Rome Diary I - My Story
Rome Diary I - Journal of an American Expatriate in Rome
"Roma è la città di echi, la città delle illusioni e la città di desiderio".
Giotto di Bondone (pittore e architetto italiano. Morto nel 1337)
“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of desire.”
When catastrophe hits, get the hell outta town! It's what I did in November 2013, when my life as I knew it went into the dumper; crippling health probs, depression, and finally marital splitsville. My son, Mike came up with a brilliant idea. "Come to Rome, dad! It worked for me!"
Rome Diary I is the Facebook chronicle of my time as an American expatriate in Italy. Spoiler Alert: There will be a Rome Diary II, because I plan on going back. I have to. I tossed all those coins into Fontana di Trevi! So, return I will. I promised Alba.
To emphasize that last statement:
Diario di Roma è la cronaca di Facebook del mio tempo come un americano espatriato in Italia. Spoiler Alert: Ci sarà un diario di Roma II, perché intenzione di tornare. Devo. Gettato tutte quelle monete nella Fontana di Trevi! Così, di restituire che lo farò. Promesso di Alba.
ROME DIARY I - EPIPHANY! -- PHOTO ALBUM
Rome Diary I – The Early Days – November 11 to 23, 2013
Metteo autunno – Autumn Weather
Sono tornato a Roma!I am back in Rome!
Undici Novembre/Tuesday November 11, 2013
In 2005, on my first trip to Rome, I had tossed a coin into Trevi Fountain just before I left for home. My son, Mike said the spell would assure my return to Rome. Hell, I said, "I've seen Roman Holiday, I know all about the legend." A few years later I came back, tossed in another coin and here I am again. So before I head back to California, I'll make sure I do it again, just to play it safe. Maybe I’ll toss in a couple of coins to make sure. Ah Hell, go for broke. I’ll toss in a bucket full. As I walk along the streets in the city center, I half expect to look up and see Audrey Hepburn zipping along in back of Gregory Peck on a Vespa. Today, Rome is not just a city I’ve returned to for another visit. No, this time I feel like I’m coming home.
Behind me, in California is the wreckage of my former life. I’ve been retired for eight years, and definitely not getting any younger. Arthritis has been encroaching on my mobility and I’ve been trying to overcome a number of health and emotional issues.
Mike and Laura are waiting for me at the International Arrivals gate at Fiumicino International Airport. As usual, I hop into the “Nothing to Declare” line and breeze through Customs and Immigration. For travelers, Europe is almost one big happy family. Moving from country to country is a snap since the European Union. We toss my bags in the trunk and head off for their new house.
We get back to their house and they show me to the spare bedroom that will be my home for the next month or so. Later at dinner, Mike comments on my appearance. It’s been more than a year. “Christ dad! After looking at you, I’m surprised you had the strength to make the whole fifteen hour flight.” Then both he and Laura assured me that I would be feeling looking better in no time.
The first time I visited, they were living in a rental apartment in Trastevere, the ancient neighborhood just across the Tiber from the heart of the city. Trastevere was, in ancient times, Rome’s first suburb. The name is a contraction of the Latin words trans and Tevere! Literally, Trastevere - Across the Tiber. This time they are living in their own home; what we would call a “condo” out of town and closer to the airport.
Dodici Novembre/Tuesday November 12
Woke up this morning and looked out the window. “Ye gads, Toto, we are not in California anymore!” I am in Rome, Italy for an extended visit with my son Mike and his wife. This week I will toss another coin into the Trevi Fountain. I am gonna want to come back. Cloudy with showers. But after a fifteen hour flight, I’m not going anywhere today. In fact, I’m not that enthused about ever going back. Buongiorno, Italia!
Quattore Novembre/Thursday November 14
Originally scheduled to go to Pompeii today with my professional tour guide son, Michael. But the tour bus was overbooked, so we have to reschedule. Alas, another time. Jr. is licensed to conduct tours of Central Rome, including the Forum and the Coliseum. Mike works for City Wonders, which used to be called Dark Rome Tours. His company likes to hire tour guides who are native speakers of English. This is music to the ears of most Americans, who tend to be language-challenged and think that there native language is American! If you're coming to Rome, I recommend the MikeBo Jr. Tour from City Wonders. You can contact him on Facebook or book you tour directly on the internet at www.citywonders.com.
Sedici Novembre/SaturdayNovember 16
OK! Today we get to act like real tourists. On tap is a walk around the center of Rome. The Forum, Coliseum etc. Fun stuff. Tomorrow we take a drive to the country and visit Selci, out in Sabina. That’s where an ancient bunch of Roman men ventured to abscond with all those Sabine damsels in "The Rape of the Sabine Women." Hmmm. I'm on my own this trip. Wonder if there are any of them left.
Ventidue Novembre/November 22
It's been raining here in Rome the past few days, so we are concentrating on indoor attractions. Wednesday it’s one of the catacombs. Spooky place even though the bones have been moved out of the tourist area. Yesterday, it was the Cathedral of St. Clement (San Clemente). I learned that the anchor, which is the symbol of St. Clement and the Capuchin Order which oversees the church, figures heavily in early Christianity because San Clemente was martyred by having an anchor and chain wrapped around his neck and then tossed into the Black Sea. Now, you Orange County denizens know what inspired the naming of the city in South County that bears his name. We were set to visit the family's country home in Selci in Sabina this weekend, but the weather may cancel the trip. This week also, Mike introduced me to two of his lady friends so I can learn the ropes of being an English teacher. We've had two sessions and so far, I am learning as much Italian as they are learning English. If I move here (as I'm trying to figure out how to do), I can make productive use of some of my time by teaching. I'd really like to do that, but my lack of Italian is the main thing holding me back. This coming week, more English lessons, more catacombs and that weather-postponed tour of Pompeii. Rome is a great city and well worth a visit for any of you who are thinking of a European vacation. And if you come, I know just the guide to help make your trip memorable.
