Friday, June 24, 2011

6.23.11 - 6.27.11: There Are 50,000 Taxis in Rome and a Bird Crapped on My Arm

It felt like it took forever to get to Rome. We left our hotel in London at 2:00 am to catch a bus at 3:00 am that got us to Stansted at 4:00 am so we could fly out at 6:00 am. We flew into Ciampino, so we had to get a bus into the city (Termini specifically) and then a cab to our "hotel."

We took the first cab we found. The driver seemed nice enough. However, I soon found out that he overcharged us in a big way. Not only did I give him too many Euro, I left my backpack in his car. Said backpack contained: a computer, all my reservations, an iPad, an iPod, my cell phone, medicine, my computer, my cash, and the ENGAGEMENT RING I was going to give to Jess. It took us a moment to realize what I had done. When I told Jess I left it in the cab, she took off down the streets of Rome chasing this guy, sadly to no avail. When she returned I was hysterical. She could not understand why. I mean, the computer and electronics were important, but losing them would not have been the end of the world. However, she was unaware of the ring situation. I had to tell her, mainly because the way I was reacting was completely disproportional to the situation. I told her, and she quickly understood my panic. We had no idea what to do. We tried telling the owner of the hotel's wife, but she did not speak English. Jess was able to eventually convey the situation to her, and she immediately called her husband while the cleaning lady called all the taxi companies in Rome. When her husband arrived, Damiano is his name, he began asking us what the cab looked like, what the driver looked like, and where we took it from. I told him the cab was unmarked. He looked at me like I was an idiot. Probably because I was an idiot. My first clue that the driver was sketchy should have been the fact that his car was completely unlabeled. Luckily, Jess and I remembered that he had tattoos down his right arm, one of which was the Italian flag. We also remembered that his vehicle had sliding doors. Damion told us that there are 50,000 cabs in Rome and that our bag was gone. However, he told us to get into his car and he took us back to Termini so we could try to find the driver. He was extremely nice and helpful and was ready to throw down for me if we saw the guy. Sadly, our driver was not there. We told Damion not to wait on us and we stayed at Termini. Jess started describing our driver to the older guys who working the Taxi queue. Again, we were playing with the queue. They knew him they said! There was hope. We had the guys calling around trying to track this dude down. After a while, it looked like they had gotten a hold of him. They told us he would be back at 3:00 pm with our bag. It was 1:30 pm at the time. I was excited but was not holding my breath. Damion warned me that these gentlemen were sketchy and that my bag was probably not coming back. Jess and I wanted to wait there at the queue, but they kept telling us to go somewhere else and not come back until three. One of them (an older guy) put his arms inside ours and literally dragged us to a restaurant nearby. We bought him and his friend a Coke because they were helping us. After they left, I started to wonder why they didn't want us waiting by the taxis. They had to be up to something I thought, so Jess and I returned. Now they directed us to nearby shops. We made him think we left, but I was a hawk. Thank goodness I have uncanny spy abilities. Soon we came back to the queue anyway. At this point it was around 2:15 pm. Our "little buddy" as we called him seemed very nervous that we were back. I would assume it had something to do with the fact that our driver came back through the queue at around 2:30 pm, a time that we were clearly not supposed to be present for. I saw his tattoos and immediately started running towards his car. It did not look like he planned on stopping, so I did what every intelligent person would have done...I jumped in front of the vehicle. He looked surprised. He looked even more surprised when I jumped in the van and went ballistic. I was yelling, "Where is it?" It is a hazy memory for me, but Jess tells me he looked frightened, which he should have been. He kept saying, "Calm down, man. Calm down. It's in the back. Calm down." I dove over some seats to get to the back and found my bag. I grabbed it immediately and jumped out of the van. All the while Jess was running around the van, ready to do battle. He jumped out also and started telling me he had come all the way back from the airport just to return my bag. This was the same story "little buddy" was telling us while we were waiting. He told us we had to pay him for his lost fares, but basically he was telling us I had to pay to get my bag back. After making sure everything was there, we gave him 60 Euros. All he knew was that I had a laptop in there. That was all I told "little buddy" because I knew if I told them there was a ring we would have no chance. We could have gotten away giving the driver less, but we just wanted to get away from this place. At this point, I was so thirsty I thought I was going to die. We went inside the station and bought some water. When we came back out, we saw little buddy. I wanted to thank him for his help. I thought he was up to something, but I had no proof. He wanted 20 Euro for his services. I gave it to him. I was not going to piss these guys off. They knew where we were staying and I did not want to give them any reason to come get the money themselves. Jess and I caught a real cab bag to the hotel, which cost us half the price the initial driver charged. This driver was very nice, but I was already feeling very bad about Rome.

