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Thursday, March 29, 2012

On the Aventine

There are oranges outside my window.

And yellows and golds. And cypresses and date palms.

Even the deepest nine-hour jet lag yields to the tinkling sounds of tiny birds and a shaft of spring sunlight falling across open luggage and scattered clothes.
Waking up after a night's journey halfway around the world can be disorienting. But to open your eyes in a room in the Hotel San Anselmo is to know you're in Rome.

Near the crest of the Aventine Hill, the San Anselmo is set in a peaceful neighborhood of quiet palazzos, elegant apartments and ancient churches. Down the street are parks with sweeping views of the Eternal City's domes, spires and jagged ruins.

The hotel's decor is a playful modern nod to the city's Baroque heritage, with striped canopies over the windows and inlaid marble bathroom floors. A blast from the dual-head shower followed by a warm towel from the heated racks is steadying enough for a trip down to the airy, orchid-filled breakfast room for the buffet of hot and cold items, included in the hotel's rates. The San Anselmo often hosts managers and consultants with business in the international agencies headquartered in Rome. The morning tables are occupied by serious-looking professionals logged in to the hotel's complimentary wi-fi, flicking intently away at smartphone screens.

There is no restaurant, but the barman is always happy to whip up a toasted panino and pour a glass of prosecco for you to enjoy in an overstuffed chair in the lounge. Or if you'd rather sit on the terrace with a cappucino while reading La Repubblica under the grapevines, you have only to ask.

Service at the San Anselmo is flawless. The staff are pleasant and efficient and graciously see to it that guests' needs are met. From a 3:00 AM wake-up to numerous phone calls and considerable time wrangling with an airline when I mistakenly thought I had left a pair of glasses on the plane, nothing was ever a problem.

And who needs a hotel restaurant when you are a few blocks' walk down a curving cobblestoned street from some of Rome's best dining? At the foot of the Aventine Hill, across the jumbled traffic of the Via Marmorata, lies the Testaccio neighborhood. Historically the site of the city's butchers, it's still the place to go to sample Rome's traditional snout-to-tail cuisine.

Testaccio is also home to the famous Volpetti deli, a jewelry shop of the finest delicacies the Italian peninsula can provide, from meats and cheeses to pastas, wines, and a densely sweet, espresso-colored balsamic vinegar the clerks will insist you taste.

Next to the deli is Volpetti Piu, a tavola calda where servers dish up ample helpings of roast chicken, octopus salad, stuffed zuccini blossoms and rice balls for patrons in a plain, fluorescent-lit space. Tourists and Roman families crowd the tables, sipping hearty house wine and discussing the day's events between forkfuls of steaming fresh lasagne and stuffed tomatoes.

The Aventine Hill is only a Metro stop or two from Rome's most iconic tourist sights. But after a day of noise, crowds, fake gladiators outside the Colosseum, spilled gelato and cultural overload, there's no more peaceful place to retire. Climb wearily out of the Piramide metro stop. Walk past the ancient Aurelian Walls and the pyramid-shaped tomb of imperial official Caius Cestus (like you, a tourist, who had his burial place modeled on those of the Pharaohs after a visit to Egypt). Head up the cobbled street, past the giggling schoolchildren and the yellow mimosa branches trailing over the stone walls. Wander on to the crest of the hill, past the discreet polished brass placard marking the Egyptian Embassy to the Holy See. Across the street is a plain wall, with a few tourists standing around, their black-leather-jacket-clad taxi drivers chatting near their idling vehicles waiting a few yards down the street. Approach the ancient door to see what the other visitors are bending down to view. The door, perpetually locked, has a keyhole that perfectly frames a view of Saint Peter's dome hovering serenely over the gardens of the Knights of Malta.

The other tourists get back into their taxis, leaving the neighborhood to silence and the singing birds. But you'll be lucky enough to walk a block back to the San Anselmo.

Hotel San Anselmo
Piazza San Anselmo 2
00153 Rome, Italy

Room with terrace, Hotel San Anselmo.

Bathroom, Hotel San Anselmo

Breakfast Room, Hotel San Anselmo

Outdoor Lounge, Hotel San Anselmo

Park with a View of Rome, Aventine Hill

Volpetti Piu

Keyhole view, Palace of the Knights of Malta, Aventine Hill (Wikipedia, all other photos by author.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Business Time

For the March edition of "Across the Cafe Table, asked contributors to describe exceptionally good or bad airline experiences.

When you're sealed into an aluminum tube with a few hundred assorted strangers, then hurled through the air for half a day and a night, you look for what creature comforts you can find.

So we arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport five hours before our flight to London. We dressed "respectfully" and wore our best "We're great passengers and will be lovely to the flight attendants" smiles. All in the hope of persuading the British Airways gods to switch our assigned seats in the middle of the plane to my favorite spot in the last row.

