11 September 2009

Mapless Travel

My first trip to Europe was in the spring of 2005. My friend Regina and I had never been across the Atlantic, and although I had always imagined my first European trip to Spain or Greece – Rome was close enough. We booked airline tickets and rented a flat in the Flaminio neighborhood near Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. No whirlwind tour of all the great European cities, but rather a one-week intimate affair with Rome and a one-night stand with Florence.

While I only got to see the outside of the Colosseum and never made it to the Roman Forum, I spent an afternoon traipsing the outskirts of Rome in La Garbatella, a working-class neighborhood built between the 1920s and 1940s with winding streets, sweeping staircase entries, courtyard gardens, and even a peek at stockings and handkerchiefs hanging in the breeze out a window. I half expected to see a young woman in a sailor-top dress and finger-waved hair ride down the street on a three-speed bicycle to meet her soldier at the cinema. We did however encounter two elder women walking home from the corner market and more than happy to chat with us even though we didn’t understand each other.

On another afternoon, I rambled – mapless and alone – the cobblestoned labyrinth roads of the Renaissance era districts. Wearing a brand new, bright red Pashmina scarf I bought from a street vendor and relishing a cup of gelato, I stumbled upon the Pantheon. As I turned the corner, without any warning from a travel book, there it stood in front of me in all its majesty. Later that day, in search of a music school I had read about, I met Julia, an expatriate woman from Indiana who worked for the United Nations and played in a traditional jazz band in the Caffe Latino by Monte Testaccio, a hill made of pottery fragments coming entirely from the jars used to transport grains and liquids into Ancient Rome.

On my way back to the Flaminio, I stopped anywhere that caught my eye – for a glass of wine here, or a cup of espresso there – which meant I missed the last train on Line A. After wandering lost for four hours up and down the Tiber, into and out of any old square or fountain that seemed to lead the way back to the flat, I called Julia the expatriate trombonist who gave me instructions on how to find her – we drank wine, smoked cigarettes, and ate the best Italian food somewhere in the Trastevere, the oldest and last surviving intact quarter in Rome.

I could have planned out more of my trip and seen more historic landmarks, or remembered more places that I could recommend for you to visit. I can’t tell you where I stopped for coffee this one night, but I can tell you that as I sat to write in my journal on the sidewalk café in the middle of seemingly nowhere Rome, I could see the flickering yellow street lamps illuminating crumbled remnants of non-descript ruins, I could smell fresh bread being baked down the street, and I could hear conversations weaving between Italian and Hebrew. I had landed somewhere in another time and another place, never to be found again except by chance.

UMG’s CULTURE MASH RECOMMENDATION OF THE MONTH: I always used to say that Milto’s Pizza Pub should be renamed because it is so much more than a pizza pub, even though their pizzas with a Neapolitan thin crust or Sicilian thick crust are a specialty. Their lasagna, gyros, and salads are just the thing your mother would like you to eat when you dine out. (Well, if you had a Greek or Italian, or maybe even a Mexican mother.) So I had been repulsed by black olives for years until I had the Greek salad at Milto's with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, cucumbers, feta, and kalamata olives. I fell in love with olives for the first time. Milto's is my gyro! (And is now more appropriately named Milto’s Mediterranean Café.)

Click here to read the published version of the article in the September issue of TODO Austin.

Click here to view photos from UMG's adventures in Rome.

1 comment:

  1. Found your blog while looking to see who else had listed FELLINI'S ROMA as a favorite film. I like your writing style. I was surprised to see a number of similar interests that we share.
    I've always considered myself pretty well-traveled even though I've never been out of North America, and there is enough here to keep a traveler busy for a lifetime. Your recounting of your visit to Italy put me in mind of some of the scenes in ROMA.
    I was recently in Austin (one of my daughters is getting her doctorate at UT). I like that part of the country. When I think about it, I start craving the homey southern-style vegetables they have at Threadgill's. Can't find much like those around where I live in L.A.
    I'll add my name to your blog as a follower -- hope you keep posting. Come visit my blog and see what you think -- it's a bit different than what you're doing, but then again maybe not so much. If you add on as a follower that would be good too.