Tales of a wandering lesbian


My first night back in Italy was spent in Rome.  Rome.  The eternal city.  I like to call it Romissimo, because it strikes me as the Texas of Italy:  everything is the biggest and best here.

Last time I was here, in December, it was my first time in the city.  I had spent 6 weeks hiking around the Tuscan country side, and a week in Venice, acclimating to the bustling and winding streets.  That is to say, I was a little prepared for Rome.  I only spent two nights that time, so I made sure to pack in as much as I could.  I spent 5 or 6 hours the first night walking through the city.  I was exhausted at the end, but I had been prepared.

But on this trip, my aunt and I decided to stop-over in Rome on our way south.  We had just one night.  So, starting at 6, we walked to our hotel, housed in an old pallazo.  We were greeted by an empty entry and a set of steep, marble stairs.

We looked around the tiny space and noticed an elevator.  At least, we noticed a tiny wood and glass door and a brass-plated call button.  We pushed the button, and the lights flickered on inside the little elevator car just behind the glass.  I froze.  I have recurring dreams.  This is one of them.  It’s not a nightmare, necessarily, but the riding up and down in little, teeny, wood and glass elevators that don’t completely work, is something that I do in my sleep.  It’s not something I really enjoy in my sleep.  I wasn’t sure how I’d handle it in my wake.

But this seemed to be working alright, so I looked at my aunt, took a deep breath and stepped inside.

It took some maneuvering to get us both in there with our luggage.  Like a sliding puzzle, there was one way for us to fit, and one way for us to get out.  I went in with my pack, and she followed, pushing her rolling suitcase in front of her so that she could reach out and pull the door shut.

Then we pushed the button and the little car lurched to life, coming to an abrupt stop at the second floor.  Given our large bags, we used the lift rather more than usual, and we became pretty good at the routine.  Though I never really got good at being completely comfortable in it.

Still, we were now at the hotel, and after check-in and a quick orientation, we headed to the room, a great, high-walled square with parquet floors and a painted, beamed ceiling , reminiscent of the palazzo it once was.

We were there just long enough to drop our stuff, lock our valuables in the makeshift safe/minibar, and head back out.  The breakfast from the plane was a distant memory, and my favorite pizza shop was waiting.

The night was hot and humid, so we didn’t even take jackets.  I only had 2 layers on, which is near crazy-talk for me.  Still, it felt like a night to live on the edge.  We walked briskly through the city, making a b-line for Piazza San Eustachio and it’s twirly spire overlooking Pizza Zaza and it’s little outdoor seating area.  Well, it was kind of a b-line.  We swung past the Trevi Fountain to toss our coins for a promised return, and the Pantheon to see its enormous columns at dusk.  And then we went around the corner to Zaza.

I could nearly hear a choir of angels singing when we walked into the piazza.  There it was.  Pizza.  We walked up to the little counter, and stood next to a police officer as he ordered.  The two of us sidled up and gawked at the great rectangles of cheese and bread.  I recognized the girl behind the counter, her sweet hardness comforting to me at the end of a long trip.  We ordered enough for three people and wondered aloud if it would be enough.  Then we filed past the state security agents that had arrived, their dark suits, sunglasses and earpieces standing out in the bright, little shop.

I’ve often thought back to the last time I was in Rome.  It feels like a dream, even now.  But one taste of the pizza told me it had been real.  I was back.  We were in Rome, eating pizza with church bells ringing in the background.

While we ate, I’m not sure how much we actually spoke.  We gestured and grunted, and the older Italian ladies with their perfect coifs and designer sunglasses chattered about us in low voices.  We didn’t stop until every morsel was consumed.

Zucchini, caprese, patata.  Each was as good as the last.  I licked the mozarella juice off of my fingers, not wanting to waste a drop.

Next, we decided to patronize Giolitti, the gelato shop I’d discovered last time around.  The huge shop wasn’t hard to find, just around the corner, with its enormous lighted sign, and groups of people milling about outside.

This time, there was no line.  There were no children to step in front of us.  Just an open case of beautiful gelato, and a bemused clerk.  The Ant picked out niocciolo (hazelnut) and marone glace.  I opted for the marone glace (something I’d had recommended to me in Venice, and has become one of my favorite gelato flavors), and then asked the gelato slinger what he thought would go well.  “You like cinnamon?”  Damn.  He was on to me.  I thought I had that phrase down pat.  I guess I’ll just have to eat more gelato to practice my phrase-work.  I told him that was good, and he went off to get my chocolate-dipped cone.  Mid-way to the cinnamon, he stopped, put his hand up and said, “No.  Fondante.  You like chocolate?”  He was sincere and absolute.  This was the better choice.  Well, of course I like chocolate.

