Commentary from my personal travel journal:
“I would like to add that I’m writing my accounts of Rome right now while sitting at a toasty table near the Fountain de Trevi, eating spicy penne and drinking sweet white wine. This city is perfection.”
January 25th, 2015
Day 4 and I’ve settled into my routine here. Up early, coffee from Nadia, quick morning conversation about mealtimes for the day, then over to the McDonalds around the corner for wifi to check social media and figure out my plans for the day. This morning, Nadia reminds me that she’s going to Naples this afternoon and lunch is at one o’clock with Christian who is then going to drive her to the train station. I text him from McDonalds to remind him of lunch as well. The morning is quiet, and knowing I’ll be sightseeing later, I take advantage of doing absolutely nothing before lunch, strolling along the fortress-like walls of Vatican City and just taking in the immediate neighborhood.
Christian arrives around 12:45 for lunch. He comes up to the apartment and greets Nadia. She gestures to her travel bag and his face is immediately confused. Either she didn’t tell him he was taking her to the train, or he forgot, I’m not quite sure as Christian only translates bits and pieces between the exchange. He explains to her he came on his Vespa. No problem, she says, do you have a second helmet? He reluctantly nods and she gleefully returns to setting up lunch, the matter settled as Christian shakes his head with both amusement and frustration at the idea of driving his 81-year-old grandmother to the train on the back of his Vespa.
For the first time since I’ve been in Rome, Nadia and I have a translator for our mealtime chat. I finally get to tell her how much I enjoy staying with her and love the city. She tells me how much she likes having me. She also pokes fun, telling Christian my name is “Si” because it’s all I say to her all day. Christian laughs his way through that translation as do I. When in doubt, respond in the affirmative has been my motto for those moments when sign language fails.
Nadia then pokes fun at Christian, which he refuses to translate but I laugh and tell him it’s not necessary. “You’re too skinny, eat something!” is a universal cadence and hand gesture of grandmothers everywhere. Towards the end of lunch, Christian pulls a cigarette out of his pack and stands by the window smoking. As soon as he lights up, Nadia gets a devilish look in her eye and says a long phrase to me in Italian that makes Christian immediately flush and emphatically refuse to translate. She turns to him and berates him but he just says “She’s being terrible” and she laughs and laughs. He finally relents and translates. “She says the three best types of cigarettes are the one after you eat, the one after you drink, and the one after…sex” This makes both Nadia and I roll with laughter as Christian shakes his head and turns back to the window to finish his smoke. Nadia sits across from me, beaming victoriously in the joke and making her grandson uncomfortable.
Once lunch is finished, Nadia quickly cleans up and gathers her things for her trip. She gives me a hug and Christian says he’ll be back shortly to pick me up once he drops her off. He grabs her suitcase and carries it downstairs for her. I watch from the window as he loads it onto the back and she happily straddles the small Vespa behind Christian, her stout frame seemingly no imposition for her. I imagine her at my age, riding around Rome on one, clinging tight to a boy. I get the strong feeling Nadia has always been an adventurous sort. They ride off and I kill time waiting for Christian to return.
He’s back in about a half hour or so and I meet him downstairs. I ask him how the ride was and he laughs heartily and says “I was practically doing a wheelie the entire way”. I laugh as he hands me his spare helmet. It’s flame-adorned with an AC/DC sticker on the front. I hop on and wrap my arms around his waist as we take off.
We fly past Vatican City and across the river, the wind whipping past my face as roads that used to take me quite some time to walk down melt away in rapid succession. We carve our way into the center of the city and I hold tight to him as he expertly navigates the chaos that is Roman drivers. It is absolutely incredible, seeing the city like this. The rumble of the motor under my thighs, the cobblestones flowing under us like stones in a riverbed, and all around us, stately, columned buildings and ornate fountains pop up like lilies in the spring. I can’t begin to name every beautiful building and square we weave around, but every second feels like a film. He brings me a vista overlooking the Piazza del Popolo, where the view stretches all the way to the snow-capped mountains boarding the city to the east. It’s completely breathtaking. We walk along ancient boulevards as we laugh together about the hoards of tourists turning the camera on themselves instead of the incredible views. He tells me about the “mafia” behind the men selling roasted chestnuts on street corners. We climb the steps of a marble museum and survey yet another gorgeous overview of the city. We walk and ride and walk some more, chatting and laughing until the light starts to dim. On our way back to the bike, we stop at a cafe at the edge of a large cobbled square for a midday break of wine and a smoke, both of which are spectacular in the midst of the setting and the heady glee of the day. We talk about the U.S., Italy, travel, and family. Soon the bottle is empty and the cigarettes are spent and we amble back the last few blocks to the bike.
