Italy, Part I: Rome Recap

There’s a balance I try to strike on big trips, between living in the moment but also pausing long enough to reflect and document – whether by taking photos, jotting down the name of a restaurant, or writing a paragraph about the magic of a particular moment. I want to be in the best position possible to recapture, or at least recall, all those impactful experiences once I’m home.

I returned on Tuesday from a week (and change) in Italy, and I’m taking time now to sift through my notes, look back on photos, and put all my memories and travel tips together in a coherent story. Already, there are moments I’ve forgotten, but I was careful on this trip not to let a major memory escape my notes.

The basic trip details: I traveled with my sister, Hope, who lives in Germany, and my roommate, Jeanine. The three of us did Munich, Salzburg, and Prague together last year, so we feel good about our travel dynamic. We all flew into Rome on a Monday morning; we stayed there until Thursday morning, when we traveled by train and ferry to Positano on the Amalfi coast. We left Positano on Saturday afternoon for Sorrento, which became our home base until Monday (we took a day trip to Capri on Sunday). On Monday morning, we stopped and toured Pompeii on our way back to Rome (Hope left from Naples, which is reachable from Pompeii by commuter rail, and Jeanine and I caught a train in Naples back to Rome for one more night before our flight Tuesday morning).

If we did the trip over again, we’d skip Sorrento and make Positano our home base for enjoying all of the Amalfi coast. We spoiled ourselves by doing Positano first – it’s the most beautiful place any of us had ever been. Sorrento grew on us, but we enjoyed Positano considerably more, and could have easily stayed there longer and made it our jumping-off point for Capri and Pompeii.

I want to go into detail on each place, and I’m starting with Rome. Yes, it’s long-winded. I’m writing this mostly for myself, trying to preserve every meaningful detail. More to come on Positano, Sorrento, and more.

Rome

Rome is my favorite city in Europe. That might be a big statement, and I haven’t visited that many European cities, but the combination of modern, livable, navigable metropolis + the birthplace of so much of our western tradition made it irresistible. We stayed in the Monti neighborhood, and to be walking through a buzzing square, filled with locals enjoying their after-work cocktails…while spotting the Colosseum out of the corner of your eye, down the road? That’s the kind of old-meets-new feel I loved about London (and that I love even now about New York) – but it’s the Colosseum. The Renaissance is old, but 79 A.D. is a whole different ballgame.

I loved the way that history was woven so seamlessly into the city. Staying in Monti (we had an Airbnb) gave us close access to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon were all walkable in 20-30 minutes. Heading home on our first night, we passed some ruins that I thought at first were part of the Roman Forum. Upon closer inspection…they were just ruins. Some pedestrian walkways had been constructed so we could take a look, and a couple of signs talked about what the structures served as in Ancient Rome, but what shocked me was how recently they’d been excavated – they were uncovered between 2004-2006! And had just been sitting there for 2,000 years prior. That’s what astounded me about Rome – so much of our Western heritage exists there, and they’re still finding more of it. Who knows what could be right underneath your feet.

Jetlag had its way by the end of Monday, but we made the most of our functional hours, seeing the Pantheon and getting to know the heart of the city. We oriented ourself by doing a combination of Rick Steves’ “Dolce Vita Stroll” and his “Heart of Rome” walk, which take you through the central neighborhoods and piazzas. Rick Steves was our honorary fourth travel companion. There’s something to be said for making sure you don’t rely too heavily on his suggestions, but his walks are helpful for understanding a new place, and it’s nice to have a go-to guide tell you were to eat when decision fatigue sets in and you just want something that’s been vetted by another human. Rick (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) led us to Alle Carrette in Monti for dinner, where we got our first, joyful taste of real Italian pizza. And our first, joyful taste of a good house red.

Tuesday, we tackled the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. They’re a combined site, and you can see both with one entrance fee. The Colosseum is awe-inspiring and 100% worth visiting (I’d do a repeat visit the next time I’m in Rome) but I found the Forum to be more illuminating. It’s worth reading a lot of the Colosseum’s info panels for background. My favorite was titled “Cine-Colosseum.” It highlighted the structure’s place in American and Italian film and television – everything from “Roman Holiday” to “Spectre” and more.

