lies, damn lies, and the London Underground

This morning I, with many thousands of other commuters, were subjected to the complete and utter ball-ache that is a central line delay. Yes, I know it is caused by the antiquated signaling system falling over for one reason or another, and I accept that there’s no cheap, quick, or easy solution to the problem and that it will happen from time to time. What really bothered me about the situation this morning was the lack of useful information and the outright bullshit being shoveled out of the underground staff. The PA announcements say one thing and the driver says another, frequently at the same time.

station PA: “there are severe delays on the Central Line due to an ongoing signal failure at Bank, please use other alternatives to complete your journey.”

Are you kidding me?! If there WERE other alternatives do you think I’d be taking the frigging underground in the first place? Or do you think I’d be standing here if I knew a bus that would get me there faster in the circumstances? There ARE no alternatives and they know it, but saying to take one makes them feel they’ve absolved themselves of the responsibility of transporting you to work.

30 seconds later – Driver: “for those of you who have just joined us there are severe delays on the central line this morning due to a signal failure at Bank, we will be held in this platform until cleared to proceed”

Yes, for those of you hard-of-hearing who couldn’t hear the PA blaring as you walked into the station and who didn’t notice the massive crowd of people standing forlornly outside a train overflowing with extremely grouchy looking commoners, there is in fact a delay.

30 seconds later – Station PA: “there are severe delays on the Central Line due to an ongoing signal failure at Bank, please use other options to complete your journey.”

Gee, thanks.

30 seconds later – Driver: “blah blah blah”.

You don’t get a moments peace and you aren’t told anything new, which is doubly frustrating. One of the survival techniques underground commuters develop is the ability to zone out, to go into your own little world and almost forget the smelly dickhead who isn’t paying attention to the placement of his elbow, or the fact that there’s a fat ugly woman grinding her tits into your back. All these constant announcements do is snap you out of your blissful trance and drag you back into the horrible reality of it all. Let me be in my alternative universe for a little while, please! Maybe every 5 minutes make an announcement or when there’s new information by all means do tell, but otherwise give it a rest! We know there’s a delay, and we haven’t forgotten why.

It wasn’t always like this, they used to never tell you anything and it wasn’t good. I think the underground was getting criticized for it, and rightly so, however as a way of “taking the public’s comments on board” they decided to engage in the audio equivalent of spam, only with spam I can hit a delete button but I can’t touch a switch and make myself deaf. They’re now flooding the stations with useless information letting you know that for once all London underground lines are running a good service (although they do stretch the definition of good pretty often), that a train will be arriving in 2 minutes when the platform screen that can be read by anyone says 2 minutes, or they remind you to take your bags with you when you leave the train as if I would forget otherwise. Do they really think that because they make an announcement at Wanstead to remind me to remember my belongings that when I get to Holborn I’m going to think “hey wait, the nice lady on the PA system said to remember my stuff, do I have everything?”

Eventually we moved one stop to Leytsonstone, and things got interesting because Leytonstone is where 2 branches come together and there are actual buses that stop next to the station, and now London Underground’s job is to try and con you to take one of them. According to their announcements there is a plethora, a veritable surfeit of brand new, shiny, double-deckered alternatives to the obviously old and busted underground you normally take. Only a fool, only a moron would stay when you can simply walk outside straight into a glorious carriage that will whisk you speedily away to Stratford in comfort and dare they say it, joy. To their surprise few take them up on their offer so a few minutes later they announce that the central line is suspended and no trains will be moving into central London – ever! Now you have to take the bus – HAH!

Now the exodus begins as the be-knighted commuters, weary before their day has even really begun, trudge out the exit to find that the promised bumper crop of buses that are lined up outside are actually one, and it comes 3 times an hour. And there’s one there already that is packed full. And it takes 50 people maximum. And there’s already 500 people waiting for it in front of you. No doubt many of them tried to re-enter the station to try their luck with the beleaguered tube only to find that the station staff weren’t letting anyone back in.

