Trip Start Aug 01, 2006
Trip End Dec 29, 2006

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Flag of Italy  ,
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sitting on the train across from a young Italian couple we watched the fields and crops wiz by our window in a colorful blur. Occasionally a hill would emerge in the distance crowned by a medieval city and an accompanying church or castle in various states of repair. Rain sporadically lashed at the window leaving long thin streaks due to the trains speed. Once we hit the coast I looked out to see something I was not expecting: surfers. There were about twenty of them stretched out along a rocky coastline, bobbing in the two to three foot sloppy wind swell. It made my heart race. I thought of upcoming Bali when I would return to the water and all of the emotions I tie to surfing came rushing back. It was like reading the forward on a book. In all I took it as a sign of good luck even though I have as of yet to see this luck manifest itself.

The hotel had two contradictory qualities. It was expensive and had the least amount of information and help. Even when Dora was yelling at us in Korcula she would still tell us where to do laundry or where to get Internet access. This hotel took one day for the guy to tell us they had wireless, another day to tell us it only worked in the basement and give us part of the password, and a third day for a new lady to actually produce a booklet of directions. We asked them on how to get to the airport and the guy immediately picked up the phone, "I will call you a car." Surprised I jumped in, "How much?" He said,"45 euros." Startled I tried to use my psychokinetic powers to have him put down the phone. Using words we told him we would have to think about it which translates into there is no way we are going to do it. Later on we probed him on using the bus and train but he was vague and aloof. In the end we took the subway and a bus for six euros. In your face lobby dude.

Finding a church in Rome is like finding a crying kid at a preschool. Even our hotel was within orange-throwing distance of a church that in most cities would be their cultural centerpiece, their claim to a rich and full heritage. Here in Rome it was another church on another street.

Tired but dedicated to being efficient tourists we wanted to knock at least one major site of the long list of "things you must see in Rome (or any other place we have been)". I dread and will be angry to hear from somebody, "You went to Rome and you didn't see (fill in the blank)?" You haul your 15.2 kg toddler up and down those stairs and put her on bus 14 when she is crying because she couldn't pet some feral cat. Toddlers are the most impatient species known to man and are not conducive to long lines. Anyway, we try our best and the first site in the cross hairs was the Pantheon. Armed with a good map, which is of great importance, we rambled around the streets awe struck by the beautiful and majestic buildings. Like in Prague the closer we looked at a building the more details began to emerge, statues lining the roof, faces carved into the corner pillars, stone carved horses above the door.

In the far past the Pantheon had the distinction of having the largest dome. Of course it was inspiring and huge. The dome had an open top and a few droplets of rain floated the several hundred feet to burst on the floor next to the special drains designed for this purpose. We spent some extra time in front, underneath the immense Roman pillars with a bunch of other wet tourists to wait the ceasing of the last rainsquall. Later on we read that this is where people met anytime it rains.

We also had a chance to get acquainted with another famous Roman feature, the traffic. My analogy for crossing the street is like jumping off a rock to go surfing. Before you jump you have to look outside to see if there are any impending sets, this is like looking for the cars. Then you have to see the little waves in your immediate vicinity, this is like the scooters. If all looks well you jump and use your wits and dexterity to make it to the line up, or in this case across the street. It is always chaotic and like the ocean it is never the same and in constant flux.

Day two, Rome. The big sites. We decided to be ambitious and see Saint Peter's and the Sistine Chapel in the same day. Deluded or ambitious I cannot say which. Walking from the hotel we neared the thick forty-foot high brick wall that separated Vatican City from the street. To our great dismay a line six people across and worthy of a rock concert hugged the base of the wall, ran down the entire street and around the corner. We had to do it so we took our place and prepared for the cutting and pushing. Maybe our luck did change because next to us was a nice (they always are) Canadian couple who also lacked any foresight and had their three year old girl with them. The two kids seemed to cancel each other's energy out, like matter and antimatter, and the time in line went by peacefully. At the front of the entrance Christy found a fifty euro note so we paid our admission as well as the Canadians. Vatican city was amazing and I direct you to any number of books with glossy photos of the statues and art contained there to appreciate them. The one item I will mention is that the long hallways including the ceilings where elaborately and colorfully painted and no patch of white was left without chubby angels cuddling or someone being impaled.

