Wednesday, October 9, 2013


If you snapped a Polaroid of me right now, shook out the film, and waited just a moment, this would be the scene to emerge within the small square frame: clothes hung out to dry on every possible nook, wet and worn from traveling; the beginnings of a Fashion Marketing Midterm paper in the form of J.Crew company information fanned out across my bed (progress is progress, people); one cold and neglected cup of coffee; and one 5’4” girl choosing to overlook the surrounding chaos and tell some stories.  Stories of beauty, mayhem, and absurdity.  Stories of flying high on cloud nine and stories of making the most of it.  Because that’s what travel is, isn’t it?  You can only plan for so much.  The rest is just the delicate art of response.

After a solid three hours of sleep on Tuesday night, 3:30am pulled my three travel buddies (Caroline, Kayla, and Abby) and I from our slumber for our long-awaited weekend in Italy.  Planes, trains, and automobiles brought us to the glorious land of pizza, pasta, and gelato around noon on Wednesday.  First stop was Roma.  Equipped with expert advice from Andrea (the receptionist at our hostel who was also quite possibly an angel of the Lord) and fueled by authentic Italian pizza, we dove right in to all this famed city has to offer. 

First we ventured out to Pope Francis’ stomping grounds, the Vatican City.  The Vatican is the smallest independently recognized state in the world.  Once you see it, you’ll understand why this dot on the map deserves the level of acknowledgement it receives.  Encased in a huge walled fortress, the Vatican is the home of some of the most breathtaking pieces of art you will ever encounter.  Art covers every inch of the place, from the painted ceilings to the mosaic-tiled floors.  I kept pausing and staring, completely dumbfounded by how long it must have taken the artists to make these pictures a flawless reality for all to see and experience.  Unbelievable. 
Oh you know, just a casual wall in the Vatican.
Michelangelo’s world-renowned masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, is truly a spectacle.  Its detail and size were beyond what I had imagined.  Let’s be real, I pictured something no bigger than a chalkboard, but instead I came face-to-face with an entire heavenly scene sweeping the walls of a room rivaling the size of my house.  Another famous work of his, the Pietà, is also housed here.  It is a beautiful and tragic sculpture depicting Mary holding the pierced body of Christ.  What’s really amazing is that Michelangelo made this when he was only twenty-five years old.  How’s that for a kick in the pants, all my fellow twenty-somethings? 

Meandering further through the museum, the wings seem to be divided by the type and subject of art they hold.  For example, there’s a hall completely lined with sculptures of important people’s heads.  Then through another doorway you step outside to a garden area of massive, luxury bathtubs.  Not what I was expecting to see, that’s for sure.  There’s even a room filled with sculptures of every kind of animal you could imagine!  It’s like a zoo without the pesky cleanup.  Well played, Vatican.

