Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

After a day of extremely touristic activities at the Vatican, I was looking forward to doing something a little different on Saturday night. When I first arrived in Rome, Valerio had told me about something called the ‘Gay Village’, an annual event that was held in Rome. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after being to three different gay pride festivals during my time in Europe so far, I had to conclude that it was simply the season for pride all over the continent. “The gay scene isn’t as big here in Rome as it is in other cities or countries,” Valerio had informed me. “We’re so close to the Vatican, so there’s lot of influence from the Catholic church… It’s not repressed, exactly, but it’s just very… subdued.” Valerio went on to inform me that rather than having one weekend full of pride festivities and a parade, there was this event called the Gay Village which ran for weeks during the middle of summer. Valerio hadn’t been yet this year, so I told him I’d happily join him. He also had another Couchsurfer who arrived that Saturday evening, and American from New York named Steve. Steve himself wasn’t gay, but he had no plans and was keen to come along, so the three of us got into Valerio’s car and went off to investigate whatever Rome had thrown together as part of their pride celebrations.

After driving though dark roads in areas that seemed almost rural, we emerged at what appeared to be a festival ground. That’s what Gay Village seemed to be – a big festival village, with food stands, games and rides, performances, bars and a huge dance floor. We met up with a few of Valerio’s friends once we’d lined up to pay and gotten inside, and after a quick wander around to see some of the sideshow attractions, we inevitably ended up by the bar and on the dance floor. I was still fairly exhausted, so I only had a couple of drinks for fear of passing out right there if I overloaded myself with booze, and the group of us danced among the huge, seething, sweaty crowd. Oddly enough, the person who seemed to be having more fun than anyone was Steve – I’ve always found that straight people are usually rather impressed by the way the gays can throw a party. We danced and danced until the ice in our plastic drink cups had all but melted and keeping my eyes open became a little too much of a struggle. It was fairly late by then, and we’d seen the best of the performances, so we said goodbye to Valerio’s friends and headed back to the car to drive home.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

On the drive home, I questioned Valerio about something I’d noticed throughout the night. “So did you not drink tonight because you were driving, or do you just normally not drink anyway?” Not that long ago I wouldn’t have even thought to consider that second option, but meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely shone a light on that perspective for me.
“No, I don’t drink alcohol,” Valerio said rather simply. “I don’t really like the way it affects me – I don’t really like being drunk.” For a man of such small stature, I could only imagine that it wouldn’t take much to get him heavily intoxicated – something of a foreign concept for me. Now, I’m not a complete idiot – I know there are plenty of people in the world who don’t drink for the sole purpose of getting drunk. I guess that binge-drinking behaviour is mostly the kind of thing I’d been experiencing back home, but I was surprised that find that there were people who actually liked going out to nightclubs to dance and party while not even drinking the smallest amount of alcohol. It was a pleasant change, because for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like I needed to drink as much as I could in order to catch up and keep up with the rate at which all my fellow companions were drinking. Being outside of it for the first time, it was made painfully clear just how problematic and potentially dangerous Australia’s drinking culture can sometimes be. Not that I’m condemning or praising any culture either way – it was just some food for thought on the quiet drive home.
“Well, either way, thanks for driving us tonight. That was definitely a side of Rome we wouldn’t have seen without you.”

***

The next day I slept in. I know, I know – there is so much to do in Rome, how could I possibly waste an entire morning just sleeping? But I was exhausted, and I had reached a low point in the cycle of motions you move through when travelling. Some days you’re so full of energy and feel like you can do anything and literally get out there to take on the world. Other days, things catch up to you a little bit, and you have to remember you’re only human. It was another new perspective I had to consider – on a two week holiday you can cram every day full of activities and sleep it off when you get home, if you so desire. When you’re on the road for nine months, you really do need to be a little more self-conscious and give your body time to relax and recover. It was something I’d neglected over the past few weeks, and I’d paid for it when it culminated in the form of a small breakdown.

