I made it safely to Rome and braced myself to meet up with my mom and aunt. It’s hard for me to describe this experience without sounding like a total jerk, but if my relationship with my mother wasn’t the best under normal circumstances, it was only logical that it was going to be even worse in a stressful circumstance like foreign travel. My mother is not a good traveller – I think it makes her nervous, and being nervous makes her irritable, and even though I’d only been travelling myself for about a week at that point, I felt like quite a seasoned traveller compared to her, so my know-it-all attitude was bound to cause some friction. On top of this, I didn’t actually want to meet up with them at all – they booked a trip despite my objections and insisted I meet them, so I was angry at being told what to do on what was meant to be my backpacking holiday of a lifetime, and I didn’t make it any easier for myself by acting like a brat.
Needless to say, it wasn’t surprising that we got into an argument on our first evening in Rome. We’d just had dinner, which I had to pay for because they hadn’t yet figured out how to change over money, had a gelato (of course), and visited the Trevi Fountain, where some Italian guy started stroking my leg and going, “bella, bella,” in a really creepy manner, and were discussing the best way back to the hotel. Despite my general lack of directional skills, I was positive I knew how to get there in this case, but my mother kept telling me I was wrong, and insisted we go another way that was entirely uphill and took three times as long as the right way would have. When we finally got back and I unwisely (and let’s face it, probably gloatingly) pointed this out, she completely flipped out at me. I was not a happy camper.
The next day, we got up bright and early to head to the Vatican, where you can see me standing in front of a fountain with my aunt in the very crooked picture above. Having read about the dress code in great detail in my guidebook, I told my mother and aunt to make sure their shoulders and knees were covered, and did the same myself, even though I was sweltering in that half-cardigan. My aunt listened, my mother did not, and kept insisting that her mid-thigh length skirt was fine because she was wearing pantyhose underneath, and got angry at me when I tried to tell her it wasn’t. Well, guess what happened when we got up to the entrance of St. Peter’s, after waiting in a queue for about an hour? I got in, my aunt got in, and my mother…did not. Undaunted, she made repeated attempts to sneak past the Swiss Guard that I probably would have found hilarious if I’d been in a better mood, but eventually had to admit defeat and wait for us to come out. Did I ever get credit for being right? No, of course I did not. And since we’re clearly both stubborn people, you can probably see why we have difficulties!
Apart from this constant conflict, I actually quite enjoyed Rome. The food was fabulous, even eating in many Rick Steves-recommended places, and I liked all the ancient bits, which have proved much less exciting to me on subsequent visits. I should say that this trip was also the beginning of a terrible relationship between me and Rick Steves. My mother insisted on bringing one of his guidebooks and only staying in Rick Steves-recommended establishments, most of which were terrible and full of die-hard Rick Steves acolytes, or Steve-ites, as I began to call them, the sort of people with zip-off trousers and money belts, as recommended by Rick Steves. Fortunately, my mother, aunt, and I could all eventually agree on this matter after too many run-ins with horrible accommodation listed in his guidebooks, and at least we could bond over mocking the Steve-ites.
After this, we headed down to Sorrento via Naples, which was not a great journey. Naples was boiling hot and in the middle of a garbage strike, and the smell was horrific. We took a baking bus from the train station down to the docks to wait for a ferry, which couldn’t come fast enough. Whilst waiting, I had my first (and only) experience with Chinotto, which I selected because it was a flavour of Fanta I’d never had before. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying this stuff, but if they made a soda out of Jagermeister and cough syrup and added more bitterness to it, Chinotto is what it would taste like. I don’t know how citrus can go so wrong, but I never want to taste it again! On arriving in Sorrento, we tried to stay in another Rick Steves special, but it was booked up, so we ended up in the most delightful B&B instead. Most importantly to me, it had a loft with an extra bed in it so I could have my own private sleeping area for once (since I was either staying in hostel dormitories or sharing a hotel room with my mom and aunt for the rest of the trip). The picture above of me in my loft is probably the happiest you’ll see me looking on this portion of the trip.
The next day, we headed to Pompeii on the Circumvesuviana (which I have been calling the Circumvenesuvia in my head for all these years until I Googled it for this post, since that’s how we were all referring to it), which was an experience in itself. I’ve never seen so many different beggars on one train. I was really excited about Pompeii on account of thinking I was going to get to see all these preserved bodies, but the experience definitely didn’t match the hype. It was one of the hottest places I’ve ever been in my life, and on looking back at the pictures, I don’t know how the hell I was able to wear jeans without melting. There’s no way you’d catch me dead in jeans these days in anything above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and even that’s pushing it!
Anyway, I was excited for bodies, but then I found out that they only have about three of them, all in glass cases in one area. The rest of Pompeii is basically just miles of buildings and roads that all look the same, with maybe an erotic mural every tenth house to break things up a bit, but mainly it was hot and horrible and boring, and quickly started to feel like a death march.
After seeing the above mural, which was the highlight, I couldn’t wait to leave, and we headed back to Sorrento where we had to move back to the Rick Steves special we’d tried to book the night before, since the nice B&B with the loft only had the room available for one night. It was better than a lot of other Rick Steves places, but nowhere near as nice as the first place, though it did overlook an orangery, and my aunt and mother wasted no time in making me stand on a chair to steal oranges off the tree overhanging our patio. I did at least find a crackin’ gelateria in town where I discovered the magic of wild strawberry gelato. Those tiny strawberries are just so damn delicious!
The next day was my aunt’s birthday, and even though she gets seasick, she wanted to go to Capri, which is of course an island only accessible by boat, so that’s what we did. Because of the seasickness thing, we weren’t allowed to visit the Blue Grotto, so we just spent the day climbing the giant hill that makes up the island and going in and out of churches. We did get to take a chairlift and a funicular at least (it was all of our first experience with a funicular, and we totally thought the name was Italian for something else, since we didn’t know what the thing was actually called. It is just a funicular though, and I have enjoyed them many times since!), and I got a lemon granita with fresh orange juice in it, which was pretty much the best thing ever in million degree temperatures.
The next day was my aunt’s last one in Italy before she flew back home and we spent it mainly in Sorrento. I was thrilled to get some time to myself in the morning when they went on a bus tour of the Amalfi Coast, so I wandered the town helping myself to free samples of limoncello (pretending I’d never had it before at each place) and buying an extra large gelato, and retreated back to the hotel to watch TV in peace. Since my aunt was leaving soon, I was on my best behaviour, and we all enjoyed a delicious dinner of zucchini and provolone pasta, which was apparently so good I specifically mentioned it in my journal (I was eating a lot of zucchini and eggplant, which is out of character for me, since I’m not a veg person, but Italians can cook both things well!), and more gelato. And then my aunt left in the morning, leaving just me and my mother together. As my aunt managed to act as a buffer between us, things were about to get even more fraught.