Sunday, May 21, 2017

Saturday, May20, 2017 - Of Italian Trains and Italian Language

`My master plan to honor the Italian people by learning their language and using it whenever possible is having its ups and downs. If I know I am going into a situation, such as talking with a ticket agent about my train ticket, I can rehearse what I want to say and deliver it with a fair amount of accuracy and nearly correct grammar.  This seems like a great idea, but there is a problem.  The recipient of my delivery thinks I know Italian and begins to talk back to me in rapid fire verse.  I have no idea what he/she is saying and have to ask for an English interpretation.  This happened this morning at the train ticket booth.  I wanted to ask if our train was going to be late.  I rehearsed "Il treno a Pisa retardo?", asking if the train would be late.  My diction and word choice was good enough that he thought I was Italian and started to explain something to me.  I had to confess that I spoke only a little Italian, "Io Parlo piccolo Italian".  He switched to broken English and I was able to find out that, for now, it was on time.

What had prompted me to ask the question?  While seated on the platform waiting for our train to carry us to Piombio where we would catch a boat to the Island of Elba, we were next to an Italian woman in her late 60's, very nicely dressed. Sally asked her where she was headed.  She spoke no English. I asked her "Dov'e Albita, Lei?"  Where do you live? She answered, "Abito in Roma." I could not remember the verb for "going to", so out came the iPhone and Google Translate.  

As we struggled to communicate, both with smiles on our faces, enjoying the process, a young man of about 16, overhearing our attempt at a conversation, began to interpret for us. He was talking English in school and did a good job of crossing the language barrier and helping me with some Italian words.  We found out she was headed in the same direction as we were, to the town of Grosso, about two stops before ours.  This was good, because now we knew to follow her onto the train. We also found out that during the thunderstorm of the night before a fire had occurred in the Termini train station in the center of Rome and all the computers that displayed arrival times were down, causing delays on most trains.

About 20 minutes before our train was scheduled to arrive, our interpreter boarded a train and was gone.  A few minutes later the announcer said something in Italian that caused our lady to groan and frown. She looked at me and said, "Dieci minuti retardo!"  This I got.  Ten minutes late.  By now, the thunderstorm of last night had returned and the rain was falling heavily accompanied by thunder and lightning. Glancing down the covered platform, I saw the computer display had awakened. I walked down to see that next to our train, #11885, there was a 10' under the "Ret" heading.  Ten minutes retardo.

I returned, and a few minutes later the announcement came "Treno undici Otto Otto cinque venti minuti retardo."  This time I actually understood the train was now 20 minutes late. This was enough for Sally who had been needing to use the restroom, but was waiting to do so on the train.  She made a dash for the station bathroom, returning with plenty of time.  Twenty minutes later, our train did indeed rumble into the station. We boarded and were on our way north toward Campagnia Marittima where we would switch trains to get to Piombino and the ferry to Elba.

The ride was very comfortable. We had about a two hour and a half hour ride. I amused myself by checking the trains speed with my GPS app (50 mph) and watching our progress along the line on Google Earth. We had stocked up on groceries for the island, bread, pasta and cheese, so we had a little lunch on the train.

At Grosso, our sweet lady said "Arrivaderci" and exited our car to the passageway at the end and hence out onto the platform. A few moments later she burst through the door yelling excited,  "Como si apre la porta!?!?"  I had no clue what she was saying even though her eye pleaded with us for help.  She repeated herself and two Italians behind us rushed to her aid and opened the outer train doors for her before the train left the station so she could exit the train.  It typed into Google translate what she had said in Italian, after the fact, and discovered the reason for her fear.  She thought the train would leave the station before she could get off.

At Campagnia Marittima we left the train on "binario 2", platform 2. We found our connection to Piombino on the display screen to be leaving in 15 minutes from binario 3, so we seated ourselves for the wait.

Once in Piombino we walked to the bigletteria to buy our tickets for the ferry to Elba. Once secured, had a Coke in the waiting room, then walked across the parking lot to dock #5 when we saw our massive "ferry" coming into port.

On board, we settle into a very posh restaurant in the bow, had some popcorn and a sandwich while seated at a table, then moved to the bar at the front windows to watch the progress of the ship. We could see Elba in the distance through the water streaked windows. Even though we were 30 feet above the waterline, the wind blowing strongly was whipping up waves and they were throwing spray to the upper decks as we pounded across the Mediterranean.

There was a family of three to our right and Sally started up a conversation with them.  They were from England, although originally for Ghana. Victor, Velda and their son Zach. Zach is 22 and had just finished Law School in England with plans to become a solicitor.  Victor is a businessman dealing with energy and Velda was a realtor, both having returned to Ghana 8 years earlier. They are super sweet people and we instantly took a liking to them. 

