Memoirs from Greece and Italy
By Tyler Domecq
That drive to the airport is always nerve-racking. It’s at this point all those voices in the back of your head really begin to manifest.
“What are you thinking, getting up so early? Just go back to sleep.”, they whisper, “You didn’t even attempt to learn enough Greek for this trip. You packed too many sport-coats, they’re taking up all your luggage space”.
“You’ve done this before without any problems.”, I internally rebuttal back, “and besides, it’s Rome I’m going to, not Flagstaff. It’s much more common to be sartorially inclined there. At least you won’t be mistaken as your average American tourist.”
I try to focus on the trip at hand. Whenever I think of Rome, I imagine myself riding on a Vespa to the colosseum; like in Roman Holiday. Even though I know I’m not Gregory Peck, and that my chances of having a day of harmless mischief with a British princess are pretty slim, I like to remain an optimist about my odds (I’d even be willing to risk my hand in the Mouth of Truth if the opportunity arised).
I’ve always seen Athens as an eternal archeological dig, where the new and old mutually coincide. I see a city where ruins triumphantly stand on a towering hill, impervious to the corrosion of time and circumstance. It’s here where Plato, Socrates and some of the other greatest western philosophers have pondered some of the most difficult questions humanity has asked itself during its existence.
It seems surreal that I’m only a plane-ride away. Soon enough, I’ll be within walking distance of the Acropolis, and then the Vatican a week later. You start becoming familiar with these places in elementary school, and you see them around in countless films and pictures. However, there’s always a certain amount of mystic whenever you mention a place like the Pantheon. It’s easy to forget that these are real, concrete locations. Artistic geniuses like Michelangelo have spent some of their most formative years working in these very locations. It’s a truly humbling thought to be in the presence of such company.
The car motor then dies. My mom, with her ever-encouraging smile, looks back at me with bittersweet eyes. She took this trip much better than when I when I declared I was going to Prague and Vienna last year.
“You be careful out there.” Her eyes water slightly.
“Don’t worry, I promise.”
I re-frame from rebutting that I have done this before, and that she shouldn’t be so worried, as I don’t want to damper the farewell.
“Love you. Send lots of pictures!”
“I will. Love you too.”
With one last heartfelt hug, the car drives away. For a moment, I just want to let the voices take over, chase after that SUV, and beg to be driven back. However, my feet start moving in autopilot towards the right direction. I find myself going through the automatic doors of Sky-Harbor, and making my first steps towards the trip I have been expecting since mid-December.
It’s not every-day that you get an in-depth history lesson of Nafplio from a sage Rolex dealer, but yesterday was an exception. My roommate, Sam, and I had been wandering the historical area of the city when we had stumbled upon a cozy watch shop. A faint silhouette appeared to be scuttering inside. Sam knocked on the door.
“Are you open?”, he asked.
The silhouette entered the light, revealing itself to be a man with greying hair and a fuzzy moustache.
“I am now.”, the man responded.
He then pointed to Sam’s shirt. “You’re from Indiana, yes?”.
Sam looked down and grins, “No, Arizona actually.”
“Oh, I went to school there.”
“How did you end up in Nafplio…Mr.?”, I just realized that I had not asked for his name.
Luckily, he picked up on that. “Just call me Demetrius. I have family in the States and here.”
We asked him what he enjoys the most about Nafplio. He then proceeded to walk outside of his store. We followed behind, shell-shocked by the candidness of our new guide.
Once outside, he pointed up at an ancient stamp above his door.
“This town was once Venetian.”, he said, “The letters up there are not Greek.”
He then pointed towards an ivory building with a terrace. “That building over there used to be the town hall.”
He then paused.
“Do you know who the Prime Minister of Switzerland is?”
We shrug no.
“That’s because there is no Prime Minister of Switzerland. Now the Swiss, they were very clever people. They stayed out of wars, and instead worked on becoming very rich. Ioannis was also a clever man. He wanted to model the Greeks after the Swiss.”
Demetrius went back into the store. He then proceeded to explain how Kapodistrias Ioannis wanted to free the Greeks from the Ottomans. According to popular legends, Ioannis wanted to introduce potatoes into the local agriculture to help better feed his people. However, the people of Greece were hesitant to buy any of the imported produce. So, he came up with a scheme. The traders dumped a giant pile of potatoes onto the dock, and put several “security guards” there to protect the produce, making it seem valuable. However, the guards were intentionally bad at their job, and made it easy for any passerby to steal the potatoes for themselves. Soon enough, potatoes were being grown within Greece.