Ventitre Novembre/Tuesday November 23
The Mike Botula father and son tour continued today in Rome with a visit to a most unusual place, Church of the Immaculate, headquarters of the Capuchin Monks, which is an offshoot of the Franciscan Order. The church has a new museum which is fascinating, and its crypts hold the bones of more than 14,000 Capuchin Monks. In other words, it's a huge ossuary. In the area open to the public, three small gravesites are decorated with the bones of some of the monks entombed below. Quite bizarre but beautiful in a haunting way. The monks who have taken vows of poverty and chastity are not allowed to handle money, so, among other financial affairs, the church gift shop is run for them by Alba Belusci, a lovely and delightful lady who, while being a devout Catholic is not a member of the order, and thus, can handle the monk’s finances. Mike points out that there are more than 900 churches in Rome, the best known of which is St. Peter's Basilica and each one of them has a fascinating history.
© By Mike Botula 2013
Rome Diary I: Day 17– Thursday-Thanksgiving Day (Back Home) November 28, 2013
Viaggio a Pompeii! If I got that wrong, I meant to say, “We Travel to Pompeii.”
Of all my recollections of this historic Roman city, which was covered in volcanic ash in an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, it was the il bordello that really stands out. The cribs that the girls worked in were little cell-like cubicles with a solid stone bed built on to one wall. No was going to run off with a stone bed, for sure. After looking at the famous erotica from the Pompeian walls my imagination ran wild with the visions of a gentleman and his date frolicking on a stone bed in the myriad positions depicted in the erotica on the walls. Those Romans were definitely made of tough stuff. Even when I was assured that the crib would be covered with soft mats and blankets, I still felt that a guy with a back like mine would be very much at a disadvantage in ancient Rome.
Rome Diary I: Day 18, Friday November 29, 2013
Went house hunting today with Mike, my son, faithful interpreter and host on this adventure. We've already decided that I would stay longer than my original two week trip. Now, I'm not planning to go back until mid-January. So, I'm looking to rent a place for a month and doing a real test run, should I decide to stay in Rome long term.
After checking several apartments, I think I've scored. €1000 or about $1350, would move me in to a fully furnished top floor studio with a kitchen and a spacious outside patio on Beata Virgine del Carmelo. The young lady who usually occupies it is flying off to Argentina “on holiday” and won’t need her pad for the next month. She loves the idea of having the money, which would usually go for rent, helping to pay for her vacation.
As I plod ahead on this project, I'm picking up a lot of handy hints on how to move to a new place where your language is the “odd
man out.” More on this part of the adventure in a few days.
Next time - Italy has never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and it's tough on old arthritics like me.
For now, ciao bella!
Rome Diary I: Day 22 – Monday, December 2, 2013
Well, it's settled! Return ticket canceled! We found “Grandpa Botula” a gem of an apartment. Now, we’re checking the Internet for long term visas. I'll miss the Stockton Asparagus Festival, but there will be compensations.
Laura (my daughter in law) and I drove out to Selci Sunday morning, to her parents' vacation home in the ancient Roman province of Sabina. I’m sure you’ve heard about Sabina! About The Rape of the Sabine Women?! It’s the province where ancient Roman men went trolling for brides. Even now, Laura’s dad, Sergio came up here long ago as a young swain from ROMA, and met, courted and married Annamaria-Laura and Chiara’s mother.
Mike took the train from Rome early in the evening and joined us. Selci (pronounced SELL-CHEE) is up in the hills and the
countryside up there is just gorgeous. Laura's dad and mom have dozens of olive trees growing on the hillside behind the house, and every fall, they harvest the olives and take them into town to the
pressing plant where they are squeezed into a gourmet quality “olio olivo.” Definitely prime stuff, which they give to friends and family as Christmas gifts. There were two one-gallon jugs of the oil
being stored in the guest room where I stayed. Since there are also vineyards in the area, the pressing plant does grapes, too. All I know is that a very nice "vino rosso” is produced in Selci.
Sabina is every bit as beautiful and desirable as a vacation spot as neighboring Tuscany, but it's kinder to your wallet. The Tomei's next door neighbor, Luciana does a brisk business as a realtor
when she's not tending to her palatial bed and breakfast.
I mentioned last time that if grandpa is confined to a wheelchair, you should figure on leaving him back at your hotel or probably back home. There are a lot of hale and hearty senior citizens in Italy, but this is no place for someone with a disability. I've been dealing with the thrill of rheumatoid arthritis the past few years, and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to get around. Where most buildings in the U.S. are retrofitted with ramps and elevators, and bathrooms now boast tubs with doors, grab handles for easy access to the tub, and multi-story homes with “stair lifts;” Italy, and Rome in particular, are back in the dark ages. The ancient, historic buildings all have long staircases, which make a painful hurdle for gimps like me. If it’s cold, as it was in Selci this past weekend – in the 30°s F/ -1°C at night, I nearly became “frozen in time.”
There are the exceptions, like the restaurant in Monte Cassino where our tour bus stopped both coming and going. There, the handicapped rest room was on the ground floor, so I avoided a long trudge downstairs. The tour bus itself was able to “kneel,” so I could take just a baby step to ground level. The Museum of Archeology in Naples did have a handicapped bathroom and elevator to take you from the second to third floor. BUT, you had to climb a steep flight of stairs from the street to the main entrance and another staircase from the first to the second floor so you could take the elevator to see the Pompeiian erotica on the third floor. The Catacombs had nothing but stairs - lots of them. After three weeks here, my son has prodded me to walk more and to take the stairs since that's the only way I'll get to see anything interesting or use il bano without getting arrested. The Spanish Steps? – take a cab around to the top or admire them from a distance from one of the sidewalk cafes that dot the eternal city.