The day wasn't entirely bad, however. Outside our window is the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterno. The main focal point of the piazza is the Papal Archbasilica di San Giovanni in Laterno. As the name suggests (Archbasilica), this is a very important basilica. The most important in Catholicism in fact. Look it up .

The reason it is so important is because it is the oldest of the four major basilicas in Rome and is the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. Anyway, enough lecturing. After we got back to our room, we fell asleep for a while. We had heard the Pope would be conducting a service at the basilica, but we weren't entirely sure if this was true. By this point, we weren't the most trusting of the Roman people. Anyway, we were woken up by blaring Gregorian chant. It was literally coming through Bose speakers set up around the basilica. It was being projected from inside. The windows were dressed with large velvet cloth and a banner of the Papal seal was hanging over the center entrance. Maybe there was truth to this rumor. We went down to the Piazza and found ourselves surrounded by priests, nuns, monks, and other important religious people. There was a large screen projecting the happenings inside. The Pope was in fact giving a service. A Pope Mobile was parked out front. Some officials were passing around candles that were to be lit as the Pope passed. After what seemed like decades, the service was over. Groups of religious institutions poured out of the basilica and began a parade through Rome. Finally, two Swiss guards positions themselves at the entrance and the Pope appeared. He hopped up on his ride and drove right by us. Just before he passed, I actually received what I believe to be a blessing. Out of nowhere, I felt a splatter on my arm. My first thought was rain or maybe someone was throwing around holy water. False. It was avian fecal matter. Yes, it was bird poo. A sign from God perhaps, but I have yet to determine the message. So, when you are looking at these pictures, remember there is crap on my arm as I took them.
He was happy to see us.

The Pope.

After this we went back to our room. Note that the room does not have AC and it is approximately 214 degrees. The place we are staying claims to be a B&B, but we quickly discovered that it is more a hostel with bread and a toaster. Luckily we didn't pay too much. We are also sharing a bathroom with a couple of other rooms, which hasn't too bad until the French couple left and another family moved in. I swear there are 30 of them in that room. They always close the bathroom door. I think they are trying to make us think it is occupied so the next of their group can use it. Sadly for them, we caught on and are not putting up with their foolery. Here is a picture of the room. Compare with their website and you will notice it doesn't even look like the same place.

A round bed and the Flintstone's closet.

The next day we met up with my friend Daisy from Chapman. She has been travelling by herself and has managed to see a ton of places. We grabbed lunch near the Piazza de la Repubblica.

Afterward we headed to the Trevi fountain. Legend has it that if you throw three coins with your right hand over your left shoulder, either a marriage or a divorce will follow soon. This fact becomes interesting later on.

After the fountain, we went to the Pantheon. It was awesome to see, but it was way too crowded. We then went over to the Piazza Navona and saw the Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini. This very well may be my favorite spot in Rome. It was originally built to be a stadium for chariot racing but later became the Piazza we see today.

Supposed to be an Armadillo. Bernini had clearly never seen one.

Bernini's Four Rivers

Jess and I returned to our Piazza and sat down for dinner at Cafe Merulana, a picturesque cafe near our room. I hadn't planned on proposing here, but the ring was in my pocket and the atmosphere seemed right, so I popped the question. Luckily, she said yes. Oddly enough, we had thrown the coins into the Trevi fountain earlier that day. I was unaware of the legend but was informed of it afterward by Jess. It seems the fountain works quickly. Jess and I took some pictures and then my camera died. We decided to go back and get some sleep.

The ring (at the Colosseum)

The cafe.

The girl at the cafe.

After waking, we decided we wanted to see the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Before we could make it out, we ran into the owner of the hotel, Damiano. He told us the museum and chapel were free on Sundays and recommended we wait. We decided that was good idea. Instead, we headed to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. We waited in line at the Palatine Hill, the shorter of the lines to access these three attractions. It still required a long wait, however. The sites advertise that they accept cards, so we didn't bother grabbing more cash. After waiting for about an hour and a half we reached the front. It seems the card machine was broken. They didn't bother to send someone to inform the people in the line. Such inefficiency and apathy seems to be a common thing in this city. Frustrated, we went to the Colosseum to get in there. Instead of waiting, we decided to pay a tour guide in US dollars and we got in immediately. It was worth it. It was all awesome to see. After returning to our room for a while, we headed to Trastevere for some food. We ate at a place called Trattoria D'Augusto. My brother studied in Rome in college and has not been able to shut up about this place since then. To his credit, it was delicious.