Scoff all you want, but due to the 747's tapering fuselage the row in the plane's posterior consists of only two seats rather than the usual three. Plus there are opportunities to get up, stand and stretch while you peer through the emergency exit's porthole at the Greenland landscape creeping by seven miles below your feet. These amenities more than make up for the pungent aroma of Eau de Lavatory suffusing the space.

Sea-Tac is not Heathrow. No surging, 24/7 mobs of dashiki- and sari-clad passengers racing down the corridors to catch the next flight to Jakarta or Jo'burg. Here in my quiet corner of the world it's intermittent queues of the fleece-ed and fanny-packed headed for Disneyland or Dulles. Between spikes in activity there are long stretches of fluorescent-lit quiet.

It was during one of those peaceful intervals that I marched up to the BA counter, drew myself up to my full five-foot-two, cleared my throat like a seasoned world traveler, and asked if we could move from our assigned seats in the middle of the plane to the back row.

"I'll do better than that," said the bored-looking agent, snatching our tickets out of our hands. While he clicked away on a computer whose screen I couldn't see, I wondered what could possibly be better than the last row. A cone of silence banning crying babies and garrulous fellow passengers? A lifetime supply of British Airways socks? Free drinks?

The agent handed us new boarding passes, then stepped aside. I studied the slips of paper but couldn't see anything distinctive about them other than a possible error in our seat numbers. "That agent clearly screwed up" I said, handing the passes to my husband. The son of a Pan Am flight engineer, he's my guiding light in all matters aeronautic. "I'm going to ask him to reprint these," I said to Steve. Instead of nodding, my better half picked up our passports, grabbed my elbow and hustled me away. "It's business class!" he whispered into my ear. "Act casual and head for the gate!"

Business Class! The mythical land behind the curtain! For reasons known only to himself, the gate agent had granted us admission to the Oz in the front of the plane.

To turn left when boarding a plane is to travel back in time. To enter the old photos in saturated colors, with smiling flight attendants carving slices of prime rib for smartly-dressed, delighted-looking customers. To relax in comfortable seats. To have fine food, china and wine in the jet stream. It's what air travel was when I was an excited child dressed in my Sunday best and clutching my mother's gloved hand as we boarded an Air France 707 for my first trip to Europe.

But Business Class is also represents a less fortunate aspect of the past.
In 1950 a Pan Am round trip flight between New York and Frankfurt was $745. That's equivalent to approximately $5000 in today's money, a fairly typical modern Business Class airfare. The front of the plane is a throwback to a time when flying was only for the privileged few.

And now, thanks to a capricious agent, Steve and I were among them. I did my best to act nonchalant, graciously accepting the Champagne from what appeared to be our personal flight attendant and settling in to a "seat" that seemed more like one of those Japanese capsule hotels. We had plenty of storage, personal entertainment systems, soft bedding, and of course seats that slid at the touch of a button into any position from "bolt upright" to "Eames Recliner" to "fainting couch" to "flat bed."

Then there was the food. After selecting from an array of wines, we had the cheese course, the steak, the fresh salad, more wine, the pastries, the truffles and a nightcap. Hoping the "real" Business Class passengers wouldn't notice, I stuffed the menu into my carryon bag as a souvenir, behind the ziplocks of granola and gummi worms I had brought in anticipation of a more ordinary flight.

Did I sleep? Not a wink. Determined to savor every morsel and moment, every proffered hot towel and glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, I undoubtedly arrived in London more tired (and with more indigestion) than most of the economy-class passengers.

The experience ruined me forever, of course. Like an opium addict "chasing the dragon" I have scrimped and saved for the opportunity to fly in the front of the plane another time or two.

Some might call Business Class travel a needless extravagance. I call it a memory I'll carry forever.

Location:Front of the plane

Sunday, March 4, 2012

No Place Like Rome

I'm crushed.

Pressing into my right side is a teenaged girl wearing skintight jeans and a tee-shirt reading "Number One Super Wyoming Swimming Club." On my left, a squat matron in an expensive camelhair suit. Both are gabbing away loudly on cellphones and have hair hennaed to the color of a new penny.

Seated in front of me is an older gentleman in a gray fedora and black leather jacket, reading Corrriere Delllo Sport. A few feet away a man plays the accordion loudly to the accompaniment of recorded rhythm section reverberating from a boom box, while his son needles the passengers with a paper cup. A young man in aviators, with fiercely gelled hair and a Chinese jean jacket, always seems suspiciously close to the passengers' wallets.

All of us are sealed into an un-air conditioned subway car whose exterior is so saturated with graffiti that from a distance it resembles a Persian carpet. Peeking over the teenager's shoulder I see crumbling buildings whizzing past the grimy windows, their facades flaking away in a hundred shades of ochre.

I could not be happier.

