Hot Food, Hot Springs & New Friends

My age-induced allergic reaction to drunken stupor has altered the lodgin status of hostels from “the best way to travel” to “only in a bind” status. The rise of Airbnb has changed the game; the comfort and security a private studio provides, at a competitive price, are simply too much to pass up.

However, the tight quarters and shared spaces of hostels do provide an unrivaled garden for friendship blossoming. Creating new bonds by exchanging thoughts with those that have had entirely different experiences, indoctrinations and cultural norms has long been my favorite part of international travel. I subconsciously feared that, without hostels serving as the broker to these exchanges, meeting new people would be decidedly more difficult.

Fortunately, Jon and Zoë both have a deep love for yoga and their brief membership at ZemYoga in Rome has thus far replaced hostels as this trip’s friendship forge. I largely abstain from yoga (a fact made obvious when a recent successful toenail clipping felt like a profound acrobatic accomplishment) but luckily my partnership with Zoë has given me an in-law relationship with the yoga community. Generally speaking, I’ve found an amazing openness among its practitioners, both in mind and in heart, and our new buddies proved to be no exception.

David, the boyfriend of ZemYoga owner Zuzana, became the first person outside of our mini-family we spent significant time with. He is a professional sculptor and painter from Belgium, fluent in a number of languages and currently living in Rome after previous stints in Paris and New York. In short, he’s the type of dude that would monopolize those new stars Tinder started giving out.

After a brief walk around his neighborhood, David generously provided a two hour pottery lesson for Zoë and I at his art studio. Zoë seemed up for the reprisal of Demi Moore’s part if a Ghost 2 is ever considered, but it’s clear they’d have to find someone else to play Swayze’s role, unless the new script calls for that character to suffer from early on-set parkinson. In that case, I’m perfect.

Trying hard to comprehend how one man can be so skilled

That same night, Tavo and Iggy joined us for Jon’s first turn at cooking a five course meal. Tavo, an instructor at ZemYoga, originally hails from Costa Rica and Iggy is a Slovakian-Canadian and brother to the aforementioned Zuzana.

Jon has an annoying habit of being incredible at any skill he resolves to master, and after that meal, he can now add chef to his unofficial resume. Even more impressive, he foraged most of the meal’s ingredients from local parks. I found this odd and unsettling at first, then found it odd-er and more unsettling to be living in an era where retrieving food from the ground is odd and unsettling. I’ll wait while you read that mess of a sentence again. Ok, now come along.

Jon and I eating foraged greens with Tavo and Iggy (far left)

Tavo has a clear knack for story-telling and his performance, as well as a belly full of wine and beer, had us in stitches for most of the evening. The guy oozes authenticity, a trait that has only been increased by the 7 months he’s lived in a foreign country alone. It was enlightening to hear his highs and lows from his time living abroad, something that Zoë and I are highly considering. He seems to have gained a greater sense of self, but also recognizes the need for long-term friendships, which can be few and far between when working among a revolving door of expats and tourists.

We were able to connect with Tavo twice more before departing from Rome, including a trip to see my boy Pope Francis speak at Piazza San Pietro. The crowd was enamored by his speech, despite the whole performance being conducted in a language almost no one speaks; the ultimate show of proof that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. It helps to have the threat of allegiance or eternal damnation on your side as well.

Tavo pointing at the two guys who actually understand what the Pope is saying
Road trip!

Our last day with Jon brought a trip within our trip as we rented a car and headed to Siena, with a stop over at Cascade di Saturnia along the way. Jon masterfully navigated us out of Rome in our Fiat 500L (a relatively huge vehicle in Rome).

Hero of the day, however, has to go to Google Maps. I think travelers should consider creating a new calendar dedicated to the all-powerful blue dot of navigation (Before Dot and After Dot). I couldn’t imagine getting out of Rome without it. Not many people know the saying “all roads lead to Rome” is actually an excerpt from Julius Caesar’s famous senate speech in 44 BC, which stated “All roads lead to Rome… even if you’re already in Rome and intend to leave. This place is a fucking labyrinth, and you’re forever trapped under my dictatorial rule! Haha! High five, Brutus! No, high five, not low five. Oh, what’s that you’ve got…”.

The hot springs were beautiful. Jon slipped into a comatose state for over an hour. Zoë appreciates her natural surroundings to such a magnitude that I fear I’ll wake up one day to find her in a cocoon, well on her way to becoming a butterfly. I received a thai massage from a waterfall. Fun was had by all.

Just as I was ready to pronounce nature the winner in the perpetual nature vs man debate, we went to Siena and saw this…

Statues that have their own statues

The buildings in Siena could and would only be constructed by a neighbor of Rome. It’s keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ syndrome played out at scale. The piazza isn’t just huge, it’s a sloping amphitheater with a circumference so big it doubles as host to UFC-style horse races. The exterior of the duomo isn’t just made from marble, its made from alternating colors of marble, resulting in the world’s largest tribute to Waldo’s outfit. Dubrovnik now has a rival in the prestigious “coolest old-towns Xander ever visited” award race.

Jon left us Thursday morning, catching a flight from Rome down to Sicily. The maturity of your friends and self has a way of going unnoticed and unappreciated often. However, in our goodbyes, we reflecting on how we’ve all grown in the five years since we last traveled together. Over the last week, our conversations revolved around ideas and philosophy, hardly ever devolving into gossip (an accomplishment for people that share so much family). Appreciation for each other was expressed often and with great affection. Spats were short lived and always led to apologies and further statements of appreciation. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to lead a life so closely intertwined with these two.

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