Last spotted in San Francisco, USA on March 28, 2003, 1:23 pm
Who is he? Where is he going? Where has he been? David Barrett / Quinthar
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As I was widely told, the best way to see Europe is by train. By and large, it's fast, reasonably cheap, and efficient. Of the many Eurail options available to Americans and Austrailians (it's not open to Europeans or anyone else, as far as I can tell), I took the $500, 5-days in 2 month option. That means on five different days I can ride on most any train in Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and France. All you do is get on the train, flash the Eurail pass, and you're home free (perks such as sleeper cars are extra, though you do get to ride First Class). All in all, it was a very positive experience. The one glaring exception being Italy.

I go to the Eurail office. I wait in line. Eventually I sit down to talk to the woman behind the counter clearly marked "Eurail Information". Thus, I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to expect that she would know a thing or two about Eurail. Sadly, I was mistaken. I explain to her the route I'd like to take and the rough period of time. She informs me that the only option available is to purchase the two-month, all you can eat, all Europe option, which happens to cost $2000. A bit shocked, I ask if there are alternatives. She confidently informs me that no, there are no other options. I explain that I only intend to take a few trainrides, and that this is far more than I need. I also said that I had heard something about different regions of Europe and being able to get different passes depending on the region. No, she says, there are no regions.

At this I'm a bit dismayed, as I had seriously not anticipated this in my budget.

I ask her if she can help me determine how much it would cost to just purchase the tickets directly, and skip Eurail. She says no, that's not possible. A bit confused, I say "Oh, I need to go someplace else?" No, she says, it's not possible. There is no way to determine the fare between any two points in Europe by train. I ask if there is a website. Phone number. No. Nothing. In this modern age, somehow the train schedule managed to get left out of all forms of communication, and instead is determined by looking at goat entrails and tea leaves.

At this point I start to suspect that she's a complete moron. Out of her infinite helpfulness she says that she can find out the fare from Rome to anywhere, and asks some other man for a book. He asks what for, she explains, and after a bit of questioning he walks over to me -- apparently also deciding she was an idiot and should go direct. I explain my predicament. He gives me a very clear, very obvious piece of paper that is sitting right on her desk (after all, this is the Eurail desk of the Eurail office) that explains all the many options of Eurail. The 5-day, two month fits perfectly, and I take it. I don't know what kind of crack that girl was smoking.

Armed with my Eurail pass, I head to the reservation line. As if out of a movie, I say "Ah, this line isn't so bad," until I realize that I'm in the wrong line. The international reservation line is packed.

Ok. So I get in line and wait. And wait. Now, the line isn't really that long -- twenty or thirty people, max. It takes over two friggin' hours. Everyone is seriously pissed and incredulous at the delay. When I get to the front, I'm just seething with curiousity at what the hell is taking so long.

I walk over to the window and say "Hello, I would like to make a reservation to Interlochen, Switzerland." The man behind the glass does a perfect mime impersonation of looking like he's talking, but there's actually no sound. "Um... excuse me?" I press my ear up to the glass and can make out the rough undulations of his baritone voice. "Could you please speak louder? I can barely hear you." The not unremarkable din of the train station vastly outweighs his Herculean effort at communication, and I quite simply cannot understand a single word that this man says.

At this point I revert to the prehistoric language that all travelers know well, which involves lots of grunts and hand motions. "Me want train. Me go Switzerland. Switzerland good." I speak loud and clear and very slow, but to no avail. Eventually, as my skills in lip reading slowly improve, I discover he is saying the same word again and again. Suspecting that this may be the key, I ask him to write it down. In his cryptic hand on a scrap of paper, I get a word. More grunts and hand motions later, I discover that this secret word is the name of a city -- a city to which I must journey. I squeeze some numbers out of him, which I'm given to believe indicate a time, and I'm ready to roll. In a blazing thirty minutes, I've received the name of a city and a time. Go Italy.

I'm there in the morning, and my train is in the evening, so I come back a half-hour before my train is supposed to leave (there's no security and no lines, indeed you can see the trains from the front door, so a half-hour is normally well more than enough). I stand under the large sign indicating the comings and goings of trains. Try as I might, however, I cannot seem to match the name of the city on my slip of paper against the names on the board. I ask around at other passengers, as I cannot find an official-looking person anywhere, and nobody has a clue what the hell I'm talking about.

