Saturday, April 11, 2015
My version of Italy, based on my first cab ride from Rome’s Termini Station to our hotel, would be very different from Elizabeth Gilbert’s in Eat, Pray, Love. My version of Italy, or at least of Rome, would be called Run, Pray, Live. I figured out pretty quickly during that ride why there are so many churches in Italy – they need them for pedestrian burial services. Every time someone crossed a street in our path, I expected our taxi driver to clip them cartoon style, flinging them carelessly left and right across the stone streets and sidewalks. Our driver’s methods were on par with those of the residents’ in their private cars and Vespas. As we neared our destination, the Hotel Portoghesi (featured in the movie Pretty Woman, we later figured out!) located in the district of Campo Marzio, I looked back through the rear taxi window in stunned awe. I had watched countless vehicles squeeze through openings narrower than a Boston sidewalk, yet none of the pedestrians panicked by diving into the bushes or ducking into the doorway of a gelateria or church, and nobody was lying unconscious in the street with black tire marks across their foreheads.
In Italy, although you can drink alcohol from the time you are weaned from your mother’s breast, you can’t legally drive a car until your eighteenth birthday. I say “legally” loosely, because in Boston, driving like they do here in Rome would buy you a trip to the courthouse in the back seat of a police cruiser. I’m guessing that in Italy you earn a violation only when a body has to be pried, shoeless, from your car’s front grille.
My business in Italy would begin in the Northern part of the country four days later, but in order to acclimate ourselves to the culture, language, and time difference, Laura and I decided to spend a few fun days in Rome and Siena before traveling by train to Pavia, just below Milan. In Pavia I would help oversee the events of my long-time boss, Noam Chomsky: two full days of talks, meetings, dinners, and a concert in his honor had been organized on the Italian side of the ocean by Noam’s colleague and friend, and by now our dear friend, Professor Andrea Moro, Director of the Center for Neurolinguistics and Theoretical Syntax at IUSS in Pavia.
Before that unforgettable cab ride to our hotel, in an Alitalia shuttle bus from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to Termini Station, we passed imposing ancient ruins standing like dignified sentries keeping silent watch over the city below while it determinedly reinvented itself century after century. The scattered assemblies of these crumbling buildings and forums were imposing and awe-inspiring. As we neared one large structure, I thought to myself: ‘That looks like the Colosseum, but it can’t be; surely such a worldly wonder wouldn’t be found in plain sight, to view in passing, for free.’ I all but rubbed my eyes for a clearer view, when a fellow passenger called to her friend, “Look, there’s the Colosseum!” It felt surreal to be sitting in a bus on a Roman street and to be able to throw a stone at the side of it. Ok, let’s be real – my son could throw a stone at the side of the Colosseum, while I could throw one in its general direction. We would come for a tour the next day, after a night’s sleep, as we hadn’t slept on the red eye coach flight from Boston.
When we finally arrived at our hotel it was nine-thirty a.m., and I fought the constant urge to torture myself by backing up six hours in my mind to the ‘real’ time back home. Although I love being in a new place, I don’t like the traveling part – the actual time in an airport and on a plane. I don’t like waiting in a long line to use a bathroom that’s barely one size larger than my outfit, to attempt to pee into a moving target and then wash my airplane-bacteria-infested hands in a Lilliputian sink. To add to my charm, I’m a horrible sleeper in any situation, and I was so tired at this point that I was talking ragtime.
“Laura, it’s nine-thirty a.m. here, but it’s really three-thirty in the morning. Three-thirty! If we take a nap now, what will happen to us?”
She said something like, “I know what will happen to you if you don’t take a nap, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to count backwards anymore,” then she ordered me to lie down.
We woke just past eleven a.m. and felt rested enough to tend to simple acts of arrival, like unpacking, making a plan to find an outdoor café that served anything with fresh mozzarella, and eating at least two servings of gelato, or gelati. No guilt here - we planned to do a lot of walking.
As we set out on foot to explore the city, my mind kept returning to the relationship between driver and pedestrian. I noticed that most everyone was crossing the traffic-filled streets at a normal pace, seemingly unaware of the cars at their hips. The Italian driver-pedestrian relationship looked to be symbiotic – a swaying dance, each moving in reciprocity, weaving together the way sidewalk and street intertwine at the seams in variations of gray stones and pavers so that one can’t see where sidewalks end and streets begin. Laura and I stood out sorely as the out-of-step visitors clinging to the buildings’ edges, trying to stay safe. I wanted to know what the Italian pedestrian knew that I didn’t know.
After our late lunch (or was it an early breakfast? Back in Boston it was only nine am!), the front desk clerk promised us that the Pantheon was less than a mile from our hotel, but we were again frustrated by our inability to follow directions, and we walked in circles for an hour.
