Day 21: The Infamous Rome Story from Hell

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

This story does not have any related photographs…nor does it deserve any.  Good luck reading, friends.

Part 1: Murphy’s Law

If there is one thing I learned during my early years as a young traveler, it’s that listening to your body can make the difference between a disappointment and a complete disaster.  A week before traveling to Rome during my semester abroad, my body was telling me that something was wrong, and I did not listen.  Instead, I figured pushing through the impending flu-like symptoms was the smartest way to make them go away.  At 21, you think that one good night sleep and a good dose of ignoring the problem is all that it takes to carry on.

Three quarters of the way through my London semester, with one of our longer holiday breaks on the horizon, my friend Helen and I planned to head over to Rome for a few days, our second unguided trip of the semester (and our lives, really).  But that weary, woozy, heavy feeling began to hover as the trip approached.  In my head, the Ryan Air flight–which was probably only like 30 Euro–should not be wasted over a mere fever.  We were going to make this trip happen.

The night before the trip, a stabbing pain developed in the back of my throat, which was quickly followed up with a heavy resonant hack to go with it.  But no, this was going to happen.  We had Italian dreams, and again, the money shouldn’t be wasted!  I figured a solid nap once we reached Italy would push me back into Healthy Land.

We left early that morning, me wrapped in scarves and sweaters to combat the developing chills that I justified with the temperamental weather we’d been having.  Unlike our trip to Paris together a few months earlier, this flight was uneventful and smooth, and we took it as a good sign.  Well, my friends, our luck for the next 48 hours, ended there.

We reached the front of our hostel by taxi late in the afternoon as a drenching rain began to fall.  We ducked under our sweaters and scooted for the door, where we were welcomed by a friendly Italian women sorting through some papers.  She spoke little English, but was working with my broken and feverish attempt at Italian phrases after two semesters of the language.

“We’re all booked.”  She said.

I feel like our heads tilted like confused dogs.  “We overbooked the hostel and there are no rooms here, but I have a friend with a place around the corner, we are housing you there.”

What were we supposed to say?  No?  We’ll go out into the rain and wander around until we find something else?  Remember that this was the days before smart phones or any easily accessible international phone plans.  We had one phone between us, my box-like cell that did not work with Italian outlets no matter how hard we tried.  Luckily, it had a long batter life.  So yeah, no options to find somewhere else in a hurry.

She scurried out the front door and we followed her, my coughing all the way, through several passageways and stone corridors until we were sufficiently confused and turned around.  A large pink apartment building loomed as she searched for the correct century-old key to open the front.  “There will be other people sharing your room,” she explained as we headed into the building.

We don’t require anything fancy, which is good, because this was not that.  What spooked me more was the low level of lighting and the separation from the main road.  It felt…secluded, and not in a good way.  She opened another door, which lead to a longer corridor.  It held one bathroom, a long hall, and two rooms at the end.  There were no lights in the hallway.  This will be important later on in the story.

We thanked her and she disappeared into the night.  Soaked and my energy dwindling, we laid back on two beds, noticing the other personal items left out on the other bed.  The other bedroom was also clearly occupied, but they were also away.  I headed to the bathroom to try and collect myself.  We had come this far, and I didn’t want to this trip to be a waste.  I could man up and get through this bug.  Come on, body!  Just then, a strong urge to cough sent me hacking wildly into the sink.  Without going into gross detail, it was clear that I had somehow cut my throat after coughing too much.  And since I was pretty sure I didn’t have and 18th century version on TB, I figured I had Strep or something like it.  Grand!

Part 2: In the dark, in the rain (the title of the fake children’s book we plan on writing about our trip)

I shuffled back to the room and we startled to talk dinner.  Italy is for pizza!  Let’s get pizza!  We find a small pizza place and my sorry attempt at feverish Italian orders us two large pizzas by accident (like, how difficult was it to just order one pizza?!)–food which I can barely swallow.  But I smile and hope the food will perk me up.