Steve had gone off for a day full of sightseeing, but I awoke very late in the morning to hang out with Valerio for a while. The most peculiar and interesting thing about Valerio was his obsession with Madonna. His living room was crammed with memorabilia that spanned back through the years of her career, from CDs and DVDs to posters to books to official tour merchandise, much of which had been signed by the Queen of Pop herself. Normally I might have found such an affinity with one artist slightly creepy, but when Valerio got talking about Madonna, there was such passion and vindication in his voice that it was almost a little inspiring. The decades long career, the different themes and styles in her music, the shocking and controversial material in some of her discography, and the way she’d adapted to achieve longevity in her musical career – but the end of our discussion, Valerio had me wanting to go and purchase all the Madonna albums to discover it all for myself. There was definitely a look of disapproval when I mentioned that I only had two Madonna songs on my iPod – I decided it was best not to mention my Lady Gaga inspired tattoo. We had a good afternoon though, sitting in our pyjamas and drinking tea while he showed me some of his favourite scenes from her MDNA tour – which he assured me would never make it to Australia. “She’ll never go to Australia,” he said rather simply. “She always announces it, but she’ll always cancel. Her tour is too elaborate and expensive. The cost of getting it down there would be more than she could ever make back from an Australian tour.” At that moment, arguing about the worlds various pop divas when I was still in my pyjamas at noon, I felt more at home than I had in a long while.

***

However, I did have other plans for the afternoon. A couple of days ago I had received a message from my next arranged Couchsurfing host – a man by the name of Ike, who lived in Ancona, on the eastern coast of Italy. We had been exchanging messages to arrange my stay since I’d been in Madrid.
“Robert, how are you? Are you still in Rome? I’ve just had a Couchsurfer named Stefan stay with me. He’s a lovely guy, he’s gay too, and he’s heading to Rome now. I’m not sure if he knows anyone – if you have a chance you guys might like to catch up?”
It wasn’t really a lot to go on, so I can’t tell you exactly why I bothered following through – but I got in touch with Stefan, and after a few miscommunications we planned to meet on the Sunday afternoon near the Colosseum, one of the last sights I had left to visit.

From the moment our conversation began, neither of us were at a loss of words. Stefan was from Austria and was currently travelling through Europe as well. We talked about our travels, or lives back home, friends and studying and working. We seemed to have so much in common, and before long we found ourselves discussing things like our hopes and dreams for the future, the things that inspired us and the things that terrified us, things we were doing, and the things we really wanted to be doing. Stefan spoke several languages and had been working as a translator for some time – he’d been a conscientious objector to the compulsory military service in Austria and had instead spent the time working on peace efforts and treaties in Japan. “But I’m also an artist,” Stefan had confessed to me. “I do sculpting… for me, that’s my real passion.” I asked him why he didn’t do that – why he didn’t pursue the dream that meant so much to him. He struggled to answer.
“I feel a similar way, I guess, but about music,” I told him. “I write and play music, and God, there isn’t much else I love in the world more than that. But to actually pursue it further? To really do it? I guess… I’m a little scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“I guess… of failure. What if  you gave it all you had, 100% give it your all, but you’re still not good enough? It’s just a cut-throat world out there…”
“Well, I’m scared too. But not of failure.” We were sitting on a park bench, staring out over the broad Colosseum in front of us. “But of losing that dream. What if you do make it, but it’s not all you dreamed it to be? That dream keeps me alive some days. If I made it that far, only to learn I’ve been wrong along…” He didn’t need to finish his sentence.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

It was a strangely profound moment to have with someone that I had just met, and a tragedy that we probably wouldn’t be meeting again for a long time. I’d wanted to stay and talk more – I felt like I could have talked to Stefan until the end of time itself and still not gotten bored. But my time in Rome was fast coming to an end, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t catch even just a glimpse of the Roman Forum and the inside of the Colosseum. We had already talked for much longer than I had anticipated, and I only had about an hour and a half to get down and see those final attractions before closing time. But the structures had stood there for thousands of years, so I could always return another time if necessary – the Forum wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And if I’d made such a point on seeing every last speck of historical tourism Rome had to offer, I would never have met up with and made a new friend in Stefan. It was a brief yet memorable moment, and I’m eternally grateful that it happened.

***

Fortune was favouring me that afternoon, because I somehow managed to breeze through the swift-moving line for the Colosseum and get in an out in what was probably a record speed. I didn’t climb to the upper tiers for the view down on the main arena, but standing at the bottom and looking up and the walls of relics towering over me was enough to give me a few shivers. The main stage was overrun and off limits to tourists, but I spared a moment for the countless men who would have died there centuries ago.

The Colosseum close up.

