Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rome: First day of near-homelessness

After struggling to get Rachel asleep (she didn’t fall asleep until 11:45), Nancy and I counted down the time until I left, puttering around the house until 1, when, after a tearful farewell, I went downstairs to my waiting car. For the first time ever my driver took the Ring Road instead of driving straight through downtown Cairo. It only took twenty minutes to get to the airport. Incredible. Since I got there so early I had to wait in the lobby of Terminal 2 until the check-in desk opened. For some reason we’ve always flown through Terminal 2—it’s old, decrepit, falling apart, smelly, and rather third world.

Once the gate opened, two airport employees (who aren’t supposed to ask for tips, at risk of getting fired), grabbed for my little suitcase and started to slip my backpack right off my back. I stopped them and put them both (the bags, not the workers :) ) into the metal detector at the first security gate. They both put on grotesque puppy-dog faces and begged for money to compensate them for all the wonderful assistance just rendered me. Oh, Egypt.

I sat in the departure hall near the gross old playground and caught up on weeks of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and other NPR podcasts. As I sat and people-watched, the only people I noticed were families with two or three little kids. Watching exhausted parents run around with over-tired children actually made me jealous. I had been away from Nancy and the girls for only a few hours and already missed them. Even though it was gloriously relaxing, sitting with nothing to do and nobody to worry about, I wanted to chase Rachel down or pace with Miriam.

I fell asleep as soon as I could after getting on the plane (at 4:30 AM!), since that would be my only chance to do so. They woke me up halfway for breakfast—a delicious Italian cornetto, German yogurt, and a glass of red orange juice. Goodbye Egyptian food. :)

Even though AUC is fully funding this trip, I’m trying to save as much money as possible. I had arranged to stay with a friend from my mission a couple weeks ago, but hadn’t been able to contact him since then to tell him the exact dates I’d be there. Since I figured I’d be staying for free, I didn’t arrange any backup hotel or hostel. Armed with his cell phone number, found on Facebook, I landed in Rome at 7:30 AM, potentially homeless.

The first order of business was to get from the Fiumicino airport to downtown Rome. There’s a train that leaves every twenty minutes and arrives at the Tiburtina metro station (a few stops from Termini) after 45 minutes or so. For some reason, though, no trains were at the station. The one that was supposed to leave at 8 had been cancelled; the one at 8:20 was 25 minutes late. Go Mussolini, go.

I finally got to Tiburtina at 9:30. I had several things on my immediate to do list. I needed to find a cheap SIM card for my phone, find somewhere with wireless internet, and try to meet with the cultural attaché at the American Embassy (to get permission to visit the archives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). I decided to head to the embassy, since that was the furthest away, and planned to find some mobile store on the way where I could get an Italian phone number. I bought a weekly bus/metro pass and headed towards the stairs to go down to the trains. Unfortunately, though, because of an electrical failure, Tiburtina and 4–5 neighboring stations were closed. ATAC was providing busses to connect up with the next open metro station (Castro Pretorio), but the busses were few and far between. I fought my way onto the first one I could find and stood uncomfortably wedged between probably hundreds of other people. Naturally, we got stuck in heavy traffic on the way. Of course.

I made it to the metro stop closest to the embassy (Barberini) at 10:30 and walked up towards it, asking every edicola (newspaper booth) where I could get a SIM card. Nobody knew. I got to the lightly guarded embassy and stood in line for American Citizen Services—totally not where I was really trying to go, but the only place with an entrance or line. Once I got to the front of the line I tried convincing the guard to let me see the cultural attaché, but because I didn’t have an appointment, he gave me the number for the main embassy switchboard and turned me away. Rats. I had tried calling to set an appointment on Monday before leaving Cairo, but the embassy was closed for MLK day. Figures.

I decided to head over to Termini to get the phone or use the internet next. I needed to call the embassy and set an appointment and I needed to call my friend, Jeffrey, to make sure I had somewhere to sleep. At Termini, nobody knew either where I could find a SIM card or where I could use wireless (since I could use Skype to call). Not even McDonald’s, which advertised free WiFi on their door, had working internet.

After an hour of wandering around Termini, I finally found a cell phone store, and 30 minutes later I finally had a working Italian number. I immediately called the embassy and found out that I didn’t need an appointment; instead I needed to send an e-mail to the attaché and wait two days for authorization. I then called Jeffrey, but got no answer.

