Thursday, November 21, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part II: Italy, the Vatican, France, Malta, & Greece...

Sorry it’s taken so long... but I sliced the tip of my finger off, followed by a family reunion, and followed by my being lazy. 

Vatican City
Anyhow, back to the tale.  Mom, Dad, and I boarded our flight to Rome, landing early in the morning.  At the airport I expertly figured out how to buy the train tickets into the city even with Mom questioning my logic, and we made it into Roma Termini.  Now from here, to both save money and give my parents the local "backpackery" feel of the city, I decided that we would take the metro instead of getting the perfectly reasonable taxis parked just outside the station door.  Turns out… worst mistake of the trip.  I have to explain though… it wasn’t entirely my fault.  It was Mom’s.

I specifically told my parents that they needed to pack light.  This was made difficult by the fact that they were arriving to the warm winters of Qatar and traveling to the bitter cold of Europe; plus we had to pack fancy clothes for the cruise.  But I insisted that they only bring one piece of luggage since we would be traveling around the entire time.  Dad packed a sensible large rolling suitcase, while Mom brought garbage luggage.  I’m not saying her bag looked or even smelled like garbage, I’m saying Dad got it for her by stealing it from someone’s actual roadside garbage.  “Look at this… can you believe people here throw out perfectly good suitcases?” I can hear him saying to Mom as he gave her the worst piece of luggage in the world.  This was an old style hard-case with tiny wheels along the long, narrow base with a pull strap.  The moment it started to move it would instantly fall onto its side and you ended up dragging it down hallways like a child throwing a tantrum in the Kmart.  It was more unstable than my sisters on roller skates on Christmas Eve.

on the Vatican tour
So of course we get on the packed rush-hour metro dragging our luggage behind.  Unbeknownst to me, the metro stop where we needed to change trains was not the clean and well-designed systems of Paris or Stockholm… it was under construction without any escalators or elevators.  We were forced to scramble up and down fifteen flights of stairs trying to carry two fifty-pound cases while I had all my gear in my backpack.  The whole time I had to remind Mom that this was just part of the fun of local travel.

We finally got off the metro, and I may have gotten us a little lost trying to find our hotel.  We finally found the old hotel and shoved ourselves into the very tiny room with one bed and a couch.  The bags were piled into a corner, and we walked the three blocks into Vatican City.

Vatican City really does take your breath away.  The circle of statues overlooking the square, the monolith towering above, and St. Peter’s is truly godlike in its beauty.  The line into the cathedral was so long it literally started in another country.  Mom and Dad had both visited the Vatican before, so this was nothing terribly special for them.  Dad pointed out the papal apartment and the chimney where the smoke is released, and bemusing only himself, could identify the different priestly sects by their garbs or design of the crucifixes around their necks. We walked along the sloping walls to the side entrance to pick up the museum tickets I had purchased online the day before. We started the self-guided tour and were amazed by what we saw.  The art, statues, frescos, tapestries, paintings, gold and jewelry, papal garments… all were on display with every room more fascinating than the next.  You think you can’t see any more gorgeous articles then you step into the map room, or the hallway with the frescos on the ceiling… jeez.  We entered the narrow doorway into the Sistine Chapel.  Absolutely packed with a murmuring crowd of people, the guards were shouting in four languages “No talking! No photo!” all the while over booming speakers was another stern voice exclaiming the same thing.  Between the speaker feedback, the carbinieri, the whirr of camera shutters, and the hum of people whispering, it was difficult to take in the absolute splendor of The Creation of Adam overhead.
St. Peter's

We exited through the gift shop (this is a museum, of course) and Dad picked up a few items for people back at his hospital with the courteous exchange, “Ben, buy this for me.”  At the start of the trip, Dad came up with a solution to the difficult issues of exchange rates and having the correct currency during a trip covering multiple countries; I was to pay for everything.  And I mean everything.  Dad didn’t even carry his wallet on the trip.  If he or Mom wanted a coffee or a snack, he would just order things and say “get this for me.”  Rosaries from the Vatican?  “I’ll take two.”  The man was in heaven knowing that he was completely set free from the burden of having to deal with any of the details.  I considered it my little gift to him.  My only minor win was that if he needed to use the public bathrooms, only I had the Euros to pay for the toilet paper. 

