I only had three days in Rome, so I planned my time there more than I typically do to make sure I hit all the must-sees on my list. And I didn't make it to most of them. My pre-paid ticket for the Borghese Gallery went unused and I never did get to have my Audrey moment à la Roman Holiday at Bocca della Verita. But what I did do was so much better - I bar hopped around Trastevere with local Italians, now hold membership to a Roman speakeasy, and took in panoramic views of the city after enjoying a fresh croissant at 5am from a 24-hour café. Rome taught me that rolling with the punches can lead to once in a lifetime memories; the museums and galleries will still be there 5, 10, or 25 years from now, but how often do you get invited to the grand opening of an Italian members-only bar?! Sorry, Bernini, I'll see you next time.
One of the places I did actually make it to was the Vatican to see the Sistine Chapel and one of my favorite frescoes, The School of Athens. Being the art nerd I am, I purchased an early entrance ticket to guarantee that I'd be able to enjoy arguably one of Michelangelo's most famous achievements in relative peace, without hoards of tourists crammed into the small room. Of course I was a total rebel and ignored the warnings of "no photos," trying to stealthily capture an image of the ceiling without being noticed by the guards. After taking my time in the chapel, imagining Michelangelo hunched over and attempting to avoid getting paint dripped into his eye, I made my way to the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello. I had always been fascinated by the Raphael's work, which represents the philosophers of ancient Greece. His use of perspective leads the viewer's eye to the two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, however what most don't know is that Raphael modeled many of the philosophers off of his fellow contemporaries; Leonardo di Vinci can clearly be recognized in Plato, while architect Bramante is portrayed as Euclid, and painter Sodoma can be seen next to a self-portrait of Raphael, himself. Michelangelo can also be seen brooding in the lower front as the philosopher Heraclitus. Being able to experience this work up close and personal after only admiring it from books and PowerPoints in dimly lit lecture halls made my little art nerd heart explode with appreciation and admiration for the Renaissance artist.
I met Veronique on the app, CouchSurfing, which allows travelers to connect with locals for accommodation or to just meet up. She had seen my public trip and asked if I'd be interested in meeting for a drink after work. I brought along a couple other people I had met along the way and a couple of her childhood friends joined as well, and our group of two quickly turned into six. Veronique was adorable - in her mid-twenties, she was shorter than I am (difficult since I'm only 5'1), fashionably Roman, and just about the sweetest person I ever met who genuinely just wanted to meet other people and practice her English. We took over an outside table at Big Star, Veronique's favorite pub in Travestere, and spent a few hours chatting about what it was like to grow up in Rome (they all hated it) and laughing at each others' failed attempts at Italian/English. As the pub began to empty and none of us were ready to call it a night, her friends suggested popping into a couple more bars in the area they knew would still serve us even though it was past two o'clock in the morning - hanging with locals definitely has it's advantages! After a couple shots of grappa and more laughs, we ended the night sharing a cigarette (or maybe a spliff, take your pick) in an empty piazza in the middle of Rome, leaving me counting my blessings for the kindness of strangers and how travel can lead to the most surprising but memorable experiences. Before we all bid buona notte and swapped cheeks to kiss, Veronique invited us to her friend's bar opening the next night. As the place was a little outside of Rome proper, she offered to organize transportation with either her or one of her friends that was going. The other American guy was leaving the next day, but myself and the French girl, Maude, happily agreed and Veronique said she'd be in touch (never accept rides from strangers, blah blah - sorry, mom). Fast forward to sleeping through my Borghese Gallery tour the next morning, Veronique messaged Maude and myself directions on where to meet her later that night. After a couple wrong turns, Maude and I managed to find the correct tram to take us to her stop in the suburbs and from there we all piled into cars and headed across the Tiber River. We pulled up outside a nondescript door that featured symbols and writing from nearly every religion imaginable and were waved inside by an Italian man who knew Veronique and her friends. After quickly filling out a simple form, I can now say I am a proud member of L'alchimista and still have the membership card as a fond reminder of that night. And just a reminder as to how small the world actually is, I met a guy here who, when he found out I was from Boston, excitedly told me how he's been to Boston several times to visit family and help run their pastry shop in North End: "It's called Modern Pastry, do you know it?" DO I KNOW IT?! Everyone in Boston knows it and it's only one of the biggest city-wide debates, Mike's vs Modern. Small freakin' world I tell you. The next thing I know it's nearly 4:30 in the morning, and Veronique's friend Cristian offers to drive Maude and myself back to our respective hostels, but first says he wants to show us something special. Ok, yes this sounds creepy, but neither of us really had a choice and this was now our second time hanging out with Cristian so we figured it was safe (again, sorry, mom). And not only was it just fine, but the "something special" turned out to be one of the best views of Rome from an overlook at La Zodiaco. They even had a replica of Bocca della Verita, so I guess you could say I did see it, after all. From there, we made a pit stop at a 24-hour cafe that had the best croissants and Cristian treated us to a quick shot of espresso before dutifully bringing us back to our respective hostels. With my train to Naples leaving in 5 hours, I managed to catch a few zzz's before running out the door and to the train station the next morning.
The moral of my Roman story? Sometimes the best plans are no plans.