Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

One of the fun things about traveling is getting to that point where you know that you’re not home any more.  Though you do have to be careful about becoming weirdly jaded–cities are cities and they all contain common elements–traffic, garbage, pushy people, great shopping–that can override your sense of appreciation for what’s definitive and amazing, though some cities do make their unique characteristics much more difficult to ignore.  I’m looking at you, Paris.  As for traveling through the countryside…well…I live in the country.  I know what a cow looks like.

See?  Weirdly jaded and not groovy at all.

Below are a few photos that represent for me the moments when I fully appreciated the impact of being somewhere new and different, that had much more to offer than a wide array of stylish shoe shops.

Inis Mór, Ireland

Staring out into the North Atlantic from the edge of Inis Mór (Aran Islands)

One of these days I’m going to go in and fix that white blotch on the picture.  This was a film camera, not digital, and apparently the film had a little flaw.  Anyway.  Inis Mór, one of the little fingertips of granite poking out of the North Atlantic off Ireland’s west coast, is quiet.  During the day Kilronan, the town we stayed in, bustles with activity.  Tourists come in from Galway and shop for Aran Island sweaters (I have one in green) and other crafter’s goods.  At night, many of them are gone, and the island falls profoundly quiet.  It’s a quiet I’ve rarely had a chance to experience and can be found if you wander only a short distance away from the center of town.  It’s well-nigh impossible to photograph quiet, but I can photograph empty and deserted.  We encountered a father and son pair of hikers on the way up to this spot–and that’s it.  To get here, you have to climb over uneven terrain, and as you can see by the clouds the weather isn’t always on your side.  There’s no easily-graded hiking path, there’s no handrails, there are no guardrails or warning signs to keep you from the ledge.  I was glad to be so profoundly out of my element.  It’s good to recognize the times that you stand on the edge of the world.  There are all sorts of ways we can stare into the abyss; this was just one of them.

Paris, France

Along the Seine, Paris

Keeping in line with my statement about being weirdly jaded, Paris shares a lot with other cities.  Its avenues are far more tree-lined and gracious, and the art and architecture you find everywhere you go…amazing.  It is a spectacular city and one of my top three (Venice and Boston also jockey for the top position, dependent on my mood) but again, it’s a city.  You can still get hungry and sweaty and cranky walking around, you can still get tired of getting jostled and just want to chill out in your hotel room.  What you can’t necessarily have, though, is someone playing sax along the Seine, at night, under a street lamp.  This was somewhere near the Île de la Cité, the island on which Notre Dame is located, and we came across him after a long day of walking and looking and stuffing ourselves full of food and sights.  I remember hearing the sound waft up, and I had to follow it to its source.  There he was, looking like he stepped off the set of a movie, under the light with a few nighttime listeners sitting around.  I was mesmerized as I realized just how far from home I was, and I loved every moment of it.

Rome, Italy

The Colosseum, Rome

We got to Rome on a Monday.  Monday is not the best day to be in Rome, if you’re a tourist, because a lot of museums and such are closed, unless it’s a biggie like the Colosseum.    Since visiting the Colosseum was on our must-do list, and it was one of the things that was open, it was the first thing we did once we got to Rome and dropped off our stuff at the hotel.  We took the metro, got off at the Colosseo stop and…stood blinking our eyes in slack-jawed disbelief as we walked up the metro steps and saw the Colosseum rise before us.  There it was, sitting in the middle of traffic, a feast for the eyes before you even step in the door.  (I’ve said this before but I can’t stress it enough.  FYI, if you do go to Rome, get the Roma Pass.  You’ll be in that door so much more quickly.)  The thing about the Colosseum is, it’s so well preserved and maintained, you can’t help but find yourself transported.  I found it impossible to not step outside myself and imagine sitting in the crowd, or find sympathy for the combatants waiting in the (now exposed) hallways under the main floor, who knew their likely death would serve as entertainment for the crowd.  The Colosseum didn’t just stress to me that I was in a different city, but it took me to a different time and a different mindset, and forced me into a humane and human exercise I didn’t expect.  And that?  Is not something you get every day.

You can see more of this week’s “Foreign” photo challenge here.

