Saturday, June 14, 2003

Lazy Day

A young couple stands at the bus stop, gently holding hands, and speaking softly to each other. I stand near them, in a lightweight Italian-made white polo shirt and gray Haggar pants. My shirt is drenched in sweat. I can feel it running down my back. It is the end of the week, the hottest second week in June since 1742. The temperature nudges ninety-five degrees, and the humidity is just as high. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a warm breeze provides little comfort as it makes its way down Via Balduina.

Presently, the bus comes. Few people are on it; it's siesta time. There is an attractive woman sitting with her mother, and another sitting alone. The couple decides to stand near the front. I sit across from the woman and her mother. The ride is mostly silent, with an occasional soft word here and there. It's too hot to talk. It's too hot to even think.

The bus stops near the Vatican. I get off, and saunter toward Saint Peter's square. Around me, the symphony of languages has shifted to a mixture - here Italian, there German. I walk around the square, between the columns. The square is nearly empty, but the area between the columns is laden with people seeking refuge from the heat. To my right, boys and girls around 10 years old play, smacking each other with wet bandannas while babbling in Italian. On my left, children and adults gather round a seated nun, listening in rapture to her story. I wonder if it's Sunday school, or just conversation. Then I notice she is not alone - other nuns are doing the same, all while wearing the old black outfit and habit. Parents walk their children; families map out where they wish to go. As I near the basilica, a crowd is forming. Flags held high in the air represent tour guides attempting to gather their flocks. The crowd pushes slowly forward. Do I need a ticket? Is that the hold up? I don't remember needing one last time - I just walked in.

But that was May, 2001, and the world was a different place then. We all lived in safety - terrorism happened only in the third world. Then came September 11th, the worst birthday my friend Miguel has ever had. And now we wait at the basilica for the Polizia to pass over each of us with a metal detector.

Once inside, it's easy to find the Cupola entrance, but not so easy to tell where the line is. People mill about in groups, children run about rambunctiously. An American couple tells me yes, they are in line for the Cupola, and I can follow the chains back to the start. But there is no one behind them, and no one coming down the path, so why should I walk all the way back? The Dutch couple doesn't; they simply duck under the chain. I follow their lead. A French couple expresses surprise at the fact that it is not free.

°Does that mean we need tickets?° an American man asks me, as I stand under the sign proclaiming ticket prices.

°That would be my guess,° I reply.

The cost is four euro if you want to walk, five if you want to take the elevator. I wonder how to communicate that I want to walk, since I didn't take notice of the Italian word for lift, and I can't remember the German one, either. But then I notice most people just pointing to their selection on the sign by the cassa (cashier).

Behind bulletproof glass a man sits, collecting money and dispensing tickets. He wears a uniform, and the light blue color of his shirt is broken by dark rings of sweat. Beads of sweat dot his forehead, and run down his tanned face, stopping at his moustache, or rolling on down his neck. He looks hot and tired and annoyed. I pay him four euro and go inside.

The group in front of me waits at the entrance - there is not room for them on the elevator. I show my ticket, and they let me in. I start up the stairs. They are white, and wide. After about twenty, they are low, covered in reddish tile, and take two steps on the outside to cover, one-and-a-half on the inside. Just as I start to get dizzy, they end, revealing a small open-air area, perfect for photos. I snap a few.

Across the open area, the stairs continue, partially inside, and partially outside. I climb up them, and soon arrive inside. Before me is a sight to behold. Is this the cupola? It is magnificent. I look down, and the inside of the basilica lays before me in all it's beauty. Directly below me is the tomb of San Pietro - Saint Peter. I break out the camera and snap a few more photos. The light breeze by each doorway breaks the oppressive heat. No shorts here - you're not allowed in unless your shoulders and knees are covered. Everyone looks hot.

I take note of the exit, and head for it. As I go out the door, I see a sign - Cupola. It points up a narrow staircase to my right. It hadn't seemed like I'd climbed so many stairs, and I was right. Three hundred and twenty more awaited me. Up I went.

And went. And went. The staircases kept getting narrower and narrower. I could tell where the curve of the basilica roof was - I was forced to walk leaning to my right. Every time I thought I was there, I encountered another staircase. My calves and quads began to tighten, but I was not out of breath. Finally, only one staircase remained. Steep and narrow, a rope dangled from its center to provide a handhold. The stairway was barely wider than my shoulders. The people ahead of me gripped the rope for dear life, their strength at its end.

And then, suddenly, there I was - at the Cupola. Towering above Rome, I could see for miles. In front of me, the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument, called °the Wedding Cake° by Romans. It looked more like a wedding crumb. On my left, Monte Mario, distinguishable by the observation dome. On my right, an immense house (the Pope's?) surrounded by beautiful gardens. And all the while, a strong cool breeze blew. I snapped off the rest of the roll. Eventually, I started back down.

Halfway down was a souvenier stand. I walked through it, looking for a rosary for my sister. They had more than enough to choose from. I remembered that she used to love the color violet, but that was long ago when we were children. Of course, I did have my cell phone with me.......

I think I woke my sister up. She says I didn't, but I think I did. And she still liked violet. We chatted for a bit, and I went back inside. I looked for something else to buy, and finally settled on a nice shot glass for my father's collection. An American woman struggled to communicate with the nun at the cashier. The nun told her she'd take American money, but not American change. The woman stared blankly, not knowing what to do, and holding two dollars in her hand. I took the two dollars, and gave her two euro, eating the forty cent loss. She thanked me.

I paid for the rosary, and the shot glasses (I got one for me, too), and managed to do the whole transaction in Italian. That mini-lesson I'd given myself in Italian numbers back in Sorrento came in handy. I walked down the rest of the stairs, wandered through Saint Peter's for a bit, then dropped my pictures off for processing. Afterward, I went over to the Old Bridge Gelateria, and treated myself to a nice gelato.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Helter Skelter in a summer swelter..

Friday - Recovery

After the events of Thursday night, I needed some downtime. Everyone else was too hung over from the night before, so our original plan for the day - Capri - was scotched. Instead, we hung around the pool for a good chunk of the day, getting mostly sunburnt, and somewhat drunk. Lisa, Bridget and Jennifer came over from Capri (where they were staying) and Lisa and I did some shopping in town.

Later, John, Heather and Jeanne showed up, and Art, Bridget, Tim and I joined them for dinner. Tim knew of a pub at the bottom of a long set of stairs, so we followed him down the stairs. Once inside, we found out that the pub was actually two pubs, a club, a game room, and internet cafe and a whiskey bar, all on six levels. Ironically, we ran into the rest of our contingent while we were there, including J and R, who by now had made up, and were once again all lovey-dovey (though she did spend the night in a different hotel.)
The club was very cool, and the highlight of the evening for me was hearing Tim make an utterly horrible attempt to sing The Police's Every Breath You Take. I lasted about two hours before the lack of sleep from the night before did me in.

Saturday - Capri

After spending Friday recovering, everyone was itching to get some sightseeing in, and our sights were firmly set on Capri. Elise played organizer, making sure everyone was rounded up in time to head out to the port and catch the hydrofoil to Capri. Hydrofoils are tricky things - they ride the top of the water, so a windy, choppy day can turn into one hellacious ride. But Saturday was not such a day, and the ride to Capri was fast and smooth. Once there, we set about finding somewhere to eat. When you get off of the ferry, you immediately notice two things - all the outdoor cafes and the boat rides to the Blue Grotto - only 7 euro!!

We made a mental note of the boat rides, and blew by the outdoor cafes with their shlocky waiters doing their best to cajole us into eating, up to and including blocking our way while holding a menu. Eventually, the nine of us who'd made it settled on a place called Lo Napoli. We were approached first by a man with a Gape Kaplan hairstyle and moustache, who spoke near-flawless English. He was jovial and seemed nice, answering our questions with patience, even when our little group lapsed into immaturity over vongole, or clams (think of it in phallic terms, kids). After a bit, we felt comfortable enough to ask him his recommendation about the boat rides we'd passed. He disparaged the idea, telling us that those rides only took you directly to the Blue Grotto and back, and for a group as large as ours, we'd have a much more enjoyable time renting our own boat for the day. We asked him how much, and he said he wasn't sure but that two hours should run us about 120 Euro (for the boat, not per person). He also noted that the boats by law could not carry more than eight people, so we'd need two. If we wanted to know more, he'd call over a captain. We looked at each other for a minute, and gave the OK.

