Archive for the 'Rome' Category

Occupy Nazionale Street: Yes We Camp and Entering the Underbelly

The helicopters throbbed in the pink dusk above Rome. Police cars parked diagonally, blocking off the black-stone artery of Via Nazionale, usually clogged with cars and buses and motorbikes. You could hear the echo of chants, megaphones—see a crowd assembled, way down there, at the street’s end. The stone gleamed like water.

It was not a particularly Roman moment. Or maybe it was. At least, it wasn’t the Rome that the tourists thronging the sidewalk had come to see. But I suppose that’s the thing about Rome: it’s got all that history, but it’s been a continually inhabited city too. It’s not a museum; people still live there.

When I’m in Rome, I always think of that scene in Fellini’s Roma, when they’re trying to build a Metro stop and they find some ancient villa beneath the city. It’s a Catch-22: you can’t just bulldoze the shit, it’s got archaeological importance and is beautiful, beautiful—but fuck, it’d be nice to have a functional Metro system too.


“Entering the Underbelly”


“Frescoes”

In any event, I was taking an evening stroll, sat on a bench and noticed what we used to call a Ghetto Bird whomping around in the sky above the historical center. Hmmm, strange. Strolled more and reached Via Nazionale, which was largely shut off by police cars, men in uniforme standing around, waving traffic away. (You can only imagine the clusterfuck of Roman rush-hour traffic this created.)

Way down at the end of the street, towards the uplit splendor of the Palazzo delle Esposizoni, I could see a mass of people gathered, making a small ruckus. I moved down to check it out.

Around me, the sidewalks were swarmed with tourists. That’s the other thing about Rome: it is un-fucking-real to me how many Americans there are there. You know, they always talk about how Americans don’t travel, but you really wouldn’t know it from the looks of Rome. Or maybe it’s just that we only go to two places: Paris and Rome. I mean, Rome’s great, but it kinda makes me want to pull people aside, let them know, you know, it’s a big world out there. And with an American passport, you can go see a lot of it. But I suppose I understand the appeal—so much history, and for us, a country with so little, it’s mind-blowing.

Anyway, I spotted a guy with a big phat professional camera around his neck, watched him go out into the middle of the empty street and crouch down and get what I’m supposing were some phenomenal shots of the crowd. I wandered around and fiddled with the settings on my point-and-shoot and eventually gave up and walked through the crowd.

The steps of the Palazzo were littered with kids, 20-somethings, smoking and drinking and eating and talking and huddled up against a night that must have felt cold to them. Further down, near a makeshift mesh-fence of a police barricade, a couple hundred Roman young people milled around, toting signs and starting chants and calling into a megaphone and generally looking like they were waiting for something to happen.

Nothing ever did. A couple of the police vans had signs taped to them: “Yes We Camp.” A sit-in/camp-in, a protest. I stay vaguely abreast of world politics enough to know that the economic situation in Italy is fucked—not as fucked as Greece, but not great. Unemployment is high, the economy’s in the shitter, and that day, October 12, it was announced that the Prime Minister would face a vote of no confidence.

So people have a lot to be riled up about, a lot to protest and fight against. But it felt sort of anti-climatic, to be honest—all that great width of Nazionale shut off, the helicopter and fleet of cop cars, and the protest felt modest in comparison. Protesters were pretty well-behaved and I lingered for a good half-hour, without anything really happening.

But here’s the thing: it was oddly reminiscent of the protest I’d passed by the previous week—you know, that Occupy Wall Street thing. Some of the signs protesters toted had references to it, and the spirit seemed largely the same: young middle-class people upset and in the street. Of course, the “Yes We Camp” referenced the Obama campaign and, further back from the crowd, someone had hitched a tent in the middle of Nazionale, anti-capitalist signs out front.

All I could think was: Shit’s spreading.

What that means, I dunno. No one knows yet. And that’s the exciting thing, the thing that I gleaned the most from my visit to Occupy Wall Street: it’s not so much about the thing itself (which one writer likened to “the grass seats of a Dave Matthew’s Band concert”), which can be frankly underwhelming—it’s about the conversations it’s starting, the sparks it’s creating, the reaction it’s evoking from the powers that be: threatened evictions and street closures and a Ghetto Bird in the sky above the tourist center of Rome.

Shit’s getting stirred up, people are getting engaged for the first time in what feels like forever, and you can’t contain that. Especially not now, in our era of social media. It’s cool as hell.

But this fight wasn’t mine, and besides, it was largely in Italian. So I trundled off to the English-speaking meeting I’d come to Via Nazionale for, and later went back to my B&B and Googled the hell out it. Turns out it was a preview of coming attractions: bigger protests are planned for October 15, today. And I’m out of Rome now, in a quiet seaside town about to shut up shop for the season—but I can still follow along on the internet.

