Back in 2020, I was graciously provided an opportunity to go on a trip to Italy, along with my brother Josiah, his girlfriend Zondra, and his singing group. Unfortunately, covid ruined that plan, as the world went on pause. However, two years later, we were finally able to take that trip! This is an account of the first few days there. Ultimately, my Italy vacation is going to end up being a multi-post series of sorts because of how many activities we crammed into the time we had.
Strangely, this was the first time I’ve had a lot of anxiety about a vacation. Back in 2020, I was more prepared for the trip and was excited and ready, but this time around, I was not. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go on the trip, so I had thrown myself into my daily life for the last two years, working and dealing with the stress that covid brought to everyone around the world, consciously and subconsciously. Regretfully, I admit that I could’ve started preparing for the trip sooner when I found out a few months ago that we’d be going after all now in 2022, but I think covid sapped me of feelings of certainty and I focused on other things, amidst surviving seasonal depression. This led to me being very stressed out when the time came, for a variety of reasons. I will say that when I arrived though, I was excited again and the stress was gone. Maybe another lesson for me to let go and just flow…
The first leg of the trip began with me waking up at 3am and getting to the airport by 4am to meet with everyone. The flight to Chicago was brief and we arrived there bright and early in the morning. As our flight did not leave until the late afternoon, we had a lot of time on our hands. After caffeinating, I sat at an empty gate for the first few hours, cleaning out photos from my phone library to make space for the inevitable load of photos I’d be taking in Italy. At noon, Josiah, Zondra, and I went to lunch, where we spent the majority of the time doing a crash course of Italian phrases we’d need to know on our trip. I had been kicking myself because I had not been studying Italian and I knew absolutely nothing. Weirdly, being someone who is fascinated with language in general and who has dabbled in many languages, Italian is not a language I’ve ever thought to try out. So, crash course it was for me. After lunch, we wandered for a while and got our steps in, apparently, according to my phone, clocking in a whopping 4.2 miles of walking for the day. Chicago airport is no joke when it comes to size. At 4pm, we began the boarding process on our red-eye flight to Rome. When I got on the plane, I popped an extra-strength melatonin to help me fall asleep and reset my body clock. It worked very well to bring me the fatigue I wanted, but I found on the ascent that it triggered some really intense motion sickness for me, so I spent the first hour and a half sipping ginger ale and battling nausea. My stomach settled after the ginger ale and an in-flight dinner of salad and Moroccan chicken, and I tried to get myself as comfortable as I could on a plane for sleep. I slept lightly, having short dreams of the Italian phrases I had been learning, and I woke up quite a few times, but I think I got in about five hours of rest before waking up fully for breakfast. They served us granola, yoghurt, and fig bars and I quickly and gratefully downed a cup of coffee as well. It was 9am in Rome when we touched down and after gathering everyone’s luggage, we were off to the hotel.
The bus dropped us off a few blocks away from the hotel, due to the smaller streets, and we lugged our bags down there and were luckily able to check in and the majority of us got our rooms right away. Part of the group started a walking tour right off the bat, but Josiah, Zondra, and I had not signed up for it and the three of us were able to go to our room to freshen up and relax for a bit. After a bit of recuperation, we explored the area surrounding our hotel. I have never been to mainland Europe, so I was absolutely blown away by everything around me. I loved seeing ancient ruins in the midst of modern buildings. We spent most of our time visiting the Vittoriano, a beautiful national monument and modern forum that you can go inside and visit for free. At the top, we took in the views of Rome and picked out landmarks. Inside there were beautiful sculptures and art, which again, blew me away. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of our group for our first big tour, a walking food tour in Trastevere. Our guide, Francesco, met us at a cafe to begin. We all got our radios and earbuds and headed off to our first stop, which was a restaurant that served us fried artichokes – carciofi alla giudia – a delicious and famous dish of the Roman Jewish Ghetto there. We also were served our first glasses of wine. On the way to our next stop, we were shown the sights along the way, getting mini history lessons. When we arrived, we were ushered into a small restaurant in a wine cellar, where we were served more wine and a small plate of bread and wine braised pork. The food was absolutely fantastic and the ambience was unique. The singers of the group, including Josiah, got together afterwards and did a short performance and it was truly beautiful with the acoustics of the cellar. When we came back out into the alleyway again, two of the singers each did pieces as thanks to the chef, and he greatly appreciated it and gifted them each a bottle of wine. It was a special moment. Our next stop was a cookie shop, where the singers again did an impromptu performance of a song for onlookers, while vespas and cars squeezed by our group in the street. Everyone enjoyed it and afterwards, we ate lots of cookies. We moved on next to a church, where our guide wanted to show us a mural of the Virgin Mary. However, being Good Friday, things were not as they usually were and a mass had just ended. We were allowed in as long as we were only there briefly and were quiet. The mural was not illuminated, to the disappointment of Francesco, and there were many people there sitting in silence and praying. He quietly tried to speak to us in his mic, but got chided by a woman in front of him and we quickly left, to my amusement. He apologized and jokingly said that we “just had to choose the day Jesus is dead,” and we all laughed it off and moved on. Next we stopped at a shop that gave us beer and bread with marinated slices of pork on top. It was juicy and flavorful and I had another glass of beer afterwards, as there was still some leftover. Then we went to a popular suppli restaurant and each got to have one. Sort of like arancini, it was risotto, sauce, and mozzarella, deep fried as an oblong ball of yum. Then, we walked to another restaurant, where we were seated in a courtyard and were served pasta and even more wine. One of the singers sang again for the chef as thanks afterwards and we made our way to our final stop: gelato. Everyone was excited and fully comfortable by that point and some of the girls joked around with the guide about Italian, while we waited in the long line. The street was quite narrow and I was shocked at how closely cars and vans drove by us. They were close enough to run over your toes if you didn’t pull your feet back and you could practically breathe on the windows. It was equal parts somewhat concerning, but also amusing. When I finally got to the head of the line, I got hazelnut and crema gelato and gobbled it all up. Then everyone went their separate ways back to the hotel, some having left earlier and some taking taxis. We formed a small group and decided to walk back to our hotel. It was well after 9pm at that point and we got to experience the nightlife of Rome. The streets were crowded and young people were smoking and drinking in squares, while others were still sitting outside and eating at restaurants, as Italians tend to eat dinner later than we do in the states. There was music and enticing smells of food and perfume of wisterias that filled the air and the buildings were illuminated by lamps and string lights. It was a long, but magical walk back and when we arrived at the hotel again, it was just about 10pm. After a shower and setting things out for the next day, I fell asleep while being serenaded by the night sounds outside my window.