After an alfresco pizza and a bottle of red along the Vatican wall, we headed back to St. Peter’s and jumped onboard another hop-on/hop-off tour bus.  We encircled the entire city while I kept having flashbacks to every Roman history documentary I had ever seen.  The aqueducts, fountains, ruins, statues, Tiber River, baths and obelisks were simply too much to take in during one go-around.  I remember watching David Macaulay’s PBS special on building the city of Rome ( over and over; so everywhere looked vaguely familiar.  We kept jumping on and off at various sites.  While I knew a lot of the history, Dad was pretty amazing filling in the gaps with religious knowledge.  Every statue of a saint came with a backstory and a description of why Moses had horns.  We walked around the Coliseum and gawked at the tourists taking pictures with actors dressed as Roman centurions. Mom made me buy an apron with a picture of Michelangelo’s David’s dick on it.  I didn’t know for whom, and I didn’t ask.

Dad dousing harmless Italians...
From the Piazza Venezia, we walked around looking for the Pantheon; the Agrippa temple built to celebrate all the gods of Rome.  Before we got there, Mom had to pee, so we ducked into a café to use the restroom and I ordered us “tre café Americano.”  The proprietor didn’t want to bother to make us our espressos with water, the closest equivalent to black coffee you can get in Europe.  Instead, we got three perfectly normal cappuccinos.  Dad stared quizzing at the foam perched atop his cup.  “What the hell is this shit?”  “It’s coffee,” I said, “just drink it.”  He took two sips, winced, and tossed the cup in the trash.  So much for blending in with the locals.

At the Pantheon I explained the history of the building, the changing thickness of the concrete to support the open oculus, and showed how they saved weight on the dome by adding in the square indentions.  You have to love the engineering of this building to still be standing from 140 AD, and to still be the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.  Dad, using his own bit of engineering prowess, went to use the drinking fountain outside of the pergola.  He realized that if he closed off the water pouring from the decorative duck’s mouth that the water pouring into the cistern would shoot up so he could get a drink.  Instead, Dad sealed off the hole, and shot a stream of water ten feet away, nailing a guy in the back of the head and all over his suede jacket.  Turning red with embarrassment, Dad pulled out his hankie and started to dry the completely befuddled and soaking man.  Mom and I, along with half the square, were pissing our pants with laughter while trying to keep the camera steady.

The sun was fading as we headed back to the Vatican.  The line into St. Peter’s was mercifully short, so we joined the queue.  Right when we entered a mass was finishing.  A choir of deep baritones was singing the last of a psalm in Latin… Dad of course knew the words.  St. Peter’s is, without any shade of doubt, the most beautiful church in the world.  I’ve seen hundreds all around Europe, ancient ones of grandeur and grace… but nothing compares to St. Peter’s.  We spent an hour just walking around staring at the walls.  Dad maneuvered me over to Michelangelo’s Pietá.  Dad was shaken, and visible moved by its beauty.  He choked out sentences about pain and agony being made into God’s beauty, but he couldn’t really express the amazement this statue brought to him.

the Vatican at sunset...
My feet and back were killing me from carrying the luggage and walking on all the marble, so I had to get back to the apartment for a rest.  For dinner we ate what would become our signature meals in Italy.  Me ordering the local specialty pasta; in this case it was salty gnocchi.  Dad, the large bowl of seafood pasta with clams, shrimps, and whole lobsters.  And Mom, who would always order the lasagna, said it tasted, “different.”

After a sunrise stroll around St. Peter’s, we took a cab back to the termini where I bought our train tickets to Genoa.  It was here where, once again, the three of us together could not deal with the commonplace European occurrence of traveling by train.  Mom was sure I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in a train station, and kept trying to ask anyone wearing a red jacket where our train was.  It was difficult, but I finally managed to explain to her that not everyone who wears a red jacket is an employee of the train service; they’re just European. 

Smurfette & Gumby...
When it was time to board our train, we had yet another snafu.  Mom had problems lifting her suitcase up into the train, so it was up to me and Dad to get the bags up into the narrow train car door.  This resulted in heated exchanges where we were yelling at each other over who needed to get into the train, and who needed the throw the bags in.  No matter what train, no matter the destination, this argument always occurred and always finished with me yelling, “JUST GET ON THE GODDAMN TRAIN!!”

