This is the first essay about my adventures through Italy, embarrassingly published over a month after I teased I’d be writing it. Thank you for reading. More cities are on the way.
“Let’s go to Rome tonight and never come back.” -A Farewell to Arms
McDonald’s is the food of the desperate traveler. It tastes like “This will work, I guess.” I ate McDonald’s in the O’Hare airport as I waited to board my flight. Anymore, I only eat McDonald’s in airports, and I always think it wont be a terrible idea, and my stomach and entire digestive system lets me know I’m a bad decision maker. Although at this point I was not weary in my traveling–I hadn’t even left the city–I associate McDonald’s with taking a well-deserved break from time on the road. I link the idea of a grimy double cheeseburger (with the pickles removed) to the times my family would stop at McDonald’s on our car trips from Missouri to the Colorado mountains, while making the severely boring trek across Kansas. This was back when my stomach and butt could handle such food, apparently. And I still think of those trips, and those breaks from sitting in the car, fondly.
“It’s the little things” is certainly a cliche, but that doesn’t necessarily make it untrue. A few specific details can make the difference between a great piece of writing, full of voice, and a piece of writing that is vague and dull. Even when someone’s significant other has been a real turd for a while, a nice text message or a surprise gift might delay a breakup. A vague feeling, unfelt in years, produced by a vague memory, might continue to trick someone into eating McDonald’s.
I landed in Rome during the morning, after a long flight, on which I barely slept. I couldn’t remember when I was supposed to expect my friend Kay to show up. With my large hiking backpack strapped on, I walked around the meeting zone outside of Customs. It didn’t take me long to be envious of the passengers who actually had people waiting for them. After several minutes an Italian cab driver offered me his services through broken English.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m waiting on my friend. I can’t leave without her.”
“She can meet you at hostel,” he said, “I’ll take you now.”
“No. I have to wait for her.”
The driver slid back to the exit doors to hustle his taxi rides to others, and I walked up and down a long hallway in search of Kay. No luck. I sat in the collection of stiff chairs near the meeting zone with the rest of the friendless losers. Is it possible she hasn’t made it to Rome yet? Surely she hasn’t left without me? Did we agree to meet somewhere other than the meeting zone? Yes we did, and I then remembered: we said we’d meet at the Autogrill, a restaurant allegedly clearly located inside the airport. Through broken Italian I asked the information counter, “Dove e Autogrill?”
The woman could tell I spoke English because of how badly I spoke Italian, and in English she directed me down the hallway I had earlier explored. There was one restaurant down the hallway and it was not called “Autogrill.” I asked an employee at Chef Express where the Autogrill was and he said, “No Autogrill. Chef Express! Eat Chef Express!” and then he aggressively tried to sell me a sandwich.
I noticed a map on the wall of this disappointing hallway and realized that the Autogrill might be on a different story of this airport. As I made my way to the stairs I was approached by the cab driver again. He really wanted to take me to my hostel before I was ready. I apologized and said I was going to search for my friend upstairs. He gave a tight-lipped smile and said, “OK. Bye!” in a way that very much said, “Well, good luck with that and screw you.”
I didn’t find any “Autogrill” upstairs either. I was getting pretty worried now. I started noticing people who looked a lot like Kay, but after approaching them closer I’d realize they were not my friend. I was becoming desperate and creepy, and increasingly exhausted. Defeated, I trudged back to the meeting zone, and that’s where we crossed paths. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more relieved to see someone (maybe when I saw Scott after those Australian police officers interrogated me after I landed). Kay and I hugged, took a look at each other, and then hugged again. It was like a hug double-take, which I think only happens when a sudden reunion follows a severe amount of distress.
I was happy to see Kay for a lot of reasons. But the most significant reason was not because she’s a friend of mine whom I love and respect and haven’t seen in a year (sorry, Kay), but because it meant I could finally leave the airport. It’s the little things.
Let’s skip ahead: after a darn difficult time, we managed to find our hostel, which is called Hostel Pink Floyd (which I love). We took an elevator apparently built in a steam punk universe to our floor, dumped our stuff, and headed straight for the Colosseum.
I’m not sure how to describe the Colosseum. The photos I took don’t even do it justice–it’s just too big! The thing doesn’t fit in a photograph. But what was the most fascinating thing to me about this former death stadium was not its titanic size, but the strategic placement of thousands and thousands of detailed carvings and indentions found throughout doorways, stairs, and passages. One detail at a time, this giant thing came together, and a couple thousand years later it still exists! That’s insane. And not all the details have faded and weathered away, either. The Colosseum isn’t just a big labyrinthian bowl of stacked rocks–it’s a giant work of art.Sometimes I say things that are, admittedly, pretty dumb. A couple weeks ago I started rambling about how I think dogs look like bears. I wasn’t doing a bit, and I went for a while on it. My roommate has been bringing it up fairly frequently to mock my brain and the way it functions, or, rather, the way it doesn’t function. Kay and I were both awestruck by the Colosseum as we wandered through it, but I was also dumbstruck, and at one point I said, “Just think: these stairs used to be flat!” “What?” “Like, the corners of these stairs used to be sharp. That’s crazy!”
Kay, understandably, made fun of me too. But those little details are pretty cool, methinks.
We spent hours exploring the Colosseum, trying to stay in the shade and refilling our water bottles whenever possible. We continued into the Palatino (not the font), which is just as impressive in its mass and its state of preservation. The Palatino’s ruins are more scattered, but cover a large area, most of which is filled with bright green grass. There are also a lot of stairs. Like, so many stairs. Those Romans, they loved them some stairs.
Kay and I crossed the river in order to make our way to Trastevere, an active part of town south of Vatican City, with lots and lots of places to eat and drink. For a city that’s so flooded with Tourists, this area of Rome really manages to maintain its character. With countless alleys (all of which have doors just leading to amazing restaurants, like some sort of strange series of supernatural pasta portals) and cobblestone streets, this bustling scene made me feel like I was part of something distinctly Italian.
At this point in the day, Kay and I had walked for miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers, if you’re local) in the sweltering heat for most of the day. I still hadn’t caught any sleep, and I was exhausted (I’d been awake for almost all of the last 35 hours). I was the most hungry and thirsty I could remember being in a while. We met some of Kay’s friends for dinner, and had tea in their flat before going to eat. It was pretty weird to me that we were drinking hot liquids when I was already sweating my face off, but I accepted the tea anyway and drunk it once it cooled.
We found a restaurant where it seemed like everything only cost a couple Euros. Kay and I split a pizza and also some gnocchi with pesto, and it was as delicious as you might imagine Italian food made in Italy being. The food was good, but that wasn’t the best part–the best part was a cold mug of cheap Italian birra. The most common style of beer in Italy is the lager, a style which a friend of mine once brilliantly described as “the mouth-breather of beers,” and even though I’m typically a lager-avoiding snob, this beer completely changed the way I felt in body and in mind. I felt refreshed and strong and relaxed and happy. It was like being in love, except this was real! The first gulp of that beer, following the food I’d been eating, was like placing the final piece to a puzzle. I truly felt complete in that moment. I forgot that I was hot, smelly, and tired, and everything was perfect.
Without all the walking, without exploring those incredible, massive monuments, the beer would have meant nothing to me. But because of that fatiguing adventure through Rome, that beer meant more to me than the Colosseum. It’s the little things, right?
Or maybe it’s just beer.
“I adore simple pleasures,” said Lord Henry. “They are the last refuge of the complex.” -The Picture of Dorian Gray