Monday, August 17, 2015

Vacation Day 12-18: Drinking Cappuccino in a Cafe in Rome


Rome is a city, and not an especially beautiful one. Why this should surprise me is, in itself, surprising. What Rome has is occasional nice building architecture from the last several hundred years, public fountains, a scattering of embedded ancient palatial buildings and ruins, and a river.

The attractions of Rome are primarily architectural - which, to the untrained eye, are no different than any of the other European cities I have visited so far (Budapest, London, Amsterdam; Dublin is a bit more modern) - historical, and iconic. I already know that I have very little interest in things that are architectural, historical and iconic, yet I keep letting others convince me that I will enjoy city X because it is "beautiful". But by "beautiful" they invariably mean architectural, historic, and iconic. I don't. It's not.

I am happy the moment I get out of a city and into the woods, the seashores, the mountains, and the small villages. The only reason I need big cities is art museums, cultural performances, easy access to cheap and/or kosher food, and a Jewish community.

So, how was my trip to Rome? It was okay. But I spent too much time in Rome.

Culture Shock

Italy was less enjoyable to us than New England, because we were more stressed. In the US I can wing everything. I can speak the language, I know how things work, and I can find things to eat anywhere. Going to Italy was like going back to the Middle Ages - not that Rome isn't a modern city, just that I couldn't get anything to operate, so we ended up living without modern day necessities. Like air conditioning. Places that accept credit cards. And SIM cards.

Life in the Dark Ages

I honestly don't know how people lived before there were smartphones, or at least cellphones. I have a vague recollection that I grew up without them. What did my mother do when we got lost on camping trips? It's bad enough to get lost on a trip in the US where you speak the language. Tal got separated from us in Rome for an hour or so, and we had no way to call her, and no one to help us. It was scary. Why didn't we have SIM cards, you ask? Because I couldn't figure out how to get them.

I researched online how to do this, and I found four companies with stores in which I could get the cards, but there were no stores of those kind at the airport or near our BnB before shabbat. On Sunday I found one of the stores, but it was closed, because everything is closed on Sunday. I found another one on Tuesday - with three days left to the vacation - but I couldn't understand what the guy wanted from me or how to do it, even though he was speaking to me in English. He said something about paying 15 EUR for the card and then 12 EUR for 300 minutes and a 1GB of internet, but I had to go to a different store to top up the minutes for 10 or 15 EUR. Did that mean I had to pay 15 + 10/15 EUR? 27 + 10/15 EUR? 27 EUR? I have no idea. He explained again and again and I never understood.

Cash Only

In any case, I couldn't buy the SIM card because, aside from major stores like supermarkets, clothing chains, and high end restaurants, everyone only takes cash. I had, by then, run out of cash. Places that take credit cards require you to have your PIN number, something I didn't need in any other country. By sheer accident, I happened to have one of the PIN numbers stashed on me and it happened to be for the one of the cards I had with me. Without that happy accident, I don't know what I would have done.

And Everything Else

Many other things work differently, which is to be expected, but there are no signs in English to help you out and I didn't have internet access to help me out. In a grocery store, you are expected to print out bar codes to stick onto every batch of fruits and vegetables before you go to the counter. I pissed off a grocery clerk on my first shopping expedition; he had to go back to the vegetable section in several trips to get stickers. To get onto a bus or subway you need tickets which you have to buy from candy or tobacco stores; you can't buy them on the bus. The tickets don't helpfully tell you whether they are used or not, so if you have a bunch in your pocket you have to try them all to figure out which ones don't work.

Every street has a pizzeria. I think the word pizzeria just means "restaurant" or "cafeteria", since some of them didn't actually serve pizza. There is a pizzeria in the Vatican. Every other store serves gelato. The elevators sometimes have both outside and inside doors that have to be closed manually for the elevator to work. The elevator won't work if the door wasn't closed properly on some other floor.

Rome has trees, but they are freaky trees with upside down bowls of green on top of the branches. There is free water (aqua) all over Rome, and most kiosk stores and pizzerias will fill up your bottle for free. But better restaurants won't give you free water. They will charge you for bottled water and for each piece of bread they put on your table. That's so obnoxious that I refused to eat in such restaurants, except once to have kosher pizza, and where I refused the water they offered us.

A popular Italian breakfast appears to be pastries, bread, minimal vegetables, and hard boiled eggs. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

Friday: Hungry

Our Alitalia flight was only 45 minutes late, instead of an hour late like the last two segments. This left us to scrounge for kosher food just as the kosher mini-mart and kosher bakery closed, which they do early on Friday. I was hoping that we could pick up prepared foods like lasagna and so on, but they best we could manage was lox, cheese, humus, bread, and some pasta we got from the bakery (Flour, which was also the pizza restaurant I mentioned above). Thankfully I brought some salami from the US and we bought some vegetables and fruit. Our shabbat meals were simple.

Our BnB La Casa di Eva was kosher, which meant that they give us a simple kosher breakfast and information about the local synagogues. I thought that I had arranged for us to stay in the historic Jewish ghetto area of Rome, which could be nice to walk around on shabbat afternoon. I was mistaken; we were actually in the other, newer Jewish area of Balogna which is boring (lots of photocopy stores and campus bookstores).

We had hoped to have meals arranged by chabad in Rome, but they were unable to find us anyone. Instead we sort of ate together (in the same dining room, provided by the BnB) with some fellow travelers: two girls traveling from Israel who befriended my kids, and a couple from the US on their one year honeymoon. As the usual Jewish coincidence goes, in the Italian synagogue (Beit El) we ran into a couple (who I don't know very well) from my synagogue in Israel. They were also there on a holiday, staying at a different BnB.

