When in Rome…

…do as Romans do and give foot massages to female travelers. I was going to end the post with my rant on Italian men, but it made for a depressing ending, so I think I’ll start with the worst.

Overall, I LOVED Rome and I really liked Italy, but there was one thing there I absolutely could not stand. I don’t know if I just had a bad experience, but I find the majority of Italian men to be some of the most annoying, most irritatingly persistent and even downright gross men I have had the misfortune to come across. By the end of the trip, I was walking with headphones in everywhere, regardless of whether music was playing or not, just to have an excuse not to respond to people. One stopped me and told me I was wearing good walking shoes. Okay.. apparently he was a “doctor” who knew about these things, although in the course of the conversation he demoted himself from doctor to podiatrist to pedicurist. I humored him by trying to show him that my feet hurt anyway because the soles of my shoes were worn down. As I picked up my foot to show him, he grabbed my foot and started to tell me how important it was to have a good arch in my shoe… and then started massaging my foot. I told him that I did not want a foot massage and he goes “You don’t like? It’s free!” “American women like foot massage.” NO! I told him I was leaving and denied his request to get coffee the following day. There were a few other less annoying but still persistent guys, like the one who very nicely led me to the Spanish steps (although without me asking him to) but then made me very awkwardly say that I was going to continue on by myself after that, thank you very much. One got me hooked into a conversation by asking me the name of the street we were on. I tried to get rid of him by telling him I had to go grocery shopping and walking into a grocery store. Oh lucky me, he told me he would accompany me! How sweet… I stayed in the grocery store choosing between brands of mozzarella for a stupidly long time trying to get him to get bored and leave. He slobbered all over my hand when I held it out for a handshake. The fact that we both liked pistachios warranted him to laugh and grab my waist…he then tried to accompany me back to my hostel, as I am getting more rude by the minute, but he still didn’t get it! Even with the language barrier, you would think my body language would get the point across as I spent the majority of my time cringing away from him…but no, he kept awkwardly touching me and following me and would not take not for an answer. Finally, when I told him definitively that I was going to walk alone and that he should not come with me, he gets the point, although not before asking for my number, which I refused him. Finally, he holds his arms out for a hug and instead tries to “kiss” (read: slobber on) my cheek as I am literally trying to break free of his grasp. Yes, he seemed more or less harmless. But yes, I am mad. And I am angry at myself for being mad. By the time I got to Florence, I was already wary of every Italian man and turned down another coffee date without even really thinking. I always feel like an asshole for saying no and for being rude, and I feel like the last one genuinely wanted to learn about other cultures and actually practice his English. But I was just so fed up. It’s not age – while most of them were older, the creepiest one (grocery store guy) looked to be my age or even younger. Is it really Italian culture? Is it the reputation American girls have? The whole situation simultaneously makes me feel annoyed and like a shitty person for being rude, but it really was the only thing that got through to them. But anyway, even skeezy Italian men cannot take away from my experience in Italy.

I actually got to Rome on Saturday, the 18th, but by the time the flight landed, I got from Ciampino to Rome, found my hostel after a lot of searching because my phone was showing me the wrong place, it was around 7:30. So I basically just took a short walk, got some pizza (I accidentally ordered an entire pizza instead of a slice… good thing the hostel has a fridge), and then went to bed fairly early so I could hit the ground running on Sunday.

Sunday morning I woke up and was out of the hostel by 7:30 for an approximately 45 minute walk to the Borghese gallery. I tried to make it a nice leisurely walk since my reservation wasn’t actually until 11:00, so I stopped to see the church Santa Maria Maggiore and passed through the Piazza della repubblica. Even so, I got to the gallery around 8:45. Luckily they let me change my reservation to 9:00. One of the many perks of being in Rome in the winter. There was some pretty good art there, lots of good Rennaissance stuff in particular but my favorite was a sculpture by Bernini of the Rape of Prosperpina. It was crazy good- I don’t understand how you can carve marble and have it look as though there are indents in the woman’s skin where she is being grabbed. There were also some Raphael works in there that I really liked. No pictures were allowed, so here’s a googled assortment of my favorite stuff from the Borghese gallery.