With time ticking down, I march to the head of the line International Reservation. The travelers at the front, fully understanding my plight, graciously allow me to skip ahead. At that moment, despite being prime travel time, two of the windows close. Astonished gasps go up from the crowd as angry would-be-passengers prepare their torches and pitchforks, and I eventually make it to the last open Zone of Infinite Silence.

I hold my paper up to the window and try to calmly explain that my train does not exist -- as calmy as one can while yelling through ten inches of bullet-proof glass. The man there, a new and entirely different unhelpful worker, crosses that out and writes a different word. Mistakenly thinking that this word is of any meaning whatsoever, with seconds ticking down, I head back to the trains and the board of information. As to be expected, I was handed yet another red herring as Rome made its final grasp in the vast conspiracy to keep my confined within the city's walls. However, I noticed that one train was indeed going to Switzerland, and at that point it was all the same to me.

I head up to the first attendent. He tells me to go to the end of the train. I go the end, and I'm told I should be near the front. I go back, and eventually find out that the middle is where I'm supposed to be. I don't ask any more questions, and just get on.

I find myself in the sleeper area of the train and wander about trying to figure out what to do. Miraculously, I happen to stumble into a man and his daughter that are going to -- of all places -- Interlochen, Switzerland. Not only that, they have a sleeper car reserved, and they'd happily allow me to take one of the spare beds. I gladly take up the offer, plop down on the seat, and just beam with some sort of devious glee.

David 1, Rome 0.

Just outside my hostel door every morning was a market, where each day I'd buy a banana from the same man for the same price. "Bonjorno! Una banana, prego. Sesenta centavos? Ciao gratzi!" I cannot overemphasize how cool it feels to do even the most basic transactions entirely in another language. (Note, I think some of that is actually Spanish, but it's so similar to Italian that it works well enough. And Spanish is still "another language", so the statement holds.)
Rome is filled with countless plazas, each with a remarkable history, and most with a cafe or two nearby. My first cup of tea in the country was in such a cafe, where I began to learn new and exciting things about Italy. Specifically, they've mastered the "to go" element of coffee. Not only does a shot of espresso easily go down in a gulp or two, it's common to walk in, buy an espresso, drink it, and walk out, in under two minutes, without sitting down. It's so common, in fact, that there are different prices for drinking at the counter and drinking in a chair. Rome is perhaps one of the few places in the world that rivals New York for being fast-paced. Thus, I think I was somewhat of a novelty (and nuisance) for (1) getting tea, and (2) sitting down for hours on end.
Ok, perhaps not entirely typical, but this picture provides more evidence demonstrating that the city is just overwhelming. There is just so much to see and do, crammed into one space, that you cannot decide where to begin. On our right is the Coliseum. To our left, some big arch-de-Triumph looking thing. Back a ways are what look like the ruins of Atlantis, as well as a live excavation site. Then there's the huge building with the statues on top (which is actually a gigantic museum), the ruins of a basilica, random pillars, chunks of aqueduct, etc. Behind me is a hill covered with yet more ruins - ruins that, despite looking beautiful by most measures, aren't quite "beautiful enough" by Roman standards and thus nobody even bothers to look at them. To my right are more cafes and restaurants than I can even begin to explore, and to my left is a huge garden filled with - that's right - more priceless ruins of amazing structures. Quite simply, there's too much to do. Too many options.

S... [more]
Actually, these are some "wicked sweet" lanterns being installed in front of a new fancy hotel, which happens to be right next door to a nice movie theatre. Incidentally, in this theatre I decided to go see "Resident Evil" (in English, thankfully). The movie is based on a video game that I have never played, but have seen and followed in the media and, out of loyalty to the video game industry, felt obligated to see. That, and it was brainless and has a hot leading actress. Anyway, the movie was downright scary, and I really liked it. And, she's hot.
On the third floor of Mel's Bookstore is a nice cafe with a good tea selection and wonderful view, not to mention books-a-plenty (though all in Italian, for some reason). I even manage to find a fantastic blank notebook (right of the teacup) in the basement (left of the teacup): hard cover, strong binding, green paper, and quadrille-ruled. Yee haw, I'm in writing heaven.
Oh, did I mention that it's friggin' huge? Of course, it's in Rome, so that's to be suspected.

