When in Rome
England is always damp and cold. Even during the first bursts of spring, even in the sunshine-est of days, it is cold. There are a thousand years of dampness built into a country. Scotland is cold- but it is honest about its cold- England lies and tells you that it’s not. It’s the hypocrisy that is infuriating, not the damp.
There are cities in England that are damper than others, London- three out five, Devonshire four out of five, Oxford six out of five. I am sure it’s the unshed tears of the stiff upper lip students that cause this humidity.
It was on one of these damp days, that I trudged through the muck, mud grabbing at my boots like greedy child demons wanting a human nanny for their circle of hell, my body and brain empty. I had spent the last week studying for an exam, which to me is an extreme sport. I don’t think am especially smart- I am just especially dutiful about creating good study habits. This was not an exam where you just filled in bubbles or even an exam where you could bullshit essay answers. It was a thesis defense with training wheels. But armed with only what you had written and researched- you were subjected to open-ended questions and attacked by all sides about your work. I chose to go last because I don’t always make the best choices.
I had completed the exam twenty minutes earlier and had not processed my freedom yet.
One thousand cups of tea and coffee, one million digestive biscuits had entered my body- I had not had a proper meal in over two weeks. If it wasn’t a jammy dodger, ramen, or a fried potato- I had not seen it.
I was going back home, a place I shared with eight other students, all American. Five of them lived there part-time as it was a good base for their independent studies, others like myself were there to take full advantage of the proximity to some of the best research facilities in the West.
We were all part of an experimental exchange student program that would fizz out in the next three years, become something entirely different- making transcripts a complete nightmare.
This made us friends by proximity only, at least at the time. Now they are some of my best friends, but then- I was too shy and rebuffed their kindness.
When I die- this will be one of my only regrets- that I did now allow myself to be more open to the simple kindness of people.
So, body feeling the fuzz of not eating a vegetable for two weeks, the buzz of four cups of tea, and ickiness because even though I asked for no milk in my tea- the older lady at the teashop never remembered and I was too shy to say something- I walked into a room of eight people talking.
I have always been sensitive to noise, I think TV yells at me, older air-con units hum at a level that is irritating and alarm sounds give me a small panic attack- so a lot of people talking at once- is a wall of sound that does not wash over me- but infuriates my brain. This goes double when I am tired. So I just walked past them, into my room, and popped in my noise-canceling headphones, found some mediation music, and waited for the blissfulness of a two-day coma.
My phone kept vibrating. I belonged to a few group chats- so it wasn’t rare that once folks started it sounded like a janky sex toy. I went to turn the phone off when I saw over twelve messages asking me to come out to the living room for a house meeting.
I was angry at this house meeting since all I wanted to do was sleep- but I was sure I just missed putting the meeting on my calendar and headed out to hear about trash duties, hair clogs, and the next party we would be having.
Instead- I was greeted with a cheer and the chorus of
We are going to Rome! We are going to Rome! We are going to Rome!
Excitement bubbled up all around me, but I could not be excited for myself. It was not the tiredness due to exam time, but the weariness of knowing that even if I was invited- I would not be able to afford tickets to go.
Tickets were very cheap from London, at least by American standards- around eighty dollars roundtrip- but just wasn’t in my budget.
Wild to think that now-since that is basically my book budget for the month, but the before time, was a different time.
One of the great things about a college education is that you get to meet people from all walks of life- but that can also be lonely when you notice you often walk alone on the path of your parents not being mega-wealthy. I was only at university by the grace of scholarships and the auspicious selling of a family heirloom.
“I am so excited for you!!” I hugged my friends and let their celebratory spirit shine.
My spring break was going to be spent alone with a book, and napping- which at the point in the day was welcomed reprieve.
“You are so funny! No We , includes you – you dolt – We are going right now, grab your passport- the jet is almost here”
“Daddy has a business trip, so he is taking the jet- and its wheels up in twenty, it will take twenty-five minutes to get to the airfield so hurry and pack”
I hastily threw my passport, some leftover Euros, six pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, my emergency credit card, and assorted other items in a book bag and headed back out to the living room. No items of clothing I owned were clean, not even the Halloween costume that I wore to a party two days ago.