We did have an absolutely lovely all-day train ride up through the Italian countryside, past the seaside towns of Cinque Terre, and pulled into the northern city of Genoa where we would catch the cruise.  Arriving in Genoa the weather had dipped thirty degrees with storms approaching; making the already dark alleys very seedy.  Our cab skirted down narrow streets and thankfully only clipped a few people before finding our hotel right off the waterfront.  We walked around for a while ignoring the barkers and trying to catch glimpses of the prostitutes further up the sloping alleyways.  We ate a three course seafood meal with lots of wine before quickly falling asleep.

she had the gall to quote Marilyn Monroe...
The morning in Genoa was bitter cold and drizzling rain.  We had six hours to kill before the cruise departed, so we just started walking around the area.  It turns out the Genoa has some absolutely beautiful sights tucked away.  We found a gorgeous striped church around the corner and attended Sunday mass in Italian.  The rain started to come down hard so Mom and Dad pulled out their plastic ponchos. I know they’re an essential travel item, but I just can’t make myself into looking like such a dork.  I was walking around with Gumby and Smurfette.  When a gust of wind inflated Mom’s poncho, she had the gall to quote Marilyn Monroe, even though she looked like a blueberry.  But then they were dry, and I was soaked to the bone. 

We took the hop-on/hop-off bus for the tour around the city, and even with the tarps down we had a great time exploring the palazzos and castles.  The Piazza de Ferrari was a stunningly beautiful square, and we climbed the towers of the Porta Soprana of the ancient city walls.  Walking along the promenade in the pouring rain, occasionally popping into a storefront for some stone oven pizza with a bottle of red, we had an amazing time in Genoa.  As the afternoon approached, we grabbed our luggage and took a cab to the boat.  And somehow, once again, I was mistaken about the time.  We were some of the last people to arrive for the cruise check-in, and stood in line for almost two hours.  At this point, my back and feet were shot to hell. 

But we finally made it onboard the Louis Majesty.  This being my first cruise, I was amazed at the size of the ship! Mom and Dad exchanged glances at each other at what would be the smallest boat they had ever been on in their thirty years of cruising.  Louis Cruises is a small cruise line, and doesn’t have the splashy amenities or luxuries of a Costa or Princess.  We were also on the same boat that exactly one year earlier, on the exact same route, had struck a rogue wave that killed two people.  Mom loved the YouTube video.
the ship...

But I thought it was pretty nice… until I saw the room the three of us would have to share.  It made me jealous of my first college dorm.  Dad decided to take the top bunk, for some reason he was nervous about me sleeping four feet above him.  We did our safety drills, Mom explained who our purser was, made fun of me slamming into the walls as I gathered my sea legs, and found where we would meet up on the smoking deck next to the casino and bar.  God bless the fact that we paid for the all-inclusive drinks package.  Mom and I drank a little too much that first night, and Dad got pissy at the really wonderful all-you-can-gorge dinner.  We went our separate ways and crashed out a little nauseous from the movement.  I’m glad to say that our arguments that night were the only ones we had the entire trip.  Normally my sisters and I cannot be together more than three days without at least some hair pulling.

a little chilly in Marseilles...
In the morning, we hunted for chairs and enjoyed the large breakfast buffet of omelets, breads, sausages, and lots of smoked fish… Dad was loving that.  We spent the morning just exploring the ship and checking out all the features; of which there weren’t really very many.  Mom and Dad were used to huge fancy cruises where you have to run from place to place to get in all the activities… think Kathy Lee with Gopher and special guest star, Charo.  This cruise was definitely not that.  This was a whole bunch of very old people who liked to sit quietly next to a window with a pipe and a cocktail. The sheer amount of old woman with fake copper-colored hair made Dad uneasy. 

We docked into our first stop, Marseilles, France.  Following the excursion rules, we went to the ballroom, got our colored stickers, and waited for an hour.  When they finally called our color, we knew we were in for a treat.  How do you plan excursions for 1,200 passengers that speak twenty different languages? The French boarded their buses, next the Chinese, the Japanese, the Spanish, etc.  The English speakers boarded the bus filled with the Germans.  On the entire ship, there were six English speakers: us three, a very old couple from central Texas, and one lady from Dallas.  Six people who speak English, all from Texas.

Valetta, Malta
The bus spun us around the scenic city of Marseilles; the guide talking endlessly in German while throwing out tidbits of knowledge in English like “deez iz church” five minutes after we had already passed der church.  We got off the bus to climb the steps to the highest point in Marseilles, the Notre-Dame de la Garde; a gorgeous basilica that overlooks the entire city.  It was a very sunny day, but it was also about 35 degrees outside with fifty mile-per-hour winds.  While I was trying to take a picture, one old guy turned the corner around the basilica, got blasted with a really strong gust of wind, and got knocked down on his ass.  From this vantage we could also see the islands including the Château d’if, the fortress prison from The Count of Monte Cristo.

