Educational travel blog
November 12, 2014
By Julian Moseley
Don’t you just love the way the Italian language sounds? Pure poetry! And what a shame the Italians (not the Romans of course) were so much worse at building empires than they were at building incredible monuments! Because let’s face it, who speaks Italian these days, apart from the Italians themselves? The only Italian we’re exposed to is that written on jars of pasta sauce, frozen pizza packages, or menus at The Olive Garden (actually that’s not true, you can pick up a word or two by watching The Sopranos). I heard that some Italian is spoken in Libya, although the less said about Libya right now, the better. English is of course a different story, having pretty much the entire globe nailed down, linguistically - but despite the deep love, respect and affection that I have for my native language, I would never say that it sounds beautiful, in the way that Italian does. It’s all those voweled endings, you see.
Anyway, enough about languages, I know you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting with baited breath for the next exciting installment of my adventure, so now I will commence! Here I am at FCO (that’s Leonardo da Vinci-Rome Fiumicino Airport, in case you haven’t been paying attention), waiting for the lovely Ingrid and debonair Robert from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and their delightful group of twenty students and parents. The flight is on time and I’ve already spoken to the driver to make sure he’s in the holding area, on stand-by. I’ve also made sure that I know exactly where the coach will pull up outside our terminal, and have traced and re-traced the route to take from the luggage claim exit to the coach parking area. I know that may seem like organizational overkill, but after leading an entire group into a ladies bathroom once, I’m now a bit more cautious about making sure I know where I’m going. I mean it wouldn’t have mattered so much, but they were New Yorkers, and you know how unforgiving they can be!
Now unbeknownst to yours truly, Ingrid and Robert were not aware that they were to be graced with my presence on their tour, so there was a certain degree of surprise involved on both sides, upon exiting aforementioned luggage claim. Waiting for a group to exit luggage claim is a bit like waiting for a famous person to appear at an event - it’s both boring and exciting at the same time. This is because it can take from twenty minutes to an hour and a half for them to come through, and you have to stand there the whole time, clipboard in hand, looking smart, perky, erudite, and in control, which is easy enough when your name is Hillary Clinton and you’re at the United Nations. You can’t pass the time surfing the web on your smartphone, and be surprised when the group suddenly appears out of nowhere. That would create a very bad impression indeed; “Hi Julian, we’re here!” “Oh, hang on, I’m almost winning a bid on eBay, be with you in a minute”. We have to be on complete standby the whole time; you can be sure that should there be a sudden need to visit the little boys’/girls’ room, that is the precise moment when they will come out - right there and then, and you can also be sure that in the time it takes to run your hands under the faucet and tear off a paper towel, the group will already have had time to: 1. See you are not there; 2. Panic; 3. Call the home office. The home office then calls you, asking “where the ___ you are”. So it’s legs crossed (if applicable) until you get to the hotel.
But to be truthful the chances of your looking bored are slim because you are about to go on stage - perform - put on the hat of the merry tour guide! Now to be honest, we nearly always see the group before they see us, partly because of the fluorescent yellow luggage tags that Passports uses, also because the entire group never comes out all at once. Usually it starts as a trickle before it becomes a deluge, so we have a fair warning.
Wait - here they are, they’ve come through! “Julian, what are you doing here?” (cries Ingrid) “I’m waiting for my group, what are YOU doing here?”, I utter in feigned astonishment (yes, I played into it for a few seconds, ha ha!) Fortunately Ingrid and Robert were able to hide any trace of dismay from their faces (at least whilst I was looking) and made a good show at pretending to actually be happy I was there. After joyful greetings all around, we set off to board the coach. On the way, I apologize in advance for the decrepit, bone shaker, rust-bucket of a vehicle that the fly-by-night coach company has sent us - all their nice ones are busy right now - it’ll be a miracle if we make it to Rome! Then when the group sees that the coach is all shiny and new, fresh out of the factory almost, they are so happy and relieved, well, it makes it all worthwhile, really. I think they realized right there and then that I am “a bit of a joker.” At least, the ones who were awake did. It was then reinforced by my asking if “anyone knows the way to the hotel.” Oh yes, I’m a funny one, all right.
The drive goes quite smoothly, and somehow I am able to go rambling on about goodness-knows-what for the whole time, without sending the entire group into the arms of Morpheus. Twenty years ago I used to be so hesitant to say “the obvious” to groups - “We’re in Italy and Italians speak Italian”, for example, I mean that’s too obvious, right? And I was insecure about the fact that I didn’t know the names and dates of all the popes, nor if they were latte drinkers or more inclined towards cappuccino. I didn’t know how many brush strokes it took Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, either. But now I realize that nobody cares and it’s not what you say, but how you say it. So I may well start out with “Hey guys, guess where we are? Yes, Italy! Hey, you actually made it all the way to Italy - good job everyone! And guess what? Italy is full of Italians, in fact there are 60 million of them and they all speak - can you guess - that’s right, Italian, just like in the movies.” All of that is insanely obvious of course, but you give the group a sense of achievement, reassure them, and with a bit of luck make them laugh too.