The Colosseum close up.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

The Roman Forum was a little bit overwhelming. After finally finding the entrance, I entered the grounds and wandered through the ruins, using my Lonely Planet book to roughly guide me through the highlights – there was only an hour left until the Forum closed. I didn’t rush through it too quickly though, but instead appreciated the sights that I did get to see. In the end I think I saw a great deal of the ruins, but Valerio was mildly horrified that I hadn’t spent more than hour there. Still, it was a beautiful afternoon as I watched the dying light fall across the Forum, and the furthest part of the ruins up near Palatine Hill offered a pretty remarkable view of the area.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Ancient ruins.

Ancient ruins.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Monument inside the Forum.

Monument inside the Forum.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Tempio di Saturno - the Temple of Saturn.

Tempio di Saturno – the Temple of Saturn.

More ruins in the Forum.

More ruins in the Forum.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

Afterwards I met Valerio back near the Colosseum, and we wandered through the streets as dusk sank over the city. Valerio told me that there are over 900 churches in the city of Rome, and he himself had managed to visit a few hundred of them during his time living there. We walked past the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, and ended up back in central Rome. The area looked quite different at night, as we wandered past the Pantheon, through Piazza Navona, and ended up near Trevi Fountain, where we were due to meet up with Steve.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi - Fountain of the Four Rivers -  at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – Fountain of the Four Rivers – at night.

“Did you throw a coin into the fountain?” Valerio asked me as we watched the hordes of tourists struggle to get their picture taken with the fountain in the background.
“Nah, it was too crowded when I was here,” I replied pretty casually. But Valerio turned to me with a look of horror.
“What?! No, you must throw a coin into the fountain, or you will never again return to Rome!” That was one superstition that I hadn’t heard of, and I just laughed. But Valerio seemed insistent, so I went down the fountain to appease him, tossing 20 euro cents over my shoulder, and getting another picture with the fountain, remarkably without anyone else in the crowd creeping into the shot. Later, I would read in my guide book that an average of €3000 is thrown into Trevi Fountain everyday – I guess that’s one superstition that a lot of people take pretty seriously.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

We finally caught up with Steve, and we went for a wander to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, which were even more crowded than the afternoon I had first visited them. The whole city seemed to have a different vibe at night, and the three of us sat at the top of the steps and just looked out over the crowd of people, enjoying the warm, humid air. That was my last night in Rome, and I have to say it was a rather enjoyable one. I’d made some new good friends, and after the few days of sightseeing, it had been great to just wander around with someone as chilled out and relaxed as Valerio and, if you will, do as Romans do.

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom...

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom…

... and from the top.

… and from the top.

***

The next morning Valerio dropped me off at the metro station so that I could make it to my train out of Rome in time. He bid me goodbye and wished me good luck on my travels. I thanked him for his hospitality and his generosity, and with a wink I reminded him that I threw that coin into Trevi Fountain, “So I’m sure I’ll be back to visit you again.”

Losing My Religion

Day Two of Selma’s itinerary started off with another sight that was deemed one of Rome’s “must see” attractions: The Vatican City. The further along I got on this itinerary, the more I realised that there are just so many things to see in Rome, and that I would have probably wasted a whole heap of time had I not had the good fortune of Selma’s advice. Still, the Vatican was something I was almost in two minds about. “The Vatican? Won’t you, like, burst into flames or something when you step inside?”, my best friend Jesse had said during a Skype conversation while I was getting ready to head out. I just laughed and shrugged. I hadn’t let my homosexuality or my distaste for organised religion stop me from entering any of the other churches throughout Europe so far, so why should I treat the Vatican any differently. By that reasoning St Peter’s Basilica was – to me, at least – just another church.

The Vatican is located slightly north-west of central Rome, and Valerio’s place was in the south-east, so it took even longer to get there than it had taken to get into the centre yesterday. Selma’s instructions had advised I wake up early to visit the Vatican, presumably to avoid the queues, but unless it is absolutely essential, I have discovered I am just not a morning person. Especially not for the Pope. So the sun was high and bright as I stepped out of the metro system and into the streets, where I immediately could find my way to the Vatican by simply following the flocks of people. There were lots of people holding signs advertising guided tours, hollering at passers-by with things like “You going to the museum? Vatican Museum is not this way, you want want guided tour, aye?” Every now and then I would see people stop and talk to them, and I wondered if any of them realised how ripped off they were probably going to get. “Long lines for the museum, but not with guided tour!” Maybe I was wrong though – I never bothered to investigate them further. I dodged the assumed tourists traps as I blended into the throng of the crowd.

The centre of the Vatican City.

The centre of the Vatican City.