Italians, bless them are more solicitous toward old hobbling geezers like me. Carrying my cane onto a Roman transit bus or subway
practically guaranteed that some younger rider would jump up and offer me a seat. Italian drivers, on the other hand all navigate with fire in their eyes, obeying no known traffic rules. The only
sanctuary for the hapless pedestrian is in a marked crosswalk. Even that takes a leap of faith.
I thought when I started this little journal that readers would be bored stiff hearing another gushing article about the wonders of a Roman vacation. But, so far at least, that’s not the case. I'm trying to translate my own ground level observations into some practical advice for the traveler who’s thinking about coming here. For starters, I’m thinking that a trip to Rome is a great idea.
Rome Diary I– Day 24 - Wednesday December 4, 2013
Signed a deal on an apartment for the rest of December and the first two weeks of January. That’s when I plan to fly back to the U.S. While I'm meandering, I want to visit my brother near St. Louis and my daughter in Orange County before I head back to Italy. Right at the moment, it means that I am no longer a “house guest.” I can honestly say that I live in Rome. I’m a resident. Civis Romanus Sum! I am a Citizen of Rome! Mike and Laura found me a place in Mostacciano, a neighborhood near them, right next to the first apartment building we checked out. Rent is tabulated in Euros, which I had already thought was higher than I wanted. €1.00 = $1.35. So, a month in Roma will cost me about $1,350.00 give or take a few pennies. It’s just more expensive to rent a place here for a “vacation” than it is for a longer term residential lease. But, hellsfire, it’s a lot cheaper than a four star hotel. It’s a really nice little studio overlooking the heart of the neighborhood, which has everything I need: Church, school, Chinese restaurant, a bar –tea or coffee these days, a Farmacia, a post office with an ATM and a supermarket right up the hill. Oh, and Piazza Beata Virgine is a transit point for several bus lines, which gives me the ability to travel all over the city. The apartment is on the top floor and has two patios, one small and the other larger with a table and chairs. That's what sold me on the place because I can sit out in the morning and enjoy my coffee and biscotti. (That, by the way, is the Italian word for "biscuit" or cookie, and it’s not limited to the toasted sliced of pastry that we are used to in the states). I'll move in next week after the college girl who normally occupies it leaves for Argentina. Unlike the U.S., where people hire a “house sitter” or rent a vicious dog to guard the homestead while they're off on vacation, many Italians rent out their apartments while they are off gallivanting. That way their household budgets don't take a double hit while they are “on holiday.”
My Italian vocabulary is up to about 20 words and I'm able to follow at least parts of conversations beyond that. I'm doing a lot of pointing and gesturing, but I feel I'm making progress. Mike said that it took him over a year before he could join in family conversations around the dinner table. So, patience is a virtue. Maybe I'll pick up one of those translation devices that looks like a calculator. (During my first post-divorce bachelorhood, I was seeing a Korean lady who spoke halting English. She had one of those little gadgets. We looked like couple who shared their Iphone to text each other. Hey! It worked.
I'm using Mike and Laura's computer while I'm here. I'll pick up a laptop when I come back. The 21st century expatriate has
to have a computer and internet access. It's an absolute necessity in this day and age. Remember, if you are contemplating becoming an expatriate then you need two things – electricity to run the
computer and Wi-Fi or other internet connection. I've been paying most of my bills on line for years at home and the transition to living out of the country has been so smooth my creditors don't even
know I'm gone. I even have international roaming plus a discount rate for calling to and from Europe. So, now, when my dentist calls to reschedule my cleaning appointment, I can snicker and say,
“Can't do it, Ralph. I'm out of the country till the 15th.” My friends and family still call, but my cell phone usually rings at 3 am. So, I charge my phone in the kitchen at night.
Oh, and one other thing that will take the pain out of your travels, especially if you bring your Sonicare, or electric shaver, vibrator or cell phone – a voltage converter that will step down the European voltage from 250 volts to the U.S.’s 110 volts. Otherwise your electric toothbrush will run at supersonic speed for about one second before it starts smoking and bursts into flame. That is, if you can even plug your appliance in. European electrical sockets have different shaped plug holes than what Americans are used to. Italian 3-prong grounded outlets have small, round holes. Get at least one Europe to North American voltage converter, better yet get several. Skip Radio Shack's $40 price tag and shop on Amazon.com. One side of the voltage converter has the normal two prong American receptacle and other side has the three round prongs you need to insert in the Italian receptacle. There’s even a version that lets you plug the USB cable from you IPhone, lap top or Kindle directly into the European wall plug. In fact, take several along with you, or a power strip that will convert the voltage for several devices. If you can't speak the language, it's tough to find a store overseas that carries them. More than one hapless American tourist has smoked his cell phone or laptop or other small appliances. (This paragraph alone is worth the time spent reading my diary).
Mike and Laura left me alone last night to join some friends for dinner, so I meandered across the street to the Carrefour Supermarket and picked up a few things for dinner along with some tea and honey and a few other grocery items. I remembered Mike's instructions to ask for a busta or a plastic shopping bag. Then, I bagged my own groceries. The clerk rang up €14 euros plus change. I handed her a €20, waited for my change, smiled and said “Grazie. Buonanotte,” and headed back home. Just like “Food 4 Less.”
Finally...I had no idea that Bill Gates spoke Italian. Be prepared, if you borrow or rent locally a computer, laptop or tablet. The Italian keyboards are configured differently than the ones in the US. Some of the letters and symbols are located in different places. If you're a touch typist, be careful. The software prompts and commands are all in Italian, which means like learning Windows and MS Office from scratch.
By next time I should be able to share more touristy experiences and sights, but for now I'm sharing the knowledge I've gained trying to adapt to my new surroundings.
