Sleeping in the Rome Airport with a Chatty Brazilian, a Kayaker, and a Writer

The floor of Terminal 3 in the Fiumicino airport is surprisingly chilly. And, at 1.42am on the first Thursday in October, even more surprisingly, quite crowded.

I wasn’t supposed to be sleeping on the floor of the Rome airport. Granted, nor was my house supposed to catch on fire. Like most every moment of my life nowadays — the good and the bad — the two are related.

The prime spot for airport sleepers: off the floor, horizontal and semi-private.

Thirty-six hours before I was to leave for Italy for a friend’s wedding and three weeks of work, the electrical wiring of my neighbor’s flat in San Francisco spontaneously erupted in flames. Even though I snuck past the firefighters to run back in and grab my passport, I knew by the time I was touring my bedroom with a couple of neophyte Red Cross volunteers I wasn’t going anywhere on August 29. I did leave for Europe, two weeks post-fire salvage, unprepared, re-chaosified, and now stuck with a 6.20am flight back from Rome that would cost $879 to change. (Believe you me, I checked.)

One of the good things about the fire is that I don’t fret about the little stuff as much anymore. And, for a few weeks, flying out of Rome at 6.20am was a little, far-off blip compared to, say, salvaging family heirlooms or figuring out where I was going to sleep night to night. When the day came to decide, I figured I had two options:

Option #1: Take a train from Umbria to the airport Wednesday afternoon, taxi to a hotel that evening, haul my wine bottle- and olive oil-laden suitcase in and out of a hotel, unpack, try to sleep for a few hours, set my alarm for 3am, pack, and take a taxi back to Fiumicino to check in by 4am.

Buona sera! I’d like a croissant, an espresso, and a queen-size bed with 600-thread-count sheets. Grazie!

#2: Arrive at Fiumicino late at night. Come what may.

The Fiumicino airport floor it was. This is how my early evening went:

8.15pm: Rebecca, my Umbria Slow co-author and dear friend, drops me off at the Foligno train station after a lovely afternoon rest and dinner.

8.25pm: Board the train, filled with excitement and wonder. It’s about the journey, not the destination. This is what I have based my life’s work on.

11.30pm: Arrive at Fiumicino wide-eyed, with anticipation, adventure and discovery.

12.15am: Screw adventure. Fuck discovery. I’m cold, exhausted and alone. I want a m#@$%f$%&^ing bed.

12.30am: I mean, there is a Hilton next door for $235. But that would be ridiculous. Um, right?

12.35am: Travelers! Young Brazilians, even, with outdoor equipment. They will be my people. “Do you speak English?”

In the hierarchy of airport-dwellers, we realized we were on the bottom rung — the lowly floor sleepers, sans any respectable item of comfort for our task ahead.

Oh, yes, did she ever speak English. Tamiris and her kayaker boyfriend had been in Europe for 40 days (let me know if you need a detailed run-down of their hotels; the one in Porto, Portugal sounded like the best of the seven). Tamiris’ boyfriend didn’t speak any English to me other than the sole sentence he’d picked up along the way, “She talks a lot.” At 1am, a security guard told us Terminal 1 was closing and we’d need to head to Terminal 3.

In Terminal 3, we were greeted with signs of life. An all-night bakery. Dozens and dozens of travelers — women in burqas, backpackers in full sleeping bags, families with several children — sleeping or lounging on every available surface. A few folks had arrived early enough to secure one, two or even three seats, and were soundly sleeping. In the hierarchy of airport-dwellers, we realized we were on the bottom rung — the lowly floor sleepers, sans any respectable item of comfort for our task ahead. We chose a spot on a walkway and hunkered down, laying on top of a mixture of bags and jackets.

We shifted left. We shifted right. We laid on our backs. We tried our sides, with various sweaters tucked here and there. Within 30 minutes, Tamiris and I gave up and headed to the all-night bakery.

And this is when we expanded our motley band. Daleen heard us speaking English, and we’d found our newest friend.

A journalist and writer in Rome for a women’s fiction conference, Daleen had detailed years of abuse as the author of the book Sister of Silence. She lived in Morgantown, West Virginia, five minutes away from where I’d spent two weeks checking in aging hippies to the All Good Music Festival a few years before. We had a mutual acquaintance (a harp-maker named Happy; why, in fact, yes; I did live in Humboldt County for seven years). Daleen bought me apricot juice. I let her use my iPhone to check her email.

Here’s one of the things I love most about travel: Something magical happens to chronological time. It’s almost as if it slows down to pack more experiences in.

Hi. It’s 3am. We’re tired.

Tamiris and I just needed a few minutes, and Daleen was in our club. We invited her back to our section of floor. Again, we tried sleeping. Again, we got up and headed back to the all-night bakery, and just talked. Daleen told me about her book, which documented years of her abuse, the catharsis she’d found in writing, and the non-profit she’d started on her own. I told her about writing this blog to help me deal with the aftermath of the fire, and about the non-profit I wanted to start one day. We chatted more with Tamiris about her trip. At one point during our collective thirty minutes of attempting to sleep, I announced that sleeping on the floor of the Rome airport overnight was, at best, a 1, maybe a 2, on the scale of life events. If we could create any moments of joy whatsoever, that was enough.

When 4am arrived, I was a little sad for a brief moment to be leaving.

A very, very, very brief moment.

7 thoughts on “Sleeping in the Rome Airport with a Chatty Brazilian, a Kayaker, and a Writer

    1. likeahouse says:

      Thanks, Pierre. I’m really looking forward to the time when I get all of insightful moments when I’m, say, laying on a beach in Mexico vs. sleeping in an airport or watching firefighters put out flames through my bedroom window.


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