And that’s the thing about this era, this fight, which is so strikingly similar to the fights popping up all over the globe right now: it’s a living thing (like Rome), and you can follow along anywhere, and you can live it too.

For more/better photos, follow this link.

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Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?'” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.

Italy

Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…

Montenegro

If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.

Albania

At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.

Thank God for San Lorenzo Street Art

The last full day of my trip: drizzly grey and a mounting head cold, city still shuddering from the previous night’s storm. I would not be stopped by the weather or my health (I really should have been stopped by that) or my impending departure or my own crappy attitude. I was going to go out and find something cool. Goddamnit.

It was more than my intuition that told me that Something Cool would be in San Lorenzo. It was Jessica from Rome Photo Blog. Specifically, she told me: “Go to San Lorenzo. Take the number 14 street car. There’s lots of cool street art.” It seemed a good enough activity for my final day in Europe. Because Lord knows I hadn’t tromped around in the rain hunting down street art enough on the trip.

I like Rome’s neighborhoods. I supposed every city has its distinct neighborhoods with their distinct vibes, but for some reason the differences feel more marked in Rome, where perhaps the centuries have dug those differences down deep, deeper than in other places. The center, while magnificent, bums me out and exhausts me, with its gaggles of people and trinket shops. There’s not a lot of contemporary culture to dig into. And contemporary culture is kind of what I’m all about.

Typical crumbling building

San Lorenzo is one of Rome’s hippest neighborhoods. It’s the bombed-out, more gentrified version of Pigneto—or rather, it’s formerly bombed-out and further along the gentrification scale from Pigneto. The working-class 19th-century neighborhood received the heaviest bombing during WWII, and I don’t know if all that crumble I saw was a remnant of that or just a result of the usual Italian building decay. Either way, it was fucking cool. There’s a lot less immigrants than in nearby Pigneto, and the neighborhood seems to have moved deeply into the third stage of gentrification: when the local business begin catering to the new residents. San Lorenzo’s proximity to the enormous La Sapienza university means there’s tons of students and tons of artists, with a proportionate ton of trendy stores and cool record shops and cafes with wifi.

And a whole mess of graffiti and street art.

I hopped off the tram when the walls began to resemble a two year old’s furious crayon scribbling.

I was delighted to see some good ol’ Space Invader the moment I got off the 14. He’d recently come to Rome, and has an upcoming solo exhibition in the city. Word has it (ok, Jessica told me) that Roman street artists are pretty stoked about Invader’s, um, invasion (I hate myself for using that pun)—hoping it’ll lend a little more attention and validity to their own work.

I wandered about a bit, until I found what I was looking for: Something Extremely Cool. Along Via Delgi Ausoni, on a wall surrounding the block-long Fondazione Cavalieri di Colombo, was the best street art I found in the city. It was like the Clarion Alley of Rome.


Hey, Ekua, check it out: a whole wall of Hopnn!





Okay, so the picture doesn’t give you the full effect, but a shadow/inverse of the stencil was actually put on the sidewalk in front of the wall as well—so it felt like you were walking through some weird mirror of the piece. Cool ass effect.




Too cool for just one picture…

This reminds me of Retna:



I’m not totally sure what’s going on here, whether the figures were wheatpastes that got taken down, or if that was an effect was created intentionally—but a pretty fresh, haunting effect, especially given the message written:

But to be fair, most of the stuff on the walls in San Lorenzo looks like this:

Okay, so I’m gonna be the asshole and say it: this is not aesthetically pleasing. But it reminded me of this conversation I had with Pedro at Fame Festival, about the need to create urban spaces designated for street art, like they have in Melbourne or in that tunnel in London. I can totally feel people when they complain about piss-poor chicken-scratch tagging all over their neighborhoods; it’s ugly. But cities need to have some kinda strategy towards graffiti that goes beyond just prevention.

When I was growing up, the Oakland Public Schools had a full-time employee whose sole job was to go around and paint over graffiti on all the school campuses. Which seems like a damn waste of resources. The sad thing, to me, is that these kids obviously have something to say, something they wanted to communicate, and no other way to do it. I think it’s important to create those spaces, walls and zones where they can throw up pieces—to give kids the space to say what they need to say. (I’m assuming this is what’s being discussed in this news coverage of Pedro’s Crono Lisboa project…)

Because you never know which one of them just might grow up to be a dope street artist. And because it limits the amount of tagging elsewhere. And because it looks cool as shit.

