It wasn’t always “this way.” Long, long ago when Barbara and I were DINKS(NM) – double income, no kids (no mortgage), we did a certain amount of traveling, and we did it on our own. The idea of going on an organized tour would have been the last thing on my mind. Even when we had fairly serious mishaps along the way – like having to travel around Spain in a stick shift car, which neither of us knew how to drive, became part of the adventure, the narrative we relate to friends today. Whatever happened, it was all good, at least in hindsight. Today? That’s a different story entirely.
These days, I am more than willing to let somebody else do all the planning: the itinerary, the accommodations, especially the part that deals with when and where we’re going to eat. Plus, if all goes well, I enjoy going around with other like-minded people. Yet, I am cognizant of the limitations of this approach, sometimes especially so. For instance, our day in Rome, Friday Sept 16.
The day began the same way as our previous days on the Costa Diadema: thousands of people trying to get off the ship at exactly the same time and scurrying to find a bus to take them to Rome. Since all of you went to an actual school where they taught you stuff, you already know that Rome in on the River Tiber, where ocean liners don’t go. Our ship was docked at the port of Civitavecchia, and the bus ride (this was becoming a bad habit!) to where we were going was over an hour each way. And it was Friday, meaning we have to get back to the ship in time to get ready for Shabbat, meaning we would have even less time than usual to spend seeing what there was to see in the one place where we would have wanted to spend more time. If you get my drift.
Let me set the scene. We’re off the bus in Rome. We’re listening to a tour guide whose English was so broken that it would have taken the entire contents of a tool box to fix it. We’re standing in front of the Coliseum (we’re not going to go into the Coliseum) with hundreds of other milling tourists. It’s starting to drizzle. I really, really need a rest room.
I remember the many times I was going up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, and I would notice the tour buses stopping in front of the museum. “Look to your right, that’s the world renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was founded (blah, blah, blah, blah). Also on your right, we will soon be passing the Central Park Zoo…..” May I never be trapped like that, looking at life from the outside. But there we were, doing just that.
To be fair, it doesn’t have to be like that. Our AACI cruise to Greece gave us ample time – on a sunny day – to walk around the Acropolis. So it was even more galling, standing in the rain, watching other groups go into the Coliseum. Just not us. While our tour guide was pretending to speak English, I was looking around at the throng of people taking pictures of each other. Wait a minute: that arch over there, the one that’s fenced in, is that the famous Arch of Titus, or just some other random arch in the middle of Rome? Ummm, this is not how I envisioned my one and only day in Rome!
We were done standing in front of the Coliseum. Our group then split into two: one, which included my wife Barbara, headed towards the Vatican to get a special tours of their collection of Judaica (at least what they acknowledge they have!); the other, including me) off to the ghetto, where I figured I would have a better chance of finding something to photograph.
Our guide’s sense of direction was not much better than her English, and so we took the long way around to get to our destination. My bladder was about to burst; nonetheless, I did stop along the way to photograph some of the ruins that were strewn about.
We did get to where we had to go, past the security personnel (we could have been back in The Land!) into the compound that housed a reasonably impressive museum (and mercifully some lavatories) and a very opulent synagogue that you can still get into to daven if you’re there at the right time. After visiting the large beit knesset and a smaller Sephardic one, we were let out to play in what is still a Jewish quarter. Several blocks filled with kosher shops and Jewish people milling around. Shabbat was not that far away, but there was a whole lot of fressin’ going on. Our group descended en masse onto a small store that sells gevaldig gelato, and everyone left with a smile on their face.
To sober us up, we were led around the corner in front of a church in which at one time Jews were forced to attend. It was there that Rabbi Riskin, who was with us, told one of his patented stories in his inimitable style. Sometime during the Holocaust, the Chief Rabbi in Rome jumped shipped. He became a Roman Catholic and was given a job in the Vatican library. Decades later, the grandson of this apostate rabbi came to Rabbi Riskin in Efrat. It wasn’t just that this young man wanted to convert back; somehow, he felt the weight of his grandfather’s dereliction on his back and had to make up for it. There we were, standing in the damp, listening to this story. Just so we would understand and remember that life is not just about gelato. Back to the buses, on our way to spend Shabbat on the Costa Diadema.
Just one more little item. One of our sharp-eyed colleagues had noticed something that would be found only on an Italian bus. And when we returned to our bus, sure enough, there it was!