I ran out of the station to find an internet cafe so I could e-mail the embassy. I quickly found a Pakistani shop, where I had to have my passport information entered into some national registry before using the internet (Italian anti-terrorist laws…). After sending the e-mail and chatting with Nancy really quick, I tried Jeffrey again. No answer. I was getting distraught. It was 12:30 and I still had nowhere to stay—I was still dragging my suitcase around the city. At Nancy’s suggestion, I went to find some pizza, which was hardly a difficult task. Next door to the Pakistani internet place was an Egyptian-owned pizzeria and kebab store. I ordered my food in some weird Italian-Arabic dialect I invented on the spot and downed my margherita instantly.

I still had nowhere to stay—I didn’t even know if the number off Facebook was right—so I jumped on a bus to go up to the mission office, where I knew I could find the office elders, who would either have Jeffrey’s number or know someone else who did. By 1:15 I had the numbers of both sets of elders in Rome 1, Jeffrey’s ward, but (not surprisingly at this point), both phones were off. I went back down to Termini to start looking for a cheap hotel in case I never got a hold of him.

I wandered up and down the side streets near Termini, asking for prices at every hotel I could find. Sadly everything I found was €40 or more… way past my budget. I found a Pakistani/Peruvian internet cafe to try booking something online and discovered that Nancy had already been checking for me from Cairo. She rocks. I jotted down some addresses and headed out again, suitcase in tow. Unfortunately, though, none of them either had vacancies or were clean. I called the missionaries (who had turned on their phones again. Telecom Italia sent me a text saying so. That’s awesome.) and got Jeffrey’s real number, which was the same number I already had. I tried Jeffrey again—no answer. It was 2:30 and I was homeless and dead tired. The 2.5 hours of sleep I got were catching up to me.

One of the hotels I had talked to earlier mentioned that they also owned a hostel, so in a last-ditch effort I went and found it. It was clean, had vacancies, and only cost €11 a night for a 4-person dorm room. I booked a room for one night and went up to finally drop off my stuff. It was 3:00 and I finally had somewhere (relatively nice) to sleep. Even better, I was the only person in the room thus far, and I hoped that it would stay that way. I’ve never stayed in a shared room—I like my privacy.

I sat in the common room for a couple hours to finally relax and get online to plan out my lineup of national archives and libraries, compensating for the delay in getting to the foreign ministry. At 5:00 I decided to go try and find the National Library, which looked fairly close on the map. I walked one block and found the massive library staring me down. It was that close.

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I went in and after three minutes of filling out forms, got an official library card, complete with my picture on it. Go European efficiency.

The library is huge, clean, and organized—like the total opposite of Dar al-Kutub in Cairo (except for the big part). You request books via computer and they’re brought to your desk, which you can reserve online. Little red and green lights on each desk indicate if the table is reserved or open, or if you have books ready to pick up. I came too late to request anything from the stacks, but I quickly found a collection of diplomatic documents in the reference section, full of confidential telegrams between the foreign minister and the ambassador in Cairo from 1910–11. Bingo. I spent two hours taking notes on all the letters I could find and left the library elated. I had finally started to find what I came to look for. It didn’t matter that I had spent all day trying to find somewhere to sleep. I had read top secret telegrams between De Martino and Di San Giuliano—I get a thrill out of reading old confidential stuff :).

I left the library at closing time (7:00) and went to get dinner at a pizzeria near the hostel, which gives special discounts for people who stay there. A slice of margherita and one of potato. Heavenly delicious.

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At 8:00 I went back to the hostel and discovered (to my great disappointment) that I didn’t have the room to myself anymore. The bed next to mine had a backpack and a coat on it. Rats. I had family prayer with Nancy and the girls via Skype and talked with my parents for good measure until my new roommate appeared—a 20-something Australian girl. Hmm… I’ve never had a female roommate (um, not counting Nancy). What am I supposed to do with hostel-mates? Am I supposed to talk to them? Do I hang out with them?

I chose the easy way out—anti-sociality. I said hi, put on my noise-reducing headphones, blogged, and went to bed before she could talk to me again. I totally escaped that awkward social situation with grace :)

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I am actually amazed that I read that whole post, although I felt lost the entire time (maybe that's the effect you were going for). But, in any case, I am excited that you are back in Italy again. That library looked beautiful, and sounded amazing.

    I think you shoulda talked to your female roomate, because who knows if you'll need a place to stay for free in Australia someday! :)