Prendo lo spazio

Rome is a city in which bodies are a matter of complete indifference.  Unlike we Americans, so aware of the space we’re taking up, so eager to relinquish it to anyone who wants it, Romans tend to stand their ground.  They are not move-asiders.  Last night a friend and I were on our way back from dinner when we encountered a mob, a thicket of Roman bodies blocking off all access to our street.  There was no organized intent, these were just people out having a good time on a Friday night.  Well, it made me nervous, because, you know, crowds.  And I’d already experienced the not-making-way phenomenon a few days before when a group of us needed to get off at the next tram stop and no matter how much we said Scusi!  We need to get through!, not an eyelash was batted, not a hip was shifted out of place.  It wasn’t until we physically pushed our way through that we managed to squeeze out of the tram car, one stop after the one we wanted.  So faced with this gaggle of Romans I was a little concerned.  Normally cutting through a crowd of Americans there’s this unspoken rule…you try not to touch people.  You say your excuse me’s and you wait for them to make room for you so that neither of you has to endure a breach of your personal space.  Our precious, precious personal space.  But, we needed to get home, so into the throng we went.  It was like swimming, somewhat.  Swimming in a sea of arms and legs and shoulders and hips, pushing my hands forward into the crowd and pulling them apart.  After the fifth or sixth stroke I stopped saying scusi.  Nobody noticed anyway.  Push.  Pull.  Push.  Pull.

Eventually we emerged on the other side of the mass, bodies and spirits fully intact.  No one had given us any trouble or complained when we touched them in the crowd or moved them out of the way.  Nobody demanded we apologize for the space we were taking up or relinquish it to anyone else.  We were allowed to claim our ground, take our space.  Tacitly invited to exist in the world just as we are.  Now that’s a feeling I’d like to pack in my suitcase and take home with me.

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Sono un gladiatore?

Earlier today, the soles of my feet were hamburger meat.  Raw, fleshy, ground into submission by cobblestone after cobblestone.  There were steps I took that I was sure would be my last, that my feet and legs would simply decide they’d had enough and I’d slide to the ground in a heap. There were moments when I thought I was truly done.  Out of fuel.  Broken.

It’s a beautiful thing to know one’s limits, I think.  To allow for the fact that we’re not all weekend marathoners, to recognize that there is an enough out there for you, a threshold you can comfortably hit, feel pretty good about yourself, and then stop fighting.  Gracefully bow out.  I thought I knew where those limits were for me.  I thought I knew exactly what I could and couldn’t do, physically.  Yet somehow this trip has challenged those limits every step of the way.  Every airport connection was farther away, every train station more of a hike, every room or hotel or apartment involved climbing more stairs than I’d ever imagined.  And Rome.  Every time I get up in Rome I think it’s going to be an easier day on my feet than yesterday, and every day I am one hundred percent wrong.  Every day is tougher than expected.  Every day is more of a challenge.

And every day I’m still alive at the end, which I think means that I don’t actually know at all what my body can do.  And that’s alarming rather than inspirational for me because I’m supposed to know me better than anyone and if I’m getting this wrong, what else don’t I know??  And it makes me feel again that I’m supposed to be figuring some things out here.  Things about what I’m made of.  Things I can’t see from the comfort of my life back home.  Things I can only see from the very top of Palatine Hill.

Well, ok.  Andiamo!

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Rome walked per day

Ho un raffreddore

It started as the briefest tickle in my throat. Onboard flight 702 from Philadelphia to Germany, watching some mindless romantic comedy and thinking about sleep on a plane, I took a scratchy swallow. And then I knew it was there, my travel companion, the extra hundred pounds in my backpack.  My grand Italian adventure would be visited by one grand Italian head cold. It took me a few days to admit I was sick, that this sweating, this coughing, this constant heart and head pounding weren’t the result of travel exertion or the unimpeded beauty of the Italian landscape. In Monterosso I spent a feverish morning tossing in my high, firm bed, dreaming of trees and monkeys and ice cream and The Beatles. First it was just the four nice men from Please Please Me, offering to write me a song, but as I watched they melted into caricatures of themselves and soon we were all on a yellow submarine and stars were bursting overhead into a groovy seventies dreamcloud. Ice cream. Paul’s blob of a hand takes my blob of a hand and he tells me he’s my uncle, to which I say that’s ridiculous because surely I’m older than him by now. And either way, does he have any ice cream?

You’d think after a dream like that I’d make a beeline for a gelato stand, a resource in abundance in Monterosso. Alas, I have still not had the pleasure. I don’t know what I’m waiting for.

