Tribulations

"So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."-- Chris McCandless

Partiamo aggi a.k.a. We're leaving today for Firenze a.k.a. Florence! It was now 23 June 2011 and we could tell we had been in Europa a while as we emerged from the air conditioned lobby of the Royal Marcella Hotel. The days no longer were sunny with a refreshing breeze… they had become sweltering with stagnant air.

Mom & I were headed to Stazione Termini a.k.a. Termini [train] Station to catch a train to Firenze where we would spend another five days. I figured since we would be doing little walking and sitting on a train I wore a tank top, light pants, and – for the first time since chasing beaches in Greece – sandals. I felt a tad underdressed because Roma is filled with so many skinny and stylish people.

The great thing about a touristy area in a large city is the access to resources. I purchased a Coke Zero from a random store on a random block and checked my email at an internet cafĂ©. The downfall of being in a touristy area would soon be made apparent.

Mom & I chose to walk the 10 blocks from Via Flavia to Stazione Termini. As usual we only traveled on the shaded parts of the street, however our loaded backpacks and 15 kilograms a.k.a. 35 pounds of luggage coupled with the summer heat quickly had us drenched in sweat. Why did I wear pants?

We sought shade in wide-open foyer to Stazione Termini. However, there was hardly any airflow which made terminal seem warmer than outside in the sun. It was hot as Hell. Dripping sweat, Mom & I approached the automatic ticketing machines since there was a train leaving for Santa Maria Novella (Firenze’s main station) in 45 minutes. At first, we were unsure if we wanted first or second class seating. Mom told me supposed horror stories of being in second class with goats where it was standing room early. Our worry was in vane because – for some reason still unknown – the machine would not confirm that option.

So Mom tried again but changed from direct to a non-express train (which stopped at most regional stations en route to Firenze). Again, we were denied by the machine. We asked a customer next to us how he received his ticket. He went through the exact process we did and equally received the "Unable to process your request" sign. In broken English, he told us to try the last kiosk in each row because they usually accepted both money (which was our method of payment) and credit card. We thanked him and tried a third time on a different ticketing machine (even though it was identical to the rest). No go.

Down to 25 minutes, we realized we had to wait in line for a ticket. Although there was a TrenItalia worker in the crowd to help, the woman was so overwhelmed with questions from tourists there was a line just to ask her if you were in the right line! I entered the queue – still not knowing if it was the correct one -- while Mom stayed with our luggage in the lobby. The minutes ticked by as I inched closer to an attendant at a window. I fanned myself and continued to sweat despite standing still in the line. Flummoxed, Mom walked around hoping the answer would become apparently clear. In her optimism she tried the self-serve kiosk one more time.

To our surprise, Mom emerged with two, first-class tickets to Santa Maria Novella! With 15 minutes until departure we made our way to the concourse. It consisted of rows of trains and seemed relatively well marked. We looked at the electronic schedule. The train to Napoli left from platform 24. The train to Milano a.k.a. Milan left from platform 16. Why then, was there a symbol that resembled a Greek letter under the "platform" column for Firenze? Every other train in the entire nation had a numbered platform except our train!

We skimmed the rows of trains looking for any sign that had our destination. Perplexed, Mom & I asked a bystander. He was Asian and did not speak any English. We thought we had identified an Italian businessman & asked him as well. He looked at the electronic board but shrugged. Mom inquired of another businessman who coldly brushed her off. We were running out of time. With 10 minutes left we wandered around like chickens with our heads cut off. Each minute my optimism turned to rage. Mom stopped two police officers who were doubly clueless and redirected us to the information booth but the line was ten people deep.

With 5 minutes until departure I tried to gain my composure but I was confused, roasting and bothered. In my minute of doing nothing, out of the corner of my ear I heard a young woman (who had been in the ticketing line with me) ask where the train to Firenze was. She received vague directions and started running. I screamed for Mom to follow and sprinted after the young woman. I arrived a few seconds after her to an area with no train. I could see the puzzlement on her face too. It now dawned on me Mom was not trailing behind. I scanned the concourse but did not see my 5 foot tall mother with her bright red backpack. I detached from the young woman and frantically looked around. With probably one minute to spare I found my mother. As I ran closer, her eyes were wide and she hurriedly waved me on. The conductor yelled for us to get onboard and we literally climbed over two, older Italian women with monstrous suitcases, but we made it! I seriously felt like I had escaped the first circle of Hell.

I could barely sit in the cushioned, first-class chair because my back was soaked from sweat. The bottom of my pants and feet were incredibly dirty and I was emotionally bankrupt. I watched Mom nod off then I did the same.

We emerged from Stazione Santa Maria Novella into the afternoon sun and tried to get our bearings. We were starving. We set off on the main road of Via degli Avelli on foot with my overstuffed suitcase toppling twice. By Via de Tornabuoni I was cursing aloud at the damn wobbly bag. I did not have this much trouble wheeling it around Roma. We made our last turn onto Via delle Terme which was the most narrow, cobbled street yet. I was so aggravated I was ready to either cry or punch someone. Mom sympathized and walked behind me so that every time my suitcase overturned, she would kick it to its right position and continue down the road.

You can’t even imagine the relief I felt as I hit the hotel bed. The room wasn’t the prettiest but it had an authentic Italian feel, air-conditioning and windows with awnings so we could hang our wash out to dry. I wasn’t sure what was most important to me: food, rest, or a shower. Neither of us had eaten so we went for the closest/quickest ristorante we could find which – thanks to Hotel Della Signoria’s prime location – was just across Via delle Terme. We could see the outdoor tables from our window.

We were eating at an odd hour -- too late for lunch but too early for dinner – so we had the entire patio to ourselves except for a pretty, blonde college student (that the waiter relentlessly flirted with). We needed sustenance but Mom was abhorred that 550 ml. a.k.a. 20 oz. of Coke Zero cost €7 a.k.a. $9.50. Still bent, Mom and I agreed to seek a grocery store and store the food/beverages in our mini-fridge. On our quest we passed over the Arno River via the famous Ponte Vecchio. The bridge has long been lined with jewelers since the 16th century.  It was difficult to distinguish one jeweler's collections from another’s since each displayed gold necklaces and rings, but one store in particular was noteworthy since it announced my grandmother’s last name.
It was amazing how the shops on the bridge hung over the river. From far away, the floors were supported by only one beam, yet the bridge had survived since 1345 and was the only one in Firenze saved from destruction in World War II. As we crossed the Ponte Vecchio Mom told me about the Corridoio Vasariano (the hidden, covered passageway) that ran along the top of the shops and connected the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi [Museum], and Palazzo Pitti.
Oltrano a.k.a. Beyond the Arno [River] Mom and I bumped into Palazzo Pitti a.k.a. Pitti’s Palace with its unmistakeable, gigantic, mosaic statue of a person sitting frog-legged in the vast courtyard. Palazzo Pitti had little curb appeal but – as we later discovered – housed many important artists’ work and groomed gardens.

We found a local Conad's grocery store and returned across the Ponte Vecchio but were sidetracked by a sweet, vanilla smell that came from a gelateria on the main drag. Enticed, I bought Mom & myself a thick waffle with a scoop of banana and a scoop of mango gelato (respectively). To my disappointment, the total came to €20 a.k.a. $28 for dessert and the waffles weren’t half as delicious as they smelled.

Oh well. Where we spent money on the outlandish cost of food, we saved money by walking everywhere and buying groceries. Despite the trying day, I was happy to be in Firenze and have a new city to explore!

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