I wasn’t one of these poor souls because I’ve swallowed their story before and paid the price. Once I was quick enough to have gotten close to the front of the bus line before the thundering herd and only waited 40 minutes for one only to find that the quick trip to Stratford takes about 25 minutes at best. The other times I have walked to Stratford only to find that the central line has been running again.

After those fun examples I decided that they’d have to physically remove me if the want me to leave the train and I resolved to wait and see. Sure enough, 10 minutes later the train shut its doors and left – during an announcement that the central line was still suspended. I eventually got to work an hour later than I should have.

So they lie to the people they are supposed to be serving, they don’t care if you have to trudge to Stratford in the rain or wait an hour for the bus, you’re out of their hair.

Another typical London Underground lie is to use “health and safety” to justify laziness. For example, they routinely block people from entering Holborn station because there’s one escalator that’s out of commission. When you ask why it’s “health and safety”, ie a catch-all for something they wanted to do but couldn’t justify any other way. When you ask how having hundreds of people spilling out onto the busy street outside the station nearly getting run over by taxis is safer than some people walking down instead of riding an escalator you get an intentionally blank look. It’s more trouble for them, so it’s “health and safety” bullshit on the spade this time.

Of course, the biggest lie in the London Underground system is that it’s good value for money. It isn’t. It’s expensive, noisy, slow, unreliable, cramped, and it closes way too early. It’s the most costly system in the world because it’s old, they pay the staff too much for what they do, and the privatized companies that run and maintain it are given a guaranteed profit. The privatization contracts are for maintenance of the system only, not for improvements of any kind whatsoever, so the painful fact is that until Transport for London gets their collective thumb out of their ass and spends some money replacing the Victorian-era pile of shit that they call a signaling system we will continue to suffer horrific and painful experiences that are completely avoidable.

Too often we’re lied to not to protect us, but to make life easier for those running the system. When the system breaks we’re lied to in an effort to herd us to non-existent transportation alternatives because it’s the easiest way to reduce the load on the system. Health and safety is too often used as a trump card to justify expediency. We’re lied to about the state of the system we pay so much for and told we’re getting our money’s worth, which we are most definitely not.

All the lying is creating a climate of mistrust and undermines any credibility that the underground staff have. Don’t tell me there’s alternatives when I know there aren’t because it guarantees everyone will ignore you. Health and safety’s wearing thin too.

And for the love of heaven please tell the people on the PA to stick a cork in it for 5 minutes, they’re driving me nuts!

Rome day 2

Our second day in Rome started the way the first had ended: with the sound of excited teenagers making a lot more noise than was strictly necessary to accomplish the task of leaving their rooms, walking down 2 flights of steps, and leaving. Still, it did get us out of bed and downstairs for the complimentary breakfast of your typical continental hotel: bread and croissants, slices of cheese and meat, fruit and of course coffee.

There must be some legal explanation as to why the coffee in Italy tends to be so consistently good, because humans aren’t consistently good at anything unless they absolutely, positively have to be. The fact I’ve never had a bad cup there means that there must be a law sending you to jail if you accidentally run the press for too long, or the threat of social ostracism or something. Some sort of evil fate must await those who fail the java standard. I’m tempted to brew a bad cup there to see what happens. I have the feeling that within 2 minutes I’d have a swat team smash through my windows wearing Armani hazmat suits and dispose of my poor attempt in a gold-plated styrofoam cooler while giving me an IV drip of Lavazza espresso.

Fortunately we finished breakfast without incident as the coffee was good and we quickly got our stuff and hit the town for our day in the Vatican. As we felt tourist trap withdrawal symptoms we decided to carve a route right through the heart of the ripoff restaurants and hit as many sights as possible on the way. One of the first things we hit was the Pantheon, which I have to say is my favorite thing in the whole city. It’s an incredibly well-preserved example of Ancient Roman engineering and the best word I can think to describe it is magnificent. Not only is it staggeringly beautiful it is also an incredible scientific and architectural feat. When you think of the roman forum, the coliseum, the Parthenon in Athens, and so many Egyptian temples they are all restored ruins. You only get an idea what Karnak looked like because they’ve spent tens of millions restoring it. The pantheon, other than a few touch-ups, is as sound as the day it was built. If you look it up in an encyclopedia the word repair doesn’t even come up!