I really enjoy asking for the food advice of people who work with the menu on a daily basis.  They have a much better sense of what will go well together.  This guy was no exception.

He handed over the beautiful cone and we walked out of the store, grinning at the clerk behind the register.  She returned a knowing smile, watching us licking at the supremely good gelato.  Taking a quick break, we stood outside the store in the growing dusk.  We decided we had enough energy to walk up the Corso to Piazza Del Popolo (perhaps you know this location from Angels and Demons) to see the twin churches.

They were as beautiful and haunting as I remembered.  We sat on the steps of the piazza’s central fountain and gazed up at the obelisk, one of 8 gazillion brought back from Egypt.

Choosing a side street, we made our way past the vendors selling lighted helicopter-like toys, spinning them high into the air and catching them again.  We found the crowds over to the Spanish Steps, named for the Spanish Embassy at the top.

The steps are beautiful, and the view from the top is pretty magnificent, but we had been traveling for about 30 hours and still had a lot to see.  So we skipped the climb and mad our way back across town to the carnival-like atmosphere of Piazza Navona and Campo di Fiori.

Piazza Navona is home to the Four Rivers Fountain (also of Angels and Demons fame), as well as two other, less famous fountains.  Tonight, it also played host to legions of artists showing their wares.  and a street performer who had gathered maybe 50 people to him as he rode a super-tall unicycle and juggled flaming swords.

Campo di Fiori houses a monument to Bruno, who was burned at the stake and canonized as a “saint” by the people for speaking his truth.  It also houses vendors of various types.  Tonight, it was inhabited by more vendors with the lighted toys. We sat for a moment and considered our escape route back to the hotel.  We weren’t far, but our feet were beginning to rebel.  After all, we’d been walking for about 5 hours in Rome alone, and hadn’t even had a cappuccino to keep us awake.

We followed a crowd of people out of the piazza and ended up walking past the Victor Emanuel monument – always impressive, and especially at night.

And then it was back up one of the hills and on to the hotel.  All in all, we only made one unintended circle, and had to ask for directions once.  Even then, we were on the right track.

As we climbed into the elevator one more time, we were relieved.  We had seen Rome.  A lot of it.  We’d tasted it, and heard it and touched it.  But we weren’t done with it.  We climbed into the big bed, under the high-painted ceiling, listening to the city continue on through the night, our window flung wide in the humid Roman night.  Romissimo indeed.

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June 3, 2010   4 Comments

Rome, day 2, part 2

Rome was fascinating.  I mean, really interesting.  One minute I’d be looking at ancient ruins and the next I’d be in the middle of a political demonstration.  Nuns and well-dressed priests bustled through the streets next to military personnel with machine guns.

As I walked from the Forum to the Pantheon, I enjoyed the opulence, the contradictions and the cacophony of the city.  In one square I found an armored mini-van (bigger vehicles aren’t really practical in the sometimes small streets.

Armored minivan

And next to the van a shop selling vestments and day-wear for the cosmopolitan priest.

Vestments Priest wear

The pantheon was my sightseeing destination, but first I would revisit the pizza place from the night before.  The same girl was working.  She recognized me and helped me pick out some meat-frea pizzas to try.  Today, it was funghi, and something with gouda cheese.

Pizza funghi Pizza gouda

Yes, yes, the mushrooms look slimy.  It’s possible my sister has now vomited from seeing the little funghi.  (Sorry, Cath.)  They were slimy, and the whole thing had a slightly acidic taste, but it was very interesting, and I was quite hungry, so I had no complaints.  The gouda pizza was yummy.  It had thin slices of zucchini under the cheese, and a nice, smoky flavor.  Plus, the crust itself is some of the best I’ve ever had.

I think maybe I overdid with the amount of pizza I ordered, or maybe it was the speed with which I was eating.  I kept catching the other diners staring at me as we ate together in the outdoor seating area.  I was hungry, and I had a schedule to keep.

Fortunately, the Pantheon was only about a block away.  The front columns of the Pantheon are each 40 feet tall and made of one piece.  They support an immense portico that leads to the interior of the church.

Pantheon portico

The interior is vast and sparsely decorated.  Tombs (including Raphael’s) ring the beautiful marble floor.  But the real show is above.  The oculus.  A hole in the roof that allowed the construction of the first-of-its kind dome, the oculus provides a pretty spectacular light show, casting shafts of sunlight onto the floor, or ceiling, depending on the time of day.

Oculus Dark oculus Oculus overhead

I have a picture form the University of Virginia that is strikingly similar.  Thomas Jefferson did a nice job with his translation.