Our goal for the first night was the Spanish Steps, which we are determined to accomplish, since staying in our murder-ish hostel sounds less enticing.  We hop on a bus and head in the right direction.  At this point in our travel lives, we had minimal experience with Roman-style cities–endless winding stone streets that all look the same, side roads, alleyways, and identical traffic circles.  We get off the bus and unsuccessfully get confusing directions from two police officers about how to find the steps.  Well, an hour later, with the rain picking up and the sun setting, we find the steps, look at them, exhausted, and decide to go home.  But we’re soaked and annoyed so decide to make a pit stop in McDonalds…you know, where everyone dreams to go in Rome.  It should be noted, however, that there are several fountains and statues in this McDonalds, causing us to exclaim, “We saw Italian fountains after all!”

We decide to cut our losses and call it an early night.  Sadly, the bus we had taken earlier more confusing on the way home.  Nothing looks familiar.  Every block looks the same as the one before.  I remember passing this stunning hotel and just wishing will all my might that we had ponied up for a real hotel (though that’s something I’d be able to pull off at 29, and probably not at 21).  Eventually, in a panic, we just jump off the bus in fear that we are getting farther and farther, in the rain, away from our hostel.

We stand on the sidewalk, picking through our map, and trudge slowly home to our beds.  And then the infamous night began.

I strangely fell asleep just fine.  Thank the Lord, this was all going to be okay!  We had a few other sleeping roommates but they were out like lights.  The other room however, was still yet to receive its occupants for the night.

Part 3: The man with the wet shoes

You know when you’re little–and you wake up suddenly feeling like you’re going to be sick at any moment?  That’s what happened.  But, I couldn’t lift my head.  My fever had progressed so quickly that the room spun each time I moved.  Also, I couldn’t figure out what that noise was.  It sounds like…Kid Rock music–or something as equally terrible.  And then, as the dark world came into focus, I realized it was coming from the next room–horrific, hard-core, screaming punk and rock music, blasting at its limits.  Why, you ask?  Because the music is covering up the incredibly loud sex that couple is having against the wall in line with my bed.

Helen is awake too now and we start to figure out what can be done, if anything.  We are so separated from any “management,” that finding someone to complain to would require going outside in the dark and hoping someone is awake in the building down the street.  But we didn’t know these people, how the hell did we know they weren’t psychos?  WELL.  Don’t get between a feverish woman and her sleep.  After 30 minutes of this madness, something inside me snapped.  I rose from my bed, the room violently tilting as I changed positions, and walked to their door.

At first, I knocked.  Nothing happened.  I knocked again, nothing.  And then, with all my sense disconnected from reality, I slammed both my fists against the door and screamed, in one quick breath and feverish slurred speech, “GODDAMNIT SHUT THE F*CK UP WE’RE TRYING TO SLEEP!”…a moment later…silence.  I returned to a terrified Helen, and I laid back down.

But now, I was shaking, nauseas, and my throat pounding.  I laid in silence for another hour, trying to calm down but also afraid they were going to emerge from their room and just take us all out.  Who would know?  I slipped in and out of delirium when I eventually heard, what I later called, “The man with the wet shoes.”  Because you know what this story needs?  Ghosts!  Or…hallucinations!! Back and forth, for a good hour, I heard, I kid you not, the sound of wet boots pacing back and forth, up and down the long corridor outside our room.  I figured that it was the crazy couple, but the noise went on for too long.

The other issue here is that I really needed to pee.  And I had ignored it during this madness for way too long.  So it’s just me and the man in the wet shoes in the hallway without a light switch.  Holy.  Hell. With only the dim (and I mean DIM) light of my pathetic cell phone, I take a deep breathe and turn to face the dark hallway.  There is no one there. I heard the foot steps moments earlier, but it’s empty.  All doors are closed.  I will tell you that to this day, that walk down the dark hallway to that bathroom light switch was one of the scariest, horror-movie-worthy walks of my life.  I made it to the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror.  This needs to end.  The back of my throat is bright red with white spots and my cheeks are an odd shade of purple.  I shuffle back to bed and fall asleep just before sunrise.

I awoke to Helen staring at me, horrified.  “What?” I asked.  “I woke up…with bugs on me.”  Helen had awoken to several beetles snuggling up beside her.

“Do you need to go home?” She asked. I sadly, with great regret, said I did.  It was time for the hell to end before I got any worse.

Part 4: Do you know this man?

