we pulled into a gravel lot adjoining a bed & breakfast in the small town of chianti in the region of tuscany just as dusk was setting in. we had rented a car in florence and i had eagerly taken to the narrow, winding roads of the italian countryside, whipping our tiny black fiat to and fro, this way and that, far exceeding the speed limits and making my copilot, dave, nervous on more than one occasion. periodically i would feel guilty, but those feelings usually only lasted as long as the next adrenaline rush.
we checked into the bed and breakfast, a charmingly decorated place called the hotel salivolpi. it had a style i could never replicate in my own home even if i had stolen all the furniture and accoutrements straight from the lobby. the woman operating the place appeared to be the owner/operator, and she had a kind but direct and efficient manner about her. i inquired if anyone else happened to be staying at the b&b, aware that it was christmastime, and was semi-disappointed when she informed us there was only one other couple, newlyweds, at the inn. i then laughed to myself when i began to pick up on the fact that she believed that dave and i were some sort of granola-y, bearded gay couple looking for a romantic getaway in quiet tuscany. this amused me, and i did nothing to dispel her assumptions. i don’t think dave had picked up on it, but once we got settled into the single-king-bed room that we were sharing, i told him and we had a good laugh over it.
the next few days went by lazily. in the mornings, we’d jump into the car and drive to sienna to wander the steep cobblestoned streets of the historic city on a hill, or san gimignano to see the ancient “skyscrapers” of “medieval manhattan,” or the charmingly quaint castle of monteriggioni. in the afternoons we’d find a vineyard to visit for a guided tour and tasting, where we were always the only visitors. and in the evenings we would usually settle for the restaurant down the road from our b&b, where i would try something new, and dave would order ravioli. every time. without fail. and we never drank less than 1 bottle of wine. it was culinary heaven.
during all of our lazy adventures in tuscany, dave and i caught up on time gone by. we hadn’t seen each other in a couple years, and our careers had sort of gone in different directions. dave had moved to portland years ago, where he had established himself as a talented headhunter, eventually moving into a coveted role as a recruiting manager for a prestigious advertising firm. it was his dream job and he loved it, but he expressed some restlessness, and wondered if it was really where he wanted to be for the next few years. meanwhile, my career had started out promisingly, doing well in sales and moving into management, establishing myself as a rising star in the corporate environment of the fortune 500 company that i had been working at, when suddenly my business unit had been sold to another company with no long term development plans with our product or brand. my career stalled and then started to nosedive, leading me to where i was now, getting drunk on red wine in the middle of italian vineyards with my college roommate, without a care in the world. i wasn’t sure who was happier, and the irony made me laugh.
dave caught me up on his romantic pursuits, and i filled him in on mine, both our collective histories similarly fraught with minor disaster. we had always been cut from the same cloth in that regard. partially ashamed hopeless romantics, we both always seemed to be searching for the big moment or allowing oneself to get caught up in the feelings of what might be, we both always seemed to put the cart before the horse. and when things inevitably didn’t work out with whatever girl he or i was seeing, it was hard not to feel like someone else had left the dance with your girl.
there was usually a cadence to these conversations, of the humorous variety. glass one was always left to letting me crawl out of my curmudgeonly shell. dave would wait patiently for the red joy juice to work its magic and loosen my tongue a little while we ate delicious appetizers. glass two would start off ambitiously tackling a topic about relationships or women, or telling a story about a past love. glass three would contain a dispirited reflection period, where the tragedy (probably a strong word to use here) of whatever story or topic was revealed, allowing the other person to either provide some related learned wisdom or experience on the topic, or offer some sort of encouragement. by glass four, things had devolved into a full-on comedy roast, where we were both making fun of ourselves, riffing off each other and laughing raucously in the completely empty restaurant. in between glasses four and five, there was a nightly 5 minute period where it became painfully and hilariously obvious that dave had not mastered the art of dealing with jetlag, as he would lose all energy, yawn cavernously, and then almost fall asleep at the table. i would quietly watch this happen in slow motion each night for a few minutes until i couldn’t take it anymore, and then i would burst into laughter and make fun of him to his face, at which point he would get up, walk around for a minute to get the blood going, and then be fine. it was like watching one of those videos that your grandmother posts on facebook of little puppies or baby animals falling asleep where they stood, and then fall over on their face. the comedy was in watching the mental battle take place on his face, the agony of trying to fight the yawn, while the eyes would not stay open and his equilibrium would not cooperate. i only wish there had been more people around to see it with me.