Soon we discovered they were coming to Yosemite and were looking for ideas. Sally and I relish the chance to evangelize about the wonders of Yosemite and soon we were advising them about what to see.  The boat was beginning to dock at Elba and we all had to rush to our exits. They had driven their rental car onboard and had to rush to the car deck, us to the doors on the deck below. Before parting, Zach and I exchanged V-cards, virtual address cards with all our information, agreeing we would get together on the island to talk more about their trip and what to see.

Once on the ferry dock, we texted Mark to let him know we were on the island and needed a ride to our campsite for the night.  He messaged back that it would take him 20-25 minutes to drive to the dock from the camp. This was perfect for us, as we saw a supermarket just down the road and walked to stock up on supplies of fresh fruits and vegetable to complement our pasta.

Once we had connected with Mark, we began the drive back across the island to "Camp Lacona" on the south side. Mark is 29, from the Netherlands, with a degree in social work.  He is a traveler, having been in Indonesia working with autistic and ADHD kids before he took this job on Elba running helping run the camp. He is quick to smile, very kind and adventurous.

The camp is at the neck of a peninsula, up on a hill above a campground. On the walk up the hill from the parking area amongst the trees we stopped at the bathrooms. He said there was a good view from here. The bathrooms are spotless, and true to his word, from the upper deck where the sinks are is a spectacular view of the beaches on either side of the peninsula, a sandy beach to the southwest, and a rock beach to the northeast.

On top of the hill he showed us to our tent tucked down in a corner. The camp accommodates 80 in tents and caters to school groups, although half their clients now come via Air B&B. We are ahead of the high season, so it is just Sally and I, Mark and his assistant Robin, a 22 years old beautiful and delightful girl from the Netherlands and a German woman, Katarina, and her 23 year old daughter, Ester, staying for 10 days.

There is a commons area tent, probably 15 feet by 30 feet with refrigerators, gas hot plates, sound system, tables, benches, two comfy chairs, racks for storing food, kitchen utensils and silverware for 80 and then tents scattered down the hill amongst the trees to accommodate 80. The wind was blowing strongly as we arrived, and Mark gave us a quick orientation to the use of the common area and kitchen in the tent.  Soon we were boiling water for pasta, broccoli and cheese for dinner as Mark and Robin cooked next to us in the cozy tent, lively conversation about goals, aspirations, past experiences and more floating through the air along with the smells of cooking dinner.

What a delight!!  We had high expectations of this tent experience on Elba, and it was living up to them all. We put some Pink Floyd on the sound system, enjoyed our dinner, then relaxed and continued our conversations. Mark and Robin cooked a mound of potatoes that could have fed 20, mashed them up with herbs and spices, fried up 5 hamburger patties and a quart of string beans and were soon devouring most of it.

The wind continued to buffet the tent as the sun set and we headed to our tent for the night. Fitted sheets were already on the mattresses of the bunk beds. We had to put the duvet covers on the quilts. With a power cord sneaking in through the back of the tent attached to a power strip, we plugged in the light so we could see, plugged in our iPad and phones to charge and then unplugged the light to sleep.  This is going to be fun.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017 - Last day in Rome

5:30 am came really early this morning.  We each only had 4.5 hours of sleep, but we knew (1) we would get an afternoon nap and (2) we had 4 lazy days on the island of Elba coming up, our vacation from our vacation.  We popped out of bed, showered, ate and were out at the bus stop at 6:50. Just as we approached the bus stop our bus, number 492 pulled away.  We stood dejected at the stop for a few minutes, trying to devine when the next bus would come.  Yesterday, we bought 24 hour bus passes and used them for the first time at 7:06 am. If we were to maximize our passes, we needed to board some kind of public transportation in the next 16 minutes.  Rome's busses are notorious for being on no schedule at all, so rather than watch our precious minutes bleed away, we hot footed it for the subway station about 10 minutes away. We inserted our passes into the turnstiles at exactly 7:01am and headed for the train. By now, we are getting very familiar with Spagna Station at the Spanish Stairs and the route from there to Trevi Fountain.  What would we find at Trevi? Hundreds of people from the night before, crowds still milling about or a peaceful and quiet street devoid of humanity?  We could hear the rushing water as we approached, yet no crowd sounds.  We found only 10-15 people milling about.  Perfect.  It was 7:30 am.

We took some pictures of ourselves at the fountain, then noticed a bride to be and her future husband with a chalkboard sign saying "Save the Date" with a date in Roman numerals looking nervously about.  Talking to them, I found their photographer was late.  I offered to take photos of them in case he did not show.  They looked thankful, but were quite certain he would come. Sally and I sat and enjoyed the fountain for another 10 minutes.  Glancing back, we saw the photographer just arriving. Now we had two shows to enjoy, a beautiful fountain, and the antics of a lovely bride and her husband posing, leaping and hamming it up for the camera.