Built in about 125ad, the pantheon is a massively influential building in design, technique, and materials. The dome is constructed of concrete and gets thinner as it gets to the top to reduce weight, something that wasn’t replicated for almost 2000 years after its construction. The dome rests on a structure that is strong and stable enough to have lasted almost 2000 years and isn’t even showing its age. The inside gives you an incredible sense of space, something you don’t get in architecture until the gothic cathedrals so many centuries later and shows how far ahead of their time the Romans truly were.

After suitable amounts of gawking it was on through Piazza Navona where we ducked in a shop where everything has been made my monks. I’ve had chartreuse which is a liquor made by monks in the mountains of France. They make it out of 130-something herbs and boy does it taste like it. It has a flavor like someone blended lots of vegetables, dehydrated them to intensify their flavors, and then added 180 proof moonshine. When you drink some it feels like it will either kill you stone dead or cure what ails you. Or it may do both in reverse order.

This previous experience of monk-produced goods wasn’t the best primer for going into a shop where you have an enormous variety of mostly food and drink that have at least been within shouting distance of a monastery, but in we went anyway and we weren’t massively impressed. Rightly or wrongly it seemed as if all they’d done was bought bottles of cheap wine and liquor, soaked the labels off, and added their own. And the stuff that didn’t look like that tended to be extremely unappealing. I’m all for monk-made stuff: they brought us modern beer brewing techniques and liquor distillation which is all good by me as I sit here with a glass of Greenore Irish single grain whiskey. Loathsome liquors like Benedictine and Chartreuse are not representative, nor were the items in this store, so we left.

As we wended our way northwest of Piazza Novona the tourist businesses thinned out in favor of more residential places until we got to the Ponte Sant’Angelo: a footbridge across the Tiber which is to Rome what the Charles Bridge is to Prague although not nearly as busy. On the other side is Castel Sant’Angelo, another ancient Roman building originally built as a mausoleum that has lasted mostly because it was transformed into a fortification in later centuries. To the left the road leads straight to Vatican City and Piazza San Pietro via the wide Via della Conciliazione.

The Vatican is is clearly built to impress, and it does. My first impression was of many different styles of building having been plonked down without any real idea to make them work together. Ahead of you is St. Peter’s basilica which is one style, and it has an Egyptian obelisk in front of it placed on a clashing, very non-Egyptian plinth. Spanning to the left and right are large curved open structures in yet another style, the effect of which is to envelop you in architectural confusion. It’s impressive but to me not beautiful. Yet another indication we picked the right time or year to visit Rome was that we only queued for about 5-10 minutes to get into the basilica.

There are several ways we could have gone at this point: we could head to the basilica directly, go down to the crypt which will then lead you into the basilica, go up the cupola at the top of the basilica for the city views, or be radical and go straight to the Vatican museum to see the Sistine chapel. We chose the crypt first. It was an immaculate example of massive amounts of top-quality white marble all in the same place, but to be honest I found it a bit boring. I mean, it’s a place to entomb dead people, it’s not going to be rocking. Progress was a bit slow while everyone read plaques about popes you never heard of (and never will again), but eventually we climbed the steps into the center of the basilica. I have to say it was worth being bored for 20 minutes or so while we shuffled our way through crypt because when you pop out right in the middle the sight really makes an impression.

No bones about it, the basilica is an impressive piece of monumental architecture. It was designed and built to show the power and grandeur of the church and it certainly does that in spades. I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping it would show the beauty as well, and it just doesn’t. Cathedrals like St. Paul’s in London and St. John the Divine in New York are impressive and beautiful and they do it just with their shape, not the decoration whereas the structure of St. Peter’s basilica just seems like something to hang mountainsides of marble and mines-full of gold leaf on. Still, it’s definitely worth a visit.

