Posts Tagged With: Italy

Travel Journal: Cafés that Won’t Serve Coffee

In contrast to Naples, everyone told me I was going to just love Venice. I spent one night in Florence where I participated in a “Tour of Italy” dinner. It was by far the best food I had in Italy but I also met an American couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They had just come from Venice and were raving about it.

“You’ll just love Venice. There are no cars. Florence has so many cars!”

“I can’t wait for you to go to Venice; the seafood is to die for!”

“Really, you’re just going to love it. Everyone walks everywhere and no one is in a hurry.”

And so on.

I had high hopes for Venice. Because I am not a bazillionaire I stayed outside of the city. I accidentally got off at the right train station. My ticket was for the station right outside the city but I got off at Venice- Mestre, because it said Venice and the girl sitting across from me got off. I’m a sheep; what can I say? Fortunately, it happened to be the neighborhood in which my hotel was located. Lucky coincidence that saved me about 45 minutes of public transportation time. But it also meant I arrived three hours before I was allowed to check in.

I checked TripAdvisor (of course) to find a highly-rated restaurant to hang out in. There was one right next door! I told the waitress to bring me whatever she had. And this is what I got:IMG_2591

I still don’t know what everything was but you better believe I ate every bit. I wasn’t even sure how to go about eating it and my mom’s helpful advice via Facebook messenger was “chew and swallow”. Thanks mom.

After checking in and a short nap, I took a 45-ish minute bus to the city of Venice. I’d scheduled a free walking tour for 5:00pm and it was in the middle of the city. I put the coordinates into Google maps on my phone and off I went through

 

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli made completely out of marble

the city, over bridges after bridge until I came to a water taxi port. I told Google I only wanted to walk but it didn’t listen. I was running a bit late and there was no way I could back track to a bridge across the Grand Canal (also at this point I wasn’t sure those actually existed) and make it to the meeting point. I bought the 7€50 ticket for a 10 minute ride along the Grand Canal. Upon reaching the other side, I ploughed through masses of tourists, following the winding blue line on my phone until I reached a plaza where a small American girl in glasses waited with a sign “Venice Free Walking Tour” and a tablet to check people in.

The walking tour was great for several reasons. 1. It was free. 2. We went to non-touristy places. 3. Our guide, Shannon, (while American and therefore not authentic J) knew the history and had special anecdotes to add. 4. Our guide, Shannon, was American and therefore spoke great English!

Upon Shannon’s advice, when the tour ended I went out for cicchetti at a small restaurant. Cicchetti are like Venetian tapas. Cicchetti is the plural. One is called a cicchetto (according to Wikipedia). Then it was the bus back to my hotel.

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Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute (1630)

The next day I made sure to buy a full day water taxi pass for 20€, an absolute steal considering the price for one ticket. First, I headed over to St. Mark’s Basilica, arguably the most famous site in Venice. The first building was begun in 828 when some Venetian merchants stole the relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. The horses of Saint Mark-Lysippos are fairly well known as well. They were apparently looted during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Then Napoleon stole them in 1797, but they were returned in 1815. Now they’re kept inside the basilica. The outside is adorned with replicas.

Funny history lesson, but I never got to see the inside. I waited in line in the campo for 30 minutes. There was the old man who was so sneaky. I saw him start maybe 10 people behind me and he just worked his way up the line, standing close to the people beside him, seemingly in their group. I was totally on to his game by the time he made it up to me, but he just kept looking straight ahead, walking in his slow, old-man way. By the time he made it to the door of the Basilica, he was about 15 people in front of me!

I had packed for the day with a small Camelback backpack. Like the smallest you can buy. I had my wallet, phone and a bottle of water. Ladies in front and behind me are carrying giant, beach-going purses. No problem! But me, with my tiny little backpack. Nope! The Venetian St. Mark’s guardsmen takes one look at the straps over my shoulders and tells me no, I cannot enter with a backpack. That’s it. I was dismissed.

