We stepped off the bus at Termini, and I looked around confused. It felt like we were in a small city inside of a big city. I saw building after building after building, but not one of them would be considered a skyscraper. I don't think I'd ever been in a downtown area without a skyscraper.
The good news was, as soon as we made our way through the Aurelian walls, retro Miami was far behind us. The walls themselves were jaw-dropping. I didn't know it at the time, but the walls were built in 275 AD. And to think I'd been impressed that the Prospect of Whitby had been around since the 1500s. Cayden was right. I had no idea what I was in for.
I didn't see the Colosseum or the narrow cobblestone roads, but I couldn't put into words what I did see. It was like Brooklyn meets Notting Hill meets the movie set of Spartacus rewound more than 2,500 years ago. Dark green ivy crept up the sides of four-story apartment buildings with pizzerias and gelaterias on the bottom floor. Cars were everywhere, merging where there was no room to merge, driving practically on top of each other. At one point I thought a car had actually merged underneath out bus. Pedestrians risked their lives crossing the street, despite the green running man indicator saying it was safe to walk.
Cayden and I stood there gazing around as cars and buses flew past us.
"Hungry? Let's grab some food and then find our hotel," he said, taking my hand.
My stomach growled in response. I didn't even realize I was hungry. I'd ordered a bagel with cream cheese and a coffee at Stansted Airport, but the cream cheese tasted a little... expired.
We waited for a small gap in the traffic before we darted across the street. Cayden's backpack abused my shoulders as I ran. We'd switched bags because my shoulder bag I was so proud of turned out to be a lot more stylish than comfortable. I had a strap-width bruise forming on my collarbone and another one on my upper thigh where my bag set. Damn the bag. Damn my deteriorating boots. Damn wanting to look nice for Cayden.
I was so enthralled with my surroundings I hadn't stopped to notice the weather. It must have been 60 degrees and sunny. Quite a change from cold, wet, 35-degree London we'd just left. We stripped our coats off and headed into a nearby cafe.
Cayden ordered coffee for us and then we drooled as we stared through the glass case of pastries. I saw croissants the size of my head, filled with oozing yellow cream; square, flakey pastries covered in powdered sugar and drizzled in chocolate; long, twisty pastries sparkling with thick sugar crystals and jam ribbons.
"Which one do you want," Cayden asked, his nose inches away from the glass.
"I can't decide," I said, not taking my eyes off the display case.
We chose two at random, thankful that "latte and americano" and pointing were enough to get us by.
We chose a small table outside in the sun and settled down for our first breakfast in Rome.
One look at my latte and I remembered it was Valentine's Day.
"Happy Valentine's Day, baby," Cayden said with a mouthful of pastry.
"I still can't believe we're in Rome," I said, taking his hand from across the table. He ran his thumb back and forth across my knuckles. "Valentine's in Rome. How did this happen?"
Cayden laughed and shook his head. He took a sip of his coffee and said, "This is the last place I ever thought I'd be on Valentine's Day." He held the coffee cups an inch away from his lips as he spoke, as if he didn't want to waste a second of the deep, fresh coffee smell.
Long after we finished eating, we were still sitting there. There were very few things we loved doing more than people-watching. I listened to them talk as the passed by our table, trying to decipher who was speaking what language. We held hands sat quietly, relaxing while the sun burned through our shirts.
"Baby, I think I'm going to get a sunburn," Cayden said, readjusting his sunglasses.
"Well, then we better get you indoors!" I said. "Let's go find our hotel and ditch these bags so we don't look like such tourists."
Cayden pulled out and unfolded the standard Visitor's Map of Rome. It may as well have had a sign on the back that said, "Steal my wallet. I'm a tourist!"
Termini was the main station that connected the two subway lines. With my New York subway experience and Cayden's London tube experience, we were positive we could dominate the subway system without getting lost.
We walked around the subway station, following the signs to the blue line headed toward Laurentina.
"We need to find tickets somewhere," Cayden said, more to himself than me.
"What the hell does biglietteria mean? Big little something?" The word made me laugh. We rounded another corner and saw it again. I laughed again. I decided my lack of sleep had made me delirious.
"That word is everywhere and it cracks me up," I told Cayden when he looked at me cautiously out of the corner of his eye.
Turns out, biglietteria meant Ticket Counter. Jackpot.
We bought our 4-day unlimited passes for 16 euros each and followed the signs to the blue train line.
When the subway pulled up, I gawked. "Holy beautiful," I said, as I admired the detailed artwork.
Not at all what I was expecting, but it was beautiful.
We got off at Marconi and asked the woman behind the information booth for directions to Hotel Area. We were sure if she fully understood us, but in broken English she responded, "Cross the street, go left, and walk about 5 minutes. You'll see it."
My feet throbbed and ached and pulsed. My collerbones felt raw where the backpack straps touched them. And my lack of sleep hit me like a ton of bricks. I tried not to complain, but minutes into our walk I started limping. I was sweating. The sun was beating down on us. My bag felt heavier with every step.
There were no sidewalks. We walked through a gas station lot.
"Are you sure she knew where out hotel was? Haven't we been walking longer than five minutes?" I asked. I was trying not to complain but I suddenly had sympathy for anyone who underwent Chinese Foot Binding.
"If it's not up around here, we'll turn around."
It was so quiet. We were away from the city. Once we passed the gas station, all we saw was green. The trees were massive. Anthony Doerr had talked about the trees a lot in Four Seasons in Rome but I hadn't understood what he was talking about until then.
"There! I see a sign!" A hint of relief in his voice told me that he, too, had no idea where we were.
I hobbled alongside Cayden and wrapped my arm through his. Half of the gesture was romantic, the other half was purely for support. I tried to keep the wince off my face with each step.
The hotel was surrounded by every kind of tree I could imagine, aside from a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. They were massive and green and beautiful. We stopped and stared up at the sun shining through them.
"Are we still in Rome?" I asked.
"I'm not quite sure," Cayden responded.