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June 2017

Airbnb, the Pantheon, and Gelatti

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.

IMG_20170608_091422So 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.


Getting to Europe

Europe had been a dream for years, since long before my wife and I were my wife and me. She had been to Germany and a smidgen of France with work before I knew her, and also to Berlin and Madrid while we were dating. Crushingly, I could not go with her on either occasion, but we were young, in our early-mid 20's, and there was always next time!

Twenty-something years later, we were not going to be denied. We went someplace every summer for a week or so, always to great American destinations. Nothing wrong with seeing one's own country before exploring the world, right? But with enough frequent flyer miles amassed, it was time to pull the trigger - a trigger that required being pulled eleven months in advance on American Airlines if we were to get the dates and airports we wanted. So we booked it last July for this June, as soon as school was out for the kids, and before the dreaded July and August. July and August bring two things to Europe that are to be avoided if at all possible:  heat, and lots of tourists. There are plenty of tourists in June, and the weather is certainly already warming up, but the northeastern U.S. as well as much of Europe gets out of school around the end of June, so things get far more crowded then. The masses make places and activities more expensive and tougher to reserve, while many Europeans take time off and close down their shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, the nice, warm weather of late spring and early summer turns into oppressive heat in some areas once late June and early July roll into town.

Flying from Dallas to Europe required a big decision:  which airport to fly into? Rome and Paris were always 1a and 1b as far as dream destinations, so we thought we would fly into Paris and then home from Rome. Maybe four or five days in each place, a week and a half total. Flights among big cities in Europe are short and cheap, so it would be easy to get from Paris to Rome. Many of these intercity flights are about an hour long and cost as little as $50 or $60 one way, which was shocking to see. One problem though:  none of us, especially my high school daughter, had any desire to be in Paris with the ongoing terrorist attacks that have targeted major cities including Paris, Brussels, and London. Rome is always a target as well, but whether due to the prayers of the faithful or extra tight security throughout the city or a combination of the two, it has not been rocked like the others. So we decided to fly to Rome, then home from Barcelona. And on the excellent advice of many, to extend the trip from 10 days to 14.


With the flight to Rome came a five-hour layover in New York, sandwiched between a 3.5 hour flight from DFW to LGA and a 8.5 hour flight from JFK to Rome, during which time we had to gather our baggage when we landed at LaGuardia, get a ride to JFK, and wait to take off from JFK to Rome. The flight back from Barcelona via Philly would be much simpler. Making all of this infinitely more doable was the fact that my wife and daughter made the bold, winner move of making their packing of two weeks' worth of clothing work with NO CHECKED BAGS. I cannot overstate how amazing this was for all of us! They made the sacrifice, and we all reaped the rewards. This act of kindness was made possible by the decision to do the trip in airbnb apartments, no hotels. Airbnb can mean multiple bathrooms, at least one living area, a kitchen, and crucially, a washing machine for clothes. Amenities such as these (and of course, air conditioning) can all be selected when the search for lodging on airbnb's magnificent website is being conducted.

Alas, all was not bliss when it came to some of the finer details of the airbnb experience. More to follow tomorrow.


Back from Europe

Bongiorno, and prego!

In my 48th year here on earth (which actually makes me 47, no doubt coming as a bit of a surprise to some people), the dream of visiting Europe was finally realized. Two cities have always been at the top of my list, and the first destination on this trip with my family was one of them:  Rome. Paris will have to wait.

For two glorious weeks, there was an endless stream of places, objects, and human remains that were many hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of years old. This is not the case in America. The palpable sense of awe within each of us will stay with me for what I can only hope will be the rest of my days. As one who believes that travel is always worth it, no matter the cost or inconvenience or locale, seeing places such as these has instilled a sense of completeness within me that I didn't see coming. Let me explain...

Life is change, and change is life. When one finds a soulmate, the feeling that an irrevocable change has taken place is very real. That alteration, however, continues. The change keeps changing. It's the same with the birth of your child, or in our case, children. Yes, everything changes in that moment, but the changes keep on coming for the rest of their, and our, lives. In the ancient places that we experienced, some more ancient than others, there was an inescapable separation of "then" vs. "now," with the process of change somehow absent in the things themselves. The artifacts are still there (allowing for some decay and erosion) just as they have been for centuries.


The ruins, or objets d'art, or often still-beautiful and fully functional structures such as they were, had very obviously been created by people who are no longer here, and in that sense, they are creations that are frozen in time. They do not change. The Arch of Constantine remains largely, if not completely, as it was when it was created 1,702 years ago in the year 315. When I stood a short distance away, aware of the perfect late afternoon/early evening rays of sunlight that fell upon it, the only thing to do was to contemplate the countless others throughout the ages who had done the very same thing. Their clothing may have been different, as would the backdrop of other structures and surfaces, but the thing was the same, as were the people. Those people could have been us, but for being born in a different time, and we them. Our souls were created for eternity, while our experience in that physical space and moment in time is so fleeting as to seem almost non-existent. Somehow though, the memory persists forever.

This rumination has a point. Other people may be about to embark on similar journeys, if not tomorrow or next week, then maybe some years down the road, so in the hopes of providing some useful information to you and them, the plan for the coming days is to post something about each town we visited. I'll share details about the trip itself, what worked and what didn't, touching on our mostly positive but not perfect first experience with airbnb, traveling through Italy, France, and Spain on planes, trains, and automobiles (including rental cars and buses), phone usage for navigation and social media while relying on the cheap and awesome Google Project Fi wherever we were, the things we did and did not do...ok, I can start to see why so many people do travel blogs.