We had been driving a long way, hugging the coast and passing little beach towns like Rapallo and Rimini, and the green gray of the Adriatic had been our constant companion and guide. I loved staring at the rows and rows of brown bodies lounging in the sun, especially the women, who were mostly topless. They looked so beautiful to me, because no matter what their size or shape, they were utterly comfortable with their bodies. It was such a refreshing change from the body obsessed America I had grown up in.
The ocean had been our companion, but soon it was replaced with mountains of marble, and now the landscape had changed again. I spotted rows and rows of the oddest looking trees; both grand and majestic but nothing like I had ever seen before. “What kind of tree is that?” I asked. My friend explained that these trees were emblematic of the city of Rome, and were simply common pine trees which had been shaped through time by judicious pruning. I marveled at a culture which would take the time to shape thousands of trees for no purpose other than aesthetics.
“Are we almost to Rome?” I asked, but I didn’t need an answer. At that moment, we passed a road sign which told us that the great city was only five kilometers away. I had been so sleepy, but suddenly I was awake and excited. “Let me drive,” I offered.
This was only the third time I had volunteered to drive in all of the weeks we had been touring through Europe. I was traveling with three men, which old-fashioned or not, I decided gave me somewhat of a pass on the driving duties. But most importantly, every time I took the wheel I found myself scared out of my mind. I seemed to have a knack at choosing the absolutely worst times to volunteer my driving skills.
The first was when I agreed to drive the Audubon immediately after we disembarked from our plane in Germany. I was expected to go speeds of 130 mph, which I found terrifying, as did I find the long line of cars honking and passing me in a frenzy. I finally pulled over to the shoulder, my heart beating fast, and had one of my gentleman friends take the wheel. The second time was when I agreed to drive the twisting winding road to Monaco; a narrow corridor which snaked around steep sheer cliffs; the same stint of roadside where Princess Grace plummeted to her death. I kept imagining that if I made the slightest mistake, the car would slide quickly to the edge of the precipice, and in a moment we’d become airborne, and then lurch to our deaths.
And now I had agreed to take the wheel five kilometers before the edge of Rome. Unbeknownst to me, I had just bought myself an E ticket on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Roma. Ah Roma.
As we crossed the city border, I was greeted with a sort of maniacal lunacy that was utterly unexpected. The first thing I noticed was the city streets had no lanes, and cars were packed in every which way, darting in and out of traffic like a world that had gone mad. There was a cacophony of horns; never ending horns; which made the din in Manhattan seem almost peaceful. I drove where I could, as Vespas and bicycles wove in front of me and whizzed behind me and encircled me like a hornet of wasps. Within the first five minutes I almost careened into one of those Vespas, and screeched to a halt. He shouted at me, “What’s the matter for you, can’t you see?” I guessed that he knew I was American. Moments later, out of utter frustration, I purposely turned my wheel sharply to the right, and careened off the road, nearly hitting a flower stand. The florist threw up his hands and began yelling at me, and since I didn’t understand, I just smiled sheepishly. I stopped the car, jumped out the door, and breathlessly begged for someone else to take the wheel.
A half hour later, we had booked ourselves into the “Pensione Florida,” two rooms in a dirt cheap hotel, with a shared bathroom down the hall. We dragged our suitcases up a flight of stairs covered in dog feces, then moved into our rooms. The heat was so oppressive, I took an ice cold shower, and before taking off to explore the city, we all had espressos Italian style, which means to swallow it all in one gulp.
The Eternal City; a maddening concentration of history and legend swelling magnificently over a phenomenal concentration of people, all of them running everywhere in their busy lives. Rome; a city where the ancient world is neatly integrated with the modern; where the Pantheon rubs shoulders with Baroque palazzos and modern buildings are sandwiched in the middle of Renaissance Villas.
We walked toward the Coliseum, and I saw it rising like a mirage in the foreground; a piece of olden civilization tucked in the middle of a contemporary city. We walked from monument to monument, from fountain to fountain, stopping occasionally at cafes for an Aqua Minerale when our parched throats begged for mercy. We walked to the Vatican and I heard a collective sigh from my friends as we all stared dumbfounded at the Sistine Chapel. We walked until our feet were covered in blisters, until sweat dripped in rivulets down our backs. We reached the youth covered Spanish Steps just at twilight; the smell of marijuana wafting in the windless evening. And at nightfall we came upon a tiny Trattoria in the center of Rome. We were hungry and exhausted.
