I walked past a gelato stand while I was in the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas a few weekends ago and my mouth started to water. I was with my buddy Isoa who dutifully continued our Jerry Seinfeld-esque conversation about everything and nothing at all as my mind drifted off to Italy.
Jen and I visited Italy a few years back. It was my very first European experience. Prior to that visit, I confess that I had absolutely no desire to visit that continent. The closest I had ever come to visiting Europe was, well, Las Vegas and what I had read and seen in text books and the Internet. When we planned vacations it was generally to a place that had a beach, good snorkeling and a vibrant night life.
But I’m a fan of history, architecture and culture. And nearly everything I had ever studied in my history classes was found outside of the Americas and the South Pacific. So I knew I needed to see Europe at least once in my life just to say that I have “been there, done that”. So after years of pleading with me to set aside my indifference for Europe, Jen finally got me on a plane to visit one of the most spectacular and historical places on earth.
When you step foot on European soil and realize that you’re half a world away from everything you know and there’s a huge ocean between you and your life, you get the strange sense of longing for home. It’s unnerving. I felt momentarily claustrophobic in open space. Everything is SO old that it catches you off guard standing there in the shadows of some of the oldest buildings, monuments and landmarks in history. I was intimidated by the closeness of everything and everyone. The travel bug and my intrepidity abandoned me while I struggled to get my bearings.
We hopped on a train for the ride from Fiumicino Airport through the heart of Rome. Again I felt uneasy as we were exposed to a side of the city that you don’t see in tourist brochures. Ancient apartment buildings that have weathered the years and two world wars stand in stark contrast to the beautiful villa overlooking a wide, green pasture and clusters of beautiful Roman vineyards where we stayed. Children in soiled clothing were hurried from train platforms by police in starched uniforms. The living conditions and the children made me immediately appreciate my comfortable home and the amenities I enjoy just a short drive from my front door back home in the United States.
We did the usual tourist things, wandering The Vatican City and its museums (after my mother in-law purchased a pair of sweat pants for me at a nearby Foot Locker because I wore shorts which are prohibited inside the City walls). We stood in St. Peter’s Square and marvelled at the intricate craftmanship of St. Peter’s Basilica. We walked through the crumbling remains of the famed Colosseum wondering what it must have been like to watch gladiators, spectators, the senate and royalty in that spectacular structure. We strolled past Fontana de Trevi and through the ruins of Foro Romano and capped off our visit with a visit to Naples and the ruins of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroyed by Mount Vesuvius centuries ago. It was the highlight of our trip.
I had an incredible time there with Jen standing on old cobble stone streets once filled with market stalls and vendors peddling their goods to passersby. The place grows on you. I’d like to go back with Jen some time soon, to the streets we wandered and wondered about how life must have been in what was once the center of the world. I’m glad she insisted on going there; urged me to try something outside of the norm. The people are beautiful, lively, sometimes dark and brooding. There was so much to take in and so little time. And all the while, we ate gelato.