In a few short weeks of travelling around Europe, I was able to develop some pretty haughty opinions of myself as an experienced traveller. What a natural I am! I thought. I nursed fantasies of being able to go it alone in most any foreign nation. We had had more travel success than failure, and when met with failure, we overcame it with vigorous, lofty-chinned aplomb. Nothing could stop us, and certainly nothing could stop me. Enjoy for a second my unearned hubris and the obvious overturning of fortunes once more as we entered Rome.
In each city, I had done some research on how to get to each hostel, memorizing routes and public transit so we could at least check in, drop our bags, and bury ourselves in maps. I can still remember, fairly accurately, how to get from Gare du Nord to the hostel I stayed at in Paris, and what bus to take from the centre of Dublin to reach our hotel. In Rome, we needed to catch an express train from the airport to Termini in the city centre, and then walk a few meagre blocks to our hostel. A piece of cake! Or tiramisu, if we want to get all regional.
As my Italian friend would later inform me, trains in Italy are not the paragons of efficiency that I imagined them to be, given that I subsumed them under the umbrella of fine European trainsmithing. They are at the whim of a number of flighty factors, like incredibly common train worker strikes and hilariously frequent malfunctions. And thus: the express train was out for the day we arrived. No problem, we’ll find a bus!
We began to wander through the airport, eventually heading outside and loitering around several locations where buses would purportedly take us to the city centre. Despite vigorous claims to the opposite, the airport was not, in fact, crawling with English-speakers, and we tried via mangled Italian and mime to communicate that we needed a bus to Termini. Most of the workers, cigarettes dangling lazily from their moustachioed lips, would gesture vaguely into the sweltering horizon, mumble something Mediterraneanishly, and smile once they felt they had done their duty in helping the lost foreigners.
There was probably a solid hour of wandering before we ultimately found a large charter bus that would take us. My friend had warned me before: tickets for buses like these are acquired from laconic, near-siestaing individuals sitting off in the distance, wearing no indication that they are in any way connected to the bus you wish to take. We scanned for an Italian person with a pen and pad, and eventually found the ticket-writer. Eavesdropping, we saw the price required so that we had one less Italian phrasing to stumble through: we approached, barked “Termini,” handed him a wad of sweaty Euros and went on our way.
I cannot be sure how we got lost around the station. Our hostel was approximately three blocks away, and I remembered each of the street names and what direction to go along them. Maybe we put on blindfolds and spun around a few times before disembarking the bus, like getting ready for a piñata: we just could not find the right streets. Very rapidly, I felt defeat encroaching on all sides. The heat was shockingly unbearable, and we had our backpacks still with us. I probably started whining, while Zack, still maintaining a degree of pluck, reported that we would try walking along one more street and see if we came to one of the ones we needed. Surely, I thought, this would end in another failure, and we would lie slumped, dead, and drenched in flop-sweat in a Roman gutter.
But of course, he was right: the next street was Via Marghera, and from there it was two more blocks to our hostel. For whatever reason, check-in was in a Laundromat around the corner from the actual rooms. We approached, and a skulking man grunted, “You looking for the hostel?” before ushering us inside. A sprightly eastern European woman demanded our passports, and we began to worry. But then she returned them, produced a complimentary bottle of wine, and slammed down a map to draw out the best way to see Rome in our few days there.
Our room was tiny but efficient, one out of several in a converted apartment. We crashed early because of how exhausted we were, and later met our only roommate, Christian. He told us he was certain we would be out, drunk in Rome somewhere; we had thought the same of him. Producing a similar map from the hostel staff with the day-plan on it, we decided to team up for the following day.