After his re-telling of the legend, Demetrius pulled out a print-out. “This here will tell you everything you need to see and visit while here. It’s pretty solid for being a tourist guide. It has good, local food.”
He glanced over it before handing it to me. “Shit, I printed the same page on both sides.”
He printed out a new page, and stapled it to the opposing side. We thanked Demetrius for his time, and said our farewell, before heading back into the city.
Rome Arrival Scene
My eyes apathetically lull around the room. Time seems to meander around me in a bubble, as I am forced to be sedentary amongst the bustling chaos in front of me. Tourist, in their stingy-brimmed summer-hats, floral shirts and over-stuffed backpacks dart around the entrance of the airport; attempting to reach their location in a timely manner. However, I must wait for a handful of overwhelmed flight attendants to handwrite-handwrite-luggage receipts for a plethora of students. I have been conscious since four in the morning, and it seems like I have an eternity in purgatory to go before I can ever set foot in the Eternal City.
I wait…and wait…and wait. A flight attendant beckons her arm rapidly towards me. With my passport and euros already in my hand, I attempt to hand them off. She doesn’t look down at them.
“The luggage will be forty euro.”
“I already know.”
She glances down and nods. I see D-O-M-E-C-Q, A-T-H-E-N-S and R-O-M-E ticked into each box. I scurry away the second she hands the receipt back to me.
I sleep-walk into customs/security, and toss everything I have into two bins. I leave my bins within an arm’s reach of a security officer, who has sharp eyes and a patchy beard. I walk up to the metal detector and wait for instructions. The officer stares blankly at me. I go through and wait for my bag on the other side. It does not appear. I stare at the conveyor a bit longer. It still does not appear. I stare at the officer again. He quips something in Italian at me. I walk back over to him. His eyes narrow when he recognizes that I do not speak the language.
“Never leave your bag unattended.” Apparently unattended means not physically carrying your bags at all times in Italy.
I stare blankly back.
He gestures his fingers towards his eyes.
“It is your responsibility if something gets stolen.” How would anything get stolen? The damn thing is right under your nose.
He looks me up and down.
“Do you have any electronics on you?”
“How about a belt?”
I lift up my waistcoat to prove my innocence. He waves me off.
“Go through again.”
I return to the other side. My bag shows up.
My twirling stomach has the same effect on me as a shrieking alarm clock. The cabin is held hostage by the whim of the turbulence. Each tremor makes my imagination run wild. I think of how quickly I would die if one more fatal bump finally does this tin-bucket in. I just want to see Rome. Or eat. Food sounds good. My soul nearly regurgitates out of my body with a rapid drop in elevation. I have to grab my armrest. This gets me a dirty look from a nappy-hair Italian man sitting next to me. My stomach then growls. I just want food.
Time proceeds to meander yet again, despite my forced second wind. A thirty-minute taxi ride, a breathing taking view of St. Peter’s basilica, a fifteen-minute wait to get in the apartment, a fifteen-minute tour of said apartment all pass me by, but all I can think of is food. I try to visit La Caletta. Closed for Siesta. How about Goose? Closed for Siesta. Hey, a random pizza place. Not closed for Siesta. Cool. I order a margarita pizza the moment I am handed a menu (since I know they’ll at least have that). It arrives. I take a bite. The pizza tastes heavenly. The crust is thin, but good. The sauce is sweet-sweeter than in the States. The cheese is crisp. Then it finally hits me. I’m eating pizza in Rome-Rome.My mood improves with each bite.
“I don’t get make-up.”, Delaney, a self-proclaimed greasy blonde-boy, adamantly confesses to a Sephora agent with a prominent beauty mark, “Could you actually make me look like a girl?”
The agent grabs her brushes. “Where do you want me to start?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.”
Rebecca grins and flashes me one of those mischievous glances that constantly contradicts her otherwise prim features.
Just a moment ago, I was explaining the difference between a straw and felt hat on the Spanish Steps after visiting Borsalino, and the next I’m spectating a make-over; out of my element. I’ve only had to wear stage make-up a handful of times in my life, and the only time I’ve ever tried to apply it to myself, I looked more like The Joker than I did Torvald Helmer, the possessive banker.
Honestly, I was just happy that Delaney made a decision on what we were going to do today, for once.
“Tyler, lead. Where are we going?”, She’d ask.
I’d shrug and pull out my phone, “I don’t know, let me see what’s around here.” I have no issues making decisions on what to do, but it requires a bit more brain power and initiative, and I really have no agenda today. I shrugged my way through lunch, the Pantheon, Trevi and finally to the Steps. I tend to walk quickly when I led, so I have Rebecca and Delaney a step or two behind me wherever we go. They would usually be talking about depression, family dynamics, past relationships and such, and I’d turn around and chip-in whenever I had something of note to say.
