Goose River Anthology, 2012.
It seems that Rome never stops teaching me lessons. Just when I think I’ve got a grip on all the city’s offerings, it presents me with a new wrinkle. On several different occasions, I’ve been a fortunate pilgrim in that Eternal City. I’ve strolled thru the pages of its storied history before, and repeatedly toured most of its recommended sites. Surely, I’ve walked in Nero’s footprints, stood where ancient Roman senators chatted, and sat where gladiators collapsed. With each visit, new and intriguing insights revealed themselves.
I’ve explored with tour groups, and as an individual. Some of the city’s more knowledgeable guides personally escorted me around the Eternal City. With all this exposure, I quickly realized that in many ways, Rome reminded me of my birthplace in New York City, across the Big Pond. There, I’d learned the most efficient ways to cross and crisscross Broadway. I suspect Rome’s glamorous answer to Broadway is that gilded street called the Via Veneto.
Cab drivers seemed similar in both cities. During my latest Roman excursion, I commandeered a cabbie to take me from the Coliseum to my hotel near the Via Veneto. After a few dizzying turns, I asked my driver (in Italian) if he’d been a protégé of Magellan. To my surprise a wide, toothy grin covered his face. The driver proceeded to take me on a whirlwind adventure. He crossed traffic lines, cut off other vehicles, wove in the wrong lanes, ran a light or two, and zig zagged countless times. When I finally pleaded for caution, he decided to give me a free lecture. The cabbie said, “This in not like your bad joke about circumnavigating explorers. I’m going to tell you about the history of the wall surrounding parts of Rome.” He proved as interesting as any high-priced guide I’d hired. I did make it to the hotel 10 minutes ahead of my friends who’d taken the cab ahead of me. I’d spent two fewer Euros as well.
Based on my experience with this driver, and other Italian drivers of automobiles and motor scooters, Rome made me a wary pedestrian. I was as cautious as someone setting his first mousetrap. The following day, a group of us from the same hotel hired a tour professional to walk us thru more Roman history. Our guide Angela appeared to live up to the reverence implied by her name. Her soft spoken, sweet, and perhaps even spiritual voice comforted me. I thoroughly enjoyed the first few minutes of our stroll with Angela.
Without realizing it, I’d wandered to the head of our pack. On the street beside us, Roman motorists and cyclists drove like stunt drivers and candidates for the Demolition Derby. I eased into the crosswalk much like a year old child taking his first measured steps. I exhibited little bluster, less confidence, and a willingness to make a quick and decisive retreat. I knew that eventually I had to cross the Via Veneto. Fear, actually terror, prevented my taking that first step.
A Federico Fellini moment also captivated me. Suddenly, I stood on La Dolce Vita’s movie set. After a momentary, mouth agape daydream, I actually placed shaky right foot on the Via Veneto. I gawked at Harry’s Bar across the way. I felt disappointed. It seemed that the movie stars moved their parties elsewhere. None of them strolled in that magical place. Without invitation, Angela burst into my daydream and forced me back to reality.
From behind my left ear, Angela’s voice chirped. Thru a faint smile, she said, “Anthony, this is not a ballet recital. Step out into that Via Veneto pavement now. Do it with conviction.” Suddenly, I became aware of my heart’s existence. It began pounding. Sweat sparkled across my hands. I then rubbed them with a wipe as if scrubbing before a meal.
I giggled as my hands quivered. The group laughed. An unexpected Jeckel and Hyde moment surfaced. Who was this woman? It forced me to wonder if her name represented a misnomer. Angela’s lips pursed, her face took on the color of an overripe tomato. With a voice rife with impatience, she bellowed as loudly as an opera baritone, “Anthony, step out into that street now. Show them you’re not afraid to die!”
I’d seen military drill instructors operate, experienced the wrath of hoarse voiced frustrated football coaches, and been tossed about by the Sister Cruella of my elementary school days. None of them would have motivated me more effectively than Angela. I felt like a virtual knitting needle poked me.
I bolted onto that zebra-striped crosswalk and peeked back furtively. I feared Angela’s reprimand. I also sensed that I’d turned into the mother duck and all my baby ducklings tagged along. My fellow tourists followed in my steps. Amazingly, that discordant parade of grumbling and impatient vehicles calmed, stopped, and waited for the entire entourage to cross. Angela shouted, “Bravo!” Wimp that I am, I never turned to acknowledge her words.
Angela continued training me on Roman guerilla street crossing techniques throughout the rest of our tour. She stoked the fires for my newly discovered aggressiveness. I dreaded another of her rants. For the rest of my stay, I employed her street crossing style on a daily basis. I’m still a tad worried about recommending Angela’s axiom to all travelers. I do know it worked for me.
When a friend asked, “Will you cross Broadway with a show them you’re not afraid to die attitude? I whispered, “When in Rome…”