There was something very familiar to me about the man who came over. For some reason, he looked like someone I knew, and my first instinct was that he was the father of the guide that I'd had the last time I'd come to Capri, in May of 2001. He quoted us 130 Euro for two hours, water included, but beer extra. And he confirmed that we'd need two boats. We agreed to hire him, and he agreed to return in one half an hour with another captain.

Half an hour later, our guide was back. Because some people had left to use the bathroom or buy film, he told us to meet him over where he could pick us up, and I volunteered to follow him so I could lead the others. On the way, I turned to him:

"Do you have a son?" I asked.
"Yes, I do," he answered, somewhat surprised by the question.
"Is his name Luka?"
He looked quite surprised. "Yes, it is. How do you know?"
"I was here two years ago, and he was our guide. All the girls loved him."
This got a hearty laugh. "You're kidding? What a coincidence! Luka's over in Anacapri now." Anicapri is the town on the other side of the island.

We met up with Giovanni (his name) a short while later, and divided into two boats - Bob, Alice, Jen, Chip and Theo in Giovanni's boat, and Tim, Elise, Art and I in Vincenzo's boat. Vincenzo was nice, if not talkative, and if you asked him a question he'd answer it. Our first stop was the Blue Grotto, which we learned was a private grotto, and which required us to take a rowboat inside - at nine euro a head. We decided it wasn't worth the money, especially when Giovanni told us we could swim in the Green Grotto, and see a similar phenomenon there for free. We did swim in the Green Grotto, and enjoyed the impressive natural beauty that is Capri Island. We'd made it nearly around the island when Giovanni stopped and made us an offer:

"Do you want to swim for a bit?"
"Yes!" came the enthusiastic answer.
"Well, you are nearly out of time - it's been almost two hours. If you want to stay, then I'll charge you 150 euro for three hours, and I'll drop anchor here."

We looked at each other. One hundred fifty euros per boat for three hours. Holy crap, that was only twenty more euro per boat for the next hour! I asked him again, just to be sure, but he repeated that the quote was a total, not - as I worried - another 150 euros on top of the 130 we'd already agreed to. So we said yes.

At 4:15 our three hour tour (which did not feature a storm, a professor or either of the Howells, although in retrospect, Elise does kind of resemble Mary Ann) came to an end. Giovanni and Vincenzo backed their boats into the dock and let us off. Since Giovanni had commented earlier that his boat had drank him dry and then some, we braced ourselves for the bill. Three hundred euro, everything included. Floored, we gave him a ninety-five euro tip, and asked for his card. On average, the nine us had spent around forty euro each for a relaxing three hour boat ride and tour. Everyone agreed it was the best part of the vacation so far.

That night, we went and watched the sunset from a spot above the piers, drinking wine, eating cheese and telling John, Heather, Jeanne, J and R what they'd missed.

I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
just an empty impression
where you used to be
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning
to an empty sky

Sunday - Pompeii

Oh Elise it doesn't matter what you say
I just can't stay here every yesterday
like keep on acting out the same
the way we act out
Everyday to smile
And make-believe we ever needed
any more than this
any more than this

Oh Elise it doesn't matter what you do
I know I'll never really get inside of you
To make your eyes catch fire
The way they should
The way the blue could pull me in
if they only would
if they only would

Elise the Trip Planner decided she wanted to do Pompeii. Others decided they wanted to shop Sorrento, then go to Pompeii. Still others decided that, encouraged by the beauty of Capri, they wanted to try Ischia. I elected to go with the Pompeii contingent, even though I'd been there before, simply because sweltering on the streets of Sorrento (the new NBC series - Streets of Sorrento! With...Michael Douglas.....and Karl Malden! [cue cheesy 70's music] A Quinn Martin production) didn't sound exciting. We walked back to the train station, where we thought we'd just made the train. After sitting for a while on an unmoving, sweltering train, we learned we were on the wrong one, and had to move. It hadn't been without entertainment, though. A woman in full bike gear had brought her bicycle on the train, leaving it to go over to the pay phone and make a call. While she was on the phone, the doors closed, and the train began to move. She freaked. Fortunately, the train moved backward, where it could only go a couple of feet.