Our next stop was the Pantheon.  It opens at 8:30 am and we wanted to get in and enjoy it before the crowds began arriving.  We got to the piazza in front of it at 8:15 am. Sitting on the steps of the fountain in the center of the square, we got to talking with 3 ladies from Pittsburgh. 

The doors opened at 8:30 am, so in we went, ear buds in ears and you know who giving us a guided tour. We enjoyed the basilica for about an hour before exiting against the crush of humanity that was now awake and entering the wide open space.

Sally had shopping on her mind, so we navigated by GPS and map to the main road through town, Via del Corso, and walked SE toward the Victor Emanuel monument. After eyeing it, we reversed course and walked the length of Via del Corso to the Spanish Steps, peering in windows and entering the occasional store along the way. From the tunnel under the Spanish Steps that leads to the Metro, we took a side tunnel that leads to the Borghese Park. A series of 4 underground escalators carries you up hill and quite a distance until you pop out above ground in a super big park, reminiscent of New York's Central Park.  We walked to the Borghese Gallery to check on unused tickets.  Finding none, we stepped back outside for lunch of baguette and cheese on a shady park bench before wandering through the park more. Satiated, we descended the escalators and rode the Metro back to our stop, walked back to our B&B and took a nap.  It was now about 1:30 pm.  

Up at 4:00 pm, we made a quick trip to the grocery for supplies for Elba, then again approached the bus stop to wait for bus 492.  25 minutes later, after 5 other busses had passed by, we finally got on our bus.  Not knowing exactly where the bus went, I tracked our progress on my phone. We finally jumped off next to the Victor Emanuel monument. We then climbed up the back side of it to an overlook of the Forum.  We had picked a wine bar that served dinner in this area. About 15 minutes of walking brought us to its location.  While eating a wide variety of salads and meats we struck up a conversation with the ladies at the next table. One was from Tennessee, a community college professor who brings art students to Italy each summer.  With her was her friend, also originally from Tennessee, but now living full time in Rome, making a living as a street artist.  They were a lot of fun.

Dinner was $3 a plate!  Wine was $6 a glass.  Our excellent meal was $12.  After dinner, we had a gelato from a local vendor, then began walking back to our B&B. Our route took us by Trevi Fountain, a madhouse of people and street vendor - its Friday night. I decided to take a slightly different route back so we could see some new territory.  As the streets wound their way around, we kept moving. Suddenly, I noticed I was going in the exact opposite direction of our B&B! Keeping a wary eye on the GPS, I corrected my mistake and worked our way back across town, finally finding the bridge crossing at St. Angelo's fortress. It was amazing to once again walk random streets all across Rome and find everyone of them filled with people. The streets are totally safe. There are so many people-families, couples, groups, gun toting army personnel, etc out on the well lit streets along with mid to lower 70º temperatures that it is a very comfortable place to be.

We made it home about 10 o'clock. Showers, a load of laundry and packing got us ready for our train ride to Piombino on the coast where we will catch a ferry to Elba.

About 11:00 pm, peals of thunder began booming and the rain started falling in sheets.  As I write this at 12:10, the storm is still raging on, 5-10 lightning flashes a minute and torrential rains.  It is glorious.

Thursday, May 18, 2017 - Old Roman Day

Neither Sally nor I have had much interest in ancient Roman history.  Truthfully, it kind of bothers both of us a bit.  Why the lack of interest?  Somehow, it just does not ignite a fire.  Regardless, today we spent most of the day in the ruins of Ancient Rome.  In 2009 I did not have much interest in European history, then I visited Versailles. Since then I have read scores of books about the time period from the 1600s to the present, all centered on European history.   Could a visit to the Roman ruins help ignite a similar interest?  

We were up at 5:30 am this morning, showered, breakfasted and out the door by 6:50, headed to the metro. The colosseum is across town from our B&B; a ride on the A line to Termini station, then onto the B line to the colosseum stop. The lines and crowds at this historic site are legendary.  We wanted to get on the front side of the masses by being at the ticket booth when it opened.  We should have purchased our tickets on line before we came, but somehow we missed that step. Our solution was to be there early, ahead of the crowd.

We stepped off the metro and across the street to the base of the colosseum at about 7:45. It felt like being at the base of Quest Field the morning before a game.  The place is huge! Thankfully, we were the only ones there, except for machine gun toting Italian army dudes guarding the place.  We walked around the colosseum once, inspected the Arch of Constatine, then settled behind three ladies forming the head of the line at the ticket booth.  Soon, a man and his wife from Oregon joined me (Sally was seated in the shade of the Colosseum waiting). They were here as a president of a Crater Lake volunteer organization, headed to Slovania to teach communities there how to form groups to support their national parks. He was at the Vatican yesterday and was randomly interviewed by a Italian TV crew about the upcoming visit of Trump to visit the Pope. When asked what he thought of the visit he said he felt sorry for the Pope having to visit with Trump.  When asked what advise he thought the Pope should give Trump, he told them he thought the Pope should tell Trump to resign!  I liked this guy!