After about an hour or so, we strolled to the Roman Forum, which houses dozens of ancient structures, from temples to the meeting place of the senate. It was an experience with history unlike any I’d ever had. We were there on a gorgeous, warm day, and I consciously took a minute to stand there and let it sink in – I am actually here at this place so foundational to the government of the country I call home, at this place I learned about in Latin class as a kid. Maybe I’m overstating it – I wasn’t near tears or anything – but visiting the Roman Forum was the highlight of the entire trip for me, and it convinced me Rome is a place I want to keep returning to and learning from.

On the sobering side, though, there’s an interesting element to consider when at the Forum (or even at the Colosseum). When all these structures stood in their original glory, the Roman Empire appeared invincible. And look at it all now. We literally call them “ruins.”

We embraced the “siesta” in Rome, and returned to our apartment after touring the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill (another adjacent site; heading to the top offered a sweeping view of the ancient sights we just saw, and the city beyond) for some foot-resting and wi-fi-using. In the evening, we visited the Borghese Gardens (we didn’t do the Borghese Gallery on this trip, which was probably good for our sanity so we didn’t get lost in a fog of museums, but it’s at the top of my list for a future visit) and then walked toward the heart of town for an incredible dinner near the Spanish Steps. We ate at Antica Enoteca and I had the best carbonara of my life – and some pretty good Cabernet Sauvignon and tiramisu. Later that evening, we had drinks at Salotto42, a nearby spot Jeanine’s coworker recommended. I recommend, as well! Drinks were great, and they had a fabulous playlist (I wrote down what I thought the name was, based on what I could see of their Spotify, but I must have it wrong, because nothing shows up when I search. If anyone knows the name of a band whose sound could be described as “Italian Beach Boys,” please lmk.)

That evening, we saw the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. The steps were gorgeous by sunset, and we got a real treat when a lovely couple started taking their wedding photos near where we sat. There’s something that restores your faith in humanity, just a bit, about dozens of people instinctively knowing to move out of the way for a moment so the photographer can get the perfect shot.

Wednesday was our Vatican day – we had tickets for the Vatican Museums, and went into St. Peter’s Basilica. I am truly grateful to have seen the Vatican, but honestly was overwhelmed by it all. The Museums are vast, and I wasn’t prepared enough for their scale. Besides the Sistine Chapel, my favorite part was the Gallery of Maps, a hall lined with gorgeous paintings of topographical maps of Italy and its islands. The works were impressive both as maps and as paintings – rich greens and blues and gold.

On every vacation, there comes a moment where you’re just hot, tired, and hungry, and even your best-laid plans must go awry. This happened to us at St. Peter’s Basilica, which we toured right after the Vatican Museums. We had a fine visit, but after waiting in a long line to enter, well into lunchtime, we were kind of done, and abandoned a lunch reservation that was a 20-minute walk away in favor of something more convenient near the Vatican. After that, we took a bus to Trastavere, a neighborhood we wanted to check out, but even then, had limited enjoyment due to our conditions. I hate to sound whiny; it wasn’t like any of us were completely miserable, and obviously we could have just sucked it up. But after two full days of sightseeing, combined with a crowded site like the Vatican, and a hot day…we’d reached the point of just needing a rest.

Wednesday was our last official day in Rome, though, so we did want to make something of our evening. After freshening up, we took the night to explore Monti, our Airbnb neighborhood. We revisited a restaurant that caught our eyes on Night 1. There, we took full advantage of what I believe is Italy’s best quality: The aperitif tradition. When you order drinks, you don’t just get the drinks. A whole array of snacks is brought before you – mostly variations on crackers, olives, nuts, and bread. The three of us snacked and split a bottle of red. Moments like these were the ones I cherished most during the trip. They gave us time to relax, get a little something in our stomachs, and reflect on our adventures up to that point. I treasure the time I had to talk freely and openly with two of my closest friends – in the way that you really only can when you’re removed from the realities of everyday life.

