I will try not to sound cynical. Actually, this is how I speak. My natural monotone these days – trying not to get too excited about anything in life, in general. Call it the adapted bashfulness that comes with age, if you will.
There is a prelude to every act in life before it fades out and the act itself takes center stage. A few preludes, however, seem to endure. Even after they have been succeeded by countless other mundane acts of life, you keep adjusting and readjusting your perspective to match up the level of impact the prelude had produced.
The “prelude” in question is a 10 day trip we had taken as a family to Rome, Italy in the spring of 2012 and the “act” is – our lives that has followed after. A trip worthy of being put on display along the walls of the circuitry of my memory to be looked back at when I finally walked its halls. Like any fancy vacations, this was marked with an occasion.
We landed in Rome at 8 in the morning and stepped out of the overnight flight from Atlanta. Leonardo Da Vinci international airport. The name did not surprise me one bit. A large display of the Vitruvian Man in the area leading up to the baggage claim area. Yet another perfectly valid illustration of the Romans of their pedigree. We noted the rest of the contents of our new surroundings and dutifully and warily filed ourselves into a serpentine taxi line.
When our turn came 20 minutes later, our driver smiled at us politely. “Buongiorno.” He said, but did not pick up the heaviest bags. Instead, he picked up the smaller ones and started assembling them in the right corner of the trunk. As if it was a cue, my husband Chaz placed our sleepy 6 year old Kyle on the ground next to me and loaded the rest of the heavier bags into the trunk.
“Buongiorno Signora.” He smiled at me and opened the left side back door. There was no exaggeration in his tone and there was no prominent bent in the curve of the spine which is a typical gesture of us Asians displaying our eager civility.
After setting down a few bulky suitcases to ride shotgun with him, we crammed into the back seats with Kyle between the two of us.
Zero leg room.
I secretly cursed as I closed the door. If the Europeans don’t increase the sizes of their taxis, they will find fewer and fewer American tourists.
As we headed to the highway, I asked the driver – nudging myself to remember how to correctly pronounce, “How are you?” in Italian. “Co-me stai?”
The driver’s eyes smiled as he looked at me in the rear view mirror. “Penne penne. Gracie.”
“Hotel Francesca? Hmmm, Via Marentino?” Chaz seemed to desert his usual cockiness in the strange ancient land of the Romans.
“Ahhh! Via Marentino? OK. OK.” The driver replied.
From the corner of my eye I felt Chaz eye-stare challenge me and when I obliged, he had a look of chivalry and a smug smile on his face. He then tried settling himself further into the space that our knees filled up.
I rolled my eyes and smiled. I thought of the first topic I would bitch about almost instantaneously. Topics always came to me. I didn’t have to have to look for them as long as people do stupid things.
I usually started with stuff that had immediately passed. When something else more urgently inappropriate caught my attention, I quickly moved onto that.
I spoke in Telugu, my mother tongue as I had a strong conviction that the driver spoke nothing of the language. “Come on, really? Not picking up the heavy bags first? I am way too street smart than that Mister.”
I rolled my eyes – which I usually do quite often – and clutched my handbag with my left hand and pulled Kyle a little closer to me and stared out of the window. For where our life had brought us, was a place where people were supposed to be sweet – after all, I cannot overestimate the feistiness of a complete nation of strangers, their buildings, homes and even moss and grime on their old cobbled streets and stone walls looked picturesque on the internet when we were researching for a place to visit. Heck, some of my friends who had visited told me that they had to stop even at the old government buildings to take pictures of them. Italy- just like the name France seemed to churn the must of romantics in my thoughts.
We went past other cars and chest high concrete walls on either side of the highway while I sat still day dreaming.
Then, in a matter of minutes into our 30 kilometer journey, our car came to a crawl and our discussion shifted to the rush hour traffic and how it was such a mistake that the North American flights landed in Italy at this hour on a weekday morning.
Here, the reader has to excuse my American colloquialism – rush hour, peak traffic, congestion etc. I don’t really know how things are talked about in the rest of the world, except of course in India, where I was born. Or, if there an uptown and downtown like how we have here in America. In India, there is no such thing. We have two basic differences – urban and rural or rich and poor.
As I looked around the car bored of the traffic, I looked at a small metal plaque, half the size of my forefinger nailed into each of the taxi doors, with an ID number and a name written on it. I wondered loudly, if that was a name of the guy “who was taking us to the hotel”, deliberately avoiding mentioning him as the driver.
As soon as I said that, my 6 year old leaned forward and said “Come se chiama?” into the driver’s ears.
“Ahhh!!” the driver said and then smiled broadly with his lips together before half turning to him and saying, “Mi chiamo Peter.”
My husband and I looked at each other and laughed out loud. I had no idea Kyle was following my evening learning attempts at Italian. I squeezed Kyle and told him that he did a wonderful job. Episodes of sporadic, humble and delightful moments in a mother’s life.
He then sat back into my lap and told me that he wasn’t well. I pulled out a Ziploc bag that I always carried and as soon as I held it out wide enough for his open mouth, he threw up into it.
I could sense that for Peter in the driver’s seat the sound of a baby retching in the back seat of his taxi was horrifying. When he turned around deliberately to see, I lifted the Ziploc bag to prove that his taxi remained spotless even after this incident. His smile reappeared instantly.
As the car was almost at a stop anyway, he slowly turned the wheel to the right and turned into a side street which was like an unmarked exit off the highway. He got out and came to my window and asked me to hand the bag over to him. I turned to Chaz who looked equally puzzled and gave the bag to him reluctantly. He walked over to a nearby shrub and threw the bag there. Kyle who was watching looked at me and shouted. “No, no mommy, you cannot do that?”
I smiled at him and tugged at his hair playfully while wiping off his mouth.
“Every country has different customs baby. It’s OK, just relax, and lie down on mommy’s shoulders.” I told him pulling him further into my lap.
I wanted to continue but spared my 6 year old complicated theories of human behavior. “Here and in India, it is OK to relieve yourself of any garbage wherever you are. Surprising, isn’t it?”
While Peter walked back to his seat, he sported the proudest form of national pride on his face.
As the taxi rolled into Via Marentino, we drove past small trattorias and chimney stacked parlors before we spotted the name on the plaque of a 6 storey building.
Hotel Francesca. First floor. Ring doorbell.
We stopped and got out. Kyle jumped into his dad’s arms and asked to be picked up. “Daddy, can I please ring the doorbell daddy! Please!”
“Oh no, sorry baby, I just rang it, next time when we..”
Before he could finish his sentence, Peter who had just unloaded all our bags including the heavy ones, sprung in between us and rang the doorbell in at least 10 quick successions.
By the time we could react, Kyle stretched out of Chaz’ arms and rang the doorbell as many times as Peter did. We all laughed and I cupped my hands and bent into my knees as if to try to stop my hysteria.
As we waited, I began reading the rest of the names on the plaque. Must be our neighbors from all the other floors for the next 10 days I wondered aloud.