The city whizzes by in a parade of lights as we carve our way back to Nadia’s apartment. He pulls up and I hop off the bike and he asks what my plans are for the evening. I shrug and he suggests drinks later. I laugh and ask if his best friend is joining us (a bit of an inside joke at this point) and his face falls a bit, mumbling “Well…I could ask him if you want…” Crap, sarcasm doesn’t translate well. I quickly interject that it was a joke as I feel my face flush a bit. “I’ll message you” I quickly reply. We say goodbye and he hops on the scooter and heads off, while I rush myself inside.
Goddammit, did I just make a total ass of myself? I stare at my face in the mirror and a mixture of giddy excitement and terror grips me. I’ve had butterflies in my stomach since I got on the bike and they’ve migrated themselves deep into my throat. Today defied every expectation I could have possibly had, and it may not be over. To what end though, remains a mystery. I don’t want to spoil the magic by expecting anything more than the absolute perfection I’ve already experienced. I give myself a pep talk.
It’s just drinks, friend drinks, and that’s ok, no need to get all excited and flustered about it, you two really enjoy spending time together, thats good, thats all. How great has today been. It’s been awesome. Don’t try to make it more than it is.
The butterflies give me one last jab in the stomach to remind me that I’m completely full of shit. I want more. And I hope he does too. I gather myself and head to a cafe to check my emails. After an hour or so I message Christian about meeting for drinks, sans best friend of course, and he replies with excitement. I breathe a sigh of relief. And then the butterflies jab me again.
A few hours later he’s at the door, this time with a Fiat, and we head back down to his favorite bar district. It’s quiet, many of the cafe’s and bars shuttered for holy Sunday, but after a bit of searching we find an open bar. We order a round of beers and enjoy that exquisite European pleasure of drinks and smokes while sheltered just inside the warm atrium. The bar is cozy and narrow, with maybe six or ten tables. It’s lit with a warm incandescent glow that makes everything look soft and inviting. Next to us sits a couple, the woman definitely American. It’s odd to hear my native accent outside the U.S. now and it makes me cringe a bit. The other Americans are always louder and more boisterous than anyone around them, and I reflexively lower my voice, as if to say “I’m not with them even though we’re both speaking English”. Though both Christian and I can’t help but eavesdrop, myself trying to identify her accent and him trying to identify the gentleman’s. Another round of drinks brings us new friends at the next table, asking us for cigarettes and to take their picture. As we laugh together, I can’t help but continue to notice his gorgeous smile. Soon the same issue of an empty cigarette pack and empty glasses confronts us and we head back to the flat.
The music is loud in the car and the drinks are doing what they should. My head is light but present as I watch the Castel Sant’Angelo glow orange in the darkness as we fly by. A classic rock ballad is whining through the radio as we pull up to the apartment. “Ugh, always in the middle of a good song.” I exasperate. I thank him for a lovely evening and lean in to kiss both cheeks goodbye. As I pull back, I hesitate a moment and look at him. He takes the cue perfectly and passionately grabs me and kisses me hard. At the end of the long kiss, inches from his face I breathe out a hopefully clever “What took you so long?” He smiles and pulls me back in. Parked square in the middle of the tiny side street, the equally tiny car quickly heats up. That is, until the bright headlights of a huge truck blast through the back window, reminding us of our surroundings. Christian pulls the car over and we continue, knees and elbows knocking against the seats and console of the cramped car. “The Fiat’s a bit small huh?” Christian remarks in a breath. “Well, there is a big empty apartment upstairs we could try” I reply. He hurriedly puts the car in park and we scurry up to the apartment, trying not to wake the entire building on our way up.
As the clothes come off, he reveals an incredibly sculpted physique, worthy of admiration. In the moment, I forget all my backpacker visage insecurities and fall into the present. After it all, laying breathlessly besides each other, I run my fingers across his tattoos as he spots my pack of American Spirits on the bedside table and turns back to me. “Want to go for the third type?” he says, calling back to what Nadia had joked about earlier. I nod and begin to get the sneaking suspicion that Nadia may have had more to do with this rendezvous than either of us would care to admit, a fact that makes him roar with laughter when I comment on it. Leaning against the open window, there is absolute euphoria to this quiet moment. Christian’s face is backlit by the warm glow of the streetlight, wrapping itself down his shoulders and across his bare chest as we smoke in contented company. Today was perfect. This moment, perfect. The smoke from our cigarettes billows out the window of the apartment and the winter chill seeps inside. Soon, he begins the long goodbye, imploring he has to leave between flurries of kisses. I eventually relent, though not without a few moments for him to remember on his way out the door.