My ever posh friend had a fully packed suitcase, heels, and an expertly tailored outfit. I looked ever the part of the ragamuffin orphan next to her glamorous self. I had harbored a long suspicion she was a fairy, but I did come to learn she was an escort- which is kinda the same thing.
While it would have been the best effect for comedy if we all squished into one tiny cab- we had to take four different ones- as my friends do not pack light.
We zoomed off. While I wish my private jet experience was one of luxurious champagne, dinners, and an orgy- I SLEPT the entire time. I sat down on buttery leather, immediately nodded off. If there was an orgy- I was not part of it. Although later I would have a threesome with two of the friends in a Slovenian sex club.
The flight was only three hours, so maybe only one of those happened while I was slumbering.
We landed and were off again in a limousine. I still have no idea who hired it, but I had learned not to deny gifts when they are given- and climbed in.
We drove what it seemed like for hours, but since I have returned to Rome and followed similar steps was only about half an hour.
Arriving at a four-bedroom villa, complete with full house staff and a buffet set up- I tried to act like the was normal when it most certainly was not.
Although I wanted to sit and eat for hours- I grabbed a small plate and snacked and talked.
I got up and a staff member led me to my room noticing my intense yawning and general lack of energy. I was ushered into a cool and quiet room, with chilled sheets but sun-warmed duvet- which is my favorite type of sleeping arrangement.
I could hear the din of my friends talking and planning to go out. They had all finished their exams days ago and were in the celebratory spirit.
As I fell asleep- my phone buzzed and I took a quick glance-
“Going out clubbing. Text when you wake up and join us x”
And I fell into one of the deepest sleep I have ever had in my life.
As many people know- I actually don’t sleep the traditional eight hours a night- it’s usually four hours and a nap, but when I do finally hit the eight hours I sleep hard. I have slept through earthquakes, hurricanes, fire, and phone alarms. It is the sleep of the dead.
This was one of those.
When I awoke, my eyes gummed shut with mascara, not knowing where I was. My alarm at home was a light that gently got brighter on your face and a small buzzer. There was no light, and the room was dark.
I breathed and remembered the wild events of yesterday(???).
My little caffeine monster made itself known with light withdrawal screams.
I knew a headache would come next, fatigue after that, and extreme grumpiness to follow.
I willed myself to get up and find the kitchen. As I wandered the house – I found an espresso machine that resembled a meth lab contraption and four demitasse cups stacked next to it.
I touched it and thought about making my own lovely cup of espresso- but I took to Guy de Maupassant, The Necklace ( a story about a middle-class woman who loses a friends diamond necklace, goes into debt to buy another one, and ends up in severe poverty in order to live) as a fable- and knew if I broke something I would end up in a similar situation- so I decided I would go out, get coffee and explore.
My phone was dead, so I did not know what time it was- but it had to be early morning according to the sun and the monster.
As an American, you will never be as fashionable as a French or Italian woman. You can wear the same clothes, smoke the same cigarettes, even go to the same events- but you just won’t ever achieve this goal. There is something so ingrained in Americans that makes them very… uncool.
I have yet to figure out what this is- and I have spent many a night thinking about it. I don’t know if it’s the socialization of being affable like a giant puppy if it’s the insular politics that create tunnel vision, our lack of human decency in our healthcare- or all of this but there is something.
But as someone who has traveled a ton, I can spot other Americans in a crowd instantly.
But I always feel the most uncool, the most American when faced with the fact that my language skills are absolute shit. I do think in a former life I made a Faustian deal- that I would be able to write with aplomb, have a large vocabulary, and fast-paced reading skills but only in English, all other languages would become dust in my mouth.
Oddly Latin is the only loophole. I have spent five years studying Spanish and lived in Mexico, three years studying French, three learning Japanese and living there, two years of Mandarin and living in different parts of China, and yet …. Nothing.
Song lyrics in English of something I have heard once- memorized, ability to teach English-done, but another language? Words will form on my brain but rot on my tongue, I will struggle again and again with sounds, grammar, and other seemingly easy things.
