"When life gives you lemons, make limoncello."
We were supposed to have left for this trip 2 days ago. I was all packed and suffering through my usual pre-travel anxiety attacks, but at 4:15pm the day before we were set to depart, American Airlines sent me a text telling me that my flight to JFK had been canceled. This was presumably thanks to the "bomb cyclone" that was hurtling toward the eastern seaboard. This powerful winter storm was set to shut down entire cities with a suffocating blanket of snow and ice, and was supposedly going to bring temperatures "colder than Mars." Soon after American canceled my flight, Alitalia followed suite, and JFK grounded all of their flights.
Much of the next day was spent on hold with various airlines, rescheduling plane tickets, looking at alternative flight paths, and changing hotel and Airbnb reservations. Shout out to "Roy" in Alitalia's Albanian call center (even though that's definitely not his real name). Fast forward a few days and we had made it to JFK, but were stuck in one of the worst gridlock situations to hit a major airport in decades. People had been sleeping on newspapers for 40+ hours. Crowds of stranded passengers were cheering at the windows when their planes finally arrived. Small riots were breaking out that required police intervention. There was trash all over the floors and facial hair shavings in all the sinks. It was not pretty. And in the midst of all that, I remember looking up at a television to see a Trump quote on the news that read as follows: "I'd say my 2 greatest assets have been my mental stability and that I'm, like, really smart."
Ugh. Rock bottom.
In the end, we managed to get on a plane, and were able to preserve most of our trip. However, much to my dismay, our time in Tunisia would be cut extremely short. I was not happy. This was a real shame.
But they say that when God closes a door, He opens a window.
For us, this window came in the form of an extremely long layover in Rome. It was more than enough time to sneak out of the airport for some exploring, so that's exactly what we did. However, it's no secret that Rome is WAY too big and complex to see on a layover, so we decided to break off a bite-sized piece of the city. I'm sure I'll be back here again, but in the meantime, we're going to focus on a single Roman neighborhood: Trastevere.
An Introduction to Trastavere
Like everything in Rome, Trastavere is old. Like, really old. A quick Google search will quickly return history about this neighborhood dating back to almost 800 B.C. Sitting on the west bank of the legendary Tiber River, Trastevere has, historically, been the other side of the coin. For much of history, the Tiber River was the boundary that separated western Rome from what lay beyond. Occupying the opposite bank, Trastevere was "over the border" for most of ancient history, playing home to a variety of different non-Roman people groups over the centuries. But things have changed since then. Today, Trastavere is as Roman as Rome gets.
In modern times, Trastevere has apparently become quite a trendy place! There are restaurants, bars, and a few different international educational institutions that call this neighborhood home. It's also supposed to be a hub for expats and artists as well. However, on this gray, leafless day in early January when we arrived in Rome, the supposed hustle-and-bustle of this neighborhood was a far cry from what we found. The many narrow cobblestone alleys were definitely beautiful, and it certainly wasn't difficult to picture locals and expats eating and drinking together on some distant, warm summer night, but under the gray winter skies, Trastevere felt palpably melancholy.
At first, it was hard to put my finger on. I was definitely surprised at the level of disrepair and graffiti that I saw on the streets. Rome was supposed to be gorgeous—the stuff of postcards and wallpaper! The gritty reality that I was faced with was unexpected. I actually thought that it was very cool, but I'd be lying if I said that some part of me wasn't a little disappointed. But then again, this was just one neighborhood of a HUGE city. I reminded myself that I was not yet in any sort of position to be making judgements about Rome, and kept walking. And just when I thought the aura of sadness was in my head, something unusual happened.
We were walking down a random street when a woman walking next to us, out of nowhere, suddenly made a small sound, put her hands over her face, and slumped down on the curb. It looked like she was crying. I walked a little ways before turning around to see again what had just happened. And there she was, unmoved. Her hands were still over her face, and she was balled up as if she had just heard something terrible. Except I knew that she hadn't. She hadn't been on the phone or anything—she was just walking alone. Whatever had just happened was in her own head. It was weird, and it stuck with me as I walked further into Trastevere.
As we walked on, we passed a number of homeless people—which is fine. I'm normaly not somebody who has strong feelings surrounding the issue of homelessness. However, in Trastevere, I saw a number of homeless people whose situations just seemed a little more desperate than normal. For example, in a dingy public square, I saw a pregnant woman sleeping on a park bench next to a stroller with a small child in it. Something had gone wrong there. I felt sad looking at it. This was just a vignette from Trastevere, but it wasn't a good one.
At any rate, here are a few of my favorite photos that I took during those hours walking around this neighborhood...
So Trastevere wasn't the most uplifting place that day, but I don't want to paint it as if this one experience defines it. I will return to Rome one day for a more extended stay, and I'll come back to give Trastevere another shot. The grittiness of this neighborhood was actually a very cool vibe, especially in areas where the line between graffiti and art become blurred. As I walked, I snapped photos of street art like a scavenger hunt. Here are a few of the pieces that I found...
Looking Out From Belvedere Niccolò Scatoli
On our initial taxi ride into Rome from the airport, after a long while of winding downhill through a series of roads enclosed by ancient stone walls, we suddenly turned a corner to see all of Rome stretching out before us. It happened all at once, and it kind of blew my hair back. Looking out over the roof tops, the view was amazing. The taxi driver laughed seeing our reaction to beholding Rome—all of it at once—for the first time. I made a note of our location, and we eventually circled back to find a lookout where I could snap a few photos. That "lookout" turned out to be at a church called Belvedere Niccolò Scatoli. Here's what we saw...
From there, we walked back down into the city, stopped through a small café to grab some food, and hopped a cab back to the airport. With Rome disappearing in the rearview mirror, there wasn't much time to process my first experience with this legendary city. We would be on a plane to Algeria in a few short hours, and that's when the REAL trip would begin. However, before leaving Rome, we made one more stop at a place I'm sure 100% of you know about. Though it falls entirely within the metro limits of Rome, it's actually *technically* its own country. It's also one of the historical hotspots in the Western world, so we're going to break it off for its own article.
Next stop: Vatican City
P.S. The day after we left for Rome, JFK (still dealing with massive delays and gridlock) had a pipe burst in the baggage-claim area of one of their terminals. This actually forced them to close that terminal entirely, cancelling or delaying countless more flights. It was historic. Senators were talking about what a shit show JFK had become, prompting the FAA to launch an "official" investigation into what happened.
Meanwhile, I sat at a cafe on the cobblestones of Rome, sipping a cappuccino. It was a rocky start, but now we were in the clear. And we had a hell of a trip ahead of us. Stay tuned.