The next day we woke up early and grabbed a quick breakfast on the hotel rooftop before heading out on our full-day Rome tour. We drove to the Vatican Museums, where we met our guides. We were split into two groups, one for each guide, and our guide was Maria Elena. She had been a guide for a long time and was extremely knowledgeable. She led us inside the entrance, where we showed our vaccine cards and were ushered through the metal detectors. There were hundreds of people inside, all huddled in their own groups. We had a quick bathroom break and received our tickets and then we all got new radios and earbuds, because the Vatican apparently has strict rules about using their radios instead of our own for tour groups. They were not nearly as good as ours though, and I spent a lot of the tour readjusting the earbud as it constantly fell off of my ear. We entered and got a quick rundown of the art we were going to see. Then, we began touring the halls of art on the way to the Sistine Chapel. We started by looking at richly colored mosaics and sculptures and then a hall of very impressive tapestries. One that we briefly paused at was made out of gold, silver, and silk. It was massive and I stood there in wonder, imagining just how long it might have taken to complete such a project. When we reached the Sistine Chapel, we were told that we were not allowed to photograph anything and we had to remain silent. We were then ushered into the center of the room by the security guards and Maria left us with 15 minutes on our own to take it all in. It was absolutely astounding. The colors were magnificent and vibrant. There was seldom a spot on the ceiling that wasn’t covered in something. In the center was the Creation of Adam and it felt unreal seeing it in person. I admired it for a good long while, feeling like I was dreaming. The details were intricate. When we were finished basking in the art, we moved on and got incredibly lucky for the next leg of our adventure. We made our way down a long hallway and exited outside, where Maria asked a guard something in Italian and then looked really excited. We apparently were going to have the opportunity to visit the Basilica and we didn’t have to hop into the line to do so since we were a tour group. She said that this was a very lucky thing and we excitedly hustled over to the entrance. I was again in awe as things I had only ever seen in pictures were now in front of me in real life. Being the day before Easter, they were busy preparing for the mass. We entered and paid an extra fee to use our radios and then were immediately allowed to actually enter the Basilica. Maria was through the roof with excitement. I felt like this couldn’t possibly be real life. It was stunning inside. The mosaics were so detailed that they looked like paintings. The decorations were lavishly ornate. The statues were giant. I was dazed. At the front was the high altar and I felt instantly that this was an extremely significant moment and an opportunity that didn’t come around everyday. We spent a while in there, admiring everything and listening to Maria educate us on each statue and piece of art. She was absolutely in her element and it was so wonderful to be able to witness and experience it. Afterwards we stopped at the gift shop and sat outside to rest our feet, as I still marveled at my experience. We then made our way to our bus and drove to the Coliseum for our next stop.
At the Coliseum we were given some time to eat lunch and the three of us went off to hunt for a restaurant. We found one on a street corner and were seated outside. We tried ordering in Italian and Josiah had his first faux pas with Italian, accidentally ordering penne with corpses instead of penne with salmon, which we all cackled about afterwards. After that, we ate gelato and met up with everyone at the Coliseum. It was quite warm and I think everyone was starting to get worn out from the sun when we began our tour, but it was still very cool to see the Coliseum in person. We brushed past many groups as we listened to the history of the building process and the events that it held and at the top we got to view the center of it. It was a fairly brief tour and then we made our way into the Forum. We were a bit short on time due to the bathroom break that took a chunk of time out of our tour (curse those long lines to the women’s room), but we were able to view the arch of Titus and see some of the other ruins before finishing the tour. It was impressive to me that buildings hundreds and even thousands of years old were still standing tall, even if they had taken damage from the years. I was breathing and touching history.
That evening, we again had free time to find dinner on our own, so after relaxing in our hotel room and waiting for restaurants to open for dinner, we headed out for one nearby. At dinner, we all did much better at ordering in Italian. I apologized in advance to the waiter if I butchered the title to my meal because it was so lengthy, but he said I did very well. All of our meals were delicious and of course, we all enjoyed a glass of wine. After dinner, we walked back and went up to the rooftop American-style bar at the hotel. I was confused when I first arrived in Rome as to why they called it an American-style bar, but after some observation I realized that a bar for them is actually a cafe and not a typical bar as we would know it in the states. I ordered my favorite cocktail, a white Russian, and we all enjoyed some complimentary bar snacks together. The night was breezy and cool after sunset and the atmosphere was quite cozy with all of the low lights and flowers growing along the walls. When I crawled into bed later, I was again serenaded by the night noises outside my window and I settled in to sleep to prepare me for the next chapter of our Italian adventure.