We decided to hoof the 500 or so steps up to the top of the cupola and this was the only real line we stood in the whole time we were in the Vatican. The first 200 or so steps get you to the bottom of the dome where you can look down into the basilica where you were 20 or so minutes ago. The whole wall around is lined with nearly identical mosaics of a boy’s face, which is a bit weird. His eyes are wide and his mouth open as if in surprise and dismay, a look unfortunately common with boys in the catholic church. I’m not sure if he’s unhappy about what was about to happen, what just happened, or what was about to happen again.

As you go up to the cupola from the dome level the staircases get narrower and twistier, and at one point you have to bend your whole body to the right as the walls actually curve. It creates an optical illusion that is really disconcerting as you feel like you’re toppling over but it doesn’t last long, and then you finally get to a stone spiral staircase which takes you to the cupola and great views of the city. Rome is not a vertical town, it’s definitely got the urban sprawl thing going. The view is worth the effort, but I wouldn’t bother if it’s raining. The walk down served to emphasize just how many stairs we did on the way up; if we’d gone down any more I would expect to have reached Indonesia.

By this time it was mid-afternoon. We’d walked miles, explored tombs, and climbed to the highest point in the city and back down again. In other words, lunchtime! Vatican city restaurants are not famed for their value for money, but they are at least decent. We just picked one that was close to our route to the Vatican museum and plonked ourselves down. When it comes to money my view is that when you are on vacation you just have to stop caring how much everything costs, within reason of course. A trip is an investment of sorts. You’ve already put in airfare, hotels, transportation, guidebooks, tickets to sites, etc, etc all to spend a few days in a certain place. Spending an hour trying to save 10 euros is an incredible waste of your investment, you could have spent that hour making your trip worthwhile. If you’ve got a good guidebook and it recommends a cheap place that’s not far off your route then by all means go for it, just don’t spend loads of time scurrying around looking for a place where the carbonara is 1 euro less than the other identical places on the street places because your time is money. The place we picked was just fine, and compared to London just about everywhere is cheaper anyway. I have to say it was a welcome break and we recharged ourselves with pasta and beer.

The Vatican museum is part church, part Louvre. It’s incredibly holy and holy-shit at the same time. There’s corridors chock-full of frescoes, rooms full of paintings and sculpture, and closets full of knick-knacks from little bits of carved ivory to brass scientific instruments all interspersed with chapels seeming at random of which the Sistine chapel is one. They’ve done an amazing restoration job on Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I didn’t realize that before he did that he had never painted anything and that he got the job because his detractors hoped he’d discredit himself. Instead, he created one of the world’s greatest artworks. I’m surprised he didn’t paint himself giving them the finger.

I remember when I saw the Mona Lisa. It was a complete, utter disappointment because you couldn’t get near it and it was covered by tinted glass to protect it from flash photography. Add to that it’s pretty small; you’d need to stand directly in front of it to really see it and you can’t because: a) it’s roped off, and b) there are hoards of people raptly gazing at it for hours on end. I was expecting something similar with the Sistine chapel and I was completely right, except that since it’s on the ceiling it doesn’t matter how many thick-headed rubber-necking nitwits are in there with you, you have a perfectly unobstructed view that’s worth any wait to see. They could fill the room with raving madmen and it wouldn’t detract from the experience. What does, however, are all the Vatican security going “shhhhhhh!” every time anyone opens their mouth. Yes, it’s a place of worship, but they’re charging money to see it so in my view if I want to say “man that’s amazing!” I should be entitled to without disapproving Italian rent-a-cops frowning at me. Still a great thing to see.