Next on my list was a sight that could be explored over the course of years.  I was hoping to do it in an afternoon:  Vatican City.  I’d missed the Pope’s general audience, which was earlier in the day, but I thought I could make up for it by seeing the Vatican museums and St. Peter’s.  And so I started walking.

The Vatican is on the other side of the river from the Pantheon.  I’d made the decision early in the trip to walk to all of my destinations if possible.  I really enjoy seeing a city at street level.  There’s something about the sounds and smells that helps me get a feel for the place.  Anyway, it was a beautiful day for a walk.

View crossing Tiber

I lingered on the bridge and took time to fill my bottle at one of Rome’s friendly drinking fountains.

Dragon fountain

I caught a glimpse of St. Peter’s and headed around the walls of the city to the Vatican museums.  The 4 miles of museums closed first.  I’d be back for the big church.

St. Pete's Swiss guard Vatican walls

This was a museum like I’ve never seen before.  Because of the strange position of Vatican City, the museum is an entry point into the country.  That meant metal detectors, bag screenings and the like.  Then we all crammed ourselves onto escalators that took us up to the museums, bookstores and caffe.

The museums had quite a lot to offer, including phenomenal vistas,

St. Pete's from Vatican Museum Vatican globe Vatican view

fabulous riches (I’m pretty sure they have the actual golden fleece there somewhere),

Jason and fleece

and a nice share of irony.  I found it especially amusing to read the official Vatican descriptions of the Egyptian gods in the collection.

Heel licker Fresco Egyptian dog goddess

I spent my time in the Egyptian and Etruscan rooms, then wandered through halls of tapestries and super-old maps.  Along with 8 gazillion noisy tourists, I arrived in the Raphael rooms, decorated by the master and his students.  Here’s that painting of that arch from the Forum:

Raphael's arch

Okay, maybe it’s not the same arch, but it looks like maybe it could be.  I’m not so much a scholar in this area.  Regardless, both arches were quite beautiful.

After miles of walking, we came to the part most of the people were looking for – the Sistine Chapel.  There were handy little signs throughout the museums, directing us there.  The entire time.  From the first corridor of the museums.  It was pretty comical, actually to see people choosing their route based on the signs, because they were placed at every turn, and pointed in almost every direction.  There was no quick, direct route.  That left foreign tour groups and field-trips jostling to get to a destination that was about an hour’s walk away.

At this point, even I was duped.  I had found a private tour guide who was speaking to a couple of American ladies, in ‘Merican, so I stuck close and got a little extra info.  There were still a bunch of rooms of newer art.  You know, like Van Gogh.  Amazing stuff.

I was surprised that the Vatican allowed pictures in its museums.  I guess it would be difficult to control, given the volume of visitors, but I was still surprised.  The only place pictures were forbidden was in the beautiful, high-ceilinged Sistine Chapel itself.  The room was darker than I’d expected.  Know that probably sounds pretty ridiculous, but the ceilings were really high.  This is another time I didn’t bring the right gear.  My binoculars stayed at home while I craned my neck to see the famous room.  It was pretty cool.  The frescoes were gorgeous, but I was even more interested to find the hole in the ceiling where they put the stovepipe during the process of selecting a new Pope.

After checking out the frescoes, and watching a few friars doing the same, I followed the tourguide through the shortcut to St. Peter’s.  The basilica is essentially on the other side of the country, so the shortcut was a welcome escape from the long trek back around the city walls.

St. Peter’s, for all its opulence, is a really nice church, I think.  It had a nice feel.  A huge feel, but a nice one.  Its size is pretty much huge.  No, really huge.  I found out later that one of the big churches I’d been walking past, near my hotel, is the exact shape and size of one of the supporting columns inside St. Peter’s.

Being big means that it can hold a lot of things.  St. Peter’s has beautiful marble floors, a huge dome, an immense bronze canopy,

St. Pete's Marble Dome inside Bronae canopy

fancy tombs, St. Peter’s throne, and a really old statue of the man himself that’s older than the church.

FAncy tomb St. Pete St. Pete's throne St. Pete

I waited in line with the other people who were touching his toes, which sit at eye level.  They’ve been touched so many times that they’re shiny and look like they’re melting.  When my turn came I walked up, kissed his foot and immediately sanitized with my bath & body works cherry blossom hand sanitizer.  Why not, really?

At that point, I’d been on my feet for about 8 hours, and was beginning to drag a little.  I found a spot at the base of one of the supporting columns and squatted with the husbands who had been deposited there.  Consulting my guidebook, I discovered that the crypt gave free tours.  Excellent.  That was something I wanted to see.  I thought maybe I’d come back for mass if I was inspired after the crypt.