But I stood rooted to my spot, holding up the ever-increasing line. Excuse me?!? What am I supposed to do? He points to a small sign with some line you’re supposed to follow around to the other side of the church for a bag check. It was not at all clear. And then I would have to wait in line again?!? You can’t even take pictures inside. I think not! Now the nice American couple told me I just had to go inside and see the mosaics, but really. Rude. And dumb.

The only thing I will give St. Mark’s is that it was there for the first time in Italy that I saw a depiction of the risen Christ. Right over the door was the mosaic pictured below:IMG_2662

I had started to think Italian Catholics had forgotten that Jesus rose from the dead, given all the art with him either as an infant, or on the cross, or dead in Mary’s arms. At least the artist of Saint Mark’s remembered that we Christians serve a Risen Savior. But that’s all I give that basilica. Otherwise, they made me so mad!

After my rude dismissal, I marched over to the water that would take me to Murano, the island of glass. All glassmakers were moved to this island in 1201 because of the many fires that had been caused by their workshops on the main island of Venice. Once I arrived, I watched a glass making demonstration, paid far too much for some necklaces out of the showroom and then went to the island of Burano.IMG_2690

Burano is known for it’s lace, brightly colored houses and for me, it’s rude café servers. After a rough morning, not being allowed into St. Mark’s and then walking around a bunch, I was pretty tired and wanted a coffee. I’d already eaten lunch on Murano, so I thought Burano deserved my coffee patronage. In the main plaza, I sat unobtrusively at a café, Trattoria Café Vecio, to be precise. It was cute place in a nice location looking over all of the brightly painted houses. The server approached me and asked if I was going to be ordering lunch. No, I replied, I’d just like some coffee.

We don’t serve coffee.

I craned me neck around the server to where I could see the wall decorated with paintings of coffee beans and signs, in English, saying “Coffee”.

That’s weird, I said, your signs seem to indicate otherwise.

Well, he replied, we don’t serve coffee right now. It’s lunchtime.

(It was 2:30pm)

If you want coffee you can come back at 4:00.

Are you kidding me right now?!? I didn’t say that. What I actually did was stand up, walk 5 feet away and look them up on TripAdvisor where I gave a scathing review. I mean, if there was a queue, people just dying to get Trattoria Café’s lunch, and I had taken the seat of some couple that would have paid the 20€ a plate prices, then fine. But the place was far from full!

Ok, I get it Venice. You get 27 million tourists a year. We probably annoy you a bit. But also, we are your paycheck. Not cool, Venice, not cool.

So Venice is pretty amazing. It’s mesmerizingly beautiful. The history is incredible. But be prepared for café’s that don’t serve coffee, unidentifiable seafood and backpack-discriminating churches.

One last interesting fact. The last part of my day was visiting the Jewish ghetto. The word “ghetto” actually comes from the Venetian dialect. It was the first ghetto and was created in 1516- so this year it is 500 years old. The Jewish population who still lives there is quite small, but I did find out that you can buy Murano glass a lot cheaper there than on the island of Murano!

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Bridge to the Ghetto

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Travel Journal: Why are there no toilet seats in Naples?

I must admit that I did not plan or research a lot before coming to Italy. Internet is expensive on the islands and I didn’t have the time, what with packing, saying goodbyes, endless ceremonies, etc. But I am not one of those people that can just show up in a city and blow around from here to there like tumbleweed. I am Type-A after all. So my planning consisted of choosing four cities: Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice, booking my hostels/hotels and buying train tickets.

Why those cities? Because I’d heard of them. Really, it’s as simple as that. I’ve heard of a lot of cities in Italy but those were the first ones that popped into my head. My aunt, who’d visited Italy last year, warned me off Naples the day I arrived in Rome. This was our Facebook conversation:

Me: I’m doing Italy alone. I fly into Rome, then I’ll travel to Naples, Florence and Venice. I fly from Venice to Paris.

Her: Okay well I would skip Naples if I were you. That’s the only place Rachel and I didn’t even feel safe together. Sorrento is gorgeous and safe and we would have stayed there instead if we had known.

