My second trip to Rome was in 1988, during that much-mentioned European summer in college. There were endless discussions about where everyone will travel after classes end. I wanted to go to Scandinavia. Almost everyone wanted to go to Italy. I went to Scandinavia, by myself—but not before I went to Italy with my roommate Kathy.
But at the outset, I have to acknowledge that I made a small, but vital error in my first Roman reminiscence when I wrote that I never entered Pensione Milo since 1981. Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing Apparently I did, during this second visit, and not only that, but Kathy and I even went up to the lobby and loitered there for a bit. There are photos from this second visit—but, due to lack of funds and related constraints of a 35mm camera, the careful rationing of available resources resulted in zero images of the pensione’s interior. And then three decades passed, and I completely forgot this ever-critical fact—until I conferred with the old diary. And there it was. Never let it be said that I do not acknowledge my mistakes.
As a teenager, I wrote about my life in great detail, which I desperately envy now. I envy my younger self’s complete and utter self-absorption—but, that is certainly the prerogative of youth. I would love to recapture that focus in my Third Thirty, and preferably a little before.
And thus present recollection refreshed informs us that on Thursday, July 7, 1988, Kathy, Naomi, and I were the second group to depart the Travelers Hotel in Nimes (the town I missed revisiting due to the plague last year, Pont du Gard and the Plague – Old Lady Writing) on a night train to Paris. While waiting on the platform, we were rewarded by being kissed by sailors from a Marseille-bound train that stopped in Nimes for a literal minute. It was a kinder, gentler time. No judgment.
In my diary, I wrote in puzzling detail about traversing Paris with Naomi from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord with my hateful, incredibly heavy orange Soviet-edition suitcase. Wheeled suitcases were already a thing then, but out of about 35 people in the group, I was the only one without one. Being an immigrant, and of the refugee kind to boot, I spent the decade trying, yet never quite succeeding, to fit in. I would like to think that the orange suitcase was the last vestige of that difficult passage to America.
In any case, it was a complicated plan in which Kathy (who stored her suitcase at Gare Montparnasse—a detail that never becomes important again in this narrative) and I, after parting ways with Naomi, first headed to the Netherlands, where I left the detested luggage with my erstwhile host family, and then traveled all the way down to Rome, after which we efficiently worked our way back up via North of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Belgium again, Switzerland again, to finally tearfully part back in Paris. She mentioned once that she will probably not return to Europe, as she was looking forward to getting married and living the good life in the U.S. I was instantly shocked, as I envisioned that summer as the beginning of many adventures to come. We were both right. And she is still the best roommate I’ve had (present spouses excluded, of course).
But the very first day—after the luggage was sorted and after we spent about two days sitting on various trains (for sleeping wagons are only covered by the Eurail Pass if there is literally no other mode of transportation) and missing various trains (for the Italian rail schedule was an unsolvable mystery in the ‘80s) was Rome.
The hostel where we stayed was either worse than Milo, or I came to expect more. No, it was clearly the former—as a college student of extremely limited means, my expectations would not rise for at least another decade (remember the First Spanish trip? The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing) We arrived exhausted and bedraggled at Roma Termini, looking forward to a shower before bed. I do not recall who went in first—but whoever it was, discovered that only cold water was available (I would guess it had to be me, because had Kathy told me that there was no hot water, why would I have gotten in? She would have—I would have stayed filthy). We sat on our respective beds, felt sorry for ourselves, and had a good cry. I had a fleeting thought that Rome and I just aren’t meant to be.
Our one day in Rome was action-overpacked. We met several friends from our group—inside the Sistine Chapel, no less, because in those pre-cell phone days you had to pick a landmark, a time, and hope that everyone made it. It was kind of like a student/buddy moment of Sleepless in Seattle. Kathy and I walked all the way from the hostel near Termini to the Vatican. We already know now that it is less than 5k Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing, but after a long train ride, a traumatic first evening, and on a sweltering, tourist-packed August day it seemed like a manifestation of all the confusion and disorder that I remembered from my previous Rome stay.
So, I finally saw the Sistine Chapel, and then the Colosseum. We ate some terrible pasta at a cheap restaurant nearby, cementing my poor opinion of Italian food for the next few decades. We visited the catacombs. It was exciting to finally be out and about as a paying, albeit a decidedly not flush, tourist. But Rome was still overwhelming, in its size, its sights, its sounds, its infinite variety. If the first trip was one prolonged anxiety attack, the second trip was an assault on the senses. To be fair, it was only a day, and short on time and money, we made the best of it. Third time turned out to be the charm.