Hi! I’m currently extremely comfortable, for the first time in about two weeks. Winter hitching is not the best hitching. If I hadn’t lost my damn tent poles, I would have no worries, but as it is, the days are short and toward the end I always have to think about where I’m going to find a roof to sleep under to get out of the European winter rain. In all the parts of Europe that I’ve been to this winter, the thing it does is it rains instead of snows. I guess not in the Alps on the Italy-Switzerland border, but I was only going through there.
The reason I’m so comfortable is because I’ve at last made it to England and begun my visit to Sean and Natalie. After a while living outside, you really get to appreciate what a nice place a house is. Ah, what a concept! A place where you can keep all the air warm, and even prepare food! And there’s plumbing as well. No wonder these things caught on all around the world. The house in question is Natalie’s, where Sean is a fixture guest. It’s located near Southampton in the coincidentally named town of New Milton (same name as Nana & Papaw’s unincorporated little village). They’re working on making sure that I have an extremely English time here, so within my first three meals I’ve already had blood pudding and a Cornish pasty made in Cornwall, as well as a mince pie for dessert. A Christmas pudding awaits me, and I think tonight we’re having sausage and mash.
But that story is just beginning, and I write about stories that have already finished. I’m feeling a bit lazy today, so I think I’m just going to copy down my journal entries about Rome. As I was writing them, I thought they were pretty good ones, even though I didn’t enjoy the city itself that much. Let’s see if I still like them as I copy them into here! If nothing else they should give you a sort of slice of the hitchhiking-vagabonding life.
Before you start, I should explain something that I mention here and there—getting a CouchSurfing host. CouchSurfing.org is an amazing website where people all over the world (in practically every country, I would guess) sign up to say they’re willing to host traveling strangers in their house, in return for someday being able to get hosted in a stranger’s house when they’re traveling themselves. There’s no enforced ratio of stays given to stays received—it’s all done on the honor system, and even if you never have someone else over, no one hassles you about it and you can still stay with people. You learn about people before meeting them by reading what other people have written about them, and you can make sure those people aren’t imaginary by looking at what people have written about them, and it’s a really cool network of trust and good feelings. And it works! I’ve only used it a few times, in Kraków and Moscow, but both times were great, and the only reason I haven’t done more is that I don’t have the internet often enough to write CouchRequests. Unfortunately, some places it’s more difficult. In Rome, members tend to be guys who use the site as a dating service, checking their preference to only host women, and touting their big muscles or whatever on their profile. In a place where so many tourists go, I guess I can understand how everywhere would be saturated with them.
So anyhow, here we go.
I spent an uneventful night at the tollbooth in Pisa, near a shelter for cars that had long since been walled safely away from any cars by various renovations to the tollbooth. I took me two hours to get away from the tollbooth, but eventually an oldish couple picked me up and took me to San Vincenzo. From there the highway had shrunk to a more personal size and I easily got a ride with two guys named Eros (he insisted this was his given name) and Gino, who were hauling a horse named something like Ixter. They left me just before Civitavecchia, 70 km from my goal of Rome. After a little while a guy named Mario picked me up from the gas station, and we found that we had a common language in Spanish, so he told me he was only going to Civitavecchia but that would be find for me, because I could easily ride the train from there to Rome for free. When I asked what the trick was to riding free, he said, “Nothing.” They never check tickets and you open the door to the train yourself. I decided this was within my ethics, because Italy has signs along all the highways saying “NO autostop” (autostop is the international word for hitchhiking – only English uses a different one), so if they’re going to illegalize my method of transportation, I don’t feel compunctions about stealing train rides. So Mario took me to the train station—though first to a supermarket, where he got us pizza—and it was all true. I enjoyed a totally hassle-free 40-minute ride to Roma Termini Station.
