Saturday, November 3, 2007

CW #6: A Roman at Last

By 5:30PM I found myself bolting out the computer lab in the Rome Center, flying down the stairs and directly into the evening chaos of the Campo de’ Fiori. I dug around in my bag while I was speed-walking towards my apartment building, listening carefully for the jingling of eight keys. Ah ha! Found them. I hastily pulled them out and jammed one of the keys into the keyhole of the front door and kicked it open. The door had a tendency to get stuck. I swiftly ran up the treacherous eight flights of stairs leading to the comforts of my apartment room. Apartment #8.

I dashed through the kitchen and the living room and finally landed in my room. Dumped my laptop onto my bed, changed my shoes, grabbed my keys and bolted out the door once again, with barely enough time to shout “see ya!” to my roommate. It was my last full day in Rome, and I still had a whole list of gifts to buy for family and friends, and it was also approaching 6:00PM. I really hope the stores don’t close soon…Why did I put this off until the last minute?!

As I stormed out into the Campo once again, I created a mental schedule of all the places I needed to go for gifts. Too bad there isn’t enough time to visit all the other sights I want to one last time, too... I wasn’t exactly certain how fast I was walking, but it probably could have been comparable to that of a bullet train – it felt like I was walking as if I was on fire, shooting down the sidewalk, dodging everything and anyone in my path. However, I was brought to an abrupt halt at a busy intersection where it would have been reckless of me to try to cross it with the light red flashing. So, I waited. Reluctantly.

Because I was so intent on crossing the street as quickly as possible, I didn’t automatically notice the woman who had approached me with a map. She turned to me and asked for directions to the Trevi Fountain in Italian. At first I was extremely surprised because here I was, clearly an Asian girl who did not resemble a European woman at all, being asked directions as if I were a native Roman. It was quite flattering, but even as excited as I was about her question, I still felt the need to quickly check behind me, just incase she was really trying to get the attention of the person behind me. Nope, no one else there -- she was definitely asking me for directions.

Once the woman realized she had my undivided attention, she asked me again how to get to the Trevi Fountain in Italian. My mind was racing – I definitely knew how to get to the Trevi but I just couldn’t describe it in Italian. I tried to recollect anything Costanza, my Italian teacher, had taught us about giving directions in the previous class. Nothing; I was blanking, which was disappointing because I was excited to use my Italian to help someone. So instead, I resorted to the next best thing: Parla Inglese? Do you speak English? She answered yes.

She was not the most fluent in English, which was evident because I had an especially difficult time understanding her question about a second location, and consequently couldn’t give her a sufficient answer. I did the best I could in explaining the route to the Trevi, using her map as a tool. However, I knew she didn’t fully understand what I was talking about by her confused expression and replies, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to walk her to the Trevi since I was headed that direction anyway.

On the way, I learned she was from Brazil, and she was in Rome on vacation with her mother. However her mother wasn’t with her at the moment because she was tired and was resting back at the hotel. I told her I was a student from America studying in Rome. She thought it was great that such opportunities were offered to students. We continued with the small talk until we reached the Trevi. Upon our arrival, she thanked me, and we exchanged arrivederci.

It was quarter till 7:00PM and my shopping list was not any shorter. But it didn’t matter because I was happy I was able to help the Brazilian woman. It was a small price to pay for another great story and memory to share.

This was my last adventure in Rome, and one that will probably stay with me forever because it contrasts so greatly to my first day in Rome and some of the difficulties I faced while trying to fit in. Before this trip, I remember chuckling to myself as I imagined someone asking me for directions because it seemed like such an unlikely event – never in a million years did I think it would happen. But it did! By the end of five weeks, I knew my way around the city as if it were a second home, and it seemed as if others, even complete strangers, could see that as well – I looked like I lived in Rome and was no longer a tourist. I was a Roman at last.

CW #10: The Pantheon

I walked into the Pantheon at three different times of the day – once at 8:30am, when the doors first open, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening, around the time the Pantheon closes. During each visit, I was amazed by how the time of day made each a unique experience. However, my 8:30am visit was the most rewarding.

Only in Rome would I have pried myself out of bed at the crack of dawn to visit one of the city’s most splendid monuments. I sat on the steps of the fountain facing the Pantheon, waiting for the giant doors to magically open. It was now 8:32am and nothing was happening. Had I misheard the time it opens? And then, I saw one of the massive doors slowly crack open. I stood up, almost slipping on a step from my anticipation and excitement. A little old woman peeped her head through the crack and began to pull and push the heavy metal doors. It was like watching a little boy trying to push a massive boulder. What an interesting yet unusual spectacle.

