Monday, December 4, 2017

Thanksgiving in Rome | Part I

November 23-24, 2017

Thanksgiving Day - the bulk of it, anyway - is spent 40,000 feet in the air. We leave on Wednesday evening, the airport eerily quiet for a holiday weekend, and stop first in Atlanta then Amsterdam then finally, as the sun sets on Thursday evening, Rome.

Our taxi driver - a meticulously dressed man who hides his cigarette butt in a potted plant upon seeing us - takes us through the city to our hotel, a narrow structure in a line of row houses. My two siblings and I share a room - the best room, it turns out, of everyone else in our family - with a spacious bathroom and a balcony that overlooks the neighborhoods across the street. Our neighborhood, strangely, reminds me of Mannheim, where I lived whilst studying abroad in Germany: the buildings are older and beige-colored and the walls are coated in graffiti.

There are nine of us on this trip, and we meet up for dinner at a tiny place called Minerva a few streets down from our hotel. The waitress gives us free bruschetta and lemon sorbetto along with our meal, and though it doesn't feel like Thanksgiving, it does feel nice to all be eating together.

The next morning we head to the Vatican, where we meet up with Dino, a native Italian with a PhD in Vatican History who is a friend of one of our party members. He takes us through the various galleries and exhibits inside the Vatican's walls, expertly pointing out not only historical importances but also "curiosities" - unusual happenings or facts contained within the Vatican's walls. We spend a long time within St. Peter's Basilica, the tallest dome in the world built 30 feet above the supposed burial site of Peter (Jesus' apostle), and walk among the tombs of old popes. My favorite part, naturally, is the Sistine Chapel. It's far, far larger than I expected, and photos aren't allowed so I have none to share, but it's breathtaking beautiful. Everything from the marble floors to the iconic ceiling painted by Michelangelo are marvels, and just as with the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's David statue, it's hard to believe I'm standing in front of a timeless masterpiece that I've seen pictures of since my elementary school days.

We stop along Borgo Pio for lunch, then head onward to Largo di Torre Argentina, a square full of ancient Roman ruins that also doubles as a cat sanctuary. The more feral cats don't like to be touched, though they don't mind when people stand close to them or give them food, so we walk around the square, petting the ones that let us touch them, before heading underground to the cat sanctuary built into the side of the square, where many of the cats are domesticated and available for adoption.

My favorite way to learn a new city is to wander around by foot, and after the stopping at Largo di Torre Argentina, that's exactly what we do. It's a mile and a half to walk back to our hotel, and we take it slowly, loosely following the route Google maps laid out for us and winding our way through Rome's numerous cobblestoned alleys. We stop for wine along the way, splitting bottles among the group and watching the sun set early behind the Vatican. 

Later that evening, our group splits up and four of us head back out for drinks. We stop first at a tiny restaurant and sit at a table tucked into the basement corner, sipping limoncello and wine, then we go back out and stop at a corner cafe, where we split "nutella pizza" (some sort of pastry with nutella slathered on top) and more drinks, and an espresso for me.

As we head back to our hotel, finally ready to sleep despite the time lurch of jet lag, it hits me that I'm bizarrely comfortable here. I've never been to Rome before but I feel almost instantly at home in a strange, nostalgic way. The graffiti-lined streets of our neighborhood, the cobblestone roads, and rundown little shops along narrow alleyways, the tiny cars parked tightly together - it's all reminiscent of my previous six months on the continent. And with it, too, I feel the faint traces of the emotional pull of the previous time: the city feels lonely to me, because I know that's how I often felt when I was last in Europe, and I can't help but be happy that I haven't made this trip alone but am instead with the people I know best.
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