Hacktreks World Journeys - Italy
When traveling in foreign countries, many of us expect to arrive in a
completely different world, bombarded with different customs and languages
at a relentless pace. For good reason we feel insecure in strange places;
not knowing who to turn to and who to trust in a sticky situation weakens
the nerves and tramples the spirit. Bearing all this in mind I ventured
to Rome. I have to admit, knowing that the city itself was thousands of
years old and would not stop running if I had a problem made me a little
uneasy. However it was in Rome, among some of the oldest and most coveted
works of architecture and amidst a gloriously aged and still-flourishing
culture, that I realized something very important. People are people.
No matter where we live or what language we speak, no matter what food
we eat or how we smoke our cigarettes, we are intrinsically the same.
A few hours after our departure from Madrid International, Nate, Joe,
and I arrived at Fumacino in Rome. The scene churned chaotically, as expected,
with people of all nationalities rushing here or there with high stacks
of luggage loaded onto large grocery store carts. The first sign that
assured me of my location came from the terminals loudspeaker; Italian
words streamed out of it. We slowly made our way to the baggage claim,
passing by the noisy food court and restroom area, where we would encounter
our first obstacle. Fifteen minutes after the carousel became active,
and most of the passengers we shared the flight with had already left,
I still did not have my luggage.
Standing nearby, alone, stood a young Italian girl of about twenty. I
can particularly remember her sunglasses because I had never quite seen
a pair like them. The lenses were tinted slightly red and seemed rather
large, covering a huge portion of her small, well-defined face; she wore
them well. She approached us with confidence; and with a swift toss-back
of her thick, lustrous, black hair and a hand on her hip, began to rattle
off at us in Italian. Although we could not understand a word of her animated
speech, we all knew, judging from her obviously agitated attitude, that
she too had lost her luggage. When we told her that we could not speak
Italian, she simply giggled and motioned us to follow her towards the
information desk. Medusafied, we stood and listened to this beautiful
Italian girl converse with the information representative much faster
than we could have had we been communicating in English. Soon enough the
young lady behind the desk said in a thick Italian accent, "Your
bags may be mixed with the Flight 1176," and pointed towards the
left. So we followed the long black hair to the carousel for flight 1176
and sure enough all of our luggage was there, slowly turning round and
round waiting for us. After a mutual look of relief, I said goodbye to
my new friend, and we parted, probably forever.
Following other tourists, mostly Americans, who we could understand, we
eventually arrived at the correct train. Our destination, the Termini
Station, would require a forty-five minute train ride. Our train hauled
into the station and came to a slow, grinding halt. As we approached the
front car I became aware of the presence of the conductor; he was a portly
man with a thick black mustache that made him stereotypically conductorlike.
My eye fixed upon him because he smoked a rather large cigar that created
billows of smoke rising unusually high. I followed the smoke up as it
wafted in the light breeze. Higher and higher I peered until all I could
see was the sky; grey and colorless, like the inside of a marble, with
indiscernible shapes swirling in and out of each other. It captivated
me. So much so that I almost forgot where I was. I remember feeling the
cold breeze on my neck and smelling that right-before-a-snowstorm-smell,
common to my home back in New York. Indeed, I could have been anywhere;
it didnt matter for those few moments as I gazed at our common sky.
Recovering from my reflective trance, I gathered my bags, proceeded to
the third car and boarded the train.
In about an hour we reached Termini Station in Rome. More crowds and hurriedness
awaited us outside the trains doors. Like salmon swimming upstream
my crew and I braved the oncoming crowd that seemed to be flowing entirely
against us. From across the hangar-like, open-air terminal I remember
hearing a remarkably miserable wail; one that reverberated through the
unforgiving crowd and begged a response. As the distressed moaning grew
closer it became clear to me what had been creating it. A woman of about
40-or at least she appeared so, she could very well have been 30-was crouched
into a ball against the wall with her hand extended. Her position was
not unlike that of someone who had just been kicked hard in the stomach,
and she wore nothing on her bruised and dirty feet despite the biting,
November air. When I passed her everything slowed around me; the sounds
of the crowd and the motor scooters outside all seemed to fade away. The
only thing that remained was this wretched figure and the horrible wind
blowing in from one side of the terminal and exiting the other at great
speed. I felt for her. Her unhappiness surrounded us like an aura, capturing
all who ventured close enough to pass through it.
I reached for the map that the information people gave me a few minutes
earlier and began to get my bearings. It seemed that our hostel lay very
close, only a few blocks down on Via Milazzi. We left the crowds and the
poor homeless woman and found ourselves on a genuine Roman street for
the first time. Across from us on the other side of the street a young
couple waited to cross. They were arguing vehemently. Words streamed from
their mouths as if in one long strand, completely foreign to our ears.
Although I could not understand their words I knew from experience how
they felt. The buildings we passed were mostly other hostels and small
cafés. The grey stonework matched the gloominess of the sky I had
noticed earlier. We navigated through crowds of tourists, mostly people
our age in a similar search for cheap sleeping quarters. After a fair
amount of meandering through side street after side street we located
Hotel Planet. Small and rather uneasy on the eyes with no decorations,
it was easy for us to leave in a hurry to start our day.
Without any knowledge of the city and armed with a mere tourist map the
colorful kind with night-club advertisements-we decided to head for the
most widely publicized historical sites. After some small discussion the
decision concerning exactly where we would go that first day was made.
The Trevi Fountain sounded peaceful and entertaining to the four of us
so we started out. After about a dozen requests for directions we encountered
the magnificent masterpiece... Tiny, winding streets riddled with cafes
and small shops suddenly converged and formed a wide-mouthed opening to
the ancient Piazza de Trevi.
The Trevi at Night
almost entirely against the face of the Palazzo Poli and amidst
an otherwise average section of the historical city, lay the captivating
cascading fountain. Over one hundred people had gathered to view
the baroque structure, all equally stunned by its beauty and glory.
The main artist responsible for its construction, Nicola Salvi,
succeeded spectacularly in creating a breathtaking stage of characters.
In the center stands the mighty Neptune, boldly commanding a chariot
powered by two powerful sea-horses known as the "agitated"
horse and the "placid" horse; both seem to be bursting
out of raw stone; all but movement and coloring separate them from
living creatures. Following the legend we threw three coins into
the shimmering pool and secretly hoped the miracle would come true.
We sat along the sides of the pool until evening descended and the fountain
lit up in all its splendor. Gazing off into the distance, unaware of the
crowds and hurriedness, I began to reflect upon the time I had spent in
Rome so far. I remembered the Italian girl, who shared my feelings of
anxiety and helplessness in the airport. I recalled the homeless woman,
and how she pierced my soul. Here, at this magnificent structure which
drew so much attention from so many different people, I began to feel
as if part of some unexplainable whole, just on a different side of it.
I knew I would always remember that cool evening sitting by the fountain,
and that peaceful, somber feeling that came over me. Ill remember
staring up into that never-ending, grey, swirling sky, the same sky that
swirled over my hometown. Then I focused my attention on the people. They
were everywhere. All of these people, these tourists from all areas of
the world had gathered there that night to see the very same thing. It
was inspiring. All of our differences melted away and we were bound together
by some unexplained force. Maybe it was the sheer beauty and reverence
of the fountain, or maybe something more than that. As unexplainable as
it may be, it happened, and it was visible on every single face in that
crowd, stripping them, balancing out the variations and leveling the slate.
© Richard Palese April 5th 2003
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