After weaving through the never-ending mob of tour groups (I swear these people walk like they have nowhere to be for the next three years), we made it outside to St. Peter’s Square.  This is the place you see on TV when the Pope greets the people, typically packed to the gills like a Jonas Brothers concert circa 2008.  It surrounds St. Peter’s Basilica, which is considered one of the holiest sites of the Catholic tradition and possibly the location of the burial of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples.  Regardless of denomination or tradition, this is one beautiful place to be around four in the afternoon, when the sun hasn’t quite set, but hangs low in the sky, peering quietly over the Church.  
St. Peter's Square
After you exit the square, you can continue on past some street vendors and you’ll find Ponte Sant’Angelo, a picturesque bridge that arches over the Tiber River.  It reminded me a lot of Paris actually.  Traveling to new places has reminded me of what a cool thing the international sharing of ideas is.  All the different countries around the globe across the centuries seem to bounce architectural ideas off of each other, and the result always turns out to be something spectacular.
Then we napped.  Hard.  The only deeper sleep would have had me pushing up daisies.  After this much needed timeout, we returned to the streets of Rome for a bite to eat and feasted on spaghetti beneath a Roman sunset.  And we couldn’t just stop there.  Obviously gelato is a completely necessary part of the balanced Italian diet.  When in Rome, you feel me?
Behold. The motherlode.
Day Two began with a trip to the Fontana di Trevi.  I’d like to take this opportunity to commend the producers of the Lizzie McGuire Movie on their very accurate portrayal of this lovely fountain.  All I needed was Miss Ungermeyer squawking nuggets of historical wisdom at me through a headset and I’d be reliving my favorite Disney Channel movie.  I did get an angry whistle blown at me, though.  Pardon me, lady cop, for standing on the edge of the fountain, but a girl needs her candid, Pinterest-worthy photo at the Trevi. 
The one and only... Fontana di Trevi.
Then onward to the next fountain!  The Eternal City seems to have a thing for those.  This one was in the middle of the Piazza Novanna.  This plaza is enclosed on all four sides with restaurants and shops, and the center is humming with life and culture.  On the outskirts are the annoying vendors, the ones that make me want to rip whatever gimmick they happen to be waving in my face right out of their hands and shove it where the sun don’t shine.  Self control.  Take a few steps toward the center, however, and you will find rows and rows of artists with their finest handiwork on display.  There was even a small band of men playing guitars and singing in Italian. And all of this is basking in the sunshine beneath the sparkling fountain.  Seriously, folks, I am not exaggerating.  Rome is that one girl you’re Facebook friends with who looks good in every single picture and from every single angle.  Rome’s a total knockout.
We left the Piazza Novanna in search of the Pantheon and a legendary gelateria nearby that boasts over 150 flavors of gelato.  You can take a guess at which was the higher priority.  Confession: we actually walked right past the Pantheon without realizing what it was.  Quote: “That has to be something important… Wait, was the gelato place on the left or right?”  Eventually we found Della Palma Gelateria, brought our cones of sweet creamy goodness back to the fountain in front of the Pantheon, and laughed at our tourist ignorance.  Clearly our eyes were too glued to our giant map to see the colossal Roman pillars right before our eyes.  Come to think of it, no wonder we were such a hot target for those obnoxious street vendors.
Pantheon.  Yeah I know it's hard to miss.
Last stop on Thursday’s tourist train was the Spanish Steps.  At the forefront, you can find yet another lovely fountain, except people were literally standing in this one for a photo-op.  Interesting approach.  The steps themselves are full of all kinds of people taking hours out of their day to simply relax, which seems to be a very Italian way to pass time.  I could have sat there for hours just soaking up the sun and the sights, so I’m not complaining! 

Unfortunately, our time at the steps was cut short by a cunning street vendor.  First, he handed each of us roses.  What girl turns down a rose?  Then, noticing we were asking someone else to take our picture, this seemingly innocent male offered to take it.  We shrugged and handed him the camera, and he proceeded to take a series of photos as we smiled and laughed at this funny little man.  After handing it back to us, he asked how they turned out and we smiled and thanked him.  But just as quickly as he had offered his help, we realized he was asking for a tip.  As if we were brainwashed, we pulled out our wallets to offer him a euro.  (Physically rolling my eyes at my naïve self right now.  Ugh.)  After we handed him about 3-euro total, he kept pressing us for more money.  This man who had been so kind and friendly two minutes ago was swindling us!  We were indignant.  We threw our roses on the ground for dramatic effect and marched away huffing and puffing.  My friend Caroline growled at him, “You are a terrible person!!”  So we were a bit frazzled and at a loss for snappy comebacks… Whatever. 
Spanish Steps.  I added this photo to spite the little turd of a street vendor.
Don’t worry.  We didn’t let this jerk ruin our day.  We are suburbanite American girls and we are so above that.  Instead, we hopped on the public bus (which is just as sketchy as it sounds) and headed to Trastevere for a night out.  We ate dinner at the cutest Italian restaurant, with delicious food that matched its curb appeal.  Our wallets didn’t even shed a tear because the meal was oh so fiscally responsible.  Double whammy.
For our final day in Rome, we explored the ruins at the Foro Romano and walked around the Coliseum.  Both were a must-see, no doubt.  Sure, they’re basically a bunch of buildings falling apart, but they stand for a civilization that, at the peak of its success, was pretty much running the show here on good ol’ Planet Earth.  All in all, these giant architectural marvels are just all-around fun to explore.  We also visited Il Vittoriano, a stark monument of white marble in honor of the first Italian king.  It looks quite like America’s own White House, actually.  I loved how pronounced it was as the only white building against a backdrop of dusty colored architecture.  Behind Il Vittoriano is Campidoglio where you can catch an impressive view of all the monuments we saw that day.  It’s totally worth the bazillion steps you have to climb to find it.
Our final meal in Rome was picturesque to say the least.  The four of us ate Fettuccine Bolognese at cozy little tables beneath white umbrellas fit for Mary Poppins on a side street near the Trevi Fountain.  There was even a man singing while playing the accordion in the background.  It was cliché in the most wonderful way.  We finished off the evening with gelato (obviously) at the Trevi, relishing the past three incredible days in Rome.  It was perfect.  Too perfect…