This is to say- my Italian was nonexistent. I passed cafe after cafe trying to find one that was open. After passing thirteen of them, and walking about twenty minutes I found a coffee cart. Usually, these are found at tourist locations and have tragically high prices. People who have been to DC know the pain of realizing you bought a $12 ice cream bar that would be $1 at a 7/11.
But I did not see anything touristy around. It was all pleasant if sleepy neighborhood vibes.
I was committed to getting coffee-no matter the cost as the headache was just starting and I am a weak-willed flesh bag.
I knew I would have to pantomime what I wanted. This almost always worked by pointing, a quick smile and tip work.
My Italian may have been shit, but my deep interest in third-wave coffee came in handy. I knew how to read the drink menu and a few food items – but the prices were faded.
My brain sang the song of anticipation. I walked to the counter. An elderly kind-eyed woman met my gaze. There is something so centering about the look of kindness from someone you know you won’t be able to be an easy customer and shares the grace of your burden.
Deep laugh lines graced her face, but that and the shuffle of her feet was the only mark of age. She nodded when I pointed at the drink I wanted. I paid with the smallest euro I had but received no change. But assuming it was given to me with my coffee, or that coffee was just crazy high prices.
She asked no questions of me, while she made my caffè. She pressed the small paper cup into my hands and patted them twice. She had slipped me back my ten euro note.
I walked a bit to a bench to enjoy the first slurp of caffeine, to drink in all that had happened since yesterday, to take a mediative breath during a ritual I did love but did also rely on.
And it was then – that I had the best coffee I have ever had in my entire life.
The espresso shot was bitter but not biting, it flowed with a smoothness on the tongue that was sinfully silky. She had added just the right touch of sugar to pull out the sweetness but not enough to drown out the coffee flavor. It was powerful, sweet, and gone too soon.
I assumed it was Lavazza, as it’s the most popular brand and literally everywhere, Illy comes in a close second. Both brands have advertisements blanketing Italy that it’s simply part of the landscape.
Also, Lavazza is popular in Oxford due to the coffee culture there.
Lavazza uses a mix of Arabica and Robusta beans giving it a sweeter taste, they do have a Super Cream blend that has an aroma of honey, almonds, and brown sugar.
But this was different. This wasn’t even Illy which is sweeter and a touch more velvety.
This wasn’t even Lollo, or any other brand- as I would spend a year trying them all in order to replicate a similar taste.
I went back to get another shot, but could not find the cart. My wandering feet do get me interesting places, but they also lead me away from some amazing places as well. I looked at the cup for a clue- and it was just a plain white cup. I looked at the closest street signs and memorized the intersection and vowed to come back tomorrow morning.
After carefully meandering- I eventually found my way back to the villa.
It was now seven am. I read some, I plugged in my phone and had a breakfast of ham and a bread roll at the kitchen bar, and waited for someone to wake up.
I was three chapters in when the clock struck nine, and I heard rustling. My friend walked into the kitchen, made espresso with ease with the scary machine, and we chatted lightly.
I told her about the amazing espresso I had in the morning- and she just smiled. This was about her twentieth time in Italy and everything was old hat. But I could tell she was excited for me as this was my first time. There is a travel compersion that occurs sometimes when you really are delighted by someone else’s delight.
“Well if it’s so great- why don’t I join you tomorrow and I can get the name of the place and add it to our google docs”.
This google doc would make Rick Steves cum in three seconds. It has all of our best recommendations, which are mainly small local places that are the unsung heroes of cities.
Entries set up by types of food vs cities make it equal parts maddening and dreamy.
“ Ramen- Tokyo/ Shimokitazawa station in between two alleyways. Walk 15 mins from the station, find the Lawsons, turn left and knock on the metal door”
“Bone Marrow- Iceland Reykjavik. Order on Thursday/Friday at the old biscuit factory”
And now maybe?
“Espresso- Rome, Italy ………..”
I was excited to participate in the google doc as a way of community involvement.
Our day was filled with walling, Vespa rides, meeting people, snacks, and sites. We ended the day altogether in an unnamed restaurant toasting each other.
