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From Rome

By Sahand Rabbani

from Rome: When in Rome ...

Dear Friends,

I have written a large portion of this note from the above-ground swimming pool that is Rome. It has been seven million degrees outside with five-hundred percent humidity. I turned on the air conditioner (I had forgotten that such machines exist) in my hostel room and the thing practically dumped an ocean of condensation onto the ground.

In this account, I have less to say about the city than I do of the people visiting it. I begin in the airport in Athens, where I met a group of five American girls recently graduated from med school and, independently, a lone Canadian traveler who claims to run his own business teaching people how to run their own business to make lots of money while working two hours a day. He is either exaggerating, or he simply prefers to horde his money and stay in hostels where the destitute student crowds roll. He did, however, entertain me with delicious stories of getting ripped off in Morocco, and his overall chipper outlook identified him as innocuous. A man had shown him a neatly packaged camera with a price tag of 600€, but offered him the special price of 100€. Only after buying it did this poor Canadian realize that the camera was just a heavy prop. That was part of today's lesson. I give the guy credit for having enough confidence to tell this embarrassing story.

This man had booked a room in Alessandro's Palace, a central hip hostel in Rome equipped with a bar so that you can experience getting drunk in Rome in the comfort of English-speaking tourists. The lucky guest might even get away with avoiding the city entirely.

The five girls needed to catch a late train to Florence from the central train station in Rome. With our group of seven, it was actually more economical to hire a private ride rather than take the train to the center. We arrived into town around nine that evening, and I tried my luck at Alessandro's because it was close by. Some haggling later, I'd gotten a room in a central location for a good price by Roman standards.

The hostel turned out to be remarkably clean and well maintained. It was then that I realized what the Western European idea of a hostel was. People were complaining that this place was not up to their standards. I was shocked by the sudden change in clientele and shocked, further, by the fact that everything here seems to function more consistently than in the Balkans.

But what was I to expect of the travelers who stay at Alessandro's? Until now, I had been traveling in the Balkans, a place that attracts a different crowd: those who go to Albanian not because it is pretty to look at, but because it is mysterious and exciting and, potentially, so hideous that one just might manage a photo devoid of all tourists.

The people in this hostel in Rome are mostly North American jocks and bros and bankers-to-be and giggly girls who flew thousands of kilometers for an expensive frat party. I do not feel comfortable among them, and I only join in the run to the supermarket so that I can make tomorrow's lunch while they buy their six-packs of Heineken and their McDonalds cheeseburgers by the train station. I suppose that this is the backpacking crowd of Western Europe that I missed, the ones who call Athens cheap because you can eat with both hands since you don't have to trade one for the meal. I miss the travelers from the East, who complained so little about everything that I almost forgot how annoying it is to take a shower in the dark with cold water, holding the shower head with one hand and scrubbing the shampoo out of my hair with another with furious speed to minimize the chances of hypothermia and to make the five-AM bus to the next city.

The expression "When in Rome ..." is often invoked, but many incorrectly believe that the implicit clause is "do as the Romans do." With permission, I shall disabuse those of this widespread belief. When in Rome:

· See the Roman ruins because it's required (pretend to be an EU citizen between eighteen and twenty-four years until they ask for a passport),

· Go to the Vatican so that you can say you've been to the smallest country in the world,

· Don't go to the Sistine Chapel because it's prettier and cheaper to see the images online and frankly I find looking at paintings quite boring, and

· Do laundry because you haven't done it since Albania and all your shirts are covered in white salt lines left over from evaporated sweat since Europe descended into Dante's seventh level of hell for the summer.

Rome is a beautiful city with every corner offering a magnificent new monument or building. But this city was not high on my list for this trip. Time is running out and I must make it to Sicily. I did Rome quickly and left for Naples on the thirty-ninth day (May 29).

They say that the garbage men are on strike and the streets are filled with trash. They say that Naples is dangerous and scary. But they said the same things about Albania and about so many other cities I've visited. I don't believe them. I believe that the true danger is in our very own large American cities, north of 120th Street in Manhattan, south of 20th Street in Chicago. "So, you're going to brave Naples, eh?" a Canadian traveler in Rome asked me. I am going to Naples, I explained, but I'm not braving it.

A single-shot of espresso in Rome costs 1€, or $1.58 by the exchange rate at the time I checked. This is still cheaper than in Palo Alto. University Avenue needs to get over itself.

This has been a rant.


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