Here is the roster – not an exhaustive list, because I can’t recall all of them – Lucci Marchini, Mammana Iavicoli, Eregi Srl, Renzoni Marinelli, Porretta Annibaldi, Notaio Conso Mattei.
“There you go, all the mob names that you want for your stories!” Chaz exclaimed at me while I laughed out loud again.
A voice over the intercom interrupted.
“Buongiorno, Hotel Francesca.”
We waved goodbye to Peter after paying him 45 euros including the tip. We picked up our luggage and pushed ourselves into the building which had two giant ornate wooden doors with round wrought iron handles.
“Entering into Medieval times!!” Chaz announced with fake trumpet sounds and Kyle laughed as he ran inside pushing past us.
At any point the old rickety elevator fitted one of us with one large suitcase or two small bags. And we made multiple trips before we assembled ourselves outside the front desk of Hotel Francesca.
Silvia, our receptionist, smiled at us and said. “Welcome to Rome, sorry, old city, old elevators.”
We smiled back although we felt irreparably exhausted. Chaz thanked her for all the emails and how well she had answered all his questions. The last trip up the one flight of stairs had been brutal on Chaz as our largest suitcase of all didn’t fit into the elevator at all.
We took the room B-6 which had two windows facing the alleyway on the back of the building. Silvia told us that she and Roberto were here to serve their customers; they had owned Hotel Francesca for more than 25 years. She pointed us to a Tripadvisor 4.5 rating that was laminated and placed on the left side of the wall behind the counter.
She gave us a recap of what was to be expected.
Breakfast – a few pastries – lemon, pear filled etc., juice, coffee, cappuccinos, corn flakes, “skinny” milk which her American customers preferred, were all available free of cost. We could request the night porter for any milk that we would like for the baby before he went to bed. We had the option of turning off the AC and saving 20 euros. We could decide after checking into our room. Hospitality that understands that the bottom line is the most important line that we draw as customers is the most appealing to me. My exhaustion temporarily vanished but returned as soon as I checked out our room and found out the bathroom had a shower area of two feet by three feet.
I lazed in bed that day and slept all afternoon.
When I opened my eyes, I realized Chaz must have gone outside because he was dressed. He had his elbows on the window sill and was looking out into the alley way. Ky sat on an old, red sofa with the Kindle Fire in his lap.
“I am sorry I overslept.” I said as I rolled over in bed and stretched. “What time is it? What’s all that noise?”
“How are you feeling? Day one is over already.” Chaz was still bent over and had turned his head to look at me. “What happened? You were supposed to be checking off your bucket list in Rome!”
“Ha! I know right! Let’s get out and get the most of the sunshine left. I just felt super tired in the morning. But, you should have woken me up!” I added defensively.
“We tried waking you up twice. It’s OK, I just went and checked out a few options to go around. We can take a cab or walk. There is no point to buy a ticket for a bus tour today. It’s already 5 now.”
I wondered if Chaz was mad at me.
I sprang from the bed and wondered if I had slept on my stomach. It felt flatter than usual. Sometimes, I forgot there was a baby growing inside.
“Kylie, how are you baby? Did you guys eat something? I half sat on the sofa next to him and tried hugging him.
“Hi mommy.” His attention was distracted, something that happened when he was hungry OR he was playing his video games.
I walked over to the window. Real potted plants with their red muddy base plates sat on the extended threshold into the narrow balcony. It looked like a market, hawkers were selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Is there any place we can get him something to eat?”
“He ate the PBJ from your bag. There is a pizza downstairs if you want.”
“Yes! We need to act quickly before he gets cranky. It will take me two minutes to get ready.” I said walking hurriedly towards the dresser mirror in the center of the room.
“No rush, we will be downstairs.” He said taking Kyle into his arms.
“No, no, no, please don’t go anywhere! Remember how we got lost in DC when I went to get coffee and came back and you guys were gone? That was a nightmare!” I stopped midway to the bathroom to protest.
“OK, relax, we will wait.” He laughed and sat down on the sofa after putting Kyle on the bed. Kyle had his hands clutched onto the Kindle Fire and continued playing Dino Donkey Dash or whatever that stupid game was.
After I got ready and came out of the bathroom, I didn’t see the boys in the room. I grabbed my handbag and closed the door behind me and walked out. Kyle and Chaz were in the lobby waiting. Chaz had a few street maps in his hand. I looked over to the front desk and a head popped up from behind the large computer monitor.
“Ciao, Signora. Hello, I am Antonio.” A guy said getting up from the chair as he extended both his hands. He clasped my right hands between his palms and said. “Pleasure to meet you.”
Oh my God. Tall, perfectly set black hair, high cheek bones and expressive eyes.
A true Italian bred man. Roman God material. Totally.
And that is when the most unreasonable thing happened. Just like always, when high drama is picking up in your brain, something has to happen to quench it down. Chaz sounded unusually urgent and said that he got an idea of where to go and how to get there and complained that Kyle was starving at this point. And we had to hurry if we don’t want him to get cranky.
The most handsome sight of Rome was in front of me. What was the hurry? “8 hours, and you fed him a left over PBJ from home. And now you realize your son is starving. Come on!” I wanted to bark at him, but kept my lady-like composure.
We walked out of the lobby onto the broad Marble steps and out of the building. Pizza was next door to the right, outside the huge ornate doors.
After Ciaos and Signores, Chaz told the baker. “No meat. No meat.” He pinched his left wrist with few of his right hand fingers and said. “No, no.” he said animatedly again.
The baker looked at us and did not smile much. His apron had the white flour dust and it looked unclean. Part of the dramatic effect you create for your customers I suppose. All his pizza options were there just like in a pizza self-service buffet. We could have pointed out at the slices we wanted I guess. He boxed us three huge slices of cheese pizza. Slices of flat baked dough with big bright red blobs of marinara and mozzarella slabs and a couple of fresh basil leaves on it.
“It’s called Margherita.” Chaz added as we walked out of the bakery.
“What is?” I asked as Kyle and I walked a little behind him on the side walk.
“The pizza, it’s called Margherita.” He replied.
“Oh, what? If you knew the name already, why didn’t you say that to him? Instead of all those gestures? The guy was looking at us like we are some freaks.” I shouted annoyed.
Chaz stopped walking, “I know, its strange right? That word just occurred to me now as an afterthought, you know?”
I had to give him a pass. I usually think like a typical vegetarian that I too am. You just assume that everything is structured and built with meat in it, even the broth in soups. You just end up being paranoid about everything you put into your mouth that is not made at home with your own hands.
We walked to the Trevi fountain nibbling awkwardly at our slices because we were all starving. BIG mistake. After the longest walk of our lives – which turned out to be surprisingly only one point two kilometers, I sat down on the steps of a McDonalds near a street artist who was spray painting.
“Rick Steves says that we are just a few hundred feet from the Fontana di Trevi.” Chaz announced in his fake Italian putting his Kindle back into his backpack.
“Screw him dude. I can’t walk anymore.” I announced.
Chaz asked me to relax with Kyle there and went strolling past us. There was a wooden Pinocchio hanging from the open front glass door of McDonald’s. Kyle played with it while I stared at the spray painter and the group of onlookers who had gathered around him. I could not see what he was doing anymore. But, I stared at the feet of tourists and drank from my water bottle.
Chaz came back to us 10 minutes later and asked us to follow him. “Just come here I want to show you something.” He murmured, gently holding my right wrist.
Right around the corner, of the wall off McDonalds along a long stone wall there was some bikes and big transparent plastic bags hanging onto them. Three guys stood next to the gutters at the L corner of the muggy space with the long straps of handbags dangling along the length of theirs arms, starting at the elbows and ending at the wrists.
Prada. Gucci. Louis Vuitton. Fendi, Coach. Chanel.
Actually, I don’t remember exactly if Coach was there.
Ha! Knock offs of all the brand names from around the world.
Sun had never seen this part of the world. The corner felt sad, but the fellows sounded cheerful.
Kenyan. That’s the Kenyan accent. The nurse at my General Physician in Johns Creek, Georgia is from Kenya. She has no one from her immediate family in the US. Part of the reason, why I assume that she treats every one of her patients so endearingly.
“Do you want one?” Chaz asked me.
I felt compelled.
The exotic sweet accent.
Strangers who had pinned their hopes onto my commitment to my indulgences.
The lure of wearing a brand name for dirt cheap.
I haggled and brought down the price of a Prada from 75 to 25 euros in a matter of few seconds. They smiled brightly with yellow teeth and asked me to come back. “Come back again lady. Come back tomorrow.” They suggested and cheered.
“How long have you travelled, how long have you been here? Where do you sleep, where do you eat, if you get to eat at all every day?” I wanted to ask.
“Happy?” Chaz asked me and put his arm around my shoulder and we walked to the Trevi fountain.
He picks up on my temperament, that’s why he makes good husband material.
“Get me a lemon gelato.” I demanded and smiled. “That’s what will make me super happy!”
He laughed and settled us down along with our jackets and bags on a concrete step across the fountain.
My point of telling you the story is not to describe the Trevi fountain. You can Google it and find one picture which can describe it to you in a thousand words. Also, I don’t want the critics to rip into my omniscient descriptions of the Fountain and its ancient history.
Chaz went away to one of the street hawkers. When he returned he had fried artichokes in a paper plate in one hand and a Nutella sandwich in another. Kyle shrieked and grabbed the sandwich from his dad’s hands and began eating.
“I thought you didn’t like artichokes. How come you are eating them now?” I demanded.
“It’s all about the presentation madam. If you make it like this maybe I will like them.” He continued and laughed. “Sorry, I don’t have any carbs for you.”
“Oh shut up Chaz. Just let me enjoy!” I snapped and didn’t take up on his offer to taste the Italian fries.
“Woah, what did I do dude? He squeezed my shoulder into his with his free left arm but I pulled away.
“La Belle Dame sans Merci!!” He said and left us again.
While he stood at the back of a long line near the ice cream truck, I felt a tug, I felt bad for treating him like that when he had done all this research and brought us here to this wonderful country. Kyle and I tossed pennies into the fountain and clicked pictures of him and his Puss in Boots toy he got from McDonalds kiddie meal at the airport. Then I got out of the constant photo clicking frenzy of tourists and joined him in the line. After getting the ice-cream for all of us, we hired a cab and got back to the hotel.
“Pizza is different here, don’t you think? I think I like it here.” I mused.
“Yeah, what did you expect? The milk here comes from buffaloes. That’s what gives the cheese that taste.” He retorted. That’s about the most I remember from our conversation that night.
I wondered if I had been living more like an Italian than Indian in America. Friday nights were pizza, every afternoon at 2 it was a Starbucks Cappuccino and I signed off personal emails with a Ciao – Which I had a started using after I copied it from a boy crush’s style at work. I know, I know – what the heck, right?!
I rolled over in bed that night. I had slept all day, so I lie in bed wide awake and not sure what to do.
2 am, the clock display showed.
I carefully sneaked out of the room and adjusted my eyes to the light filling the lobby. At the front desk behind the computer I could see a head pop up behind the monitor. Antonio.
I walked over casually and acted surprised to see him.
“Not sleepy Signora?” He asked.
“Yes, I am sooooo tired, but still can’t manage to sleep!” I smiled broadly. “Do you get any sleep at all?” I asked.
“Si Signora, the Night Porter gets three hours of rest. My shift ends at 2:30 and begins at 5:30 again.” He said.
“Oh wow, just three hours of sleep in the night?” I smiled and walked over to a small metal door which opened into the common balcony.
“Does this gate open?” I asked.
“Yes, of course, of course.” He came over to help me open the door.
He held the gate slightly open and said softly.
“It is chilly.” I squeezed into the open space and pulled my grey cardigan closer to my chest with my closed fists and walked into the balcony.
“Your room is at the far corner.” He pointed to the left rim of the U to our room B-6.
I thanked him and he closed the gate behind me. As I slowly walked to it, I was surprised to see that almost everyone had their windows open and the soft pale cotton curtains flying in the wind. I could hear whispers and snores, clunks and different kinds of night sounds as I walked towards our room.
The balcony was a long Horse shoe shaped one. The gate where I was standing was at the bottom of the U. I saw the empty alley way downstairs where the road ended into the ground floor of our hotel building.
The windows of our room were shut. It disappointed me a little. I should cancel my air-conditioner tomorrow I decided.
I turned to face the alley way and put my elbows on the narrow railing and stared downstairs into the dark.
A little while later, I when I turned my head to my right near the gate that I had just come out from, I saw a red dot in the dark. It took me a while to realize that it was Antonio and he was smoking a cigarette staring at me. The red dot did not move when I stared back.
On the 2nd day, we left our room in pajamas and walked past the front desk to the area where breakfast was available for three hours from 6:30 to 9:30.
From where we sat, I could see a little bit of all the action. An older gentleman in a suit sat on the red sofa which was right across the front desk and read an Italian newspaper.
A lady was watering all the plants in the balcony one by one as red water overflowed into the plant bases.
Antonio came out of the kitchen holding a bread basket and a coffee pot and smiled at us. No hint at how he had molested me with his eyes last night.
“Ciao. Did you get good night sleep?” Antonio walked over to us as I propped Kyle in a chair to my right.
Along the alley way – every road was so narrow that it can qualify as an alleyway actually – vendors would set up their makeshift shops, tediously arranging all their clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and magnets that they would want to sell.
“Pardon the noise. The noise gets better after the hawkers settle down to do their business. It is the setting up that creates the disturbance.” He said to us from behind the breakfast counter, almost never ceasing to smile as he walked from front desk to the kitchen to the coffee pot to the newspaper stand, back and forth.
Chaz had coffee and made toast for the three of us. Corn flakes and milk for Kyle he suggested.
“Don’t forget to warm the milk, he will catch cold.” He said aloud standing next to the toaster.
I smiled grudgingly at him for trying to be the mom and started assembling muffins, butter and jelly onto the green pastel table cloth which had a lacy fabric border. It looked old and faded. Ancient city, ancient table cloths.
“Next time he comes out of the kitchen, I want to ask Antonio where I can get some peanut butter. We need some backup for Kyle in case he gets hungry.” I said.
“Hey, maybe we can ask this gentleman here!” Chaz said with some urgency and leaned forward in his chair and looked at the well-dressed guy on the sofa. He had his newspaper next to him now and was looking at us.
“Ciao, Good morning.” He smiled at Chaz.
“Ciao! Mercato, Signore?” Chaz asked enthusiastically.
“Oh Mercato, go out of the building and take left on main street and take first left, just a few steps from here.” He said in lispy English.
We smiled and said thank you.
“You are staying in B6?” he asked.
“Silvia is my wife.” He said when he saw me stumped and walked over to our table.
“Oh! Nice to meet you. Your hotel is lovely.” I said.
“Gracie. Gracie, Signora.” He smiled and I saw the humble bent of his spine as he spoke.
“Baby, ask uncle his name?” I nudged Kyle.
He sat with his head bent into his Kindle and howled at us, “No!”
“Sorry, he just woke up.” Chaz said while I tried to recover from my annoyance.
Roberto left us and walked over to the kitchen.
As, I started to get up to get another cream filled pastry, Chaz objected suddenly.
“Why don’t you eat like how you eat in America? Why can’t you eat what you eat, just a half cup of oatmeal with skim milk. We don’t eat pastries for breakfast, do we?”
As if this was the proverbial shoe dropping, I got up from the table and stormed back to the room. When I realized I did not have the key card in my pockets, I walked back to Chaz and demanded it.
“Don’t create drama please, just relax.” He said as I walked away from him.
As I lied down on my bed and sobbed, I realized that whenever I fed him words into his mouth, his next sentences came out filled with them.
Just before I got up to get the pastry, I had said, “Oh God, I am eating like a pig, the pastries are so good. I am sure they are loaded with calories!”
One time, when I had said, “Please don’t irritate me Chaz, it’s that time of the month for me.”
He had asked me promptly, “Are you PMSing?”
Or another time, when I had said, “I scare myself these days with the rage I seem to be holding within me, you know.”
He had replied. “You are scaring me, seriously, you need to look into how you are processing words.”
When the boys got ready and went out to get peanut butter from the store, I went into the shower. As I showered, I mused over some structural improvements the bathroom could use. They could remove the basin used for cleaning bums and increase the size of the shower. Toilet papers are a rage in the US, haven’t the Europeans figured that out yet?
I heard a rustle outside in the balcony as I walked out of the bathroom almost naked. I ducked and dragged the white cotton bed sheet onto myself to cover my body and slowly walked towards the window.
Just outside my window, I saw Antonio’s back towards me. He was watching the hawkers downstairs in the alley way and smoking a cigarette with one hand in his pocket. I ducked behind the curtain, blushed, but did not feel violated. Later, that would bother me a little. But, at that moment, strangely, I felt satisfied with my wet body.
Kyle walked into the room first carrying a plastic bag.
Chaz came inside and sat next to me as I put my eye shadow on. “Hey, how are you feeling? I want to make it up to you. I am sorry for what I said.” He said coxing me to extend my hand into his.
“What about the dark red one?” Chaz questioned me as I finished applying a matte finished purple color.
“Don’t try your luck Chaz? Not today!” I warned and smiled.
He helped me make four PBJ sandwiches. Meanwhile, Kyle read his “365 stories for boys” book that he had brought along for the trip.
It was almost 1 in the afternoon when we reached the Spanish steps. As we sat down about midway on the steps facing a fountain, Chaz plucked at my fingers and nudged closer to me. I told him that it was too hot to sit so close together.
“Do you know what that is?” He pointed at a house to our left. It’s the Keats Shelly Museum.”
I smiled and kissed him. “I love you!” I declared and without thinking, I sprang to my feet.
“Easy!” He shouted laughing, “You could have tripped! Do you like to visit while we wait here? I will get him some gelato or popcorn. He will get bored anyway.”
I didn’t protest. Few minutes of ME time for 5 Euros isn’t bad at all. I stood in the 3 people line at the ticket window and entered the home that is now a museum.
Light blue rosettes which were faded now were carved into the ceiling of Keats bedroom, the place where he died slowly of Tuberculosis. His friend Severn had nursed him in his final days. Severn had painstakingly kept a diary of everything that transpired during the last day of Keats’ life. The last words that Keats had spoken were that he felt the flowers were growing over him as he rested into his final place.
The irony of visiting the final home of a romantic poet while my husband sat outside was not lost on me. Keats died in perfect peace. But, he has left me – a fellow romantic, a whole lot restless.
As I walked out of the museum, Kyle ran towards me with ice-cream in one hand and a long stemmed red rose in another. I smiled at him and bent down to hug him to see Chaz wink and asked me if I cared for some banana gelato.
“You didn’t have to ask me, it’s so hot, Oh my God!” I laughed.
He asked me remove my shrug. “Please, for my sake. What’s the point of wearing spaghetti straps if you cover them up with shrugs and scarfs? Now look here.”
He took a picture of me on one of the steps while Kyle stayed clutched to his daddy’s right leg and ate his gelato.
I stood up and dusted myself while Kyle ran towards the fountain. He sat on the concrete wall of the fountain and was asking me for a penny, when I heard someone call out. “Signora, signora.” I looked back to my right and saw an old man with a dirty old black jacket holding out my shrug and smiling.
I almost yanked it out of his hands with embarrassment and thanked him after I covered my modesty – read, shoulder flab.
When he didn’t move, I smiled and sat down between Kyle and Chaz.
“You? India?” He asked sitting down very close to us on a black bench which was already full with two dogs and a couple.
“Well, yes, we both were born in India, but my husband and his parents immigrated to the US when he was about, hmmm, 10?” I looked at Chaz and we both looked at the guy. “And I came to the US after marrying him.”
“Non parlo Inglese.” He said sadly raising his eyebrows.
I bit my tongue between my teeth and blushed. I felt silly for being so verbose with a stranger. For the next 10 minutes, we both smiled at each other a lot while trying to gather details about our lives.
He lived with his paralytic wife within walking distance to the Spanish steps. He gets bored and tired after taking care of her all day. So, in the evenings he comes to the steps for two hours to relax and look at tourists.
Amazing I thought, and what a fabulous character for a story that I could write!
Almost, always, I replied courteously, “Penne. Penne, Gracie.”
We said our Ciaos and left when Chaz said that our conversation with the old guy and our mutual hand gestures was attracting more tourists than the steps itself.
Early the next morning, I declared that I cannot and will not walk around the city anymore. It has to be a cab or an auto bus, pronouncing the bus as Italians – boos. If not a cab, the double decker open rooftop type auto bus maybe, as if to mellow down my demands.
As we walked to the closest crossroads after taking Silvia’s recommendations, Chaz pointed me to the supermarket that they had been to the previous day. Outside, we saw a bearded homeless man. He was folding a jacket. He already had a dirty one on.
I stopped and fished out some crackers and a left over PBJ sandwich from the day before from my handbag and asked Kyle to give it to the man. He walked over and put them gently into the outstretched palms of the man fully touching the insides of his palms.
Ciao, we told him and walked along Via Marentino to a crowded crossroad where there were many tourist outlets for buses.
Europa bus tours. Sightseeing Roma tours. La Romana. On the Tevere.
I stopped at every ticket booth and haggled for a 24 hour or 48 hour pass.
“Hello! You Indian madam? Me from Pakistan!”
I heard from behind a booth we had just left.
As I squinted and turned, I saw a guy in a dark brown jacket coming out from behind the crampy booth. The guy who had just spoken to us, had to get up and give way for this guy to come out of the shop.
“Were you standing in the booth behind him?” I was surprised that I had not seen him until then.
“Buy these three day passes madam. For you, I give child free.” He announced in English. To say that his sales pitch shocked me is a complete understatement.
We haggled in Hindi and English and finally arrived at a rate of 80 US Dollars for two adults and one child with unlimited hop-on hop-off for 48 hours.
“Fucking immigrants. They can never forget their heritage of haggling, can they?” Finally, when the bus arrived half an hour later, already half full, I said exasperatedly as I climbed onto the double decker open roof top.
“You are forgetting YOUR roots madam.” Chaz said as he sat next to me and giggled showing off all his 32 teeth.
We got down the bus at the road across from the Colosseum and crossed the road where a long ticket line awaited us. While we waited, we got a lesson on the history of the amphitheater and its architecture from the “Tripadvisor walking guide of the sights of Rome by Rick Steves” on our Kindle.
Guess what, every dude who had giant earphones must have had the same exhaustive feeling of exhilaration while downloading the walking tour guide onto their device. Duh.
Chaz told us to sit on one of the corners across the cobble stoned area when my knees could no longer carry my belly weight.
Kyle and I sat in the shade of a street carts.
Dress like a real gladiator. Rent costumes.
REAL Italian coffee and Gelato sold here.
As we entered the gates finally and went up and down between the different levels using an elevator, we realized that the Colosseum was an amazing architectural structure even in its ruined formed. Half of the roof of the Hypogeum was restored around 2010, and it gave a breathtaking view of the moss and tall grass filled 2 story underground.
Even when a virtual tour guide talks to you about gladiators and common men thrown into the middle of the arena and fed to the lions, it can conjure up gory visions in the head. With a visual context of slaves and warriors spending what might be their final moments on the earth, combined with the imaginary roar of lions before they sprang onto the gladiators who would fight for their lives in blood battles gave an eerie sense of the place. Scenes you have never seen before or wish never to see in real life can be as real to as how many trumpets and drum beats you would enhance the effect of cruelty you experienced. The crowds cheered around the stadium, and roaring tigers from the underground can pounce on you from any direction after being propped up from the underground cages.
Public amusement in the form of gladiator versus animal fights. Human thirst for blood is a timeless sport. At least in the 21st century, the sport is covered in macabre-fetish websites. And under the thinly veiled pretense of civility we hide behind computer screens to replay those redacted scenes.
History lesson learnt. Life lesson re-learnt.
After we left the inside walls of the Colosseum and walked out carefully maneuvering the artifacts and other floor polishing and construction work going on the premises, we walked outside to a large lawn of tourists.
Gladiators stood in colorful costumes clutching spears and said cheese to all the photos that they were offering up themselves to. We paid three euros each and indulged in a picture with the Gladiators.
Everyone was taking pictures in either of the two directions, the backs facing the Colosseum or their backs to the giant Arch of Constantine. At the perfect spot which would give the best backdrop of the Arch, we waited in line while a Filipino (looking) family of 7 took turns taking multiple pictures and taking turns only have the rest of the 6 at any point in a photo. They declined my offer to click all of them in a single photo. Strange family dynamics, I thought.
When it was our turn to request our family picture to be taken, I strategically placed my left hand on my round belly and my right hand across Kyle’s and Chaz’s thighs.
Strategy and how you present yourself is the key – irrespective of whether you are feeling it in the heat of the moment or not. After all, this was going to go into the portrait archive and might eventually go down as the family history.
And, don’t bother to ask me the significance of the arch, and who Constantine is. I am still only as literate about that as I was before the 10 day trip.
The next night, I lay in bed, wide eyed and wished for midnight to arrive fast. The night breeze gently blew the pale cotton curtains inside and out. I stared outside at the deep purple flowers in red potted plants in the dark. Clothes lines that went zig zag across the roofs from the floors above. These old concrete walls and this lingering musty smell of the old city – this can be a place to live, this can be a place to die.
I thought of Antonio and how he must be lonely outside just a few feet away. When I heard Chaz snoring, I gently left the room and walked to the front desk.
I sat across from him on a red sofa and picked up a travel catalog. Behind Antonio on the wall, a big gaudy painting of the Piazza di Spagna. The Spanish steps. It must be from a flea market. The memory of its quaintness was still fresh in my mind. So, the gilt framed bright colored rendition did not do justice to the natural appeal of the place. He saw me staring behind him and smiled.
“Antonio, I am a writer. Can you tell me about your country and the Italians? I would love to have a local perspective.” I said setting the books aside and leaned forward in the sofa.
“Oh, you write? Stories?” He asked.
Roman God. How exotic. That lisp. His lisp drove me crazy. I realized I might be falling in love with him. Hopelessly.
“We are all part of the Eurozone now. And since 2006, Italy is not doing well as a country you know.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” I said dreamily.
He talked about how much he much he felt tied up to this hotel business and how the devaluation of the Lira had affected Silvia and Roberto and their business. I did not get the most of it, but got the gist that he was essentially a slave to the luxuries that the money offered him. How all those Liras they had accumulated in banks turned into rubble overnight when the Lira got devalued? Sometimes I felt it was as if he was almost grateful to the hotel owners for enslaving him with his managerial jobs at their hotels and their businesses.
The phone rang and he excused himself to answer it.
I sat back and looked at a Wine in Tuscany catalog.
I wondered who it was on the phone that was interrupting our conversation for such a long time. Every couple of sentences, he would look at me intermittently, blush and get back to answering the person on the phone in Italian.
Who must it be at this hour, his wife?
“That is my mother,” he said putting the phone down. “She is worried about me always, long hours and not having a regular schedule.”
“I am sure, mothers are like that. So, she couldn’t sleep today?” I asked.
“Every evening when I am coming from the countryside, I pass by her house. I stop and give her a kiss. Today she was at the market when I stopped by. She called me three times already to tell me that she is sorry about missing me today.”
“Wow, that is amazing!” I was surprised.
“I know. We are very close, I am her baby still.” He blushed again.
“How is America? Do you like it?” He asked.
“Yes, I guess, you have freedom if nothing else. Freedom to do anything, freedom to leave everything and start fresh, you know.” I said.
“Scusa?” He said. “I am sorry, I didn’t get you.”
“Nothing, I love America!” I said animatedly.
“Good, good. I want to come to the USA one day. Maybe move there, you know? My cousin is there with his wife, he loves your country.” He said.
I was surprised how we both longed for the grass on the other side. As I wondered about how happiness seems to elude us and only lie in what others have, I smiled to myself.
Antonio got up. “I want to go out for a smoke. Signora, you want something to drink?”
“I want to go outside too.” I said and skipped behind him.
He smiled and stopped to put a cigarette between his lips.
He held the gate open and stood with his back facing the cold metal gate.
It was impossible to squeeze into the balcony without touching him even when I turned sideways.
“Have you taken a Tevere tour, it is so romantic in the night. You should visit there.”
He said softly into my hair, as I passed him.
Outside, I walked briskly to my left and walked along the length of the other rooms before reaching the open window of our room. I was glad I had opened the windows that morning. Inside Chaz and Kyle were sleeping. Chaz was snoring and I smiled as I turned to spot Antonio. As I looked towards the gate and then searched for him, I found the red cigarette dot in the dark – it was directly across me at the other end of the horseshoe and it did not move as I stared.
I instinctively pulled my grey cardigan closer to my chest and stood hunched over with my elbows resting on the railing. For a while in the dark, I stared at the leftovers from the day’s market place and went back inside without turning to see where Antonio was. As I went by the empty lobby, I saw the framed picture of The Creation of Adam. It was yet another gaudy flea market rendition of the World famous painting. All those Roman Gods with their junk hanging out in plain sight. The next day, I would be seeing the real deal.
Of course, I am talking about the real Adam painting.
Right about the 6th day, we finished breakfast before 7 and caught the Metro for the Ottaviano station which is within walking distance to the Vatican. The long line reminded me of my home state in India where the Hindu Vedic Temple of the God Venkateswara is. Tirumala, the city where the temple is considered the Holy Vatican of the Hindus and is one of the most visited places of Hindu pilgrimage in the world.
When you look at long lines like these across temples around the world, you can’t stop to wonder if the concept of religion is a natural or a man-made wonder. How different are the teachings of peace, tolerance and kindness different when they come out of the mouths of Popes, Priests, Paupers and Politicians?
“On Wednesdays, the Pope gives public mass. And the tour groups are lucky enough to get passes to this mass.” Chaz interrupted my stream of thoughts.
“Oh wow, they are so lucky!” I protested with jealousy.
“Your Italian friend didn’t tell you that?” Chaz asked.
“Wait, Antonio? Come on!” I fist bumped him in his stomach laughing.
“If we knew it, we could have come yesterday. I just heard someone talking about it in the line.” He said.
Kyle played on his Nintendo DS while we pulled and tugged at him as we walked around the Cathedral.
When we sat in the Sistine Chapel, I stared up to the ceiling and for the first time, realized the significance of where I was. There in front of me was Michelangelo’s the Creation of Adam painting. Roman Gods with their junk hanging out. Why doesn’t it gross me out? I wondered and worried silently about having such thoughts in a chapel and then prayed hard for something I can’t remember now.
As we walked out of the Sistine chapel, we went to the Vatican post office and mailed ourselves a postcard home.
“There is something in our mail! From the Vatican City, the smallest city in the world. Well, who could this be? Thinking of us from the Vatican?” Bleh.
At the museum gift shop, I bought the magnet of the Adam painting for 10 Euros.
We came outside the chapel and took pictures of the Swiss guards manning the gates of the Basilica. Tourists did funny things in front of them while taking pictures just like how people try to distract street artists or the British Queen Guards.
There were two kinds of uniforms that I could spot, the ones in the joker striped costumes with spears who looked like for any intrusion, they would start juggling spears and balls and confuse the bad guys with their acrobats. The thought felt comical.
The other kind of guards that were dressed in deep dark navy blue and rubber rain boots.
So many young men – tender and delicious looking. And such tightly guarded stone walls of the city. What happens in Vatican must stay in Vatican.
“I am itchy daddy. Daddy, it’s hot!” Ky screamed and begged his dad to pick him up.
“When will the bus come? This is ridiculous.” I protested. It had been half an hour since we got out of the Basilica and took 100s of pictures of Via della Conciliazione up and down.
“You know these tour buses get some kick back, right? They strategically schedule their tour timings so visitors have a chance to get bored and shop around.”
“Oh yeah, I am sure.” I muttered and then Kyle and I decided that we were hungry. We spotted a Self-Service restaurant called Caffe San Pietro and walked inside. Chaz followed us a couple of minutes later.
The usher reminded me of the Italian mafia. Of course, I have never been in direct contact with any of them, but anyone with a little pop culture knowledge of soap operas like the Sopranos would be familiar with the dark sunglasses indoors in broad daylight style.
Chaz ordered a beer, and I ordered French fries, veggie spaghetti, risotto and fried mozzarella, and 1 coke – little ice.
“What the heck, I should have checked the prices on the menu. 44 euros for what? And it clearly says self-service. Why do they have a 30% service fee?” I fretted as I held the tray and paid.
“What did you expect? It is right outside the world’s most visited cathedral? Thank you your highness for visiting the holy Vatican, now here is your free cheese cake and cappuccino.”
I laughed and carried the tray out and found a spot almost closer to the next restaurant and began eating. Kyle digged into his Spaghetti with four cut pieces of cherry tomatoes.
“Why are you eating so much starch and fried stuff?” Chaz paused drinking his beer and quizzed me.
“I am eating for two and I am in my second trimester. Have some decency and think before you talk Chaz!” I glared at him with a spoonful of risotto in my mouth.
I gestured to the homeless guy who was walking past us and put my entire tray in his hands.
Chaz pursed his lips, folded his arms and looked away.
“And what’s up with alcohol? Your birra costed 7 euros. Drinking alcohol near a sacred place?” I said raising my voice.
“Hello, the Italians are selling it, don’t blame me!” He laughed.
Kyle protested as I forked my way into his pasta bowl. So, I fed myself and the baby French fries on Italian soil for that day.
“Oh my God, Chaz, I don’t know what’s happening to me. I am really getting pissed at you these days, even for silly harmless things you say. I am being a real bitch, right?!” I announced and then cupped my hands to silence myself.
“OK, forget the fact that it is a total rip off, forget that I am drinking beer here and that I am an asshole AND I will forget the fact that you are acting like a bitch.” Chaz said not surprisingly.
As we finished and got up, he bought me a “silk” scarf at an old woman’s stand and wrapped it around me as we walked. Of course, I had to haggle for my own present.
We continued walking sans tour guide – unless you count Rick Steves, whose podcasts continued to impress us – until we reached the Roman Forum.
I gave M&Ms to Kyle to keep him from complaining about the walk and bought the four of us – counting the hidden baby – popcorn while taking pictures of The Arch of Titus.
The Roman forum is filled with columns and stones in dusty ruins.
There are different styles of Roman columns, Doric, Ionic and there is a third one I can’t recall. Mind you, I did not learn this during my Rome trip. A friend of ours who lives in a country club in Johns Creek had given us a tour of her million dollar home one time and explained to us how her home was custom built to fit her Roman dream. I had not followed much of her tour, obviously, out of pure jealousy.
The sunset was especially breathtaking as we walked along Via dei Fori Imperiali. Those stone pine trees. They need a special mention. Breathtakingly beautiful in their grace, matching the high walls and long columns of Arches in height and slenderness. Dark green crown like growth on the top of those long sleek brown trunks. A sight to see.
OK, I know, you can Google these too if you needed a description.
“It feels like Deja vu, me being here with you guys, but I feel like I have been here.” I mused as I gawked at my surroundings.
“And I must look like Gregory Peck to you now!” Chaz teased me.
“Oh my God! You are right!! I am thinking about Roman Holiday!” I laughed. It was one of the first movies we saw as a couple after I had married him and moved to the States.
As we walked by the gift shops and trattorias, and endless rows of empty tables set for the tourists to occupy them along the Via Dei Pastini, we found ourselves right in front of yet another amazing Roman wonder, the Pantheon.
Inside there was some sort of a choir rehearsal going on. And we sat in the pews for a while until Kyle started squirming under my right arm. I had the same feeling – starvation.
“At about 142 feet in diameter, the Pantheon’s dome is the single largest unreinforced, concrete dome in the entire world.” Rick Steves told me a lot more about the astonishing architectural significance, but I hardly paid attention.
“You remember Jantar Mantar right?” Chaz asked.
“Oh yeah, I remember how they charged 5 times more on the standard ticket price just because we are American Citizens. What baloney?” I smirked.
“No, that’s not the point I am trying to make. It is far more architecturally superior than ..”
“Chaz, I am in Rome and I am trying to enjoy the Roman architecture. It does not mean, I have forgotten my roots or don’t appreciate Indian culture or artifacts any greater.” I cut him off rudely.
Chaz looked away.
Thankfully we quickly came to our senses and started walking out only just 10 minutes into entering the Pantheon.
Four Gladiators in bright orange, white and brown outfits which needed a good laundry sat on a raised platform outside the Pantheon and smoked cigarettes. Kyle was the first one to spot what one of the guys was doing. Sometimes he would take a break from his smoke and turned back to munch the sandwich out of his McDonald’s box.
“Mommy, I am hungry! Can I have chicken nuggets, please, mommy?” Yes, we are raising a Chicketarian.
“Hey, how about we try something around here. Some risotto? Caprese? Cappuccino? We need to stay local, remember, your words?” My husband said coyly.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to experiment now. Let’s stick to tried and tested. Please.”
“You have some strange problems.”
“Babe, I am hungry, hormonal and have to pee urgently. I have a clingy 6 year old to feed ASAP. This is not the best time to pick on me.” I said with a gassy look on my face.
“OK, OK, in Rome do as the Romans do. Mickey D’s it is!” He said as he turned to look at the Gladiator eating McDonalds and back at me smiling.
This was the first time I had laughed generously at Chaz’s jokes that day.
After getting general directions to the place, we walked in circles, always coming back to Via Del Corsa.
I begged to take a break on one of the busy streets and sat down in a gift shop on a stool. The lady behind the counter looked at me with pity and looked at me as if she wanted to ask me something. I smiled at her and dragged Kyle and hugged onto him.
Chaz asked her where the McDonalds was and she said that if we took a left and walked to exact back of this store, we would be standing in front of it.
I bought a few 3 Euro magnets which looked exactly like the one I had bought at the Vatican. I bought it as an appreciation for her kindness and mostly because I had lots of gifts that I had to give once I went back home.
The front desk that Antonio manned every night was empty. I found myself looking around when a non-Italian guy – let’s face it, an Indian looking guy walked over from behind the kitchen door.
“Buonasera Signora. Looking for something?”
“Hey! How are you doing?!” I must have sounded surprised.
“Can I help you?”
“No, just trying to kill some time before I can sleep.”
“Well, of course you are joking Signora.” He said politely.
“Antonio is not here today?” I changed the topic realizing he didn’t get my joke.
“No, he is off on Thursdays and Saturdays. So, I fill in as the night porter.”
Every Thursday night he has dinner with his entire family, 4 brothers, one sister and his mother in his mother’s country home.
“Right!” I said aloud, remembering that Antonio had told me that a couple of nights ago.
I sat on the red leather sofa and browsed through the travel catalogues. I felt bored and betrayed. He could have hinted to me in the morning that he would not be here.
I did not feel like engaging in any conversation with this new guy at the front desk. After all, I have pledged my allegiance to Antonio and his Roman-ness.
Finally, I decided to call it a night and get into bed.
“Bye, I hope you get some sleep. Thanks, good night!” Then very patronizingly, I asked him. “Sorry, didn’t get your name?”
I laughed and quizzed him. “Nice. Which part of India?”
“I know, people think I am Indian.” He smiled guiltily. “I am from Jamaica, doing my masters here in Architecture and Engineering. My wife is Indian if that counts.”
Next day, we stayed in the room most of the day, sorted and packed all the magnets, T-shirts and toys that we had bought for our friends back home.
“We are now headed to Piazza Navona. It will be fun.”
Chaz said as we sat in a taxi at 4 in the afternoon.
“I am glad we did nothing today, we need that break. Tomorrow, we will go around town on bus. No walking.” He took my left palm and squeezed it and looked at me and smiled. We kissed.
Piazza Navona was dotted with restaurants. In the middle there was a fountain. Musicians, Graffiti and stencil artists and contortionists indulged the tourists and tried to engage our senses.
A street performer did a humble version of ventriloquism and puppetry. Then as the concluding act, he pulled out a fake crocodile. He went around in a circle asking the old and young onlookers to follow along his cue of beating it up with what looked like a baseball bat. Most of us had fun beating that poor crocodile up. Then he put it into a big box he had brought along and pulled out a handbag out of it. The crowd roared and cheered. I was surprised at the cause he fought for in the most covert way.
When I attempted to take a picture of a graffiti artist, he shouted that it will cost me money. I smiled and turned away.
We walked around for a bit and entered the La Romana restaurant.
We ordered French fries, parmesan spinach ravioli with olives and tomatoes, focaccia bread and birra.
The focaccia bread was soft, and nothing like I had eaten before.
“Try the ravioli, its good! We have covered 80% of the city, tomorrow, we will just sit on the bus and go around. That will finish our tour.” Chaz said taking out a map from his jeans pocket.
“Storico Romano, how about that? Have we been there? Antonio said it was a good place to see.” I said enthusiastically.
“I have researched that. It’s the same medieval times crap they have in our malls, basically the same bull shit.” He said dismissively.
“Are you jealous of him or something? Dude, I am observing you around him, you get all antsy. He is harmless, OK? He is just trying to help.” I felt like I was lying about the full extent of our “relationship.”
“Oh jealous?” He laughed so loud, I was embarrassed at any attention our table might get. “He seriously looks like a 70’s p*rn star to me. That dude?! Why would I be jealous of him?”
“Hey, come on, he is not THAT bad!” my embarrassment turned into laughter immediately.
“All that mozzarella you ate is tightening you up. Please control yourself while eating, eat with some reason, cheese is not our staple back home.”
“Yes, I am constipated, but that does not have anything to do with how I feel towards you and your attitude with me on this trip.” I fake fretted.
I always want to control what came out of his mouth. But ironically when he spoke, his retorts irritated me, it was like as I grew older, it took very little for any situation to precipitate into a full blown argument.
I drank two sips of red wine from his glass. It surprised me that he had ordered red wine something he did not even like.
“For fun let’s go to Termini, eat a gelato around there and then walk home.”
After our cab dropped us off on Via Marsala, we walked into the Termini train station. Roma Termini – the train station’s name said. There is nothing much to describe. If you have been in a busy metro train station or a bus terminal in your life. You will get the point.
I suddenly thought of the word Mi scusi. I loved the sound of it from my mouth. But, when I wanted to use it where there was a large crowd and I had to navigate the foot traffic, all I could hear was Perdon or Scusa a lot. It bewildered me and I abandoned the idea after a while and trudged through without a word.
Almost everyone wore keds or flat sandals as if it was an accepted form of footwear. Except for men and women with extremely formal suits. As if they had to stay comfortable walking around on the cobble stoned roads.
“Why don’t they have hair? Why don’t these girls have hair mommy?” Kyle asked me suddenly as I was surfing through my handbag.
“Shhhh, you should not say that aloud. That’s rude Kyle.” I blushed and looked up hoping to find some women staring back at me admonishingly.
He was pointing at and saw that he was looking at the mannequins in bikinis in a shop display.
Chaz was chuckling at him.
I was already feeling a little glum as we had approached the penultimate day of our visit. And when we closed the door behind us that day, the front desk and surrounding it was buzzing with activity.
Weekend is 100% occupancy. I remembered Antonio telling me that the weekend was going to be busy as Vatican was celebrating the Canonization of 2 saints. .
“Ciao! Good morning!” Antonio greeted us.
Chaz said hello and started talking to Silvia about the best route around the Tiber river.
I stood with Kyle in a corner not sure who the girl in the room that stood out was. As if he read my mind, Antonio moved closer to her. “This is my wife Francesca, Silvia’s daughter.” He said squeezing her right bottom which her bright red short dress barely covered. She had black stockings and very pointy high heels on.
“Hey, it’s nice to meet you.” I realized for the first time that he was working for in-laws all along.
“Ciao! Sweet boy!” She said looking at Kyle and stroking her hip length long black hair. Her accent was thicker and her lisp more prominent. But, it was not sexy.
“Grazie.” I forced a smile and looked away.
When I looked back at them, out of pure curiosity, she was leaned into him and was saying something like, “Uffa, zitto zitto!” And laughing while pushing away her black hair from her face.
I took Kyle outside and waited for Chaz on the top of the marble steps.
He came a few minutes later. “Man! That one over there’s doozy!”
“What took you so long?!” I shouted as I hurried down the steps. I was also annoyed that he had observed Francesca.
“Who will find out the directions? Aren’t you glad you came to Italy with me. Let’s face it, I don’t want to be another Christopher Columbus.”
“Is this a jab at my directionlessness, Chaz?”
“What? What is setting you off these days? Relax, I was just kidding.”
Before I could think of a hurtful reply, we bumped into Roberto on the sidewalk just outside the building.
As we greeted one another, I asked him.
“Roberto, Italians are so friendly and always so well dressed and well mannered. How is that possible?”
“Bambina. Italians are friendly people. We want to portray a happy façade irrespective of how we are feeling on the inside. We give a lot of value to personal appearances. Also, we survived the Lira crashing, we will survive anything.” He said gently.
Presentation is important; it should be everyone’s strategy I agreed.
Even if you are feeling like shit, dress up and show up. Isn’t that how a famous quote goes?
The rest of the day, the four of us sat on open roof top of a Hop on – Hop off bus, and got down twice for bathroom visits in different McDonalds. In the evening, Chaz told us that we were going to get off at a stop on the river Tiber before the bus crossed it and went into the next part of the city.
Bikes and Vespas whizzed by as we walked hand in hand along the streets . Kyle hopped and skipped along. We went in and out of bookstores and Chaz disappeared with Kyle for a while and came back Kyle beaming with a gelato in hand.
“There is Ponte Milvio, it’s the place of the love padlocks. You keep seeing that in the movies? If you are interested the bridge is a long walk.” Chaz recommended to which I told him that it was time for a break.
We were near a black metal bench. The street lights were on and it was getting chilly.
“OK, while you sit and daydream – well night dream now I guess, Kyle and I will pick up something to eat. We can eat here. Kind of our romantic anniversary dinner on the Tiber.” He smiled.
“I wish I could sit here and write forever, this is so romantic.” I said dreamily. Take a little walk on Tevere under the street lamps at night. I remembered what Antonio had told me.
“Why don’t you write then?” Chaz interrupted.
“My writing is a joke, isn’t it?” I snapped.
“Please don’t come up with some First world problems out of thin air. I was being serious. OK? This is the main reason I got you here.”
“Jesus Christ! It’s our anniversary! Can we not fight at least today??”
Kyle clung to me and put my face into his palms tightly to make eye contact.
“I am not having this conversation with you. Please don’t ruin these moments with your drama.” Chaz pulled him away from me and started walking away. He stopped and turned around, walked a couple of steps towards me and said. “Also for your information, it’s not penne, like penne pasta. I didn’t want to hurt you, even though you were saying it wrong to everyone. Get your facts right, it is ‘BENE, grazie’ if you want to thank someone.”
As I watched them walk away, I pulled my cardigan closer to me and drew my knees towards my chin feet resting on the bench. To my right, I spotted a brown leather bound book next to me with a pen which looked like it was deliberately placed on top of it.
Inside on the first thick empty page were words in Chaz’s writing in his impeccable cursive.
With love for my sweet heart. Hope you get to nurture many many Roman à clefs. Roman à clef: Phonetically: Romana Clay. – A novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise.
I sat there flushed with embarrassment. For all the kindness Chaz had shown me, I had reciprocated with impossible self-centeredness. And actually showered strangers with more mercy than I did on him.
I thought of my life. Who do I have the deepest familial ties, who is the torchbearer of this family name? What are my kinship ties in the world? Who matters? Why and for how long?
“Bene, grazie!!” I screamed out into the air and a couple walking by hand in hand looked at me and looked away.
If Chaz had left me to stay there alone all night, the Tevere would have flooded with my tears.
In conclusion, I am not saying I have turned our marriage into the best one, but we have learnt and taught each other to endure. As far as Antonio goes, let’s say, the experience helped me hold onto beliefs that Italian men are all heart-breakers.