After the chapel we quickly got tired of looking at cases of assorted blessed doo-dads and we wanted a bit of a break before heading out for my birthday dinner, so we escaped the Vatican and traipsed back through the windy streets back to our hotel and crashed out for a bit. Dinner we had at Casa Bleve, an enoteca near the Pantheon that is wine shop out front and restaurant in back, and is good in both roles. The service was impeccable with the Italian menu perfectly translated by the English-fluent staff. The food was very modern but still Italian in nature in that it let the food speak for itself. We started with a mixed anti-pasti platter for 2 which was partly different meats wrapped around different cheeses, and the rest was a selection of specialties like beef carpaccio (raw beef, really tasty) and other things I can’t remember except they were tasty. After that I had roast quail with potatoes and vegetables and it was scrumptious. The quail was crispy, juicy, and just the right gaminess. Claire had lamb that was about as rare as I’ve ever seen it, it wasn’t as good as the quail but still tasty. For dessert I had a mixed platter that had a little bit of everything like mousse, ice cream, a bit of tarte, with some nice tangy fruit reduction to go with it. They brought us a glass of champagne to start, we had a bottle of wine with dinner, and the brought a dessert wine with the sweet stuff that was to me almost better than the dessert itself. The service was attentive but not overdone and with a slight sense of humor. It was a memorable meal on a memorable day. If you want to splash out on a nice meal Casa Bleve was a good place to do it.

After this we strolled (more like rolled) past the moon-lit Pantheon and through the ancient cobbled streets back to our hotel where the teens were of course still wide awake.

On a evening in Roma – day 1

It’s every London traveler’s worst nightmare: I’ve got a flight to catch and the M25, the highway that runs around the city, is backed up. The fact that it wasn’t in the radio traffic report was either really good or really bad: they either didn’t report it because it was relatively minor and they’d rather devote more time to interviewing blithering idiots or they didn’t report it because they feared admitting the severity of it would trigger mass suicide and they were desperate to avoid liability. Fortunately it was the former and we soon got through it and were able to put our foot down.

We had decided to splurge and use air miles to go club class on British Airways, so once we dropped off our bags it was straight through security so we could ensconce ourselves in one of Heathrow terminal 5’s 10 billion BA club class lounges. We went to one in the north side and were promptly but politely told it was a first class lounge and we needed to go to the club class lounge which we did, who promptly told us we needed to go to the south club class lounge to be close to our departure gate, which of course turned out to be on the north side of the terminal. Schlepping commenced and ended up with us at long last comfortably seated on sofas with nice drinks and nicer food.

I have to say that club class or above is the way to go if you can swing it. No screwing around trying to find 2 seats together in the terminal, no having to get in stupidly long queues full of wound-up parents managing manic proto-adults or having to elbow your way to the bar past stag parties trying to outdo the hen parties in unruly drunkenness. Instead in the lounge all is calm, serene, and above all, free. Actually it’s complimentary which means that you’ve already paid for it but why quibble? There are large piles of bacon sandwiches. Good bacon sandwiches! Large bottles of good whisky and spirits are lined up in back of rows of clean glasses and decent wines are lined up in temperature controlled buckets. The fridges are packed with quality beer and cold sodas. Your flight is announced not only for your convenience but so you remember the reason you’re there is that you had planned on going somewhere.

It’s amazing how much 6 inches makes when traveling by air, because that’s about all the extra width you get when in club class as opposed to economy, but it really makes a difference. Instead of having to fight with your neighbor for the high ground of the armrest you both have one. Instead of having to spend hours with your arms rigidly pinned to your sides for fear of an escalating elbow-war you can stretch out a bit. After all the grub I’d scoffed at the lounge I couldn’t enjoy the chicken korma in-flight meal but my wife Claire said for airplane food it was pretty good. They bring fresh bread rolls and all the drinks you want.

The taxi driver we had for our trip into Rome city center proved categorically that the clinically insane can be warm and friendly. In fact, that seems to apply to most drivers in Rome. I’ve never seen 2 lanes accommodate 4 cars at highway speeds before, and I wish I hadn’t as I was in one of them; the one driving on the shoulder next to the central reservation. Having grown up in New York I’ve certainly had my share of white-knuckle cab rides, but generally the drivers there are businesslike and have some desire for self-preservation. When riding in a cab in Rome you get the feeling what the taxi driver creed there is the same as a Klingon warrior’s: “today is a good day to die”.

