Three months before the trip, we had not made a single hotel reservation. Despite knowing our exact travel dates since last July, this March rolled around with no accommodations booked. The one thing we had arranged by March, thanks to a suggestion from a friend who had traveled to Europe extensively including multiple trips to Rome, became one of the most moving experiences of the entire two weeks: the Scavi tour.
Before that life-changing encounter with the bones of St. Peter, which came on Day 2 of the trip, we needed to get through Day 1. Upon landing at 7:30am Roma time (still only 12:30am back home in Texas, which we had left at around 7am Texas time the day before), we had no checked bags, strolling directly off the plane and into an awaiting line of international travelers, but the line to get through the passport check inside the airport still took a good half hour. We had read and watched much of what renowned travel expert Rick Steves had to say about European travel, and his advice had been to wait until landing at the airport to pull Euros out of an ATM. That would supposedly yield a better rate than exchanging money at a bank in the U.S. or at a money changer in Europe. I have no analysis to back up his claim, but I had (and still have) no reason to doubt his wisdom. We dutifully withdrew a couple hundred Euros to get us started, knowing that the drive to the airbnb would cost 55 of them. Credit cards were supposed to be widely accepted at restaurants and shops, and it's best to use them whenever possible, but cash is still necessary - more than we first realized, as we quickly blew through most of that initial 250 Euros.
A driver awaited us, holding a piece of paper with our last name written on it, outside of the customs area at the Roma airport. Older, very Italian, and smoking as soon as we walked outside (cigarette smoke is a big player in Europe, probably more so in Rome and the rest of Italy than in Provence or Barcelona, but definitely everywhere), Massimo spoke practically no English, but our Roman airbnb hostess had arranged it all ahead of time for us, so Massimo knew exactly where to drop us off. I Google Mapped the drive to the apartment, and he took the exact route it laid out. Not that it mattered, since the cost was already set.
After miraculously not hitting anyone or anything on his drive through the exceedingly tight, ancient streets of the historic part of the city, he dropped us at the Pantheon. Literally, directly next to the Pantheon, nothing between us and it. He told us he had just texted with our hostess (as I had attempted to do but received no replies) and she would be there to greet us in a minute. Then we paid him and he drove away.
So there we were, four people who had been awake for close to 24 hours straight, holding eight carry on pieces, standing next to the Pantheon in Rome. There was no hotel, no lobby, no place to hold our bags until our room was ready, no one to communicate with, since our hostess was not responding to messages through the airbnb app, texts, or phone calls. We did not even know where the apartment was, even though we had its address, since the streets are not usually marked very well and our intended address was nowhere to be found. Adding to the disorientation was the realization that the blue dot on our phone maps representing our location tended to randomly bounce around from block to block, so not only did you not know where you were going, but you also did not know where you were. This should not have been much of an issue standing at the Pantheon or other landmarks and open spaces that are easily located with satellite view on the map app, but it had not yet occurred to me to turn on satellite view (and would continue to prove problematic when walking the narrow alleys surrounded by tall stone structures on each side, which was pretty much the base case scenario in Rome and Venice). Suddenly, the amazing airbnb experience that had allowed us to secure spacious, washing machined, multi-bathroomed, perfectly located places to stay in every city at prices ridiculously lower than cramped hotel rooms and which were long sold out anyway, seemed like not such a great idea after all.
There was only one thing left to try, and it was a long shot due to the fact that it was still only 9am: find some gelato (or gelatti as the Italians call it), which Rick Steves had assured us was the best in the world (in Italy in general, though more specifically in Florence to the north). Tired of schlepping heavy carry ons, I dropped mine with my family standing up against some ancient-looking stone facade a little ways from the Pantheon and walked up the plaza in front of the 2000-year old temple to the gods and took a side street. There, on the Via dei Pastini (which would prove to be the very street/alley that our apartment was on just a few doors down), was Don Nino, open for business. Having never heard of it, but seeing that the ice cream - sorry, gelatti - in its display case looked perfectly cold and yummy, I went back and retrieved the family. A minute or three of schlepping later, and we were all enjoying either our first shots of Italian espresso or the first of many, many gelattis! Still no word from Natalia, but that no longer mattered quite so much.