At this point, I am beginning to panic about my illness.  We also need to convince the owner of our hostel to give us our money back for the two additional nights.  The second she sees me, she agrees.  However, we use her computer and learn that last-minute flights from Rome to London are far beyond anything we can think about affording.  We decide to take a risk and go to the airport to beg for an alternate option (what were we expecting?  I do not know.)  At this point, both our parents are aware of the situation.  The hotel owner tells me that going to an Italian emergency room as a non-citizen would usually have at least an 8-hour wait, so she wouldn’t recommend it.  She tries to give me juice and I can barely drink it. I’ve barely eaten since the afternoon prior, and even water is hard to get down.

So then, she calls us a cab. She says it’s a personal friend of hers.  Of course it is.  The cab arrives, and we hop into the back and explain our situation–I’m sick and we’re heading to the airport to get back to London.  They do not speak a word of English, and at least one, if not both are undoubtably drunk.  As we peel out of the parking spot, the woman in the passenger seat is hysterically laughing at some undeterminable joke.  In between bouts of laughter, she screams back to us, “Do you know this man?!  Do you know this man?!”  We decided years later that this must have been a poorly translated colloquialism, like said, “This guy!!  Amiright?!”

Well, no, we did not know this man, and we did not care for his driving.  Not only did we speed faster that I have ever driven on local roads, but at one point, we took a short cut across an exit ramp for a highway and drove the wrong way in the shoulder before hopping onto a side road.  Now, this side road, lead to nothing but factories and abandoned streets.  At this point, I began to brace myself for the end.  I was either going to vomit in the man’s taxi, or he was going to kill us on a Roman back road.  Delight!

We reach the airport, me with my head between my knees, and have an awkward confused exchange about the price.  It’s more than he promised originally, and we have no more cash.  So we give all that’s left and sadly walk to our airport doom.

Well, I thought we didn’t have any tears or energy left.  But alas!  We learn that you cannot haggle with an airport, even when you’re keeling over from he flu (again, what was I thinking?) and we learn that each ticket it nearly $1000.  So now what?  With one bar of battery left on my phone, we quickly do that one thing that no 21 year old wants to have to do…we call our parents.  Now, I realize that this trip, and this emergency option is privilege at its finest, but it was the icing on the cake after such a disaster.  Our parents bailed us out, bought the tickets, and we slumped to a waiting area, defeated failures.  I still claim that I want to pay for Helen’s honeymoon to Rome someday.  Or at least buy her a lot of drinks, but she has declined.

In the final moments waiting for the plane, Helen rallies some good humor, something I will always deeply appreciate (because, let’s face it, she’s the real hero of this story), and we get a little loopy and manage to laugh.  Apparently she had walked up to a sandwich stand in the airport, looking quite gloomy, and the man at the shop said, in a fatherly tone, “You need sandwich?  Ham and cheese?”  She gratefully accepted and appreciated that he knew exactly what she needs.  We use that phrase to this day when we need something simple to fix our woes.  “You need sandwich?  Ham and cheese?”

Part 5: The aftermath

I gratefully return to London and a member of our acting program plus my roommates are there to greet us to make sure we’re ok.  I am not.  My friend takes me to a private clinic (something that is VERY affordable in London), and a dashing young doctor tells me that I indeed have the actual flu.  I shouldn’t be around anyone and need to go on medication immediately.  In my feverish delirium, all I can think is, “Man, you’re pretty.”  Hopefully I didn’t say it.  The drugs knock me out and I miss several days of class and the rest of the marked off vacation days.

As I begin to come out of it, guilty and tired, I head out to the movies to try and feel normal again.  Halfway through the film, I graze my hands across my arms and realize they are covered in small bumps, lots of small bumps.  So I head out into the movie theatre lobby to get a better look.  Either I am breaking out into a rash…or I have bed bugs.  Though years later, I wonder if I had a post-flu reaction (which is apparently a thing), we determine that the Roman hostel’s final parting gift was a good case of bed bugs.

Many thanks, Rome!  Perhaps one day I will visit again and see all your beauty.  By I can promise I will never attempt this feat once more without a solid bill of health, a larger bank account, and much MUCH better judgement.

5 responses to “Day 21: The Infamous Rome Story from Hell”

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