Finally, Laura ducked into a little convenience store (she loves them and will find any excuse to go in, apparently in any country) for a map. I sat outside grumbling that the Pantheon was in no way ‘less than one mile’ away, convincing myself that the clerk was playing with our minds as punishment for not speaking his language.
Since our bus had all but run into the Colosseum, we were at a loss as to why it was so difficult for us to find other popular attractions, so it was a surprise when, just a minute’s walk from where we bought the map, we spied a small street sign with beige letters in a brown background, no larger or more magnificent than my street sign at home, with the word “Pantheon,” written on it, and an arrow pointing left. We turned skeptically down a bustling alley way, and one hundred or so feet beyond, the street opened up to the Piazza della Rotonda, with the Pantheon as its grand old centerpiece. All of our doubt and frustration dissipated as we stood before this astounding temple honoring all of the ancient Roman gods. The Pantheon is an awe-inspiring building of dome, portico, rotunda, and oculus dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs. Inside, Laura was transformed by the architecture, while I found myself at the altar, praying for the safety and good health of the people I love, particularly for my mother, who was enduring rounds of chemotherapy for lung cancer, throwing in a general shout-out for the well-being of the rest of the world.
On our way out, I dipped my right hand into the small well of holy water, and felt relief when my fingertips emerged unscathed. Despite my having moved far away from the Catholic church, I felt an odd presence of my seven-year-old self, dressed in a miniature, white wedding dress and veil, hands folded in prayer as I walked with the other girls and boys up the wide gray church stairway toward my First Holy Communion.
At the end of our first night in Rome, we made a last-minute decision to take a cab to visit Cristina, a close childhood friend of Andrea’s at the American Academy. Cristina is an architectural historian who had restored the buildings of the Academy, and is also one of the directors of a fellowship program providing living quarters and food for about thirty American Fellows every year, which allows them to focus solely on their art without external distraction. What a dream.
Christina showed us the building where Galileo Galilei was invited by a group of progressive scientists to discuss his innovative work on the telescope. Looking up at the great cottage we tried to grasp that Galileo had gazed at the stars, systematically recording his discoveries, through those very windows almost exactly 400 years before.
Sitting on the rooftop of the Academy sipping Prosecco champagne, Cristina shed some light on the mystery of what’s going on between the Italian driver and pedestrian.
“The drivers actually have a plan,” she told us. “They do see you. The trick on both sides is hesitation. Just don’t. And never look afraid, as that confuses them.” I leaned in toward her, taking a sip of my wine. “The thing is the timing itself. The drivers are judging where the walker will be in a few seconds, and the walker understands this, and keeps going – without hesitation.”
We thanked Cristina for solving one of Rome’s greatest mysteries. Now that we understood that the Italian drivers might see hesitation in our body language and the wide-open roundness of fear in our eyes and mouths, we felt a little more confident about walking the city.
We did our best to test out Cristina’s theory the next morning, but the ever-present pedestrian-driver issue was still inescapable. Layered over that enigma was the pervasiveness of Catholicism – strolling priests holding thin, black briefcases, and nuns of all ages grouped together on street corners in their flowing off-white gowns, long rosary beads hanging to their waists. These scenes were part of the art for Laura, but they threw me back to my early religious upbringing of church bells, prayer, and catechism class.
I remember walking toward Saint Mary’s Parish in my hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts, one freezing cold Sunday with my older brother Ron and my younger brother Paul, each of us trying to keep warm in our matching hooded and zippered maroon bench warmer coats, while our parents stayed at home: my mother preparing a hot Sunday meal and my father reading the paper and watching football on TV. We each sat through a forty-five minute mass with children of our age group followed by an hour of Sunday school. The only saving grace to a long morning spent in church would come afterwards, when my brothers and I each spent a nickel on a small circular loaf of a delicious steaming white bread smelling of yeast and sourdough, baked by a local Italian family working a few small ovens in their garage just a block from Saint Mary’s. The bread, crusty on the outside, warm and pliable on the inside, warmed our bodies for the mile-long walk home. It helped obliterate the lingering metallic taste of the thin, papery host, bits of which still clung to the roof of my mouth.
Every once in a while a similar aroma outside an Italian restaurant caught me off guard, and I turned in automatically. Even in Rome, a city that exudes the smells of pizza crusts and yeast, the exact smell and taste of that bread, that Sunday treat, like the ability to return to the full authenticity of our childhoods, remained elusive.
Walking the aromatic streets of Rome, there were times when I almost expected to look down and see my yellow patent leather Mary Jane shoes and matching clutch purse. But since looking down might have been interpreted as hesitation, I practiced keeping my chin up and walking confidently ahead.
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