As I try to figure out where the exact spot of where Peck and Hepburn in Roman Holiday would have been standing, I see Delaney staring across the street.
“Do you guys want to go into Safora?”
Rebecca looks over at me, “Do you want to go in there?”
Rebecca and I watch as the agent blends and tweaks a barrage of powders and creams. “She’s starting to look a bit like us.”, Rebecca quips.
“Shut-up, Mom.”, Delaney retaliates back at her adopted Roman parents.
The agent looks over in complete confusion. I barely know what’s going on.
The finishing touches are added, as the agent cast one last approving glance. Our grease-ball has been all polished up. Her complexion is now uniform, and the blush in her cheeks accentuates her bone structure. She even straightened her hair and is wearing a loosely cut black dress.
Rebecca rest her head on top of Delaney’s.
“How do you feel, hun?”
“A little less like crap.”, She mutters. Under the sharpness of her voice, there is an undercurrent of elation. She’d never admit it to us, but I think she was happier about the fact that she was able to stand-up for something she wanted to do; more-so than how her contour turned out. We then thanked the agent and made our way to the nearest metro.
“Knifes at cooking classes are too dull.” I think to myself while repeatedly smashing the tomatoes in front of me, making a mess. The words of Andrea, our head chef, echo through my mind, “I’m not Jesus Christ.”. My station is right next to the doorway between the kitchen and pasta section. I have to move every-time someone passes by me. I focus more on ensuring that I’m not in anyone’s way, more-so than on futilely attempting to salvage my food.
I then look over at Emma. Instead of making tomato soup, I see that her tomatoes are all freshly diced. She adds them into the pot. I ping of jealousy radiates through me for a spilt second.
Luckily, Nisha comes to the rescue. She glances around the kitchen, looking for a section. I step away from the table.
“Want to cut tomatoes?”, I ask.
I then B-line for the restroom. The water feels heavenly. It washes away my tomato-filled misfortunes. I then pick up on Delaney's and Matt’s voice from the pasta section.
“Matt, those suck.”
“Those are Tyler’s, not mine.”
I sneak up behind Matt.
“Making fun of my work?”
Matt jumps. “No, I…if it makes you feel any better, mine aren’t any good either.” I look over at his pasta. It looks better.
I give a diffusing smile. “Don’t worry, I’m only teasing.” Matt’s shoulders ease.
I then figure that I’ll be more productive moving pasta onto treys. One-two-three trays later, the food is nearly ready. Everyone in the pasta section is finished. We’re now just waiting for the kitchen helpers to call it a day. Slowly, our additional members return, until we have just Tony, our final missing member, strutting in.
The Borchetta is brought out. I nearly bite into the bread before everyone else is served, ignoring all of my mother’s lectures on table manners, but common-sense kicks in.
After a toast, I am finally able to take a bite into the Borchetta. The tomatoes are sliced thinly. I smile, grateful that there are better chefs than me in the world.
“The greatest pizza in the world”; talk about high expectations. There are a handful of meals that a majority of Americans will frequently have in their lives. Hamburgers, sandwiches, and, of course, pizza will be at the top of almost everyone’s list. That makes for an extensive pool to pull from when deciding what is “the best”. As I’m staring back at the cartoonized version of Don Michelle, I don’t see how this man can even put up a fight. I’ve seen prettier pizzas. His cheese is only slightly mixed into the sauce, and is topped by a little basil.
I also had to put up quite a fight to get to this point. The line into his small shop was nearly a block long. When I finally entered the restaurant, I was greeted by an elderly man with piercing blue eyes and an apathetic look on his face.
“I would like a margarita pizza please, maiximo.” I asked.
“No, Italiano.” He responded.
“Non parlo Italiano.”
His expression does not change. I freeze for a second.
“Yo quiro un pizza de Mararita maximo, por favor.”
This is a first. I’ve never had someone not take my money because I didn’t speak the same language as them. I stand there in a panic. I just want pizza, and the colossal line is starting to glare at me. Luckily, a younger woman (with raven hair) standing in front of me turns around and quickly sputters something in Italian to him. The old man nods, and hands me a receipt. I give her the widest smile I can muster.
The line for take-out was like one you’d expect from In-And-Out during rush hour, that is, if it was on steroids. I have to wait off to the side of their woodstove oven, and either push or be pushed to keep my spot. I see Jake, who was behind me, get handed his pizza. Apparently, the workers at Don Michelle just memorize your order. It’s at this point my panic reaches a peak. What if they forgot my order? Did I just go through all of this for nothing? I have a train to catch in 45 minutes. I just want pizza.
