Friday, October 29, 2010

Rome, day 2 ... Money

Settling in. Today's first order of business was changing money. As I must pay for my apartment in Florence with cash, I brought a fair amount of dollars with me, thinking that it would be easier and cheaper to change them to euros than pulling euros directly out of my accounts via ATM. Not so. First, people I talked to, including the B&B owner, did not know of any banks or change agencies that would take dollars. Walking around I found that banks here do not let people enter unless they have an account with that particular bank. There were no large banks with several people waiting for tellers. Rather they were small, cramped spaces where only one person at a time could do business.

I found a tourist information booth and was told there was one cambio outlet on our side of the River (the Vatican is on one site of the Tiber, while most of the other sights are on the other). I found when I got there that there was a 10% fee for exchange and the rates weren't all that hot either. It was a shock to find out that while Yahoo and other currency conversion tables I looked at said the Euro was worth $1.36, when I got here I found that the Euro cost anywhere from $1.47 to $1.69. Makes a difference in a 1200 euro/month rental. Thinking that there might be more choices across the river, I walked on, and did indeed find the $1.47 price without the 10% fee. Dollars to euros.

Another surprise was the fact that all restaurants and shops do not take VISA or any other credit card. Smart idea, but inconvenient to say the least. Even my B&B owner, while he will accept VISA, would prefer cash. I've done most of my traveling in Asia and Central America, where the dollar has been welcomed. Not so in Europe. The sense of the power of the greenback is diminished.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rome, a vacation at last..

And then, I got to the B&B in Rome after an uneventful taxi ride. It's a lovely city, I try to tell the cab driver. "si" Is this the Vatican? "si" Are we almost there? "si" No one is at the desk at the address I'm given. I call. No one. Finally, Mauricio comes bounding down the stairs, trying to tell me that Cristiano is not here just now, but come, come. Cristiano will be here in a 1 1/2 hours, he says.OK, I say, but my baglio is lost (half Spanish/half Italia) Perdito? Si. Oh. Cris will come soon.
Cris came soon. A tall, friendly looking man; two 10 year old girls off in the other room. One is his daughter; the other her friend. They are shy; Cris is not. He feels like a haven. He calls baggage delivery company and they tell him they will deliver it sometime tomorrow morning. Va bene. I am still awake from the adrenaline and I ask about computer access. He gives me the code, and we work on connecting my computer to the wi-fi. Tutto va bene. The girls interrupt with the bon bons I brought for Cris from Heathrow. It is as if a matter of course that I brought a gift, but they thank me sincerely.

I got to bed and sleep at once. One wake up at about 1:30 and then back to sleep until 9:30. At breakfast I meet a couple from Holland who speak English.

And then I'm off to the Vatican for my 1:00 tour date. I don't usually take tours, but with the amount of stuff I know I'm about to see, this is important. I don't have a camera, because it's in my luggage (dont ask why) so I'm free to soak it all in without the thought of reproduction. For those of you who've seen the Vatican I'll just say "you were right. it's astonishing. I'm really happy that I finally got here." We've all seen pictures of it and read about it, and wondered about the power of popes who could have put together such a collection. Now I wonder more. I guess they were the rock stars, billionaires, atheletes and most powerful, famous people of their day . The popes collected and displayed the most opulent, over the top, and beautiful assemblage of art and architecture imaginable. That it came to them from religion and power and exploitation may be unconscionable, but here it is for us to see (if we're lucky enough to come to Rome).

The tour guide was fantastic. She knew history, art and religion. She knew how much to talk and how much to leave us to wander. She knew how many pieces to stop for and how much to skip. Her voice came clearly to us over remote speaker/ear plug device that we carried in our pockets and in our ears. So I could wander a room or two away and still hear her talking to the group,

I think Rafael surprised me the most. I was moved to tears by the library/office room where the four walls and ceiling were painted to depict the four intellectual treasures of this pope (who's name I can't remember): philosophy, theology, poetry and law. Socrates (whose face was Leonardo da Vinci), Plato, Michaelangelo (a twisted, neurotic figure at the bottom of the wall) and Rafael himself inspired the Pope while he was at work in his office.

