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In Rome, Trying to Avoid Saying “When in Rome…”

The plane has landed. Finally! This is my first trip to Italy, and the last time I was in Europe at all was when I was one year old… so you could say it’s been a little while.

For the past couple months, I have skipped listening to NPR and to the rock stations during my long commutes in favor of Italian language learning CDs. So far, I feel pretty spoiled because it seems most of these people speak English and speak it pretty well. I’ve been approaching conversations in Italian, but the other party quickly switches over to my native language. It’s probably less of a headache for them, but at least I’m giving it a shot.

Some advice… I had so much going on leading up to this trip that I didn’t really worry about currency conversion beforehand. I brought along a big bundle of cash and was appalled by the commission rate for the money exchange at the Rome airport. I converted $100 at that point, in order to get to the hotel and to grab lunch. I had read that a lot of banks and hotels do currency exchanges but, as it turned out, our hotel didn’t, nor did any of the banks in the neighborhood. Every bank I asked pointed to another bank and said “You can do that there.” Nope, not true.

Tension was quickly building and, finally, we found a money exchange counter after walking a couple miles to the train station. So my advice is to think about this way ahead of time. We were always in search of the lowest commission rate we had to pay, and we eventually asked ourselves how much time we had spent wondering where and how we could get the best deal. Some people recommend exchanging cash, and some people recommend only taking along a credit card and withdrawing Euros directly from ATMs. Really, the most ideal scenario is probably a mix of both, but be sure to check with your credit card provider about their own currency exchange fees. Oh, and let them know you will be traveling so they don’t think your card is being fraudulently used.

Back to Rome… it’s such a surreal place. To me, it’s similar to Washington D.C. You grow up seeing these pictures on dollar bills and, in a way, it almost feels like the depictions aren’t real when you haven’t actually experienced these places. Seeing the grandiosity of the Colosseum is astonishing. It’s subtle nuances are there, right in front of you… things you may have never seen in photos or learned in history class. For example, I had never realized the entire structure is dotted with pockmarks. Those, I learned, were from a time, centuries ago, when the metals holding together the building blocks of the structure were pillaged to build other structures.

The ancient Colosseum in Rome, Italy

The Forum is less impressive. You know you’re standing in the middle of the historic, Roman city center, but the numerous ruins scattered over a large field are really difficult to put into a larger context. There’s good reason why almost every picture you see of the Forum features the still-standing Temple of Saturn portico (“porch” or “entryway”)…

From here, I really screwed up! The Circus Maximus (former chariot racing stadium) was next on the to-do list and, unbeknownst to me at the time, it’s located immediately south of the Forum. With some other buildings to navigate around first, we inadvertently headed west much further than we should have. At that point, we were well on our way to Vatican City, so we just continued on.

St. Peter’s Basilica is immediately recognizable and is incredibly beautiful. Again, not having enough time to do proper research (a common theme of this trip, but still amazing!), I got in line for, ehh, whatever… hopefully the Sistine Chapel. Nope! The line was for the Basilica. That was fine, but we were really hurting from walking miles and miles and miles, so we skipped the Chapel to make the 4+ mile walk back to the hotel.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Rome, Italy

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

It seems Mark Zuckerberg and his new bride had been crossing paths with us for a couple days. They were spotted at the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, and Trevi Fountain – all places where we had been. A sighting would have been cool but, on this trip, it seems there is so little that could make the experience that much better. I do think a good, juicy burger would go a long way, though…

Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy

The Spanish Steps in Rome, built by the French

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