea, still (despite my detailed notes….thanks to you, Chris!).

Turns out, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it before we were approached.

“Need a ride?” a man with a thick Italian accent approach myself and my sister.

Now, also remember back to the Paris train station when my sister and I were approached by the gypsy women as soon as we got off the train? Yeah, I’m very wary of people who approach me, especially when it comes to rides (thanks Dad and Judy, guess something sunk in!).

“Nope, we’re good,” I paused long enough to make sure mini was with me before walking on.

“If you’re taking the train into Rome, it’s going to be at least a half hour ride, and we can offer you car service directly to your door for the same price. And we’re right over there.” The man pointed to a small booth situated between a coffee shop and a souvenir store. There was a growing line of people surrounding the booth, as well.

Okay, so it appeared to be a legit business located within the airport, not just some strange man approaching us asking to provide us a ride. And there appeared to be plenty of other passengers who would be traveling with us. It was worth a try.

So we walked over to check it out. Door-to-door service didn’t seem like such a bad thing after our ordeal with the subways and gypsy ladies and delayed flight earlier in the day. Plus, we had a tour group picking us up at our hotel at 6:45 a.m., and this promised to be a shorter way to get home.

“Where are you staying,” asked the man behind the counter.

“Hotel Le Petit,” I say.

“Hotel Le Petit,” he repeated. “25 euros.”

25 euros! Please! Granted, I had no idea how much the train ride would be, but did this man really think he’d get our business with 25 euros! That’s practically 50 American dollars!

“Umm, no thanks,” I turned on my heels.

“Vincent, this woman says no,” the man called out to the man who had originally approached us (ed note: I have no idea if this man’s name was Vincent, but in my own Italian family, every other person’s name is Vincent, so this seems like a fair bet).

“How much do you want to pay?” asked Vincent.

“15 euro,” I countered.

There was some eye rolling, and noises that sounded very similar to scoffing. But he and I both knew—it was 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and ours was most likely one of the last flights to come in. If he wanted any more service that night, he’d be a fool to turn us down.

“Fine, 15 euro,” Vincent concluded.

Turns out, this is the perfect bartering tool in Italy (and in other places, I assume). Everywhere we went, I just kept inquiring about products, then asking how much and saying no thank you. Every SINGLE time, the price was lowered, and most times I was even asked how much I was willing to pay myself. I felt very powerful, I will not lie.

In our 15 euro, door-to-door ride to our hotel we rode with four girls from Germany who had just graduated as well. They would be staying in a hostel, which the girl who sat next to me informed me was in the middle of the red light district, but got great reviews online, so they really weren’t sure what they would find when they got there. I wish we had exchanged numbers so that at the very least I could find out what awaited them at that hostel.  We did exchange some info though: I shared with her some of the coveted info in my backpack—a great rooftop bar and fantastic gelato place that were offered up to me by a co-worker who frequents Rome. This was especially necessary, I thought, because when the excited passengers of his cab asked Vincent if he had any suggestions on places to eat, he responded, “This is Italy, everywhere is wonderful to eat.”

Very helpful, Vincent.

Driving in a city like Rome is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or done in my life. There are major highways, as there are in America, and throngs of locals and tourists alike, and yet, there in the middle of these seemingly modern things, sits the ruins of a building that your mind cannot even wrap around the fact that humans could have made it. And especially not hundreds of years ago.

“Vincent, what’s that thing?!”

“The Colosseum”

“And that thing?”

“A church”

Later, as Steph and I would come to learn, in Rome you happen upon amazing structures and you wonder what magnificent thing this must be, only to find out that it wasn’t even really something of all that much importance–at least not to the people who live in Rome. To us, everything was important.

After a half hour cab ride, Vincent dropped us off directly at our hotel door, as promised. As we approached the hotel, I began to worry, not for the first time in this trip, about tipping. In most of the travel books Steph and I had read, it appeared that in Europe, the general consensus was that you don’t need to tip. And if something was really fantastic, you could tip, a little.

This just felt odd to me, having grown up in America, a land where tipping is not only appropriate (sometimes despite the level of service), but is expected.

So I tipped Vincent. He had been a good bloke, and given us what he promised, and even managed to point out a few places here and there along the way. He deserved a couple of euros, in my mind.

At Hotel Le Petit, Steph and I discovered that hotels in Rome have quite a different set up then they do here in America. First, this hotel of ours (which truly did turn out to be lovely), occupied just one floor in a building compromised of other businesses (dermatologists, rheumatologists, etc.). And also, somewhat comfortingly, the door to get into the building is closed and locked at night. We had to ring a buzzer to get someone to open it for us.

Our room, while certainly tiny, was really perfect for us. It was clean, and we had two beds and plenty of space for each of us to set up shop. And the shower, while definitely small (I banged my elbow just trying to turn around more times than I care to share) had good pressure and hot water, and what more can a gal ask for, really?

At around 1 a.m., Steph and I finally settled into our twin beds to catch some shut-eye, before we awoke five hours later to prepare for our day tour. We would be heading out to the Vatican in the morning, getting a full Italian lunch, then heading to the Colosseum and Palatino Ruins in the afternoon.

