Saturday, September 30, 2023
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Italian Trains II

After a day of trekking around and through Rome with Alli and Zach, my niece and nephew, we walk towards the Trastevere district, which has been recommended for its restaurants and night life. It is Saturday night and I thought we should see something of contemporary culture, after absorbing so much from ancient civilization.

We go by a little place on Via Natale del Grande with a few tables outside, on the other side of the sidewalk. It looks busy but not overcrowded and, above all, appears to be frequented by locals. We sit outside, and friends of the host congregate at the table next to us as the evening goes along, and they all look like pretty tough guys, shaved heads, big tattoos, rough faces. Alli thinks we have, as a result, the optimum level of Italian security.

We decide that since we are in Rome, we need to have a real Italian meal. And the seafood restaurant, Osteria Dell'Aquila, comes through. We order a bottle of wine which is not expensive but excellent, a salad, a first dish of pasta, then a main dish, desert and an after-dinner drink, which turns out to be on the house. We stay until late in the evening, and leave with the sense of satisfaction and well-being that accompanies a great meal.

In response to our question, the host directs us towards Piazza Santa Maria nearby and once we turn the corner into the square, it is as though all of Rome has suddenly come out. We walk from there towards the Tiber River along a street full of pubs, and there is not an empty seat outdoors. When we reach the bridge Ponte Sisto, another huge crowd is milling about, talking, drinking or having an ice cream on a warm night. From the bridge, we see crowds down on the quay and a live jazz band on one of the boats. But I am worried about getting back to our hostel which is well out of town. We manage to flag down a cab driver, edging out the competition. Back at the hostel, backpackers are just winding up a toga party.

The next day, we go to see St. Peter's, and join the throngs of tourists queueing to get past the security checks. Alli is turned back by the Vatican officials because she is wearing a tank top - her shoulders must be covered, we are told, in order to enter the basilica. I am reminded that the Muslim fanaticism about women covering their heads in public has a faint reflection in its main religious competitor's requirement that women cover their shoulders in church. So Alli buys a Rome t-shirt, sold for the pan-Europe, t-shirt price of 10 euros, and we go back through the line. While St. Peter's does not have the majestic and vast sense of space conveyed by the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, it clearly has more money behind it and is in much better repair.

Among all the sculptures and artwork, the piece that struck me hardest was a skeleton holding an hour glass out from under a shroud of red marble. The sculpture is stunningly direct, its message powerful and dark. Death waits for us all.

Emerging into the sunlight outside, we go off in search of another destination on my niece and nephew's to-do list, which is to find an ice-cream shop reputed to be the best in Rome. A crowd lines up three across to get into the tiny place, the Old Bridge, in the shadow of the Vatican, and the ice cream is delicious. But, I don't know, it just seems a long ways to go for a cone.

The following morning, we jumped on a train heading for Venice, just as it was about to leave and without having bought tickets. The conductor, Francesca, is soooo patient. A beautiful woman, especially with a conductor's cap perched on long, dirty-blonde hair piled above her head, we wait for her as she deals with an old American woman in the first class compartment, who is complaining about her seats. Speaking in English, the woman is harsh, bitter and aggressive. Francesca patiently negotiates a compromise. She then comes out to the baggage part of the car where we are waiting and turns to us.

I say, "Tutto Bene?" Everything OK?

She starts to answer and then stops short, sighs, laughs, and says, "allora" - so. I know we are in good shape at that point. She asks where we are from and, with the answer, says she has always wanted to visit California. The train is packed and she cannot find us seats, as we follow her through the cars, but she issues tickets from a machine on her hip and, as she slides the credit card through it, Francesca has my nephew's full attention, and mine. She give us a receipt, and leaves us, sadly, in the caf? car.

We arrive in Venice a few hours later, spend the afternoon walking through the streets, buy t-shirts for ten euros, and get back to the train station. The baggage agents try to short change us when we reclaim our luggage, but quickly and without rancor concede that they owe us more money. And we are off on the night train to Germany, going through Lugano.

But this is an Italian train, and, once again, the air conditioning has broken down in stifling heat. The view from the train is stunning, as it winds along steep mountain sides, above Swiss lakes, with surrounding lights reflected in the dark water, through tunnels that encase the train for kilometer upon kilometer. But when at last everyone is in their sleeping compartments, and I am tired of standing in the aisle looking out the open window, I decide it's time that I have to at least try to sleep. My niece had warned us that the toilets were explosive, but I ignorantly forget that advice. And the Italian train's toilet erupts on me, so that despite a half hour with napkins and water,

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