I hurried toward the security checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport, en route to my first international engineering conference. My feet hurt, my nerves jittered, and my head was a block of wood from lack of sleep. I had never been to Rome, or even Europe for that matter, and I really didn’t want to be here.
Two weeks previously, I didn’t even have a passport. Now my virgin passport, itinerary, makeup, credit cards, and the inevitable stash of “must-have” medication filled my bulging purse. The conference materials and an oversized, hardback novel fought for space in the laptop case rolling at my heels. My suitcase lay somewhere in the belly of the plane. And I was going alone.
Most of the conference team were bringing their spouses. My husband, Robert, should have been with me; however, we hadn’t planned or budgeted for a trip to Europe. My expenses were covered by the conference, but bringing my husband would have cost us an additional $3000. My going alone made sense, and we were sensible people. Still, I’d done years of solo business travel without this odd, hollow feeling.
I had planned to fly out of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Monday, November 2, arrive in Rome and attend the pre-meeting on Tuesday, do the conference, and fly home on Friday. Get in, get out, get it over with. My minimal plan did not survive a follow-up phone call from Tom Laubaum, our conference manager.
“It won’t work. Fly in that late, and you’ll still be jet-lagged on Wednesday. Rome is ten hours ahead of Arizona. Changing time zones will be harder for you than the rest of us.”
Most of the team was starting their trip from the east coast.
“I can sleep on the plane,” I lied.
“You need to fly out on Friday,” Tom insisted, “Phoenix to JFK in New York, then JFK to FCO in Rome. We’ll arrive mid-morning on Saturday, and Mel has three days of team building scheduled. He expects you to be there.” Mel was our conference team leader.
“Why JFK?” Travelocity.com had routed my choice of flights through Atlanta.
“Mel wants everyone on the same flight coming into Rome. We’ve leased minivans to meet us at the airport and take us to the hotel.” I bowed to the inevitable, and Tom gave me the connecting flight number and time. “Got your passport?”
“Not yet,” I admitted.
“Well, get it fast. You’ve only got six weeks, and you can’t book your hotel room without it.”
That, I had not realized. I managed to expedite everything needed to get my passport on time, and my panic settled down to roiling anxiety. Bad enough to be the only woman traveling solo in our group; our European colleagues expected a presentation team in formal business wear, representing the best of America’s nuclear professionals. Instead, they’d be getting a short, overweight, middle-aged woman with only one engineering degree, travel anxiety issues, and nothing to wear.
I managed to find two plus-sized tailored business ensembles at Dillard’s. My passport came through, and I faxed the necessary pages to the hotel in Rome. I’d fly out of Phoenix at 6:15 am on Friday, October 30, and meet up with the conference team at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Thursday night, it took me three hours to pack. I finally moved my suitcase from our bedroom to the dining room table so Robert could get some sleep. Maxi, our miniature dachshund, spent the evening staring woefully at me. He knew that big red suitcase meant I’d be gone for at least a week. Packing done, I let him curl up next to me on the bed to apologize for my imminent desertion and spent the next three hours trying to doze off. Robert never stirred.
We woke up and got moving at 3:00 am. I did a last-minute check before we left the house: laptop, cell phone, camera, and cables; adaptors for European power outlets; passport, with extra copies in my purse; personal care items and medication; and the emergency contact numbers for the conference team. I gave him a copy of that last item, “just in case,” and cuddled Maxi for a few minutes. We drove to the airport in silence. When we reached Sky Harbor, Robert set my luggage and laptop case on the curb and hugged me.
“Next time,” I told him, “you’re getting your passport and coming with me. I don’t care if we have to charge the tickets.”
My amiable husband finally caught on. Travel went with my job, and I usually relished it. This time, he could see it was a miserable chore. “We’ll do something special when you get back, okay?” I nodded and hugged him back, and he kissed me goodbye. It helped. I reached the Delta ticket counter and handed over my e-ticket and passport.
“Vacation?” The ticket agent asked, perking up when she noticed my destination.
The quick check-in left me with a bit of extra time, and a book at Hudson Booksellers caught my eye. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I bought the book, wedged it into my laptop case, and headed for the gate.
Tom Laubaum and his wife, Debbie, met me at the international gate at JFK. Both were dressed casually for warmth and comfort and excited about this trip. Debbie showed me a paperback labeled Pocket Rome.
“It’s a travel guide by Rick Steves,” she enthused. “He’s great. I’m using this one to plan our tours in Rome. You packed walking shoes?”
I nodded. Then I spotted Mel Arey, who introduced me to his wife, Kathy. Behind them came Tony Nowinowski, our project manager, and his wife, Dee, who I’d met at other conferences. Everyone but me was excited about our upcoming flight and destination. None of them, I thought grumpily, had been up at 3:00 am to make it to the airport.