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Travel: Rome, Part One

I spent a lot of time worrying about my trip to Italy, wondering where I was going to go and what I was going to do that would make me not a capital-T Tourist.  I spent a lot of time working on my aloof slouch and my unseeing-yet-haughtily-judgmental stare.  I looked over my cute shoes.  I practiced saying “Please” and “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?” in Italian.  Despite my efforts I didn’t feel ready and then I realized a few things.  First, I realized I was never going to be “ready” like I would like it.  My camera bag was going to pull double-duty as my purse and it’s not as though it’s a spy camera.  Folks would know what I was hauling.  My Fauxtalian accent sounded bitten off at the ends, like someone who grew up in New Jersey might pronounce things.  And…I was planning a goddamned Audrey Hepburn-esque Roman Holiday romp across the Trevi fountain, the Mouth of Truth and the Spanish Steps .  This isn’t something Romans do, this isn’t something natives anywhere do.  If you’re from New York you don’t make it a point to visit all the places Carrie went to in Sex and the City (not linking because I hate it that much), you just give the finger to the people who do.  Hence I realized…said…embraced…the idea that I.  Am.  A.  Tourist.  Though there is an important distinction: it is entirely possible to be a responsible, respectful, and pleasant tourist who promotes peace and joy and harmony, and not be a major asshole who barely escapes provoking an international incident. First things first: keep working on learning how to say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?” in the language of the country decent enough to let you inside its borders.  It’s just nice.  I know they all speak English in Italy and honestly, Italians don’t seem terribly put out by the prospect.  But…you could at least have the decency to be embarrassed that you can’t handle more than one language at a time in your brain while the Italians often juggle at least two (or in the service industry, maybe three or four, the horror, the horror…). Next: forget cute.  Wear comfortable and dependable shoes.  Granted, there are some styles that manage to meet both needs, but here’s the thing: much of Rome?  Cobblestones.  Hard, slippy, unyielding cobblestones.  Notice the Roman ladies walking around you.  How can you tell they’re Roman?  They’re the ones in sensible shoes.  (True story: while out one night, I noticed three young women picking their way–slowly, carefully–across a busy street, and getting across a street quickly is often a key to survival in Italy.  One of these ladies had on four-inch heels and while they were lovely shoes, there were absolutely a navigational and visual detriment.  Instead of looking all smooth and competent and hot, she looked clumsy, unsexy, and pointlessly vain.  So…what image were you going for again?)

Mmmmm, delicious date tree...

Third: bear in mind you are NOT going to another country to experience things exactly as they are at home, only in a slightly different setting.  You are going to another COUNTRY, one that has its own set of sensibilities and standards and traditions.  Adapt.  I mean, I don’t have date trees in my back yard at home.  I don’t have access to a clean and efficient metro.  Not nearly enough people in my home town drive Vespas.  And if I asked most of the people in my town what they had to say about cacio e pepe, they would probably recommend an ointment.  Would I have preferred to know that Italian hotels don’t provide washcloths?  Sure, of course, and it was probably in one of the many travel guides that I picked up and skimmed but didn’t read word-for-word because they’re about a thousand pages long.  Still, even though I didn’t realize this, it wasn’t a cause for complaint, derision, or the ruination of my perfectly grand time.  I am mightier than a bizarre oversight, and it was, indeed, a grand time. Rome is magnificent.  It is not without its flaws–it’s hot, there’s a surprising amount of litter on the streets, and it is alarmingly crowded, just jam-packed with people.  Non-Easter week at the end of March/beginning of April is hardly the height of tourist season and yet…

Off-season at the Trevi Fountain.

A banana peel on the Spanish Steps. This is a punchline waiting to happen.

However.  There are few places I can think of that are so vividly culturally relevant.  Few places where you can inadvertently stumble over a 2,000 year-old ruin.  Few places that quite so unabashedly celebrate art and food and life.  For whatever its flaws, Rome deserves its distinction as the Eternal City.

So what to do when you get there, especially if you’re fresh off a plane?

1) Get quickly acquainted with public transportation.  If your hotel offers shuttle service from the (absolutely goddamned enormous) Rome airport, make use of that.  Get a taxi, find the metro.  Invest in a Roma Pass, as that not only serves as your metro swipe card but also allows you to go through the pre-paid line at loads of museums and events, which (see “Rome is crowded”) is a godsend.  Or, since this is Rome, a Jupitersend.