Rome Diary I - Day 30 - Wednesday December 11, 2013
Spent the first night in my new pad here in Roma. Very comfortable studio not too far from Mike and Laura and Laura's folks on the way to Fiumicino Airport. It's a very cozy place, and I've rented it for the month that the regular tenant is visiting friends in Buenos Aires. Lots of people do that here. They'll rent out their apartments to help offset the cost of their travels. The bed is very comfy and I slept soundly on my first night. Now, I really get to learn the ropes. All on my own.
Challenging! Thirty days! Wow! I've been away from home for a month now. Actually, I should say away from California, not
away from home. That's because at the moment in my present life, I am without a
home, and my life in general is a shambles. But, as each day in Rome passes I’m beginning to see signs of a comeback. Suffice to say that rather than go sleep under a bridge up in San Joaquin County I thought I’d take my son up on his invitation and come to Rome to sort my life out. What do I want to be when I grow up? More on that in a moment, but, first....
On we go to the ancient seaport of Ostia Antica. I have learned that when Rome became the first city in the world to reach a million in population, its port, Ostia was a prosperous maritime trade center, handling goods from all over the known world: Asia via the Silk Road from China, the Middle East, Africa, and all of Europe. There's even speculation that the Romans beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas. These days, Ostia Antica is a land-locked ghost town near the Mediterranean beach resort city of Ostia. Ostia Antica saw its shoreline move away sometime in the 15th century. The new Ostia is a hopping coastal resort a short bus or metro ride from Rome proper. It reminds me of Newport, Huntington Beach or Redondo in California. The original city is now is ruins, but what spectacular ruins.
Outside the walls on your way into Ostia Antica you walk through a settlement that resembles a large, abandoned village. No hustle and bustle here. All of the residents are deceased in this part of town - the Necropolis, Greek for "City of the Dead." These days the quiet is broken only by the oohs and aahs of tourists as they meander past the sarcophagi and family mausoleums. The sanitation conscious Romans always buried their dead outside city walls so as not to challenge the nasally-sensitive Roman-nosed residents inside. New York City followed the same principle as it grew from being a tiny settlement at the tip of Manhattan into the major metropolis it is now. That’s why you see all those cemeteries alongside the Long Island Expressway in Queens on your way to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and into the City. Necropolis is the ancient Roman vision of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where the deceased were burned, boxed, buried or scattered. And it appeared to me that Ostia Antica had a zoning code. The streets are wide and well laid out and the memorial crypts line them in tidy rows, like country cottages or townhouses. Pagan Romans founded the city with their tradition of cremation, followed by the Christians who carefully prepared their dead for resurrection. Traces of both customs eventually survived.
For the undead who lived on the other side of the wall from the deceased, Ostia Antica boasted an amphitheater for music and drama, Roman style baths for health and relaxation, a mercato or open air market place with shops and restaurants, a temple and, a bordello, of course. There was always a bordello! The Romans were very practical civic planners and ancient whorehouses were a normal part of community planning. After all, the Puritans wouldn't be invented for another thousand years. There was an athletic field which hosted various sporting events. Even in ruins, Ostia Antica's amphitheater still has great acoustics. That was a hallmark of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. I stood center stage reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and my rapt audience could hear me in the cheap seats way up in back.
Shortly after we arrived, Mike and I were bushwhacked by Giancarlo, one of the many freelance tour guides you will see at many Rome tourist attractions. Mike, who is fluent in Italian, forked over 50 euros-$67.50 or almost $34 bucks per person-for a two hour tour that was way too fast for my poor arthritic legs and completely unintelligible, even though he promised me that he did speak "a little English." He was right on that one - very little English. Mike, who is a licensed tour guide, quickly figured out that Giancarlo was a bandito- not licensed by the government like his colleagues hired by his company. Mike’s company, which changed its name from Dark Rome Tours to City Wonders recently, prides itself on matching native language guides to its clientele. In addition to their basic license, the guides undergo special training for each tour they conduct. That's one reason I implore you to take a guided tour in Rome and based on my son's experiences working for them plus my own observations on several of their tours; I heartily recommend City Wonders-Dark Rome tours. They're an international company. Next tour for us - the "Angels and Demons" tour, one of their specialty tours. We're taking that on Friday the 13th.
Next time, more On the Road with MikeBo on Rome Diary I.
Rome Diary I - Day 33 - Saturday, December 14, 2013
Partly Cloudy with coastal fog 39°F/4°C
Here in Rome, using Mike’s new laptop for the first time reminds me of the day, long ago, when I sat down at my very first computer. It was a 1987 IBM clone PC with a DOS 1 operating system and a 20 megabyte hard drive. Definitely hot stuff, according to my old buddy Ken Logan, who had assembled it from a storeroom full of knock-off computer parts and charged me $3500 bucks for the PC and a monitor with an amber screen. At least the instructions were written in English, not translated from Urdu. Junior’s new TOSHIBA laptop is configured for Italy. Silly me! I always thought – Computers-they’re all alike! Hmm. Not so! Apart from the Windows 8 operating system, all the prompts are in Italian. For me, language-wise, I’m still struggling with Dove il bagno? (Where is the bathroom?) or Che ore sono? (What time is it?) Getting to the loo and asking the time is challenge enough for me. Plus, there's a touch screen that thinks for itself and pays little attention to my wishes. I won’t even get into voltage differences.
But, let’s get back to my story:
Yesterday, Friday the 13th, I went on Mike’s headline tour, Angels and Demons! The four-hour adventure took us to all the real places that were re-created by computer for the thriller flick inspired by Dan Brown's novel. After the first few minutes, I began looking over my shoulder to see if we were being followed by the assassins from the Illuminati. I didn't think so, but I did see a couple of nuns that looked suspicious. We saw for ourselves all of the locations that Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon took his lady-love, played by the toothsome Ayelet Zurer, in search of the killer and the anti-matter that threatened Vatican City and the election of the new Pope.
