MR. & MRS. PENFIRE ARRIVE IN ROME

At Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumincio Airport, having survived our 12-hour flight, emerging from baggage claim and customs and realizing there was no driver holding up a sign with our name to welcome us, John retrieved his printout from the shuttle service he had booked. Okay, we failed to read the complete message on our confirmation printout.
Yes it said “Our driver/assistant will be waiting for you after the luggage claim and customs holding a sign with your name…” but the sentence did not end there. The rest of it said “…in front of our desk with logo COTAV-FIAVET situated at Terminal T3 International arrivals along the exit direction, just opposite the Coffee Bar Moka.” Uh oh!

We showed the paper to a dapper member of the carabinieri (and, yes, the Italian officers do have the exquisitely tailored uniforms with red piping on collars and cuffs—just like in the movies!); he pointed us in the right direction. We saw others waiting at the designated spot—a weary-looking couple standing beside their luggage, a woman seated at the nearby coffee shop, rolling suitcase at her knee, preteen child hanging off her neck. (I wonder: Is the shuttle service in cahoots with the coffee shop? I mean, weary travelers have little choice but to drink coffee (or something), eat pastry (or something) during interminable wait for their ride.)

John found the appropriate desk (well, window, really) on the second try. And for sure, there was no driver or assistant standing in front of it holding a sign with our name. After checking with the dispatcher (or was this the “assistant”?) and being told our van would be along “soon” we took up our post nearby and waited…and waited… until one young couple showed up…and then another. Obviously, our driver was not going to materialize until a vanful of passengers had assembled.

Eventually, a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit stalked briskly up to the window. The dispatcher emerged from the tiny office where she had held sway at the check-in window. Clutching her clipboard she read off names. “Blake.” We were first. That’s what happens when the first letter of your last name is close to the front of the alphabet. She rattled off the other names and handed the clipboard to the driver, who instructed us to follow along. He walked briskly ahead trailing the scent of cigarette smoke. He led us out of the terminal, across a busy street, into a parking garage, past many shiny Mercedes black vans to his dusty, dented vehicle. He turned to John and me: “You are staying at Minerva Relais?” It wasn’t really a question. “That’s a very nice place. I’ll drop you off first. You sit in front.”

With all of us, and our luggage aboard, the driver guided our van out of the garage, out of the airport, onto the autostrada, and we made our way into the Eternal City. Green fields crisscrossed by high-tension wires bordered the highway; this was not the dense urban setting I had expected. But that quickly changed. Soon we were zooming down city streets among old, older, and ancient buildings, interspersed with parks and piazzas. There wasn’t a skyscraper in sight, for in Rome’s historic center, no building is allowed to be taller than St. Peter’s Basilica.

The city’s traffic lived up to its notorious reputation; too many cars, moving too fast, on streets too narrow to accommodate them. Horns honked and in the distance, sometimes near, sometimes far, the siren wail of one emergency vehicle or another. John noted cars arrogantly parked on median strips. And it was clear we were in a European city; there were no garish strip malls in sight (in fact, over the next three weeks we never spied a shopping mall; if such exist in Italy, they are certainly well hidden, far from “tourismo” destinations).

The driver spoke to me in solicitous low tones, “This is your first time in Rome? I’ll point out things I know along the way.” Of the sights he mentioned, the only two I can remember are the Basilica of St. Paul, and the Circus Maximus. And then with proud ceremony, he pulled up in front of Grand Hotel Minerva Relais. I knew, from having studied my map that we were near our hotel, whose name was very similar. “We’re not staying here!” I told him. “Ours is Hotel Minerva Relais; it’s on Via Marmo.” His disappointment …and disgust (?)… were palpable. He sped around a couple of corners, stopped, unloaded our bags and waved us away. “You can walk from here….” Of course, that was necessary as Marmo was a Via del Piè (pedestrian way). Still, his dismissal of us was unceremonious at best. Clearly, he’d had us pegged as rich Americans staying at the most expensive place by far of any of our van-mates, and therefore, the most likely to give him a big tip. (In fact, John was so perturbed with the entire Airport Van experience from beginning to end that he gave the poor guy nothing at all.)

It’s a bit unnerving to drag your rolling suitcase down the sidewalks of a cobblestone street in an ancient, unknown city, searching for your “hotel” and finding, finally, only a giant locked door, a brass name plate, and an array of intercom buttons. But this is what happens when you book what you think of as a hotel room, forgetting the online description: “We renovated vintage apartments .…” Of course. Our hotel was housed just a portion of a very old apartment building!

Yes, the buzzer system worked, and soon Sebastian, one of the managers, opened the door and helped us up two flights of stairs to the “Front Desk,” where he checked us in and spent a generous amount of time marking up a map of the city to show us where we were in relation to places we wanted to see; we asked about where to eat and he wrote down a few names, marking locations on the map.

It was just a half flight up to the elevator, which whisked us to the fourth floor and our very nice room. Complete with balcony

We had truly arrived.