We wrapped up with gelato (from a place in Monti that is, I’m sure, just a regular place, but it was one of our favorite gelato spots on the whole trip) and a surprise visit to Blackmarket Hall, a jazz spot down the street from our apartment. We were about to turn in for the night when a sign outside lured us in with the promise of “jazz funk.” For our last night in Rome, we enjoyed (really) delicious cocktails and fabulous jazz; the group played “Moanin’,” one of my favorites, for their first song.

The next morning, we were at Termini Station (also walkable from our apartment – a huge plus) early and en route to the Amalfi coast. More to come!

If you’ve been to Rome and have recommendations (food/drink/museums/places to stay), I’d love to hear them. I will be back.

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I won the Hamilton lottery! Here is the story.

The Broadway gods smiled upon me Tuesday night, and I won the lottery for Hamilton. I had a front-row seat to the show I’ve wanted to see for a year, and I’m now living in its glow.

I’m not a theater critic, so I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley to tell you how marvelous Hamilton is as a show (note his first line). Yet while I’m not qualified to tell you how Hamilton is changing the American musical, I can at least explain what it meant to me, as a history nerd, theater lover, and someone drawn to works of art that are totally and completely new.

Since winning the online lottery Tuesday (a complete out-of-body experience, by the way…I’ve definitely gone back and re-read the email even after the fact since I’m not totally convinced it happened), I’ve been trying to re-assemble the timeline of my Hamilton obsession. It started last spring, when I began hearing buzz about its run at the Public. At that point, I don’t think my interest went much beyond general intrigue. I think often about how history might become more accessible for the general public. What would get people, especially young people, interested in those topics that seem dry on paper? I loved the idea that a musical about one of the Founding Fathers was actually really good.

Last summer, when the show transitioned to Broadway, it crossed over into phenomenon phase. Tickets were impossible to acquire (or afford) and each time I played the lottery outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, thousands of other fans were playing, too, so chances of seeing it that way were slim.

For awhile, my desire to see the show was driven by my desire to be part of the conversation; it was less about the show itself. Even in the summer, I knew little about it, minus the names of a few of its stars, but my interest in the show and its creator/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew even larger after a New York Times Magazine story from July, which was the first place I read about how the show portrayed Hamilton: It wasn’t a straightforward retelling of what happened in America’s early days, but a meta-narrative, exploring Hamilton’s place in history, how he and other founding fathers considered the ways they’d be perceived in future generations, and how their stories were carried forward.

That concept has long fascinated me; I thought most about it when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and learned how Lincoln was so concerned with doing something important enough to be remembered, because the idea of an eternal afterlife wasn’t comforting; he needed to do something that would make his name indelible on earth. Hamilton doesn’t present its titular character as having quite the same motivation (and I haven’t read the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda to create the musical) but I see parallels. It’s that layer of historical perspective that makes the show so fascinating to me.

What Hamilton really comes down to for me, though is Lin-Manuel Miranda. The man’s a genius. He read the Chernow biography and saw something in it no one ever noticed: Alexander Hamilton embodies hip-hop. (Watch the snickers he gets when he explains that to an audience at the White House when he first performed what became Hamilton’s opening number there in 2009.) More than that, he created an entire musical out of it, and not a cheesy song-and-dance, which I’m sure it could have become if treated by less capable hands. It’s a feast for your ears and eyes, on top of being a fresh presentation of history.

To watch Hamilton in the theater is to know you are witnessing something new and different. You have never seen a musical like this. You have never learned about history like this. It pays homage to its predecessors across musical forms, but in channeling them all, it becomes something they were not. Lin-Manuel Miranda created this whole thing – the concept, the music – and as you sit in the theater, knowing this man playing Alexander Hamilton conceived the whole idea, you realize it is extraordinary.

