"Don't...how you say in Canada...'freak out'."
"The forecast kept saying it was going to rain. It never did." - Me
I e-mailed my next host back to let him know I'd received a response from aribnb.com advising me not to give cash, as this was not the way their site worked and any transactions outside of it were not secure. I said that my credit card had already been charged, that I could show him the receipt, and that any further payment disputes would have to be taken up with airbnb directly. I signed off the message with a genteel, "See you tomorrow!" No one was going to take me for a ride.
As an extra precaution, I attended an airbnb meet-and-greet at a bar across the Tiber that night. I'd received an e-invite the day before, and thought it might be a good opportunity to meet some other solo budget travellers like myself and maybe get a better idea as to whether or not I could trust the man whose apartment I'd booked for the next week.
The representatives who were there seemed to think I was being overly paranoid, that the request for cash could very well have been legitimate, if he was a new host, or not. This was the way Rome was. It was still a big city, after all, complete with all that comes with it, but just because someone tests the waters to see if they can wring a bit extra out of you (which is common), is by no means grounds to expect the worst. "Don't," one of the local staff members told me when I expressed my concerns, "how you say in Canada...'freak out'."
On my last day in Cipro, I arrived home from my morning walk and was hit by the unparalleled aroma of real Italian home cooking. Much to my delight, Mario invited me to join the sit-down lunch he and Filomenia were having with their grandsons. Around 2PM, I was herded to the kitchen table, already set with wine tumblers, fresh-grated Parmesan, olive oil, vinegar, half a lemon and salt and pepper (in Italian homes there is no such thing as pre-made salad dressing; you mix your own at the table), and fed the best penne marinara of my life. It was such a simple meal - pasta in tomato sauce, bread, salad and chicken - one I'd had far too many times in Windsor clubs like the Ciociaro, Caboto or Fogolar, but oh so much more. Suffice to say that you have not had penne marinara (not even close) until an Italian grandmother has made it for you from scratch. The tomato sauce - which I'd seen bubbling away on the stove even before breakfast - was so fresh and tangy and herbaceous it made Prego look laughable. I would never buy jarred ragu again.
There was also a platter of some sort of spicy lemon chicken, the ingredients in which I could not identify but which reminded me very much of chicken piccata. I snuck more of this out of the pan later, when Mario and Filomenia had gone down for their afternoon nap.
Over lunch we conversed mostly in Italian, though the two preteen boys were more proficient in English than their grandparents, it being compulsory for them in school. Finally having a half-decent translator at my disposal, I took full advantage and told Mario and Filomenia as much about myself as I could, having gone a full week now as a complete stranger sharing their house. I wanted them to know, although I'd been unable to communicate it thus far, how much I appreciated their kindness and hospitality. I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I was sitting in a real Italian kitchen, with a real Italian family, eating a meal cooked by a real Italian Nonna, and felt a knot tighten in my throat. All at once I was overwhelmed with the most surreal gratitude and affection toward these people (who didn't even speak the same language) for making my dreams come true, and I kindly asked the youngest grandson if he wouldn't mind translating what I most wanted them to know.
"Filomenia," I said, echoed by the eleven-year-old, "I am so grateful for your generosity and hospitality. I love you very much and I will miss you very much...but I have no idea what you are saying."
In the ensuing laugher, I thought about what Marcello had said about enjoying the moment, and decided that whatever happened next, I would always have this moment, this precious and impossible treasure to bank in my stockpile of the greatest experiences of my life. And while I was sitting there, smiling serenely down at the table with a blissed-out expression on my face, Mario piled in front of me a dessert of two kiwis, an apple and a pear.