With tickets in hand, Sally and I cued up for the security check. When visiting the Vatican on Tuesday, I had tucked my Swiss Army pocket knife down at the bottom of my pack and somehow it made it through the x-rays at security.  I tried the same thing here, but they caught it and gave me two options, throw it away, or go hide it outside the colosseum to be picked up by me after the visit. I backtracked through the light line building up and tucked it under one of the slanting leg supports holding up the fence barricades.  Back through security and we were in.  I wondered if anyone had seen me hiding my knife and would pick it up, but I doubted it.

We toured the colosseum, listening to Rick Steves audio tour. After an hour and a half, we exited, noticing that the colosseum, empty when we first arrived, was now filling up like game day in Seattle.  Outside the crowds were growing, and it was only 9:45am.  I made my way to my knife's hiding place and found it where I had hidden it.  We walked up the hill to the adjacent Forum area, only to find another x-ray inspection station.  Again, I found a hiding place for my knife, under a rock in the shrubbery just outside the inspection station, behind what I thought was a small restroom kiosk.

We spent over three hours touring the Forum.  Neither of us had any idea what it was before we entered, but guided by Rick Steves' audio tour (I should be getting a commission for the free advertising) we soon came to see the Forum is like the capital grounds of Olympia, what with Senate buildings, public areas, governors mansions and the like. We spent some time walking around all of Palestine hill and over viewing the entire valley that contains the Forum.

It was now 12:30 and time to head for St. Peter's in Chains church nearby to see Michelangelo's Moses sculpture and get some lunch, but first I had to retrieve my knife.  When I hid the knife, there were not very many people around, and no line.  When I turned the corner to walk up the hill to the entrance/inspection station, I found a line 200 yards long.  I walked to the front of the line, ducked under the ropes containing the line (luckily, the person guarding the lines had his back turned talking to a tourist at the moment) and "Scusi-ed" my way across the three lines to the alcove with the small building behind which I had hid my knife under a rock.  It took me a minute to determine which rock I had hidden it under.  As I found and grabbed it, I heard a rapping on glass and looked up from my bent over position to see that "restroom kiosk", vacant when I did my hiding, was a guard station and a uniformed guard was shooing me away.  Rather than show him the object of my search, I stuffed my knife in my pocket and began ducking ropes and dodging people, passing back through the line perpendicular to its flow until I was in the open and moving back down the hill to where Sally was waiting 600 yards away near the colosseum. I was expecting to hear shouts of "Stop" or "Halt!" as I walked briskly away, but did not.

We walked the 3/4 mile to a recommended restaurant (Rick Steves, again) and had split a wonderful artichoke sauce lasagna and chicken legs.  Earlier, as we had rested in the shade at the Palotine Hill, we realized we were as close as we were going to get to the Gelato shop that my ski patrol friend, Vicki had guided us to.  What?  Well, back in January, Vicki and her husband Scott were heading to Europe to ski for a couple weeks and were planning to visit Rome before heading home.  I had told her she should hide something in Rome while there, then give me clues to see if I could find it, a sort of international Easter egg hunt. She forgot, but came up with a cool plan.  She handed me an envelope with lat-long coordinates to 9 decimal places written on the outside and told me to figure out where it was and to open the envelope when I got to the coordinates.  Using Google maps, I entered the coordinates, found the location in Rome, then dropped to street view and saw a business called "La Romana".  I google it, and found it to be an exquisite Gelato shop.  It was located clear across town from where we were staying and not near any of the places we were planning to visit. But, from the colosseum, a quick two stop ride on Metro B line would put us about a half a mile from it, from which we could walk.

We executed our plan and taking pictures as evidence to email to Vicki, were soon enjoying two delicious gelato cones. Back to the subway and back to where we had lunch, we navigated our way to St. Peter in Chains church, way up on a hill and soon were staring at Moses, a larger than life marble sculpture by Michelangelo. The church was cool, so we settled in on the steps next to the roped off sculpture and viewed it under the church's varying lighting conditions and used our SIM card connection on the iPad to do a little research into why he included horns on Moses' head.

We were both feeling the efforts of the day, being now about 4:30. We rode the B line back to Termini, switched to the A line and soon popped out at Ottaviano station, walked back to our room and were both asleep by 5:30.  We woke about 7, cooked pasta and cheese for dinner, then headed out the door to catch a bus to the Travestere area, to repeat the walk through Rome we had done on Monday, only this time at night so we could see the city and its statues illuminated at night.

