Un compleanno …

Italy, 1995. Rome, specifically. September 24.

It’s my twenty-second birthday. A Sunday. A perfect day full of sun, at the end of my week in the Eternal City. I’d been staying in the Pensione Sandy for a ridiculous pittance. It looks the exact same now as it did then.

Pines on the Trastevere. Pizza by the slice. Vespas. Early-game cell phones. Italian men in suits.

Glowing.

A lot of this.
And this.

I met Jessica Williams in the Sandy, a friendly, mouthy, hilarious Germanophone swimmer from California, who was, I think, an incredible 19 at the time, and who became my travel companion for the next three weeks through Eastern Europe. Friends to this day, and a bright spot she is, on the West Coast doing her teaching and roller derby thang with three daughters now.

I pulled into Rome from Nice, and Rome, she was so good to me. I spent days walking around the Forum, crossing 18 lanes of traffic in front of The Typewriter. I learned how to cross traffic in Rome, really, a skill that has served me well all my life, by watching wizened Italian nonne just take off into traffic with a cane and a malocchio visible at 100m. Daring cars to hit them. And they were fine. There was a lot of honking, but they seemed to always make it across.

Eating a meal so good I could cry somewhere close to the Vatican. Cheap and delicious lasagna bolognese. Laughing at a gypsy boy who winked at me, then lit up, by the Ponte Sant’Angelo, seven going on twenty-five. Feeling like everything I learned in my Letters degree at OU was, in fact, true. It’s all here! It is all right here! And then: I want to come back here to live. I think I’ll be back.

I fell in love with ochre-washed stucco. A minor obsession to this day. The more decayed and wabi sabi, the better.

I am charmed beyond description by Italians on the ground. They are patient, open, warm. They seem glad to see me. They are also funny.

Jessica and I head to the Fonte di Trevi one balmy evening and laugh at the pickup artists. No naifs, we! I toss a coin in.

Not superstitious, but you never know. Taking Pascal’s wager at the Trevi.

On my actual birthday, Jessica and I went to the Vatican for Free Sunday, when the museums do not charge a fee. We waited in line for a short while. Everyone was nice. The Sistine Chapel was muggy. I bought a t-shirt of God and Adam, one of those European tees that were so thin, way before burnout knit was even a thing.

The museum was huge. I think we ran through, returned to the Sandy for our things, and boarded a train for Assisi.

The day was dreamy. The train ride breathtaking, through central Italy and her sunwashed hills, an Umbrian welcome. We got to Assisi and checked into the Anfiteatro Romano. A real hotel after weeks of youth hostelling!

Youthful yank promptly confounded by Italian shower, which consists of a telefono mounted to a wall in a bathroom tiled on six sides, and a modest drain in the floor that benefits from no indentation. I should mention here that the shower “area” is located on tiled step up from the sink area,  virtually guaranteeing an unwitting American Niagara.

It kind of looks like this, but cleaner and with white tile. (I have just spent 20 minutes looking for a helpful image on Google by way of illustration, and even Google does not believe what I am saying, so maybe it was a one-off.)

I promptly flood the Anfiteatro Romano, water coursing down the tiled stairs toward the reception. The owner, an Italian woman, comes up from the desk to ask me what the hell I’m doing.

Trying to take a shower, I stammer.

Turn the water off when you soap, she says. At least, I think that’s what she says.

Jessica and I go somewhere for dinner in town, and the food continues to astound and amaze. We drink house red and I splurge on torta di frutta, having a second. The waiters hang around the bus station, bella, bella, I hear behind me. We were really enjoying ourselves. We trot home to the Anfiteatro Romano, where the reception area and stairs now look well mopped, and roll into our little beds. I can’t believe the birthday I’ve just had.

I’ve been thinking about that week in 1995 all this week, and about how good Italy has always been to me, in so many ways, my whole life. A recurring theme. I felt at home here, well before I ever met Jason, and our shared affection for this well-textured peninsula was a point in common that was and is, I think, essential.

So, a grazie, with this small love note to Italy. Thank you for making many parts of my life so beautiful. And tasty. And funny. And enjoyable.

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