Rome is not for everyone. When travelers dismiss the Eternal City as dusty, noisy and chaotic I don't jump to correct them. But I love it for precisely those qualities. It's been this way for 2500 years and I hope it will be for another two and a half millennia.

There's no city in Europe whose fabric is more suffused by the passage of time. Construction is foiled by archaeology folded over on itself. The 18th-century palazzo could be demolished, but what of the medieval church floor of sinuous "Cosmati" stonework beneath it? Or the granite Imperial Roman column bases below the church? Better to just shrug and leave it all.

Modern bank inside ruins of Temple of Hadrian

Every time the snarl of a passing motorbike jerks me awake just as I drift off to sleep, my annoyance is softened by the knowledge that ancient Romans were equally plagued by nightly street noise. In an effort to reduce traffic congestion (another problem that has persisted for millennia) vehicles were banned from the imperial city between sunrise and about 4:00PM. As a result, nights were filled with the clanging of hooves and wheels on the cobblestones.

In the first century AD the satirist Juvenal wrote: "The movement of heavy wagons through narrow streets, the oaths of cattle-drovers would break the sleep of a deaf man... we are pressed by a huge mob shoving... now we are smashed by a beam, now biffed by a barrel. Our legs are thick with mud, our feet are crushed by a soldier's hobnail boot... Newly mended shirts are torn again... a wagon carries a long pine; they swing and threaten you."

Rome has always been crowded with visitors. The locals have been looking askance at badly-dressed tourists since Gauls first arrived from the provinces ("Imagine, Octavia, they wear trousers, of all things! A complete fashion disaster!") In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance pilgrims thronged to the churches as they do today. And merchants from Africa and Asia did as busy a trade in Augustus' day as in Berlusconi's.

Rome is no doubt dusty. Winds blow across the Mediterranean from the Sahara in summer, coating the statues, churches and Fiats with a fine powder and occasionally, dead locusts. But whenever I sneeze or wipe my brow I remember that every breath of air contains a few molecules of ancient marble from statues and monuments ever so slowly melting like the gelato being sold beneath them.

There's no place in the world I feel as much a small part of an endless historical parade as the Eternal City. As I negotiate the crowds, noise and jumble of culture high and low, I constantly feel the invisible presence of a hundred earlier generations, and I'm comforted by them.

Time to go, my train's pulling up to the Aurelian Walls.

See you at the Forum.

Location:On Linea "B"

Thursday, March 1, 2012


The term "steerage" originated in the age of sailing ships. The lowest-paying passengers were relegated to the bowels of the vessel, where cables connecting the wheel to the rudder were strung. This cabin class served my Irish ancestors perfectly well on their emigration to America. No onboard wi-fi or amenity kits, but plenty of legroom and complimentary beer.

Generations later, the genetic hardiness that served my forbears so well has attenuated to the point that I would probably come down with scurvy while the ship was still within sight of the Irish coast. The only residual toughness I possess is sharp elbows at the baggage carrousel.

I'm particularly bothered by an ailment unknown in the 19th century: Jet Lag. Say what you will about weeks of gruel, seasickness and lice-ridden bunks, when my great-great-great-grandparents finally stepped off the gangway in New York harbor they weren't nudging each other and saying, "No wonder I'm exhausted, it's 3:00 AM at home."

Sleep on a plane is an elusive goal for me unless I'm lucky enough to turn left when boarding. Nature has blessed me with many gifts, but drifting peacefully off to the Land of Nod in an upright position is not one of them. I've learned over the years that the best way to cope with adversity is to appreciate whatever aspects of the situation you can. My ancestors got through the gales, icebergs and rumored sea monsters by playing music, making friends onboard and savoring dreams of a new life in America.

Me, I look out the window.

In the age of the aisle seat I'm a holdout for the other end of the row. Laying my cheek against the cool glass I watch as we vault over the snowy Rockies to the Canadian Midwest, where ordered fields gradually give way to a Jackson Pollack pattern of intricate frozen muskeg lakes from horizon to horizon. Flying against the Earth's turn brings dusk up with startling speed. The clouds quickly turn pink and the planet's shadow looms like a wall. We plunge through and are enveloped by stars that shine unblinking in the thin atmosphere.

The flight attendants clatter by with gelatinous food. I'm simultaneously numb and aching, my feet are swollen and my eyes sandpapery. But outside, a faint veil of aurora is beginning to coalesce across the Greenland Icecap. I watch the spectral ribbon of light rippling across the sky until an orange smear of dawn grows ahead of us over the Hebrides.

In the front of the plane behind a discreet curtain the Business Class passengers have slept peacefully through the entire show. Of course I'd be happy to be one of them, to be free of the aches and pains, sipping fine wines and eating substances actually recognizable as food. But the view from steerage is something I've truly come to appreciate.