Despite my lack of sleep, Rothfuss’s novel kept me awake for most of the flight. The plane was half-empty, and I had an entire row to myself. Around midnight, eastern time, I moved to the window seat and peered into the darkness below. The lights of several cargo ships were visible through a thin curtain of clouds.
By the time we set down at Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport, made it through customs, and piled into the waiting minivans, I’d been up for twenty hours with barely three hours’ sleep. I’d collapse as soon as we reached the hotel, checked in, and I could drag body, laptop, and luggage up to my room.
Our ride ended atop a massive hill where the Marriott Grand Flora held court like some Grande Dame out of the past century. I stared at the neoclassic pink and white building and looked across the road at a looming, red brick wall, perhaps 40 feet in height and 10 feet thick. Sports cars passed through its ancient arches. Mel tipped our drivers generously, and one of them insisted on moving my suitcase to the hotel’s lobby. I nodded at the wall.
The driver smiled, pleased at my interest. “The Aurelian Walls? They were built in the third century, but that road goes back to before the time of the Christ.” He pointed to one of the arches. “The Porta Pinciana, the gate that welcomed travelers to ancient Rome.”
I studied the wall, reluctantly impressed. “And the hotel?”
“The Grand Flora? Perhaps one hundred years.” He gestured grandly at its topmost level. “There is no finer view. From the terrace, you can see the Tiber River and the Basilica.” He rolled my suitcase into the lobby and refused an additional tip.
I wanted to head up to the terrace to check out that view before collapsing in my room like a dead woman, but Mel had other plans. After check-in, he granted us a mere 30 minutes to settle into our rooms before reporting to the lobby. I unpacked and managed a quick shower before changing into fresh casual clothes and those ‘sturdy walking shoes.’
Once everyone returned to the lobby, Mel eyed us like a general reviewing his troops. “We’re going to take a walk and grab some lunch along the way,” he announced. “It will help everyone switch to local time.” No one groaned — quite. “First stop is the Spanish Steps. After that, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and –” Mel waved his hands, a bit maniacally. “Other stuff!” He nodded to the Laubaums. “Debbie’s our tour guide,” Debbie dutifully raised her copy of Pocket Rome, “and at the end of our walk, there’s a little surprise.”
I quickly discovered why we needed those “sturdy walking shoes.” In Rome, the older streets and sidewalks are made of dark, volcanic rock carved into sharp-edged, cube-shaped cobblestones. They’re set just far enough apart to catch a narrow heel and twist an ankle.
I could easily tell the local women from the tourists; they were the slim, agile females navigating the cobblestones with surreal ease — in 4-inch spiked heels! Few of them smiled, though. Navigating those stones took every scrap of their attention.
We reached the Steps at noon, having stopped for paninis along the way. The sun flooded the plaza below us with light. To the west, the Tiber River passed smoothly under Holy Angel Bridge, sparkling under a vivid blue sky. Farther west, St. Peter’s Basilica rose above Vatican City. To the south, I glimpsed the ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. I turned to Mel, who was grinning like a kid.
“So. Tours?” I gestured toward the distant Colosseum.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “but that’s for tomorrow. We also have tickets for the Borghese Museum, right after breakfast. It’s a short walk,” he added, “and after lunch, we’ll take the metro to the Colosseum and the Forum.” Mel looked toward the Trinità dei Monti church rising majestically above the Spanish Steps. “You might want some souvenirs,” he suggested.
I followed his gaze to the street vendors clustered in front of the church. Paintings, giclée canvas reproductions, and watercolor prints abounded. Mel’s wife, Kathy, was already exploring the offerings. I moved toward some prints, matted, signed, and ready for framing, gestured to the artist for permission to browse, and pointed at a large watercolor of St. Peter’s Basilica, gleaming in the sun above the Tiber River.
“Thirty euros, Senora.” Kathy heard, caught my eye, and mouthed, too much. Thirty euros was a lot. I smiled at the artist but shook my head and picked up a smaller print. “Ten euros.” I shook my head again but set it beside the larger print. Next, I selected a small print of the Pantheon. The artist said nothing, only waited. Finally, I picked up a small print of the Colosseum, adding it to the others, and looked at him. ‘Sixty euros, Senora.’ I sighed and walked away. “Forty euros?”
I rummaged in my purse for my personal funds and thrust forty euros into his hands. He bagged my purchases and passed them over, and we smiled together in perfect understanding. Speaking Italian was easier than I thought.
The rest of our group made its way down the Spanish Steps. I followed, my mood lifting. The Trevi Fountain waited down there somewhere, and the Pantheon, and doubtless, more … stuff, as Mel would say. Rome, in all her glory. I might never pass this way again. So don’t waste it.
At the end of that walk, and a visual feast of famous statues, buildings, fountains, and plazas, we finally reached Mel’s surprise: the minivans, waiting to haul our exhausted legs and throbbing feet back up the Via Veneto to our hotel.