My personal favorite was the stop at the Cornaro Chapel at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria. The church not only contains the Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpture depicting the Ecstasy of St. Teresa but also the earthly remains of the patron saint of headache sufferers. (True story!) The Ecstasy part of St. Teresa’s backstory which Bernini depicts in his sculptures relates the nun’s story of her encounter with an angel, who stabbed her with his divine sword, causing her intense pain which quickly gives way to an overwhelming feeling of divine ecstasy. The exact identity of that particular angel and the true nature of her experience has been the subject of numerous conversations since its occurrence in the 1500s.
At each stop Mike shattered the illusion that many of us had, that the movie was filmed at the actual places. My
son drew shocked gasps from his rapt audience of tourists as he revealed how director Ron Howard tried to solicit Vatican location approval with a $ 4-MILLION dollar contribution to the
church. The money changed hands but the Vatican denied the film company the rights to film on the actual locations. So Hollywood magic was called upon and the plot unfolded in front of a
Green Screen! It's been 500 years since Galileo was dragged before the Inquisition, but, the Vatican is still sensitive about the Illuminati.
As everyone now knows, Tom Hanks saves the world in a heroic act in the computer-generated Piazza San Pietro, the Camerlengo met his fate and a new Pope is elected in the digital Sistine Chapel and the world lurches forward toward the next colossal crisis. I couldn't wait to get home and start reading the book. "Angels and Demons" is the one English edition book in my rented apartment. Grazie!
Well, after a long day of walking all over Vatican City and navigating every narrow stairway I've missed so far on this trip, we finished our tour at the Church of Illumination, which in real life is the ancient Castel San Angelo or Hadrian's Tomb. The Emperor's ashes reposed there until the Barbarians sacked Rome and the citadel and ran off with Hadrian's urn. Now, it’s just another spectacular Rome tourist attraction and a magnet for the devout. Having a tour guide son who takes you to work with him is an incredible benefit for a wannabe expatriate like me. Mike leaves his house in the morning, steps into his personal time machine and opens the door on history for hundreds of visitors each month.
Now, today’s tour is done, and we say farewell to all of Rome’s Angels and Demons, hop on the metro and head back to our suburban homes. Next time, I’ll have some handy hints for you to apply on your visit to Rome. Until then,
© By Mike Botula 2013
Rome Diary I - Day 47 Saturday December 29, 2013
50F° /10C° Cloudy with Light Rain
I've included a snapshot of my Italian family: Clockwise from the bottom-Mike Jr., Laura, her dad Sergio, her sister Chiara and
her mom Annamaria. Wonderful folks! Now back to the Rome Diary and,
"Welcome back to: Pantomime Quiz - Italian Style." That's the game I play here in Rome when I outrun my slight knowledge of Italian. Example: I set my cane down at the market this morning while I weighed my apples. Then I walked away, leaving it hanging next to the scale, not noticing until I went to check out. Then, in a panic I rushed back, but, alas, no cane. So, I asked the checker about it. In near perfect English, he said, "American?” (pause) “No English! No speak English!" That's when I went into a brief charade portraying an old man with a cane. He got it immediately. Smiling broadly he went and retrieved the cane for me. Then he rang up €10.50 in Euros for my small bag and off I went, taking only one wrong turn on my way home. That took me a mile out of my way, but, thanks to my Boy Scout wilderness survival training, I did manage to find my way back to my apartment.
Now, this was not the first time I had a language challenge at this market. The first day I shopped there by myself, I had
coffee at the top of my shopping list, but, I could not find it. I must have crisscrossed that damn store a dozen times before one of the clerks came up and asked me something in Italian. I could
tell she was asking if she could help find something for me. So, how do you pantomime coffee? My mind raced. Now, in my meager Italian vocabulary, I had learned how to ask where the bathroom
is, which should be the first thing anybody learns in any new language. (I can ask how to find the loo in at least four languages. There’s a test at the end of the story). The phrase in
Italian is, dové il bagno? (doe-vay-ill-ban-yo) Where is the bathroom? So, thinking quickly, I substituted café for bagno with dové…dové il
café? It worked like a charm. She walked me right over to the coffee display and I showered her with a lot of molti grazie’s!
It occurred to me that I wouldn't know how to do a charade that asks a passerby to take pity on a dumb American who can't even pronounce his address, much less find it. As I completed what turned out to be a loop around Mostacciano, there was my building right in front of me. I had taken a bus up the hill to market and decided to walk home, stopping at an ATM and also the Tabacchia for more bus tickets. Tomorrow, I plan to take the bus to the metro station and the metro down to Rome Center, all
by myself. Maybe I'll get to stop by and say hello to Alba, the charming lady at the Dominican Abbey Gift Shop.
The Christmas Holiday was fantastic. Mike and Laura and I drove out to her parents' country home in Selci, in the Italian State of Sabina. Selci is a small village tucked away in the mountains. The village itself dates back to the Middle Ages. The country house is masonry construction of more recent vintage with walls about three feet thick. Since it drizzled most of the time we were there, I spent most of my time next to the fire in the kitchen trying to stay warm.
I really think that Laura's mom, Annamaria, sneaks down from bed during the night to prepare the food for the next day. She does everything by hand. One night we had hand-made pasta, and she makes her own sauces. House guests included a neighboring family, Laura's sister, Chiara and her beau, Maurizio, and friends who popped in all through the weekend. The dinner table always seemed to have about ten or more people gathered around it. The Tomei's next door neighbor was telling us how he plans to slaughter the hog he's been fattening up all year, saying he will have meat for a year once he gets through the formalities on Sunday. That will take place after we leave.
