My Italian Adventure
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Italian Lesson #1: The phone card won't work unless you first detach the corner.


When I changed planes in New York I made my first transatlantic phone call, to a hostel in Rome. I nervously awaited my first opportunity to speak Italian over the phone, but to my relief the woman who answered not only spoke English, but with an American accent. She said they would hold the one bed left for me until 11 a.m. Secure in the thought that I had a place waiting for me, I boarded my flight, and slept through most of "Tea with Mussolini."

Arriving at the Leonardo Da Vinci Airport at 9 a.m., I was struck by the sense that it was very much like any other airport I'd seen. I found a tobacconist shop in the lobby, and made my first purchase in lira, a phone card. I attempted to call the hostel to get directions, but the phone kept spitting the card back out at me. (I didn't learn until later that afternoon that the corner must be removed in order to activate the card!)

Impatient to begin, I reasoned that I could find the hostel on my own. After all, the guidebook said it was just a couple of blocks away from the Vatican, a major landmark to be sure. I found my way to the railway station in the lower level of the airport by following the signs with pictures of train track. I said to the agent "Vaticano" and she sold me a ticket, with a lot of other words thrown in, though the only one I understood was "Metro."

Rick Steves taught me that a ticket's not really a ticket until it's validated, which involves stuffing it into a little slot in a box, which stamps it with the date and time. I followed the stream of people to the box and, so validated, I made my way over to the tracks. I showed my ticket to three people, got a consensus about which train I should board, and was soon away.

In short order the conductor came 'round, but when he got to me I couldn't find my ticket anywhere. I checked my pockets. I checked my bags. I apologized profusely and began checking everything again. Eventually he moved on, and I relaxed. Dropping my gaze to the floor, I moved my foot enough to reveal my ticket, underneath my shoe.

A conversation with a fellow train passenger confirmed my suspicions about what the ticket agent had been trying to tell me. I would need to leave the train and take the subway to get to my hostel. I got off at the stop he suggested, but there was no metro station to be seen. Again I found a tobacconist shop, and the helpful fellow there not only directed me to the metro station, but sold me a ticket for the subway as well.

Next: Home Sweet Hostel

Italian Lesson #2: Be sure to validate your train ticket before you board, and for heaven's sake, hang on to it.

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