This week we are in Italy. Mac has some work to do in the small town of Frosinone, and on the way we spent
two nights in Rome just for the heck of it.
I love Rome. I don’t think of myself as a big city gal, but since the first time we visited many years ago, Rome has unexpectedly had me by the heartstrings.
Big, crowded, dirty, amazing Rome. It is almost a challenge to be a proper tourist here since the guidebooks pretty much just list the thousands of churches and cathedrals. Until you realize, as you’re standing at some plaza, that the entire city is the art museum. And you are sitting on it, driving around it, splashing your hands in it.
Masterpieces everywhere, mostly behind church doors – just walk in, the door is propped open, the candles burning. The table is all set for a traveller like you. Or the basilica itself is the masterpiece, just stand there and look up, free of charge.
You can’t escape the idea of what Rome is all about and that is beauty. Living beauty. And the ancient history isn’t just on the surface, we were told that there are actually so many ruins buried beneath the city that building more public transportation, which they need, is impossible. Every time they dig they find another ruin.
But there is nothing precious about Rome. Rome is real. You can crawl all over everything, pretty much. And it doesn’t flaunt itself like Paris.
It’s a big city, but it doesn’t seem to consume the region. When we took a bus to see Pompeii [see photos] it was only a few miles before we hit the agricultural countryside. Gorgeous farmland with the olive, orange and lemon trees (lemons the size of babies’ heads), fruit orchards, and vineyards. There is no ugly corridor like most major US cities have.
Anyway, a surprise.
Rome is all of the clichés, of course. The espresso so strong it curls your toes, the small dark, well dressed men, the gelato on every corner, the beggars, children playing accordions. And signs for pizza, pizza, pizza everywhere.
The little restaurants with limitless baskets of rustic bread, red wine and incredible cheeses to rival the Swiss. Artichokes fixed in surprising ways and kiwi fruit, which I learned is an Italian export.
But the reason I love Rome is that the people are uncommonly welcoming. I don’t feel so much like a tourist. Maybe it’s the animated energy, where you might witness at least one love affair ending loudly and then quite possibly resuming with added passion.
Or it’s the smooth weathered marble or maybe it’s the way the daylight lays across the city and the gentle climate.
I feel almost like my family has Italian roots. It’s something you notice right as you step off the train, along with that vague moldy cheese/urine/burned bread/body odor kind of smell. A worn-in familiarity.
But with Italy’s economy so bad, things look pretty ragged around the edges. On Sunday the transportation workers had a major strike, shutting down most of the regional trains. There was a pretty big mob demonstration and many of the polizia just so happened to be camped out at our hotel.
I have to say they looked pretty relaxed sipping their espresso on the terrace out front. Italian police just seem to be amused most of the time, like they’re just wearing a costume for the fun of it. Pretend polizia.
But anyway, I loved it, the strike drama unfolding (seriously, you have to know my family). On the other hand, my husband really had to get to work (no fun! can’t we check out the rioting?) so fortunately we had a back-up plan. The company had arranged for us to be picked up at the terminal by a driver.
That would be Fabio.
Mac had told me about Fabio but I couldn’t get a real handle on what to expect until we met. Shaved head (middle-aged?) huge like a bodyguard, he looked like he would know how to kill someone with his hands. And he spoke absolutely no English.
The 1.5 hour drive to Frosinone took under an hour. Mac said we were up to 100/mph at one point. But I didn’t even notice because his Mercedes with dual exhaust (a fact that took 20 mins. to explain to us; I was going with the storyline that he had two brothers) was an extremely smooth ride.
At various points during the trip, Fabio would start gesturing excitedly and indicate toward parts of the car and then point at other drivers. I think he was saying that the ones who passed him still wouldn’t be able to do what his baby could do if he let it rip. He was way into that car, so proud – it had 300,000 miles on it but it was mint.
But all I cared about was that looking at the back of Fabio’s red, beefy neck and super-sized biceps, I felt very secure. I mean, we all know that Italians drive like maniacs. They do not move for pedestrians and there aren’t many real sidewalks. I’ve been nearly killed, in my mind, multiple times.
It’s an intricate dance the locals all do, but as outsiders you can never really join in comfortably or safely. And you know they’re totally enjoying the look of horror on your face when they graze your arm as they careen past.
But anyway, our man Fabio enthusiastically floored it up the steep labyrinth leading to Frosinone. Set atop a hill, as most medieval cities preferred to be, it is classical Italian. Ancient clock tower, cobbled streets. Sunflower yellow, dusty pink, muddy terra cotta colors.
Tiny green-shuttered apartments with fresh linens flapping out of the lace curtained windows. A large dog with a collar purposefully trotting alongside us with a destination in mind. There are folks gathered on the sidewalks drinking espresso, two older men playing backgammon, women gossiping, strollers.
But still, things look a little rundown. There are plenty of crumbling buildings not being repaired and quite a few businesses shut down.
That night we were the only hotel guests. The young boy at the desk that we thought was the night clerk is actually the owner and his brother is the restaurant chef. He gave us the key to the front door since he was going to bed, on the first floor, and assumed we would be out late.
But I’m getting into thoughts on Frosinone so I’ll leave that for the next post.
So, Friday we will catch a train back to Rome and transfer to another train heading to Nice (FR) for a night. And then another train to spend the long holiday weekend in Paris. Lots of trains.
But it’s very likely that the railway workers will still be on strike – and so what will we do about transportation?How will we get where we need to go? Oh, right …
Fabio. Yes, I am definitely looking forward to Friday.
Buona Pasqua [Happy Easter] amici!