Monday, December 26, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Italy


A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.

Leaving Slovenia was no problem. The exit customs officials were much less picky than their entry counterparts. All I had to do now was get by the Italian entry station.

Fortunately, the Italian official did not seem to be too detail-oriented. I don’t think he would have known if I had given him the backing to a spiral notebook with a stick figure scrawled on it. He was perfectly fine with my passport and let our whole bus through without making anyone get off and prove themselves. However, our bus driver spent the rest of the ride stewing over our layover in Slovenia. When I got off in Trieste and tried to apologize, he looked at me with a sneer and, using his best Rodney Dangerfield voice, told me my “brain [was] kaput.” Several times. Thanking him for his honesty, we caught our train to Venice.

The train into Venice took us over a lengthy bridge that sat only a few feet above the water, allowing us to pass gondolas and transport boats at eye level. Upon arrival, the rain kept us from venturing out in search of a hostel, so we stood in a long line outside the tourist office and waited to find a room. Oddly, the tourist office did not book hotel or hostel rooms. So we were back to square one. Not a minute of confusion passed before we were approached by an umbrella-carrying gentleman who wanted to take us to his “hostel” nearby. Wary but needing a room, we followed him a few soggy blocks down an alley to a run-down apartment building. This hostel was little more than a multi-bedroom flat he shared with whoever he could pick up at the train station. Not really wanting to search anymore and convinced by this man that he was legitimate, we decided this was the place to stay. After a touristy meal at a paper plate buffet restaurant across the street, we were off to sleep, listening to the endless, soothing Venetian drizzle.

After a couple more rainy days in Venice, we visited Florence briefly and made our way to Rome, where my guard went up tenfold. Nobody does pick pocketing and tourist scamming better than the 21st century Romans. In a previous trip here, I left my friends at the train station where they were quickly picked up by an unlicensed cabbie who took them on an unrequested tour of residential neighborhoods and charged them double the going rate. One is wise to keep on one’s toes in this town.

Fortunately for us, we were staying with friends for the next three days. Unfortunately, they lived at the end of the metro line, plus two bus stops beyond that. It took us an hour, but eventually we found their apartment. It was an enormous relief to be in the company of familiar faces after six months abroad. No more worrying about saying the wrong thing or wondering whether the adjacent stranger loved, hated, or didn’t care about you - at least for the night.  

In the morning, we trekked back into town for a tourist’s assault on the city. We took in a Sunday message from an aging Pope John Paul II. From there we embarked on a whirlwind tour of attractions including the Coliseum, the Vatican, St. Peter's Cathedral, the Spanish Steps, and quite a few others. Rome was just small enough that we thought we could get everywhere by walking, but just large enough that it wore us down significantly when we tried. Tired, we headed home early for dinner and slept well.

The following morning, figuring it would be one of our last chances to pick up a replacement passport, we headed to the U.S. Embassy. They made us feel like visiting dignitaries; that is, until we were charged seventy-two euros for the passport. They also took my old passport, which had been with me for many previous trips and held a lot of sentimental value. To make matters worse, while we were waiting for our turn in line, Karie discovered that our camera had been stolen from our backpack in the subway en route to the embassy.

Mourning the loss of our camera and passport, we met our hosts for dinner at a very nice restaurant with respectful service and reasonable prices. As our hosts advised, to find the best restaurants in Rome, just follow the collars. Go where the clergy go. Sure enough, in walked a cardinal just as we began eating. The meal was delicious and included a sing-a-long of Ave Marie. After three hours of luxury, we were treated to a cab ride home by our hosts. Chatting with our old friends, we watched the lights of Rome pass by overhead.

After sleeping in and reserving our train ride ahead of time to avoid any surprise fees, Karie and I ate nearly all of the breakfast food in our host’s apartment, said some reluctant good-byes, and headed for the train. We connected with our shuttle to Bari, the exit port for our ferry to Greece, and were graced by a charming array of hillside vineyards and winding rivers.  

In Bari, we bought our tickets from a very bored sales clerk and had a brief but confusing discussion with the shuttle driver who was to take us to the SuperFast Ferry.

Me: “Is this the SuperFast Ferry shuttle?”
Guy: “Yes. After.”
Me: “Should we get on?”
Guy: “Yes. After."

With that he slammed the doors in our face and sped off without us. Not knowing what all this “after” business was about, I became a bit worried. Thankfully, it only meant that his van was full and he would come back “after” a short period of time. So we waited and caught the “after” shuttle and were soon on board our ferry for the night. Our dinner of chicken sandwiches on rubbery bread with a side of cheesy rice balls was capped off by a vibrant sunset over the fading Italian shore.