It’s been a long time since I felt that disoriented. Not just that I didn’t know where the train station was in the city, but also that there were just so many people, and all of them probably knew just where they were going, and I was alone and had no plan. I found a map and that helped. I started heading for the Colosseum. Seemed nearby. Before I got there I found an internet place and discovered I had no CouchSurfing host. So I posted more requests and then kept walking. What a crap area. Just block after block of mass-produced buildings full of poor people or liquor stores or factories, all of it run-down.
I ended up at the Piazza di Porta Maggione, a corner of the old city walls, in the complete wrong direction. But I got myself turned the right way and finally found the Colosseum. And yeah, it was special. I’ve rounded corners to catch a first glimpse of an old building many times now, but never one this old, and never one that was so different from everything around it. Because leading up to it was still crap neighborhoods. In fact Rome seems to have only crap neighborhoods. And in fact, when I got to the Colosseum I found it to be in a crap neighborhood—the Colosseum neighborhood, inhabited by people who want lots and lots of your money. I stopped to read a guidebook and the Indian man running the stall pointed at it and said, “Ten euros!” So the only words he spoke to me were a sum of money, and it was probably the same with everyone else he saw. After I’d read it for five minutes, he said, “Okay? Friend?” and then actually closed the book while it was in my hands and took it away. Friend! The Colosseum itself was tremendous, though of course with a tremendous entrance fee. It was also aswarm with tourists, a lot of them Americans and almost certainly idiots, judging by how they talked about everything. I ate some food I’d found in Civitavecchia and felt hostile toward Rome.
It was getting dark, but I strolled a bit of the Forum, which is apparently no longer free—bastards. But I went in a free part of it. Saw a little church. And the Arch of Titus, which some American Jews explained to me from their unique perspective. (“He drove all the Jews out of Jerusalem, an then raised this arch to celebrate. We’re still a little touchy about that, after two thousand years.”) And then I was stumped.
I walked along the Tiber a little, and then checked the internet again—still no host. I was deciding I’d probably leave Rome much sooner than planned, so I looked up what the Cinque Terre are, since everyone in the world recommended them to me. They’re five towns that look much nicer than here. I’ll probably aim to go there after tomorrow, maybe even on a night train. Unless I have a host, but that seems unlikely.
I found a green space on the map, so I walked there distractably, and thus saw all the carnival atmosphere of Piazza Navona, which I actually enjoyed, and also the candy vendors at piazza Mazzini, who were closing up and had tossed lots of delicious sweets, enough to give me a dozen cavities, including a cannolo with an amazing cream inside it. Also a head of broccoli, to sort of counteract that. While eating this, I found this odd, weedy, hilly, scrubby place behind a blue-lit restaurant building, and I guess I’ll sleep here tonight. That’s Rome.
I passed a peaceful night in that little wooded space. Except that I woke up sometime during the night, maybe midnight, and heard voices close by. They didn’t come closer, and they sounded pretty unthreatening; I fell back asleep. Later I awoke again and they were still there—and then I heard the sound of a long zipper and realized they must be fellow campers. Company! I planned to talk to them in the morning.
Before I could talk to the other campers, a balding guy passed by me and did a double take and asked me what I was doing. I told him I’d been sleeping, since I was already awake and packing up and there was nothing he could do about it. He fumbled for something to say and then told me I was on private property. Well, duh, but I said okay and promised to beat it. I was hoping he wouldn’t discover the other campers, because I’d caught glimpses of their camp, and it seemed sort of long-term. I heard cooking pots at one point. But he did see them, and so I figured I’d probably get a less than friendly welcome for attracting this buttinsky with my orange sleeping bag, and I did beat it straightaway.
So I was strolling with my backpack. I’d meant to stash it there so I could walk around the city unweighted. This made things more inconvenient and tiring. But I wandered and eventually decided to see the Castel San Angelo, which is… big. And was closed. Though I did see a group of gladiator reenactors starting their day of asking for money to take pictures with tourists. I tried and failed to stow my pack, then headed to the Vatican still lugging it.
