I remember my first time in Europe, back in the ‘80’s just after graduating from university. I landed in Rome after a ten hour overnight flight from South Africa. I’d never been abroad before. I was only just becoming aware of a world outside my provincial community which existed within a very confined territory (literally and figuratively). I was truly clueless. I was going to be in Italy for a week – en route to the USA – and I had no guide book and no map. Maps? I’d never used one in my life. In fact, maps were totally alien in my community. I did however, have a youth hostel card – something my travel agent equipped me with. So I knew I had to figure out how to get to a youth hostel and somehow I also knew I first had to get to Rome’s central train station.
I was full of apprehension as I made my way out of the airport and into a train that took me to the central train station. Thankfully at the station I spotted a tourist information office. I remember being so surprised at how friendly the TI folks were as they explained the metro stop for the youth hostel. I exchanged traveler’s checks for lira, and bought a metro ticket which turned out to be really expensive because I didn’t wait for my change! The ticket officer counted out the coins first, and before he could hand me my bills I was already on the escalator down to the platform! My first subway train ride – wow, it was fast!
I was so happy and proud of myself when I arrived at the youth hostel. But when they told me that there was no availability at all I was shattered. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t planned on this possibility. I didn’t know what to do. Of course, I was traveling on an extremely limited budget too. I sat on a bench outside the youth hostel and felt sorry for myself. I was thousands of miles away from home for the first time in my life. I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t speak the language of this country. And I felt exhausted too, since I hadn’t had much sleep on my first ever international flight. What was I to do? I was close to tears.
I returned to the central train station and went to the TI office. A very helpful lady asked me what my budget was and then suggested a place which she circled on a city map of Rome. I was both relieved and worried as I left the station. I scrutinized the map wondering how to translate this two dimensional representation of Rome’s streets into a 3D reality. Then a well dressed young man came up to me. “You looking for place to stay?”
“I take you to pension.”
I had nothing to lose so I decided to follow him. Ten minutes later we arrived at a charming old building. We walked up the marble steps and as soon as we entered the building all of my apprehension vanished instantly. A stout middle aged Italian woman with the sweetest, warmest smile extended her hand to me. Coming from apartheid South Africa I wasn’t used to strangers, especially white people, embracing me in such a welcoming way. When I found out that the cost was $15 a night I was overjoyed. Then I discovered the concept of the pension – budget style accommodation. I was shown to my room. There were six single beds. On one of the beds a young woman was sound asleep. I loved the place even more. I had no idea that this type of thing existed – where you basically rented a bed in a room that you shared with other travelers. There was one bathroom shared by 10 people – both men and women. The place was clean and the décor was quaintly old Europe.
Within a few hours of being at the pension I met my roommates. They were all in their early twenties. Two women were from Sacramento, California, one was from Australia, and one from Argentina. I was relieved to be in the company of English speakers. They were super-friendly and invited me to do things with them. I was amazed at how savvy these young people were. They all had guide books (Let’s Go Europe) and maps and were very clear about the sites they wanted to see. They also knew how to travel on a budget. For lunch we bought fresh, crusty bread, cheese, and fruit. For dinner we mostly ate take-out pizza which was always yummy. As we traversed the narrow, cobbled streets of Rome I got to know my roommates better and thoroughly enjoyed being with them. The Australian, Mary, was on a one year trip around the world and she and I became quite close in our brief time together. The very first famous monument I visited was the Coloseum. In the ‘80’s it was free to see it and it consisted of just a semi-circular wall. But it looked pretty impressive all the same.
I fell in love with Rome’s beauty and elegance. Ornate old buildings with impressive columns, lively squares, beautiful fountains, and eye-catching sculpture all over the city. I visited the Vatican and saw Michaelangelo’s famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I discovered gelato and capucchino.
It was April and the temperature was perfect – a bit cool, but very comfortable. On my first evening I was surprised that it was still light at 8:00. “They’ve switched to daylight savings time,” I was told. Another brand new concept to me. Wow, the world outside South Africa was so much more sensible!
After three days in Rome all my roommates were moving on to new places. It made me sad to see them packing their bags. The Californians suggested I go with them. “Sorrento is on the Amalfi Coast. Supposed to be beautiful there.” I realized I’d seen the highlights of Rome so why not explore a new place? So I packed my things and joined them on the train journey to Sorrento.
Sorrento’s beauty took me by surprise. The town was very much smaller than Rome, but oh so charming, right beside the magical Mediterranean. We stayed at the youth hostel here. It was dirt cheap - $5.00 a night. We spent an exhilarating evening walking around the narrow, quiet streets and ate dinner at a real restaurant. The next day my friends were taking the train south. They were going to Greece next. They suggested I take a ferry to the Isle of Capri for the day. I was alone again and of course, nervous. But my confidence was building up and I found it quite easy to work out logistics. Before getting on the ferry I bought my lunch (bread roll and mozzarella) from a small, but well stocked store. The ferry was huge – the biggest boat I’d ever been on. It was a smooth, quick ride to the Isle of Capri. I had no real expectations of this island. So imagine my surprise when I got off the ferry! The turquoise of the Mediterranean seemed unreal. And the steep, sheer cliffs of the island took my breath away. A funiculare took me to the top where more jaw dropping beauty greeted me. I remember the first thing I did was to sit at a central café to take in the island’s charm. I ordered an orange juice. It cost $5.00! I nearly died. That was my budget for the day! I got a map from the TI and strolled around the island. About an hour into my walk I ran into Mary. She gave me a big hug. Together we explored the island. At lunch time we went into a park to find a nice place to sit and eat. Two American women – a mother and daughter - struck up a conversation with us along the way. They invited us to join them on their picnic lunch and shared their wine with us. The mother had recenty visited South Africa so we got into an involved conversation about apartheid. Their knowledge and understanding of racism really impressed me. I had such a great time. How was it that people, white people, outside of South Africa were so friendly? To be treated with such respect and as an equal just flummoxed me. After our long lunch I returned to Sorrento by myself and actually spent the evening alone for the first time since arriving in Italy. The next day I returned to Rome by myself, found my pension easily and spent the evening alone, exploring the area and taking in Rome’s vibrancy.
What a week! What an unbelievable, wonderful, unforgettable week!
And now I pack my bags and hope that the next weeks will bring fulfilling memories too.