I feel like Meg Ryan in “French Kiss”, minus the charming thief for a companion.
Today, I walk around and just say, “beautiful, beautiful.” At some point I switch to “bella, bella” but still walk, amazed, across roads laid even and straight, at a time when my ancestors ran wild and painted themselves blue before battle.
This city, even in the rainy season that makes an umbrella indispensable, is a wonder to behold. Unlike Paris, it doesn't smell of urine and car fumes. True... the Vespas buzz like an approaching plague no matter where you are, but the streets are reasonably clean and the centuries of grime give the buildings character.
Much of Roma is new, only two or three hundred years old, although some sections of town stretch back to a Renaissance building spree. Most of its classical and medieval characteristics are gone, except for the street plan, and thus character and charm are unevenly distributed. Next to a Bernini monstrosity, you’ll find a 2000-year-old temple, light and delicate despite gouged marble and fallen arches. In thick, windowless churches you find works of art that make you weep. Steps that go nowhere rise from a hillside and traffic snarls under and around the Arch of Janus as if training for the NASCAR circuit.
Rome is made for walking, so I walk. Just walk. To the Fontana di Trevi, the Piazza Novana, the Pantheon. I wander, really, from relic to relic. I pay no attention to the people around me, except to be ware of the gypsy children, of course, who are purported to be able to pick your pocket with both hands tied behind their backs.
I lunch in a museum café, and finding no spare seats, accept an offer to share a table with an elderly gentleman. We talk, sort of. His English is as bad as my Italian, but we’d both studied Latin and remembered just as little. He tells me the U.S. still does not have a president and asks if this was my first trip to Roma. Then he motions for me to follow him onto the terrace.
I do, and he shows me a skyline view of the city.
“There,” he points, “St. Peter’s. There, Hadrian’s Tomb. See dome? Pantheon. This,” he points again, “Marcellus theater, the forum and the Palatine.” He lapses into Italian and I do not understand the rest, but nod as if I do and look where he points.
Then I take his photo as a thank you and leave him to smoke.
I wander some more, lost in thought and look up in time to see a face that is eerily familiar. The boy is about 15, with dark curly hair and light gray eyes. His face hints at later angularity and beauty. It bugs me for a few blocks – where have I seen him before? – then I realize he looks just like the portrait of a Florentine youth that hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Odd, but logical, how faces repeat themselves.
Then I glance up and stop. There, on the horizon just as the road dips into a vale, is the Colosseum. Breathtaking in its brokenness.
I walk toward it, studying its arches, the numbers over its gates, the the holes where marble was attached to the brick. A young man walks past and smiles. Reflexively, I smile back and continue walking. Then I hear, “Buon giorno.”
I turn. It’s the young man who just walked by. He smiles again. “Hi,” I answer and turn back to the Colosseum “It’s beautiful,” he says, introducing himself and falling into step beside me, “like you.”
OK, I love this, even though it is a line (and Manual looks like a gypsy child now grown). American men never ever seem to just stop and say hi or introduce themselves to me. Other nationalities do. I’ve never gone to New York City without meeting a half-dozen Europeans. Last year, in San Francisco, I ended up on a pub-crawl with a group of Irish ex-pats, and the first guy I met in Charlotte was from England. In the airport while waiting to board the flight to Rome, I ended up chatting with Luigi, a French-Canadian on his way to Bali to spend the winter as a scuba diving instructor.
I don’t know if European men are just more confident or if they know that sometimes “hi” just means “hi.” Whichever it is, it’s fun.
Meanwhile, back at the Colosseum, Manuel takes me on an impromptu tour of the Colosseum, talking all the while, then he says: “You are too beautiful to look so sad.”
“I’m not sad,” I say, “I’m enjoying the view.”
“Are you here with your boyfriend?”
“Ah, you left him at home.”
“Ah, you are heartbroken,” he shakes his head and puts his hand on my waist. I pull my jacket close to make sure he doesn’t go for the purse beneath it.
“No. I’m here with a friend having fun,” I say.
This guy determined, though. “American men are so foolish. I live in America for a while,” he says, “and I learn that American men do not know what love is, they think sex is love. They confuse quantity with quality.”
“And you are talking to me because you want love?” I ask.
Busted, he grins, and it really is a nice grin. “I like talking to beautiful women. Now I should go.”
“Wait,” I say, and pretend to fumble for my camera as I check to make sure I still have all my money, passport, etc., and then take a photo with him just for kicks. With a European kiss goodbye, he heads up through the forum and I spend the rest of the afternoon smiling, having survived my encounter with a gypsy child.
Tomorrow: The forum, hell and high water