We ate dinner that night family-style, at a casual restaurant within a short walk of the Grand Flora, and Dee Nowinoski introduced me to limoncellos by way of therapy for sore, tired feet. I studied the spousal contingent as we sampled the sweet, lemon-flavored drink. Plain and simple, the ladies accepted me as one of their own. We passed cameras around and compared our digital bounty collected during the day’s wanderings. My mood lifted. Maybe it was the limoncello.
“The trick,” Dee said, tapping her glass against mine, “is to have a great time in Rome, take a ton of pictures to make Robert jealous he’s not here, and get his passport ordered early next year so he won’t have an excuse to beg off.” Debbie and Kathy nodded in unison.
“Coming along on these conferences is our reward for putting up with all the guys’ other business travel.” Dee rolled her eyes toward Tony, her husband, and wrinkled her nose. “Robert just needs a bit of prodding. Next year, we’re in Barcelona.” All three women looked at me expectantly.
I nodded, a little embarrassed to be read so easily. “Thank you. We’ll be there.” I looked down at my camera, my heart suddenly lighter. I had allies. I’d managed to snap over 200 pictures in less than four hours, and some were actually frame-worthy. I emailed the best of them home that night but refrained from adding any sub-text. The pictures spoke for themselves.
The next morning found us walking to the nearby Borghese Museum. Cardinal Borghese had built his palatial home to serve as an art mecca during the Italian Renaissance, and it contained some of the finest paintings and sculptures of that era. Dee and I spent entirely too much time staring at a magnificent marble sculpture, the La Dea Paolina Bonaparte, a life-sized rendition of a young noblewoman reclining on a sumptuous bed of marble. Gracefully undraped in a portrayal of Venus, she held the apple awarded to her by Paris, whose decision to accept her bribe had destroyed ancient Troy.
“Nice boobs,” I finally commented, “but she obviously didn’t do Pilates.” Dee turned beet red, trying to strangle the laughter that threatened to erupt in the crowded gallery. It wouldn’t do for us to be thrown out!
That afternoon we visited Old Rome and toured the Colosseum. It was oddly peaceful and filled, incongruously, with grace notes of verdant grass and wildflowers. All that bloody history had aged it into a vast serenity. From the Colosseum, we hiked to the Roman Forum and wandered through stone ruins, bereft now of the bright paint and red tile roofs that had been a hallmark of the place in its prime.
Dinner that night was at yet another “traditional” Italian restaurant. Near the end of the meal, Mel signaled for the staff to bring the desserts. He ordered two of each, served family-style — my introduction to tiramisu.
When I returned to my room, it was 10:00 pm in Rome but only 12:00 pm in Arizona, and the caffeine in the tiramisu had me wide awake. Robert answered on the first ring.
“Maxi misses you,” he told me.
“Is he okay?” I hadn’t thought of Maxi or Robert for most of the day.
“I took him to the vet. No fever, but he lost his appetite and moped for two days. The vet said he’s fine, though. He spends most of his time on my lap when I’m home.”
This was news. Robert and Maxi usually just tolerated each other. The image of Robert and Maxi sitting huddled on the couch in our TV room made me smile.
“I miss you,” I offered.
“I miss you too. Got your pictures. Send me some more, okay?”
Our final day of sightseeing began with everyone meeting in the lobby at 6:00 am, passports in hand, for a van ride to Vatican City and a private tour of the Sistine Chapel. The docent who escorted us waited until we stood beneath Michelangelo’s greatest painting before gesturing to the nearby Swiss Guards, who smiled and said, “No flash.” For this brief window of time, the prohibition on photography was rescinded.
For forty-five minutes, we lay on the floor like children, taking pictures of the Chapel’s ceiling and walls. The rest of the morning was a guided tour through the museums and galleries of the Vatican until we found ourselves inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, overwhelmed by the transcendent beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta. We wandered through the massive structure, marveling at its incredible artistry and detail until Dee decided we should walk up the three hundred steps to the top of the great dome. At that point, I begged off and caught a taxi back to the Grand Flora for a hot soak and an early dinner.
The conference itself passed in a blur. Mel and the rest of the team seemed happy with my presentations, and several attendees spoke with me during the evening reception. “Next year’s conference? Rome again?” They seemed to think I had influence in the choice of our conference location.
“Barcelona,” I told them. “Maybe Rome the following year.”
My flight home wasn’t until noon, local time, so I joined the team for one last breakfast. Dee, Kathy, Debbie, and I all hugged each other.
“Next year?” Debbie asked. I nodded and gave her another hug.
“You bring the Pocket wherever.”
“And you bring Robert!”
I nodded again and wiped at my eyes. I didn’t want to go.
I headed back to the airport, checked in, and browsed through Rothfuss’s novel while I waited for the call to board. One passage caught my attention.
He stepped to the edge, looked down, and without a second thought he stepped out into the open air… So Taborlin fell, but he did not despair. For he knew the name of the wind, and so the wind obeyed him…
I’d known, after all, how to make this journey. I would not fear the wind a second time.