To table-set: Rome was unconscionably hot. It was August, so what do you expect, Michael, but really. It was a heat unlike anything I had ever experienced before: the sunlight was unrelenting, every surface, even regular stone, seemed to emit distorting waves of heat, and every step was laborious. The insides of my shoes, already swampy and repulsive from a month of hiking and constant walking, became grotesque little saunas, squishing and slipping repulsively from foot sweat and bog water. We made sure to keep hydrated, but after downing my 1.5 litre bottle within the first two hours, we realized what we were facing. Against all sense and recommendation from others, we went to the public fountains and filled our bottles again and again. I drank at least six litres of water that day, and I walked away without diphtheria or cholera, so there was some success.
We saw exactly what one expects to see in Rome: the Forums, the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Trevi fountain, countless churches and church-related buildings. I saw the inside of more than a few church giftshops. One good thing about over-research is that you hear the best ways to avoid line-ups at the major attractions if there is a way: to evade the horrifying queue at the Coliseum, you buy the same pass at the Forums or Palatine Hill and just bypass the great unwashed when you eventually go to the Coliseum. Nothing re-instils your recently lost sense of travel superiority like strutting past hundreds of other tourists to bypass the lineup.
Outside of the Coliseum, we saw the common street job for young travellers in Rome: soliciting for Pub Crawls. At least three people, wearing horrifyingly black t-shirts in that weather, approached us, knowing that the sweaty, the clearly Caucasian, and the bebackpacked were the prime targets for unrelenting drink-fests. The problem I find with Pub Crawls is that they don’t offer much in the way of value: you can go to clubs! And bars! And meet people! I am actually capable of doing those things on my own, without a preset itinerary, and it also means I never had to go to one sweat-pit of a club in southern Europe. All the same, I was impressed with their street-work: standing outside of the Coliseum, likely for European minimum wage, they braved the insane heat and sun to approach every stank, young white tourist within earshot to expound the glories of their associated Pub Crawl.
Beyond the Coliseum, we walked along the main streets, seeing the major sights, being accosted by far fewer gypsies than in, say, Paris. To be fair, they were about as knocked-out by the heat as we were. Similarly, even the buskers just couldn’t be bothered to try that hard: we saw a rather poorly made-up Statue of Liberty living statue near the Pincio, and Christian, being an American, was especially critical of her statue ethic. She swayed in the heat atop her step ladder, more of a slow-moving animatronic than a statue, eventually lighting a cigarette. After a while, she eventually moved to sitting, hiking up her turquoise toga to reveal her pale legs, yet still glancing from tourist to her donation bucket as anyone passed by.
Once we’d had enough sight-seeing, we eventually retired to a public park and found a sprawling, still fountain. The water was leaf-ridden but clear, and we took off our shoes and jammed our horrible, swollen feet into the water. I can easily recall the quiet there: the three of us in a park near the Pincio, couples leaning on each other and feeling the water, several people who looked like actual Italians and not tourists lingering nearby. The free wine we brought with us had become boiling hot during the day of travel, and we held the bottle in the fountain water to try to cool it, taking draughts of hot red wine between every dip.
We didn’t need any pub crawls, really, because our hostel seemingly had a vineyard in its basement. After going through our own free bottle, we returned to the hostel and drank the other provided to Christian. We walked to the Laundromat, which also served as the meeting place for anyone staying in the hostel. We received more free wine, and I began talking to Erwin, who quickly surmised my hostel-picking strategy, as it was his own: go to hostelworld.com, switch settings to highest ranked first, book immediately. He would be travelling to Florence just ahead of us, to the same hostel we were to stay in.
To drown you in cliché: I remember less about the specific art and buildings I saw in Rome than I do the people, or the time with Christian. The Coliseum and the Vittorio Monument are etched in my brain, of course, but just as much of that is from living in western culture as it is in actually going there and locking eyes upon the physical buildings, and seeking respite in their behemoth shadows. More than the buildings, I remember walking with Zack and Christian and the free wine, drilling each other with Simpsons’ quotes on the way from Pincio, and dousing our heads in the fountains near Piazza del Popolo to cool ourselves from the cartoon-hell level of heat.