Then it happened. A baby-faced angel of a worker motioned for my receipt. I hand it off, and want to give the man a holy blessing, but a simple “grazicia” will have to do. I storm away, pizza in hand, from that hellhole, and try to find David. Across the street, the man with the plan has already claimed two tables next to a convenient store. Delaney, Rebecca, Starla and Matt sit beside him, like disciples in the Last Supper. I skip over to their table.
“I’m so excited for this pizza. It’s going to be so good.” Matt exclaims. He says that about every meal, but this time, it seems to be fitting. I stare down Don one last time, and take a bite.
My doubts melt away. Though there only may be three parts (bread, tomatoes and cheese) to it, they play so perfectly well off each other, that it really doesn’t matter. The dough is dipped in olive oil, and has a hearty amount of flavor, without overwhelming your taste-buds. The sauce is, like all sauces in Italy, sweet, but this one almost seems like sugar. The cheese is only an accent piece, but it delivers one last, compact, sharp punch before bringing the sensation to an end.
I’m shoveling everything with my hands. I know I look uncivilized at the moment, but I just don’t care right now. All I care about is this pizza that…is now gone. I stare, crestfallenly, at the shell that was once Don Michelle. David glances over.
“You know you can order another one, right?”
I look at my phone. Panic begins to seep through me again. My train leaves in twenty minutes.
“I’ve got a train to catch.”
I give everyone a quick hug, and briskly walk towards the station. I am leaving full, but, greedily, I wish I could have another round with the greatest pizza in the world.
Inevitably, my night strolls will always contain a trip to the Vatican. The place is unavoidable for me, as my closest friends from the trip live on the North side of the Basilica, and the fastest way to get from my apartment to any of theirs is by cutting straight through the holy grounds. During the day, its appeal can sometimes be lost by the swarms of tourist, with their constant need for pictures and guidance from their umbrella-holding guides (or the street vendors who try to make a quick buck off of selling novelty trinkets like selfie-sticks). However, the area surrounding the Basilica re-gains the spiritual prowess that it should command (and deserves) at night.
The ivory building has a striking backlight in the late-evening. Everything feels safe-tranquil even-despite the fact that military caravans and numerous squatters patrol the walls. The gleam hints at the irreplaceable treasures that are stashed within it. At night, you can imagine the allure it had for someone like Raphael, who sought to effortlessly upstage the countless masters who had the misfortune of having to paint within the general domain of his work, or Michelangelo who taxingly labored on the rafters of the Sistine; in order to prove that he could create the impossible. Every piece in the Vatican tells a different story. Each one of the stories, however, have a unifying theme; they prove that true beauty can be brought into the world with enough foresight and ambition.
My grandfather is an architect who also prides himself on the beauty of his work. I remember seeing him in his studio as a child, meticulously sketching out his drafts. He would only come to the dinner table once he felt completely satisfied with his progress. My father, too, is like this. Every night, he will work from dawn till dusk on projects, and will only kick himself if he feels there was more he could have done.
When I look back on my time in Rome, I hope that I can forever capture that feeling of strength and self-assurance that the Vatican gives me. I also hope that when I reach the twilight of my life, I too will have built a legacy that is as moving and beautiful as any of these sanctuaries in my life; both from the outside, and from within.
All a Part of Me
Although the ingredients of life are universal, the location in which they are fostered give them each their own unique style and flavor. This change of pace can make even the simplest of task seem extraordinary. Whether it be offerings of lemon cake at Savouras, the siestas at three o’clock in the afternoon, or the mysterious pulleys added into every bathroom, you are forced to re-evaluate how you treat everything when you arrive in a foreign land. Perhaps that’s the most rewarding part of traveling. As great as the Acropolis, Colosseum and Pantheon are to visit, they only make up a fraction of someone’s journey. What is more memorable are the things you don’t expect to see, like the shady knife safety instructor giving lessons in the middle of the National Park, the child street performer who collects coins out of a storm drain with a piece of gum attached to a stick, or the taxis that for some reason feel the need to claim that they are a “real taxi” before you enter them. When you decide to go half-way around the world, you simply can’t predict these sorts of encounters. Yet, these moments give you stories that you would have otherwise never been able to pull from. Perhaps that’s the beauty of traveling; you are forced to be more observant, as everything is foreign. This shift in perspective allows you to see the world as it should be seen; as a sloppy, fun mess to wade through.
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