Using the GPS on my phone I watch our progress across town on the bus, pushing the "next stop" button as we approached our disembarkment point. We spent the next 3 hours walking back across town, visiting Compo de Flori piazza, Navora Piazza, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain the Spanish Steps and all the restaurants, shops and people in between.  It was beautiful. There were thousands of people out in the piazze and on the streets, eating and just enjoying the cool temperatures and glorious night. We had hoped to see the Trevi fountain a little less packed with people than on our day visit, but the square surrounding it was packed with hundreds of people, at 10:30 on a Thursday night. Before catching the metro home, we walked down the shopping district streets, sporting the high priced fashion clothes and accessories, looking in the windows.

We caught the subway at 11:20, probably the last train of the night as it closes at 11:30 and walked back to our B&B, very happy with our day.  The iPhone showed we had walked 14.3 miles for the day, bringing our 4 day total to 41 miles. Our earlier nap kept us from falling asleep until about 1:00pm. We were planning to rise at 5:30 in the morning to return to Trevi fountain at 7:00, hoping to find it somewhat vacant for viewing and then walk to the Pantheon to be there for its opening at 8:30 so we could see it before the crowds arrived. We will see what happens when the alarm goes off in the morning.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - The Pope is Dope

There are lots of reminders that we are in the center of Christendom.  Our B&B is only 2 blocks from the Vatican.  Any walk we take invariably takes us by numerous churches. No building is allowed to be taller than St. Pete's Dome.

They say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so here we are, surrounded by 10,000 of our closest friends, seated in St. Peter's square, waiting to see  and hear the Pope. He gives an audience on Wednesday mornings, starting at 10:00 am.  We understand it is best to be at the square at 8:00 am to get a good seat, so we arrived at that hour, umbrella in hand, to see his holiness.

Two months ago we wrote to the Vatican asking for tickets for this event.  We received back a letter saying we were welcome and directions on where to display the letter to receive our tickets. Yesterday afternoon, Sally talked to one of the fancy dressed Swiss Guards about getting our tickets, and he directed us to the right side of the square, a couple hundred yards away.  Once there, a plain clothed guard allowed Sally in, after seeing her letter, to retrieve her tickets, but I was not allowed to come.  Fifteen minutes later she returned, tickets in hand.  Those same tickets got us in this morning.

At about 9:00am, cardinals began introducing groups from around the world that were attending today's audience.  Each cardinal spoke in his native language, introducing groups from countries that spoke the same language.  There were about nine cardinals and nine languages used. 

As they were finishing up, the Pope drove into the square on his "Pope Mobile", an open platform from which he could wave to the crowd as he passed by, often stopping to kiss babies held up to him.  As I watched and took pictures and videos, I got to musing; "what if you held your baby up to be kissed and the Pope didn't comply?"  Does this mean your child is condemned for life?  I mean, the Pope can't take the time to kiss every baby in the crowd. Do those that get left out suffer severe psychological damage, destined to the lower ranks of society, living a life of scorn?  What about the parents?  Do they now look at their child as an unworthy one? The Pope deferred to recognize their child.  Is there something they don't know about there little one that the Pope identified? And the ones that did get kissed. Are they now elevated in their parent's eyes. There child is obviously special, especially compared to the ones that did not receive a Pope's blessing. hmmmmm, I wonder . . . . . 

The Pope took a couple laps around the square, waving, smiling and kissing babies.  We were able to follow his movements by standing on our chairs and scanning the vast square, following the gaze of 1000s of people. Also, he was being covered live on Jumbotron screens at the front, so we could pick out where he was by watching the screen.  He looked like he was truly having fun. A kind and gentle grandfather visiting with a few of his relatives.

Pope Francis disembarked from his vehicle at the front of the square and climbed the steps up to the alter.  After a few minutes, he read a story, in Italian.  Mostly he read it, but occasionally he looked up, said a few ad lib lines to the delight of the Italian speaking people present, then went back to reading.  All the literature said it was fine to get up in the middle and leave.  I did not want to act like those parents at the Christmas concerts at the elementary school who leave after their child's class has sung, disrupting the whole concert, but after the English speaking portion was complete, we did indeed get up and leave. 

Our original goal for the day had been the Borghese Palace.  Lacking tickets, we headed on foot for Travestere, the heart of original Rome on the south bank of the Tiber. We walked on the down narrow streets on the north bank, angling for the Ponte Sisto, the same bridge we crossed from the bus on the first day in Rome, only this time headed south instead of north to Campo de Fiori.

Once across the bridge we headed for the Church of Santa Maria where I assumed the Rick Steves audio tour began.  Once there, with headphones in ears, we found we were in the wrong place and had to walk east 3/4 of a mile to the bridge to  Isola Tibernina to begin. As we followed the audio tour, we entered a narrow alleyway and had to "Scusi" ourselves past some l'uomni (men).  As we walked another 30 feet we discovered we were right in the middle of a movie shoot.  About 30 people, with cameras, lights, audio equipment, directors in director chairs and all the rest you would expect to see in Hollywood were setting up a shoot in this narrow street as we walked right through the middle of it.  They barely batted an eye, until we stood behind the director's chair to watch the action. An assistant said we should leave because the scene was of a high speed scooter weaving down the narrow street and we might get hurt.  Disappointed, we squeezed past the crowd of workers and pressed on.

