Continued from PART I
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 Antonio’s desk on a red sofa and picked up a travel catalog. Behind him on the wall, there was 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. The gilt framed bright colored rendition did not do justice to the natural appeal of the place. Antonio 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 slightly forward in the sofa. I can’t crush my baby inside my belly.
“Oh, you write? Stories?” He asked.
Roman God. How exotic. That lisp. His lisp can drive anyone crazy.
“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 felt tied up to this hotel business and how the devaluation of the Lira had affected Silvia and Roberto and their business. He told me how all those Liras that the Italians had accumulated in banks turned into rubble overnight when the currency got devalued. 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. He sounded like he was almost grateful to the hotel owners for enslaving him with his managerial job at their hotels and their businesses. Atleast, he had a job.
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 continue answering the person on the phone in Italian.
Who must it be at this hour, his wife? Does he have one?
“That’s my mother,” he said putting the phone down. “She is worried about me always, about my long hours and not having a regular schedule.”
“I am sure, mothers are like that. So, she couldn’t sleep today?” I asked. I didn’t bring up the topic of my own motherhood.
“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 silently behind him.
He smiled and 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 from 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. Shouldn’t it be grossing 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. Shas and both almost said the same thing. “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 were doing funny things in front of them while taking pictures with them, the same way we saw tourists trying to distract street artists or the Queen Guards in London.
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 were dressed in deep dark navy blue and rubber rain boots.
So many young men – tender and looking for a direction in life. 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 and a bucket full of water in my eyes.
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 about your 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 smiling and amused at himself.
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, and I gave into the old woman.
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 he showed me after marrying me and bringing me to the States in 2002.
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 in Delhi 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 about it 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 porn 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 its surroundings 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 said to Silvia while realizing that Antonio was working for his 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 a doozy!”
“What took you so long?!” I shouted as I hurried down the steps. I was also annoyed that he was talking about Francesca. Yeah, she was hot, but so was I and millions of other women in the world. Big deal.
“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 used my fingers to claw his fingers away from my face.
“I am not having this conversation with you. Please don’t ruin these moments with your drama.” Chaz pulled Kyle away from me and started walking away. He stopped and turned around, walked a couple of steps towards me and spoke. “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 just say, the experience helped me hold onto beliefs that all Italian men might be heart-breakers.
NOTE: Originally published on Jan 28, 2015 3:07 PM
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