I wrote this quite a few years ago, but worth republishing it.
After spending six beautiful weeks in Palermo, Sicily, I was ready to go back home to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Beautiful is really the only adjective that one can use to describe winter in south Italy.
After having spent the last two years in South East Asia with the temperature rarely going below 25 celsius, I was in a shock when I arrived, but other than that I found Palermo quite stunning, in its own flawed way. However, I’ve already written about that, and in this essay, I want to describe my brief experience of Rome.
One of the things that I love doing is finding positives out of negatives. I am a big believer in that life is what you make it, and that very few of us in the West have anything that truly resembles a terrible life – we just believe that we have.
The issue is that we always want more, even though, historically speaking, if you live in a developed country you are living in a type of luxury that very few human beings have ever experienced. To try and gain further appreciation of my own life, I am slowly trying to remove external luxuries that I deem cost too much for what they are worth.
So with these thoughts in my head, I took the absolutely cheapest flight I could find back to Cambodia. In this case, I saved around two hundred dollars, which was decent.
However, this did mean that I ended up booking a set of flights that would leave me stranded for around eight hours at Rome airport, which is fairly dreadful as far as places go. However, they do have a few grand pianos dotted around, which can provide entertainment. This is something that you would never see at a large functional airport like Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Doha.
But actually, this is a complete reflection of those countries compared to Italy. In Italy things don’t really work, there is a lot of chaos, but then you have these moments of wonder. The food, the architecture, the airports, all have their richness, their moments, and I believe that this is why Italy is one of the most visited countries of the world.
So, what to do at Rome airport for eight hours? I considered taking the first book of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and brushing up on my piano playing, but then I had the idea to actually visit the city of Rome, as I probably had enough time if I was quick and had no significant mishaps I wouldn’t miss my connecting flight. I could use some of those two hundred dollars that I had saved – the ones that actually caused my predicament in the first place.
I estimated that I would have around three hours to spend in the city before needing to head back to the airport to take my next flight to Doha, Qatar.
I’ve actually done this type of thing before, having spent 5 hours wandering the streets of Milan in the middle of the night in February 2013, and having the privilege of having the entire city to myself.
I am quite excited about going to Rome. It’s a mix of visiting a place I’ve never been to before, and also the about short time I will have there, and the small risk of missing my international flight.
There is always a type of nervousness about going somewhere new, I notice that in a banal manner with my cat in Italy.
She has always lived in the house and the terrace, and she absolutely dislikes being put outside the front door, and she will run straight back in, because it’s unfamiliar territory for her. This must surely have been an evolutionary advantage. Because things we are used to are safe, and things that are unknown may be dangerous. My cat knows that the furniture in the house will not start walking and eat her, but she has no idea what there will be outside.
The same goes for Rome. I’ve heard a few stories about pickpockets, but I’m not particularly worried. Nothing is likely to happen – I’m going to walk around, take a few photos, and then come back. Absolute worst case, if I get lost, I’ll get a taxi and get myself to the airport. If I miss my flight, I’ll just simply have to book another one. I decide not to let any of these superficial worries cloud the short time I have to spend in the city.
On The Train to Rome
Rome, which was perhaps the first city in history to reach a million citizens, has been sacked at least six times, and besieged several times more. Fortunately, the only thing I plan on taking away from Rome are some brief and superficial impressions on a couple of hours walking.
I wonder – how much of the city can I understand in a few hours? How long does one have to spend in a city to know it, or even simply to claim to have visited?
I then start to think and calculate about the relative costs of travelling.
It’s 15 euros for a 30-minute journey into Rome. I’ve paid 400 euros to get to the other side of the world essentially (Italy —> Cambodia). I’ve paid 6 euros to dump my hand luggage in a locker at the Airport.
This doesn’t quite add up.
I am paying 50 cents per minute on the train, as it’s a 30-minute journey, while for my flights – that have a total flight time is 15 hours – it works out at around 44 cents an hour, so that means flying is relatively cheaper than this train, and better value too. I’m feeling a little discontented about being ripped off about the train, but I console myself with the thought that at least I can see Rome because it only takes 30 minutes to arrive and that a taxi would have probably been around 50 euros. These trains don’t operate on the same volume as international airline companies, and so I start to think that perhaps it’s not such a bad deal.
However, the luggage deposit room at Rome at 6 euros per 24 hour period, costs around 4 cents a minute, around 1/10th of an airplane journey, which also doesn’t seem to make sense. Think about it, all that engineering, the centuries of people looking at birds flying in the sky and wondering how to replicate it, the several hundred tons of metal and fuel and plastic that make up a plane, two highly trained pilots, and all the supporting staff and maintenance required to keep it going, and it costs only ten times the price of a locker at the airport.
A locker, something that in one form or another has been around for centuries. In defense of the humble locker, there is a particular responsibility required. I am entrusting my possessions to a stranger, I need to have the trust that everything will be there when I come back. Again, this trust is something that one also needs to have in airliners, and in fact in almost everything in life.
Also, I start to think about how books are incredibly cheap, and often they work at 1 dollar or euro per hour, and that’s just the initial reading. You then you still own it and can read it again and again, or even sell it on. I find that many books I own are not just cheap, but they are also priceless, because how much value can we put on being able to access the thoughts, memories, and opinions of some of the greatest minds that have ever lived?
Glancing out the window on my relatively expensive 30-minute journey didn’t lead to anything worth mentioning, except regarding the fact that there was nothing worth mentioning. I saw a few squalid suburbs with the those dreadful soviet-style 1960s apartment blocks, and none of what you normally associate with Rome – the monuments, the beautiful churches, and the large piazzas. That would come later in my trip.
What is worth mentioning, is how we manage to almost trick ourselves regarding our expectations of visiting a certain place. I had never been to Rome, and my vision was that of a typical postcard from Rome, and a few memories I have from watching Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn.
“I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.” Augustus
Rome is a stunning city.
That much was clear in my short stay. I’ve heard that the suburbs aren’t as great as the centre, and I had a glimpse of that during my train ride in. I found it quite exciting to go to a city where for many centuries there was the epicenter of culture, as well as a political and military power. It was also the home of many great philosophers, and it was nice imagining that during my three hour walk I may have walked along some of the same roads as they did.
Again, I wonder how much one can understand a city in just a few hours. Obviously, any understanding must be superficial by its very nature, but I did make an effort to read the history of Rome before I arrived, hoping to be able to arm myself with the knowledge that would help me appreciate what I would visit.