About noon, with stopped for lunch at an inexpensive outdoor cafe and were seated next to a couple from Florida. They come to Rome often, rent an apartment for 3 weeks and take side trips to various cities.  They travel heavy to Rome, then light on side trips. He described walking the 3/4 of a mile to the top of Vesuvius as if he were summiting Everest. It was at this point I confirmed we were in quite different leagues. They were pleasant, and nice, but I was glad we were not traveling with them.

Once we completed the Travestere tour, we headed to the Jewish Ghetto to listen to an audio tour of that area.  Again, it was fascinating. Here we saw ancient Roman columns and ruins tucked into the city landscape.

It was now near 4 pm. We had been walking most of the day.  We started walking back to our B&B, clear across town. But, we ran into familiar landmarks, such as the Campo de Flori and familiar streets and we Sally was soon taking her afternoon nap at home while I caught up on my blog, a little late, but much needed.  

We awoke at 7pm, walked to the grocery store for pasta, cheese and rolls, headed home and cooked dinner.  We were going to go out for a stroll, but it was now near 10 and we were planning to get up at 5:30 to get to the colosseum tomorrow morning, so we gave in and went to bed. 

About using Italian language on the people of Rome. I find most are appreciative of my efforts. Some mistake me for Italian and begin rapid fire speaking, to which I have to confess my deception and admit I only really speak English. In some interchanges, my deception holds, and I can get through a brief exchange in Italian.  However, sometimes the person will look at me and ask, "Do you speak Italian, French or English", a bit annoyed at my inability to carry on a conversation.  I actually take this as a compliment, that they even consider that I might speak Italian. 

I really find I must study my Italian every night, for I find many words I need and that I used to know are slipping away due to lack of study.   

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - Timing

So much of life comes down to timing.  Being in the right place at the right time. Michelangelo happened to live in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de Medici and began to practice his craft of sculpture in Lorenzo's sculpture garden, the equivalent of today's "innovation incubators" ala "Silicon Valley". He also lived at the time of Pope Julius, a man who's maniacal ambitions made him seek out the greatest artist of the world and coerce him to paint fresco's on the Sistine Chapel ceiling instead of sculpting. Conceivably, Michelangelo could have languished in obscurity if not for the rich patrons that gave him the chance to blossom.  

This morning, Sally and I walked over to St. Peter's, the Vatican, at 6:45 to be present for its opening at 7:00.  No lines, few people. We brisked through security and soon were gawking at the immensity of St. Peter's Basilica, listening to Rick Steves audio tour. As those that have visited will attest, it is massive, ornate and ostentatious. Although fantastic to the extreme, I see the sweat and toil of millions of poor people tithed to the church, living in hovels while this edifice was constructed for a few with their money.

I was excited to see Michelangelo's Pieta, having read so much about it.  There it was, to the right of the door as one enters the nave.  It is amazing, and he was only 23 when he chiseled it from stone.

After the basilica, we paid our 16 euros for the privilege of climbing to the top of the cathedral dome.  We took the elevator for the first leg of the climb, then the stairs the rest of the way to the top.  It was fascinating to see the double wall construction, climbing the stairs between the two walls, experiencing the slow tilt of the dome as it reached its crest. From the top, a great 360º view of Rome is to be had.

The descent empties you out on the roof of the basilica where you can walk to the front edge, just behind the rows of statues on top of the colonnade. Here, too, there is a gift shop and small cafe. We bought a couple post cards to send to Bob and Sally's mom.  Sally had a coke and rested her legs after the ascent and descent of all the stairs. 

We rode the elevator back to the basilica floor and left St. Peter's. It was now about 9:30. Yesterday, we had tried to secure our advanced tickets to the Borghese Palace for Wednesday, as per our master plan, but found them to be sold out for the week. Lacking tickets, you can arrive half an hour before the next tour begins and vie for tickets available because people that reserved them did not show up. We decided we would try for the 11:30 tour, and began walking toward the subway station nearest our location, about half a mile away. Upon arriving at the stazione, we realized we would not make it to the Borghese Palace in time to scoop up any unclaimed tickets, so rather than waste the time and effort needed to chase those tickets, we decided to return to our B&B and talk with Elisabetta about the slow shower drain and lack of Wifi connectivity.  

We found Elisabetta in her below street level office. We chatted for a bit, then let her know of our concerns regarding the aforementioned items. During our talk with her, we decided to have a look at St. Angelos, a church just a half mile away, the one that some Pope of the past built a elevated walkway from the Vatican to so he could escape when the Vatican was attacked. This same walkway was featured in the film "Angels and Demons". Rick Steves advises that St. Angelos is not worth the 10 euro entry fee to see, so we walked to it to check it out from the outside, then continued into the city on the other side of the Tiber, exploring up and down the narrow streets (we would call them alleys in America), marveling at the number and diversity of shops tucked into the bottom floor store fronts.