Now that Hamilton is such a phenomenon, actually seeing the show is a meta experience. You’re there to see Hamilton, but you’re also THERE TO SEE HAMILTON! I’ve never seen a show with such an engaged audience. And since all the lottery winners sit in the front row, it’s obvious to everyone else in the audience that you’re one of the lucky 21 who had their name picked. Who got to see the show just by chance. When I handed the usher my ticket, she shared in the excitement, saying “Oh my gosh, you won the lottery, congratulations!” That made it fun. I also treated myself to an adult beverage because I was going to have myself a night (and I wanted the souvenir cup).

Now it’s annoying for me to say, “oh, you just HAVE to see it” because I know that for a lot of people, it’ll be impossible to see this show unless they suddenly fall into wealth, or they get lucky like I did and win the lottery. It’s true, though. There’s an energy in the theater you simply won’t get just listening to the soundtrack. The cheers start when the lights first go down, and the clapping and hollering never let up. Of course at other shows, certain lines will get a laugh, but at Hamilton, “immigrants, we get the job done” gets straight-up applause.

Something unique about the performance I attended: It happened the day after the cast was all over the news for performing at the White House. Even that morning, Lin-Manuel had been in DC with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. I remember noticing his tweet early in the day, replying to a fan and confirming that he would be performing that evening. Little did I know.

I also realized it was the first time I’d sat in the front row at any show. I got to see the spit and the sweat. Thanks to the proximity and the depth of emotion I could sometimes witness, I think I love songs that otherwise might not mean much, like “Dear Theodosia,” the ode Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborns. I’ll always listen to that song thinking of Leslie Odom, Jr., sitting onstage not far from me, beaming at this imaginary child. I was amazed at how easily he transitioned from rap to this gorgeous ballad.

My enthusiasm for Hamilton has not tempered since I’ve seen the live show. Now I’m hard at work memorizing the soundtrack, and I’m still soaking up every piece of information about the show and its creation I can get my hands on. It’s a fun show to be obsessed with, and I’m happy that Tuesday’s performance was just the beginning for me.

I leave you with a few random Hamilton-related clips that I hope help you fall in love with this show if you haven’t already:

A performance of “One Last Time,” which is emerging as one of my favorite songs from the show. Christopher Jackson, who plays Washington, gave probably my favorite performance at the show itself. How can a song can be so beautiful, and explain why Washington stepped away from the presidency after two terms better than any history textbook?

A #Ham4Ham performance outside the Richard Rodgers in October; the three actors to have played King George during the Public and Broadway runs perform, “The Schuyler Sisters,” one of my favorite songs (with Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays one of the sisters, rapping the Aaron Burr part):

Aforementioned clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping what became the opening number at the White House in 2009:

Goddess Kelli O’Hara performing at a #Ham4Ham:

The Hamilton Cast at the Public last year, paying tribute to A Chorus Line on its 40th anniversary (it also played that theater):

 

Beach Weekend

This weekend, I went to Virginia Beach with a big group of friends. What was billed as a long weekend wound up feeling more like a legitimate vacation. We left Thursday evening on a bus to Richmond. After spending Friday at my friend’s parents’ house there, we drove to Virginia Beach for the rest of the weekend.

Even after only two and a half days there, it almost felt routine. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, head for the beach. Spend all day reading, soaking up good music, deepening old friendships, creating new friendships…and working on covering up awkward tan lines from an old bathing suit.

It was a break from my New York routine that I needed more than I realized. And it was a chance to spend a whole weekend appreciating an amazing community of friends.

A few random tidbits, because I’m still on a vacation high and if I don’t write them down now, I’ll forget them:

Richmond, VA is a really cool city, especially if you’re into Civil War history. Friday evening, we drove around the city checking out notable spots. Driving down Monument Avenue, you pass incredible statues of Confederate notables like Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. My personal favorite destination was the state Capitol building and this statue of George Washington, which sits outside it. So elaborate, with so many connections to various figures in early America (hey, Meriwether Lewis).

This song made it onto someone’s beach playlist and now I’m addicted to it.

