And so the lost boy arrived in the Eternal City. But I hadn’t actually arrived yet. Having an aisle seat made me envious of the red-shirted woman with the views out the window. But the worst part of that envy wasn’t because her face was smushed against the window and she was wide-eyed at the Italian landscape below — it was because that woman was dead asleep as we began our descent. Oh how I was tempted to just lean right over her to peer out the window. But I suspected that if she were to suddenly wake up, I might appear to be sneaking a smooch instead of my simple desire to see Italy unfold below.
She’d be wrong though, I’m not quite into stealing a secret kiss from a drooling elderly woman with a slight mustache and a snore worse than mine.
We arrived on a reasonably smooth landing, with only a few jolts and shakes exciting my fear of flying before screeching onto the landing strip. After that mad rush subsided that happens when all flights come to an end and people scramble for their luggage, I was waddling with my bags toward the exit door.
Finally, I was staring out at a land (which arguably didn’t look different from most airports) that I had waited all of my life to see. I took a deep breath, my nostrils full flare and filling up my lungs with as much of the brisk Roman air as I could take in. It smelled more like burning rubber and jet fuel than fresh air, but it was still marvelous. Then I realized I was causing an annoying jam while exiting the plane, so I continued on waddling down the stairs. Though there was a slight anxiousness in me that I couldn’t explain. Stark shadows of our figures cast long across the tarmac from the early morning sun just beginning to peak over the Roman umbrella pines in the distance.
I stopped into a bathroom once inside the Fuimicino airport terminal to change out of my spiffy clothes and throw on something much more normal for me (leather jacket, jeans, boots). Reading about a trick online that says it’s possible to get upgraded to first class if you dress nicely, I decided to give it a shot when checking into the airport in Bangkok before leaving for Rome.
Did the dress-nice-for-an-upgrade trick work?
Well, with a button up shirt on, a vest, dress pants, and schnazzy shoes, I approached the Sri Lanka air counter with confidence.
At first it didn’t seem like I was making any leeway with the girl at the counter. I was smiling. I complimented her. I asked her how her day was going. But all I received in return was business attitude. She went through the standard routine of asking me for my passport and credit card. She really didn’t even look up at me after the initial greeting I received. But, after putting my backpack on the weighing machine and cracking a few jokes, the barrier broke down finally.
“You look like a rock star.” she said and smiled.
I laughed, “I get that a lot.”
“Are you in a band” she asked.
“No, just a writer”
“Oh wow, so you have a book or something?” she asked.
“Not yet, but I write a blog though”
“Maybe I can read it sometime” she said.
So, of course feeling like a cool cat, I pulled out my wallet and I passed her my blog business card.
“This is my website if you want to read it”
“Okay I will. By the way, I moved you to seat 20H” she responded and flashed a smile.
With a thank you I walked away — a small bounce now in my stride. I had no clue what my seat was changed to, but she told me she had changed it. Could it be to first class? I’d only know when I boarded the plane.
Ultimately, it was not first class.
It was an aisle seat that allows you to just peek past the curtain and see the happy people donning suits in first class. I wondered whether first class seats while wearing dress pants gives you less of a wedgie.
So, either this was a failure at the attempt at an upgrade, or a victory. Though I was teased by seeing the “greener grass” ahead of me in first class the whole flight — she had also placed me in an exit row which gave me more space to stretch out my legs than I’ve ever had on a prior flight. And there was nobody in front of me to flop backward and crush my laptop.
After I was out of my stuffy suit I headed eagerly for the train that would take me into the heart of Rome. A great big green and white and red colored beast huffed and puffed on the platform waiting to take people into the city center. I nearly missed the train as I stood in front of a door waiting for it to open sesame, until someone pushed past me and pressed the button on the door to enter.
I would have totally missed that train otherwise.
We pulled out into the rural Roman countryside. Small farms and more Dr. Seuss-esque “truffula” pines flashed by while the occasional graffiti that was rebelling against the bland concrete buildings it was sprayed on broke up the views. An Italian flag flapped in the wind , except unlike the American flag in the United States, it would be the first and the last I saw that day.
As I sat on a fold-down seat by one of the doors, I scribbled observations in my leather journal. One observation was someone who I deemed The Man with Overblown Expectations. It can get exhausting having expectations about places you visit. Sometimes a city or a country can exceed expectations, and sometimes the expectations are crushed by disappointment. So I try not to have expectations, just an excitement from the mystery of a new and unknown place.
This is why I don’t read guide books about places I visit. It sets expectations for the place to be sunny and beautiful and that going there will be flawless. That isn’t really how travel is. So, instead, I wait until I arrive to really begin the experience, and whether or not it is good or bad, it isn’t influenced by an outside force. Usually at least.
Standing over me was The Man with the Overblown Expectations; flowy white buzzed hair, bushy eye-brows, tan pressed slacks and a golf shirt, giant Nascar-like glasses dominating he face. He had a gold watch on, alligator skin shoes with little gold plates on them. He looked uncomfortable standing in the crowd of strangers on the train. He had tucked himself into the corner near the doorway and strategically place his absurdly large rolling luggage as a barricade between himself and the rest of the car. His wife sat on her luggage with what seemed to be a permanent frown that had hardened over some years.