It was nearly noon. Our stomachs began making the decisions and soon we were seated in a little hole-in-the-wall shop splitting a tuna and tomato sandwich - 3 euro. This food powered us back to our room, where we both slept from 12:30 to 1:30, after which we got up and headed for the Vatican Museum.

We had purchased 2:30 pm tickets to the museum months ago, and had our printed receipt in hand.  As we approached, we noticed the line was about 300 yards long. An official noticed we had our papers and guided us into the right hand line, which was moving at a walking pace up the street.  We walked right up to the front door, where we were let in, bypassing everyone in line that had not purchased their tickets earlier.

Once again, we put on the ear buds and let Rick Steves lead us through the museum and again, it was excellent. The collection of sculptures and tapestries was amazing, and we inspected many closely, but I was excited to see the Raphael Rooms, in particular, the "School of Athens". 

Amazing. Simply amazing.  

Next, we were off to see the Sistine Chapel. The crowd flowed through exhibits of modern art, but no one stopped to look.  I felt sorry for the artists that had their work displayed here, no one was interested.  Everyone had Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo on their minds, including us. 

And there it was. Stunning. The room was packed shoulder to shoulder with people, necks craning backward, staring at the frescoes on the ceiling. I had read three accounts of the painting, watched two lectures describing the work, researched it on the web and read and watched "The Agony and the Ecstacy". I knew what to expect, and I was not disappointed.  

Sally and I found seats along the edge of the room and spent half an hour marveling at the work while listening to Rick Steves audio tour describing it and giving us directions on what to look for.  A great experience.

Satiated, we jumped into the river of people flowing toward the exit door and soon were swept out onto St. Peter's square.  

It was time for dinner.  We had decided earlier that we would walk to Piazza Navona, the one with the Bernini sculptures and enjoy dinner watching people in the piazza looking at the fountains.

We retraced our steps of earlier in the day and soon we were checking menus at the various restaurants lining the piazza.  The prices here are higher than restaurants in less desirable locations, but for tonight, we were looking for an experience more than a meal. We settled into a table on the edge, ordered a plate of spaghetti and  bruchetta to split, and half a bottle of wine for Sally.  We lingered over dinner for nearly two hours before we eyed the waiter and said "il conto, per favore". He brought the check, and we began wandering home, stopping for two scoops of gelato in a cone, each, along the way.

What a great 1st full day in Rome!! We had recorded 12 miles of walking on the iPhone, not to mention the elevation gain in climbing to the top of St. Peter's dome. Our timing, both purposeful and accidental, was spot on today. As we exited St. Peter's after ascending the dome we were amazed to see lines 500 yards long, where 2 hours earlier, there had been none. At dinner, we arrived just as a table became available. The only timing we were off on was hitting the street crossing lights. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Monday, May 15 - Rome - Comfort/Lack There Of

We landed in Rome today at 8:15 am.  I had carrots, apples, a sandwich, cheese sticks and cheese still in my pack that Sally and I had not consumed during our flights and was sure I would be handing them over to the customs personnel.  As we approached the customs agent in the booth I gave a cheery "Buon Giorno!"  He never made eye contact.  He was busy on the phone talking to someone.  He reminded me of the librarian in the Indian Jones movie stamping books while Indy pounded a hole in the floor, although this guy was paying absolutely no attention to the job he was supposed to be doing. Both Sally and I chuckled as we entered his country with our contraband fruits and vegetables. 

Traveling in a new place has become very comfortable for us. Getting train tickets, figuring out the platforms, buying underground tickets, checking out the stops to assure we are going the correct direction once we board, following the stops as they pass.  What used to be a act that required concentration and analysis has become more relaxed.  We still have to stay vigilant and alert to adapt to the new surroundings, but the level of focus is definitely a few notches lower.

Although we may be more comfortable once on the ground in a new city, in this case Rome, riding for 13 hours on airplanes is not much improved.  Our first leg, from Vancouver BC to Montreal was on board a 787.  The legroom was excellent and the seats very comfy. They only fed us juices and water, so I was glad to have brought chicken sandwiches, carrots, potato chips, cheese sticks, almonds, peanuts and apples. My stomach rode in comfort.  Also, when we picked our seats, we chose seats across the aisle from each other.  This allowed us each to have an aisle seat, but still able to sit next to each other.

However, on the Montreal to Rome stretch, the 8 hour leg of the journey, our legroom shrunk and the aisle was so narrow that we could not put our feet out into it longer than just a momentary stretch. And, since it was an overnight flight, boarding in Montreal at 7 pm and landing in Rome the following morning at 8 am, we arrived in Rome sleepy eyed and cranky.  Not at all comfortable, and unfortunately, exactly as I thought it would be.