I’m not sure what all that has to do explicitly with San Lorenzo, except that I was thinking about that as I wandered around the neighborhood. Here’s some more stuff I spotted:

This C215 piece was actually on the wall of a church. It blended so well I wasn’t sure if it was street art or the church’s actual art work until I saw the signature logo:


Lots of stores had pieces on their shutters…




But I think my favorite might have been pieces that worked with the crumbling facades of San Lorenzo. I get pretty stoked on well-done site-specific street art, when the environment and the art interact with and inform each other…



Walking around there, damp-footed and achy-throated, I had to say a little thank you to San Lorenzo, for giving me one last cool adventure on my trip. And for reminding me that Rome is more than history and monuments—that it’s a damn big city, and a damn great city, and that there is contemporary culture—just beneath the surface, below the rubble, just a short tram ride from the center.

Albanian Death Flu, and The End to a Charmed Trip

Dog is my co-pilot?

It had been the best trip I’d ever been on. And, you know, I’ve been on a few trips.

But at last it happened: the perfect constellation that had hung above my trip cracked, shattered, rained down in a million filaments on to my cigarette-stained clothes until the smell writhed back out of rank layers. Not that I could smell it.

On my best trips—well, no, even on my worst trips—I don’t really feel in charge. That’s one of the things I love about traveling: it shatters any illusions of being in control, of running the show, so to speak. Serendipity drives the car; you just ride shotgun.

And I’d been really quite pleased with Serendipity’s navigational prowess on my latest trip, taking me to random small towns, big crazy cities, introducing me to rad people, giving endless writing material, keeping me in good spirits. I approved. “Job well done.”

But on my way back to Rome, something snagged, tripped, pulled the plug. It was my attitude. And my health. Things were no longer going my way. And so I ended my trip slumped over in a plastic airport chair, achy-boned, runny-nosed, sleep-deprived and pissed as fuck.

I didn’t want to leave Tirana. The only date I locked myself into on my itinerary-less travel was my flight from Tirana back to Rome, mostly to avoid another sleepless, freezing cold ferry ride. It was a cheap ticket, the kind you can’t change—so when I had to pass on the opportunity to drive up to Shkoder to get tattooed in an abandoned bunker and instead fly back to expensive-ass, whacked-ass Rome, I was slightly bummed. To say the least.

On the flight, I began to feel a tickle in my throat. I coughed. I assumed it was the result of the pack of cigarettes I’d smoked in the previous 48 hours, or the succession of late nights, or the guzzling of tap water that I wasn’t really supposed to be drinking. And it probably was those things. It was also the beginnings of what I’ve dubbed Albanian Death Flu (incidentally, also the name of my new metal band).

It started slow and steady as a rumbling drum beat—the amplified echo of my own heartbeat in congested ears. It’s okay, I could power through. I had a few different friends that also happened to be in Rome at the time that I wanted to meet up with, some events I wanted to check out; I’d fill the time.

It was like a see-saw: the more things unraveled, the shittier I felt. Or the other way around. Whatever. I never got in touch with any of my friends. The events either fell through or were kinda lame. After blissfully cheap, tourist-free Tirana, Rome was an expensive, American-swarmed jolt to my sick system. And I wasn’t helping myself any. I was cranky, torturing myself with the shoulda’s and why-didn’t-I’s. Serendipity may have been driving the car, but I was being a pretty big backseat driver.

It all came to a fevered pitch at the airport. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, six hours of tossing and turning and coughing and groaning. The overpriced train ride to the airport had robbed me of my last few Euros, so, with no cash for breakfast, the post-nasal drip stirred in my stomach in an unsettling stew. And I had no patience for my fellow travelers.

Rome is a most beloved destination of Americans, right up there with Paris and Disneyland. But it’s a pretty culturally conservative place—not a lot of contemporary arts or music going on—so it doesn’t tend to attract our most dynamic demographic, what I call our A-Team. It’s most popular with the Joe-and-Marge-from-Iowa demographic. Not that I have anything wrong with Joe and Marge; it can be, actually, just as culturally fascinating and foreign to observe them as Romans.

It’s just that Joe and Marge don’t travel much. They get stressed out easily, and they bicker with each other. They aren’t as adept to rolling with cultural differences, and feel it necessary to (loudly) point out contrasts and the discomfort those contrasts provide. They get lost easily. They aren’t urban people, and they get confused by public transportation, crowded spaces, the Italian irreverence for lines at espresso counters.

All this I’m more or less willing to take in stride. Except when I’m sick, nauseous, sleep-deprived, and generally fighting the gods of circumstance. Then I sit in a plastic airport chair with steam seeping out of my ears and one eyeball slowly twitching.