I woke up that morning with a hacking cough, blanketed in a layer of perspiration, completely without the will to move. At home, this would be the kind of day that I would roll over, call in sick to work, wrap myself on a blanket on the sofa with some breakfast and hot tea, maybe watch my favorite movie. Give my immune system a chance to one-two punch that cold right out of existence. But I was in Monterosso, in Cinque freaking Terre! I had taken three planes and two trains, walked an unknown number of train station and airport miles with my belongings on my back, climbed hills and narrow staircases just to be at this very spot. Wasting an opportunity like this is something you just don’t do. And I had no choice but to get out of bed anyway because there was absolutely no food in my room and my stomach was starting to gnaw at itself from the inside.

There’s a certain moment during solo travel that I consider to be my own personal hell. It’s the realization that no matter what grueling, torturous, undesirable thing has to be done in any given moment, getting that thing done is entirely up to me. I don’t have the option of whining and giving up until someone steps in. It was like this in the desert of Joshua Tree when the baking sun was overhead and someone had to set up camp. It was like this in Hawaii when the bus stop was a mile from my hostel and someone had to strap on my overpacked backpack and limp-walk my enormous canvas duffel with all of my camping supplies up the hill. And it was like this in Monterosso, when every cell of mine toddler-screamed no no we want to stay in bed and yet someone had to pull some clothes on, navigate down all of those steps, avoid the (maybe even kind, generous) stares from the locals and figure out how to buy some food.

The market was tiny and close, crowded with people and with Italian-labeled products shoulder to shoulder on all of the shelves. At first absolutely nothing was familiar. It was like shopping the aisles of Freddie’s in a funhouse mirror. The colors, the fonts, the enthusiasm for each product made sense. I could feel that I was supposed to want to buy them, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. My eyes landed on a big jar of Nutella and relief washed over me. Oh Nutella, old friend! It’s such a pleasure to see you here! I’m afraid I don’t know anyone else at this party…

Emboldened, I started to make eye contact with the pictures on things. In the corner, I found a sweet jar of canned pear halves, on the top shelf a packet of benign-looking crackers. A stroll through the refrigerated section produced a yogurt (magical healthy-making properties) and a pack of cheese slices, my favorite go-to hungry panic protein. Nutella gazed longingly from its place on the shelf. I’m sorry old friend, if I buy you everyone will think I’m sitting in my room just eating you with a spoon. Which, let’s face it, is probably what I would be doing.

I paid for my purchases, avoiding everyone’s eyes. Sickness just pulls the plug on any social energy I’ve ever had. It reduces me to an awkward twelve year old, sure everyone is looking at her and finding fault. She only wants to hide. So back up the steps climb climb climb! Close myself in my room, relieve my gnawing hunger with eating, and that is everything I did in Monterosso that day.

I spent a similar day in Florence: fever dreams, bed, hunger, ignoring hunger, finally giving in to the pangs and searching for a restaurant that would be kind to fragile twelve year old me. If travel truly is the journey without that triggers a journey within, then I was absolutely getting my money’s worth. I was finding out — without distraction of silly things like renaissance art, or beautiful architecture or genuine interaction with other human beings — exactly what it is to be me. What I do when things get hard, what happens when whatever I would normally do to comfort myself just isn’t available. And it wasn’t pretty.

For one, I hide. Hardcore. I simply don’t want to face the world, even a world as gorgeous as Florence freaking Italy. Food has always been my comfort item, particularly fast food, and without that easy salt and fat and sweet and fried to make things better I find myself nibbling on my self esteem, chewing on my confidence and swallowing entirely my sense of self worth. I become timid and fearful in a really unfamiliar way. And loudly critical. Is it possible this voice of hatred was in me all along and the french fries were keeping it at bay?

But I digress. This is supposed to be a travel memoir, not a voyage to the depth of my internal muck. Here I am now, in Rome. Gorgeous Rome. Inspirational Rome. Everything I always dreamed it would be Rome. And I’m not alone on my trip anymore, I’ve met up with some of my favorite fellow students and we’re seeing it all together. Oh, and my friend head cold is here too, with all of his other weird emotional side-effects. And he’s taking me apart like an engine, all of my greasy inner pieces laid carefully side by side on the floor. I don’t know what he intends to find. I just hope he plans to put it all back together before he goes, because right now it’s a terrible mess.

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Rome walked per day

Io vivo in un film

Arrived in Monterosso under a blazing hot sun, perfect beach weather if I – like hundreds of vacationers spread out on the sand below me – was a beach person.  Alas, I am not.  I burn easily, I get cranky about the sand in my pants and the lack of shade.  It’s just one of those things.  I’d been fretting a bit about the walk from the train station to my lodgings, a 15 minute stroll along the shore and up into the town.  It wasn’t a huge thing, I was just a little worried about the heat, worried that my already tired feet wouldn’t want to do the job, worried that my already tender back and shoulders would protest at having to carry my backpack even one more step.  And did I mention the heat?  But it turns out I can do just about anything under any conditions as long as I take my sweet time to do it.

