Mosquitos are in abundance here. Or at least I hope that's what caused the teeny bumps on my arms. I'd hate to wake up allergic to Rome when there's still so much to do here.
Breakfast in Italy is hopelessly simple. Coffee, and a roll. That's what the hostel offers, but that's pretty much what it is anywhere else in town. The hostel menu says that diners can have butter and jam, as though each one is a separate course on the menu.
You meet a lot of Australians at youth hostels, at least when it's summer up here and winter down there. I talked with a couple of Aussies who brought, or found in Rome, their own breakfast from home. A cereal called Weetabix. Ever heard of it? It's Australian for shredded wheat. It didn't appeal to me, but it made them feel more at home while on the road.
While I downed an authentic Italian cup of coffee and put both butter and jam on my roll, I asked the Aussies if they knew of any netcafes in town. They recommended the one from where I wrote this particular episode -- "Hackers," a strange little restaurant/video game parlor just a block north of Vatican City. One of them drew a very crude map, and I'm not the kind to follow others' maps; there are too many personal landmarks that are easily missed. You know, turn left at the blue fire hydrant, look for the yellow sign, etc. Then it turns out that the blue fire hydrant is painted on a wall, and the yellow sign was seen through tinted sunglasses. And so on. I'm the type who needs only an address and even if I've been in Rome for only 48 hours I'll find the exact location. That's why all those maps ended up at my house. But I took his hand-drawn map as I wandered toward Vatican City for the day.
I knew I wasn't going to go into St. Peter's. I did not dress for church today, you see. And they want the tourists to show respect in their clothing habits, if not by their blaze of photo flashes and neck-craning gawks during High Mass. You don't have to wear a suit or anything like that, but shorts are definitely out of favor at the largest church in Christendom -- as are backless dresses and miniskirts. I wondered if they would let in a man wearing an appropriate long dress, and figured that the Italian military police probably had a special cell set aside for people who tried stuff like that.
One of my favorite pictures I took while in Rome, this also is the very first one I took. And no, there's no trick photography involved. The statues are about six inches tall, arranged by a local vendor on top of a souvenir cart, across the street (about 300 yards) from the facade of St. Peter's. When I saw that tourists were actually buying the statues, I pulled out the camera and went to work before they were rearranged.
I sat on a columnar base across the street from the huge Piazza enclosed by Bernini's collonade, and really had no agenda except to sit for a while and soak it up. Matter of fact, I was surrounded by so many tourist groups that I wondered how anyone would be able to come here and stay out of the "tourist" hordes.
What usually happens is, the tour group leader gathers everyone together across the street from the piazza, and talks in whatever language is appropriate to that group. Could be Japanese, could be German, could be English with a British or Italian or American accent. Then, the tour leader inevitably has some sort of flag or scarf on a small stick, which is raised up for visibility as the tour group takes its life into its own hands by crossing the street into the piazza and toward the church. After they've successfully navigated Italian traffic, the next group of tourists comes in, the speech is made, the umbrella or scarf is raised, the group tentatively crosses the street. And so on. By sitting in one place for more than two minutes, I am immediately out of place.
Roman drivers seem to have the same basic disregard for life and limb on the streets surrounding St. Peter's that they do elsewhere. And here, at one of the largest tourist magnets in the world, there are huge touring buses, usually driven by Italians, to deal with as well. The way you do it is, you just find a clearing and start making your way across. Don't slow down simply because the cars coming toward you haven't started to slow down, or even veer away, yet. The drivers assume that your plan is to walk in a straight line at a constant speed, and they'll be able to buzz directly behind you (or directly in front -- don't flinch!), so any "helpful" change of course on the part of a pedestrian is most likely that pedestrian's last mistake. This is also fun to watch from a safe viewpoint (oh, about ten feet up on the sidewalk) across the street from the Vatican.
So I sat there, wondering how to avoid "tour group mania," and I hit upon the solution that I had already been utilizing -- namely, just sit there. If you're safely up on the sidewalk where the Vespas won't get to you, all you have to do is sit still and you'll be doing something far far different than most people in and around St. Peter's. I was in the shade, I was sitting still, and I didn't have to pay attention to some overpaid flunky yammering about how priceless it all was. I could take a breath or two and figure it out for myself. Very nice.
With the commotion around me it seemed like I sat there for two hours, although it may have only been 30 to 45 minutes. It was getting close to meal time at the hostel, and in my state the hostel dinner, low-rent as it was, represented a sort of safety net that meant I could get food and water without having to venture into unfamiliar (and expensive) restaurant territory while I was still acclimating myself.
Not knowing where to catch the returning city bus route I had taken earlier, I started walking along the river to the north. I wandered enough that I ended up at Piazza del Popolo, which originally represented one of the formal entrances into the walled city.
At the Piazza del Popolo, arched entryways under the Aurelian wall system lead one into a public square with three streets diverging from the south side, each of which leads to various sites of importance in Rome. The easternmost heads down toward the Piazza di Spagna, Spanish Steps, and Quirinale Hill; the center route leads to the ancient Forum and the more recent Piazza Venezia; and the westernmost goes past the Mausoleum of Augustus toward Piazza Navona and into the central city where the University of Washington offices are located.
The Piazza del Popolo is, as you might imagine from the name, filled with people more so than cars and vespas, but the occasional vespa will still buzz through the pedestrian area in an effort to get around the "slower" cars that can't make it through the chains and concrete posts which make the center of the piazza a foot-traffic oasis.
There's plenty of time later to investigate down south in the central part of town. It's north for me right now. Out of the ancient city's walled limits, past riverside tennis courts and soccer fields, past tour boats and barges docked alongside the river's concrete embankments, across the river via the Ponte Duca d'Aosta featuring bland bas-relief sculpture commemorating the great and grand and victorious struggle of Fascism (remember where we are, kiddies), and back to the hostel, to dinner, to a rickety bed and a blinking flourescent light and a zillion cars and scooters right outside the window.
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