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November 26, 2005

When in Rome, If You Get There in the First Place, You Might Not Be Able to Leave Again

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Perugia to Rome, Italy:

I reached Rome at 3 PM this afternoon (just barely) and am scheduled to depart for Buenos Aires tomorrow at 8:40 PM (but it's not likely). I had planned to leave Perugia for Rome yesterday, but, unsurprisingly enough, a national transportation strike (un "sciopero") put an end to those intentions. It's the strike season in Italy again. The season lasts from January to December of each year and is thankfully interrupted from time to time to permit certain essential activities to take place. Like the seemingly bare-bones minimum for the miraculous, nearly-incomprehensible survival of the nation's economy.

So, as I was enjoying my (second) last day in Perugia yesterday, I was less than thrilled to find out, while browsing the web, that Argentinian carrier Aerolineas Argentinas' technicians and pilots have commenced a strike (una "huelga") that has grounded all planes and that will continue for an indefinite amount of time. I am, you might gather, booked to fly with Aerolineas Argentinas. Because the strike might end at any time, I had to get myself to Rome this afternoon to wait it out and see. But I've been checking the news articles on "Yahoo! Argentina" and it looks bad right now. Perhaps they can put me on a flight with another airline, but there are bound to be hundreds of other travellers in need of a similar re-routing. It's "up in the air," and so I have no idea when I will be able to leave Italy. Oh --- not incidentally, Sunday is my 90th day in the country and the last day I am legally permitted to remain on my basic tourist's visa. So if I don't fly out as scheduled, there is the slight chance that the Carabinieri will show up at my albergo in their ridiculous black and red uniforms and funny hats and arrest me. But hopefully they will be striking and not bother with all that.

The good news for me is that I wouldn't mind being stuck for another day or five in Rome --- especially if (1) the airline comps me for some of my expenses in such a situation and (2) I am not arrested and promptly deported to the US at my own expense. I was vaguely bothered by the thought that upon arriving in the city for my third time, I wouldn't find it remotely as exciting or interesting a place as I remembered it on the two trips before --- and this would not be hard, since, as I've told numerous people many times, Rome is one of my favorite cities. After all the places I've been to, and now that I speak a reasonable amount of Italian, I thought the place could prove anti-climatic this time around. But despite a two-hour series of train delays (triggering fears that the strike was persisting), I arrived in the mid-afternoon, found myself a reasonably-priced hotel, and set about walking through the historic center, quickly remembering why Rome might still be my favorite city in Europe. I have to say I was also feeling a bit smug and pleased by the fact that I didn't have to use a word of English as I went around. But this smugness was quickly extinguished by nature's reminder that truly clever people don't trudge around in circles during torrential downpours, even if they can speak a little Italian here and there.

Leaving my hotel and wandering down Via XX Settembre, passing fading Baroque palaces and the four gargantuan statue-fountains lining the corners of (the aptly named) Via di Quattro Fontane, I soon found myself in front of the Presidential Palace, looking out on the city's ancient hills and landmarks, including the Vatican. In my rush to get to the Spanish Steps without using my map --- all the while patting myself on the back for my memory of the city's layout and recollection of the numerous key sites --- I stumbled dead into the Trevi Fountain, mobbed as it always is, despite a chill and a bleak leaden sky that threatened to pour buckets of rain in the not-distant future (any minute). I'd completely forgotten where it was. In fact, I'd forgotten at that particular time that it was on my list of sites to revisit in the first place. But I recovered from this failing by remembering the location of the nearby San Crispino Gelato shop --- the best gelato in Rome and, by default, one of the best few places in Italy and the world. With a cup of pistacchio, hazelnut and creme (egg) gelato in hand, I started for the Spanish Steps. It started to rain lightly while lightening flashed in the distance. "So I'll get soaked. So what," I thought. I had a rainjacket on but no umbrella.

The Spanish Steps were equally jammed with crowds. On shopping mecca Via Condotti there were lines of people waiting just to enter the Gucci and Prada stores. I didn't join then, wandering a few blocks and then circling north to Piazza del Popolo, with it's obelisk and water-spouting lion statues. I had a ridiculously-overpriced caffe latte overlooking the Piazza (about $6.50), and sat listening to a mix of English, Italian and Spanish conversations going on around me.

I then headed toward Piazza Navona. As I walked, two things happened. First, it began to pour, drenching me and making me realize how stupid I had been to shrug off the impending weather. I buckled down and quickly bought a cheap umbrella from a street vendor, but I still got soaked. The second thing --- and a chief reason for why I still got soaked --- is that I wound up passing the Piazza Navona about 4 times before I finally realized I had been skirting around it in a large and clumsy circle. So maybe the map wasn't such a bad idea? Getting to within 20 feet of the place without one isn't so impressive if you don't know how close you actually are --- and have water pouring out of your shoes each time you take a step by the time you figure it out.

