Nothing confirms that I’m out of my home country like being asked to produce i miei documenti when requested by uniformed polizia in treno. While the officer and her partner were clearly looking for someone, it was certainly not me, if the speed at which she reviewed and returned my passport –with a smile, no less– was any indication.
One of the three men from my compartment avoided inquiry by continuing past us when he returned from the restroom to find the officers checking his companions’ passports. My spider sense trembled, as I wondered if they were looking for him.
In truth, the three of them made me uncomfortable with their stares from the moment I entered the compartment, as did their false cheerfulness to the officers as their passports were called in.
It was impossible to tell where they were from based on looks –short, square, and dark– or their language, which I couldn’t identify. The male officer asked if they understood Italian; when they shook their heads, “Italiano? No,” he made a disgusted sound and said, “Non capite niente” — you don’t understand anything.
After the officers returned their passports and moved to the next car, the third man returned to his friends, who laughed about his ability to elude the police. Remembering that they had an audience despite the disinterest I feigned, the thinnest of them hailed my attention to inquire, “Go Roma?”
I answered, “Sì.”
“Italiana?” he asked. I said no. He laughed and said something to his friends, at which one of them looked me over, trying to figure out what I was, as well. As each of their cellphones suddenly rang one by one, my stomach flip-flopped, wondering with whom I was traveling in that train car.
For the rest of the trip, it was impossible to feel at ease with the cacophony of their laughter and the increasing volume of their voices in such a small space, not to mention my revulsion at watching the one across from me plug his left nostril and blow mucus out of the right nostril into the window curtain. Irony had me recalling the sunny comment I made about how the little differences need not divide us as humans.
At that moment, I was not only mentally pleading for division, but a sneeze guard.
While increasingly more pleasant –beginning when I found a molto gentile taxi driver to take me to Palazzo Pio– I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in Rome being lost. I’ve even felt lost in the student apartment I’m renting, whose rooms house 11 equally uncomfortable beds, each the size of a single grave.
Last night, I grossly overshot my mark on the walk to dinner at Gaia and Bernardo’s home, instead wandering in the dark all the way to S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini on the Tiber River. After asking directions –twice– I retraced my steps and realized that the scale of my map and my mental scale were not in sync. On the map, their house seemed far, but it was actually a mere seven minutes away on Via Giulia, just down the street from Palazzo Farnese.
This morning I was likewise turned around while in search of DuDu, a costume jewelry shop vicino Piazza Navona. It took over 30 minutes of retracing my steps to realize that, while I had a better sense of scale today, my mental map was turned upside down.
The epiphany occurred as I rested on a marble bench near Fontana del Moro after I re-entered Piazza Navona for the third time, frustrated that I couldn’t find my position on the map. I took a breath and thought back to Cafe Sant’ Eustachio, which seemed to be in the wrong place when I walked by minutes earlier. I then had to ask: despite what I believed to be true, what if my perception was exactly 180 degrees opposite?
My aha! came quickly: since my trek began with immediately getting lost in a desperate search for la prima colazione, I had entered Piazza Navona from the opposite end that I intended to enter, thereby establishing a mirror-reflection in my mind as to my location. After establishing that main data point incorrectly –which side of the piazza was “up”– every move I had made since then was incorrect.
Once my vision cleared, I immediately found DuDu in its promised place. As I stepped out with a sparkly ring on my finger, I heard Jerry Seinfeld’s words play in my head: if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.
Piano, piano, I corroborated my way from one street to the next, arriving as intended in a string of pearls: the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the ristorante marked on my map, Vini e Cucina di Nana. It wasn’t open yet, so I distracted myself by window-shopping, wherein I quickly fell in love with a shimmering bracelet. The clerk had to buzz me inside the shop, which should have been a clue as to its price, and I was disappointed to discover that the bracelet cost over 1,500 Euro. My second choice, a pair of filagreed earrings, was within range, so I smiled and said, “Vorrei comprare!”
While the woman wrapped up my jewelry, we talked about Civita and my trip, which I said was nearly at an end. She was impressed with how well I spoke Italian after a short immersion (“Bravissima!“) to which, I said that I was sad to leave.
As she handed me the gold bag, she advised me not to think that way. In Italian she said, “What an adventure! What a time! And now you are in Rome where it’s warm and beautiful. Every time you wear these earrings you will think of this trip. Besides, you will return to Italy, no?”
Her sentiments remained with me as I walked into the restaurant, selected un tavolo al fuori, and ordered without stumbling over my words. Yes, I was in a beautiful city to which I would certainly return. And yes, I have had a marvelous adventure and learned to speak Italian to boot. Why lose myself in a sense of somber longing –an old habit that I thought I kicked– when I could appreciate what was around me and all of the good times leading up to it?
It’s funny how a person can continue to get lost in a familiar map, retracing her steps over and over as she looks for something, until a stranger points out that she’s headed in the opposite direction.