I want to paint a picture for you, or maybe I don’t even need to if you’ve ever in your life seen a movie.  Hear me out.  Imagine me, weary, sweaty, giant backpack strapped to my shoulders, trudging along the coastal road in the hot Italian sun, flanked on all sides by tourists in their tourist clothes and bikinis.  I am exhausted, and trying not to look exhausted because I’m dreading the moment when some well-meaning stranger leans in and says “are you okay?”  But I’m in luck.  We come next to a gorgeous stone tunnel, so cool and crisp inside you wouldn’t know it had ever been summer.  A musician has set up shop at the tunnel entrance, a cardboard sign announcing his latest CD (15 euros a pop).  He’s focused and amazing, attacking his keyboard like he’s playing a command performance at Carnegie Hall.  The music reverberates off the walls of the tunnel, bouncing from stone to stone, surrounding us in sound like the honest to goodness soundtrack of a movie. The music swells as I step out of the other side of the tunnel into the most gorgeous, picturesque view of a town I have ever seen.  The sun glimmers through the trees, a breeze ruffles through what is left of my hair and that voice in my head who has been complaining about being dragged all the way out to this hot, beachy tourist trap finally, for one blissful moment, shuts her big, fat mouth.  Ah, l’Italia!

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Io esisto

So I’m reading Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr as recommended in the syllabus for the class I’m accompanying to Italy in less than two weeks, when I come across the following passage, the end of a frenetic sequence detailing a walk about town with the author’s wife and twin baby boys:

We race across a street whizzing with buses.  We start back up the stairs.  We see no fat people

And my heart pounds and my palms start to sweat just a little bit, because suddenly I’m terrified to put my fat body on a plane for 12 hours to this city where apparently people of my ilk don’t even exist.  Is the atmosphere of Rome such that any fat people who set foot inside its borders just disappear into thin air?  Or is the implication of Doerr’s words to be believed, that there’s so much walking happening in Rome it’ll turn all the fat people thin?  If so, one wonders why there aren’t vast planeloads of fat people being ushered over from the US to fix that old obesity epidemic the news is always crowing about.  Maybe it’s true, maybe Rome is the black hole of fatness and we’ll all come back with a lot less meat on our bones.  Or maybe Doerr just doesn’t know a lot of active fat people and is basing his metaphor on the incorrect idea that physical fitness is only available to the thin.  Or maybe he didn’t see any fat people because he didn’t want to see them.  An oddly common side effect of being fat in the world is that strangers sometimes skip over you as if you weren’t even there.  As if you were invisible.  So maybe Doerr just can’t see ‘em.

OR, and this is the  possibility that scares me the most, maybe I am going to get to Rome and find out that my body makes me even more of an anomaly in that fine city that I ever have been here.  Maybe the relative safety I feel on my home turf will be stripped away as Roman strangers gawk and point at the biggest person they’ve ever seen up close.  Maybe the clever ones will hit me with  balena or elefante, while the less inventive will simply shout ehi ragazza grassa from across the piazza.  Maybe Roman children will scream and run in fear, terrified the giant fat lady will eat them, or maybe they’ll just kindly pelt me with rocks or truffles or sweet San Marzano tomatoes.

Or maybe, as Doerr does, they will all simply fail to even see me at all.  Maybe I don’t even exist in Rome.  Maybe in Rome I am only a ghost.  A fat, frustrated ghost.

I know.  It’ll probably be just fine.  I’ll blend in with the rest of the tourists and have a fine time because at the end of the day I AM just like everybody else.  A little fearful, a little excited, a little confused.  A little bigger.  And all I can do is remain curious and see what happens.  Either way, it’ll be an experience.  And I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  Boldly going.  Finding out.

Ok.  I’m in.  Bring on the tomatoes.

Photo on 8-28-13 at 5.51 PM

Compro bagagli

I take travel packing very seriously.  I start thinking about it almost as soon as I decide to go somewhere.  I play scenarios in my mind, me in the airport, going through security, stashing my bags in the hotel, walking around downtown.  I think if I can conceive every possible situation I might find myself in, I can protect myself from any potential bad experiences, like not having what I need or having something stolen from me, or just bringing too much dang stuff.  I love packing light, it makes me feel like some kind of smug travel goddess.  Well anyway, here’s a pic of me trying on my luggage.  I’m bringing my REI backpack, the one I wisely bought a few years ago because it fits within carryon guidelines.  And then I just bought a fancy PacSafe bag for my laptop and other small valuables.  Their whole deal is travel security, so the bag’s got a wire mesh body you can’t slash through and all the zippers have little locking clips.  Plus if I wear it on my front like the photo there’s no way anyone can sneak up on me.  So yay, a smidgen of peace of mind.

Of course now I have to figure out how to fit all the clothes I want to take into this one backpack.  Always a challenge…

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PS:  I promise I’m not trying to make the two thumbs up pose into a thing.  It just happened, randomly, twice.  I swear.

Ciao!