They say what goes up must come down.  That phrase is hauntingly fitting of the series of events that would follow as we left the Trevi and headed off to catch the night train to Venice.  (Dun, dun, dunnn.)  First of all, that Bolognese that we all gobbled down so nicely?  I’ll spare you the gory details and just say it did not sit well.  Not what you want as you board a train for the next seven hours of your life.  I paid a whole euro to use a bathroom at the train station that was out of order.  Thumbs-up to the language barrier for preventing me from getting my precious $1.36 back. 

Now about the night train… We really weren’t nervous for it at all.  I personally was psyched to just hop on, take a snooze, and wake up in a new city.  Then we noticed that the rest of the passengers all shared an uncanny resemblance with the male portion of the cast of Jersey Shore and immediately launched into a fervent group prayer.  I wish you could have felt the tension in our enclosed six-person section of the train as we anxiously awaited our two remaining seat partners.  We watched passenger after passenger pass by, wagering whether we’d catch even a wink of sleep tonight.  And I wish you could have seen the wave of relief sweep over each of our tired faces when (praise Jesus) a sweet and harmless elderly couple finally sat down in the remaining two seats. 

The night train could have been a lot worse.  We could’ve been seated next to The Situation, with arms hugging our bags for dear life and eyes wide as saucers all night long.  Despite our ailments, we actually managed to sleep a bit (or at least I did).  Not even a good night’s sleep, however, could have prepared our sweet suburban souls for our arrival in Venice.  At 5:30 in the morning, we quickly got off the train with one goal in sight: get to the hotel and get in our beds.  We approached a cab driver, gave him the address, and waited to hear how much it would cost.  The cab driver, however, shook his head and informed us that our hotel is not actually on the island of Venice and that his cab wouldn’t take us that far.  Seeing the shock and discomfort on our four faces, he calmly tried to make amends.  With broken English and hand signals, he attempted to explain the forty-five minute commute via bus and foot that would eventually take us to our destination.  We thanked him and walked away, having retained about zero direction from that conversation and feeling weighed down by a sick pit in each of our stomachs.  This was not what we signed up for.

We spent the next two hours asking anyone and everyone for help, struggling against the language barrier and our own fearful imaginations.  One very patient bus driver gave us directions and told us which bus to take, and then his buddy drove the other bus and told us when it was our stop.  This guy even let us ride the bus for free.  What a saint.  We were still freaked out, but things were going all right.  We stepped off the bus and walked a few blocks down to Via Colombara, the road our hotel was supposedly on. 

Funny joke.  That street belonged on the set of a horror film.  It was unlit and endless from where we stood, and the wall to our left was covered with words that would make your mother put soap in your mouth.  We made it about ten yards down the road, panicked, and turned around to head back to find a store that might possibly be open at this unreasonable hour.  We found a bakery that was preparing to open in about an hour and begged the cashier boy to help us out.  He looked exactly like Justin Long with the demeanor to match: young, harmless, and a bit of a softy.  Justin, while super nice and sympathetic, did not exactly help a sister out.  After attempting to call a taxi and reiterating, “People don’t use cabs out here,” he directed us back to that same foreboding road.  I even asked him to drive us, if that helps put our desperation in perspective.  He had to decline. 