The sky was turning pink over the square.  I walked past the colorful Swiss Guard, and found Lady Justice (without blindfold) standing overhead.  Well, at least she wasn’t in the crypt…

St. Pete dusk Swiss Guard night Lady Justice

The crypt was interesting – sterile, but interesting.  There was lots of white marble, and reclining statues of dead popes.  A recording played over and over in different languages reminding people that this was a holy place, and inviting them to remain quiet for reflection.  Most interesting to me was St. Peter’s tomb, which is partially visible from the crypt and from the floor of the basilica, as well as the tomb of Pope John Paul II.  I grew up Catholic under the tenure of this man.  His tomb was brightly lit, very plain, and guarded by a sadly smiling guard who stepped over the ropes to touch holy items to the tomb, handed to him by passing visitors.  I looked in my bag, but didn’t quite think a hot pink pencil made the cut, so I passed nothing over to the dead pope for a blessing.

I returned upstairs too late for the start of mass, but I stood outside the ropes that kept the tourists separated from the worshipers and listened to the call and response in Italian.  Then I headed out.

St. Pete's night

The square was sparkling after dark, and the walk back was beautiful.  The night was clear and cold and gave fantastic views as I crossed the river again.

Tiber river view night

It was a long day of sightseeing.  I checked my watch.  I had two hours to walk back to the hotel and get ready for my dinner date.  He’d be arriving at 8 with his motorbike, and I wanted a little rest before the next adventure in Rome.

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December 14, 2009   2 Comments

Rome, day 1, part 1

Trains can come early in Italy.  They can also leave early.  After waking up at 5:30 to catch the early train to Rome, I found this out.  Fortunately, this morning was the rainiest day I’ve seen in Italy – except for maybe the night when Venice flooded, so when I watched my train cruising out of the station, it was in the middle of a downpour.  I had been plenty early to the station, but the ticket machine wasn’t accepting bills, so I had to trek out to the main street to buy a cappuccino and get some change.  Not a lot was open, as it was still dark outside, and the feast of the immaculate conception (a national holiday) to boot.

There was something about seeing my train rolling slowly away from the station as I walked up the long, tree-lined street, in the dark and rain that made me want to scream.  And to laugh.  I chose laugh, which was good, but it was a kind of manic, “I can’t believe this.  Cazzo!” laugh.  Because of the holiday, the next train was in 3 hours.  So, I headed back to the house to write and have a little breakfast.  I would have gone back to bed, but the cappuccino prevented that.

Three hours later, I was winding my way to Firenze where I would pick up the high-speed train to Rome.  All went well, and I was in Rome by 2:00.  The high-speed ride made up an hour of the time I’d lost and I was treated to some great light-shows as the clouds began to clear.

Light show from train

Rome is fabulous.  I walked swiftly from the Termini train station to my hotel, Hotel Aberdeen where I’d gotten a screaming deal on a room in a secure building across from the Ministry of Defense.  It even had a little balcony.

Rome Hotel View

I threw my things in the room, and ran back out into the city, eager to see as much as possible.  My stay would be brief – 2 nights, and only one full day in the city – so I wanted to make the best of it.  I’d spent my time on the train examining maps of Rome and planning my time in the city.  My buddy Rick Steves had a couple of suggested walking tours that sounded interesting, one in the evening and one at night.  If I played it right, I’d be able to do both.  But first, I wanted to see the Trevi fountain.

The walk from the hotel was fascinating.  While I found Venice magical in its subtle, enchanting way, I found Rome to be magical in its might.  Every intersection had the potential to be special.  Art and antiquity blared out of unlikely spaces to grab-hold and make sure I knew that I was in an important place.  Rome is the capital of Italy.  It felt a little like the capital of the world – but it seemed a little desperate to express that primacy.  Or maybe more anxious than desperate.  Like a clumsy teenager tripping over himself with excitement to show you his new toys.   Carabinieri with sub-machine guns and military with full-out machine guns stood in doorways and piazzas, seeming to guard the stones of the city itself.

And things are big here.  Like Texas big.  Bigger.  They’re really big.  And old.  Walls stretch up, church facades are exaggerated in their baroque opulence, and buildings go on forever.  I found out on my last night that I’d been walking past the longest corridor in the world on my way to see the sights.

Tall Rome walls

In a piazza just above Trevi (did you know there are hills in Rome?  Seven, evidently), which I think might be the President’s residence, I watched as a bus load of sailors and then soldiers exited with their rifles, and headed for the building.

