It helped that chaos ensued before we even took off. It was assuring. It was almost like it had been planned. Our flight was delayed for hours. Trapped together, my sister-in-laws (ages 6 and 20) were squabbling in no time. I pretended I didn’t know them. I was raised in a Dominican household where we DID NOT make scenes (well, except my mother). Finally, when we had all had enough, when we had spent all of the courtesy money the airline gave us for snacks, after changing the gate three times, after my wee sister-in-law kicked her father, we boarded a plane.
Between frequent flyer miles and the Euro, my in-laws planned on keeping things cheap so we ended up at a hotel in the suburbs of Rome. It was literally in the middle of nowhere. We think the building behind it was either a school, a convent or a prison. It looked a little like all three. Still, the rooms were nice. The carpet was gray and plush, the TV flat-screen and sleek, the décor just as boxy and smooth lines.
We headed into the city despite the late hour (we had planned to arrive early morning but it was already late afternoon) and I was bummed that we’d had to cancel our meeting with our tour guide, an American Jew expatriate. We might as well have been covered in maps head to toe, we had ones from tour books, ones from the hotel, ones for the Metro, but that didn’t help us when we got lost after visiting the outside of the Coliseum and the nearby arches. We wandered aimlessly and into a dead-end before we finally made it to the Jewish ghetto, ravenous, to gulp the first of many Italian pizzas.
After dinner, my mother-in-law insisted on getting directions on the way back but my husband insisted that the directions were incorrect according to his reading of the map. He was right. But a big screaming match ensued and I, again, pretended to blend into the cobblestone street. Eventually, we were head in the right direction but we walked long, seemingly endless distances, me in my bad Timberland boots, my poor six-year-old sister-in-law in her little pink and white sneakers, before we came upon the right train station.
The next day we would discover a revelation: the bus. The buses were incredible. I managed to get bus tickets at a Tobacco stand, which is where three Italian necessities are sold: bus tickets, magazines and cigarettes. I spoke Spanish to the clerk. He spoke Italian to me. We met in the middle and I walked away with the tickets and a smile. It didn’t occur to us until much later that the buses connected to the trains or that it made sense to get the Roman version of a 1-day fun pass Metro Card.
There is plenty of transportation in Italy but the easiest one to understand is the Metro, the two subway lines that foray into all of Rome. The problem is that some sites were off the grid and if you can’t bear to walk another foot, you have to figure out the buses. It helps that at every bus stop there is a sign that lists all the stops. At every bus stop, there are also tourists trying to figure out where all those bus stops fall on the map.
After getting lost for hours because buses were being rerouted around the Coliseum for the New Year’s Eve festivities, we ended up hopping a random bus, and as Hausman luck would have it, in the right direction. The whole time I was freaking out, of course. Who gets on a random bus and hopes it will take them to the right place? I imagined ourselves ending up over the German border, stranded in a dinky hotel. Did I mention that I have an active imagination?
We never got to ride the trams because we couldn’t figure out where they went. We also never got to ride one of those double-decker touristy buses I always see careening around the curbs of New York. And yes, we also didn’t ride a gondola. Did you know a gondola ride (in the freezing cold) is about 60 dollars? 60 dollars?! For some reason, it didn’t strike me as romantic. The much cheaper bus/boat was much more romantic. It had the same effect, right? I was still in a water taxi of sorts. I still sat, um, near my husband. I set the mood by humming Italian songs to myself.
We also rode trains in-between the cities, Rome to Venice and Venice to Florence and back. The trains were really comfortable. We got to ride in first class when economy was sold out. The seats were plush and snuggly. I learned Italians can be just as loud as Dominicans. I met some Swiss tourists who spoke every language I did and more. I learned that bathrooms can be really disgusting no matter where you’re traveling.
By the end of the trip, I was a pro. I could order myself tickets for trains or Metro in almost any language. I knew just where to stuff my Metro card so it wouldn’t get lost. I had mastered folding and refolding maps. I was ready to travel anywhere except home. A week was more than enough to see all the key sites but I was jazzed from learning to survive outside my element, especially in a place where I could depend on mass transportation (still can’t drive!). Perhaps even the girl who never wants to leave home has it in her to be a world traveler.