The Sistine Chapel... the more I looked at it, the more beautiful and amazing it became. The perspective and sheer brilliance of the ceiling design was astounding. He had to incorporate the curve of the ceiling and did so by using a system of triangle and two different sizes of rectangular shapes. The figures of the prophets leap off the ceiling in tromp l'oeil technique. Three of the paintings of creation were especially amazing to me ... the separation of light and dark, the creation of the sun and the moon, and the creation of man. These three have distinctly dual form .... light and dark; sun and moon (with a light and dark background), and man and god reaching for each other on a light and dark background. When the serpent enters the garden, the dualism ends. The center becomes the tree of knowledge and after that man becomes the center of the canvas.

A Tale of 5 Airports

SFO-O'Hare-JFK-Heathrow-Fiumincino(Rome)/. It started out pretty copacetic as friend Robert picked me up and deposited me at BART. No delays, BART goes directly from about 15 minutes from Benicia to the SFO. No crowds, check-in was a breeze, as was security. Flight smooth, landed almost on time at O'Hare. Nice hotel, country-like setting, comfortable sleep. And then, a storm came in overnight, and I woke to wind, rain, and news that a tornado had touched down in or near Chicago. Still, my flight was not to leave until 1 pm and the weather was supposed to let up.
Arrived at O'Hare in plenty of time, again, easy check in (things are going too smoothly), and boarded early. On the tarmack, Captain Mullins (in a lovely, thick Boston accent) says, "JFK tells us that they don't have space and ability to let us land there, so we're going to have to park here for a while... will let you know when I hear more". Ten minutes later, calm as an ocean breeze, he tells us (again I'm charmed by the accent) "They say we're going to be here for about 2 hours. But in 25 years of flying I can tell you for sure that this can change in a minute." Murmers about connections in NY to Frankfurt, Madrid, Milan, and Mumbai. My flight to Rome leaves NY 1 hour after we were supposed to arrive. The flight attendant quickly senses danger. "I'll just go check and see if he's kidding."
We drive to the holding area for sad, unwanted planes. The wind buffets us about. The captain tells us that they've decided we need to go back to the gate before the plane is torn to bits by a tornado or something. We are told we can de-plane but be back in 30 minutes. No information about connections or what will happen to us in NY. Perhaps we'll be put on another flight (maybe first class?), or put up in a hotel. I'm thinking that maybe I should change my plans and spend a month on the east coast instead of going to Italy. The leaves are beautiful at this time of year, aren't they?
I practice mediation and equanimity now. In the universal sense this is not a problem, it can be overcome, getting upset will only serve to raise my bloodpressure, and who's to say that it might not be as bad as I expect. A "service" agent is at the gate, and a woman standing in front of me is raising her voice, "but that's 24 hours from now!!" My turn and he says, "I'm afraid it's the same for you. You'll be diverted to Heathrow and then take a flight from there to Rome." Equanimity now.
On the flight to Heathrow I was surrounded by Brits. I love their calm, show no emotion, slightly humorous from above take on things. Suddenly, I felt better, know that the empire would prevail, no matter what, and the only thing to fear was fear itself, man the torpedos, full speed ahead, and laugh if they laugh at you. And I managed to sleep about an hour on that 7 hour, overnight flight.
Arrived to a 3 hour wait at Heathrow. Thought I'd change some money, look for a pre-paid mobile phone that would work in Europe (didn't find one) and get breakfast. The STarbucks looked tempting, but egad! I'm in England .. forget about STarbucks!! Pret's Porridge looked like British fast food and who doesn't love porridge, the ultimate comfort food? Warm, creamy bowl of rice porridge with some nice grapes on the side cheered me right up, and I waited calmly for my flight. Emailed Rome to let them know when I'd arrive; prayed that my luggage (which was still foolishly check --more about this another time) would arrive also, I sat quietly, cooling off from hot flashes and/or nervousness.
Last leg uneventful. One quiet young Italian man sitting on my left, very apologetic when he needed to get up to use the bathroom; another very loud, nervous, demanding Italian man sitting on my right, irate that the flight was 10 minutes late getting off the ground and letting me know that there was no excuse for the British to run an airline this way. I gave him a cough drop and he fell asleep.

Arrived Fiumincino 8 hours later than expected on time, called the hotel, waited for luggage, waited for luggage ... how could my bag have possibly made it from Chicago, through all of those changes, when I barely made it myself? Polite service agent let me know that they knew where the bag was ... it was left behind at Heathrow, as he put it, and it would be coming in at 8:00 that night and delivered to my hotel. I felt good, knowing that it was there, traveling, like me, sola. We would be reunited soon.