Six years ago, when I first visited Rome, I’d slept uncomfortably on the rock-hard couches in my friend’s flat. We’d crammed all that Rome had to offer into just three days and I’d left feeling exhausted, despite the number of gelatos I’d gorged on. This time, I hoped, I’d be in a cozy, proper hotel like the one we’d enjoyed in Verona. Wrong.
Hotel Mariana was located in a dodgy grid of graffiti’d streets just beside Termini Station. The interior looked like it hadn’t been remodeled since the 70s; my room was a gilded number with padded walls and a stifling moldy odor that suggested someone had died (and subsequently been stuffed in the walls, a la Edgar Allan Poe) or the hotel had failed to install pipes, letting the water run freely through the wall. For the sake of my sanity – and lungs – I hefted my things down to Alex’s. Her room didn’t smell much better, but we figured it would be easier to endure in company. The fact that we had each other also made it easier to deal with the gigantic crawl space in the wall. Hidden by two swinging doors, the crawl space was a small cavern that could have easily harbored a lunatic, or a skeleton. The hole was high up, just below the ceiling, so it was difficult for us to see if anyone was inside. Unnerved, we had David and a student examine the inside of the crawl space each night to ensure that no killer lurked inside, waiting to swan dive out at us in the night.
“I thought you were a rugby player,” one of my students commented at the airport. “You’re not supposed to be afraid of stuff.”
I wanted to defend my dignity by telling him tales of dismembered bodies in hotel mattresses, but thought it unwise.
The area around Termini station reflected the seedy atmosphere of the hotel. We took the kids to a restaurant nearby, recommended by the concierge, called Giuseppe’s. Owned by two Indian men, Giuseppe’s Italian roots stopped at its name – and its checkered tablecloths. The food appeared to have been microwaved, and Alex’s cutlet looked like it’d lived a long life in a freezer before it landed on her plate.
After eating, we asked the students to delegate one person per room to accompany Alex and I to the grocery store for snacks. We’d been told that there was a grocery in the basement of the train station (why not?), so Alex and I set out with six “snack captains” to scope it out. The kids went all out, buying milk, Oreos, cheese, chips, and the makings of a small feast.
“You don’t have fridges in your hotel rooms,” I reminded one group, who exchanged worried looks over the bottles of milk. (Later that evening, during room check, we saw a number of students sipping on cups of milk to finish it off.) Watching these kids lug dozens of grocery bags past waiting trains was hilarious. We made it back safely, but Alex and I ventured out again in search of wine only to be confronted by a leery drunkard stumbling out of a very divey bar down the road.
We visited a number of places on our trip to Rome, from the Vatican to the Colosseum. I’d been there before, six years ago, but seeing it again with a tour guide and some very inquisitive Egyptian students was a totally new experience. Our Vatican tour guide was fantastic. Having spent some time in Egypt, she practiced her Arabic with the students (to their delight) and tried to make connections between Catholicism and Islam. For their part, my students were fantastic. They were attentive, respectful, and politely inquisitive. I had worried they wouldn’t enjoy the museum or would want to rush through the Sistine Chapel, but I was pleasantly wrong. We spent twenty minutes in the Sistine Chapel, admiring the ceiling and Michelangelo’s self portrait on the wall.
In Anzio, the site of a WWII battle, the kids met a veteran named Alfredo who worked as the museum curator. It was lovely seeing them all scramble to get a photograph with him. (And he has family in New Jersey. Go figure.)
Despite all of this, the students had a different highlight of the trip to Rome. On our second to last night, we took everyone to Trastavere, a quaint district with lots of cute sidewalk cafes and cobblestone streets (that was very safe to explore). We’d been told that it would be easy to grab a bus from there back to Termini, but upon inquiring at a restaurant, we learned that the nearest bus station was across a bridge on the other side of the river.
We walked the kids over the bridge and lingered under a bus station sign, unconvinced that this was the stop. Twenty minutes later, after asking passersby, police, and the owner of an antique shop, we were directed to another bus station down the road. Once there, we located the bus we would need and decided to cram all of the kids onto the already-packed bus. Sandwiched on the bus, one of the kids shouted, “This is awesome!”
“What’s awesome?” Alex asked.
“So…if you had to pick your favorite thing today, like, this or St. Peter’s Basilica, what would it be?”
“Oh this. Definitely this.”
We ended up getting off at the wrong stop and having to walk the rest of the way back, but the students were delighted. They also enjoyed their metro experience the following afternoon at the Spanish Steps, where we split into three groups and pushed them through the doors and into the crowded cars at rush hour.
I remember on safari how the bus breakdown served as a bonding experience, and in many ways, getting lost in Rome with 22 kids was pretty similar. Everyone who travels gets lost on occasion, and there’s something to be said about navigating your way around town using maps, people, and signs. But navigating unfamiliar territory with teenagers you’re responsible for sounds pretty daunting. Still, they were very well-behaved and seemed to enjoy watching us get our bearings and find our way back, and they found the idea of public transportation to be nothing short of exciting.
We left Rome on a Thursday afternoon, arriving safely in Cairo that night with plenty of time to rest and recuperate. There’s nothing like coming back from a school trip to a week off for half-term.