Our host was all smiles, and he took us to the strangest table; it was outside, and actually sat in the middle of a cobblestone road, where cars and Polizie roared by us while we dined. It was perfect.
We indulged in the best meal of our lives. Gnocci Gorgonzola. Fettuccini Porcini. Eggplant Parmiagiana. Spaghetti Pomodoro. Saltimbocca. Spinach salad. Vino Rosso. For dessert, we were served a luscious chocolate torte surrounded by fresh fruit.
The Vino flowed freely. By the time we polished off our third bottle, we were engaged in a lively gregarious debate that grew louder and louder with every sip from our glasses. It was friendly but spirited, and since we were sitting in the middle of the road, it seemed perfectly appropriate to yell and cuss and jump up and down in our seats. But on this day, our argument had risen to a crescendo that was even surprising to us.
Suddenly I saw our waiter rushing out of the door toward us.
His look was stern, and I imagined him to be angry about our thunderous contest. Certainly in America, if we had displayed such behavior, we would have surely been asked to either hush, or vacate our seats. In fact, it had happened to us many times.
The waiter continued toward us with a purpose; he was almost running. We all tensed up, waiting for our inevitable admonishment. As he approached, I noticed that he was holding something behind his back.
“BRAVO,” the waiter announced loudly, as he reached our table. “I have brought you a fourth bottle of wine,” he told us in Italian, “because we are overjoyed that your time here is such a happy one. And we hope another bottle of wine might encourage you to have an even happier time here tonight. This wine is our gift to you.”
We were all stunned.
Born of an Italian father and raised by an English mother, I had always felt as though I were trapped in the middle of two very distinct cultures. My father was born in Sicily, and left my mother and my family while I was still safe in her uterus. I didn’t meet him until I was 17, but from the earliest time, I could remember feeling this wealth of passion that bubbled right below the surface of my emotions. My mother was British, sedate, mannered and excruciatingly polite. But I was born loud and gregarious, and I always knew it was the Italian genes inside of me that made me this way; it certainly wasn’t the way I was raised.
And from the earliest time, I remember my mother always shushing me. It got to the point that when I saw her lifting her finger to her lips, the gesture which preceded the dreaded, “Shhhh,” I would fight an anger inside of me that was rare. Very little made me angry. But being quieted always did. I would feel a seething rage that I could scarcely control.
I need to express myself. And it’s much more of a need than it is a want. It’s a drive that fuels me; it’s an enthusiasm so great that it must be quenched; it’s a force so robust that to hush me is to slowly kill me.
It seems like all of my life, someone has tried to shut me up. I’m too loud, too forthright, and I have no privacy boundaries. I’ve been rebuked by that awful phrase which I detest countless times, “Too much information.”
I don’t keep secrets. I don’t hide. And my worst fault seems to be that I don’t lie.
I always wanted to write, because I could express myself in that way. But the key to being a good writer is being honest, and people don’t appreciate honesty; it scares them. People want to hide.
Writers have been referred to as “assassins” because they are murderers of falsehoods. “Writers are universally hated, often because they tell the truth,” I read yesterday in an article. “Telling the truth is the greatest crime an author can commit,” said a book reviewer. Writers are observers, and because they tell the truth about what they see, the people they observe become offended. People don’t want their family secrets revealed. They don’t want others to know they’ve had a face lift, or that their father molested them. People want to hide behind false facades of who and what they really are, and believe they’re fooling people. People project an image, and a writer smashes it.
My intent has never been to offend. I only want to acknowledge reality; and I cannot live my life pretending that I don’t see what I do. I can smell people’s insecurities; I can see their fears like a visible aura. I can always hear their lies. I see it, and I want to report it. I don’t know why, but I’m compelled to do so. But I do this as I reveal myself. I want to talk about what is real, so we know what we’re dealing with on this strange journey we’re all taking together.
I’ll never forget that sultry night in Rome when the waiter brought us a bottle of wine on the house to encourage our passionate exchange. I found myself, at last, in a culture which understood me. But more than that, I’ll never forget how it felt when someone actually solicited my expression. All of my life, I have felt censored. And this one evening, I was finally applauded for what I did best, and what I enjoyed the most, and that was to express myself. That waiter didn’t see me as a Villain. He saw something far more positive.
When I close my eyes, I can still remember that evening, and later when we limped the long way back to our Pensione, still engaged in a furious debate. I was exhausted, my feet ached, and I was so hot that I got into a cold shower wearing a shirt, so that I could wear the soaking wet cloth to bed. But I remember how happy I felt. Because at last, I was home.