The hour-long drive actually flies by, with me stating the obvious, with a semi-interesting fact thrown in, every now and again. You know, stuff like “Italians eat spaghetti every day of the week, except when they run out, when they reach for the macaroni instead.” You don’t find gems like them in the guide books, I tells yer! Actually it is true that Italians really are crazy about pasta. They pretty much eat it at every meal, and almost always with plain old tomato “spaghetti sauce” as we would say in the States, and which the Italians may refer to as “sugo.” I’m not sure what most Italians do these days, but 20 years ago, they would make their own sauce, never using store bought stuff, and it would be a surprisingly casual means of preparation. A chopped clove of garlic would be tossed in and quickly fried in some olive oil, a can of tomatoes would be added, the mixture would be boiled furiously for as long as the pasta was cooking, and that would be it! Sometimes some peppers, onions and bacon would be thrown in to make a la Matriciana sauce, or some ground beef to make Bolognese, but most often it was plain old “sugo.”
What impressed me at the time was the fact that restaurants and most households in Italy would use freshly-grated parmesan cheese, not the ready-grated one that everyone else in the world would use. People would keep a block of the stuff handy and just grate it over the plate of pasta, right there and then. The first time I went to Italy, I’d never seen a block of parmesan before and I’d certainly never tasted it fresh like that, and Mamma Mia, what a difference! These things are ubiquitous in the USA nowadays and are unlikely to impress, unless you say that you bought your block of parmesan whilst hitch-hiking across Tuscany, from the same store as Sophia Loren.
These are things I may have mentioned during the drive to the hotel, and here we are already, pulling up in front. People and luggage spill out onto the sidewalk, but before you know it they’re syphoned inside the cool lobby, for check-in and key distribution. Ingrid is well organized and despite her lack of sleep is on top of things, so it goes smoothly and quickly. Hotel check-in can be a stressful time, especially when there are several “combined groups” travelling together, with as many as six different group leaders with whom we have to liaise, but Ingrid’s group is travelling on a private tour so it’s much easier. We arrange to meet in the lobby in half an hour, and by then it will almost be time for lunch, which is great. Arrival day is never easy, as the groups are tired and cranky, but you have to keep them on the move the whole day, so that once you are back at the hotel after dinner, they can go to their rooms and be in bed at a reasonable time, say ten o'clock, and thus hopefully get a good night’s sleep. This goes against their natural inclination, which is to dive into bed immediately upon entering their rooms, which would set the whole day askew and after sleeping in the day, they’d be up all night, wide awake but exhausted at the same time.
We reconvene in the lobby and prepare to take to the streets of Rome, just as the rain starts to pour down. Umbrellas are quickly found, or bought from a passing vendor, and we head out. I had planned to give the group a nice stroll around the immediate area of the hotel, which yesterday had bathed in a Fellini-esque effervescence - sidewalk cafes and restaurants packed - the cobbled streets and their ocre-colored buildings bathed in quaintness - but that’s all been washed away by the rain and I am a bit despondent. I want the group to be “wowed” by it all, but right now they are just dodging the rain. However, we make the most of it and they at least get to know the immediate surroundings of the hotel, which enables them to take off (in small groups) in search of lunch. Later in the day the weather clears up and we are able to go see some of the highlights of ancient Rome, without getting drenched. We see (among others) the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, some of the must-see places that you really can only enjoy whilst on foot. On the coach from the airport, I had warned the group that the Steps were under renovation and the Trevi had run dry (also under renovation, I suppose) and had suggested to the group that we “give Rome a miss and go straight to Florence”, which was met with cries of “No, Julian, no!”. I was of course joking, but it made light of a negative situation, and I was so glad that I had visited the two sites the day before, so that there were no surprises. We end up behind the Colosseum, where our dinner awaits, and everyone seems to enjoy the lasagna, which is the first course. We are especially appreciative of the jugs of iced water and baskets of bread which are placed on the tables and refilled regularly. We were in fact incredibly thirsty, as well as being famished. Soon we are back at the hotel, where a strange scene awaits us. The lobby is almost silent and full of hotel guests with smartphones, all logged onto Facebook I suppose, or email accounts, catching up with events back home, and relating the day’s adventures to the folks back home. Of course, twenty years ago we barely had computers and the internet had only just begun, but even a year or two ago, scenes like that were unheard of, and now it’s the same thing in most hotels, almost everywhere you go. Heaven forbid we should be out of touch for more than a few hours! Anyway the day ends well and everyone heads upstairs to bed - Buona notte, a domani!
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