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Crime, injury, idleness and love in Italy

Day 1 - The ankle breaketh.

It’s not often you find yourself the privilege of going to somewhere like Rome by accident. But, when travelling north, towards the centre of Italy, it turns out that Rome is an oddly cheap and convenient starting point, provided you pick the slightly less glamorous option of the two airports there. So, me and my partner Elle, recent University result receivers but not actual graduates, flew to Ciampino Airport at 4 in the morning and took a shuttle bus directly into Termini station, the central transport hub of Rome. We would stay for two nights in Rome before travelling up-country. On this bus our sweaty, irritant spirits from the flight became something more excitable and befitting of the city we were slowly entering. In fact, we marvelled, the trip was going incredibly smoothly, and our next directions, from the station to our Air B&B, meant a simple 10-minute walk in a straight line. The bus pulled in and as there always is with the British, there was a uniting surge of motion to stand followed by that urgency dissolving into slow shuffling in an orderly line. ‘I think I just cut my leg’ Elle remarks as we eventually step off, I glance at her slightly tanned leg from a stint in Greece we did a few weeks prior, blood pouring with odd urgency. I frown empathetically. ‘You did too’, she follows up. I turn my own leg, much more tanned (she’s Irish, I’m not) and spot an identical cut on my own calf. A small hiccup in our otherwise perfectly executed travelling. I dive my head into the underside of the bus and retrieve our bags, a huge metallic blue backpack for me, and a suitcase that perfectly fits carry-on requirements for her.

When the bus pulls off, we’re greeted with our first un-bus-tinted view of Rome. And it was an underwhelming beginning, influenced by that dominating feeling of entering any metropolis, that it did not exist for you to intake the atmosphere, it existed for itself. Now get out of the way before someone runs you over. Fortunately, still high on the rush of travel and the knowledge that this feeling was simply that, we set forth on to the pavement parallel to the stations own. This pavement clambered upwards at forks and ran above you, then came back down to meet your level again. Whenever it ran above it would be occupied by people of sprawling ethnicities, shouting in tongues which might have been Italian, but were so muffled by each-others exclamations that they became one reductive ‘foreign language’ to me and Elle’s ears. They were outside their plentiful houses, which ran upwards and into each-other at every level, coloured by oranges and yellows that only grew brighter as the sun did itself. It was slowly starting to feel like Rome, with its distant roof-tops always out of sight, its verticality never feeling claustrophobic, or at least, this met the fantastic ideal of Rome I had had. I smile at Elle and know she feels the same, then that erratic pavement stops and becomes a kerb, and I am not ready for it.

I’m sure I heard a crack but I don’t want to say it. I just quietly scream through my gritted teeth. I look backwards from the ground and realise we have made it around 3 minutes from where the bus dropped us off. I was already beginning to accept, as I lay on the stupid pavement, that this would be my experience of Rome. Elle would later inform me that the corner spot I managed to crawl to was covered in urine, but at the time she was busy bouncing between frantic assistance, ‘I’ll wet a pair of pants and put it on you’ and un-answerable questions ‘What did you do, what is it?’. If not for the pain, which was quite violent, I would’ve been charmed at her care and concern, probably chuck a smile at her and kiss her forehead to calm her down. Instead I writhed around in piss on the ground. 10 or so minutes go by, and the area starts to look slightly more threatening, the feeling of vulnerability is inevitable when travelling, so anything to encourage that volatile state of concern, which borders on panic, is dangerous. Suddenly the groups of happy locals on their corners start to look like vultures ready to pick the flesh off my shiny Patagonia backpack, so, I push myself onto my one remaining good foot and hobble 1 minute to the outside of a red-chaired café. To downplay the level of injury Elle goes inside and gets us two small beers, which I quickly attempt to guzzle down and promptly start to feel nauseous. ‘Should we ring your mum?’ Elle asks, which feels like a crushing confirmation of my failure, fortunately, the feeling quickly dissipates as I begin to wonder if I’ll black out.

‘3.50€ for half a litre of wine is amazing’, The carafe of white wine landed on our table abruptly, one released from the pack of 4 held loosely in one hand by a waiter depositing them table by table, each gently slipping off his finger with a slight wobble. Everyone in this dark but extravagant restaurant went for the house wine; the only variable was white or red. We pour two glasses and clink them, it would sound cliché but I said it anyway, ‘we made it!’, Elle pauses with a slight tinge of guilt on her face, we both look down at my foot. It’s bulbous but supressed by a tight compression sock, coloured nude. It looks bad, and is probably fractured, but I can’t feel it nearly as much, painkillers are much stronger abroad. ‘Travelling!’ Elle says ironically, I laugh too and drink, it’s dry and abrupt tasting with lemon as the only notable note. We both frown and nod happily, ‘3.50€, damn’.

The restaurant had been inside a small underground cave, and involved a lengthy queue despite us arriving 15 minutes before opening. The queue was guarded by quiet foodies: a gangly man with miserable bug eyes, thin glasses and that now pre-packaged grey ‘minimalist’ outfit, as well a pair of huge, muscular and gaudy Americans with wraparound sunglasses and unfortunate girlfriends who were subject to hearing about what type of pepperoncino this restaurant used. The person most encapsulating though was the solitary Asian man gatekeeping the front of the queue, he was short, plump and angry, with electric eyebrows that angled at anyone attempting to jump forward in the line. His arm was extended its full length, which was not much, creating a barrier the height of a low limbo bar. Still, I trusted no one would dare cut in. On our hobble home, us and the now jolly Asian man entirely satisfied with our meals, our slow pace meant gazing at our unique part of Rome. Esquilino is close to the Pantheon and the historic centre, known primarily for its station, but is very much an independent region, content to be whatever it wants to be. You cannot help but pay attention upon walking down its historic streets flush with gossiping women in head-scarfs, distant rattling announcing dirty green trams full of white-shirted Italian men sailing past, and rumbling engines signalling a group of Chinese locals kick-starting their huge motorbikes outside a restaurant plastered with red lanterns and painted kanjis. Of course, it might have been the painkillers that made these sights and sounds seem so entrancing, but there was surely something unique in the uniting sense of foreignness it imposed, we were all vibrantly different yet many of us drunk on feelings of inclusion. We stopped at a gazebo called the ‘Gatsebo’, positioned outside a park under renovation, a hut where they served Aperol Spritz in plastic cups and drunk customers offered us chairs and instructions on how to properly order. Everyone smiled at us, and we smiled back, drinking our lagers from very flat bottles. The orange buildings around us were huge, gaining height and history the further up they went, envious, me and Elle watched a couple star-gazing out of the top floor. We smiled at them, Elle tried to take a photo, then they slammed their shutters. We winced, maybe it was just down here, and just us, that was drunk from Esqulino.

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