Pompeii turned out to be the right choice. Everyone wanted to see the casts of the victims, which I was able to guide them to. Once we'd done that, most people eschewed the standard two-hour tour for seeing some different things, like the theaters and the stadium, both of which I'd missed the previous time. After two hours, we ran into the rest of the people who were coming out, and we all rode the train to Napoli together. We arrived with only minutes to spare before the 5:30 train. Bridget, Art, Elise and I jumped on it, while Theo, Kathy, Chip, Bob and Tim decided to hang back and try some pizza. Later, Chip told me they'd found a wonderful pizza place near the station, and enjoyed a great meal.

After all that had happened, though, it was nice to get back, and relax for a bit. I grabbed Scott, my neighbor, and Bridget, Elise, Scott and I went for dinner. By this time, it was pretty obvious to me that Elise was ga-ga for Scott, but her behavior at dinner made it obvious even to a blind man. More on that later......

In the meantime, we enjoyed telling Scott tales of our weekend, and listening to his.

Oh, and what, you might ask, was Bridget's story? She stayed in Anacapri with Lisa, Jen, Kathy and eight others, where she met a nice Italian man who gave her a ride on his scooter and took her breath away.

His name? Luka.

Monday, June 09, 2003

"Bear with me on this..." - Ed S., whenever he was telling a long-winded story..

Thursday - Off to Sorrento!!!!

Rock on- gold dust woman
Take your silver spoon
And dig your grave

Heartless challenge
Pick your path and i'll pray

Wake up in the morning
See your sunrise- loves- to go down
Lousy lovers- pick their prey
But they never cry out loud

Did she make you cry
Make you break down
Shatter your illusions of love
Is it over now- do you know how
Pick up the pieces and go home.

Thursday Morning started out fairly well. Classes went smoothly, and though I had intended to do some things - like add more minutes to the cell phone - I never got to them. The plan was to meet at 3:30, and get cabs over to Termini, Rome's main train station, with the intention of catching the 4:45 EuroStar to Naples. From there, we'd have to take a local train to Sorrento. The EuroStar is a two hour ride, sometimes a bit faster, but the local was an hourlong excursion to go thirty-five miles.

We made it to Termini with about thirty-five minutes to spare, and proceeded to get into two lines - one for the four people with EuroRail passes, one for the seven who needed tickets. After some English-Italian confusion, Chip ordered the tickets for the seven of us, and we all chipped in for our fare. All that remained was for the cashier to print up our tickets. Problem was, the printer wouldn't work. As the clock ticked, we began to get rather nervous. Three-fifty. Four o'clock. Four-ten. Four-twenty. The train was leaving in ten minutes, and we were no nearer to getting on. I told Bob to check what track it was on so we wouldn't lose time when the tickets came. He said it wasn't on the board. Could we be lucky, and the train late? Four-twenty-five. Finally, we get the tickets, with minutes to spare. We make a mad dash for the departure area and......the train has been delayed. To five-fifteen. We had made it.

The rest of the trip to Sorrento was rather uneventful, although it was a long train ride from Napoli to Sorrento on a local train (but at least we didn't have to ride with gypsies, like John and Heather would the next night).

After we were settled in, we went in search of dinner. Having eleven people somewhat limits your choices, but we managed to find what we thought was a decent restaurant, and the waiter seemed very pleasant. It was a ruse, as we found out. When il conto (the check) came, it had a fifteen percent servicio charge, as was stated on the menu. But our waiter, who had spent much of the evening laughing, joking and talking to us about how much he loved America, must have thought we were idiots, as he told us, 'oh no, that's not a service charge (tip), that's VAT.' VAT? On food? There's no VAT (Value Added Tax) on food in Italy. Apparently, he thought he'd slip it by us and get a bigger tip. As the commercial said, sorry Charlie. We left him an extra three Euro.