After dinner we went to the evening entertainment show… or at least we think it was entertainment.  Dear God it was horrible!  A goofy pregame pitting teams to pop balloons with their ass (which just makes my skin crawl), followed by two hours of covers with really bad dancing and costumes.  The Solid Gold Dancers would have been more entertaining… the Soul Train line would have been awesome! They all wore sequins and pastels, and at one point came out in pink and sliver chaps… that was our cue.  We woke up Dad (really… he fell asleep) and hit the casino.

the Blue Grotto of Malta...
The next day was at sea, so we went to a trivia game, read books, drank wine, took naps, and enjoyed the sun for the hour it was out.  We dressed in our formal wear for the captain’s dinner, and enjoyed cocktails and canapés while Stubing introduced the crew… yawn.  We had much more fun people watching!  There were the screaming Thai women in a group that all wore leisure suits, the Italian that only wore a black leather pants/vest/fringed jacket the entire trip, the old Asian guy with the tall he/she companion (never did find out), and the two beautiful dykes who liked to finger each other in the saltwater pool.  I had to keep my eye on those two.  It was made even better that our table mates never showed up again.  Wonder why?

that is stolen fruit!!!
In the morning we docked into Valetta, Malta, and boarded the now French speaking bus with the other three Americans.  Malta is a tiny island with a beautiful grand harbor and tons of maritime history.  We were escorted to all the port cities and tiny fishing villages, blue grottos and series of caves worn out over huge cliffs overlooking the Med.  There were little farms everywhere full of citrus trees and olive groves where we sampled disgusting prickly pear liqueur.  We rode on to Mdina and Rabat.  If you’ve ever watched Game of Thrones, these are the filming locations of King’s Landing.  That evening all the drinking and smoking caught up to me as I started to feel sick during dinner and had to puke up all that prickly pear. 

We awoke to a freezing cold downpour with dark clouds overhead… perfect weather for an excursion to Olympia, Greece.  Our bus took us through a tiny village where we met our guide, who just happened to look exactly like my Uncle Tony… except that our guide mainly spoke Slovenian.  He kept speaking Slovenian for a hour while the rest of the tours walked around, so we ditched the tour.  Olympia looks exactly like it does when you watch the lighting of the Olympic torch every two years.  Just a bunch of ruins and columns, but the stadium is pretty cool.  Afterwards we stopped into a town where mom stole a bunch of orange and lemons from people’s yards while we tried tzatziki and boxed wine.  From there we strolled through the old town near the ship and had the local delicacy of hotdogs and Bahama mamas for lunch.  We couldn’t eat the fruit that mom stole as it was so sour it made you gag; of course Dad loved them.  Instead we shoved the peels into our shoes at night to help with the stink of rotting feet.
it was a little cool in Mycenae...

The rain died down the next day, but it was still ungodly cold and windy for our trip to Mycenae, capitol city of the Bronze Age Mycenaean empire.  We entered the famed Lions Gate and clambered up the wind swept hillside.  The cold bit into our faces, but the landscape was really stunning.  Afterwards was a small museum where they showed off the golden funeral mask of Agamemnon. Our guide showed us the tombs and tunnels where Jason slew the Minotaur… although I could have sworn that was fictional. The last part was a visit to a huge Roman amphitheater in Epirus.  A famous French singer was on the cruise, and she stood in the middle of the stage and sang an opera for a few minutes, allowing everyone to be amazed at the acoustics of this 4,000 year old structure, punctuated with a round applause.  Mom followed her up with Eddie Blazonczyk’s “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie…”

A side note to all these damn bus trips.  At every stop, I had two tasks: I needed to buy myself a tacky shot glass for my collection, and I had to buy, write, and send postcards to all my sisters.  This second feat almost always involved me holding up a bus or frantically scribbling “wish you were here in…” on the bus while scanning for a post box.  At the end of the trip I tallied up over $70 in cards and postage… hope the girls enjoyed it.

A full day at sea and we were finally blessed with warm, sunny skies.  The deck chairs were untied and everyone nabbed their spots.  We broke out the books and headphones, and spent the entire day getting sunburned next to leathery old Europeans.  A poker tournament at night where I came in third was not a bad way to finish the day.  We crashed early since our next stop would be a biggie for everyone… Israel.

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