There were lines to get into the main church – there was absolutely no way around that. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free, so there wasn’t really any reason not to go in, once you realised the lines moved at quite a constant and steady pace. I couldn’t have been in line for more than 20 minutes before I was through the security check and on my way in. Some of the other tourists around me, however, were not so lucky. Like many holy sights that I had visited in places like Bangkok and Angkor Wat, respectful attire was compulsory for entry into the largest Catholic church in the world, and I had done my research. As I approached the front of the line, I pulled out the pair of jeans that I had stuffed into my backpack and pulled them on over my short, immodest shorts. I’d been sure to wear a t-shirt with decent length sleeves, so once I had covered up I was given the green light by security. The women behind me in their sandals, summer dresses and light gauze shawls weren’t so lucky.

The first thing I noticed when I was finally within the compound was, lo and behold, another line. It was a line to climb the steps to the basilica’s atrium, a dome that supposedly offered views of the Vatican and the surrounding area. I stood in line for a short while before I realised a sign that read “Exact fare only” (it cost €5 to walk the stairs or €7 to take the lift). I checked my wallet – all I had was a €50 note. I deliberated in the line for a little while, but in the end I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the wait to be turned down for not having the correct change, and even if that didn’t matter, I wasn’t sure the view itself would be worth even more waiting. So instead I slipped out of the line and entered into the main chamber of the church.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter's Basilica.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter’s Basilica.

One of the many statues inside St Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it's name.

One of the many statues inside St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it’s name.

I have to admit that my musings in the morning before my arrival at the Vatican had been a little bit off – I had seen a lot of churches so far, but this place was impressive. I wandered around the hollow space aimlessly for some time, just staring at the walls and the ceilings and the masterpiece artworks that adorned them. It was almost similar to the interior of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with gold plating and lavish trimmings, but as I admired all the beauty, I couldn’t help but think that it was all so over the top, and question whether or not it was necessary for a church to be so intricately decorated. Although these places were built in a completely different time period, almost a completely different world, and I suppose institutions such as the Catholic church would have had enough power that they could have commissioned anything to happen, not just a masterpiece by Michelangelo. Which isn’t really any more of a comforting thought. I had been able to admire almost all the other churches I’d visited during my travels simply as holy places of worship, where people found solace in their faith, even if I did not. But there was something else, something more than the interior design within St Peter’s Basilica that made me a little uncomfortable, somehow reminding me of all the things that I really did have against religious institutions such as this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but all my previous attempts at finding some kind of enlightenment came to naught as of that day, and I fell back into a phase of religious disillusion.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

Personal reflection aside, the basilica is still rather wondrous to behold. A highlight is the statue of St Peter, whose toes on this right foot have been worn down to a smooth nub after centuries of pilgrims touching and kissing his foot while they pray to the saint. As I was taking a photo of the main alter in the church, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around to see a couple, a man a woman, extending their camera out to me and pointing at the alter. Figuring that they wanted me to take a picture for them, but also guessing that they didn’t speak English or Italian, I just smiled and nodded. I took the camera and snapped a few shots before handing it back to them, and then motioning for them to take a few for me in return. “спасибо,” (or phonetically ‘spasiba’) the man mumbled to me in a deep voice as we parted ways. I got momentarily excited, and went to say “You’re welcome”, until I realised that ‘thank you’ was pretty much the extent of all the Russian that I knew. After I had finished looking around and taking a few pictures, I exited St Peter’s Basilica through the underground crypts, where former Popes are laid to rest. It was a solemn route in which photography was not allowed, so after I left I snapped a few last pictures out the front in St Peter’s Square.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter's left foot still have distinguishable toes.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter’s left foot still have distinguishable toes.

Outside St Peter's Basilica.

Outside St Peter’s Basilica.

Outside the church in St Peter's Square.

Outside the church in St Peter’s Square.

***

The next stop of the day was the other major feature of the Vatican – the Vatican Museums. Now I’m not a huge art buff, but I’m no snub either, so I wanted to take my time and at least see some of the highlights – according to Lonely Planet you would need a couple of hours for that alone. I followed the crowds exiting the basilica and found my way to the museums. I instantly knew that I had made the right decision in forgoing the expensive tourist trap guided tours of the Vatican Museums – what appeared to be a long waiting line to get in was actually just a steady stream of people moving into the building. I never actually stood still once while I was ‘waiting’, and I was in and away in no time.