One sort of strange element of the cathedral is the paintings. At first glance you look at the walls and they appear to have huge canvases, intricate carvings, be filled with alcoves containing cherub statues, covered in flowing tapestries, or supported by thick marble pillars. But, upon further inspection (and when things are far away, sometimes you can't even be sure) you notice that some of it is actually just painted onto the walls with incredible realism. It's just like we do in 3d graphics: wherever the people can get close, you actually spend the detail to make it nice. But far away, you just paint it in a clever way to make it look more detailed than it really is. Texture-mapping has a much longer history than I realized.
Just to prove that I am indeed still alive (or, was at least on July 14th), here I'm modeling my new writing notebook. I'm sitting in a tiny cul-de-sac of a swank bar into which I wander on my "southwest" exploration of Rome (it's so big I need to divide my wanderings into regions). The bar is filled with mid-twenties well-dressed couples, and I have the pleasure to find a free buffet of surprisingly gourmet food. Though the price of the drink is somewhat stiff, my gin-and-tonic more than pays for the many courses of crawfish pasta, raw vegetables, bread, cheese, and salad. That, and I like gin.
One bizzare aspect of Rome is the overwhelming amount of fountains. Not only are there big and magnificent specimens, as pictured, but there are tiny fountains spewing fresh drinking water all over the city. And I'm not talking about the fountains where you press a button and a sipping-sized stream jets into the air, but garden-hose strength fountains of clean water just pouring into the gutter 24/7, without any discernable way to even turn it off. Some of the fountains are encased in stone baths, or in ornate metal frames, whereas others are just hydrants of eternal water. Furthermore, they're not just in the central downtown. On my unfortunate exploration of the Roman countryside, I managed to find fountains just in the middle of nowhere. Granted, I appreciated this greatly, but I cannot imagine how many hundreds of gallons spilled onto the ground before and after I took my drink.
Of the many museums containing priceless artifacts and ancient wonders, the one exhibit that drew my interest was about video games. Indeed, it was a fantastic collection of electronic entertainment, Pong to Playstation. With life-sized Lara Croft models and every kind of game system of which I've ever heard, and many more, there was plenty to see and do. My favorite exhibit, hoewver, was about games on the Amiga (which I have never owned), as it showed one of the most amazing games I've ever seen (on the PC): Out of this World. Man it brought back memories walking those halls, and sure gave me some incentive to get back to my computer.
As many know, I'm a big fan of high-altitude, spinning restaurants. Indeed, I'll spend about any amount of money and go through most any hardship to wine and dine there. Lacking this, I'll settle for a high-altitude restaurant, preferable one in the open air. I found such a restaurant on top of a snazzy hotel in central Rome.

Now, I'm not the classiest looking guy at this point in time. I'm wearing the exact same clothes that I wore on my first day of the trip and, well, they're not looking too good. Thus, when I walk into this exclusive restaurant, unshaven, knapsack over my back, and probably not smelling terribly good, I wasn't particularly welcome. Indeed, I was given a very close lookdown as the host asked "Can I... help you..?" His voice almost sounded as if he thought I was looking for the kitchen, or the dumpster, and somehow accidentally wandered to the top floor.

I asked in my most pleasant voice "May I sit on your patio and have a cup of tea, please?" Seeing ... [more]
I'm not sure what's stranger about this scene: the fact that a chunk of aquaduct can be in such a low-income neighborhood, or that it's so old a tree can grow from the top.
After the disappointment at the Cistine Chapel, I was overawed by St. George's Cathedral. I have simply never imagined anything that huge stood on Earth. Accordingly, none of my photographs came anywhere near doing it justice.

However, a big attraction is walking up to the top of the dome to look out over the city. The walkway up to the dome is very steep and narrow -- not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart. The best part is when the walkway is parallel to the ground and about 2' across, but the walls are at a 45 degree angle.

Copyright 2021 - David Barrett -