Saturday: Hot

We had some Italian breakfast, some kiddush after shul, and otherwise spent a long day staying in the BnB. The a/c was pretty much not working, though the BnB was planning to fix it during the renovations starting on Sunday. In the afternoon I got one of the girls to join Tal and me in Ticket to Ride; the girl won. Late in the evening, the couple and the girls and Tal went out to the Jewish ghetto for gelato.

Sunday: Ghetto

The BnB was closing for a few weeks for renovations (seems an odd time of the year to do that) so we had to move to another kosher BnB, Dem Guesthouse. They have four locations, and ours was only a few blocks away. The a/c worked a bit better. They don't have much in the way of breakfast, and it was often hard to get hold of them without a cellphone, but otherwise okay.

Later we took a bus to the Jewish ghetto by the river.

The ghetto was the result of a long string of insufferably nasty popes and other Roman leaders and it resulted in a long period of suffering for Jews. The area now has rows of kosher restaurants, the great synagogue, and otherwise not much to offer other than its continuum with downtown Rome. Saarya took a tour of the synagogue while Tal and I walked around, bought some souvenirs, had some coffee, and poked around Piazza Navona.

Monday: Sore Feet

Monday was spent on an all-day tour organized by Real Rome Tours. The morning was from the Colosseum to the Pantheon (the latter of which is a functioning church, so we didn't go into it) and the afternoon was the Vatican (the palace, we didn't go into St Peter's Basilica). We considered not going into the Sistine Chapel, but in the end I decided that it wasn't really a functioning church, even though the Pope gives a sermon in it a few times a year.

Our tour group was 13 people, nearly all of whom, by chance, were Jewish. Our guide was Roman Catholic, quite good but with some unusual ideas.

The Colosseum is really the Flavian Amphitheater, called the Colosseum due to a now destroyed large statue of Nero that used to stand near it.

The Colosseum was built with money robbed from the Jewish temple, using Jewish slaves, and was used to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews. As a result, I felt like I was touring Auschwitz. Saarya said the comparison is not apt, since the Holocaust was specifically antisemitic and the Colosseum was merely a result of a world without any specific regard for life. It was still hard for me, especially since, although the guide didn't hide any of the horrific things that happened, he still sounded (to me) like a Roman proud of his heritage.

Christians were never killed in the Colosseum, but that didn't stop popes from declaring it to be the sacred ground of Christian martyrs and placing crosses onto it. Nowadays, it is being restored by an athletic shoe company, and I'm sure it will someday be named for the shoe company.

The Vatican tour is insane. It's a castle with hundreds of rooms. Outside are hundreds of statues and similar art objects. Inside each room are dozens to thousands of paintings, statues, floors, walls, and ceiling tiles, murals and tapestries, maps, and objects curated from around the world. Most of it is old or new testament based, but a large number of objects are pagan.

Michaelangelo was a card. He was a sculptor who only reluctantly agreed to paint the ceiling and other items in the Sistine Chapel. Since he was pissed off, he added a lot of naked people, two men  kissing in heaven, and the faces of the people who commissioned him or complained in hell. He wasn't allowed to sign his work, so he added himself in the paintings. When someone complained about the naked people, he added the guy into a painting as a lord in hell with a snake biting his penis.

All tours are funneled into a specific path through the rooms; you get to see a few dozen rooms, but with only three hours or so to see them, we literally did not stop walking. Imagine going to a museum and trying to see the art without ever stopping walking. It's insane. Thousands of beautiful pieces of art flew by me as we walked and walked with only one direction possible and thousands of other people packed around us (and it was not a particularly busy day). If you're going to tour the Vatican and you really want to see the art, plan on spending a few days.

The only moment of rest was in the very tightly controlled Sistine Chapel where you are not supposed to talk or take pictures. They tried to get me to remove my baseball cap, but one of the guards let me keep it on after I turned it around. We were supposed to have a moment to rest here, but Tal was really feeling ill so we ended up leaving after only 15 seconds or so.

Then we got separated from Tal on the way out of the building and it took an hour or so to find her. The police and the Vatican security guards wouldn't help us or look for her, nor would they let me look in the building near the entrance. They said they would only help us if she was a small girl; they wouldn't help us find an adult. Thanks.

Naked, Naked, Everywhere

Walking around Rome - and the Vatican - you can see many, many statues of naked men, with or without penises. Those without are because of popes who decided that the display of genitalia is offensive and so they had many of them broken off. There are almost no statues of women, naked or otherwise, and even the ones that are semi-naked are covered on the bottom half. I guess this is due to historically considering women to be holy and pure. (Women were also placed higher up in the Colosseum to limit their ogling of the men, although the section for the nuns (vestal virgins) was a little lower.) It's an odd contrast to today's media where women end up naked more often than men.

Tuesday: On the Edge

On Tuesday Tal stayed home. I picked up a rental car and figured out that the blue lines are for parking and how the the parking meters worked. Saarya and I drove to a small town hanging on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a forest called Calcata. It is beautiful, and presently populated with artists. We also took a small walk along a nature preserve near the river you can see when looking down from the town. We had pizza in the evening.

Wednesday: Swimming

We left our place in the morning to an AirBnB place in Tragliatella, a suburb north of Rome, out in the boonies. It was a villa with a swimming pool that was delightful, although the place also didn't have working a/c and one of the bathroom doors was missing (luckily there were two bathrooms).

Thursday: There and Back Again

We drove a bit further north to see some small towns around a lake Lago di Bracciano. We saw Anguillara Sabaziam which had an accessible place for swimming. Bracciano had some shopping and a castle Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, which we didn't go into. We headed back to civilization by spending an afternoon at the mall Parco Leonardo near the airport. Saarya and I bowled; each game was 1.50 EUR.

As usual, our Alitalia flight took off late, this time an hour and a quarter, bringing us back to Israel at 3 am.

Pictures on Facebook.

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