Rome Travel Diary

Rome Diary 
Note: We have decided to publish excerpts of these original diary entries, which the author has submitted as in-class assignments this term. In some cases, we have edited the entries slightly. 

March 31, 2014
There have been a lot of amazing things about Rome so far. Amazing views. Fantastic foods. Pizzas, piazzas and palazzos, as far as the eye can see.  In many ways, it’s been entirely different from the life I’ve lived at Dartmouth and at home in New Orleans, largely due to the big-city bustle and the independence we’ve been given to explore. But one thing has been more foreign, and more striking to me from an intellectual perspective, than most anything else thus far: the public transportation. 

For many of my Manhattan-bred peers, public transportation is a fact of life, no more interesting than the concrete on the sidewalk. But in the sudden jolts and smooth stretches, the empty Sunday mornings and the packed Monday afternoons, the stolen wallets and the seats offered graciously to cane-carrying nonnas, the trams and buses of Rome seem to me to contain vast worlds of human emotion and experience. They are a canvas upon which the day-to-day lives of millions of people hailing from around the world are thrown and allowed to run together for a brief time. Like a Pollock drip painting, this web of minute interactions is incredibly dense, so much so that it appears to many to be chaotic, unbridled, almost violent. But underneath the crashing lines and clashing colors lies an impeccable eye for detail and the meticulous compositional logic of an ant colony.  

April 7, 2014

Italian food is fascinating. The ingredients are (or at least appear to be) pure and wholesome, largely locally grown and free of the sort of horror-movie-scary ingredients you find all over American food labels—your tetrahydroxy-this and dextrocarbolic-that. The glut of pre-made, plastic-wrapped food that litters America’s supermarkets is largely absent. The grocery stores themselves are much smaller. At home, supermarkets are massive, like temples to the twin gods of overeating and impulse buying. The CONAD we frequent in Trastevere is tucked into the basement of a discount clothing store. I had my first soda since arriving in Europe today, and I had to throw it away halfway through. 

April 15, 2014

I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve got weaknesses. … Some of those weaknesses are pretty minor: the terrible handwriting, the questionable fashion sense, the gap between my front teeth that’s just a hair wider than normal (though being able to spit a tiny stream of water out of it is fun). Some are those kinds of job interview weaknesses-that-are-actually-kinda-strengths: the childhood dorkiness that caused me to develop a sense of humor as a defense mechanism, the iffy time-management skills that have taught me to work well under pressure, the hair-too-wide front tooth gap that I can spit through. But there’s one weakness that really haunts me, deep down in that place you don’t really talk about with other people. I suck at reading maps.  
… When I look at a map, it makes total sense to me. I see my destination, the major landmarks of the route, even a little mental “you are here” dot. But when I look up at the real world, it’s all wrong. I can’t recognize any cross-streets; I’m turned at least 90 degrees in the wrong direction; sometimes I’m whole blocks or even neighborhoods away from where I thought I was. Once I get to know a city well, I’ve got a decent sense of direction. But put me in a new place, and even with a compass, a GPS tracker and an earpiece in my ear telling me exactly where to go, I’d probably still get lost. 

… [F]or the most part, I’ve been forced to stick with friends who actually have halfway decent navigational skills, and when I venture off on my own I’m confined to the half-mile square of Trastevere I’ve managed to figure out thus far. This shouldn’t be a huge problem; I love my friends and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my little corner of Rome back-to-front. But every time I ask someone else for directions or look up for a street sign, lost, I have a flashback to my family’s Italian vacation in the summer of 2012, or, as I like to call it, That Time I Almost Beat My Brother to Death with a Rolled-Up Map. 