The collection of artworks in the Vatican is quite remarkable though. Every room is crammed with as many works of art as possible, from the most minuscule and seemingly insignificant to the most amazing of masterpieces. There were sculptures, statues, paintings, portraits, walls and ceilings decorated with the most extravagance: it just went on and on. I won’t even attempt to describe or explain everything I saw, but I did take a few photos of some of my favourite pieces.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The famous statue titled "Laocoön and His Sons", which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

The famous statue titled “Laocoön and His Sons”, which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

The Belvedere Torso.

The Belvedere Torso.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they're not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they’re not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

I followed the signs and directions for the most brief tour of the museums, which as expected still took a couple of hours. But no matter how you go about it, the final stop on any tour of the Vatican Museums inevitably has to be the Sistine Chapel. Photographs are forbidden in the main chamber, and rightly so. I’ve previously expressed similar sentiments that being unable to take a photo of a place, such as inside the temples of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, make the place a little more special and sacred, and you really have to be there to see it. Of course, you can see the highlights of the chapel with a quick Google search, but there is so much more to the room than Genesis. The chapel itself would have been quite a chilling and moving sight to behold, if it weren’t for the fact that the rule of silence was so heavily policed. Don’t get me wrong, I think that requiring to be silent in places like the Sistine Chapel is totally acceptable – it’s still a holy place and I’m sure there’d be dozens of Catholics around the place casting prayers up to Heaven as they gaze around in awe. But the effect of that silence, and indeed the point of requiring it, seems a little defeated by the “ATTENTION! SILENCE PLEASE! NO PHOTOGRAPHY!” boomed out over a very loud speaker system in 6 different languages every thirty seconds. It’s a little hard to be impressed while standing in the midst of a famous work of art when you feel like you’re being ordered around like a herd of cattle.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

Although, it’s disappointing to admit that more than half the tourists in the room were behaving like cattle. I left the museum after that, and the Vatican as a whole, feeling not exactly underwhelmed by what I had experienced, and not necessarily disappointed. I just felt a little confused. Like, was there something I wasn’t getting? I appreciated these places as world renowned and works of art, but I just felt like I was missing something that made it all really seem that worth it. Maybe it was the disillusionment I felt in St Peter’s Basilica, or maybe I was just suffering from museum fatigue, or was just tired of an itinerary that was starting to feel like a season of  “Europe’s Next Top Cathedral”. I was glad that I had seen what I had seen, but I decided after my visit to the Vatican that I was going to terminate the rigid itinerary that Selma had provided me with. There were still a couple of major sights I legitimately wanted to see, but I think my trip to the Vatican marked the day that I had officially grown tired of museums, churches, and every other typical tourist attraction.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

After a decent nights sleep at Valerio’s house, I woke up feeling remarkably refreshed and ready to take on Rome. I had been told by almost everyone who had visited Rome that the city was enormous, and that if you didn’t have a plan of attack you could easily waste all your valuable sightseeing time trying to find your way around the maze of combined modern and ancient history. Lucky for me, I had met Selma in Barcelona, who had seemed more excited than I was at the fact that I was going to Rome. We had exchanged contact details, and at some point during my stay in Madrid she had sent me a huge message that had included a list of all the famous sights, monuments and neighbourhoods, as well as a detailed itinerary of how to make the most of all these things and visit as many as possible in the three days that I had to explore Rome. I felt a mix of overwhelming gratitude and guilt – I hoped she had already had this itinerary written down and had just forwarded it on to me, because what I got had been so much more than I had expected when I’d asked for “a few tips”. Nevertheless, she had saved me a great deal of planning when it came to all that touristic stuff that I’d never really been any good at.

As convenient as getting to Valerio’s house from the airport had been, getting from Valerio’s house to central Rome was somewhat more of a challenge. I had to get a bus to the closest metro station, and then from there catch the metro into the heart of the city. The whole trip should have only taken me half an hour if the public transport ran on time, but I was about to learn very quickly that literally nothing in Italy runs on time. So it took a little longer. Given the size of the city, I was also surprised that Rome only had two metro lines that ran diagonally across the city and intersected only once or twice in the middle. Cities like Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and even Barcelona all had upwards of around fifteen metro lines, so it was puzzling as to why Rome was so far behind. Valerio would later tell me that the city was working on a third line. It’s completion was scheduled for approximately somewhere in the next several years – Rome wasn’t built in a day, I guess?