The Sistene chapel is larger than it looks in any photos and the Creation of Man figures are larger than an average person. As a general rule of thumb,when you paint God, he should be big. Michelangelo's figures are interesting and unique because they do not look like the emaciated dark figures of Renaissance paintings that look equally hungry and depressed but are rather burly and look like athletes akin to rugby players or wrestlers. Clearly seen are the muscles and tendons and it gives the figures a gravity and presence. The Sistene Chapel was as crammed as a subway train during commute, and it was the job of one of the guards to issue a loud "Shhh" or "silenceo" when the rabble got noisy enough to offend God. The murmuring would die out and then gain momentum until it became as noisy as rapids. Then the system would repeat itself. I silently (because I didn't want to get in trouble) wondered to myself what it would be like to be a professional silencer and what would I put on my resume to ensure that I could do my job well and efficiently. Any job that reprimands the general public has always had a certain attraction and affection for me. While we admired the paintings Collette laid on the floor next to the sign that said," Do not lay on the floor."

Off to Saint Peters, we passed through the metal detector but not before a priest cut in front of me. Collette cleared security and we entered the most immense church on Earth. I will borrow Rick Steve's comment when he said that to call Saint Peter's church big is like saying God is smart. Collette's behavior quickly deterriated and we looked upon the marble statues and the domineering pillars while constantly yelling "no Collette" and picking her up before she darted behind ropes, grabbed some tourist, or tried to poke us. Exhausted and with our patience reserves depleted we left the church to take some pictures in front and paint our visit in more tranquil terms. However, Saint Peters Cathedral is still awe-inspiring and the combination of its girth and splendor make it unequaled.

At this time I had a chance to call my dad. He immediately started complaining about his rehab center in earnest and with great dictation so I knew that his health was improving and along with it, my spirits. Using the remaining minutes on my phone card I dialed the 20 or so digits to ring my friend who had just given birth to a baby girl. He didn't actually do the birthing but it was great to talk to him and his upbeat voice confirmed that he was on a baby high. I'm pretty certain that there is no toddler high.

To get a feel of someplace there is nothing more effective than walking. In Rome we walked the length of it several times. One evening we decided to try to find a street that was closed to traffic, much more relaxing and less threatening. The tour book described it as "full of pedestrians and interesting shopping." We arrived on the street to be confronted by a huge boulevard filled with the frantic, chaotic mess that entails Roman traffic. To avoid the anxiety we went down a side street that was mostly limited to pedestrians. Street musicians played1 and packs of roaming and ambling shoppers filled the avenues. This was the most intense and exotic shopping we had ever witnessed. Hand bags propped up on pedestrians spotlighted with tract lighting, dresses that looked like wedding cakes, and shoes with arcs and curves that I associated more with high tech aircraft than with garments. Lots of alligator prints and diamonds. Christy gave me a passing lecture on the brands that were written in arrogant cursive above each boutique, Versace, Dior, DG, Prada (my favorite for the sleek lines), Perla and more. I was overwhelmed and in a different income bracket to consider the stores anything more than a spectacle. They made Macy's look like a chicken coop. We left this area only to find the main street closed to traffic. The tour book did not tell us that the street was closed after six but I am telling you now. You're welcome.

Still with more sites to conquer I pondered over the map while we ate toast and delicious milk and coffee in the hotel basement. I mention the basement restaurant because our room was on the top floor, level 5. A mighty distance to carry 15.2 kg even though we frequently condensed ourselves into the rickety elevator. Having orientated myself with our goal, we folded out the stroller like an awakening insect and bumped over the cobblestones toward the coliseum. About a third of the way there we spotted a huge brick fortress, shaped in a circle with a moat the size of a four lane highway bordering its edges. Agreeing to see it the next day we looked at the hours. Closed on Mondays, now or never. As we prepared to go in we heard a marching band and glanced through billowing clouds of incense to see a religious parade. Nuns were walking backward swinging silver vessels belching smoke and gazing upward at a twelve-foot painting of a saint, which in turn was carried by eight grimacing men. The scene was surreal and we managed to capture the moment by taking several pictures of the swirling smoke and little else.