In the middle of the restaurant, after countless bottles of wine, a friend sang Nessun dorma in a deep tenor, while no Bocelli, the entire restaurant clapped and a few people cried.
I no longer felt like the odd one out, but part of a group that had been waiting for me all along.
I set my alarm for four am.
My friend and I made a pact to wake up together and find this amazing espresso, not only for our needs but for the good of the community.
4am comes very soon, after a semi-drunken night- so I hit snooze, and then just turned off the alarm and went back to sleep. My friend did the same.
We both got up around noon.
She made espresso and we chatted more. As I did not know the plan when we left- but we were to stay here for a week, and while I had extra pairs of underwear I did not have extra clothes. Black leggings are fashionable almost everywhere but they did need a cute top or something other than a Joy Division t-shirt.
So we shopped the day away.
If this was a movie- it would be an adorable montage of trying on hats and such, but it was more like my lovely friend being methodical and decisive about her purchases, but still spending almost our entire tuition in under six hours.
She gifted an adorable camel-colored cashmere dress from the expedition and was delighted with it.
That night we ate at the house. I don’t know where the food came from- but it was laid out after took a quick nap and a shower. Another night spent in the warmth of friends, laughing until we cried, gently arguing about philosophy and religion. A romance was blossoming between two people, and they could not keep their eyes or hands off each other. Their conversation was no longer a din, it was no longer background. I was no longer an audience watching their play- but a member of the cast.
Word had gotten around to all eight of them out about this delicious espresso. So all nine of us agreed to wake up early and make it an official outing.
There were questions about landmarks and street names to narrow down our search. We formed a grid and paired off in groups of twos, and one group of three. Someone needed to be with the love birds so they didn’t end up fucking in the street. Each group would head out four different directions and we would text each other the GPS coordinates once found.
I went to sleep excited.
I woke again at four am, padded into the kitchen and eight faces were staring back at me drinking coffee. It was intimidating but I wanted to share my newfound place. Off we went.
I tried to walk in the same direction as before- but the street names didn’t look familiar, nothing looked the same. None of the streets had cafes, closed or open. Each group sent a video and I shook my head not recognizing any of it.
After an hour of walking in a circle, my friend and I stopped at a local market for lunch supplies.
There was an elderly man sweeping outside the shop. He said hello to both of us- but only she replied to him.
She asked in her perfect Italian about coffee carts near the market or any at all.
He rattled off places where you could sit down and have a lovely cup and enjoy the day. She asked about carts, using different terms for the word. He shook his head but told her to wait.
Eventually, an even older man was brought to her and she repeated the question.
He asked about the intersections. I was called over and said them badly in Italian.
She repeated them, correcting me.
He repeated them back to her.
She shook her head yes.
He looked at her angrily. She looked confused as to what could cause anger.
He yelled curse words at her and we left.
I asked her about the incident years later- and she said that the vitriol in her voice still scared her sometimes.
Still looking, still not finding anything. We checked in with the rest of the group. They found nothing. I had let everyone down. I led everyone on this wild goose chase for coffee.
My first chance to semi impress my new friends and I made them chase something that was most likely a hallucination brought on by stress.
Way. To. Go.
The rest of the day dissolved into activities like a puppet show in the park, gelato shared between four friends, and an impromptu figure modeling session. But I could not let the coffee thing go.
I vowed I would visit again.
So again- I woke up early. This time three am. I went in another direction, and I was on the hunt. I had a fully charged phone and took photos of every street sign. I was now obsessively breadcrumbing my every move. And of course- due to this. My phone died.
I was disheartened on the way back- when I saw the familiar cart. I walked to it quickly. Anxious for not only the validation that it really did exist but now I needed coffee.
It was now across the street. I couldn’t wait.
I could smell the coffee from where I stood.
I walked into the road, right in front of a Vespa. They swerved, I fell but no one was injured.
I looked up and the cart was gone.
I walked back to the villa, bleeding a little bit but also frustrated by the chase. I never found “the chase” for anything to be desirable. I do not see other things or people as prizes.
