"The next best thing to trying and winning is trying and failing." - L.M. Montgomery
I tried to pick up an eighteen-year-old today. Let me start from the beginning.
Rising bright and early at six-thirty, I had a sudden attack of spontaneity and decided today might be a good day to go to Naples. It was a major highlight on my list of experiences to have in Italy. My hometown of Windsor, Ontario proclaiming to have the best pizza in the world, I considered it my due responsibility to at least have lunch in Naples so I could set the record straight. Although I'd been assured by multiple people that getting to Naples from Rome wasn't hard, I'd also been warned not to wear any jewellery or draw much attention to myself there, as pickpocketing and muggings were not unheard of.
So I heeded the advice, dressed plainly, packed a minimal amount of cash, my iPod for the train, my pocketknife and the whistle my dad had given me as a going-away present, and walked to the Metro station Cristina had pointed out to me the night before. Besides spending the day alone in a notoriously seedy city, catching a train to Naples would also mean going through Termini Station, the one place in Rome I'd been determined to avoid like the plague. Anthony Bourdain once described it as "the center of Suckdom. It has all the charm of New York's Penn Station, which is to say, none at all". And he wasn't exaggerating. Within minutes of arriving via the Metro, I was approached by no less than three beggars requesting spare change. That's when it becomes very convenient to suddenly not speak any Italian.
I found the ticket office and purchased second-class transport to Napoli Centrale, departing in forty-five minutes. I had just boarded the train, calculating how much a cab would cost from the station in Naples to the pizzeria I'd read about in Food and Wine, when a sinking realization occurred to me: as a safeguard against pickpocketing, I hadn't brought any of my credit or debit cards. Although it had seemed like a smart course of action this morning, only now did it occur to me that, should I run out of cash, either because of unplanned transportation expenses or organized crime, I would be utterly and completely screwed. I hadn't even packed my driver's licence or international phone, figuring it would hardly do me any good in an emergency anyway, given I had no one to call. Without any means of accessing backup funds, I would have no way of getting back to Rome, and wouldn't even be able to pay for a night in a hotel. Essentially, I was diving head-first into an undeniably hairy situation without any insurance against being left high and dry.
I dug my neck wallet out of my daypack and hastily counted my cash. I probably had more than enough, and would in all likelihood make it there and back without a hitch, but in the event that something didn't go as expected...
I checked my watch. The train would be leaving the station any minute. I briefly considered just staying where I was, taking the risk, but after another moment's consideration, decided against it. A day trip to Naples was supposed to be fun, and I wouldn't enjoy myself if I was worried the whole time. So I'd wasted a few euros on a train ticket I wasn't going to use. I'd rather that than gamble my life, and that it would be my life, should I find myself sleeping on the streets in Naples, would not be an exaggeration. So I got off the train.
Discouraged would be an understatement to describe the way I felt after that. My cool sense of poise and self-confidence sent into a tail-spin, I was near tears as I struggled to decipher the Metro route maps, which had been so straight-forward this morning, back to my guesthouse. I was already in Centro Storico, and realized I could very easily spend the day instead exploring the Coliseum or the Protestant Cemetery of Rome, but for the moment I just wanted to get home, to get somewhere safe and familiar, to regroup. I knew all of this wouldn't seem so bad in a few days, perhaps even a few hours, but all I could feel in my current predicament was a traumatizing sense of crisis. If I couldn't even get to Naples for the day, how was I ever going to make the long and complex overland trip to Istria when the time came? There would be border crossings involved then. Late-night bus and train schedules. I began to wonder if this entire trip had been a mistake, if it was possible I wasn't quite as capable as I'd given myself credit for, if I was in very real trouble.
Desperate for fortification, I returned to the Internet cafe in Prati where I checked my e-mail every day, and used Google Maps to look up nearby points of interest. There was plenty to see and do right here, where I was comfortable seeing and doing it. Why not take solace in simplicity? It was the small things in Italy, after all, that made life here so wonderful. Honestly I wasn't even sure I wanted to try again. I was determined to enjoy myself no matter what, and knew that even if I never made it to Naples, where I was was still further than most people got. Everyday would still be the experience of a lifetime. Wasn't that enough?
So I walked back to the area around the Vatican, which I knew well by now, and hunted down something special for myself to pass the time I would have spent in Naples.