Me: I’ve already got stuff booked in Naples and I’m really excited about seeing Pompeii. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Her: No worries but please please do be careful you definitely don’t want to be out at night alone I hope you meet some other Travelers on the way. We met a number of girls traveling alone but never there.

I put this conversation out of my mind while I was in Rome but on the hour-long train ride down to Naples I started researching on my phone. I ran across articles titled, “Why No One Wants to Travel to Naples” and “Naples: Italy’s Scariest City”. By the end of my train ride, I was quite convinced I would witness a murder before exiting the train station and I would definitely be mugged on my way to the hostel.

Stepping down from my safe train compartment, I held my luggage close and clutched my purse under my armpit. Every passerby was mafia with a nefarious gleam in his or her eye. Every child was a pickpocketer. I bustled through the train station as quickly as possible, considering what I had on my person to use as a weapon. Waiting for the metro, I ran through scenarios in my head. What would I do if someone came at me with knife? What if I was surrounded by a Vespa gang and they demanded my backpack? Thoughts swirled and fear raged.

I made it to my metro stop with no incidents. As I furtively glanced at my fellow passengers, they didn’t look particularly menacing. Not menacing, but I did notice a definite style change from the sophistication of black-clad Roman women. Entering the street from underground, I was assaulted with the sight of a large, hairy potbelly peaking out from a stained white shirt on a man standing in my path. Girls walked by with ripped jeans and badly dyed hair. Whatever else might be said, la mode of Napoli is far more grunge and laissez-faire than Rome.

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Typical Street in Naples

I immediately noticed the graffiti. It was everywhere. There was also a distinct smell- urine mixed with marijuana- that permeated the city streets. It actually reminded me a bit of New York City.

Google maps directed me the 0.2 miles to my hostel, aptly named Giovanni’s Home (as the hostel was housed in the apartment of a Neapolitan man named Giovanni). Naples is very hilly so my journey to the hostel took me down a hill, up a hill and down another. I arrived at the hostel sweating and sore. Despite the temperature gage that told me Naples was colder than Rome at 62 degrees (16.6 Celsius), it felt much hotter. Giovanni was waiting for me on the porch of his 3rd story apartment.

“Jessie!” he called down when I was still about 200 meters down the road, “Jessie! Up here!”

I was buzzed into the complex and helped to the third floor with my luggage. Giovanni bustled around showing me the bathrooms, kitchen, common area and the bedroom I would share with seven other girls. I, thank goodness, was given a bottom bunk. He told me to rest; he was waiting on some more arrivals at which point he would give us all a presentation about Naples.

Half an hour later, I sat across from Giovanni, wedged in between three Spanish girls and a British couple. Giovanni laid a map before us and began highlighting all of the things we must see, the streets we must walk and the places we must avoid. For particularly notable attractions, he pulled up pictures on his computer.

Well aware of the reputation his city has, he took some of the presentation time to give us crime statistics. Barcelona is the number one city in the world for pickpocketing. Paris, Rome, and Florence are in the top ten. Naples doesn’t have such a distinction. Giovanni advised walking around with a backpack instead of a small purse. Backpacks are hard to snatch and small purses are tempting because they will have all the essentials- phone and cash.

As I’d arrived at lunchtime, Giovanni recommended a pizza place in the area- the best in Naples. And since Naples makes the best pizza in the world, the best in the world? I set off almost immediately when he was finished, promptly got lost and ended up at the pizza place at the same time as the Spanish girls who had left after me.

I won’t go into a detailed description of everything I saw and did in Naples. Suffice to say, I believe it has an undeserved bad reputation. Aside from my terrifying walk to my hostel, hounded by the voices of cautious tourists, I felt completely safe and had a marvelous time taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the third largest city in Italy.

There are some things that do deserve special mention. The very first thing I visited was the Cappella Sansevero, a small chapel that was built in 1590. It houses some of the most beautiful sculptures I have ever seen. The most famous (for good reason) is the Veiled Christ, completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Sculpted from marble, it appears that Christ is wearing a shroud but his facial expression and form can clearly be seen underneath. Wow.

