March 29, 2018 – So this trip started back in December. As we were driving to Mažeikiai for Christmas, I suggested to Rasa that we invite her mom to go to Rome for Holy Week and to see the Pope deliver his address from the balcony on Easter Sunday. Rasa thought it was a great idea, since her mom hadn’t been on an airplane in probably 40 years and had really never traveled. What a fun way to have a little break and, for someone who is as devout as her mother is, a (probably) once in a lifetime event.
Fast forward to the 29th of March. I’d already taken care of flights and booking us an AirB&B about 1.5km from the Termini train station and had faxed the Vatican about getting tickets for the Urbi et Orbi. Yeah, you read that right. Faxed. Seems the head of the Holy Roman Church doesn’t have email. So of course, in order to facilitate this process, I had to download the PDF forms (the do, it seems, have a website) and fill them out, then scan and email them to my folks, who then printed them out and faxed them to the Vatican, who then faxed back a response (I had actually asked for two different events, but was only approved for tickets to one), which was then emailed back to me so I could print it out and take it to the Vatican itself where my letter was exchanged for the actual tickets — whew!
So I’m coming back from China on the 26th, which gives me two days to teach a couple of classes and wash clothes before Rasa’s mom shows up on Wednesday before our early morning flight on Thursday the 29th. No big deal (although, as my friend AAron has pointed out, I really was burning the candle).
Now, as I’ve said many times before, leaving from Kaunas first involves getting to Vilnius. Normally, with Monki around, we’d take a car so as not to have to deal with the busses or trains, but since we’d need to then take the car seat and figure out a place to store it, this time we were going public. Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue. Sure we had to get up early to get everywhere on time, but we made it just fine. Got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, which was nice since the flight was late.
To start, I had bought priority seating since we didn’t know how much luggage mom was going to bring (it had been a subject of much debate in the weeks leading up to the trip itself – as had mom’s arrival in Kaunas, which turned out to be the night before we left) so between that and the baby, I figured we were a shoo-in for early boarding. Not on RyanAir. Nope, instead I pushed ahead of everyone and then was embarrassed when I realized they weren’t going to call for passengers needing assistance. Ah well. Then the plane didn’t arrive for a while and by the time they checked our tickets it had gotten there, but then we waited in another queue while the last group disembarked. A big mess, really. But eventually we got on the plane and headed off into the big blue.
We got to Rome and grabbed a cab to get to our rental…and someone else grabbed the same cab. The driver said it was no problem, we could split. Except when he dropped us off, he asked for the full fare on the meter. Now, sure, fair is fare, but it seemed to me the guy was double dipping, especially if he was going to charge the other guy the full fare, too, but whatever. We got where we needed to be and hey… we were in Rome!!
Got into our flat and put everything away and then I started seeing what was nearby. Seemed that the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps were equidistant from us so we picked one (the fountain) and headed out! Our route (as dictated by the app Maps.me) took us on a strange journey – it wanted to take us through the train station and then it bypassed a major thoroughfare for a cobblestone back alley was interesting to say the least. But eventually we got there.
Mom asked questions about the importance of it, which I looked up while she, Rasa and Monki were down by the water, throwing coins in. By the time they rejoined me (I stayed up top watching the stroller) I was able to provide answers. Now, here was another issue which made the trip hard for Rasa – she had to translate between me and mom. While I can speak a smattering of Lithuanian, mom speaks no english at all. this made for a lot of gesturing and pointing in order to effect any type of communication, especially when Rasa wasn’t around. Even when she was, though, it was unfair to constantly have to rely on her. So we made do.
By the time we finished at the Fountain, it was getting late in a day, which had started early, so we went marching back to the flat to have dinner and chill out. “Chill” being the operative word there, as the water in the flat was ice cold. Now, we had been admonished not to touch the boiler, which was marked with “maximum” lines about a third the way up the scale, so it seemed like the owner was trying to conserve money or energy or what have you, but the upshot was that there was no hot water. Eventually we called him and he swung by, showed me how to reset the boiler, and left. This seemed to solve the general problem, but at no point in the 6 days we were there, was there ever more than 30 seconds worth of anything resembling warm water coming from the shower.
March 30, 2018 – We got up on the early side on Good Friday morning since we had decided that was a good day to visit the Vatican museums. I had gone online the night before and booked us tickets with a specific entrance time to hopefully avoid the crowds and the only time available was at 10am, so we were up early to make sure we were there on time.
Thankfully, there was a bus stop right across from our flat. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that was the bus we needed. Worked out okay, though, since I was able to get us bus tickets and information from the newsstand near where I thought we had to be and it turned out you couldn’t get tickets on the bus itself so ultimately, we had made the right call.
