I'm suffering from vacation fatigue. During April and May we had three weeks and a day off school and all but two of those days we spent in a different country. I don't think we'll ever be accused of postponing joy, but I've gotta admit, joy for me now would be to get the house cleaned and my clothes put away. Thankfully, there are no more holidays until the last day of school on July 18.
But it's impossible to skip over our trip to Italy. I understand now why Italy gets more visitors every year than any other European country. If Italy doesn't jazz every single one of your senses, then you should think about seeing a doctor for antidepressants. Better yet, come to Italy for a week or two and skip the antidepressants altogether. There's serotonin in the air.
Consider all the ways your senses allow you to experience the world: Smells alone can evoke memories. There's a funky sewer/rotten food smell I will forever associate with Bangkok. Damp sagebrush at dusk will always transport me to the Methow Valley. How about the triumvirate of sticky floors, roasted peanuts, and organ music? We all know where that is. Our three days in Rome were in every way a sensual experience, but for me, I could have been blind, deaf and tongue-less and still had a magical time.
Beginning sometime in March and lasting through the middle of June, if the spring isn't too hot, Rome is enveloped in a bewitching aroma. When it first hit my nose all my travel-weary molecules were re-energized. You may think it was the pizza dough fresh from the oven, or the espresso wafting from every hole in the wall, or the collective sweetness of the gelati shops every few feet. Guess again. What no guide book will tell you is that if you visit Rome in the spring, be prepared to be seduced by the jasmine.
We arrived at the heart of Trastevere, Rome's oldest neighborhood, after midnight. Even before we stopped, I could smell the jasmine through the cab window. Getting out, I felt an urgency to find the source, like an amorous dog on the scent of a pheromone. And suddenly the little white flowers were everywhere; around doorways, climbing up trellises, hanging from balconies. As my friend P declared, it was odoriffic!
The apartment we rented was already occupied by our fabulous friends R & P (thanks, guys, for shelling out righteous sums of money to come over for a rendezvous). They had flown in the day before from Seattle and had the wine chilled when we walked through the door. The mile-high shuttered windows of the bedrooms allowed the aromas and the Italian conversations to drift up from the narrow lane like little arias. Trastevere is completely cobble-streeted and every single night we navigated its uneven surfaces to the nearby piazza where a modest fountain provided a backdrop for young romantics and texting teens.
We were fed one evening by a sexy woman named Barbara who dispelled the notion that wine and pasta could do any damage to a good figure. She and her family served us calzones, pizza, hand-rolled gnocchi with ricotta and spinach, anchovy and garlic spaghetti (you'll never really understand "al dente" until you come to Italy), gelati and copious amounts of wine. I found Barbara through a site called EatWith.com where cooks and diners come together in cities all over the world to share a meal.
Most evenings after dinner we had drinks at our boisterous corner café, full of grappa-sipping hipsters and an inebriated Nono. Then every morning we would return for $1 cappuccinos and watch the old guys play cards while their wives in house dresses and cardigans smoked a few cigarettes before heading to the market.
And the jasmine kept coming back. Everywhere we roamed there was jasmine. In the Colosseum, you can't smell the corpses of the 500,000 humans and 1 million wild animals slain over the years, but you can smell the jasmine wafting from the lush, nearby Forum. Around the Villa Borghese Gardens we peddled a 5-person cyclo and smelled jasmine. We sat on the hawker-crowded Spanish steps and smelled jasmine. We noshed on pizza slices at the Campo de Fiori market and smelled jasmine. Though it wasn't advertised as such, I could almost pick up the taste of jasmine in my gelato (better with vanilla than chocolate).
Rome might just be the sweetest smelling city on earth, in the spring at least. If you did happen to venture in a direction void of jasmine then surely the coffee would kick in or the garlic and baking pizza. If you hang out all day near the busiest roads you might become a bit bothered by the diesel fumes, but you need only tuck into a narrow side street before that familiar perfume is back.
I don't think I'll be able to smell jasmine again without thinking of Rome. And I don't know if Rome would be nearly as beguiling a place without jasmine. So if you want to fall in love, or propose, or get over a break-up, or simply recall what it means to live fully through your senses, wait until those star-flowers are in bloom and make your way to The Eternal City.
ZFW, Jan. 19, 2014