“Gardens. Gardens everywhere you look. Do you see these gardens?”
The train was now passing by older apartment complexes or smaller houses alongside the tracks that had little patches of flowers or vegetables sprouting in their back yards.
“Gardens. Do you see these?” he asked his wife.
“Gardens, yes, I see them” she said without looking, and obviously not as amused as him.
“We finally made it to Rome” He said with excitement.
It seems those small and not-so-Roman gardens had triggered it. And it made me glad I had not waited until I was much older to visit, even though I most likely had 1% of his budget to explore with.
I was excited as well, but peering out at that window I was observing something much different.
Life; the beauty and the bad. It seemed as though he was blind to this. Blinded by his expectations I believe. Everything had to be the way he imagined it to be. And however cookie-cutter perfect that may sound, that can take away from the unexpected joys and surprises. He refused to see anything in the landscape other than what he wanted, which I think takes away from the actual soul and life of a place. Its reality.
We passed through an area now lined with small tin-roofed shacks close to the train tracks; half rusted or half collapsing but fully occupied. Stained and tattered clothing hung on the clothes lines outside. Rusted bicycles lay unused and overgrown with weeds. Trash strewn across their yard which was a 5×5 patch of dirt surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire. I guess there wasn’t much neighborly love there. The tin shacks were half hidden by infertile corn stalks growing all around them.
“Oooh! Little balconies! Look honey, everyone has little balconies!” He said.
Apartment complexes with exteriors of faded paint rose up beyond the tin shacks which were hidden from view, except by a passing train like ours. They did have balconies, but had nothing distinctly Roman about them. Nothing out of the ordinary. The area more resembled pulling into Bangkok train station which had the same tin shacks lining the sides of the tracks with the dated high-rises behind.
“Balconies…wow. Beautiful” the man said under his breath.
The train screeched to a halt into the Roma Trastevere station. The station was shaded by a massive metal awning; pieces of the cracked and aged black paint has chipped away to show the rust beneath. The wrought-iron construct was adorned with twisted metal, spiral designs, and intricate hammered iron leaves — beautiful in its day surely, and beautiful in its decay still.
The Man with the Overblown Expectations seemed to quiet after a while as his wife was ignoring him and wearing her seemingly standard frown. But he still would whisper to himself in amazement at the cute hanging laundry and balconies. He didn’t ever mention the graffiti, or the people living on the side of the tracks, or how this landscape had shown centuries of the numerous rises and falls of this region.
After all, Rome is one of the most war-torn cities of the past 2,000 years.
We left the station and passed more embankments covered with the same infertile cornstalks like the ones that had hidden the tin houses before. Not producing anything, yet still growing. It made me think about how this region may have been a vast farmland in ancient Rome before the urban decay that has sprouted up all around.
It reminded me of when I was a little boy and would help my mother with the gardening.
We used to grow corn in a small patch of flat land at the bottom of a hill in our yard, and I used to help my mother tend to them. More like I would sneak newly ripened cherry tomatoes into my mouth. Over time after my parents split up, nobody planted anything there. Weeds grew, but still even without care those corn stalks sprouted each year to the dismay of my father. But infertile still, the only thing they could bear was the memories of a time past just like these alongside the tracks.
It began to seem as though we were passing through different decades as the train continued to close in on Rome. Through the 1920’s to the 1980’s, buildings with distinct styles for their era rose up around us. Some with the pre-war pastels, some with the cold-war staunchness.
We had been leaping forward through decades shown in a timeline of aging apartment complexes, and then history unraveled before me and we plunged back centuries.
Above us towered an ancient aqueduct, the first of its kind I had ever seen. Bricks nearly a third of the thickness used in modern construction, stacked perfectly upon each other and held together with mortar to a height above most buildings in the surrounding area.
We passed under one of the archways holding up this aqueduct and I marveled at how old the structure was, yet how dominating it was to the modern buildings around. That arch towering above was our gateway to the Eternal City as we crept into the Termini station.
Though I had stifled my expectations that had been building up since I was a very young boy, I couldn’t help but secretly hope that it was just as the books had made it look when I flipped through them at age 8.
Years and years of wandering the history sections of libraries and always finding myself pausing at the books about Rome. Years of hearing stories about Italy from other people who had visiting and thinking of Rome as a fantasy place. Something only in imagination and on pages. Years of that feeling of fernweh, the longing for a place I had never been.
Even though the train had just pulled into the city, the sight of that ancient aqueduct made it unbearable to hold back the excitement. I had a big ole’ cheesy smile on my face.
No longer was it just for books and stories and photos, for I had arrived in the Eternal City.
*The next part of my Rome series will be landing soon, so make sure to keep stopping by, or sign up for my weekly newsletter!*
How was it when you first came to the place you always dreamed of? Did it live up to your expectations, or like me, did you try not to have expectations? Share your story and your place of your dreams below!