we were disappointed that tuscany was so empty, especially when much of the fun was supposed to be going to crowded wine tastings that felt like backyard patio parties with picture-perfect vineyards in the background. but on the other hand, it had been nice to have everywhere we went to ourselves and not have to worry about what we said or how we acted. so we mainly just acted like fools. anywhere we went, there were no lines, no wait times, no trouble parking, no obnoxious tour buses or oversized guided tour groups choking out the life of a place. there were always trade-offs to the time of year you choose to travel, but at least for now, i was content with the relative peace and anonymity of tourist-less italy.
after we had bankrupted tuscany of all its wine, we moved south. to the capital. the mecca and birthplace of modern society. we made for rome.
i had always heard such wildly varying opinions of rome. like paris, it was one of those cities that everyone seemed to have an opinion of, and those opinions tended to be one of two extremes: 1) don’t waste your time, it’s dirty and horrible, or 2) it’s a historic treasure that is an absolute must see. and so i rode the train into the station on bated breath, impatiently waiting to see how the city would influence me and leave its mark. would i leave after falling in with group #1 or #2? i realized then that i had formed habit in approaching each new city or destination with the same anticipation, and it had become one of my favorite things about traveling. landing somewhere with all the excitement and energy in your life and setting off in a direction with no firm path or purpose, only the open mind and wide eyes and a willingness to share yourself with whatever might present itself to you. that is the soul of travel.
dave and i had arranged for a hostel in the up and coming monti neighborhood, located just north of the colosseum and in an area full of students and artists. it wasn’t in the center of town, so it was a bit of a haul to get to other parts of the city at times, but i thought it was perfect. i didn’t want to be in the dead center of things. i wanted to be able to retreat to a locals-only area at the end of the days.
we wasted no time in getting out into the city. we spent our first morning exploring around in the vatican, stumbling around in awe at the opulence of such magnificent structures and art and history. i had mixed feelings about the whole thing, as i am not a catholic and i have major issues with organized religion, especially with the power structure of catholicism and its inherent corruption and exploitation of its followers, but i can’t deny that i wasn’t awestruck at the halls of impressive artwork and architecture. the sheer size of much of the vatican is enough to render even the staunchest atheist speechless.
after we had been wandering around the property for a couple hours, i started directing us toward the sistine chapel. in one of my very first posts on this blog, i had declared “i want to stare at a real Michelangelo ceiling and be crushed by a true labor of love” and so i marched toward my goal, excited and determined to check this item off my list. the closer i got, the further i felt, but the more excitable i was. i had a vision of exactly what i thought it was going to be.
i would walk out into the room in slow motion, head directed upward in a state of awe and admiration. i would passively wander out into the center of the chapel and sit innocently in the center of the room, taking time to appreciate each panel along the upper sides of the walls, and then appreciating each detail of the scenes directly overhead, culminating in the most famous section of the ceiling, where adam and god are reaching out to each other. i would sit there on the floor, peacefully and studiously in a state of artistic euphoria while…
but then suddenly, i was there. i entered into the room past an unnecessary sea of guards and out into the room. the room was sectioned into a set block, where it was impossible to get close to the walls due to a weird box that had been built around the viewing area, with fiberglass benches lining the box walls. i began to walk out into the center, rather unceremoniously distracted by these unexpected elements. after finally making sense of everything around me, i shrugged and did my best to ignore it. i made my way out to the empty middle of the room and, satisfied with my positioning, sat down in the center, directing my head upward, trying my best to recreate the scene in my head. i started to take the whole ceiling in, a magnificent work, i didn’t know where to start. i started with adam and god, and then moved my eyes left, to the –
“NO! YOU! <something in angry italian> YOU MAY NOT SIT HERE!” an extremely impatient and upset guard stomped over to me, waving arms and causing a scene. he instructed me that sitting was not permitted in the sistine chapel unless you were sitting on one of the fiberglass benches along the fake box wall on the sides. i got up from my seat and retreated to the edge like a stray dog being reprimanded by an angry shop owner. there were no seats available on the fiberglass benches so i stood there and did my best to try and stay in the moment, appreciating michelangelo’s masterpiece.
except now i was fully aware of the guards all around me, led by main gestapo captain #1 who had just made a very clear example of me. i would stare up at 3 or 4 fresco panels for a few minutes, and then take a break and watch the guards standing around, policing the room, leering like a bunch of jocks during lunch break at high school. i laughed at them. they were on a mission, and they believed wholeheartedly that they were doing god’s work. i went about my business surveying the beautifully painted scenes around the chapel, trying my best to ignore their movements and barks around the room.
“NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO! NO…. PHOTOOO!” i looked down with eyebrows raised in a shocked surprise as gestapo captain #1 had walked all the way across the room from his post, arms waving about, feet stomping like an angry child, approaching an old japanese man who clearly spoke no italian or english. he had been sitting on the fiberglass bench near the back of the room and, in a bit of awestruck appreciation, had taken out his iphone to snap a photo of what he was experiencing so he could share it with the world. or perhaps he just wanted to preserve what he was witnessing for himself, so he could appreciate it again later at home. regardless of his intent, mussolini did not care, and when he finally got the old man’s attention, he got right in his face and unleashed a belittling dissertation on “NO PHOTO!” again in a thick italian accent. the old man quickly pocketed his iphone and, frightened, quickly did his best to let the unreasonably angry guard know that he understood through a series of sharp head nods and a feeble “okay.” satisfied, the guard returned to the other side of the room with the rest of his comrades. the old man got up from his seat and left the chapel.
suddenly every ounce of “problem with authority” and “anger at the church” seethed within me. i took 3 strides back out toward the middle of the room, held out my large dslr camera with one hand, and demonstratively started snapping photos all around the room, the loud shutter clapping away in the echoey chamber of the sistine chapel. after about 5 or 6 photos and still no wrath from the military police, i held the camera still to try and capture at least one decent shot. “if i’m getting in trouble, i might as well make it worth it,” i thought to myself. but that was enough to finally get mussolini’s attention. he walked over to me without a word, recognizing me from our earlier dispute over real estate, and this time, in perfect english…
“delete those. now.”
“delete what?” i asked in a mix of defiance and feigned innocence.
“let me see your camera.” he said, knowing he had all the power in this scenario. i opened the digital screen and showed him the 7 or 8 photos i had, all completely blurry and impossible to decipher. he reached in and pushed the delete button on each of them.
“oh but they’re such good photos…” i spat out, dripping in sarcastic contempt. he looked up at me, locking eyes determined to make me respect his authority over this tiny piece of the earth.
“get out.” he put his hand on my shoulder and began issuing me toward the exit. i grabbed his hand and removed it from my shoulder.
“gladly.” i retorted, “…dick” i added under my breath, but still loud enough for just him to hear. he didn’t like that.
“LEAVE. you will leave now.” i started walking, but slowly. it should have realistically taken me 10 seconds to make it to the exit, but i made it last a good 60. i made it to the exit door and up the stair, turned around and gave mussolini a giant smile and half a bow, as dave quickly caught up with me, snickering hysterically. we turned around and walked merrily down the hallway, past the walls and shelves of high definition pictures and postcards of the inside of the sistine chapel, which i’m sure mussolini would have loved for me to purchase on my way out. i thought for a second of buying one and then running back into the room to ask for his autograph, but elected to just get the hell out of there. i didn’t want the catholic church getting any more of my hard earned money that day. i filled dave in on what had happened and how i couldn’t help myself, i just wanted to poke the bear.
“that’s cool. well check this out…” he pulled up his iphone and showed me the 360 degree panorama photo he had used a special app to collect of the entire room while i was busy invoking the wrath of the pope. i couldn’t help it, i broke out into uncontrollable laughter.
“how did you get this?!?” i asked incredulously.
