Observations of a Urine-Soaked Tourist

The start of my travelogues from my Italian vacation. First stop: general observations of Rome.

He's BackHey, I got back from Italy last week! I realize the internet has come to a standstill waiting in breathless anticipation for me to report back.

Before I left, I imagined I’d be keeping an online travel journal, blogging about the trip as I went. I pictured myself sitting at a cafe, sharing illuminating photos and tapping my profound insights and observations into my laptop as locals strolled past, fascinated by the exotic American. (I also imagined that La Vie en Rose would be playing on an accordion, because my understanding of European culture is still pretty amorphous). That didn’t happen, for a few reasons:

  1. Internet access was intermittent and unpredictable. I could barely tweet. The hotels all promised “high-speed internet,” which is apparently defined differently outside the SF Bay Area; the places where I could get online at all still didn’t cooperate with Macs.
  2. Sightseeing in Italy requires a lot of walking. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to get online; I just wanted to lie on the hotel bed and watch my feet and their red, cartoon-like throbbing. (There were even little stink lines coming off them, I swear to Jupiter).
  3. For some reason, I never appreciated just how big a tourist attraction Italy is. Not only was I surrounded by hordes of American, French, German, Australian, Spanish, and Italian tourists the entire time I was there, but I got tons of recommendations before, during, and after the trip. There’s not really much I could add to the mountain of stuff that’s been written about the places, or to what people have already seen.
  4. Not much interesting happened. This is not a bad thing. In fact, the total lack of adventure was exactly what I was hoping for.

Still, after two weeks traveling alone in a country where you don’t speak the language, you build up a pretty sizable transcript of internal monologue. Here’s the kind of stuff I would’ve commented on, in handy list format:

  • Pretty much all of the major tourist attractions in Rome — except for the Vatican — are crammed into a surprisingly compact area. I’d be walking to find a bus stop, turn a corner, and Bam! there’s the Pantheon. Or the Roman Forum. Or the Trevi Fountain. The maps and the sightseeing bus make everything seem farther apart than it really is.
  • Just because you can walk between sights, doesn’t mean you should. I imagine for the rest of my life, every time I see a column I’m going to get psychosomatic searing foot pain.
  • Any benefit to all the walking I did was offset by my mistaken belief that you had to order two courses at every meal. I’m not sure which travel guide put the idea into my head, but I was convinced that waiters would have me ejected from the restaurant if I didn’t. So I spent the bulk of the trip bloated from unwanted veal.
  • I’m not sure if it’s because my expectations had been set impossibly high, or if I just have terrible luck with restaurants, but I wasn’t impressed with the food. It ranged from “pretty good” to “meh” — nothing inedible, but nothing exceptional, either. I didn’t go anywhere too fancy (because I didn’t want to bother), but I stayed away from the tourist-heavy areas most of the time, and I took recommendations from travel books and from tour guides. Still, the best Italian food I’ve ever had has been in San Rafael and San Francisco.
  • While I didn’t go anywhere that served absolutely awful food, I did get some absolutely awful service. A place in Venice (that was recommended by a travel book) was the worst: I’d thought that the service industry in San Francisco had made great strides in surliness and unfriendliness, but they’re strictly amateur class when compared to some of these Italian waiters. (And of course, several of the places had exceptionally friendly service, so it wasn’t everyone).
  • I’m a total whore for those open-air sightseeing buses; I can’t get enough of them. I bought a two-day ticket for one line and rode the entire circuit at least three times. And then I paid for a different line for a third day. They’re slow and crowded, and the voiceover narration is never worth anything, but still: drop me in any city, and I’ll make a bee-line right for the open-air bus. I’ve even considered riding the ones in San Francisco, and the only reason I haven’t is because it’s too cold.
  • The people everywhere I went had a better understanding of English than I do of Italian. So we’re making progress in our goal of bending the rest of the world to our culture! Now that we’ve got most of western Europe speaking English, we just need to work on getting them to form queues and respect personal space.
  • I’ve had nightmares that were, quite literally, a direct replay of the taxi ride from my hotel in Rome to the airport. A few years ago, when I was in Paris, I watched the cars careening around the roundabouts and had my chuckling American “heh, how do those crazy Europeans manage?” moment. Watching — and being in — traffic in Rome was neither amusing nor fascinating; I don’t want to know how they do it, I just want to be promised that I never ever have to get in a car in Rome again.

That plus my pictures from around the city are all I’ve got to say about Rome for now. I’ve got more photos on the way of the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, and Vatican Museum, and the other cities I went to on the trip. (The best pictures came out of Florence and Siena). I’ll put them up when I can get everything organized and remember what happened when and where. Stay tuned!