Running Around in Italy

Excerpt from my newest book

 “Italy: Do More, Spend Less”

A travel essay designed to deliver!

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Rome, Milan and a few other major cities in Italy have a subway service, but I have not found it to be as helpful as in other European cities. In Rome, there are only two subway lines and the stations are quite far apart. But if these happen to coincide with where you want to go, don’t hesitate to use them. The above ground bus and trolley systems are typically far more helpful.

In these ancient cities every time they try to dig a new tunnel for a subway they run into antiquities. Then they have to halt construction and bring in the archaeologists to survey and collect whatever is found. Often, as in Rome, there are mosaic floors and toppled temple columns buried far below street level, relics that are too valuable to be trashed and too delicate or enormous to be easily moved. So the metro line has to be routed around it, or delayed with great expense. I think these obstacles have led modern Romans to leave buried what is buried and focus resources on above ground transportation.

Bus and metro tickets are inexpensive, and passes for multiple days are always a good deal. Between towns I recommend taking trains, but for transportation within a town in Italy, go ahead and get comfortable with the public transportation available. Ask at your hotel for a map.  They usually have a stack of them ready for guests, and will happily take the time to suggest a route. For safety tips, see “Defensive Touring” in chapter 7.

Taxis are also available but are the most expensive choice. I reserve taxi rides for transportation if I have a lot of luggage or there is a special circumstance. (As always, do not get into a car that is not clearly a professional, full time taxi.) Usually you will just be charged the rate on the meter, but the driver may take a circuitous route. Even a direct, quick taxi ride will be the most expensive option. However, if you are exhausted, ill, lost or running out of time, take the taxi. On some of my student group tours I have traveled with people who have limited health and strength, but were hesitant to admit they couldn’t walk the distances we had ahead of us. Don’t be a martyr or a hero. Be smart and take care of yourself. If you find you are unwell, lost or just developing an awful blister on your feet, be willing to step away from the planned activity and get help or rest. You may miss one activity, but you will recover your energy and be able to enjoy the rest of the trip.

The beauty and mystery of Venice holds a charm for me like nowhere else on earth. The most essential features of daily life are altered there, usually in wonderfully surprising ways.  Why should public transportation be any different?  Charmingly called Vaporetti, the savvy traveler can make great use of the water bus service around Venice proper as well as the neighboring islands in the lagoon. You will need to get a Vaporetto map with the route numbers and stops, and fortunately these are easily found online for free from many sources.

Actually, every hotel and most guest houses have free maps of the town, wherever you roam, so you rarely ever need to buy a map. If you want to have one in advance of your trip and are buying a guidebook anyhow, you should be able to find maps of the local public transportation included.

In Venice, find the nearest stop to your hotel or apartment.  The Vaporetto is reliable, but not fast. Once you are in Venice proper, getting around town is easier on foot, and you will have the endless opportunity to enjoy the unique beauty of each narrow lane. I highly recommend Vaporetto route number one, boarding at any stop and riding the full circuit, for a chance to have a leisurely and inexpensive tour of the Grand Canal. The Rialto Bridge and the many glorious mansions will take your breath away and inspire some of your favorite travel photos.

Vaporetto tickets can be purchased from machines at all of the stations. You can also get a card that is good for several days. I recommend this for most visitors, unless you are only in town for one day or less. Your first time on the Vaporetto, watch the other people to see how to board the boats. There will be one area for those who are getting off, and the boat will pull up there first. After they have unloaded, another gate will be pulled open and you can get on. Find a seat inside if you like, or wrap your scarf around your neck and stay on deck to drink in the beauty of Venice.

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Second Spring

She was 81 years old, and a freshman in college. She surprised me then, and inspires me today.

My very first day of college, many years ago now, we all assembled in the coliseum for chapel. I attended a small Christian school in Texas, one of the few schools in the country to still require daily attendance at chapel (basically a brief, informal worship service). On the opening day of school the mood was cheerful as friends greeted each other after summer break, and those of us who were freshmen tried not to show our awe and anxiety as we searched for a seat or a familiar face in a sea of thousands.

The marching band played a spritely processional as a parade of flags filled the floor of the coliseum. Each flag represented a home country for the international students, carried by one of the students from that land. It was a mesmerizing and impressive display, as if the whole world had stopped by.

Soon the announcements began. The voice over the loudspeaker boomed: “We’d like to introduce to you our oldest freshman this year. Innes, please stand up. She is 81 years old and starting her freshman year as an English Literature major.” Cheers and applause filled the stadium as Innes stood, waving her arm and smiling. She was talking, but her greeting was drowned out by the enthusiastic crowd. She was tall, with straight silvery gray hair. She wore a simple dress of blue and white cotton, not too different from those that my grandmother used to make for herself. She seemed strong, energetic and happy.

What a strange thing, I thought, to start college at eighty-one. Was she thinking of working after she got this degree, when she was already past retirement age? Why was she doing this?

Innes became a familiar figure on campus. I didn’t have any classes with her, but many freshmen classes were held in the same few buildings, so we passed often in the halls and stairwells. Frequently I saw her in the women’s bathroom of the student center just before or after chapel. Near the mailboxes and the cafeteria, it was a huge and often crowded restroom. A large area was given to a wall of mirrors with a long counter in front of it. We would set our purses and backpacks on the dry counter to fix our hair and makeup. When Innes was there, she never hesitated to speak to anyone with an easy friendliness.

“Your hair is so beautiful. It’s such a lovely color,” she would say to someone brushing out their hair. Or “Your purse is falling. Here, I caught it. What a pretty bag.” Her German accent was noticeable but not thick, and her cheerful compliments easily accepted by the young girls that surrounded her.
One day someone asked Innes what brought her to college. “Vell,” she answered, “I sent all of my children to college. And all of my life I wanted to go to college. Now that they are grown up, I decided it was time that I go to school!” She laughed. “I love it here. This is a great place.”

On a warm day in October, Innes was wearing a short sleeved cotton dress. As she washed her hands at the sink I noticed something for the first time. Across her forearm was a faded blue tattoo, a long string of numbers.

At seventeen years old, I was remarkably young and foolish. But I knew what that was.

I wanted to go up and hug Innes, but I was too shy. I quietly left the bathroom, deep in thought. That tattoo was a mark from a concentration camp. She was a Survivor. That meant that when she was a young woman, she was not fixing her hair and wearing pretty clothes, or worrying about seeing a certain boy on the way to the next class. She had spent her youth slaving away in a prison camp, starving, being beaten and tortured, and every other horrible thing that men have conceived to do to other people. Innes had survived all of that, and somehow she now managed to be cheerful to others who surely didn’t appreciate the comfortable lives they had. And…she was genuinely happy!
Innes graduated a semester before I did, surrounded by a crowd of children and grandchildren. She beamed and waved as they again announced her name, this time as the oldest graduate. The next semester, I met the young man who would become my husband. His first semester was my last, so he missed Innes. But he’s heard the story and felt her influence.

I learned from Innes that you are never too old to reinvent yourself, and it is never, ever too late to follow your dreams.

Innes was not afraid to start over, and because of her, I have discovered that I have the courage to reinvent myself too. I am not the reader of my life, but the author. When it is time to write a new chapter, or a whole new volume, I open the first blank page and dedicate it to Innes.