I paused again in another cafe to let the worst of the rain stop. On the television an Italian comedy show --- apparently a sort of "Daily Show" style news spoof, minus Jon Stewart and plus a scantily-dressed quasi-Sofia Lauren type, as with almost every other program in Italy (not so very creative but god bless) --- ran a segment in which George W. Bush declares war on extra-terrestrials, stating that the US isn't just ready to take on the world, but all other worlds as well. Nuclear missiles blast off and demolish far-away planets. I was waiting to see Dick Cheney criticize the Democrats for opposing this, but the segment ended and the camera promptly returned to more close-up cleavage shots of the anchor.

On my way to find a restaurant two Italians stopped me to ask about (1) directions and (2) bus information. Despite the soggy-wet-dog look I had going on, I apparently still looked like I could actually be a Roman. Not bad --- my smugness surged again for a brief matter of moments. But, of course, I had to tell these people I didn't know a thing --- my accent quickly betraying my foreign origins. I should mention that one particular joy of Italian is that you can profess utter ignorance simply by saying "boh," which is a short and very effective means of saying "I have absolutely no idea whatsover (and I'm planning to go on strike from my job at any moment)." As a student informational booklet in Perugia points out, you can leave it to the Italians to find a monosyllabic word for making this message as concise and easy-to-say as possible.

By the time I entered "La Pollarola" restaurant near Campo de Fiori and the old Jewish Ghetto (derived from the verb "ghettizare," which means, roughly, "to marginalize" or "to isolate"), I looked like some crazy who had just come from swimming in the Tiber river. This had me thinking of another Italian verb, "scomparire," which pretty much means "to cut a sorry figure; to look very unimpressive." Italian has other charmingly vain and appearance-related verbs that you don't find in English, including the verb "spettinarsi," which means "to get one's hair in a mess." Anyway, I was in both the scomparire and spettinarsi camps when I trudged into the restaurant sloshing water all over the recently-mopped floor. I know it was just mopped because there was a stone-faced waiter standing in the corner with a mop in his hand.

But nobody threw me out and I had a great meal --- a possible last dinner in Italy (but probably not), with an antipasto of stuffed peppers and clams; a meat and cheese canelloni; and baked chicken and potatos with rosemary. The smugness made a final comeback as well.

"Ah, you speak some Italian?" the waiter asked as I ordered.

"Mmm... Con questo accento bruto Americano, penso che non possa dire che verramente parlo l'Italiano pero... posso capire... posso communicare un po'."

["With this terrible American accent I don't think I can really say I speak Italian... but I can understand... I can communicate/get by a little.]

This got my cup of coffee knocked off my bill.

I'm still half-soaked as I type this out in an internet cafe near my hotel, all while hopefully searching for Spanish news on the Aerolineas Argentinas strike. My Spanish is not so great anymore --- it's pretty bad, actually --- but I can still read it well enough to get the content of an article. Just don't ask me to speak it without adding in a few unnecessary vowels. I feel no smug sentiments about my Spanish right now.

Tomorrow should be interesting. I need to take a train to the airport no matter what, because even if the strike continues (as it probably will), I will have to deal with the airline and see what they can do for me. There is a problem here, however. There is still a chance the trains to the airport (or anywhere else) will be shut down due to another "sciopero." So, I am stuck in international, multi-lingual strike/sciopero/huelga-land as of the moment. And my hair is all messed up.

Posted by Joshua on November 26, 2005 03:39 PM
Category: Italy: Living in Perugia

Still in Rome with no news on when I can leave. At least the airline put me and the other passengers in a decent hotel and I can get most of my expenses reimbursed. The hotel offers us a free buffet lunch and dinner. Last night I sat at a table with a bunch of Argentinians who were all making polite small-talk and trying to delicately broach the subject of how fatty and poorly-cooked the beef was.

Posted by: Josh on November 28, 2005 09:05 AM

I just checked Yahoo Argentina and the situation looks bad right now. The government ordered workers to continue to provide certain minimal services and the workers disobeyed. Aerolineas Argentinas decided to fire 168 employees, which the unions are not, to say the least, very happy about. The workers want a 45% pay raise, while the company is prepared to give them only a 22% increase (only because it is government ordered). While this might sound like a lot, inflation in Argentina is at about 11% a year right now (with no sign of slowing) and salaries have been level for a while.

Posted by: Josh on November 28, 2005 09:22 AM

Although the strike is continuing, it seems like Aerolineas Argentinas has worked something out and I might be on a flight to Buenos Aires early Tuesday evening. But it's not a 100% bet yet and I probably won't know until the morning.

Posted by: Josh on November 28, 2005 02:35 PM

JUST got into the center of Buenos Aires. It being about 9:30 AM, only 2.5 hours remain until the cow population of Argentina takes a serious, serious plunge. You too, piggies --- don't think I forgot you.

Posted by: Josh on November 30, 2005 07:28 AM
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