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(Left: Raphael- Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn. Top Right: Bernini- Rape of Proserpina
. Bottom Right: Titian- Sacred and Profane Love)

After that I walked around the park there for an hour or two, and tried visiting two churches but I went during the few afternoon hours they were closed – I thought only Spain did the siesta! I wandered towards the Trevi fountain – wow! The most impressive part was the sheer size of it. I really do love traveling alone, but this was the part where traveling alone sucked the most. I watched as everyone else tossed their coins with their friends and loved ones…and I did it, well, alone. And to make it even more embarrassing, I had to capture the moment by myself. So not only was I coin tossing by myself, I was doing it in selfie mode while talking to myself. Not my best moment, but here it is:

I walked from the Trevi fountain to the Spanish steps, although unfortunately they were doing maintenance work on the fountain so I didn’t get to see it. Nor did I get to eat gelato like Audrey Hepburn on the Spanish steps, although I did eat plenty of gelato on my trip. I walked up the steps to the church Trinità dei Monti, and then started walking along the park towards the piazza popolo. It started POURING so I decided to make a trip to seek out nearby Fata Morgana, a gelato place I read about on a travel blog. It was amazing! First of all, they are really inventive with their flavors. I sampled a flavor called “Basil, walnuts and honey” which was actually amazing. They also had Chocolate with Rosemary, Wine, Poppyseed, and something with horseradish! I finally settled on half blueberry cheesecake, half sunflower seed. It was incredible! I went back and got a flavor called white almond, which was also ridiculously good. I would say that the gelato at Fata Morgana was definitely the best I had all trip, I wish I had gone back more than twice! The rest of the afternoon I ducked in and out of some random churches, saw the Pantheon, and ended up that the Piazza Navonna with another Bernini masterpiece- the four rivers fountain. By that point I was exhausted, and by the time I got back to my hostel I had spent about 11 hours walking.

While munching on leftover pizza in my hostel, I met three Mexicans who were also studying abroad in Spain, and we decided to go to the Vatican museum together the next day. I had planned on going to the Colosseum, but the chance of rain was 90% so I decided to stay indoors as much as possible. Also, I really liked all 3 of them and I always jump at the chance to practice more Spanish. Throughout the trip I met and talked to a lot more Spanish speakers from Mexico, Argentina, and Chile. Honestly, it made me so happy because I could see concretely on this trip how far my Spanish has come. At the beginning of this year, I never would have even considered starting a conversation with someone in Spanish, but now it doesn’t scare me at all, and I am able to hold my own and understand almost everything. Actually, what they say about Andalusian Spanish is true – it’s so difficult to understand the Spanish here that everyone else’s accents are not a problem! And just in general, everyone I met at my hostel in Rome was amazing! That is one of my favorite parts of traveling- being able to meet people from all over the world. I ended up watching Zoolander with two super nice Australians- one of whom gifted me his pass to the Warner Brother’s Harry Potter Studio Tour in London!! He said he got it as a present but didn’t think he was going to make it to London. The generosity of strangers is astounding – aaand I’m saving 29 pounds- what is that, about $40?

The Vatican museum was pricy, but wonderful! We spent over 3 hours there, and 30 minutes in the Sistine Chapel alone. It was awe-inspiring. I would walk to one end, crane my neck to look up, walk to the other end, turn around, look sideways, look up again, pace or stand still… I also had Rick Steves free audio guides for some of the larger attractions in Rome and Florence, which, although I do not like his style, were fairly informative. So I was listening along to the explanations of the work while I was seeing it. Also amazing were the frescos by Raphael- I have been learning about them over and over again since European history in 10th grade, and to finally see them was so fulfilling. Even the ancient Egyptian stuff was interesting – I did not expect the collection to be so expansive and varied. On the way out, I accidentally lost my travel companions, but it might have been better because I had planned to have lunch at a very vegetarian friendly crunchy granola hippie restaurant, where I had an amazing salad with basil tofu (How is this even possible? I must try and recreate it!) for only 5 Euro.

After lunch, I wandered into Vatican city and into St. Peter’s Basilica. Well, it certainly is worthy of being the capital of Catholicism. Like with the Trevi fountain, the size alone is awe-inspiring. There is a tiny dove at the very end of the Basilica, which my audio guide told me was 6 feet across! How is that even possible? There is also a door that apparently only gets opened every 25 years, and only by the pope. The rest of the time it is cemented shut. Even not being religious, the artwork of Saint Peter’s Basilica was amazing – especially incredible were Michelangelo’s Pietà and the Baldacchino designed by Bernini. When I emerged from the Basilica, the rain had all but stopped and there was a rainbow arching over Rome. It doesn’t get more perfect than that.

The afternoon I spent walking along the river a little bit and climbing a hill for a great view of Rome. And I mean great. Like awe inspiring (have I used that adjective too much yet? It’s just that it’s true!). I tried to capture it.

After, I wandered through the neighborhood of Trastevere, a really cool neighborhood on the other side of the Tiber. On my way back, I got to see a little bit of Rome by night- some of the ruins as well as the more modern buildings. Even the ones I had already seen or was going to see were worth seeing by night- the ambiance is completely different. I got a glimpse of the Colosseum by night and went back less than 12 hours later to see it by day!