It felt strange being one of the first to be inside the Pantheon because I was so used to a mass of people taking pictures and the loud inaudible conversations that would overwhelm the Pantheon experience during mid-day. I wasn’t suffocating for the first time, like I was during my afternoon and evening visits. Instead, I felt calm and at peace.
The very first thing I noticed when I stepped inside in the morning was the array of colorful marble surrounding the interior, and the incredible symmetry. It’s more difficult to notice such details during the day and evening when there isn’t a single spot where I can simply enjoy what the Pantheon has to offer. In the afternoon, all I see is a sea of heads. In the evening, things are slower, but it’s just too dark inside to truly appreciate all the magnificent detail. So, now that I had the unique opportunity to really see the Pantheon, I sat down on a bench for a while and stared, taking notes on the interior grandeur. The experience in the morning is more personal.

The morning light shining through the oculus caught my eye – a central focus. My eyes were drawn to a single, perfect circle, settled towards the top of the ceiling. It reminded me of the moon. I didn’t have to squint, or shade my eyes when I looked directly into the light because it wasn’t blinding bright, like during the afternoon, or barely noticeable like around the time the Pantheon closes.

It was refreshing being able to freely explore every corner of the Pantheon right as it opened without having to squeeze past tour group after tour group. And for once, I could hear the loud echo of my shoes squeaking as I walked across the empty marble floor.


CW #9: Grocery Shopping

Checking-out in a Roman grocery store was a stressful experience.

I stood in front of Despar, the neighborhood grocery store. Starring at it quizzically, surprised at how anyone could locate this place because it resembled all the other stores on its block – just another rectangular section cut out of the side of a building. No elaborate sign or marker to identify this place as a grocery store, except for its name posted above the glass doors. It’s completely different from the gigantic Safeway’s and QFC’s, where one would have to be downright oblivious to miss.

I walked into Despar, but I wasn’t greeted by a train of grocery carts. Instead, I saw a neat stack of red baskets, similar to the ones at home, except they had an incredibly long, black handle folded over to one side. Interestingly enough, I discovered it was used to tug the basket behind me as I shopped, like a child pulling his most treasured little red wagon. I chuckled; it was creative.

After filling my red basket full of goodies, I headed towards the cash registers and stood in line.

I was next –
I watched as the lady in front of me stacked her basket on top of the empty ones and placed her items on the narrow black conveyor belt. I made a mental note to follow the same procedure. The clerk rang up the lady’s items and quickly told her the price in Italian. Crap, my Italian isn’t that good yet… Next, I saw the clerk grab a single plastic bag from underneath the counter and toss it on top of the lady’s groceries. That’s strange…only one plastic bag? The lady bagged her own groceries. Hm, no baggers?

My turn –
I stacked my groceries on the conveyor belt neatly. They gradually moved closer to the clerk as the belt moved – like a boat making its way to the opening of a deep dark cave. The clerk scanned my items quickly and tossed them to the other side of her, treating them like dirty laundry. I was taken aback – couldn’t she have been more gentle? She then quickly told me the price in Italian, which I caught bits of but still starred at her blankly. She looked frustrated and annoyed as she turned the scanner with the price on it so I could read it. I took out a 50 Euro bill and handed it to her. She snatched it out of my hand hastily and insisted that I give her change. Coins, that is. So, I unzipped my wallet, and right as I emptied the coins into my hand, the clerk scooped them out of mine and into her own. Was she really in that much of a rush that she wouldn’t even allow the customer to count her own coins? What was I? Just another incompetent tourist? I brushed it off and gave her the benefit of the doubt – maybe she was having a particularly bad day… She returned the extra coins and set the rest of my change and receipt down onto the counter. I barely had enough time to stuff my money back into my wallet before she proceeded to scan the items of the next customer. I looked over at the pile of groceries that I still had to pack into one single plastic bag before they were overlapped by the next customer’s items. I felt panicked. Here I was, trying my best to fit into the Roman culture, but instead, I looked like a silly tourist who couldn’t even bag her own groceries at a quick enough pace. I clumsily shoved them into the plastic bag. How is this a convenient procedure to check out? I felt overwhelmed and pressured to get out of there as fast as I could.

My first experience at Despar was indeed traumatic, but as the weeks passed, I became more and more accustomed to the routine in a Roman grocery store. I could easily slip in and out, without receiving a nasty glare from the clerks. In fact, when I was at Despar towards the end of my stay in Rome, I remember standing in line behind a helpless tourist and his family who were getting lectured by the clerk because they didn’t know they had to print out a price sticker for their bananas. I could only stand there and smile because it was not too long ago that I was once struggling with the Roman check-out procedure.

