The second half that I wrote back when I returned from Italy, but never got around to posting until now...
After Bologna came a parting of ways. Chris left for Rome to fly back to the States, while Steve, Carly, and I went to Florence. Carly's super generous father got us a hotel there as well, which we found eventually after going seemingly every direction but the right one. It was the Golf Hotel, which seemed like a rather pointless name, since the only thing golf thing about it was the key chains, which had a golf ball attached to them. The restaurant of choice was a nearby pizza place that was the European version of Little Caesar's five dollar pizza deal.
Apparently, Florence is so full of art that there is a related medical condition that has been identified. It is known as Stendahl syndrome, where people basically start to uncontrollably flip out after seeing too much high quality art in too short of a period of time. The effects range from euphoria to depression to perspiring, rapid heartbeat, and/or stomach pains, to feelings of omnipotence and/or persecution. All from an art overkill. Our group had seen so much art up to this point that we had kind of an opposite reaction along the lines of, "Oh man, more priceless art. Next." For some reason, a few of the exhibits don't allow photography. I don't know why they try, since people snap pictures right and left anyway while the poor officers run around futilely trying to stop them. Florence also had some impressive displays of architecture, including the aforementioned cathedral and the Piazza Vecchio and Ponte Vecchio, supposedly the oldest bridge in Europe, lined with numerous shops. The statue of David was also much more impressive than we had originally imagined. We thought we'd check out the Pitti Palace and so went looking for it. I kept asking where it was, expecting something visibly impressive. A solid American tourist moment occurred when I asked this one Italian women where it was, to which she replied, "Is that good enough for you?" and pointed right across the street. It was a large, rather plain building, which it turned out was the Pitti Palace. Apparently, its appeal is the galleries inside and Boboli gardens behind.
While in a Florence pizza joint, Steve discovered a bulletin for - of all people - Mike Jones, a rap artist from Houston, Texas. It turned out that he would be performing while we were in Florence. The irony was too great to pass up - in one of the most renowned cities in the world for the classic arts would be performing a modern rap artist from my home state. Even if he was the worst rapper of all time, and he probably is, I felt I had to go. Steve and I went, while Carly passed on the opportunity, although not missing the chance to plead with us not get lost and/or roughed up by Italian hooligans. The event took place at an outdoor club on the outskirts of Florence. Probably 80% of the 250 or so people there were American. It cost 20 euros for the event and one drink. The system was that you received a ticket upon entering, but paid when you left. It was quite possibly the worst musical performance in recent history, if you could even classify it as such. Mike Jones did about 5 of his original songs, a few top 40 rap hits that weren't even his, and then it degenerated into him, his cronies, and some girls grinding on stage. The whole thing lasted a little half an hour, and we observed from a stairway to the right of the stage. There was a patio slightly above the side of the stairway, and drunk people kept climbing over the railing to get to the dance floor, nearly falling all over themselves in the process. One continuing side-story was this poor white guy on the outskirts of the dance floor who kept trying to dance with whichever girls came by. In the end he did end up hitting off with one girl, although most of their dancing consisted of her laughing at his ridiculous dance moves.
Feeling like we definitely did not get 20 euro's worth of entertainment, Steve and I were considering sneaking out of the place. The issue was that they had security guards by every exit. We did notice that the security guard by one of the exits would at times briefly wander down into the crowd. Keeping an eye on him, the next time he went into the crowd, we tried to slip out. I went first, but as soon as I walked out the door, a extra loud siren went off. Having already walked through the door, I had a split-second decision to either turn around or take off. I took off. I was running almost as fast as I could as my jeans did their best to stay on. However, I had an uncanny feeling that someone was behind me. Also, the further away I got, the more guilty I felt for not paying, even though I felt payment was mostly undeserved. So I stopped and turned around, and I saw this little African guy booking it right towards me as fast as he could go. I waited for him to catch up, and then went back and paid, much as I would have rather disappeared among the Florence sidestreets and left Mike Jones without compensation for laying that huge egg of a performance. I learned from Steve later that as soon as the alarm went off, the little African guy went tearing up the steps, fell all over himself, got up, kept running, totally took out the white guy who had finally found a girl who liked his dance moves, and ran out the door. Steve returned to the hotel and got back before me, but didn't have the key. He went down to the reception desk, got a key, propped open the door, and went down to return the key. Carly, meanwhile, woke up and walked over to discover the door was open, and shut it. Steve then came back to find the door shut and locked again. Fortunately, Carly was still awake to hear him yelling and knocking, and let him in. She was then horrified to learn that the last Steve had heard from me, I had run off and disappeared with security chasing after me.
The train ride from Florence to Rome was not without another dose of ridiculousness from the shady Italian train system. At first we thought there was a fire in the forest nearby. But we along with the other passengers in our train car soon realized that there was no way there could be a fire of that size with no visible smoke on the horizon. Apparently someone had thrown a cigarette into the bathroom trash can, so a couple guys shot it up with a fire extinguisher. Everything seemed fine until smoke suddenly began pouring out of the air conditioning vents. This was followed by the train being delayed half an hour while the mess was sorted out by Italians running back and forth and congregating next to the train. I assume they fixed the problem - we had already moved to a different car far away from the one full of smoke.
Eventually making it to Rome, we were provided with yet another hotel by Carly's super generous father. This offered us another opportunity to find our hotel without taking at least three wrong turns and asking at least three different people where to go. Didn't happen. But we quickly discovered why Rome is so popular - there's as much to do and see there as any city to which I've been. What surprised me most about Rome was it's size. Almost all of the major sites in Rome were within a 20 minute bus ride of each other. We hit the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, a few of the piazzas and fountains, and the Vatican City. The Sistine Chapel was incredible. I did find it somewhat humorous that the officers there kept shouting at everyone to be quiet, sometimes over a loudspeaker. We had our worst lunch in Europe that day at - ironically enough - an American diner. It was like the poor man's version of a tv tray dinner. We had a couple bites of our 10 euro ($15) meal and left. Rome did possibly have more street vendors than Venice... whenever it rained there were always suddenly eight Romans trying to sell me an umbrella.
It finally came time for me to catch my flight back to the U.S., and I left in the middle of the night to catch my early morning flight. I was planning on taking a bus, but after getting a taxi ride to the bus station, I discovered that the bus was inaccessible. Unfortunately, the bus station was the opposite direction from the airport, so then the taxi ride to the airport cost even more. But having stayed up most of the night, I was able to sleep most of the plane ride, which I find to be pretty effective in fighting jet lag. I arrived in the U.S. with an indigent handful of dollars to my name, but the experiences were of course easily well worth it. I'd recommend travel for pretty much anyone who has the chance. If you do, perhaps keep in mind an accurate piece of advice I heard from a comedian the other day: if you look really American but still want Europeans to embrace you - pretend to be Canadian.
Carly accidentally kicks over a bunch of street vendor statuettes.
Carly: I'm sorry...
Street vendor: No, five euro!
Me: You're always flailing.
Carly: You're right, I am a failure.
Carly: I never understood the diaphragm. It comes from your... stomach.
Steve: I didn't really think there were Romans anymore.