When I finally reached central Rome, my first stop was Piazza del Popolo, a large public square with a huge obelisk towering over the tourists crossing the plaza. From there I following Selma’s directions and climbed the stairs up to Pincio Hill. The top of the hill was a beautiful and quite peaceful garden, a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the lower streets of Rome that I had been in so far. It was also a spot that afforded excellent panoramic views of Rome, so I stopped to take a couple of photos before wandering through the greenery. I followed the edge of Pincio Hill until I rather unwittingly walked down the next attraction, Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti: the Spanish Steps. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom and arrived at Piazza di Spagna, thought to be the most famous square in Rome, that I turned around and took in my surroundings. The square is a common rest stop for tourists wandering the city, so it was quite crowded, and at the top of the steps sat the French church Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

At the foot of the Spanish Steps I came across my first Roman fountain, the Barcaccia, sculpted in 1627 in the style of a sinking boat. Valerio had told me that the water in all of the fountains around Rome was safe to drink. I hadn’t understood at the time, but I would soon learn that similar fountains were scattered all around the city, and thirsty tourists and locals alike could be seen stealing a sip from the flowing water, or filling up their water bottles. The water all comes from clean underground springs and is completely safe to drink as it pours out of the fountain. It was a cute little feature of the city, and particularly convenient given how hot it was that day, and all the walking I still had left to do. From Piazza di Spagna I walked down Via dei Condotti, the posh shopping strip of Rome that was lined with expensive designer and luxury brands. It was an amusing juxtaposition, to see such expensive and modern designer brands in the shop fronts that were situated in some of the oldest streets in the world. Though the entire city of Rome was full of such contrasts – modern stores that were built a few months ago stood side by side in the street with structures that had been standing in place for over 3000 years. For someone who comes from a country as young as Australia, it was a strange concept to fathom.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

At the end of that street came the Trevi Fountain, one of the more well-known and more highly anticipated sights of Rome. The crowds around the fountain were unbelievable – it was almost impossible to get a photo without someone else being the photo. I actually saw a couple of fights break out between groups who were trying to take photos while other groups were getting in the way. It was actually quite frightening, and at that point I decided I wasn’t going to stay in any areas heavily populated by tourists for any longer than necessary. It was at that point that I broke away from Selma’s itinerary, although not entirely intentionally. I thought I was following her directions to another plaza, but after a while I emerged into a clearing to behold the Pantheon, another instantly recognisable sight. The 2000-year-old temple is now a church, and one of the best preserved monuments in Rome. It was beautiful, both inside and out, and the dome in the roof that is considered to be the ancient Romans greatest architectural achievement allowed a cylinder of sunlight to pour in from the sky. It was a little eerie, but also gave a rather holy feel to the aesthetic of the huge old room. I wandered around the inner chambers and admired some of the artworks and decorations before taking leave back out into the midday sun.

Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon.

The Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

A few short streets later and I found myself at Piazza Navona, a long plaza that is home to several fountains, the most famous of which is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Fountain of Four Rivers. The plaza was full on tourists, but it also seemed to be a popular place for buskers, street performers, artists drawing both realistic sketches and caricatures, and peddlers selling all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. It reminded me a lot of some of the heavily touristic areas in Paris, and I stayed for long enough to observe some of the interesting things going on, and take a few photos of course, before heading off and moving on.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

There were a few other things on Selma’s itinerary for the first day, but they were more missable things such as places to eat or where to get some good gelato. I would have followed through and investigated, but by that point I was completely exhausted. My body still hadn’t fully recovered from the breakdown in Madrid, so I ended up grabbing some quick take away food before heading back to Valerio’s to rest and recover for the remainder of the afternoon. I know, it seems sacrilegious in a city and country known for some amazing cuisine, but the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down at an overpriced tourist restaurant by myself. However, I did swing by the Termini train station on my way home, so that I could book my tickets out of Rome for a few days time. On my way there I passed a building which I later learned to be Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the Alter of the Fatherland, the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, which had also been on Selma’s itinerary. It’s a controversial monument that was built in honour of the first king of unified Italy, and also holds the home of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the accompanying eternal flame.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

After waiting an hour to be served and book my train tickets (again, this is Italy, so no surprise there), I took the metro and the bus back home to Valerio’s. Considering I was far from my peak physical condition, I felt I had done a decent job of sightseeing for the day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see it in one either, so I had a quiet and early night, making sure I got plenty of sleep to continue the exploring tomorrow.

Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.

***

The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.

***

The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.