CW #16: Two Cloisters, Two Stories

Santi Quattro Coronati

It was tucked away inside a plain church with barred windows and located on top of a hill. I’m reminded of a prison. Who would have guessed a unique, beautiful, and serene place existed inside?

To enter the cloister, I must ring the doorbell and wait for the nun to let me in.

A fountain sits comfortably in the center of the cloister, surrounded by patches of well-kept grass and a pool that catches the water gently trickling out of each of the four water spouts protruding from the fountain’s sides. It’s far from grandiose; a plain, white fountain, really; nothing compared to the detailed décor of the Trevi Fountain. However, the sound of dripping water was still what I heard first when I walked through the doors. I could also hear the gravel crunching beneath my shoes as I walked. I almost thought I would disturb the peace that enveloped us.

This cloister reminded me of the comforts of my room back in Seattle. It’s a place I could come back to over and over again because I could easily image myself sitting in between one of the many arches that outline the rectangular space for hours upon hours -- curled up like a fat cat taking a nap. Doing nothing, relaxing. I lost track of time. The stillness and tranquility of the atmosphere is calming, like a ripple-less puddle. The exact environment I thrive in when I need to think or ease my mind. I’m in another realm, unaware of the world outside. Isolated. It was refreshing being able to step out of the chaos of Rome. I look up and I see the bright blue sky painted with fluffy white clouds, and the sun casted on just half of the coral precinct walls. Color surrounds me.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

The church is located on the corner of a busy street. It has an ornate façade -- columns and statues in niches, and steps that invite me inside. From a distance, it looks like the front of the church is wavy. I’m reminded of a banner blowing in the wind.

I invite myself into the cloister, hidden at the back of the church.

I walk inside and am unimpressed right off the bat. But maybe it’s because I’ve already been spoiled by the beautiful and tranquil cloister of Santi Quattro Coronati. No. Really, this cloister is extremely plain and cramped. I feel unwelcomed – like stepping into an empty, cold unfurnished house. I could never imagine myself spending time here because it doesn’t inspire me. The high round arches and the small details that encompass the area are pretty, but they feel like skyscrapers towering over me.

I’m not sure what is in the center of the cloister. Could it have been a well? Or is it just there for decoration? And there’s a random door in the wall. What could be behind it? Everything about this cloister feels like a mystery.

I step out, and all I’m left with is an image of white.

CW #8: A Caravaggio Experience

I was roaming around the gallery of Palazzo Barberini, admiring the amazing collection, when I came across Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” unexpectedly. The painting was enormous! Even though it was sandwiched between two other Caravaggio’s, I noticed my focus was directed more towards “Judith Beheading Holofernes” because of its enormous size and explicit scene. To some degree, I felt like it overpowered the two paintings next to it, forcing the viewer to draw their attention to “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by default.

At first glance, I do not know what to think of the violence Caravaggio depicts in this particular painting. Judith is the first character that I notice because of her white blouse and the fair skin of her neck and arms, which are the two aspects most prominent against the dark background. I follow her arms next, curious to see what she is doing with them as they are extended straight out. I notice her forearm muscles are well-defined – she must be using them. As soon as my gaze reaches her hands, I see her gripping the handle of an object. What could it be? At that moment, I’m not sure what she is holding, but I know I’ve reached an important part of the scene. My eyes land on Holoferne’s face and the terrified, death-like look in his eyes and then the stream of blood gushing from his neck. All at once. Then the sword. Judith is decapitating him. It is almost too unbearable to see such a gruesome sight. I cringe. But what surprises me the most is when I look over to the right-hand side of the painting, specifically at Judith. She has a cool, collected facial expression. Perhaps she feels no remorse for her actions? However, I also sense hesitation in her eyes, and even disgust, but overall, she fails to look fierce or frightened, a reaction I think would be more appropriate considering she is the midst of murdering a man. Based on these observations, I expect Judith made it her duty to slay Holofernes. She despises him with such passion that she planned her attack and completes it with great success because she had a sense of purpose. The folds in her dress and the way her body is positioned illustrate movement, as if Caravaggio captured her right after she spun around to attack Holofernes.

I know Holofernes was caught off guard because he is in bed half-naked and his mouth hangs open. It also looks as if he is in the midst of propping himself up, based on the placement of his hand, but Judith got to him with her sword first. The position of his eyes and facial expression is also significant. I associate Holofernes’s upward stare to Heaven and God. He is a dying man, and so it makes sense that he is looking up to Heaven, searching for an answer, an explanation for his end, his final plea for help.