“i didn’t even realize it was against the rules! i just walked out into the middle of the room, held my phone up and just started snapping away until i got it all. took me about 15 seconds total to get, i don’t know how no one saw me.”
we left the vatican and wandered around the rest of the city. rome was big, but not as big as i had anticipated. if you brought walking shoes, you could cover a majority of the city in two days, and there was a lot to see. we wandered around into the trastavere neighborhood, enjoying the old streets, stopping at the occasional cafe for a drink and for dave to practice hand-rolling a cigarette, still
with talentless results. we walked to the castel sant’angelo and crossed its famous bridge, ponte sant’angelo. it was getting late, but we were still pretty far from our neighborhood, so we elected to stop inside a pub (yes i realize it’s minorly shameful to be spending time in rome at an irish pub. but sometimes you just want a pint) we had been walking by. some food and a couple beers and we would be on our way.
we had snagged a couple seats at the bar where a garrulous bartender from dublin had been very busy with the blender making frozen margaritas and sending them away with his waitress. in between margarita orders we had made casual conversation with him, when i finally couldn’t take the noise anymore and asked “hey man, what’s with the margaritas? this is an irish pub.”
“yeah, there’s a lotta ladies here in the other rooms, man. you’d be wise not to leave after you’re done with that beer like you just told your mate you were gonna do!” he replied cheerfully. i sent dave a look of intrigue, but he was already facing away from me talking to the most beautiful brunette i’d ever seen in my life. shit. well done man. i better get cracking, looks like we aren’t going anywhere for awhile. i turned to my left where a blonde american woman had just bellied up to the bar to order another frozen margarita. i wanted to curse her for causing so much damn noise in the place, but instead i struck up a conversation with her. she was attractive enough, if slightly boring. she must have found me marginally interesting, as she didn’t return to her friends when she received her drink order, but after about 10 minutes i had glanced over to see how dave was doing and noticed that the beautiful brunette now had recruited her equally beautiful blonde friend to join them. i turned back to my conversation.
“hey listen, you’ve got that drink order, i don’t want to keep you from your friends. it was really nice to meet you! i’ll come find you later!” i gave her a smile and she went off to rejoin her friends. i turned back around and politely joined dave.
“hey you two, quit hassling my friend, he’s not from around here” i said playfully, joining the conversation with a smile.
“well neither are we!” the brunette replied with a brilliant smile. my brain evacuated itself of any intelligence and entered a momentary dumbstruck stasis. i was in love. dave rescued me from my paralysis by introducing me to his new friends. shelby was standing directly to my right. she had long, beautiful blond hair and pretty hazel eyes that sparkled with flecks of green when she got excited. she had a dazzling smile and a playful sense of humor and was really fun to talk to. she was smart, and was probably the person who drove things the most in the night, usually with the plan on where to go or what to do next. stephanie had long flowing brown hair and striking blue eyes. she had a huge julia roberts smile that lit up the room and reversed the spin of the earth on its axis and her laugh was an infectious song you couldn’t help but join in on. stephanie’s sharp wit kept me on my toes, and the banter all night long was some of the most fun i had on my entire trip. i shot dave a quick look that the girls didn’t see, as if to communicate “what the hell are these two bombshells doing talking to us?!?!” dave caught the look and smiled back subtly, communicating that he knew exactly what i was thinking. shelby and stephanie were iowa state students finishing up their final months of university by studying abroad in rome. i was immediately jealous, what a great adventure that i’d never gotten to partake of in my college experience, and to do it with a close friend.. it was obvious they were best friends. when one started laughing, the other was in on the joke immediately, and once they got going you could either join in or get left behind. sometimes they finished each others’ sentences, and then they would burst into laughter making fun of themselves, which was fun for dave and i, because sometimes we had no idea what they were laughing about. but we didn’t care. we were just happy to be a part of their private little party.
after an hour of laughter and comparing travel notes on italy, an open mic night performer started performing in the adjoining room and we decided it was time to leave the pub. shelby led us to a bar a short walk away. we went in and it was immediately apparent to dave and i that this was largely a college bar, as the main draw was a giant beer pong table in the back. my beer pong days are a few years behind me, but i was game if that was what we were going to do. after seeing how many people were waiting to play however, we decided against it and settled on a table near the front of the place where we could continue the conversation and fun. dave offered to buy drinks for the group.
“ummm well there’s a special on long island ice teas tonight…?” she suggested helpfully. i shot dave an alarmed look.
“iced teas. from long island. i understand those are very strong.” i said jokingly. long islands at this point were probably dangerous to my ability to resist turning into a slobbering drunk, but if this is what the ladies wanted, that’s what they were getting. 2 minutes later dave came back with a pitcher of long island iced tea.
“holy hell, dave! you thirsty?!” we all laughed.