Since I buy my pork already wrapped in plastic at the market, I wasn't eager to see the sacrifice that the neighbor’s porker will have to make. I've already seen it happen on Anthony Bourdain's CNN show, so I’ll pass this time. But, Italians love their prosciutto and somebody has to make the sacrifice. Every dish served had some significance, with some links to the Holiday. This time of year has seen celebrations going back to Pagan Times. Italians also remember the privations they endured during two world wars, and many of the items now eaten to help celebrate were staples during war time. Polenta is a notable example.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, toasts were shared and Christmas gifts exchanged. The family all seemed to give me clothes, to dress me up after losing as much weight as I have since I've been here. Dieting and exercise have really altered the body-scape. I haven't felt so good in years. There was no Christmas tree. Instead the decorations focused on the Nativity and Christmas lights decorated the house inside and out and lit up the olive trees in the back. (Did I mention that Sergio has more than eighty olive trees on his property?) Every year, my son and other members of the family shake the trees and harvest the olives, which are then taken into Selci to be pressed into the most fragrant, tasty extra virgin Olio Olivo I have ever tasted. Another round of food on Christmas Day and the celebration continued. The Tomei's were joined by another guest, Marika; a former co-worker of Laura's who is now studying German in Nϋrnberg, Germany. English was definitely a second language at this gathering.
Friday night, it was back to the Autostrada, through the toll gate and back to Rome. Mike had to work and I was anxious to get back to my little pad and resume my Roman Holiday. Like the rest of my life, my Holiday is getting closer to the end than the beginning. I’m facing another move when I get back to the states, as I head back to Southern California from the wilds of San Joaquin County, but I am looking forward to getting closer to my daughter and my four young grand kids. I've thought it
over and I realize now that I have to really improve my Italian language skills before I can consider a permanent move. But that is definitely in the back of my head. In the meantime, this has been a great experience for me.
© By Mike Botula 2013
Rome Diary I - Day 50 - January 1, 2014
Mostly Cloudy 45°F/7°C
Happy New Year Everyone! Buon Anno! Buongiorno!
I am happy to say that I have lived to see the dawn of another year. Another empty page just waiting for new stories. Wow! I’m absolutely amazed! This will be my 73rd year on the planet with another orbit around the sun. I almost can’t believe that I'm spending the holidays this year in Rome with my son and his family. Rome was once the capital of the entire known world and the evidence of that is all around us.
Rome is nine time zones ahead of California, so we had a head start on greeting the New Year. The night I moved into my new apartment, I was startled by a big explosion in the street below. Hearing no sirens or seeing any flashing lights, I ruled out a terrorist attack. When I asked my neighbors if they heard it, they said yes, that people were starting to celebrate the holiday with fireworks and gunfire. Hmmm, just like back home, but here there’s a population of refugees from the wars in the Balkans along with a colony of displaced Middle Easterners who fire weapons into the sky to celebrate just about anything. Buon natale e buon anno, Slobodan e Achmed!
I am getting more and more comfortable in my surroundings, but because of my language challenge, I still commit at least one major faux pas a day. Monday morning's was a doozy. Mike had called me up that morning to say he'd pick me up out front. So, when called to let me know he was downstairs, I headed down the walk toward a little silver sedan waiting at the curb. It was raining, so I kept my head down and walked to the car, opened the door and started to get in, when I was met by a torrent of angry Italian. The driver was not my son, and I quickly realized that I was trying to get into the wrong silver sedan. By then, Mike was out of his little silver sedan a short distance away yelling at me, too. Everybody was yelling at this poor old guy with his cane. Red-faced, I quickly withdrew trying to apologize to the nice Italian man that I had made a horrible blunder. I was still blushing an hour later.
On the way back to Mike's place, we stopped to pick up a sandwich and I took advantage of the stopover to visit the corner news stand for some new Metro tickets and to hit the ATM. (200 Euros translates into $283.56 at the Post Italiane ATM, and that doesn't include the foreign transaction fee your bank charges you). Before he took me to my place, we went back to his apartment so I could use his printer and fill out some forms I have to bring back to the States with me for my driver's license and new apartment lease in Orange County. I got that done and then met Mike downstairs for a ride back to my place in Mostacciano. (Can't get over the good feeling I get when I find my way back to my
own place, be it only temporarily mine).
New Year's Eve we were joined by Allison Cramer, Laura's law school classmate from Sacramento. Mike drove us from the Termini train station, through the wall built by the Emperor Aurelius to the Villa Borghese, once the estate of the nephew of a Renaissance Pope. The place was once the private hunting reserve of the Cardinal Borghese, who housed his art collection there. It is now home to one of the most prestigious art museums in Europe. I had been there once before and it was the highlight of my first visit to Rome back in 2005 when I came to Rome with my then-wife. The four of us toured the "secret gardens" just outside the villa, to spend time before the appointed hour for our tour. It turned out that we all knew our tour guide – the intrepid teacher/musician/tour guide who is my son. Michael. Mike brings hundreds of visitors to Rome through the Borghese as part of his job with City Wonders Tours.
My big take-away from Mike’s touring career was this- many of the works of art that are in the Louvre today were originally owned by Cardinal Borghese in Rome. Much of the Borghese's magnificent collection was “acquired” by Napoleon Bonaparte when the French occupied Rome in the 19th century. Napoleon actually purchased the art he sent back to Paris to stock the Louvre after he made Cardinal Borghese an offer he couldn’t refuse! That way, the Little Corporal ensured the collection's permanent re-location to Paris. Actually, it was a better deal than the one Marshal Hermann Göering and his Nazi henchmen forced on the art collections of Europe back in the 1930s and ‘40s. Villa Borghese should be a must visit" during your trip to Rome. Most of the great sculptures and paintings will seem very familiar to you. They are images that have graced books and magazines for many years and should be familiar to anyone who appreciates great art.