So we picked ourselves up and onward we trudged, through the rain, down the dark scary road, while dressed for sunshine and seventies and praying that our fathers would somehow magically appear to carry us home to America.  Eventually we made it to the Hotel Villa Dori and burst through the doors with a sigh of relief.  Then came the next hurdle: front desk attendant Maria who speaks “zero Inglese” and looks like Bathilda Bagshot’s twin sister.  (If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, Google her and you will understand why I was crying on the inside.)  As she flipped through her large binder oozing with paperwork, it became clear that poor Maria sincerely needed to be brought up to speed with technology of the 21st century.  Maria did finally pull through and bring us to our (unheated) room.  We all climbed into bed, curled up in balls, and tried to sleep away one of the most frightening and stressful nights of our lives.

We woke up at noon and surprise!  It’s Kayla’s 21st birthday.  The girl deserves a medal for enduring all the madness of that night on her own birthday without having a total meltdown.  We were determined to make the best of the situation and celebrate our wonderful friend on her big day.  We made our way back to the actual island of Venice to see the sights.  (Not going to lie, returning to the starting spot of our terrible night felt like walking the plank.  My anxiety levels were through the roof.)  It was still cloudy and rainy, but my oh my that city...  Venice is absolutely charming.  Instead of streets, Venice has canals of teal blue water, speckled with enchanting little boats, and they cover the city like a grid.  Minus the gloomy skies, Venice was just like the pictures.  The cobblestone paths are lined with colorful restaurants, unique boutiques, and sweet bridges that seem to have jumped off the pages of a fairytale.  We regained our energy through a warm meal and some yummy creampuffs from the cutest bakery in Venice.  Things were looking up!
And then, within a matter of fifteen minutes, the day got exponentially brighter.  We snagged a man in a striped shirt, paid our dues, hopped in, and before I knew it I was crossing off Bucket List Item No. 23: Ride in a gondola in Italy.  Now how’s that for a frown turned upside down?  This boat ride was unlike any other I had experienced.  Our gondolier, Ricky, rowed through the narrow canals and we watched with glittering eyes the beautiful scenery unfold around us.  Every now and then we would hear Ricky point out various buildings of importance or the snap of a camera, but other than that all we heard was the soft sound of the paddle greeting the water.  Silence.  It wasn’t until then that I realized that the quiet had become quite foreign to me since arriving in Europe.  While Paris and Rome and London are all such vibrant and exciting cities, they are also rather restless and noisy.  Venice, on the other hand, is the opposite.  Venice felt like those eighteen or so seconds after you turn out the light, whisper goodnight, and wait for your eyelids to drop, savoring the peace and quiet.  A gondola ride on a dreary Saturday in Venice is that fleeting moment of absolute stillness that city-dwellers so deeply covet.
Isn’t it funny how sometimes it is the absolute worst of nights that seem to call forth the absolute best moments in the next day?  Well here’s Venice Highlight No. 2.  For Kayla’s birthday dinner, we got dressed up and went to a modern-looking café on the Grand Canal.  We had the waiter bring out a slice of chocolate cake for the birthday girl and the three of us sang to her loudly (judging by the embarrassed laughter lighting up her face, we knew we’d been successful).  Once the entire restaurant was well aware of our American accents, we delightedly learned that the couple next to us was from California and another older couple was from Minnesota.  (Naturally, the Minnesotans were especially wonderful.)  Running into fellow Americans in foreign places will put a grin on your face in an instant; anyone who’s been abroad can vouch for that!  After the first two couples had approached us, yet another couple a table away told us they were from Massachusetts, which just so happens to be where Caroline and Kayla go to school.  Long story short, their daughter just so happens to be an older friend of Caroline and Kayla’s.  I’m telling you, this world we live in is astonishingly small.  Here we are, about 4000 miles away from home in a random café on the streets of Venice, discovering mutual friends with a random couple two tables down.  Doesn’t that just blow your mind?  As if that wasn’t enough of a shock, this generous couple nonchalantly snagged our bill from our fingertips and paid for our dinner.  Ladies and gentlemen, the way to a poor college student’s heart (especially those who are thousands of miles away from home and family) is undoubtedly food and money.  I say that in the humblest way; there is just something so touching and so selfless about the act of paying for someone’s meal.  So touching, actually, that we all started to cry on the spot.  Clearly our emotions had been running a tad high over the past twenty-four hours… We thanked them furiously (honestly it was all I could do not to bear-hug the both of them and pretend they were my own parents for a quick second) and left the restaurant with hearts full enough to burst.  Those two people had no idea what kind of day we had been through.  They didn’t know us at all, really.  And yet, this random act of kindness that they made to be “no problem at all” made all the difference in our evening.  Humanity at its finest.
By Sunday morning, we were ready to head home to London.  Italy had been unbelievable, but we were drained.  Emotionally, physically, mentally.  Italy, however, wasn’t quite ready to say “Ciao” to these silly girls quite yet.  No, no.  We still had twelve hours until takeoff.  Venice must have been just beside herself at the thought of our departure, though, because she cried on us all day long.  Yes, folks, there was a 100% chance of rain.  All day.  We gave an enthusiastic “arrivederci” to Hotel Villa Dori and got out of there as fast as our worn-out legs could carry us.  Note to self: Venice on a Sunday outside of the tourist season is a complete ghost town.  With the exception of the odd café or tourist shop, everything shuts down.  It’s like the people are hibernating or something.  Since our day was on the opposite end of exciting, I’ll give you the short version. 
  1. Purchase bus tickets to Treviso Airport.
  2. Purchase 2-euro poncho from vending machine at bus station.
  3. Take series of embarrassing poncho pictures.  (Photo documentation is crucial, people.  Our pitiful state must be shared with the world.)
  4. Brave the pouring rain with ponchos and backpacks and return to the same café as yesterday.  (We were still reeling from the night before, so we needed a bit of certainty in our lives, okay?)
  5.  Camp out for three whole hours until the waiter won’t stop eyeing us with a look that says, “Get lost.  Scram.”
  6. Return to same cute bakery from yesterday.  Hit head repeatedly against the closed door marked Chiuso.
  7. Find gelateria.  Rejoice.
  8. Go home.  Rejoice some more. 
Venice came completely out of leftfield.  We were prepared for a warm and relaxing weekend in a quaint and beautiful place.  While Venice was both beautiful and quaint, the majority of our time there was neither warm nor relaxing.  As we wandered about the city, we kept asking each other where we went wrong.  What could we have done to be better prepared for Venice?  We checked the forecast; it turned out wrong.  We booked a hotel that received great reviews and was in our budget; it was forty-five minutes off the beaten road.  We took the night train to save time and money; we turned up in an alien city in the wee hours of the morning with no clue where to go. 

So aside from planning ahead for transportation from the train station (okay, yes, that’s a biggie, but we can’t all be flawless, now can we?), there was really nothing that we could have done to change the way things panned out.  Instead, we were clearly in for a lesson in rising above the circumstances.  When life throws us curveballs, we have a choice: we can drop to the ground to dodge them or we can step up to the plate and swing with all our might.  Sometimes our circumstances are less than ideal.  Sometimes it’s raining and you’re lost and you’re tired and you’re scared and that absolutely blows.  Believe me.  It’s what you do with those circumstances, though, that really counts.  Rising above is all about mind over matter; it’s about lifting your thoughts outside of a very low present situation and learning to press on and make the most of it.
Here we are.  Making the most of it.
As Ben Rector just sang directly into my ear (and into my heart), “Life is not the mountaintops.  It’s the walking in between.  And I like you walking next to me.”  Traveling is no cakewalk.  It’s not some endless mountaintop view, where you gaze out on the horizon and smile at yourself for being a remarkably flawless travel guru who did it all without a snag.  When all your plans are shot and you’re camped out in a Venetian café for three hours to escape the pouring rain on your last day in Italy, it’s all about the people huddled around your table, making you laugh until you cry.  When you’re walking down a dark road with every possible horror movie playing in your head, it’s all about the people squeezing your hand and walking alongside you.  If you’re on a mountaintop, cherish that moment when things couldn’t be better, when you find yourself walking through Rome and life is as sweet and simple as a romantic comedy.  And if you’re in a valley, you better paint some snowcaps on that sucker and make it as pretty as can be.  In the valleys, you rise.  And blog about it later.

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