Fortunately our time was not then and we made it safely to our destination, at least as close as a car could fit. From there it was a short walk over narrow cobbled streets past the Trevi fountain to our hotel, at least what we thought was our hotel. It turns out it was part of a chain and the one we were actually booked in was a short distance away. We were told it would be 5 minutes before the driver would get there to take us and we should go and have a look at the Trevi fountain for awhile. Let’s see, he’ll be here in 5 minutes so come back in 20. That’s Italy!

Our hotel was neither the best nor the worst I’ve been in. It was comfortable enough but no frills. The only flaw was that is was full of teenage tour groups from all over the world who fully enjoyed shouting at each other day and night. Still, it was pretty central and was a good base from which to sally forth into the city, which we did after a brief unpacking session.

The first thing that you notice in Rome is that the city has a very low sidewalk to street ratio, and that the concept of pedestrian right-of-way is well understood but completely ignored. There’s pedestrian crossings and crosswalks which the Romans do actually for the most part obey, but they aren’t everywhere and there are some places where to get across you either have to walk half a mile out of your way to find a crosswalk, or take a deep breath then pick your moment and run like you are Indiana Jones escaping a collapsing temple.

Providing you survive getting across Via del Corso, thereby going from the ridiculously touristy Trevi fountain area to a slightly less touristy area that locals could bear to let themselves be seen in you will then notice that in Italy everyone has style. The whole place exudes it. When you step on a cobblestone you can see style oozing up through the cracks. Even the bums look good. It’s impossible as a tourist to be a part of that, you just have to accept that you are separate from it. It’s like there’s 2 parallel universes in any very touristy place: there’s the reality of the tourist who wants to see sites and absorb a different culture, and then there’s the reality of the local person who at the end of the day just wants to get by you. Tourists are so absorbed with all the new sights, sounds, smells, and in Rome the overriding desire not to get smeared over the hood of a Fiat that they don’t really see the people around them. The Romans on the other hand have been dealing with tourists for over 2,000 years and are by this time genetically predisposed to simply tune them out. It’s like me when I navigate my way through Covent Garden market on my way to the tube every night after work: intellectually I know the tourists are humans, I just am so tired of having to squeeze my way past nutwads who don’t think to get out of the way before they go into gawk mode that I just don’t care. They become living, moving, unpredictable traffic cones and it becomes a game weaving around them. I suspect the Romans thought of us the same way especially since Rome has so many gawk-worthy sites.

Leaving our hotel in search of culture, enlightenment, and above all food turned left onto via Quattro Fontane which quickly becomes via Sistina, a street with a great variety of shops. A good deal of them were shoe shops, mostly closed thankfully as they would have seriously tempted my wife’s resolve to seek out sustenance as soon as was realistically possible. We both saw seriously good possibilities for future aquisition of sartorial accessories along this stretch of road and filed it away for later. We both saw things we liked in windows and best of all the prices of many of the shops were less than an Apollo moon landing.

The shops thin out after a few blocks and soon you find yourself strolling casually along a nice stretch of picturesque street. Don’t get excited at this point if you’re new to Rome as just about everywhere in the historic city center is picturesque. A good guideline for Rome is that if you find yourself in an area where you aren’t thinking about camera angles you should start thinking about your personal safety. Anyway, soon you reach the Spanish Steps, in Italian the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, which I personally think look at their best at night. On any night when gigantic pieces of ice do not rain from the sky you will find romantic couples blocking your way all along the generous proportions of what is described as the longest and widest staircase in Europe. There’s a restaurant at the top we didn’t go to as the prices made our eyes hurt, but the views from the top looked fantastic and apparently it’s gotten good reviews so it would be a good choice of place to splash out if you’ve got something to prove or want to propose.