“i ordered 4 long islands and the bartender told me it would be cheaper for me to buy a pitcher! he didn’t even ask me if i wanted it, just made it for me!” he replied with a sheepish laugh.
things progressed as one might assume, the long island iced tea did its worst on us and our conversation got more and more outrageous. i flirted more and more with stephanie, she flirted back. things were going really well, when suddenly i noticed dave yawn. oh no, i thought to myself. please no. maybe it was just an anomaly. i told a bad joke at the table for the sole purpose of trying to get dave’s attention and wake him up. the girls laughed politely, even though it sucked. dave smiled politely and then his eyes sagged. he yawned again. oh shit. no dave, no! i thought to myself. i spoke up louder and began to ask any questions i could pull off the top of my head, trying to get the girls to pay attention to me and not dave. shelby started to share a story, and about three minutes into the tale, dave was dead asleep at the table. the girls hadn’t noticed yet. inside my mind i was screaming telepathic obscenities at dave.
“DAVE! WAKE THE F&%# UP YOU FOOL! COME ON YOU BASTARD! WAKE UP!!!” dave received none of these messages. i tried to kick him under the table.
“Ow!” stephanie yelped. i kicked the wrong leg. i apologized and stephanie brushed it off, encouraging shelby to finish the story. shelby picked up where she left off and i kept peppering her with unnecessary clarifying questions to keep her engaged with me and not dave. every chance i got, i snuck peeks at dave who was still sitting upright, but was completely passed out and now slowly slumping to his right, like a human leaning tower of pisa, but there was nothing to stop him from his slow-motion descent. i was in a full panic now, though i didn’t show it as i listened to shelby’s story. she came to the climax of the story, the girls started laughing, i started laughing, and not 2 seconds later, dave’s head came to rest on stephanie’s shoulder. stephanie looked down at the top of dave’s dozing crown. shelby looked over at me confused, waiting for an explanation.
“haha… well, umm… ha… haha, you see… <long pause> well we had a long day and… <another long pause> … jet lag?” i wasn’t talking our way out of this one. i had nothing. the girls both looked back at unconscious dave.
“DAVE!” i yelled. he jumped a bit, pulled his head off of stephanie’s shoulder and sat back up, rubbing his eyes. “you alright buddyyy…??” i said with a big encouraging smile, trying to bring him back to life.
“yep. yeah man i’m great! what were we talking about?” he tried to pretend like nothing had happened. stephanie and shelby both looked at me. we all broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. dave eventually joined in once he had his wits about him.
dave was awake now, and the conversation went for another 20 minutes, but the momentum had been broken, and we all agreed it was time to call it a night. we spilled out into the empty square saying goodbyes. i offered to walk them back to wherever they were going, partially out of chivalry, partially because i didn’t want the night to end. shelby declined graciously.
“you guys can come back to our place and hang out, we’ve got room!” dave offered. it was not entirely true. we did have a private room in our hostel, but it was small and i doubt the other guests would have been appreciative of us bringing our debauchery back with us. regardless, i was glad that dave was trying to make up for his narcoleptic misstep earlier.
“wellll…. we really should head home… where are you guys at?” she turned to face dave. dave started to answer her. i leaned in and stole a kiss from stephanie. she looked at me surprised, then leaned back in for another.
“oh that’s kind of far, but it doesn’t matter, we really should go.” shelby made the final decision. i pulled away from stephanie, trying to act like nothing happened before dave or shelby noticed.
“okay well we honestly had a great time tonight. contact us tomorrow, we should hang out again,” i gave stephanie my information. we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
“damn!” i said aloud and laughed, dave laughed along with me. i knew we weren’t going to see them again.
“sorry man, i tried!” dave said apologetically.
“no man, you were great. at least she thought about it. gave me just enough time to steal a kiss.” i said happily. “i’m surprised it took those two princesses that much time to realize they were with a couple toads!” we laughed as we drunkenly stumbled off into the dark of a midnight rome.
today’s song is a contagious little ditty that i can’t stop listening to. coming from brand new los angeles act, elohim, “she talks too much” is their first single, and is just as fun and funny as you would hope it might be. choosing it for today’s entry has no intent or relation to its subject matter, though it might be argued that dave’s brain was saying this to itself in order to coax him to sleep during shelby’s story over drinks in rome (just kidding). enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…
and lastly, here is a little taste of my time in italy…