Once on the ground we took the Leonardo Express from the airport to Rome Termini Station.  This main train station in Rome contains the intersection of the two subway lines in Rome, the A and B lines. We purchased our tickets from a biglietti machine, jumped on the A line toward the Vatican and exited at the Ottaviano station, then followed the directions Elisabetta had emailed to us, walking about 6 blocks to our AirB&B for the night.

Elisabetta was in her basement office when we walked in and quickly oriented us to the building, the city and gave us an impromptu Italian language lesson.  She stole my heart when I greeted her right off with, "Come Stai, Lei?" She responded "Sto Bene" and then said I pronounced the words very well.  A real confidence booster for a language challenged person trying to extend himself into a discipline he is totally uncomfortable with.

Elisabetta showed us to our room, gave us the tour of the kitchen and bath, then departed.  It was now about noon. We folded back the bedding and crawled in, anxious to get a short nap before we struck out to explore the city.

We woke about 1:45 pm, and headed out the door about 2:00 for bus #23 to take us near the Campo di Flori area, the start of a Rick Steves introductory walking tour of the city.

We found a kiosk selling metro/bus tickets (they are one and the same) and asked where to catch #23.  The vender was super friendly as we bantered in broken Italian and English, then he pointed us to the correct bus stop, about 300 yards away across a busy piazza near the Vatican. 

We arrived at the bus stop and tried to read the signage, but were having a little trouble. Sally asked a very pretty 35ish year old woman if she could help. She immediately took us under her wing, got on the correct bus with us, showed us how to validate our tickets, talked with us the whole 20 minute ride and pointed us where to walk once we left the bus. She was so kind. So helpful. So friendly. Made us feel comfortable in our new surroundings and got us off to a great start.

At Campo di Fiori, we put on our headphones and got ready to let Rick Steves guide us through the city.  Oops! Sally's phone had sent her podcasts back to the cloud due to lack of use in the 3-4 weeks since I downloaded them for her. She had nothing to listen to. She thought she might read the text of the tour in the book, but 1 and 1/2 stops along we realized this was not what we wanted. Sally suggested I find an open wifi hotspot and download the podcasts.  I gave her the sceptical look and informed her that (1) no one leaves their wifi unprotected anymore and (2) if I got into one, it would be so slow it would take hours to download the 1:05 episode.  We started to walk back to the start to make a new plan.  As we did, I had my iPhone open to wifi settings, scanning the countryside for an open wifi modem, like Captain Kirk scanning for new life forms on an uncharted planet.  Within 50 feet, I picked up an open wifi. I connected using my Google account, saw that I had access to the Internet and ran a speed test on the connection. 3-5 Mb/sec download speeds!  What?!?!?!

I connected Sally's phone and was soon hanging around outside the restaurant that was broadcasting the signal, downloading all the Rick Steves audio tours we would use while in Rome, about 3-4 hours worth of listening. With our new found wealth of audio, we picked up the tour and continued on our way.

These free audio tours from Rick Steves are excellent. This one, "Heart of Rome Walk", starts at Campo di Fiori and ends at the Spanish Steps, passing by the Navore Piazza, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and numerous other landmarks along the way.  While walking, he explains the history, significance and location of each.  By the time we finished, about 3 hours, we had an overview of the city. Great introduction.

There is a metro station at the Spanish Steps. Before we headed to the station, we sat in the Spagna Piazza to rest. Here we met a couple in their early 70s and had a splending half hour conversation about Rome, traveling and life. 

We boarded the metro and were soon walking back to our B&B. However, the wifi in the room was not working and I had been without the Internet for nearly 24 hours. Withdrawal symptoms-sweaty palms, figeting fingers, wandering attention-were beginning the seriously impede my ability to function. We diverted ourselves to a Vodephone store and purchased a SIM card for my phone, 6 Gb for $45. We used google maps to get us to the phone store and now back to our B&B. Luckily, I had the foresight to download all of Italy in Google Maps before we left, so I did not need the internet for finding our way around.

Sally showered while I installed the SIM card into my iPhone. I got a message that my iPhone was locked and would not accept the new SIM card!! I had gotten a new iPhone about 8 months ago, a replacement for my iPhone 6 that was having battery issues. The old one was unlocked. The new one they gave me was not. Luckily, my smart wife suggested I put the SIM card in the iPad and use it. 

Done! Works great. When we get to Florence there is an Apple Store about 2 blocks from our B&B. I will get them to help me unlock my iPhone 6.

I spent a few minutes reading emails, checking the weather and falling asleep while trying to do each of the afore mentioned.

It was now 10:00pm and time for sleep.  An exhausting, yet wholly satisfying day wherein my comfort level oscillated from very comfortable to wildly uncomfortable and most gradiations in between.  This is going to be a fun trip!