We got to the Vatican Museums and sure enough, we got to bypass the major lines (turns out, we could have done that anyway, since we had a stroller with us, but who knew?). We traded in our vouchers for actual tickets and we were off to the races. This museum hosts a number of incredibly impressive pieces of art, but by far, the most impressive is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
One of my longtime favorite jokes has been “who is the least respected man at the Vatican? The guy who did the floors of the Sistine Chapel.” I think it’s funny. In reality, the floors can hardly be seen due to the overwhelming throngs of people crowding through the place, hundreds at any given moment – and all looking up. The artwork is amazing. I remember someone once telling me that the central piece, the one we all know of God reaching out to touch the hand of Adam, was actually quite small and just part of the grand tapestry. Yes, and no. It is part of a much larger, much grander whole, but at the same time, it doesn’t get lost in the mix. It is absolutely front and center and demands notice and attention.
We probably spent 20-30 minutes in the chapel, staring up, jockeying through the ever-flowing crowds for better positions, our thoughts interrupted regularly by the admonition to be silent within the chapel – so the only sounds were of movement and breath. We weren’t allowed to take pictures but mom really wanted one so I bent down and, pretending to tie my shoe, snapped a quick, upwards looking shot. Obviously, I wish I had more time to frame and focus but we do have the photographic evidence of our passing through.
By the time lunch rolled around, we weren’t quite finished at the museum so hit up the cafeteria. It was a multi-ethnic pastiche of different food stuffs, including a grill. Of course, being Good Friday, we were still two days away from being able to actually order any type of meat anywhere on the premises so instead, we had pastas and salads, all of which were incredibly pricy and of a quality the pope himself should be embarrassed to
have served. Honestly, for a country known for food, this was some of the worst possible examples. Now, to be fair, I get that it’s a museum cafeteria, but they weren’t even trying (and, I still maintain that the best tiramisu I’ve ever had was at the cafeteria at the Louvre, so I know it’s possible).
After leaving the museum proper, we followed along the wall enclosing the Vatican to get to St. Peter’s Square, which is the main area in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Besides wanting to see it, I needed to go there in order topics up our tickets for the Easter service. Of course, getting the tickets wasn’t a simple, hit the will call window kind of endeavor. Nope. I had to go alone, through two different security checks and past those brightly colored dressed Pontifical Swiss Guards (I asked if I could take a picture and they said “no”) before entering a small room and presenting my confirmation letter. My ticket envelope was located and for some reason they asked my last name. I told them, there was a nod of acceptance and the tickets were handed over.
By this point, tiredness had set in so we headed back to the flat for a bit of a rest before heading back out in the early evening to do a bit of souvenir shopping and get Rasa some hot chocolate. The souvenir stand we went to was a lot of fun. We were joking and laughing with the girl who worked there which led to an interesting exchange. It seems that there were two price tiers for the souvenir magnets – €1 or €2. Not a huge difference, but still. So I asked why the difference in price.
Her: The €2 magnets are made here in Italy.
Me: That makes sense. But what about this one on the €1 wall which actually says “Made in Italy”?
Duly noted. We laughed and spent some money, getting presents for the folks back home. Then it was back to our flat for dinner and to plan for the next day.
March 31, 2018 – We decided the best way to see everything was to get a Hop-on Hop-Off bus ticket. Our choice was CitySightseeing, but only because I didn’t really have time or energy to research the best one – and I don’t think this would have been my choice. That said, it was also the closest so a point in its favor since the weather which had been threatening decided that was the time to break and it started to rain. Of course, by the time we had gotten out of the house in the morning and onto the bus and everything else, it was Monki’s nap time, and since no one could ride on the top of the bus (remember, it was raining), we grabbed three seats together as soon as we could and just rode around taking in the sights through the windows while the little one slept.
When she woke up, we were heading back into the home station, so we took the opportunity to jump ship and head back home, grabbing a couple pizzas from La Casetta, the little (I assume) family owned trattoria next to our place. I say I assume it was family owned because really, it felt like nothing less than every mafia movie hang out I’ve ever seen. But hey, the pizza was great and I saved on calories because the Italian guy sitting around didn’t understand me when I said I also wanted a cannoli (in fact, the only guy who did speak any English was also the only guy who appeared to be working by making the pizzas, and he didn’t look native to Italy).
After lunch, Monki wasn’t feeling well and Rasa decided there was no reason we all had to stay in, so I went off on the bus by myself to check out the Colosseum. This had been on my bucket list for a while so I was pretty excited. Naturally, as soon as I got in line, it started raining. So I’m standing there, waiting to exchange a ticket I bought on the bus when I guy walks up and down the line asking if anyone who speaks English wants toskip the line and join a guided tour. I absolutely did! So I was able to jump on the to next group and got to go down into a special area on the floor of the building itself. The guide, whose name I never quite caught, was lively and fun and informative. Learned some great bits of trivia and saw a site I’d been dying to see. It was a win win as far as I was concerned.