First, though, I woke up early to swing by a few more churches I want to see. I’m not having any religious epiphanies, but the churches in Rome have some really good art. I particularly liked San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) because of Michelangelo’s Moses statue, part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. After, I went to the Colisseum and the Roman Forum. It was crazy to actually see Roman ruins in Rome. There are Roman ruins that I have seen throughout Spain, but to see them in the center of everything, the center of their empire, was awesome. I tried to put myself back centuries but it was hard to imagine them how they were back then. Unfortunately, I wanted to see the Piazza del Campidoglio so I existed without seeing Palatine Hill, not knowing my ticket was only good for one entry! So instead I decided to see the mouth of truth, although apparently nowadays you have to pay to wait in line to take your picture with it, and I wasn’t having any of that so I wandered back towards the center and into the Victor Emmanuel II monument where there is a free Italian History museum and some expeditions. The final thing I did was go back to one of the churches that was originally closed, Santa Maria della Vittoria, to see Bernini’s masterpiece Ecstasy of St. Teresa (I guess many things by Bernini can be considered his “masterpiece”). Then I stopped back by the hostel to grab my things and catch my train to Florence! More on Florence and Tuscany later…

Adventure in Africa

This trip to Morocco was a very last minute success! I wanted to go at some point, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. There are so many ways to get there and ways to travel, cities to visit and places to stay. I was honestly a bit overwhelmed. For this reason, Shannon and I decided to go with a tour. Normally I am NOT a fan of the idea of going somewhere with a tour bus – hopping on and off, having less time at the sights, being restricted to only the touristy stuff, and traveling everywhere with a large group. However, it was the best option because we had places we wanted to go that were far from each other, we didn’t really know that much about Morocco, and we couldn’t get cheap flights so close to our date of departure. While I felt like we did spend way too much time on the bus and it definitely is not my style of travel, I am happy we did it for Morocco, to have all of the details taken care of that Shannon and I wouldn’t have been able to plan last minute.

Our adventure started when we took the ferry from Algeciras, Spain across the strait of Gibraltar to Ceuta, Spain. Little known fact – there is actually an area on the continent of Africa that still belongs to Spain.

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On the Ferry, we met a girl named Claudia de Africa (coolest name ever) who lives in Ceuta but studies in Málaga. She is so very clearly Spanish in her mannerisms, language, appearance, and citizenship, but she lives in Africa. We talked to her the whole time both on the ferry there and on the way back. She is awesome! We’re going to visit her in Málaga in a few months when we go to run the Málaga Half Marathon. What luck to meet one of the few Spaniards living in Africa. When the Ferry arrived, we got on the bus, crossed the border, and went to eat in a small village near the border. Since we hadn’t changed our money yet, the restaurant accepted Euro but gave me change in Moroccan money, the Dirham. This may seem like a trivial detail, but I actually was only planning on changing a leftover $50 into Dirham and this resulted in me changing over more money than I wanted to… oops. We puttered around a little after that – my friend Shannon is from Minnesota and really wanted to go to the beach (she’s seen the beach about as many times as I had seen snow before moving to DC). Next, we went to Asilah but really briefly (like 30 minutes). After, we drove to capital Rabat, ate, and slept.

The next morning we woke up to eat and view the king’s palace (Morocco is a kingdom). There are 500 domestic servants living and working there, but the king doesn’t even live there himself! He lives in a residence somewhere else in the city. Next we went to some mausoleum where some famous dead people were (I wasn’t paying 100% attention) and to the medina after. “Medina”means “city” but usually signifies the old quarter of a city within old city walls.  Here I had my first taste of the famous Moroccan mint tea – yum. I also got to practice French because all of the signs are in Arabic and French! Most people speak French, as French is the official language and the one taught in schools. Being in a Muslim country is definitely interesting. There are some things I think are beautiful about Islam, and some that get to me a little bit (just like any religion). I loved hearing the call to prayer and seeing mosques on every street corner, usually identifiable because they all have towers taller than the surrounding buildings so people can hear the call to prayer. It was interesting seeing women wearing the hijab and in various stages of coveredness. It’s actually fascinating, the idea that I, as a stranger, can see how closely each person identifies with his or her religion just by seeing how they are dressed. Unfortunately, Morocco has the most patriarchal culture of any country I’ve been to. For example, we did not go for coffee once while we were in Morocco. Why? The cafés are only for men. That was really strange to see.

In the afternoon we drove to Marrakesh, which is truly beautiful. It is also clearly driven 100% by tourism. Upon arrival, we went to an oasis where there was an option for a short camel ride. I opted out because the camels looked miserable and horribly treated, and I did not want to support that business. It was really fun to see Shannon ride and to see a camel up close (although apparently “real” camels have two humps).