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No pictures allowed in the chapel. This comes from http://www.museosansevero.it

I can’t count the number of churches that I entered. The Duomo of Napoli houses the crypt of the city’s principle patron saint, Januarius or San Gennaro. On the stage of this grand cathedral there was a dead guy on display in a glass case. Having eight years of Catholic education, I had heard of this practice but this was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. His name was Beato Nunzio Sulprizo and he died in 1836 at age 19. He has been venerated as “Blessed” by the Catholic Church since 1963. I starred at him for a while trying to understand the purpose of having him on display. I think my deeply embedded Protestantism hampered my efforts. In addition to this mummified dude, there were offering plates placed around the church “For the worship of San Gennaro”. That’s what the plates said. And the age old debate continues; since when do Christians consider it appropriate to worship dead people? That topic is a post for another time—but it truly did disturb my sensibilities.IMG_2391

That first day I walked over 12 miles. The second day I booked an all-day tour of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Giovanni was not at all happy when he discovered I’d been tricked into booking a tour! “Oh sh*t!” he bemoaned, “You could have done so much more and for cheaper if you just went on your own. Why would you do that? Why??” I smiled and sympathized. “Darn you, tourist traps!” And I shook my fist in the air (not really). But in actuality, I was not disappointed in myself for booking a tour. I was picked up in a bus, driven around with commentary on the buildings being passed, given an expert guide of Pompeii providing information that could not have been obtained with a simple audioguide, given lunch and driven up Mount Vesuvius to where the walking path begins. I have to get myself from one place to another across Europe. When I’m in a city, sometimes I don’t want to have to figure everything out myself. I felt no guilt despite Giovanni’s best effort.

Not everyone at the hostel was so lucky. I met a young Australian girl that night when I returned from my amazing day in Pompeii. Upon walking in the door, Giovanni asked if I ate everything. Without allowing me to answer he informed me that he was going to show me how to make carbonara.

“Oh sounds good. When?”

“Now! Now. Come.”

Putting my backpack on my bed and plugging in my phone took too long. “Jessie!!! Come,” rang through the hostel. Two other girls waited to be instructed and we struck up a conversation about our days. Rose, the Australian, had also been on a couple tours during her time in Naples. She had the same reasoning I had but expressed dismay at Giovanni’s disapproval. In fact, the day before, he’d given her such a haranguing that her eyes had prickled with unshed tears. As we enjoyed a small glass of wine that evening in the Piazza Bellini, I told her not to worry about it. The clientele of said hostel seems to be overwhelmingly young- mostly college students. Most of them are probably more than happy to take any advice given by this grandfatherly figure and he is most willing (is there a stronger word than willing?) to give it. He wanted to know everything I was doing and he always had something to say about it.

“What are you doing today?”

“Going to the island of Procida.”

“Take the ferry, not the small metro boat. It’s too windy.”

(I took the small boat and it was fine).

Later…

“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”

“6:30”

“That is too early! You leave at 7:00. Take a taxi.”

“Umm…no. I think I’m still going to leave at 6:30 and take the metro.”

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The island of Procida.

The look of disapproval was evident but I just smiled. Most conversations were some variation of this. I understood Rose’s discomfort, but for me, there was something endearing about his bossiness. I also give him the credit for singlehandedly turning my fear of Naples into love. I don’t quite agree with the Neapolitan saying, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!–“See Naples and die” but it’s definitely worth the seeing.

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Toledo Station in Naples. Ranked the #1 most beautiful metro station in the world.

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One of the many churches I visited

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Travel Journal: Blisters and Fashion Faux Pas

Rome- the Eternal City. I was fairly nervous arriving in Rome. Like I pointed out in my last post, I have very limited experience traveling Europe. And the experience I do have comes from 14 years ago. I know how to travel in Africa, where you use filtered water to brush your teeth and take bus taxis that break down several times during one’s trip. Europe is different.