As the museum staff shooed us out at closing time, we headed to Sabina and the family celebration for New Year's Eve at
Selci. Friends, family and lots of Annamaria's fabulous food. Shortly before midnight, we all filed outside to watch the fireworks displays on the neighboring hilltops. They were spectacular! Rockets
and dazzling pyrotechnic fountains lit up the midnight sky to be applauded by choruses of "oohs" and "ahs" punctuated by cheers of "buon anno," as the Italians greeted the New Year 2014. It
was enough to give any California fire marshal a coronary. Back home, it was still only three o'clock in the afternoon. Once the fireworks had flamed out, we lit sparklers, then went back inside
to continue the celebration, watching the Italian TV equivalent of Ryan Seacrest ring in the New
Year. I think the Pope made an appearance on his balcony, just like the “birdie” on a Swiss wall clock. By the time the ball dropped in New York's Times Square, we were all sound asleep in Selci.
In my next exciting chapter, we will take you on a side trip to Termi di Papi, the hot springs of Emperors, Kings and Pontiffs, where the Holy Fathers gone for centuries to soak their aching backs. Until then,
© By Mike Botula 2014
Rome Diary I - Day 55 - January 5, 2014
Cloudy with Showers 52°F /6°C
Tomorrow, I start my final week in Rome before heading back to Northern California to pack up the remains of my former life and move back south to be near my daughter and grandkids to start another new chapter in my life. My time in Italy has been well spent, but now it’s onward and upward once again. I do plan on coming back, however, for another long stretch as soon as I invest the time and learn more of the language. Next trip, I will be able to prepare better. I will do at least one more post, maybe more. We’ll see.
One thing that sticks in my mind is the sheer magnitude of the art that has been pulled into the papal orbit over the centuries. I am in awe of the church’s devotion to the arts. Each of the popes has been a consummate supporter of the arts. We hear the names of their superstars – Da Vinci, Bernini, Michelangelo and the rest. But, until you see the sculpted fountains in the piazzas of Rome and visit the churches and museums, you cannot begin to fathom the wealth and art that is lodged here in the Eternal City. It’s the same in wherever you travel in Italy – Florence, Venice, Siena, Pisa, Milano, Bologna, Naples and the list goes on.
I have two particular favorites, Galleria Uffizi in Firenze (Florence) and Galleria Borghese in the heart of Rome’s largest public park. The Villa Borghese was built in the 1500s by Scipione Borghese, the Cardinal of Sabina and the nephew of Camillo Borghese, who became Pope Paul V. Napoleon Bonaparte went shopping there during the French occupation of Italy and purchased part of its treasure trove for his favored museum, the Louvre. The Little Corporal paid cash, but in the finest tradition of The Godfather, he made Cardinal Borghese’s heirs an offer they could not refuse. What we see today are the leftovers from Napoleon’s shopping trip, but what remains of the collection is nothing short of stunning. Just Google Villa Borghese and feast your eyes. And, that is only one museum among many here in Rome. In the process of supporting the arts, the Popes and their cardinals took advantage of their positions to amass huge amounts of wealth.
There is a lot more to a visit to Italy than a dalliance in Rome or one of the other classic cities. In the countryside outside of Rome there are retreats, large estate where the popes would go to get away from the daily grind of being the world’s spiritual leader. Castel Gandolfo is one of the better known. Another is Terme Dei Papi in Umbria, a complex of spas and hot springs fed by the volcanic activity beneath the earth's surface. This is where the Emperors of ancient Rome once trekked to take the waters and treat their aches and pains. Later, Termi became a favorite spot for the Popes and the nobility. Now, it’s a popular tourist destination for the masses. Laura and Mike put a visit to Termi on our agenda, saying that a visit there would be good for my arthritis. Even my physician, Dr. Raras endorsed the idea and gave me a bit of history of the Romans and their bathing habits. One of the elements in the success of the Roman Empire was the fact that the Romans were health and physical fitness fans. Originally, pagans came to "take the waters" of Terme Dei Papi, then the Emperors of Rome and then, the Popes. Getting there on our way back to Rome from Selci, we actually had to detour north to Umbria.
For my introduction, Mike and Laura chose a good soak for all of us in the community pool. In one area, the water is so hot
and steamy that a medical technician must take people's blood pressure before the treatment can start. We avoided that by dipping into what has to be the world's largest hot tub. It was actually
a large pond. Young and old bobbed around the big pool enjoying the heat and inhaling the sulfur fumes. I really slept well that night. I would definitely recommend an outing like this. Of
course, in its day this was the private preserve of the popes and their royal guests. Nowadays, the spa is quite democratic. I'm sure I wasn't the only protestant bobbing around in the warm
Finally, we’re on the road back to Rome and the end of a unique holiday celebration. Now it’s the wind down. In a week, it's back to my other world.
© By Mike Botula 2014
Rome Diary I: Epilogue - Day 67 –January 17, 2014
Sunny and Warm 79F°/26C°
It’s my birthday once again, and, well, here I am: Back in the Old U.S.S.A. Starting a new career as a single senior, and thinking back to two the most of the most incredible months of my entire life. So, what have I brought back from Rome? Well, for starters, I now drink my soft drinks, chilled without ice. I prefer espresso rather than American coffee, which is boiled to death and not brewed. American spoons are too big. I now prefer the little European style which you can find at World Market. And oh, yes, like most Italian drivers, I ignore stop signs and traffic lights, but crosswalks are sacrosanct. (I’m kidding about that, of course). I will never own a Vespa. They are for people with a death wish. I’m now used to eating Italian style. That is: Antipasto first, followed by the pasta, then the main dish with vegetables and lastly, salad. For dessert, I favor a cool gelato with a cup of espresso. I’m not averse any longer to parking on the sidewalk. That may be tough stuff for an old guy in a wheel chair, but, heck. I’m an honorary Italian. Capito?