Should you consider renting a car and driving in Rome, hit yourself in the head with a brick until you come back to your senses.  As a side note, while I absolutely advise against driving in Rome, ever, I do recommend taking at least one ride in a taxi so you can experience the mercenary chaos that goes down on the Roman streets, every day.  And if you’re walking, anywhere…stay on the sidewalk.  Crossing the street in Rome is like playing a giant game of dodge ball, only the other team is throwing cars and scooters at you instead of bouncy rubber balls.

I’m not kidding.

2) Evaluate your level of strung-outedness.  How long was your flight?  Did you sleep on the plane?  (Of course you didn’t; who sleeps on a plane?)  Is it morning?  Mid-day?  How limited is your time in Rome?  In beating jet lag so you can maximize your time, do everything you can to stay up at least through dinner–you’re in Rome, get an espresso!  (Or as they call it there, “coffee”.  Because they are THAT hard core.)

3) What day is it?  Get a reliable travel guide, check the date, and make sure your targeted events are open.  Because they do close.  We got to Rome on a Monday, and lots of things are closed on Mondays.  Why?  Because they can.  Because they’re Rome, and they know you’ll hang around long enough to see them.  Should you get in to Rome and settled into your hotel at oh…say, 1:30 or so on a Monday afternoon and you need to get your head around the metro and don’t want to waste the day trying to figure out what to do, then make plans to head straight for the Colosseum.  It’s open every day, there’s a metro stop right across the street, and you instantly get to experience the shock and awe of an amazing architectural achievement.  And if you have the aforementioned Roma Pass, the guards open the little clippy gates for you and wave you right through, past the line that’s at least a hundred people deep.  Rock.

Truth: I didn't get close to the cross to see what it's about; I can only assume it's a marker commemorating all the Christians eaten by lions in this very stadium.

It's one of those places that is nearly impossible to capture the size and scope.

But we do try.

The Colosseum ticket is sold as a combo ticket in conjunction with access to the Palatine Hill, which is literally right across the street.  Palatine is the central hill of ancient Rome, and boasts the presence of the hut in which Romulus and Remus were raised by a wolf before founding the Eternal City.  Rich peoples’ homes, temples, and an imperial palace are located at the top of the hill (because of the schmancy homes, “Palatine” gave us the word “palace“, get it?); the Roman Forum is at the bottom.  Yes, THE Forum.  The place where democratic civilizations were born.  It’s kind of a trip to walk along the pathways and think, indeed, these are the stones Caesar and Cleopatra walked on, and I’m not even broaching into melodrama.  It’s true.  Circus Maximus sits on the other side of the Palatine Hill complex, but we’ll get to that in a later post.

(As an aside, I looked for a link about Cleopatra in Rome that was anywhere near as informative as the one I posted here about Caesar, and I couldn’t find one.  Like Cleopatra doesn’t merit her own twelve-part webpage, or something?  Like the only thing we want to know about Cleopatra can be found in the Liz Taylor movie, craptastically awesome as that movie may be?  So the hell with it.  Just get yourself a copy of The Memoirs of Cleopatrait’s one of the books I was sad to finish because it was THAT GOOD.  To heck with you, Internets.)

Anyway, yes, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  Like I said before, it’s hard to find a place with a greater concentration of historical impact.

Arch of Constantine and the Palatine Hill complex, right across the street.

On Palatine Hill.

More Palatine Hill.

Arch of Titus at the Forum.

Looking up from the Forum!

More pictures of the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill complex can be found here.

Immerse yourself in your surroundings.  It’s rare that you can walk around on the actual ancient streets of a city, that it hasn’t been entirely built over.  Imagine what it was like to see all this in its prime.  Imagine the buildings around the Forum still standing, imagine the Colosseum with the marble veneer that used to be around it, intact.  Once you do that, I dare you to try and tell me it’s not a magnificent city.  (Word of warning: you’ll lose.)  And then?  Head back to your hotel, go to the little shop across the street (because there is sure to be one), sit on the patio and have a delicious, relaxing, end-of-your-first-day bottle of wine.

I don't think the day could have ended more perfectly.

Coming next: The Vatican!

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