I arrived in jeans, a three quarter-sleeved shirt and a thin sweater. I was also wearing some new Nike sneakers I’d been given a couple days before. They are the minimalist sneakers, intended to be worn without socks. Unfortunately, as I was just breaking these shoes in, they’d given me a massive blister on my right Achilles heel. It had already popped and the shoe continued to rub it until it bled. I was limping on my way out of the airport. I knew I needed some new shoes ASAP. Aside from these sneakers, I had two pair of flip-flops. And it was 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13.8 Celsius). Flip flops were not going to cut it.

I arrived at my hostel, Orsa Maggiore (the Great Bear). It is close to Vatican City and is housed in a former convent. The hostel is for women only. I was placed in a room with

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Entrance to the hostel

three beds. After a quick lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, I passed out. I was cold, tired and sore. I slept most of the afternoon until my Indian roommate returned from her day in the city. We hit it off and decided to visit the Pantheon and have dinner together.

We made it to the Piazza Navona where we stopped for a coffee. Both of us had read that it annoyed Italians immensely when foreigners drink coffee in the evening without eating a meal first, so we relished the chance to display our irritating foreignness. From there we leisurely walked to the Pantheon,

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Entrance to the Pantheon

one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings (126AD). It has been in continuous use since it’s completion, which accounts for its preservation. We arrived about 10 minutes after it closed its doors but we were able to admire the exterior. It is really quite impressive.

I continued to limp along the rest of the night, looking for an open shoe store or a pharmacy, neither of which I found.

The following morning I had a Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica tour scheduled. The thought of putting my sneakers back on sent shivers down my spine. I would not be able to make the two-kilometer walk to the Vatican. So I put on the only other shoes I had…flip-flops. Also it’s the Vatican, right? And the Pope was supposed to be doing his popely duties in St. Peter’s Square. I wanted to look respectful and not like a complete scrub. I put on an African wrap skirt, a solid black shirt and a thin gray sweater with a black shawl that I wore as a scarf. Remember, it is cold.IMG_2261

I left a couple hours early in the hopes of finding some presentable shoes on the way. No luck. I walked all through the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica looking like a  moron. Scarf, sweater, arms wrapped around myself to ward off the chill and…flip-flops.

The tour was wonderful and the things I saw were beautiful. You can read more about them on TripAdvisor. But this post is not about that; it’s about me and my feet. After the tour, I typed “shoe store” into Google and followed the dotted blue line on my phone to a shop that was closed for lunch. I waited next door at the McDonalds where I was very excited to indulge in a frappe. But they didn’t have any. They had an entire café full of Italian mini-coffees but no frappes. I got one of their tiny little coffees of which they are so proud.

An hour or so later I walked to the shoe store. There is a large display of shoes behind a Plexiglas window but once I walked into the store there were about five styles of shoes. I stood there looking at these shoes, three attendants looked at me. No one approached me. The room was quite small. The four of us filled it snuggly yet no one offered to help me. I looked at the lady and pointed outside, miming that I wanted to try a shoe that was in the display case. I pointed to a pair of black, leather woven flats. They looked practical, comfortable and cute. I told her my European size, tried them on and bought them. Outside there was a street sock vendor so I stocked up on socks for these new shoes and my sneakers. I was ready for a night on the town.

Fortunately, I also passed a pharmacy on the way home and found bandages just for foot blisters. They had all kinds for every place one could possibly have a blister. I found the band-aids specifically for the Achilles heel. All the instructions were in Italian so I depended completely on the picture. At the counter, the cashier rang up the bandages. Eleven euros! What??? There were six bandages total in the package. Six. For eleven euros. They better have magical healing powers. But I kept a very composed exterior as I handed over the proper amount of cash. Ladida…I buy 11 euro band-aids all the time.