After being picked up promptly at 7 a.m. by two Italian men in suits who blasted jovial Italian music and drove like maniacs throughout the narrow streets of Rome, we were ready for our tour. And here’s what awaited us:

Our lovely, 80-something-year-old Italian tour guide, explaining the inner workings of the Vatican to us before we entered
My grandfather's side of the family hails from Calabria, which Steph and I quickly spotted in the map room in the Vatican
The unbelievable St. Peter's Basilica
Painting at its best
Michelangelo's famous sculpture of Jesus in the arms of his mother, Mary after his Crucifixion. This statue used to be open to the public (it is currently behind bullet-proof glass—thus the blurriness of my photo), up until a few years ago when a demented man entered the Basilica and took a hammer to it. Fortunately, he wasn't able to make any real damage before authorities pulled him away, but what he's left us with is bullet proof glass. Sad.
You can't help but feel spiritual in St. Peter's, no matter what your denomination may be.

St. Peter's Square
The Pope lives in the apartment second window from the right. Hi Pope.

Before moving on to the second leg of the tour, I feel like something must be said about the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos or talk when you’re in the Chapel (and some of us, though not a lot of us, trust me, actually respect those rules), but it really is an amazing thing to see. Let’s take some time out to learn a bit about it:

  • The Sistine Chapel is the best-known chapel in the Apostolic palace, and it is famous for its architecture and decoration. Artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Sandro Botticelli have all made their mark in this place. Michelangelo was responsible for the 12,000 square foot chapel ceiling painting, which took him between 1508 and 1512 to complete. Today, the chapel is best known as the location of Papal conclaves, where the College of Cardinals hole themselves up to elect a successive pope. A chimney is installed in the roof of the chapel for this event, and they send up a smoke signal when their decision is finally made. Take a look at this fantastic website, sent to me by the same co-worker who offered up the rooftop bar and gelato place, to have the Sistine Chapel all to yourself.

In the afternoon, after a three-course Italian lunch, complete with all the wine we could drink:

We were off to the Colosseum. Now, listen, there’s a LOT of history at the Colosseum. So, for the sake of not making this day 1 Rome entry into a novel (I mean, look how long it took me to explain what happened when we first got to the airport!), I’m going to do a bit of a photo collage here, by way of explanation. Because I mean, let’s face it, photos are the best part anyway, right?

So here we go:

Eagerly awaiting our Coliseum tour

The Palatino Ruins

Our second tour guide, and this time I'm positive his name was Vincent. And he spoke Italian, English AND German, that we knew of.

After our very cultural day, Steph and I were feeling quite acquainted and at home with Rome (that will happen after 7 hours of touring a place). So after being dropped back at our hotel, we took a quick shower, changed, and headed back out on the town to explore and find a cute little place for dinner.

After a bit of a walk, we found a cute little spot to stop and have dinner. So we sat outside—Steph on one side of the table, myself on the other, as is customary in America. After about 20 minutes, however, I noticed that’s not how it’s done in Rome. Everyone was sitting on the same side of the table, next to each other. Weird, I thought, but when in Rome…so I switched sides.

Now Steph and I were sitting together, on the same side of the table, drinking our wine, waiting for our pasta, watching all the throngs of people pass us by.

This is when the man selling the weird wooden objects first approached us. We watched as people at the other outdoor tables just ignored him, so the first time he stopped by, we did the same. We simply shook our heads and went about our conversation, and he kept right on moving.

The second time, we weren’t so successful.

This time, the man wanted to know if he could sit at our table. For the sake of being friendly, I said yes. He proceeded to pull out about six different wooden statues and place them on the table—two naked people kissing. A naked mom and her baby. An elephant. And so on and so forth.

Other tables ignored us. Our waiter came out and patted the man on his head. Clearly this wasn’t his first time here.

Again, I said no, thank you.

“What would you be willing to pay?”

“Listen, I don’t have any money, and I’m not lying,” I lied. (What? For all he knew we were paying for dinner on a credit card).

This is a fundamental difference that I noticed between Rome and New York. Here in New York, this would never have happened. Do people try to sell you things on the street in New York? Of course. Do they approach you when you are sitting at an outdoor restaurant? Sure. But do they ask to sit down and have a conversation with you? Absolutely not. And would the people who worked at the restaurant allow this to happen? Never in a million years.

This was an entirely new concept to me. And our new dinner mate was trying to bond with us any way he could.

“Where are you from?”

“New York,” I always feel like saying New York gives me some street cred. It’s like, back off man, I must know karate and own a can of mace if I live in New York. For the record—I do not know karate, nor do I own a can of Mace.

“Ah, I love New York. You know Akon?” He proceeded to lift up his sweater and show us the Akon t-shirt hiding underneath.

“Yes,” I tried to hold back my laughter. This guy was persistent.

After about 15 minutes of small talk, and after Akon-man had proceeded to give myself a Stephanie a “free” bracelet, I finally managed to convince him that I wasn’t going to pay him for his pornographic wooden statues, and he walked away, disappointed.

But at least we got a free bracelet out of it, right? And a story?

Bis bald, my friends! And tomorrow, on to Rome, day 2.

5 thoughts on “Installment Three: When in Rome, day 1

  1. Not to mention this is the first night that we discovered just what Rome is really all about. As usual, I tried to prove something wrong which I had heard before, about love being everywhere in Rome, and as usual, you tried to prove me wrong by pointing out every couple “in love” you saw around us on the streets at dinner. After what seemed like a million points accompanied with “see…love…” “love…” “love….” from you, I was apparently proved wrong. It would appear that Rome really does equal amore.

  2. This is getting really good – love the stories and the pics – I’m so happy you both had such a good time. I feel another great trip for the two of you some time in the not so distant future!

  3. Your trip sounds fantastic. You certainly didn’t waste ant time. Took us back to when we were in Rome. We know what you mean about the Colosseum. One stands is awe of how old it is.
    Did you visit the Trevi fountain? We guess we’ll have to wait for Rome day 2.

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