I love Rome. I love it so much I live there two months a year. But last year, Roma morphed from lover to spouse, no longer strived to satisfy, much less delight me. For Roma, suddenly it was enough to span the Tiber with bridges, illuminate the ruins and provide busses that stopped at posted stations whether they were empty or packed, bodies and backpacks oozing from both entrata and ustica doors. Only a demented pigeon could fit in.
I did not have an ah ha moment, rather a series of moments that moved my passion for Roma to echoes of medieval bells and memories of riso gelato. It was good while it lasted. Delicious. Then it was over. Maybe it was trying to exit the Pantheon while the entrance/exit area was closed by conquering armies of school groups, stampeding tourists from Sri Lanka, pickpockets in training and a guard huddled in his plastic chair looking with longing at the only escape route, the oculus. I tried to show my sister Raphael’s tomb, that touching monument still graced with fresh flowers, but all she could see was the backs of T-shirts and water bottles labeled in Cyrillic, Urdu and all the Romance languages.
Was it the canned beans served at a restaurant near the train station and the waiter’s lyrical lies that he picked them that dawn in his personally mulched garden that got to me? Maybe it was the group from Kansas trooping through Piazza Navona pointing at St. Agnes’s church and calling it St. Peter’s, then turning to the Fountain of Four Rivers and tossing in coins rejoicing that they had found Trevi Fountain. Perhaps it was me, the same me who must flame with passion for some author, some artist, some beach, some vista, some church, some strawberry, or feel like I am flailing in a black hole babbling over the boredom of it all. After my sister flew back to the U.S., I declared a trial separation in this decade-long romance. I hunkered down in my Rome apartment on a hill overlooking lines of laundry and pretended I was in Naples.
The next week, I left my neighborhood only twice and briefly. I walked down to St. Peters to see if Roma was having a party without me. The lines to enter the church were so weary, so long, I suspected Roma missed the quick slap of my sandals as I once breezed through security, the wait as brief as a ciao. I walked to Campo dei Fiori. The crowd was so dense, so raucous, I was convinced Roma missed my strolls around the Renaissance palazzos, the fountain and shadows of the brooding Bruno. Yes, Roma was pining for me, but he had changed. He would have to find another woman, one who could see beyond the crowds and into his eternal heart. I must have sensed this would happen; I had tickets to Spain that would shorten my Roman holiday by two weeks. My snap decision to blind date a new country was affirmed.
Then T.J. called. “Meet me in front of Santo Spirito – we’ll have dinner.” Which front? Santa Spirito encompasses three city blocks. The church entrance, hospital entrance, the hall of the frescos in eternal restoration, process entrance, back door entrance – which? Under the ustica sign? Beside the mailbox? Across from the bus stop? Phone reconnaissance instructed me to walk on, T.J. did not want to cross “that street” twice. That street is fourteen lanes of Inde 500 contenders and three pedestrian islands, each with a stop/go signal, never in synch and one on permanent stop so you get to play dodge car.
My marriage with Roma was in the dust bin, I no longer cared about celebrating my next birthday. Would it be a smart car, a Fiat, a Globus tour bus, a Vespa, a dump truck? Thoughts of Spain and tapas reminded me I was not suicidal, so I waited for a group of nuns and crossed in sanctified safety.
The softer side of Rome
Then there was T.J., the softer side of Rome with his engaging smile and warm ciao, ciao. He knew how to rekindle my passion – a small trattoria, facing the Tiber, that has been cooking food with love and serving it with pride for more than seventy years. Everyone was speaking Italian. No turbans, no burkas, no cowboy hats, no cheap nasty shoes, no T-shirts. The bresola was va bene, the pasta carbonara was molto bene, the panna cotta smooth as a Latin lover, the espresso Arabian and the limoncello free – because T.J. is a frequent patron, or because T.J. is T.J.
This expat from Indiana manages foreign and domestic television broadcasts of Vatican and papal affairs. This papacy, not being a Borgia, the affairs are of a spiritual nature, so we moved on to the Bush administration and lifted our glasses of house wine to T.J.’s dual citizenship. Good friend, good conversation, good wine. T.J. suggested going to the fireworks at St. Peter’s Square in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guards. Oh fireworks, oh sure. Beery smelling people spilling beer on my Italian shoes and ganja in the air, kids throwing cherry bombs and unwashed crowds. Oh, T.J. Fireworks. Really! And you even brought your camera. How endearing. I could have told you they sell fireworks postcards. You can even download fireworks screensavers for free.
St. Peter's Square is St. Peter's Square
It was a balmy night, though, and St. Peters Square is St. Peter’s Square. Crowded, but T.J. scoped out the perfect spot. We had the size of my house to ourselves. To my right, I saw the molton glow of the church; to the left, a shadowy fountain; in front, an Egyptian obelisk that had been converted to Christianity with a cross on top. One star, a half moon and a white cloud hung like a stage drop behind the obelisk.
The loud speaker crackled, T.J. translated the welcome senors and senoras, the thanks to the Swiss guards. “This square has seen fireworks for more than 400 years to commemorate." T.J. tested his digital camera and neglected to translate. “You may be standing where Michelangelo stood to watch fireworks.” I saw the artist’s tormented face smooth in anticipation of seeing beauty he did not have to wring from his soul for some sanctimonious pope who stiffed him. “And every Easter and every June”, T.J. made a phone call and forgot to translate the welcome speech. He told a journalist friend that Chinese fireworks in St. Peter’s square might add a note of levity to his article about deteriorating relations between China and the Vatican.
Then darkness and silence. An explosion of lights arching, dancing, dripping to a classical number heavy on the Glorias. Then more lights danced over the obelisk, over our heads to the Hallelujah Chorus. Is this God when a war ends? Are those white circles angels? Are those red blossom souls? Those twinkly blue lights, are they fairies? T.J. tugged my arm. Are you okay, are you homesick? Oh. I’m crying. Here’s why. I just now renewed my vows with Roma. How dare they end the Hallelujah Chorus – on to the next number and more explosions of arcing, dancing, dripping lights.
With three ear-splitting bangers it was over. What does it mean, we wondered? Go. Home. Now? Drink. Vino. Now? Father. Son. Holy Spirit? Wo! If there were a terrorist in the crowd, he now knows there is more to paradise than forty virgins and Viagra.
I walked home, not wanting the evening to end. The air grew cooler and softer as I went the fifteen blocks that gently slope up to my apartment. Flower markets on every corner sweetened the air. People passing greeted me, buena sera as if I had dual citizenship like T.J. I entered my apartment, my friend’s dog started humping my leg. I got his leash and took him for a walk. Poor dog, needed a lover. Just that afternoon, so did I. Now midnight, I walked a horny little dog down cobblestone streets shadowed by ancient palazzos, past fountains that had splashed on 2,000 years of footsteps, into the city filling me again with its mysterious beauty.
Despite non-refundable plane tickets and non-returnable flippy red dress for flamenco, I stood up Madrid.