That night I washed my blister and stuck on the bandage. I put on my little stockings and my flats. I’d decided to visit a restaurant that was 0.2 miles from my hostel. It was highly rated on TripAdvisor. By the time I’d reached the road from my hostel, I knew I’d made a mistake. The shoes were rubbing right underneath where I had placed the band-aid and the stockings I’d purchased were making the shoes slip right off my feet so I kind of had to drag them along the ground with a weird limp to ease the rubbing. Once again, I looked like a complete crazy person, shuffling down the street with a strange limp-hobble.

My dining experience was interesting. The restaurant was small and diners were placed very close to one another, with only a tiny space (not enough to squeeze through) between tables. I was sat next to two American couples, probably all in their 60’s. One of the ladies fancied herself an Italian speaker. I feigned disinterest, while I fiddled on my phone but I couldn’t help but overhear as she translated the menu for her friends.

“Oh, spiedini, that’s a type of pasta. See, it’s listed under the ‘second plates’”. I had a suspicion she was incorrect because I’d noticed that the primero plato was always a type of pasta and the segundo plato was meat. I looked it up on Google. Spiedini means “skewers”. The menu item was skewers of fish but she translated it as fish pasta.

The server approached and she ordered for everyone by saying, “Me gusta…” and finished with “gracias”. The server rattled off some things in Italian and when she left the lady said, “You say a couple words in Italian and these people think you’re fluent.” Oh…my. In case you, my reader, are confused, this woman was speaking Spanish, not Italian. And I am quite sure the server was under no impression that she was a fluent Italian speaker. She was probably just making fun of her. Oh, my country people. There is a reason we have the reputation we do.

The next day I had determined to visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum. According to Google maps it was an hour walk away. In the morning I put on a new band-aid (since the previous one had been ruined by my new shoes) and socks. I chose to wear my elephant Ali Baba pants that I’d bought in Tanzania. I pulled the elastic legs down to my sneakers covering my legs from the chill. They were really comfortable, but once again, I stood out. Roman women, at least in the cold, were bedecked in black and jean. Asian tourists wore the only bright colors I’d seen in two days. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out, but what could I do?

I walked to the Roman Forum, arriving early enough that I had it almost completely to myself for at least the first half hour. I downloaded an App that would tell me about everything I was seeing. After two hours in the Forum and Palatine Hill, I walked right next door to the Colosseum. I was not lucky here- it was packed with people. And soon after I exited, it began to rain. My feet and back were killing me. But I knew there was a shopping district in Rome and I was in desperate need of some warmer clothes and closed-toed shoes I could actually walk in.

Once again Google saved the day and I came across the Via del Corso where I was able to buy jeggings. That’s right. Jean leggings. Judge if you must, but I love them. The next dressing room I visited, I took the opportunity to change into my jeggings so I looked like a halfway normal person. From there I found a faux leather jacket. All Roman women, and men for that matter, were sporting leather jackets. But I could hardly afford the 200€ real lamb leather jacket, even though it’s an excellent price for the quality. But my faux leather looks awesome and cost only 30€.

From there I thought I’d get some authentic tall, Italian-made leather boots. I went into a little boutique and asked to see some boots. They were beautiful and soft. And they only went up to my ankle. That’s right, I could not pull the boot past my ankle. Apparently I have colossal calves. Guys, really, I’m not fat. I’m pretty normal. But I guess I have giant calves! Next time you see me, don’t look. Just forget I told you this.

The store clerk told me that I should walk in heels for three hours every day like Italian women and then I might develop the toned, slim calves necessary to fit into these Italian boots. Well, that’s snobby. You try walking around in heels on Clove Island. Oh wait, island women do it all the time…whatever. I refuse! I decided to try a different store. No. Every…single…store. It was so embarrassing. I have tall boots in the States! They fit! I had to settle for ankle boots from Bata, a Swiss company. Bleh.IMG_2352

From there I walked home. I walked twelve miles that day. And I am such an old person. Every bit of my body hurt. My feet are swollen and red. My toenails are black from bruises. I have at least five blisters, but only two of them are painful. My back hurts. And since I’ve been in Naples, I also bought an ankle brace because my left ankle feels like it is going to crack in half. I am falling apart. Seriously, though.

But Rome was awesome!

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