Sunday, November 14, 2010

Roman holiday

I live in Bonn. Elena lives in Bucharest. For the first time in more than six months, we were both on the same continent. A reunion was in order. We decided to meet each other halfway between Bonn and Bucharest. A map of Europe and some unscientific head tilting, eye squinting and finger measuring determined our destination. It turns out all roads really do lead to Rome.

The last time I saw Elena was in March. She had finished her research program in Japan and was heading home to Romania. I first met Elena a year earlier at Kyoto University, where we found ourselves in the same five-day-a-week Japanese class. There were only nine of us in the class and we quickly became a tight-knit group both inside and outside of the classroom.

We were a veritable United Nations. Seema from India, Oneika from Jamaica, Nadia from Bosnia, Lani from the Philippines, Ricardo from Mexico, Fay from China, Luciana from Argentina, me from Canada. And, of course, Elena from Romania.

Elena was my constant traveling companion. We went to Hong Kong for spring break, rang in the New Year in the Philippines, and somehow managed to hike to the top of Mt. Fuji in freezing rain and driving wind.

When it comes to traveling, Elena and I are so similar you'd think we were separated at birth. We both agree the best way to see a new place is to walk 12 hours a day, several days in a row. We like to walk fast, weaving around the slow walkers clogging up the sidewalk. It's not that we're impatient or in a rush. We just like to walk fast. We also like to wake up early. We can be showered, dressed and ready to go in five minutes flat. We both hate shopping and refuse to spend time and money buying anything other than food and drinks while on vacation.

We are efficient and careful users of time, knowing we only have a limited amount of it. But we also like to stop for frequent snack breaks (okay, maybe that last one is just me).

Traveling on a tight budget is the biggest downside to being a student. Staying at a place with four stars, fluffy towels and free bathrobes was not an option. So we booked two beds in a hostel near the train station. My expectations were not high. When I think of hostels I think of a high school field trip gone haywire.

In my mind, hostels cater to the kind of clientele that likes to storm in and out of the room at all hours of the night, throw back vodka shots, chug beer through funnels, yell in the hallway, pee in the shower, vomit waterfalls from the top bunk, steal anything not nailed down, smoke in bed, throw garbage out the window, unleash bed bugs from dirty backpacks, and start violent fights that end with broken glass and smashed teeth.

This is what I steeled myself for en route to the hostel. Upon arrival, I took a deep breath, got ready to face my worst fears and pushed open the door to our shared room. But instead of being greeted by mayhem, I was greeted by silence. Elena, who arrived long before I did, was reading quietly on one of the beds. Two of our roommates were already fast asleep (it was just after 10 p.m. on Friday night). The third was wearing a long flannel nightgown buttoned up to her neck. She was sprawled out on one of the bottom bunks, scribbling furiously in her diary.

It was a pattern that would repeat itself every day for the next three days. Elena and I would leave the hostel before any of our roommates woke up and they were always asleep by the time we returned. Except for the woman in the flannel nightgown. All she did was write in her diary. Ironically, it turned out the person most likely to vomit waterfalls from the top bunk was me.

Elena was not only my travel companion but she was also my tour guide. Everywhere we went, she would read from a travel book on Rome written in Romanian. The book's accuracy was somewhat questionable. The book informed us that the Coliseum was built in the 1700s and it contained elevators that brought animals and gladiators up to the main stage. The book was also fond of stating the obvious. For example, there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Rome. Who knew?

We also learned that the locals don't drink cappuccinos after 10 a.m. If we tried to order one after lunch or dinner, we would expose ourselves as tourists. According to the Italians, a cappuccino is a morning drink and an espresso is an afternoon drink. According to me, a cappuccino is an any-time-of-day drink. The Italians and I will have to agree to disagree on this one.

We stood in line a lot. We lined up for three hours in the rain just to get inside the Vatican Museum. This was after spending one hour in the lineup we thought was for the museum but turned out to be for St. Peter's Basilica. It wasn't until we made it all the way to the front of the line that we realized our mistake.

We took a quick peek inside the basilica (if you've seen one Catholic church, you've seen them all. Although, admittedly, this one was a lot glitzier than the rest) and then headed back to the back of the line we should have been in in the first place. But by this time, the lineup for the Vatican Museum was two kilometers long. It stretched down the street, around the corner, down another street, around another corner, down yet another street and around yet another corner.

We also lined up for an hour to get inside the Coliseum. It was shorter than the Vatican lineup but it was much more annoying. Just as we were about to reach the ticket window, an older American couple appeared out of nowhere and cut in line ahead of us. A group of loud, obnoxious Spaniards started hurling insults and obscenities at the Americans trying to cut in line. I thought it was hypocritical of the Spaniards to harangue the Americans when they had spent the past hour chain smoking in line without giving a second thought to the people around them.

Elena and I decided let the Americans in line ahead of us. Partly because they were in their seventies. But mostly because letting the Americans jump the cue was a sneaky way to annoy the Spaniards who had been annoying us with their loud voices and cigarette smoke for the past hour.

Besides, I was happy enough to go along with the cultural stereotypes. If they were content to play the role of the arrogant Americans cheating their way to the front of the line then I was content to play the role of the passive Canadian letting them cut in line. Anything to avoid confrontation. Don't want to get into a fight, don't want to cause a scene, don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, don't want to take sides. You can take the girl out of Canada but you can't take the Canadian out of the girl.

Elena and I met a lot of Americans in Rome. Aside from the couple who cut in line, they were a very likable bunch. They were friendly, talkative and open. On the train back to the airport, I sat with three Americans from Kentucky -- a middle-aged mother, her teenage son and his 40-year-old uncle, Steve. Steve sat directly in from of me and introduced himself with a firm handshake and a hearty, "How ya doin'. Name's Steve. Where y'all from?"

I learned that they were a military family. Steve served in Desert Storm and his 19-year-old nephew -- a baby-faced boy with a buzz cut and a fuzzy blond mustache -- was shipping out to Afghanistan next week. A family trip across Europe was the boy's mom's idea. Their happiness made me sad. I couldn't stop thinking that this very alive, very young boy sitting right in front of me could be coming home in a coffin. For what?

It was the only sad note on a trip filled with so much laughter and fun. But this is the way it goes. People come and go. Friends move halfway around the world. Only the lucky ones get to see each other again.

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