Afterward, we went drinking at the Merry Monk, right by our hotel. Mistake. Big mistake. HUGE mistake. I stayed fairly sober, and everyone else pretty much got plowed, save for Elise. R and Alice walked Elise back to the hotel when she got tired, but only Alice returned. R had decided to go elsewhere. J, her pseudo-boyfriend, declined to follow her. We closed the Merry Monk around two, and headed back to the hotel.

It was about four-thirty a.m. when I heard the knock on the door. Initially quiet, it grew louder and more persistent. I originally ignored it, thinking it was one of the drunk contingent who'd come back with me. But finally, annoyed, I opened the door. It was Elise, and the story she told me was a fantastic one - R had come back, incredibly drunk, to the room she was sharing with J. An argument had ensued, the hotel manager called, and J had booted R out of the room. R was now downstairs, in tears, hysterical, and the hotel manager was asking her to leave. Could I please do something.

So, nice guy that I am, I did. I went downstairs, and talked to the hotel manager. He informed me that he could give R a room for the night - normally eighty Euro, but for the night he'd make it thirty. I told him to give me the room, and paid him. I dragged R to the room and sat her down on the bed. She was hyperventilating, babbling, and crying. She didn't want me to leave; I told her I'd left the room open (in Europe, only one hotel key is given for each room, and the doors are self-locking. It was dark in the room, and I didn't want to turn on a light to find the key). Finally, I went up to the room, and filled in Elise, and now Alice, on the situation. Alice volunteered to spend the night with R. We went back down, only to find that R was just about to walk out of the room. We shoved her back in. She insisted she was leaving. We told her there was no bus, no train and no cab, so her only way back to Rome was to walk. She said fine, she'd do that. I blocked the door, trying to keep her inside. She claimed that I was falsly imprisoning her (leave it up to a law student to bring up torts). I told her that American laws don't apply in Italy.

Finally, exasperated, I gave up, and let her out. She stormed through the lobby, and the hotel manager, now very worried, chased after her, out into the street. I told him to let her go (she's very petite, and no match for anyone in her drunken state). He raced back in, and told me about a bus, direct to Rome that left at six. It was five-forty. Without my contacts or glasses, wearing the shorts and t-shirt I wore to bed (and running shoes), I ran out of the hotel after her. As I neared the piazza where the bus picked up passengers, a good half-mile plus later (she walked fast, I thought), I finally caught her. I told her about the bus. I walked her to the stop. We met an American couple who agreed to make sure she got on the bus. I gave her a hug and said goodbye. I half jogged, half walked back to the hotel. It was five fifty-five. I walked upstairs, told Elise and Alice all was well, and crawled into bed.

At six-fifteen, the phone rang.

"She back. The woman no leave. She come back, and now she sleep in the room."
"She no go. She back, and now she sleep."
"Great. Thanks. Buen Notte."

Once again, I crawled out of bed. I went downstairs to make sure she didn't make a scene when she crawled back in. I wasn't going to ask about the couple from Texas.

As I was talking to the manager, telling him R was crazy, she came up to the desk. She wanted to talk to J. The manager was having none of it. He and I walked her back to the room I'd rented for her. He told her to go to sleep, and me to go to my room. She insisted that I stay with her. They argued for a few moments, and eventually, I persuaded him to let me stay with her. He closed the door behind me.

R was babbling, and crying again. I closed the windows, closed the drapes, and turned off all the lights. We both lay down on the bed, where she kept talking, and talking, and I just laid there, eyes closed, hoping she'd fall asleep. Then, after twenty minutes, her voice weakened, then stopped. A few moments later, I heard only her breathing. I started to feel nauseous.

I waited about twenty more minutes, to be sure she was sleeping deeply, and then I crawled out of bed and went back to my room. On the way back, I asked for some tea, which the manager had offered earlier, but the offer had been withdrawn. I got to my room, and spent the next half hour in the bathroom. Finally, at seven-forty, I climbed into bed. At nine, I was awakened by the noise and activity around me. I'd managed to get two hours sleep.

Later that day, R paid me back for the room, and went to another hotel.
I'm baaaaack.

And boy do I have lots to discuss. We had beauty, drama, fun, sun, alcohol, food, alcohol, shopping, alcohol, and lots and lots of heat........

But first, I have a class to get to. And likely no room in the computer lab when I come back. So patience, children.....