On Sunday we woke up early and went to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. We had been warned not to go on the last Sunday of the month because admission is free and it is too hectic. However, while the line was huge, we eventually got in and saved a ton of money. It is worth doing, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Consider getting there about an hour before they admit the last person and the wait may be very little. Anyway, it was incredible to see. Sadly, they don't allow pictures in the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican mail box!

Later that night, we went to the Spanish Steps. Also cool to see.

This brings us to today, our last day in Rome. We went to finish the essentials: St. Peter's Square and Castel Sant'Angelo. The square was absolutely incredible.

Now, we head to Paris.

6.20.11 - 6.23.11: Don't Play with the Queue

We left KC on the 20th and got to London around 11:00 am on the 21st. We caught the Underground at Heathrow and took it to North Greenwich, the station closest to our hotel. I feel I must take a moment to commend the Underground on its ease and relative cleanliness. Oyster Cards are incredible (look it up if you come) and any place that doesn't use a similar system is missing out. That being said, the Underground has a B.O. issue that should be addressed. Maybe some sort of air conditioning would help. Showering more often could also do the trick (I'm looking at you, Brits).

Anyway, once we got to our hotel we had an epic battle with the lights. We honestly could not figure out how to turn them on. I had to call the front desk. It turns out there was a little slot by the door where you must insert your room key for the lights to come on. At first I felt stupid for not being able to figure this out, but then I decided that the hotel is stupid for allowing such a thing to exist. After turning off the lights (by removing my key card), we took a quick nap. I did not want to get up, but Jess made me. We grabbed some food at a place called Nando's, which serves something they call Peri-Peri chicken, a Portuguese/African recipe supposedly. It was delicious. It reminded me of the chicken at Pardo's (see Afterward, we hopped on the Tube and took it to Westminster, the station that serves Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and other cool stuff. Parliament really is breathtaking. I never knew Big Ben had a lot of gold embellishment, but it does, and it's awesome. After taking way too many pictures, we started walking up the river past the London Eye. We wanted to see the Tower Bridge. It took us a while to figure out that you should not pass the London Eye if you are walking towards the Tower Bridge from Parliament. Not feeling like backtracking that far, we again jumped on the Tube to the bridge.

Some more pictures were taken and then it was time to eat. We found a really cool cafe by an old church. I don't remember the church's name but it was old. Parts of it like 1200s old. The restaurant was Cafe Brood. We had some sangria and paella. A very Spanish meal for a very non-Spanish city. Then sleep time happened.

The next day we went to Wimbledon! Ever since I first played tennis it has always been a dream of mine to go there. Tennis is a much bigger deal in England. There were posters of Andy Murray in subway stations and all over the newspapers. Anyway, we took the Tube to Southfields, the station nearest the All England Tennis Club. This was confusing seeing as there are two stations with the word "Wimbledon" in them. We had to "queue" (wait) in line for a few hours before we could get in. The lines build up very early. Wimbledon reserves a certain number of tickets for the day-of and we were lucky to get them. We only had ground tickets (courts 3-19) but that was definitely okay with me, seeing as the people who got stadium tickets were just waking up in their tents. It didn't rain at all until we got into the grounds, and then it poured. All we got to see was some player training with her coach before it started. Regardless, matches still went on in Centre Court (because it's covered) and we still got to see all the courts and Henman Hill/Murray Mountain.

Waiting in the queue, queueing cards in hand.

Ball boys covering court because it started to rain.

After we got back to the hotel, we dropped off some stuff and went to the Sainsbury's to grab some bagels for our early morning trip to Stansted Airport. We grabbed the sought after baked good and went to pay. The lines were very long, so Jess and I split up to see which line would move faster. The British man behind me did not like this at all. Out of nowhere I hear, "You might as well go over there with your friend, because I am going after him," pointing to the man in front of me. I told him that is not how things work. He became very flustered and reminded me that I wasn't holding anything. Sorry, I mean he reminded me that I wasn't "f*cking holding anything." I fixed that problem by calling Jess over and now I was holding something. He started yelling and said, "You're f*cking playing with the queue. You can't f*cking play with the queue. I am going next. You might as well f*cking leave." First off, it's a line, not a queue. Deal with it. Secondly, we didn't leave, in fact, we made damn sure we went next. After paying for our bagels, I walked back to him, gave him a good point, and said some inappropriate things that I won't mention here. Austin 1, angry English guy 0. We walked away victoriously, delicious cinnamon-raisin bagels in hand. Jess: I would like to thank you for your support, I could not have done it without you. Nothing much happened between this and our arrival in Rome, where way too much happened. I will post about that later. We just finished walking all day and I am exhausted. Will get more time in London in a couple of weeks, so I am sure I will have more to tell.