At the base of the steps is some of the most expensive shopping in Rome, but once you get a short distance away from it you get an interesting melange of shops where you alternately wonder where a decimal place has been miscalculated to where you desperately hope where a decimal place has been calculated. In the first type of place I often see things I like but have to talk myself into buying something because it’s so cheap I think there’s something wrong with it and in the second I back out slowly with my hands in plain view while holding my breath for fear of getting charged for the air. Interspersed with the shops and boutiques are the entrances to the local residences and plenty of bars and restaurants. It’s an area with something for everyone and we loved it.

After a bit of window licking and note taking for future reference we found an Enoteca Antica, a bar-restaurant that was recommended by our best friend the Lonely Planet. Inside was a very Italian-rustic feel with lots of wood and fresco-looking decoration that all worked to make you feel comfortable and ready for some good simple cooking. The staff were very friendly and spoke enough English to get past my non-existent Italian. They had a very extensive wine list with both extremes of prices the majority of which you can have by the glass. If I said I could remember what I drank I’d be lying because I can’t remember Italian wine regions but I can certainly remember the food as it was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, bar none. I started with Gnocchi pomodorro e basilico, potato pasta with a simple tomato and basil sauce and it was excellent. The Gnocchi was light and perfectly cooked and the sauce was full of good tomato flavor. Claire had meat ravioli with mushrooms and it was mouth-watering, even for me who prefers mushrooms to anywhere else but in my food. It was my second course of pork rib that really blew my mind. It was so tender I could eat it with just my fork, and the flavor was staggering! It must have been slow cooked for a week to become that savory and mouth-wateringly delicious. Fabulous.

After a truly excellent meal it was time for a leisurely stroll back to the hotel via the Tiber river where we had the unexpected opportunity to burn off some recently indulged calories. The night was more beautiful than you can expect for November in Europe, the sky was mostly clear with just some wispy clouds, and it was warm enough that a light jacket was plenty. The moon was out and hovering directly over the river, casting a luscious ambiance over the historic fortresses and bridges on the opposite side. As we walked under the huge trees lining the river we were happy to realize we were completely alone, no other tourists or locals had thought to venture this direction. This stretch of the river was ours and ours alone.

Actually, it turns out we had company: about 10 million starlings that make the center of Rome their winter retreat. During the day they go far and wide foraging for tasty morsels like olives and grain, but in the evening they like a sense of community and a frightening number of them shack up together for the night. In trees. Along the river. We gradually became aware of the racket of an enormous number of birds squawking above us.

We had company, lots of company with full digestive tracks.

As we walked felt some sort of impact on my head. Any thoughts of it being a nut were quickly abolished when my fingers encountered what was undoubtedly starling-shit. I immediately made that noise that is part blech, part gaaa, and all yech as I flung the offensive excrement off my offended extremity, followed by several choice words. I also may have invoked a deity in a non-religious context.

Once the first one had let go all the others got into the act like teenagers who just saw their friend get away with something naughty and a torrent of avian feces began to drop around us. There was nothing to do but leg it until we were out from under the tree cover, pelting down the lane as we were pelted by guano, alternately shouting words of encouragement to each other and swearing at the squadrons of feathered fiends poo-bombing us. Once clear we both agreed that a shotgun concession at that point would be a runaway money-maker.

After this unexpected exertion we had to replenish our calories so on the way back to the hotel we were forced to stop for a gelato. We swung back via the Trevi fountain, which was built in the 18th century mark the end of an aqueduct. The baroque edifice is situated in a fairly close square surrounded by pure touristiness. I fully expected not to like this overdone monstrosity but when I tried to put that expectation into practice I realized I couldn’t as I actually like it. It may be way too big for the space and also rediculously over the top but it’s also creative and graceful, and some of the touches are fantastically imaginative. Looking at the corners you see that the fountain is designed to look like it’s grown out of the facade of the building behind it as if it grew organically by the will of a god. At night it’s lit from below making the water seem to glow as it flows out of the fountain’s many chutes and flutes.

Our hotel may have been full of a billion loud teenagers from 5 continents all trying to get into their respective olympic screaming teams but after midnight amazing they all went to sleep, so I guess they were all exhausted from their exertions and everyone in the place performed a coordinated crash.