Rolling my suitcase into my next accommodations the following afternoon, I was apprehensive to say the least. Despite the fact that my new guesthouse was considerably more expensive than the last (probably because it was closer to the city centre), it was about as charming as a New York ghetto crack den. An artist's studio apartment, it had no heating or cooling, each room was lit by a single naked bulb dangling from a wire, and the bathroom was about the size of a refrigerator (which the apartment also didn't have) with a cold shower and rust-stained toilet. Worse, the seat was perpetually left up. I cannot express the sense of utter disaster I felt when I realized I was living with boys. Smelly, sloppy, sleazy boys. My host, a multilingual artist and photographer, greeted me in a tie-dyed T-shirt that hung from his wiry frame as if from a rack, had a full moustache and beard and waist-length hair, and a young Middle-Eastern roommate who barely spoke any English. Awesome.
Desperate to get out of that dark, damp hole as fast as was physically possible, I stashed my valuables in the bottom of my luggage, took my wallet and phone in my daypack, and headed back out into the light of day. Once outside, I tried calling the number another airbnb host had given me the night before, a wonderful English-speaking woman who had promised me a room in the event that I arrived at my new accommodations and wasn't exactly a fan. I don't know whether it was a bad connection or long-distance interference or divine intervention, but I couldn't get my phone to work.
While I walked, searching hysterically for even one bar of cell signal, it slowly dawned on me where I was. Glancing up, I levelled gazes with the Pantheon, silhouetted in the afternoon sun in all of its ancient, mind-boggling magnificence, mere steps from my front door. Hesitantly pocketing my useless phone, I decided to explore the area a bit, maybe at least get the lay of the land. That's when I realized that the gelato place Marcello had taken me to the other day, renowned for it's hundred-or-so flavours of creative ice cream, frozen yogurt and mousse, was just around the corner. Even closer than that was Tazza D'Oro Coffee Shop, a Tripadvisor-recommended cafe with world-famous Granita di Caffe con Panna that just happened to be on my list of things to try.
Resolving, for the moment, to eat a pizza and calm down, I found a place with free Wi-Fi and opened Google Maps on my iPad to get a better idea of my surroundings. A short walk away, as it turned out, were the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, not to mention a whole slew of world-renowned restaurants and shopping districts. Maybe I could stick it out here for just a day or two, see how it went. I didn't have to spend all of my time in the apartment, after all. There was enough to keep me busy outside it, and if there was a problem I could always have myself airlifted out of here at the push of a button....
When I did go back to the apartment though, I found it to be suddenly a bit brighter, cleaner and more manageable than I'd left it. Your state of mind, I knew from experience, could certainly dictate your perception of the world around you. Maybe the trashiness of the place had been mostly in my head. The bathroom really wasn't all that bad, and my room and bed were bigger than I'd had in Cipro. I'd certainly stayed worse places.
I met Marcello on the steps of the Pantheon for dinner. He was flying home to Sardinia tomorrow and had planned one last night on the town in Rome with his classmates and invited me to tag along, but picked me up alone. His classmates, he said, had bailed at the last minute, having other commitments. Though I had a slight suspicion this wasn't entirely true, I was also glad.
"I was thinking we should have something very local, very typical of Rome," Marcello suggested, knowing by now what I liked. "Have you heard of cacio e pepe?"
I arrived back at my guesthouse that night and said buonanotte to Marcello. As I made my way up the narrow staircase to my room, my host's roommate - perhaps having heard me sobbing like a baby that afternoon through the paper-thin wall and feeling sorry for me - asked if I wanted something to eat. I replied no, I'd had dinner out, but thank you. Then I went back to my room and collapsed onto the bed, wondering why it was always so hard for me to trust that things would work themselves out. I'd lost count of how many times I'd worried myself sick over various things since I'd arrived in Italy, and yet how many of those fears had actually been realized? Zero.
Lying on my back waiting for sleep, the covers pulled up to my chin, I suddenly had a full-on epiphany. It occurred to me that my trust issues were not with foreigners or unfamiliar countries or even seedy apartments infested with dirty, greasy-haired hippies. Whenever I had doubts about this trip being a success, my thought processes never included the phrasing, "Someone is going to hurt me" or "this place is dangerous". More often they were along the lines of, "I can't do this". That's when I realized the only one I really had trouble trusting...was myself.