The fortress turned out to be a series of fortress built on top of each other. According to the models in the museum it started out in Roman times as a giant tribute to some God(s). As the decades past it changed its shape and grew to accommodate archers and then cannons and then tourists. The place had an earthy sense to it and the lower levels had dark cave like passages with uneven stones and damp somber dirt colored bricks. The top half was more cheery and provided a view of Saint Peters and another half dozen cathedrals spread out over the city. Chance had made us see the fortress but its uniqueness and bizarre charm made us fond of it.

The coliseum was what one could expect. It was bigger than pictures and postcards make you believe and the architectural details of how the stones were meshed together and the holes that once supported wooden rigging was fascinating. The exposed floor where the animals, gladiators, and ships were kept looked like an expansive maze. Four tourist stars.

Leaving the coliseum we climbed to the top of the hill and ambled along the ruins of the emperor's private quarters. (Palatino Hill) They covered the whole hill and included a small private chariot-racing rink. I tried to listen in on an English-speaking guide so only got snippets of the information and pasted them together with my imagination. Walking off of the hill we entered into a valley filled with forty-foot pillars and ruins. This was the forum and the heart of the ancient village of Rome. A steep stone stair case lead out of the valley onto a boulevard.

We were in luck; the boulevard was closed to traffic and they were having a street fair complete with stilt walkers and jugglers. One group had a wind machine that blew air into a flimsy hollow plastic tube that would weave and wobble thirty feet up in the air. The operator would change the tube's direction so it would smack distracted tourists in the face and tease a small group of children that would try to grab it. Collette quickly joined this frantic group of kids as the tube shot from one side of the street to the other trailed by the kids like a flock of birds. If a kid caught the tube another man with a bullhorn would run up and tell them to release it. These guys had obviously had done this before and knew that the only way they were going to get the kids attention was with a bullhorn. This went on for a time until a kid grabbed the tube and the operator cut the tube away from the wind machine. They then in a very generous and crowd-pleasing gesture would cut the tube up in small pieces and give it to the children. By the end of the day Collette had a plastic cape that she was quite pleased with.

The last day we decided to make Collette's so we set out. The previous day we had spent the morning at a playground hidden in the moat of the fortress. We talked to the other ladies whose kids were playing. Simultaneously we tried to keep Collette from doing anything horrific and embarrassing to us. There were some Italians and ex-pats that told us of the glorious park on the other side of the city. So the park became our quest. After checking my map several times looking for landmarks such as famous fountains or squares we finally found the sprawling wooded park. Most of the park was not kid friendly and seemed to be deserted. We gave up hope until we found a carousal unabashedly named "Blonde Bimbo". It was open and Collette rode twelve times in a row.

Rome was a fantastic city. The boulevards are wide and lined with trees. This was a drastic improvement over Florence where we felt claustrophic. The sites appear to be endless and a walk in any direction can bring you to a momentous fountain or richly ornate bridge. Most of the Romans outside of their cars were friendly and upbeat. And most of the people on the streets were Italian, unlike previous Italian cities we visited. I couldn't resist a fabric store where they made their own shirts. The people in it were friendly, and they had that special sense of style and optimistic exuberance that we came to admire. In most of the stores the workers gave too much candy to Colette so we had to try to restrain them. Every time they lowered the bowl Collette would seize her opportunity and grab a handful of candy and tuck it into her body like a football. The movement would be sudden and we would exclaim," Collette!" and the shop keepers would laugh and offer her more reassuring, "It's OK, It's OK."

1. A cop was taking a picture of a stand up bassist for what I surmised was for licensing and he kept asking the musician to spin his bass. He complied with vigor and a smile and the bass twirled several times.
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