The next morning we woke up and went to a garden in Marrakesh. There was not much there, but there was an opportunity for a beautiful picture of some building reflected in the water. It’s not often that something is better in a picture than in real life, but that totally was.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After, we went to look at the twin sister of the Giralda, called the Koutubia. On top of the Koutubia, and many mosques/government buildings in Morocco, there are three gold balls representing the three main faiths – Islam (95% of the population), Christianity, and Judaism. There is also an arrow pointing to Mecca. Next, we went to see a palace. There is so much similar between arte mudéjar (a style of art/architecture in Spain) in Seville and art here, but arte mudéjar is different in that it can incorporate things that are forbidden in strict Islam art and architecture, like images. The lions in the Alhambra are a good example. Next we went to a pharmacy where a man explained all the important herbs and oils made in Morocco (like argan oil) and their uses. It was totally gimmicky, but actually really interesting. I bought a spice mix called Ras al Hanout of 24 different spices to cook with!

We had a free afternoon so after lunch we went to the main plaza in Marrakesh. There is no other way to describe it but as a feast for the eyes. There were acrobats, monkeys, snake charmers, rows of beautiful spices, purses, jewelry, clothing, carpets…everything! But…we obviously stick out and people were getting pretty aggressive. Haggling was an experience. I’m sure I still paid more than a Moroccan would, but the prices they start with are so ridiculous I still feel like I got good deals. It was amazing walking around the plaza but a little bothersome after a while. Especially because it was Shannon and I walking around, we got a lot of unwanted attention. Although it was funny hearing people try to guess our nationality. We got French, Spanish, English, and American. They changed the language depending and we ended up speaking a mixture of all three. Most notable “catcalls” and people trying to sell us things:

  • “So sorry to say but…where are you from? I need to know where such beauties come from.”
  • Hearing us speaking Spanish: “España? Maria! Come here!” (This one was actually hilarious because it’s true that like 90% of Spanish women are named Maria something)
  • “I like your junk”..
  • “Hallelujah,” (I suppose this is a compliment?)
  • After refusing to buy food from his street stall – “Sorry to tell you but you two are fashion disasters. That is my gift to you for the new year.”
  • Trying to sell us food: “You look so starving!”
  • Trying to sell us food part three: “We already ate,” “Eat again.!”

Finally we sat down at a stall in the plaza and had some couscous, spinach and bread for 3 euro each. Awesome and as authentic as you can get! It came with free mint tea because everyone working there decided to really like us. (What can I say, we’re charming). Their attention felt a little more authentic because we had already paid them, and therefore was much more appreciated. After, we walked around a little and then decided to be responsible and go home around 9. The weirdest experience was having to haggle for a taxi for the way home. It was here we really felt the disadvantages not only of being foreigners, but of not having a man in our company. Our Moroccan tour guide told us a taxi shouldn’t cost more than 10 dirham, while an American couple we met told us it shouldn’t cost more than 30. We tried hard but couldn’t get the price lower than 40 dirham. Although 4 Euros total is an excellent deal for a 15 minute cab ride, being a woman and a foreigner in Morocco is definitely a double strike. We wanted to walk around more, wanted to be cautious without being paranoid, but it’s a hard balance. Still, we went to bed content, with no regrets and with the smell of market in our hair.

The next morning we woke up and drove to Casablanca. It’s very much a big city. The mosque was breathtaking but that was pretty much the only attraction. We walked around a bit in the plaza and central area. To celebrate the New Year, we went to a hookah bar with around 10 other adults in our group. It was the strangest New Year I’ve had and will probably ever have. First of all, the piano guy was playing the synth and smoking a cigarette at the same time (giving no shits) and so the background music, beats, and singer all clashed horribly. Still, everyone in our group decided to get really excited and dance and be loud, despite the fact that all the Moroccans were silent… so we stuck out a lot. It’s a Spanish tradition to eat a grape with every strike of the clock at midnight, so some of the Spaniards had brought canned grapes. Everyone who hadn’t brought grapes just ate 12 popcorn kernels instead. Also, the time zone is one hour behind and they don’t celebrate the New Year in Morocco, so we all just decided arbitrarily it was time. One good thing about traveling in a group is having people to hang out with, and I do love how after 4 days we were almost like our own little family. I liked everyone in our group a lot.

The last day we woke up and went to Tetuán. The city was really cool, but I was actually a little sick of the markets at this point. However, I did have my last dirham to spend, and I ended up getting stuff ridiculously cheap, like one kilo of oranges for about 30 Euro cents and a box of homemade Moroccan dessert for about 20 Euro cents which was so huge I was trying to pawn off pastries to everyone on the bus. After Tetuán, it was time for the bus ride back to Ceuta, a ferry trip back to Europe, and a bus ride back to Seville. We got home around midnight, exhausted, but satisfied. Overall, it was a pretty incredible trip. I almost can’t believe that I’ve been to three continents!