On our flight back this evening (yep, we took the bus down and flew back to maximize beach time), I flipped through the Sept. 1 issue of the New Yorker and laughed so hard at this week’s fiction: “The Referees,” by Joseph O’Neill. A quick, funny read if you need one. “What does this e-mail even mean? She wants to recuse herself? Who is she, Sonia Sotomayor?”

So now I’m back in the city, unpacking and watching Silver Linings Playbook (It’s become my unofficial summer movie. I play it all the time. Just so dang good.) and thinking about how I don’t just feel refreshed after this vacation. I feel completely reset. Tomorrow morning and the week ahead will bring what it may, but I feel new. And it’ll already be Tuesday.

“You went to New York for the first time? So did I.”

I thought I was over talking about the Beatles for awhile, after spending Sunday fully submerged in Ed Sullivan Show anniversary madness, but today I read an oral history of another Beatles event celebrating its 50th anniversary: Their concert at the Washington Coliseum on February 11, 1964. The Washington Post published the story, which culled anecdotes from concertgoers, photographers, hotel managers and a former Beatle to create a delightful read, full of stories and insights I’d never known.

There are so many stories bubbling under the surface of commonplace events, just waiting to boil over. Well, I guess the Beatles playing D.C. wasn’t necessarily “commonplace.” But it’s not one of the major moments that spring to mind when thinking about the Beatles in America – you spend those thoughts on the Ed Sullivan Show and Shea Stadium.

Every story in this oral history is fascinating, but these were my favorites:

John B. Lynn, son of the Washington Coliseum’s owner: “It was such an unusual event and it was a windfall. He [his dad, the owner] took the profit and used it to buy my mother a new Lincoln Continental convertible for her birthday. We came home from school and he said, ‘The Beatles concert bought that for your mother.'”

I can just picture a dad pointing to the awesome new car in the driveway, shrugging and thanking the Beatles for a new car.

Linda Binns Liles, who was nine years old that day and rode the train from New York to Washington in the same car as the Beatles:  “I introduced myself to Ringo Starr and promptly sat down and started talking with him. ‘You went to New York for the first time? So did I.’ We had a normal conversation. I was sure he was interested in my fourth-grade teacher as much as I was interested in what he was doing. Paul McCartney, who had me calling him Uncle Paul, asked me if I was coming to their D.C. concert, and I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to go to school tomorrow.’ I was perfectly serious.”

I love how this captures the newness and thrill of America for the Beatles. “You went to New York for the first time? So did I.” Ringo could not have said anything more perfect. Liles’ story brings the spectacular train scene from A Hard Day’s Night to mind.

I also loved a quote from Paul, still dripping with that Hard Day’s Night cynicism when remarking on the tone of press conferences the band did in the United States: “The press conferences were quite funny. It was always: ‘Hey, Beatles, is that hair real, or is it a wig?’ Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? How dumb are you? But we didn’t mind it at all. We expected it. It was a completely different world. It’s not like now where you’ll find all these kids writing for the Internet. It was elderly, balding gentlemen who smoked a lot — grown-ups looking disapprovingly at the children having too much fun. We knew it wasn’t hard to beat that kind of cynicism. It was like a chess game. And the great thing was, being four of us, one of us could always come up with a smart-ass answer.”

America enthralled the Beatles, but they still knew what they were going to get. They were in on the joke, and they played along, giving us so many wonderful stories to remember in the process.

My Feelings Exactly

To the Strand Bookstore employee who wrote this recommendation for Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

photo (8)

Those are my feelings exactly.

I am well over 100 pages into the book (701, to be exact), but that’s still how I feel. It may have taken me a few months to get there (I’m a slow reader already, and 750 dense pages don’t help speed things up), but I’m almost finished, and while I want the satisfaction of saying I read the whole thing, I really don’t want it to end. Like the Strand employee, I still want to spend all of my free time reading it. I still want my arms to hurt from holding it on the subway (slow reader, out of shape…the fun never stops here).

I know finishing a 750-page book is no accomplishment in the grand scheme of reading, but even more than being able to check this work off my list (by the end of this week, I hope), I feel as though I’ve come to know Lincoln, and some of the “rivals,” like William Henry Seward and Edwin Stanton, very closely. I’ve come to understand a time period in a much deeper and more complete way than I ever would have through a high school or college textbook.