I really want to thank my Facebook friends who “liked” my Rome Diary and really appreciated your kind comments. Now that I’m back I’m posting the whole series including pictures on www.mikebotula.com Be sure to tell your friends. As an extra added bonus for the first 25,000 callers, I’m going to share some of my hard earned travel savvy with you in the genuine hope that you follow up on that dream of a trip to Italy with a firm decision to make the journey. It’s well worth the extra effort to prepare for and you will have memories that your great-grandchildren will be talking about. Let me first say that all the nice things I’ll be saying about the names I drop are completely unsolicited plugs for companies and people that I found all by myself and personally recommend. The dogs, I won’t even mention, unless it’s to warn you away.
First of all, make sure you have your passport and that it will still be valid one year after your planned return to the states. I decided to stay an extra month on a whim and would have been like Tom Hanks in The Terminal – trapped at JFK International Airport, if it had expired while I was gone. Secondly, don’t even think of booking your flight on a U.S. air carrier. Sure, you’re patriotic, but, all the once-proud U.S. air carriers flying international routes have become penny pinching commuter lines. Ya wanna fly Southwest from LA to Rome? Be my guest! My first choice is Lufthansa, a preference that dates back to my first trip to Germany in 1975. Swissair is another jewel of the international air carriers. For my next trip, I’m looking at Alitalia, the airline the Pope flies. They make international flying in this day and age just like it used to be, a real travel experience. If you like riding on a crowded New York subway, go ahead – Buy American. I booked my last trip on Alitalia, but wound up in a rear seat on a Delta flight. That’s when I discovered the pitfalls of Code Sharing, the common practice of major airlines to partner up on certain routes to increase their profit margin. It’s right up there with the Bring your own f#%&in’ peanuts concept of passenger service. On my flight, I sat in the very last row. The seat couldn’t recline because it was too close to the bulkhead, right next to the lavatories. The aft section quickly took on a unique air of its own after eight hours with a packed cabin-full of people being fed peanuts, corn chips and cheese crackers. The whole plane began to smell like the elephant tent at a Ringling Brothers Circus. The mood for your flight is set the second the door closes and the flight attendant starts babbling about seat belts and life jackets for use in a water landing. You know in your heart if something goes wrong, it’s highly unlikely you’ll survive the impact! In case of an emergency, put away your tray tables and bring your seat to the upright position! The instructions drone on, Brace for an emergency landing by leaning all the way forward, grasping your ankles with both hands and putting your head between your knees! Yeah, right, you think, and kiss your ass goodbye!
Some other handy household hints. If you are going to Europe, the primary currency is the Euro, which, when I left Rome, €1.00 was worth about $1.35 US. Just figure that when the clerk rings up 100 Euro on the cash register, it translates to about $135 old US bucks. Your ATM and credit cards will all work in Italy, so you don’t have to take a lot of cash with you. Now, this part is IMPORTANT! It’s a very good idea to call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling so they don’t think your identity has been stolen by Al Qaida and being used illegally. The banks tend to quick-freeze accounts when a customer from Chillicothe, Ohio suddenly charges a meal at Les Deux Magots in Paris. Also, by using your ATM card you are drawing down the Euros you need through your own bank at a better rate. My own bank, Citi, has a great service for travelers. It’s called World Wallet, and you can order your foreign currency with your debit card and it will be delivered the next day to your bank branch, or messengered to your home or office so you have some cash in your pocket even before you head for the airport. Other banks will do the same. Citi also will give you an international toll free number to call if you need help while you’re traveling. Call your cell phone provider and sign up for “International Roaming.” That way your friends and family can still call or text you and not even realize you are out of the country. Muy Importante, sign up, too, for a discount calling rate FROM Europe. It will save you a ton of money.
If you’re planning to rent a car, drop by your local AAA office and pick up your International Driver’s License. That’s the place to get them, even if you’re not a AAA member. I always make sure I have my International Driver’s License with me when I travel out of the country, even if I don’t plan on driving. It’s another good form of ID. And, trust me- you will be asked for your ID a LOT. I counted five passport checks at the Munich Airport just on a one-hour stop to change planes.
Oh! Some other big handy travel tips! One – learn some of the language! Italian, if you are going to Rome. Rick Steves, the PBS travel maven, has a series phrase booklets and pocket dictionaries that you can order on Amazon.com and be able to tuck in your pocket in 48 hours. Pick up some pocket maps for where you’ll be going along with that phrase book. If you have the time, take a class for travelers in the language of your choice. Patrizia at the Italian Cultural Society in Sacramento teaches a dandy. You can work your way through the entire curriculum if you wish. But her Buon Viaggio, (Good Journey) is a dandy for turistas like us. Look around; there are classes like this all over. Use the Internet. Find a free on-line class. Duolingo offers classes in all sorts of laanguages.
Plan on taking some tours on your trip. In Rome, my son Mike works for City Wonders. Having spent two months tagging along with Junior I feel like a native. I recommend City Wonders. First of all, my son the tour guide could use the money. The company used to be known as Dark Rome Tours, but it’s now all over Europe. The company prefers to hire native English speakers for turistas like me, which is the best way to go. I struggled through Pompeii with a guy named Enzo, who had the same impact on me as a Bengali call center. City Wonders. They’re on the Internet. Ask for the OTHER Mike Botula when you book your tour in Rome. Questions? Message me on Facebook, or email me. Just click the link on the home page. I’m retired. I have nothing else to do.
For me, it was a great experience. And it’s been great sharing it with you. I’ve left coins with all of my friends in Rome to toss into Trevi Fountain for me. I’ve promised Alba that I will be back.
© By Mike Botula 2014
More to Come - Stay Tuned!
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