The next few days turned into a pleasant blur as I tried to forget the coffee, and learn what Italian I could. I journaled, I napped, I drank, I laughed, I gave a communist a blowjob at the back of the Coliseum all the things you were supposed to do on an Italian vacation.
On the last day- I tried again.
But I tried to do things a bit differently.
I woke up a bit later and went to the angry man market to load up on more snacks.
Even though we got yelled at – I am a creature of habit and it was close.
After paying- the elderly man who was sweeping last time was sitting out front. I smiled hello, not trusting my language skills.
He called me over. I told him I did not speak Italian and was sorry. He kept talking so pulled out my phone and recorded him. After he was done speaking I thanked him and walked back to the villa with my groceries.
After I got back I woke my friend up. It was eleven am, so she should have been up anyways.
I played his voice note for a friend and she wrote down what he said. His story started in the middle…
And she was the love of his life, Viola was. They met at her coffee cart. It was instant – just like that. They fell in love. They talked about merging the coffee cart and the store into one thing like he has seen in America. But she would not hear of it. He begged her, and she still said no. She did relent and say that her ground coffee could be sold in the store.
She gave two cans to see if they would sell.
She died on their wedding day. She sat down on a couch to nap before the ceremony and never woke up.
You asking this about the coffee got him angry because he doesn’t like to be reminded she is gone. He has been making one cup every day from the cans she gave him, and he ran out almost nine days ago.
My friend’s pen stood still, she asked me to replay the voice note, she made some minor corrections, and read it to me.
We sat in silence, not knowing what to say, because what do you say?
Her phone beeped. It was a text message from her dad that the jet would pick us up in about six hours.
“I guess I should pack”– she said and wandered off.
I went outside to the patio area and whispered
Reflections on hiking.
You read this word on so many dating profiles-especially in the Pacific Northwest. An especially sarcastic friend told me that hiking was just “white people going outdoors or some reason” and he wasn’t wrong.
Usually it’s code for – I sometimes go outdoors.
This can be frustrating for people like myself who struggle with people’s seemingly loose interpretations of words.
This frustration caused me to reflect on what the word means to me.
Hiking for me is a myriad of things – walking mediation, constant brain and body stimulation from nature and even a religious experience.
I go on a hikes at least once a week and more during travel.
I made my last client who booked two week date go in three sunrise hikes, two national park hikes and I did a few solo hikes during his zoom work calls.
But I’m actually not very good at it. I have done some of the hardest trails, I have thru hiked, did a fifteen day trip in Scotland, twenty nine days in Nepal, five days in Fiji – but even after all that I’m not actually good at hiking. I am even a member of a hiking club and still …
I am great at the outdoor and survival things like making a fire, making herbal medicines, spotting which berries and fruits are edible. I can even fish with a net.
I am a short person with short legs, tiny feet and huge boobs. I have also broken both of my ankles and a few toes. So my balance is off to say the least. I also am asthmatic and have breathing issues due to a lung puncture incident on Annapurna.
So I go slow and steady. While going my own pace has been my life’s path – I did not think that it would be an actual physical manifestation of it.
I have never laughed so hard at myself as when I was walking up Mt Fuji, taking an inhaler break while eighty nine year olds grandmas were passing me by.
But here is the thing- hiking doesn’t ask you to be good. It does not demand you be the best.
No competition exists.
It gently requests your full presence to honor the path you have chosen to take.
Gifts are given to you if you show up fully present.
A sweet birdsong, chicken of the woods mushrooms, sometimes a tree will be the perfect form for your butt to sit and read for a few hours or you will find yourself swimming naked in a hidden lake on an island during a rainstorm.
I once watched a beautiful blonde woman run across a river hitting each stone perfectly, legs pumping, never stopping.
While I had to crouch and hop like Smegal in the same river pass since my stride is not long enough. While in Fiji I just swam/ walked across the rivers since I knew I was going to fall anyways.
I will never be able to change my height and while my lung capacity is getting better – it won’t ever be normal.
But I keep going. It doesn’t matter how fast you go – as long as you go.
Nature did not ask us to compare ourselves to each other.
It does not exist as a measuring contest. I would go as far as to say it does not exist to be dominated by humans.
It simply exists in its own divinity and so do you.