My brother Sean is great at reading maps. He’s also a know-it-all jerk with a map in his hand. We get along really well, but growing up only two years apart (with similar interests) there’s naturally a fair amount of competition between us. I took the SATs a second time because Sean and I had gotten the same score and I felt compelled to prove my dominance. On a career aptitude test we both took a while back, we had scored nearly the same in every category, except (you guessed it) spatial analysis, a.k.a. map reading. So rather than do the logical thing and let Sean take the navigational reigns, I felt a striking compulsion to whip out my map and argue with everything he said. I wasn’t trying to be wrong; as I mentioned before, the worst part of my problem is that I always think I know exactly where I’m going. But I’m the diplomat in my family, so these arguments usually consisted of me convincing everyone else I knew the way, Sean sardonically (and, I’d argue, a bit rudely) debunking my ideas, and a whole-family squabble ensuing. Multiple. Times. A. Day. It happened so often that my family now has a saying commemorating our preferred strategy of crisis resolution: “Gelato heals all wounds.” So I guess it’s no coincidence that when I’ve found myself lost and confused these past few weeks, I’ve often ended up wandering into a gelato shop. If getting lost tastes that good, I might just keep leaving the map at home.

April 12, 2014

Pretty much everyone with even a hint of architectural knowledge or even cultural sophistication seems to hate the Vittoriano. But I love it, wholeheartedly and without a hint of irony. Sure, it’s gaudy and ostentatious. But it’s also bursting at the seams with beauty and passion, even if the execution is a bit ham-fisted. It vaults grandly into the Roman sky, a dozen winged victories taking flight as Italian flags wave proudly in the breeze. It’s a love letter to Rome’s architectural history and the vitality of Italian culture; it’s a gleaming oasis of marble in the midst of the great empire’s ruins. Its only offenses are trying too hard and doing too much, and in the apathetic, irony-laden New Millennium, those are crimes I’d like to see committed more often. 

May 19, 2014

I don’t complain about Rome often. I’m from New Orleans, so the so-called “flaws” of the Eternal City—winding streets, caked-in grime, tourist traps in abundance—don’t bother me that much. In fact, if you ask me, a little grit is something to be proud of. The dirt softens the edges and makes the awesome places shine that much brighter, especially if they’ve got a little well-earned grime of their own. You can keep Times Square; I’ll take Hell’s Kitchen any day. 

… [T]here’s one complaint I’d like to lodge with the department of architecture, or city planning, or whatever other part of the no-doubt convoluted Roman bureaucracy will listen to me: the park situation sucks. That’s not to say that the grass is patchy, or the trash cans overflowing, or the trees gnarled and dying—I’m sure I would love a Roman park, if I had ever found one. But for a city parked right in the middle of one of the most fertile countries in the world, Rome seems to be lacking in green space. Maybe it’s my fault, and the only thing keeping me from experiencing beautiful Roman picnic spots like the Borghese Gardens and the Janiculum Hill is my own laziness. But I think the issue is more one of geography and planning. The parks may be pretty and spacious, but they’re small in number, and they’re tucked far enough into the corners of the city as to make them virtually invisible. The Centro Storico is a concrete jungle—okay, a marble jungle, but same deal. If Rome wants to take that final step and go from perfect to transcendent, it needs to knock out a few buildings here and there (no easy task when there’s so much history around, but as precedent has shown it’s certainly doable) and try to emulate its Germanic neighbor to the northeast: Vienna. 

We did a lot of amazing things in our few short days in Vienna. We ate schnitzel the size of a basketball at Figlmuller’s. We stared deep into the golden landscape of Klimt’s “The Kiss.” But nearly all of my favorite memories from those few days involve the backdrop of a public park. The city’s heart beats with the lush green of dozens of beautiful and impeccably maintained parks, from the Burggarten’s rolling, picnic-blanket-strewn hills to the Belvedere’s stately manicured landscape. These parks beautified the city immensely, but they also enabled a number of my favorite activities, ones that Rome doesn’t always feel very well set up for. The Burggarten provided the perfect backdrop for a relaxing afternoon of bratwurst, hefeweizen and chatting; the Belvedere’s expansive lawns contained plenty of space for me to stretch out and devote the entirety of my mind—warmed up by the museum’s stunning collection—to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, free of the revving Vespa engines and inquisitive pigeons that always hinder my reading attempts in Rome. Maybe I’m shortsighted for complaining about having to spend my afternoons in cafes enjoying crisp espresso and heady (if overpriced) Belgian beer. But I’ve spent enough of my life under the beautiful oaks of New Orleans’ Audubon Park and on the Green in Hanover to know, despite how much I love Rome, exactly what it’s missing.