Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ciao Porky! Part I: ROMA

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Our first full day in Italy we were free to explore Rome. After dropping my bags, stretching my body out and taking a long and excellent shower, I headed back down to the lobby of our hotel to link up with someone or some people to go explore the city. A group of sales reps from our distributor were heading out to explore the city, so I tagged along with them. They seemed like a good group to hang with for the day and they generously let me, a total stranger who could have been SUPER annoying, into their fold quite nicely. The first order of business was a round of Aperol Spritz. If you’re not familiar with this drink you should get to know it. Aperol is a bitter, bright orange aperitif which, in this particular cocktail, is poured over ice and topped with Prosecco and a splash of soda water. It’s fluorescent-colored, refreshing, relatively low alcohol and shamelessly Italian. I liked them before my trip, now I’m almost annoyingly obsessed. A Spritz is also one of the only ways, we found, that you could actually get an Italian bartender to give you a normal sized portion of ice. A few themes became apparent over the course of our journey: salami is inescapable, coffees are tiny and Italians hate ice. Getting ice cubes was almost as much of a challenge as getting solid wifi. Being that I was on a trip, I cared slightly more about the ice than the wifi.

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All over the cities in Italy there are tiny shops, a bit like convenience stores, with lottery tickets, cigarettes and semi-grumpy looking proprietors, much like any corner store you might tuck into anywhere here. The difference is they also have a full bar stocked, an impressive cappuccino machine and usually a bakery case with some swoon-worthy cannoli and cakes on display. These are the spots where most people pop in to have their coffee in the morning. They drink it at the bar, standing up, out of actual glassware; I’m not even sure getting a cafĂ© to go is an option. It’s the sort of thing that is not rushed. This respect for food, drinks and meal times and tendency not to rush was something I saw quite a bit throughout the trip. And this propensity to give meals and the sharing of meals the time and respect they deserve was admittedly my favorite thing about Italian culture. At these bars, they also give you snacks whenever you order a round of drinks. I don’t know if this is a sort of legal thing, or simply an extension of the cultural more that food is meant to share; but you know I was into it, because nothing pairs better with drinks than snacks.

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We wandered through the city, exploring various piazzas and squares, tucking into a basilica here and a church there. The most humble looking church door, or crumbling brick structure would hide behind it seriously stunning architecture, sculpture and art. They know how to do churches there, and I’m just talking the everyday walk around churches, I didn’t even get to the Vatican. The other thing that I found so cool about Rome (and this is going to sound incredibly pedestrian and semi idiotic) but it’s SO ANCIENT. Like worn, weathered, hella ancient columns every which way you look. You wander around one corner and there’s a cordoned off section of ruins with stray cats poking around; you grab a gelato and turn 180 degrees and all of the sudden you’re in the hulking shadow of the parliament building; or craning your neck at the expansive beauty of the Pantheon. The depth and breadth of the city’s historical place is absolutely everywhere you look.

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For dinner that night I met up with another faction of our group, including Dan (the one friend I knew prior to the trip). About 10 people including us headed to Trattoria Gigetto in the section of the city that was formerly the Jewish Ghetto. As we gathered around the table for dinner the energy in the air was electric. It was Saturday night and we were in Rome, at the start of a whirlwind week of wine, food and fun. Everyone breathlessly shared their Roman experiences of the day and practiced enthusiastically shouting “Buena Sera!”

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As we pulled our chairs in and the last two people arrived at dinner, two ice buckets filled with about 8 bottles of Frascati (the local white) were placed at either end of the table and a hulking platter of fried artichokes, squash blossoms and salt cod was plunked down next to me. As I looked over the heads of the people across from me, I saw weathered columns and the remnants of an old brick aqueduct. My chair wobbled on the cobblestone sidewalk and an old man with a guitar played Volare (I couldn’t even make this up). It was so f*cking Roman I almost just about died. Dan and I toasted to our good friend Tim, my boss and the reason I was able to come on the trip. The week was just getting started and everybody was ready to roll.

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We had three hours the next morning before our bus departed for the first winery visit; so I linked back up with my buddies from the day before. We swapped stories about the prior evening’s dinner experiences as we walked the 30 minutes through the city to the Colosseum. Like all great monuments, the Colosseum is, um, pretty awesome. Now I use the word awesome a lot. I think it’s because I’m a bit of a valley girl in my speech patterns. But I do love that the wonders of the world, like the Grand Canyon and here, in front of me, the Colosseum are places where the only possible descriptor is “awesome”, because they truly are. We came upon it walking up a hill on a narrow side street and then there it was hulking at the end of the road: massive and strong. Despite the fact that part of it is crumbled it is by no means a crumbling structure. It dominates its surroundings, colossal as it is, and grounds everything in sight. Banking its right side were a few gentle hills and more relics and ruins. We drank in the view for a bit and then hopped the metro back up to our hotel. The crowds were too thick and our time too short to take the tour inside. Back up by the hotel the bus was waiting and we hit the road for a five hour drive all the way down to Puglia.

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So that was Rome, experienced in a flash of about 36 hours: fueled by espresso, Aperol, adrenaline and the infectious energy of new people embarking on a shared experience. I have to say, it was an excellent start.

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