What’s even more interesting about this painting is the facial expression and body language of the old woman standing next to Judith. Although I associate her as a woman of low social status because of the type of clothes she is wearing and the dirt that appears to be on them, I know she is important and is connected with Judith in some aspect because she stands beside Judith, watching her as she murders a man. The woman does nothing to stop Judith. She is focused on the violence Judith is committing and holds nothing against Judith’s actions. The determination, excitement, eagerness, and attention as she watches Judith are reflected in her eyes. She clutches onto her dress or apron, like a child grabbing hold of her blanket as she’s attentively waiting to see what happens next in the movie. In a sense, the old woman’s body language and expression makes me feel like she wants Holofernes dead more than Judith does. Could she be the one who actually convinced Judith to slay Holofernes?

CW #2: Next Stop -- Roma!

I wasn’t even aware they had served breakfast during my flight – I was passed out like a rock. Exhaustion had swept over me like an unexpected rainstorm in Seattle. I slept through the majority of my flight from Paris to Rome, but it wasn’t the best sleep.

A sharp pain piercing the inside of my left ear caused me to wake up before landing. Great…My ears were severely plugged up. Never had it ever been this horrible -- I could hardly hear my own voice as I spoke. I tried to ignore the pain and fall back asleep, but I couldn’t, even though my eyelids felt as heavy as a pile of bricks. My discomfort level was incredibly high and yet I felt helpless. The only remedy I could think of was to endure the pain, massage my ear and continue to swallow and yawn, in hopes that my ear would eventually clear itself up…What a way to enter Rome.

After finally landing and getting off the plane, the pain in my left ear subsided, but it was still plugged. Terrific, I was half deaf.

Mark and I arrived in Rome together, along with two other friends. We took a charter bus from the airport to Termini -- my first ride in Rome. It didn’t feel like I was in a foreign country yet because the interior of the bus looked familiar and I was riding with three of my friends. It was all too reminiscent of home.

It wasn’t until I had to part with our two friends at Termini that the huge comfortable bubble I found myself residing in during the past week in Paris popped – the last bit of home just left. However, I had only a second to worry myself with such thoughts because Mark and I had to make sure we arrived at the Rome Center before check-in closed.

Marching through Termini while I was delirious from sleep deprivation and intense hunger made the experience and Termini even more intimidating. Half the time I was practically running just to keep up with Mark and nervous about not being able to check into our apartments and consequently, didn’t pay any attention to directions or take the time to soak in my first glimpse of Roman life. Termini and its chaos were a blur of colors. Meanwhile, the other half of me tried to make myself invisible from the potential pickpockets, clutching onto my belongings as tightly as I could, walking briskly and keeping my eyes peeled for anything suspicious-looking. I tried not to stick out like a sore thumb – like the bulls eye in target practice.

When Mark and I finally made our way out of Termini and towards the taxi waiting area, the only things running through my head were Lisa’s words of caution about “fake” taxi drivers trying to lure gullible tourists by asking them if they wanted a taxi ride. Coincidentally, I saw a man who fell under that exact description right as I walked out, and it made me nervous because I wasn’t sure if he was going to be aggressive about offering us a ride or not. At first, it looked as if that was the case because he followed us, but Mark and I avoided eye contact with the stranger and ignored him. Eventually a trustworthy-looking taxi approached us and we got in. We told him we wanted to go to the Campo de’ Fiori Hotel. He started driving, and I began to feel a little more relaxed.

Seeing Rome for the first time from the backseat of a taxi wasn’t the most glamorous introduction, but it provided me with a quick glimpse of where I would be living the next five weeks. One of the very first things I noticed was how aggressive and fearless the drivers were, especially when the streets were incredibly narrow and crowded. Cars weaved in and out agilely and quickly, like my grandma moving her knitting needles as she knits a sweater. And even though my left ear was still plugged, I could distinctly hear the loud rattling of the entire car as it raced along the cobblestone road. Then, without warning, I remember shooting out from one of the alleyways and onto the main street. And that’s when I saw it – my first Roman monument. It was huge! Like a perfect castle in a fairytale. The front was lined with a row of columns, and large statues of men on horses stood proudly throughout the monument. I barely had enough time to process what I had just seen as we zoomed past it. I turned my head towards the back window of the taxi and let my eyes trace the outline of the monument before it was out of my view. Afterwards, I felt excited because if the rest of Rome was going to be full of such grand unexpected sights, I knew I was in for a treat.