At an exhibit on, of all things, Azerbaijan, I found a free bag check, and some information about Azerbaijan, which was kind of neat in an unexpected way. I guess the Vatican feels comfortable enough with its dominance over Islam to start displaying Muslim items as though they were items from polytheistic ancient Greece. Didn’t expect to see Qur’ans in the Vatican. That practical side trip done, I set about seeing St Peter’s which is free, as everything in the Vatican should be, since it’s not like the Catholic Church is exactly hurting for funds. I stood in a long line under the enormous, magnificent colonnade, under what I suppose is the left arm of the church as it embraces St Peter’s Square, and was granted entrance.
I may have to take back what I said about the Sagrada Família being the ultimate building. This might be the ultimate building. The size alone is worth a high ranking. It was hard for me to believe the tour guide who said the golden ball on top is seven meters in diameter, but then I saw all the tiny people on the observation deck below it. Inside, the sumptuousness is unmatched, except the parts that are under renovation. (Opulence requires constant, unsightly upkeep. All the most luxurious places I’ve seen will be some of the first to crumble if the system collapses in a big way. They’ve all already started, in fact probably started before construction was completed.) I marveled at the statues of dead Popes, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the preserved body of a sainted recent pope, the paintings by masters from bygone centuries, the domes intricately painted with stories that hardly anyone has understood or seen close enough to comprehend since the artist did. It was a good place to wander a little.
Then I got myself some gelato. A solid internet tip directed me to Old Bridge Gelateria, which was indeed good. The pistachio was alright, but the “zuppa Inglese”—cream and liquor; what do the Italians think the English eat in their soups?—was nonpareil.
Now what? I went by the Castel San Angelo again on my way to the city, and met a California girl who’s studying in Salamanca. We hit it off and decided to go to the Pantheon together before here bus left to the airport. On the way we checked out the steps where Cæsar was stabbed. Most cities would probably make a site of that gravitas into a quiet, contemplative pedestrian area with informative plaques all around. Not Rome: cars on all sides and construction equipment among the ruins. I guess Rome has gravitas to spare, so they treat it pretty casually. I think that’s what displeased me most about the city.
The Pantheon was pretty cool, and Flavia (that’s her name) agreed. Although it was way more Christian than I’d expected. I guess that’s the only way a building that ancient could survive—get a Christian facelift. Gone Jupiter and Mars and Venus. Bring in the endless depictions of the Virgin Mary. Enough with Mary already, Catholics! Flavia and I talked about the Pantheon but also about free food and such philosophies., and we decided we should meet in Paris next Sunday, since she’ll be there. [Note: we never found each other there.] Then she had to go off to catch her bus.
At Trevi’s Fountain I found free melted gelato, and also the fountain was quite terrific. It and the fountain at Piazza Navona have a great ordered-chaos feeling. I figure they were probably by the same sculptor. [Note: I looked it up and I was right! Partially. Gian Petro Bernini was responsible for the Navona one, and he also did the sketches for Trevi’s; they got discarded but Wikipedia says “there are many Bernini touches in the fountain as it exists today.”] As it got dark I buzzed the Colosseum again and enjoyed peeking in wherever I could (it was closed now even if I’d wanted to pay €12). I found some giant Italian donuts in a garbage can and distributed them free at a bus stop, then walked around looking for internet and the Church of Maria Maggiore. I found them in the opposite order, and at the second one I learned that I had no host again. So I continued to the train station.
A bus for Pisa left at 8:12 pm. I got caught a few stations in, and the ticket lady told me to leave at Grosseto, so I hid behind the seats in a compartment and went all the way to Pisa. Time-saver! Now I have to decide whether to head right away to Cinque Terre or see the Leaning Tower. Either way, time for some train station sleeping first.
Huh. I guess maybe not as amazing as I remembered, but it’ll have to do. More later! I’ve got leisure time now and internet to use during it. Nice change for a while.