Over a two-hour lunch of prosciutto e melone, risotto di mare, vino rosso della casa and torta della nonna, I took stock of everything I'd learned so far:
1) First - and this is important - let's get one thing straight; in Italy, pasta is not a meal. It's a course, ideally preluded by antipasto such as fried artichoke and succeeded by a meat entree and dessert. If you go into a trattoria and just order pasta, the waiter will stare at you, pen hovering over his notepad: "And!?"
2) Along the same lines, wine is not a drink, at least not in the post-5PM alcoholic-beverage sense. It is sustenance. Only when wine is not available, which is very rare, do Italians drink water.
3) J-Walking is not only allowed but encouraged, especially since buses and cars do not stop for pedestrians. Yellow lights are checkered flags, red lights mere suggestions, and intersections excuses to flip the bird and yell.
4) Italians love to yell.
5) In the restaurant industry, "bar" means "cafe" and "cafe" means "bar".
6) Last, and most importantly, it is absolutely vital to the exclusively Italian philosophy of pleasure to slow down. Experience - any experience - from a good meal to a successful day trip, is worth taking the time to get right.
I'd thought about this last point a lot lately. I'd only been here four days and for some reason I was rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off, determined to see and do as much as I possibly could, as fast as I possibly could. This made very little sense to me. It wasn't as though I had anywhere to be. This was the Eternal City, after all. I had all the time in the world.
Maybe the last thing I needed to learn was Elizabeth Gilbert's philosophy of Dolce Far Niente, "the sweetness of doing nothing". She was my other personal hero, after all, and I was beginning to wonder if I was much better off trying to emulate her rather than Anthony Bourdain. Most of the landmarks I'd hit so far I'd seen on his show The Layover, which was based on the concept of having only twenty-four hours in a given city, and capitalizing as much as possible on that time. Liz Gilbert stayed in Rome for four months, closer to the amount of time I believed was necessary to get to know a city, let alone an entire country.
"Some of God's greatest gifts," Garth Brooks sang, "are unanswered prayers." Perhaps from this whole Naples fiasco I'd gained valuable tools for experiencing Rome - this whole trip, even - to the fullest.
As my dessert arrived I overheard a family-of-three that had just sat down ordering water in an unmistakably North American accent. "Gasata o naturale?" The waiter asked, eliciting only blank stares from his patrons.
"Carbonated or not?" I translated from my spot at the next table.
"Ah," the mother smiled appreciatively. "Not. Naturale." The waiter nodded and left them alone with the menu.
"Where are you guys from?" I asked when he was gone, suddenly emboldened by the half-litre of red wine I'd just about finished.
"Georgia," the father replied. Close enough. This trip to Italy, they said, was a graduation gift for their son.
"Really?" I exclaimed, suddenly excited. "I just graduated too! Honours Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. You?"
"Oh," the boy looked sheepish. "High school graduation." My shoulders sagged slightly.
"Your English is amazing," the mother marvelled, startling me. That was when I realized, after only four days interacting solely with locals, I'd developed a slight Italian accent. It was like when the waitress at a Chinese restaurant asked how many there were in our party, and my mother could never help responding, "Fo". Except I lived in the Chinese restaurant, and instead of Chinese it was Italian. "Do you live here?" The woman continued. And, just like that, my fortitude returned.
After lunch I walked some more, just because I could. While I walked I listened to Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" on my iPod, since I had it with me. A backpacker stopped me near the top of the stone staircase leading up to the wall around Vatican City. "Scusi," she said in broken Italian that I recognized from my own speech. "Can you tell me...dov'e...entrance?" She pointed to the wall. "Musei Vaticani?"
I decided not to give away that I, too, was a foreigner. "Si," I pointed down the road behind me, and the girl thanked me.
I decided to try the only gelato place in my area that I hadn't yet been to, and discovered it was even better than Gelateria Dei Gracchi. They had a fig gelato that was unlike anything I had ever tasted. I would be back here for sure.
Waddling back to my guesthouse, I swore I would never eat again, then was promptly offered dinner with Mario and Filomenia. I didn't even try to fight it. We sat together in their dimly-lit kitchen around 9PM, chatting congenially as though never having heard of a language barrier, Mario and I sharing a bottle of vino while Filomenia served up course after course of suppli (fried rice balls), pasta fagioli, tortellini stuffed with mushrooms and cheese, cooked spinach, salad and fresh-baked bread.
"No, grazie," I waved a hand in surrender as Mario served me a second rice ball. "Abbastanza." It was more than enough.