I gave up. I couldn’t fight it anymore. My body—and Serendipity—were trying to tell me something: the party was over. It was time to slow down, sit still and accept what came my way.

I went to a pharmacy and bought some mystery Italian cold medicine on my credit card. I changed a little cash back into Euros and bought a stale, overpriced panini. I moved over to an empty gate and slowly munched my bread in relative peace. Then I boarded my plane and promptly passed out in puddle of drool and sneezes (yeah, I was that person).

Even great trips have bad moments, and every trip, even the best, has to end. I suppose the trick is letting that happen gracefully. Still working on that one.

The Foreigner at the Party

Tirana and Rome don’t have much in common—except that it’s absurdly easy to stand out as a tourist.

They come at it from different angles—Rome because there’s so many goddamn tourists (really, do Americans realize that there’s other countries in the world?), and Tirana because there’s so few goddamn tourists (really, do people realize how amazing it is?). But the effect is the same either way: you aren’t ever, ever going to blend in.

Some travelers get bummed out by this, and do everything within their power to fool themselves (and themselves only), acquiring affected accents and scarves for the local football team. But I say fuck it—no one’s gonna buy it anyway. So you may as well just dance.

Friday night felt like a riot in Tirana: chanting crowds, police sirens, streets shut off, smoke billowing and fireworks flashing. It wasn’t a riot, just the Albania-Bosnia football match. The insane energy of it all is a little anxiety-provoking for an American—if it were Oakland, someone would have gotten shot.

Our little clan from the hostel walked through the raucous roads; some had picked up Albanian flags along the way, but it wasn’t any use. We were varied races and ethnicities, all speaking English, and the stares we ellicted became almost laughable, necks craning and feet stopping cold.

“Hello, hello,” shouted a voice from a drunken crowd, as though to point out that we were different and didn’t belong.

Everyone got quiet and a little uncomfortable. I gave a stupidly exaggerated wave. “Howdy!” I exclaimed in a Southern accent. “How y’all doin’?”

And we all had a laugh.

We didn’t end up getting into the stadium. It’s my absolute fate with football—I’ve never managed to actually see a match. So we marched across town to a bar to watch it on TV, amusing everyone with our mispronounciation of “Shqipëri,” the Albanian name for Albania. One of the waiters was so amused he bought everyone at our table—fourteen of us—a round of drinks. Sometimes it pays to stand out.

After the match we went to another bar, an underground spot near the Opera House, walls covered in the photos of the artists that used to hang out there (as well as a healthy layer of cigarette smoke). A DJ was playing drum and bass from his glowing white laptop and everyone was dancing, arms raising to graze the low ceiling.

Again, we were the only foreigners. But the good news is, the language of dance is universal.

So universal, in fact, that everyone was shacking up, disappearing from the dark room in hand-holding couples. At one am, it was just me and the gay Dutch dude left. “We’re dropping like flies!” I screamed over the music.

He kissed me on the cheek.

Saturday took me back to Rome, throat sore and heart heavy, sad and actually a little ill to be leaving. I met up with my couchsurfing host in the evening; we got in the car and drove. And drove and drove, into the damp-smelling dark, street lights thinning and stars appearing. A friend of his was having a birthday party at his parents’ country home.

My first clue that I was somewhere I seriously didn’t belong should have been “country home.” Or the red-candle-lit driveway, that rambled on for half a block. It was dark, so I couldn’t see the house I walking into, but I could sense its presence—something large and sturdy and stately.

We walked into a huge living room, exposed wooden beams and tasteful vases. The crowd was art-opening-hip, wine glasses and expensive haircuts. There was a DJ. There was actual porchetta—a whole pig—being sliced by a little old lady in an apron.

I was in Toms and (again) a Talk Is Poison shirt. I still stank from Tirana’s cigarette smoke, dirty hair stuffed under a beanie. Even in the States, I’d stand out in a party like this.

But I didn’t get any snotty vibes from anyone, so I shrugged and grabbed a plate. I couldn’t really talk to anyone, but I smiled a lot, and people smiled back. No one seemed to mind me too much. It was one of those isn’t-it-funny-where-travel-takes-you moments: if you’d ever asked me, “Hey, do you think you’ll ever end up at a super posh party in a villa outside of Rome?”, I’d have answered, “no.”

After the pig was picked apart, the lights went down and the dance songs started cranking. Good time stuff: “Surfin USA,” “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun,” some old rock n roll hits and a couple Italian songs to round it out.

And I danced again. It didn’t matter that I was dirty and foreign and didn’t belong. There was a good time to be had, and sometimes, in the midst of a really good party, the only thing the really “belongs,” so to speak, is fun—the boom of the bass and the way your shoulder dips to the beat.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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