Sailors Soldiers

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was, but there was a steady flow of tourists down the hill and around the building.  I joined them and found myself suddenly at Trevi, the fountain of “Ocean” and the sea of his tourist admirers.


The fountain is spectacular.  The evening light was wonderful, filtering through the clouds.  I was beginning to feel a little desperate from the hunger that comes with traveling all day without food, but I took some time to enjoy this place.  I walked around the fountain, sat and looked at it, and tossed a few coins over my shoulder, hoping for a return-trip to Rome.

Trevi horse Trevi Ocean Trevi Neptune

When I couldn’t stand the hunger anymore, I checked my map and headed to the pantheon, where I would look for a recommended pizza place and see the big church.

Pantheon dusk

It was big.  Look at the little, tiny people at the base of the columns.  Pizza was more important than the impressive building, so going inside would have to wait until the morning.

After a re-fuel I decided to head to piazza del popolo to take some pictures for a friend and start my evening stroll through Rome.  But first there would need to be gelato.  One of Rome’s enormous gelato shops was just around the corner.


Giolitti was serious about gelato.  The gelato counter was completely mobbed by couples and kids and locals and tourists all wanting cones from the harassed, white-jacketed gelato slingers.  I quickly gave up trying to see the flavors and noticed the substantial line to pre-pay.  I ordered my medium cone and took the slip to the mob of people at the counter.  After 5-10 minutes of slowly working my way forward, sneaking peeks at flavors, and formulating my plan for ordering, a kid maybe 7 years old wedged his way in front of me, leaving his dad behind.  I thought it would be the kind thing to do to let him see the flavors, but when he reached up, put his ticket on the counter and hailed the clerk, all thoughts of kindness flooded out of me.  I put my ticket next to his and looked the clerk in the eye.  The gelato dude looked at me, looked at the kid, and reached for the kid’s ticket.  Then he looked back at me.  We exchanged knowing smiles, and he filled the order while the bastardino barked squeaky-voiced orders at him.

With the kid out of the way, several more tickets appeared on the high-counter, but the clerk returned to mine, looked at the size and disappeared briefly.  He returned with a chocolate-coated cone and a wry smile.  While in line I’d been able to sneak peeks at a couple of flavors.  I had seen marone glace, in a bin that looked to be nearly untouched.  The green pistachio and red strawberry were super-popular, but I didn’t care.  I wanted the stuff with brown chunks.  And so I ordered.  I wanted marone glace and whatever the gelato guy thought would pair well.  Per usual, he seemed happy with the request, and pointed to the near-black “fondante”.  “Va bene.”  With a scoop of the paddle my cone was filled and the paddle thrown like a ninja star back into the bin.  Then he reached for the “panna,” whipped cream, and handed it over.

Rome gelato

I was glad I ordered a “mediano” instead of the “extra big”.  I munched and slurped as I headed for the piazza, feeling completely at ease with the world.  (Yes I’m aware that food is not love or happiness, but it’s a really enjoyable companion sometimes.)

Parts of Rome shut down in the evening while people stroll along the major shopping district, enjoying the sights and sounds.

Walking in Rome

I joined in.  I walked and looked and wandered into churches, passing the beggars that seem to inhabit, one at a time, the doorsteps of every church in town.

I finally made it to piazza del popolo.

Popolo churches Popolo obelisk Piazza del Popolo

I felt like I was in “Angels and Demons”.  The eerie sky and the domes of the twin churches was surreal.  The square was full of excited people enjoying the break in the rain and the holiday night.  I walked inside to grab a look at the pyramid tomb that was actually in the movie.  It was mostly behind scaffolding – it seems the movie appearance merited a facelift.

I considered finding a church and attending mass (seemed like an interesting experience – mass in Rome on the feast of the immaculate conception), but, as bells began to ring, I walked out of the square and heard a different sound.  I thought the opera was going from a shop stereo system.  I was wrong.  As I rounded the corner into a piazza, the singing got louder.  And I saw four singers on a raised stage.  There were maybe 200 people in front of the stage listening to some of the most beautiful opera I’d ever heard.

For the next hour, I stood in the piazza and listened.  I listened to the church bells ringing, I listened to the singers, I listened to the people around me singing along.  I might have teared up a little.  When the singers had finished their first and second encores (I found myself pondering the similarity between the French word encore and the Italian word ancora), I continued on past the Ara Pacis to Capitol Hill where I climbed the steps and got my first glimpse of the Forum and, in the distance, the Colesseum.

Night Colosseum

It was quiet and beautiful, and a perfect place to decompress and get ready for the next adventure.  There was a lot more of Rome to see.

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December 10, 2009   3 Comments