The only downside was that in addition to the guided tour of the Colosseum, my new ticket also included a guided tour of the nearby Palatine Hill but by that point it was storming so bad I just wanted to get home. Getting back on the City Sightseeing bus was a pain in the ass since they again weren’t letting people on the upper decks and the people were angry and tired and wet and just wanted to get on. It took me two busses before I finally made it on board and even then I was standing almost the whole way back. On the plus side, I did get some nice pictures through the rain.
April 1, 2018 – Here it was, Easter Sunday. The reason for the trip to begin with. We had decided on Saturday night that Rasa and Monki would stay home while mom and I would brave the expected record-breaking crowds. So again, we were up early, leaving the girls to sleep, so we could get to the Vatican well in advance of the 10am start of services. Good thing, too, since by the time we arrived, the lines were already really long.
We dutifully joined the queue, which was moving at a decent speed. Not fast enough that I couldn’t jump out of line and grab mom some coffee or she couldn’t jump out and grab a Pope Francis emblazoned rosary, but still okay. Then, all of a sudden, the police started siphoning the line into a different area. See people had been bypassing the line all morning, heading towards the front without care or consideration, but we were good so we stayed. Now, we were being sent around the corner to a different entrance of the square. To be honest, it was a bit of a mess and I had to wonder what was going on. It’s not like this didn’t happen with at least biannual regularity if not more so, that they should have a more organized approach to crowd safety and control, but no, not a bit of it. We were wanded as we passed into the outer edges of the square and then had to go through metal detectors which were set up all around the square itself before we could actually get in and find a place to stand.
Oh yeah. Remember that ticket which caused so much trouble to actually get? Never looked at it. It was in my pocket the entire time. I tried to show people, tried to give it over to someone in charge, to exchange it for my entrance. No one cared. Oh well. So we jammed in with thousands of other true believers and waited for the service to start.
While I didn’t follow almost any of it, mom was right there, saying her prayers on her newly purchased rosary (which I assume is now blessed since it was used at the Vatican) and when the Holy See himself came out, we could see him (if we stretched and stood on tip toes and were wearing the good glasses). It was like being in the nosebleeds for a popular concert. He was there, but it was easier to watch the i-mag screens to really see what was happening.
Where it got interesting was during the communion. Representatives lined the walkways which bordered our areas and were handing out the sacramental wafers. Mom jumped right in there and received her communion. While she was doing this, I found myself next to a couple of Irish guys who had commented that it was a new experience having to jostle for communion. I just nodded and said it was all new to me. When they looked questioningly, I just smiled and said “I’m Jewish.”
After the communion, Francis took to the popemobile and drove around the area like the Rose Queen, waving and blessing people as he passed. It was awesome! He was having a great time. He drove around for maybe 10-15 minutes before disappearing into the basilica, only to reappear at noon on the balcony to deliver the “urbi et orbi” sermon which all the news stations would be talking about and showing clips of that night.
I have to say, it was something special to witness and be part of. Regardless of your belief system, just watching the pomp and circumstance of it all was something you really don’t see everyday. And most of all, mom was excited and thrilled to have been a part of it so I considered our whole trip a success at that point. We made our way out of the packed square and headed back home to get the girls and have some lunch before any afternoon activities.
After lunch we headed back out for day two of the Hop-on Hop-off bus (I’d gotten a two day pass since the price difference was negligible) with considerably better weather. This time the upper level was open and the skies were blue and Monki was awake! It was great! We were able to actually “hop off” at places and take in some amazing sites. Circus Maximus is stunning and the Piazza Venezia is almost overwhelming.
By the time we were done touring, it was getting near dinner. We decided we didn’t want to have pasta again (basically all we could make at the flat) and Rasa suggested a salad. Okay, so we looked for a salad. What we ended up finding was il Mercato Centrale, self described as an artisanal food court. We found salads for sure, at this vegan stand, and then ended sitting in front of an amazing smelling grill (I sampled a piece of their meat and it was delicious!). It was a nice relaxing meal and a perfect way to end the day.
April 2 & 3, 2018 – Monday was our last day and a day to just finish out things nice and easy. A morning walk to the station allowed us a nice Italian breakfast of coffee and a pastry and we were able to stroll the area taking pictures and checking out the stalls. I found a collection of booksellers which were fascinating, selling everything from rare books to comics and art prints, all mixed in with some serious hard-core porn. Weird.
A leisurely afternoon of last minute souvenir shopping and then we headed back to the flat to pack for the early morning flight home. Our AirB&B host had arranged for a 4am taxi pick to drive us to the airport and that’s early, by any one’s standards. Monki was great on the flight, sleeping most of the way, and only became fussy when the landing pressure changed and she couldn’t clear her sinuses.
Our timing was spot on for getting back to Kaunas (which is highly unusual, let me tell you!). We were able to make the train from the airport to the train station, where we grabbed a quick bite to eat before getting on the train to get us back to our city just in time to get mom to the bus station for the bus which would take her home.
We, ourselves, got home mid-afternoon, had a food delivery arrive shortly thereafter and were able to settle in and recount the trip amongst ourselves and friends all night.