Friday, April 4, 2008

30 March 2008

It’s high season. Every morning when I walk to school I pass through the Piazza della Signoria. At the beginning of the semester, the square was practically deserted; now it almost always contains a verifiable herd of people—tour groups blindly follow a guide holding a flag or fake flower aloft, numerous tourists stop at each sight and hold a digital camera six inches away from their face, nervous-looking wives pose for their kneeling husbands with cameras sporting unnecessary 10” lenses. (A giant lens is a front that attempts to scream serious photographer; however, just like everyone else, the men with these cameras are simply taking yet another wide-angle photo of the Palazzo Vecchio or the Duomo or the fake David. Interestingly enough, almost every tourist schlepping around said lenses that double a camera’s weight is male.) I think the word chaos is appropriate.

Last Saturday I was at my wit’s end. Claustrophobia was setting in. I grabbed my camera with its comparatively miniscule three-inch lens, two rolls of film, my keys (of which I have three—one for my apartment, one for my building, and one for the lock on my bicycle that was stolen), and my mini map of Firenze. With no destination in mind, I picked a direction and walked—away from the bustle of the crowds, away from the illegal vendors pushing umbrellas in my face when it rains, away from the sardine-esque feel of what used to be my favorite piazza.

Eventually I reached the park I’d found myself by the day I first bought my bicycle and subsequently got lost trying to get to video. For my final photography project, entitled “Myself” (otherwise known as “anything goes”), I’ve been playing with the idea of capturing man’s perverted relationship with nature on film. Standing there in front of that sparsely populated park, I began to wonder if I’d set myself an impossible task. Do I overestimate my audience by believing they’ll garner my rather unique point of view on the environment?

Now wasn’t the time to devise an answer. I had my camera, a location I probably wouldn’t return to, and some trees; I might as well aim and shoot. I took two rolls of film that afternoon, most of my photos depicting man’s foolish attempts to assert his presumed power over the natural world—tropical plants forced to grow in a cold climate, a stump filled with cement, carefully pruned bushes carefully arranged in rows, lemon trees growing inside boxes made from some poly-whatever material. The rest portrayed nature’s eventual but inevitable victory over all things manmade—weeds growing out of the pavement, bushes sending insurgent tendrils through wire fences, vines visually choking machinery.

As midday passed into late afternoon, and my sweater-less self began to feel the cold, I regretfully wandered back the way I’d come. At first I couldn’t figure out what to do—the name of the street I was walking down wasn’t on the map. Visual memory kicked in; I found my way back by recognizing landmarks I’d passed earlier in the day.

As I drew closer and closer to Via Castellani, the numbers of people surrounding me slowly crept upward until I reached the Piazza Santa Croce where I was suddenly submersed in tourists once more.

It had been a wonderful afternoon.

* * *

On Friday I slept through our 8:00 a.m. meeting time, groggily arose from my bed, threw a day’s worth of clothing in my B&W Italian bag with the broken zipper, and met Libby at the corner of Via del Proconsolo and Via dell’Oriuolo. We decided to take the pricier but faster Eurostar* train to Roma from Santa Maria Novella due to our late start. Since said tardiness was my fault, I agreed to pony up the difference in price of Libby’s ticket.

The train ride was wonderful. Rolling, lush green hills, farmsteads, and countless rivers and ponds flashed by our window. At one point I whipped out my camera and took three 1/250 of a second shutter speed photographs of the view. I wouldn’t have minded the three-hour plus regional trip, but since neither of us knew when we would next be in Rome, we thought it best to maximize our daylight viewing hours.

We took the B line from Roma Termini to the EUR Fermi station. Exiting from the cool of the metro station into the blazing sun, we searched, squinting frequently, for either the 709 or the 070 bus, both of which would take us to our final destination called “Camping Fabulous”. (You probably think I’m joking; I’m not.) After approximately twenty minutes of broken Italian exchanges, aimless wandering, and discouraging sign examining, we found our way to the right bus stop.

After Libby spotted the campground sign at the side of the highway, we jabbed at the red button to request our “fermata” and hopped off. Twenty more minutes of wandering ensued—including a mistaken jaunt into the parking lot of a swanky athletic club—until we finally made our way to the reception desk, picked up our heavy gold-plated key labeled “H 73”, figured out how to open the door of our little bungalow, and dropped our bags on the ground while simultaneously plopping onto the surprisingly comfortable beds.

Exhausted from a full morning of traveling, we wrenched ourselves away from a bona fide promise of comfort, and lumbered towards the bus stop headed in the direction of central Roma. To keep myself alive and standing upright, I bought a bag of chips from the campground’s coffee bar.

To round out the day’s overwhelming number of irritating occurrences, Libby and I spent close to an hour searching for a locale to eat lunch. The time was three or four in the afternoon, and most restaurants were closed until 7:30 when they reopened for dinner. And if they weren’t closed, they were hella expensive. The two of us were famished, so if we hadn’t found even something akin to a crisp soon, we’d have been at each other’s throats.

Eventually we found this cute, out of the way, packed with goods, tourist shop that sold pretty good pizza. (In our condition, at least, it seemed that way.) Libby ordered the fresh tomato and mozzarella version, and I opted for a traditional slice of pizza Margherita. We settled ourselves at an infinitesimally small blue-tiled counter and, like Macbeth’s three witches, ravenously devoured our food.

Once our hunger began to subside, we began to enjoy both the surroundings and ourselves. The counter was lined with full, unopened bottles of Coke and beer whose necks had been stretched and twisted into loops. Attempts at photographing them with my SLR were made, both by Libby and myself. A foot-high figure of a jazz musician slightly in the vein of Al Jolson stood on the counter to my right. Bags and bags of novelty pasta lined the shelves, as did bottles of limoncello shaped like the boot of Italy. So…nothing new.

We decided to spend the majority of our afternoon by the Trevi fountain, which, while packed with foreigners, happens to be so for a reason. After living for the past couple of weeks in the newly jammed Firenze, I thought crowds could no longer daunt me. But I still wasn’t prepared for the figurative-wall-to-figurative-wall people surrounding the marble masterpiece. And yet…

After we found the last two-foot stretch of bench left on which to seat ourselves, I pulled out a bar of white chocolate and my small black notebook and began to write: “I’ve somehow learned how to feel peaceful and almost solitary in a huge crowd. People’s voices all blend together in a murmur akin to the roar of the ocean.”

* * *

The next morning we woke up at a reasonable hour, took showers (having left my towel back in my apartment, I used one of the two sheets Camping Fabulous provided us with—the provisions, excepting facilities, were rather Spartan: two sheets, one two-inch high pillow, and a roll of toilet paper), and checked out.

We left our luggage at Roma Termini for the day, and headed straight for the Pantheon and Mimi Sheraton’s favorite coffee shop, Sant’Eustachio, home of potentially the best espresso in the world. So what do I order? Un cappuccino con panna e senza zucchero. I’ve had enough espresso in the past three months to last a lifetime, thank you very much.

At around 3:30, we took the subway to the area containing the Forum and the Coliseum and climbed up the many steps of the Victor Emmanuel II monument. Both rather tired, we leaned against the ledge overlooking the Fori Imperiali for half an hour, soaking up the last rays of sun, the streets teeming with life, and the fantastic view of Roma. Unfortunately, the guards soon began to usher everyone out because the monument was closing for the day. At four in the afternoon. On a Saturday. During high season. Are you kidding me?

Our last stop of the trip was the Forum. On our way there we spotted this probably British family, and the father and his seven-year-old son were wearing matching, brown leather, Rat Pack hats. Sometimes you just gotta love travelers.

No comments: