I will try my best to not sound cynical. But, that’s my natural monotone these days – never getting excited or disappointed 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. For me, it happened when the definition of love dawned on me on the banks of the Tevere (River Tiber) in the spring of 2012.
The “prelude” in question is a 10 day trip we had taken as a family to Rome, Italy 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 walk the memory halls. Like any fancy vacation, 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. He’s the one usually with the directions, the guide to any destination ready in his head in every new place we visit.
“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 crouching further into the seat until his knees almost reached his mouth.
I rolled my eyes and smiled. I was already thinking of the topic that I would be bitching about. Topics always came to me. I didn’t have to have to look for them as long as people did 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.”
Chaz chuckled. “His job is to drive all day, and he’s an old man. He can’t afford a bad back.”
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. Well, if the people were like this, I wondered, the moss on the buildings, the old cobbled streets and the gladiators better live up to the expectations that the internet searches had set us up with. Some of my friends who had visited Rome earlier had 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 a barrage of romance 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.
As I looked around the car, 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 had a ton of CDs from the library that I would just plop into the player and listen to them some evenings. 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 was here to serve their customers; their family has 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 an idea of what to expect the next morning.
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.
“Oh my gosh, 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!”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry! 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. You should be eating something. You can’t go like this. I just went and checked out a few options to go around and eat. We can take a cab or walk. There is no point to buy a ticket for a bus tour today. It’s already 4 now.”
I wondered if Chaz was mad at me.
I tried to spring up from the bed, and realized that I had a baby growing inside. I felt my stomach, it felt flatter than usual.
“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 – at this time of the day? That’s interesting.
“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.”
Tall, perfectly set black hair, high cheek bones and glossy 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.
“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. And they were on display anyway.” I shouted annoyed.
Chaz stopped walking, “I know, its strange right? That word just occurred to me now as an afterthought, you know? And to your point, just because we can see, we can’t be sure there’s no meat in them.”
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. Don’t judge. 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. I stared at the back of his head with knotted eyebrows.
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 blog I used to follow.
I rolled over in bed that night. I had slept all day, so I couldn’t sleep.
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 heard the gate that I had just come out from open and saw Antonio walk out with a cigarette to the opposite side of the balcony.
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, when I lifted my head, 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. I walked back into the lobby and into my room.
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.
“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.
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.
Chaz was making coffee and 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 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 quickly.
A few minutes later, 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. You’re eating for two people, I shouldn’t have said that.” He said coxing me to extend my hand into his. “What about the dark red one?” He said 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. Here, I got you a ticket, go enjoy, its too hot outside anyway.”
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! We will be back here, we will get some popcorn.”
I didn’t protest. Few minutes of ME time for 5 Euros isn’t bad at all. I stood in the 3 people line 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 to 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 he 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.
“Oh man, these 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.
Chaz told us to sit on one of the corners across the cobble stoned area when my knees could no longer carry my belly and body 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 feel real if you imagine the sounds of the trumpets and drum beats that enhance the effect of cruelty you experience. The crowds must be cheering around the stadium, and roaring tigers pouncing from any direction from the underground cages they have been confined to until now.
Public amusement in the form of gladiator versus animal fights. Is the 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.
Continued in PART II
NOTE: Originally published on Jan 28, 2015 3:07 PM
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