Fifty pages from now, the book will be over and Lincoln, who seems to be in his prime right now as he starts his second term, gets the Thirteenth Amendment passed and starts working on a plan to negotiate peace with the Confederacy, will be gone. I only wish I was that Strand staffer who is just starting out.

P.S. – If you’re in New York, the Strand has several sparkling new copies of Team of Rivals just begging you to buy and read them. Do it!

Lincoln, Perception and Storytelling

After months of anticipation, my sister and I saw Lincoln this past weekend, taking advantage of the movie’s early release in New York City theaters. While I’ve always taken a particular interest in the Civil War when it comes to studying American history, Hope is the real Civil War buff and had been beside herself with excitement for weeks at the idea of seeing her favorite time period gloriously displayed on screen.

To our surprise, she was underwhelmed, while I absolutely loved it. Sure, it dragged a bit at the end, and I found the opening scene (in which Union soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln during his visit to a battlefield) to be a little cheesy, but I just couldn’t (actually, still can’t) get over Daniel Day-Lewis’ tremendous performance as the president. Not to go all Roger Ebert here, but I have never been so convinced that an actor really was the person he was portraying. Obviously, there is no way of knowing whether he’s doing a spot-on impression of Lincoln’s voice, gait and mannerisms. But assuming tremendous research went into making it as accurate as possible, I don’t know how someone couldn’t be blown away by how real it seems.

Prior to seeing the movie, I decided to start reading Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book upon which much of Lincoln‘s plot is drawn. I still have a ways to go with it, but I’m glad I read a little before seeing the movie (for, say, some background knowledge on characters like William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and am finding it easier to digest with some mental image (albeit not the “real” thing) of characters and places described in the book.

I’m on page 142 of 754 so there’s still a lot to digest, but I have been struck by two facets of Lincoln I never knew existed:

  1. Master storyteller. If nothing else, Lincoln is worth  it for the scene in which the president tells a story about Ethan Allen and a George Washington portrait in an outhouse (just trust me). It’s not just worth it because the story is laugh-out-loud funny; the way Daniel Day-Lewis delivers (and, I want to believe, Lincoln delivered) it – timing, emphasis, everything – is riveting. And as I read the book, I’m intrigued by all the mentions of Lincoln as a masterful storyteller. He grew up listening to his father regale friends, neighbors and travelers who boarded at their Kentucky home, carefully remembering every detail and re-telling the stories for his own friends the next day. Goodwin called it a “passion for rendering experience into powerful language.” From what I can tell so far, nearly everyone who made contact with Lincoln was smitten by his stories and the way his face lit up as he told them. I suppose I always thought of Lincoln as a no-nonsense, serious man, but I like knowing he was much more than a stoic face looking back at me from a Mathew Brady portrait.
  2. Savvy PR man. Lincoln believed you only are that which you are perceived to be. No matter what’s on the inside, people will like or dislike you (or vote for or against you) based on who they think you are, not who you think yourself to be. To me, this is a huge part of why companies invest in public relations: They want to control how they are perceived. To Lincoln, it was a driving factor in his political pursuits, primarily because he desperately wanted history to remember his name (mission accomplished), and knew that wouldn’t happen unless he made a name for himself in modern times. He seemed to believe, writes Goodwin, that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” I love that quote. Whether or not that’s how it should be, that’s how it is, and Lincoln played the political game with that in mind. I really don’t have much interest in modern-day politics, but I’m eager to learn more about how Lincoln’s rise to the top was aided by his deep understanding of perception’s importance.

My copy of Team of Rivals is already littered with highlighter marks and Post-it notes as I organize my thoughts, but I might turn here in the coming days and weeks in order to archive and consider them more fully.

And just for kicks: The Lincoln trailer, if you haven’t already seen it; background on how Lincoln came to life in the movie, from Diane Sawyer’s interview with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis; and if you need to be convinced that this movie is worthy of your time, Ebert’s review.