In Rome, I get in line at a booth that advertises the Hop On/Hop Off bus, and purchase a ticket after confirming with the attendant that the ticket is for the Hop On/Hop Off bus. I ask for a map and she tells me that I will get one on the bus. I follow the line across the road and we wait in the hot sun as two busses that belong to the tour company pass us. The busses are not the open top, double-deckers to which I have become accustomed, but rather closed coaches. “I thought this ticket was for the open, double-decker busses,” I say to a couple who are snogging next to me. I hear them speak English to one another but they don’t respond to my query. As more coaches arrive and stop this time, the people in line fight to get on board. Two young, well-dressed Japanese women aggressively push others aside as they try to ascend the steps of the bus. One of them has dyed red hair that looks burnt orange. They are told there is room for one person and when they both try to push their way onto the bus they are reprimanded in Italian by the driver.
When the fourth bus comes, I too begin to push my way forward. The orange-haired Japanese woman grabs my purse and holds it to keep me from climbing on the bus. “Do you mind if I take my purse with me?” I ask her and I pull my purse to me with such intensity that it almost hits her in the face. She starts to scream and shout in Japanese. She is shrill as she pushes and shoves her way through the crowd. I’ve never seen anyone so crazed. She manages to get on the bus after me, and she is screeching to her friend, already seated, in Japanese likely about me. I continue to feel disappointed that I am not on an open tour even as the bus pulls away. The bus has oversold tickets and there are not sufficient seats for all passengers. A man stands in the aisle next to the row of seats in front of where I sit. His wife sits in the seat in front of him and they speak together in soft, Irish accents. Their teenage daughter sits in the aisle further back, and they check in with her periodically. As the bus drives on the highway I hear a man with an Australian accent, who is seated next to the Irish wife, speak on the phone to one of his friends, “I’ll be back in Rome by four,” he says.
Back in Rome? Back in Rome? Where are we going now then? I ask the girl next to me if she speaks English and when she says in a Russian accent “a little” I ask her where we are headed.
“To an outlet mall,” she tells me.
An outlet mall? A bloody outlet mall!!!! This is what all the fuss is about? An outlet mall? I want to see ROME! I want to see the Eternal City I have often seen depicted in films. I ask my seat companion to please excuse me, climb out of my seat, run down the aisle, and ask the bus driver to let me off the bus, but he refuses. He speaks to me in Italian, which I do not understand. Finally, seeing my lack of comprehension he says, “Forty minutes.” In broken English he explains that I have to go to the outlet mall and wait until twelve-thirty before he can drive me back.
“I have to wait for an hour?” I ask.
I return to my seat and tell the Russian girl, Australian man and Irish couple that I have to go with them to the outlet mall before I can go back to Rome. They offer their sympathies to me. “I didn’t look around Rome first. I just went for the bus tour,” I explain. I look at the standing Irishman. “I’m very sorry,” I tell him. “It seems I’ve taken your seat.”
“No bother,” he says. “You’ve got bigger problems than me.”
“I do,” I agree. “It could be worse though. It could be a six hour tour somewhere. I will be back in Rome in an hour.”
We arrive at the outlet mall just after eleven. The crowd hustles off the bus and with trepidation I approach the driver again. “Can’t you take me right back?”
“Please?” I beg.
“Mange, mange,” he says rubbing his belly. “I need to eat.”
“Can’t you just eat on the bus as we drive back?” I ask.
The concept of eating while on the run is foreign to Italians as though it is one American custom they simply refuse to adopt. “Well….can I come with you? Stay on the bus?”
“Where will you pick me up?”
“Right here at twelve-thirty.”
“Yes. Here. Si.”
The Russian girl asks me to come and shop with her for an hour, but I politely decline. “Thank you, but I’m not leaving this spot,” I tell her and she laughs.
There is a narrow strip of shade to shelter me and I plant myself on the cement sidewalk for sixty minutes until I can return to Rome. I watch people rush in to shop, shop, shop. The outlet mall looks like the ones we have in Canada apart from the surrounding palm trees and tropical flowers. The shoppers look exactly like the shoppers at home. A group of women in their sixties go in together, laughing with one another. Young families enter struggling with baby strollers and screaming toddlers. Mothers enter with their teenage daughters, each of them the same shade of bottle blonde. I am so disappointed. I want to see Rome, the Eternal City, but instead sit on a cement sidewalk outside a generic outlet mall that could have been in any city. I think about how the people shoved one another while climbing onto the bus. I think of the crazed Japanese women clamoring for a bargain. It is sheer lunacy.
In 2000, while I was teaching at Catholic Central high school, I read about Saint Augustine of Hippo, and he quickly became my favourite saint. He was a philanderer who roamed Italy eating, drinking and screwing to excess. He lived with a concubine for thirteen years with whom he had a son out of wedlock. His mother, Saint Monica, followed her wayward son about Italy and prayed for his salvation. Aware of his mother’s mission, St. Augustine would pray to God, “Dear God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I found it amusing that he recognized his sins, but that he was not yet willing to give up his debauchery. After he converted to Christianity, he wrote Confessions of a Sinner in which he proclaimed that within every man there was a God-shaped void that only God could fill. He determined that men will try to fill that God-shaped hole with liquor, opiates, material possessions and other people (sex), but only God could fill that void that existed within the soul of every man. I taught my Catholic high school students about Saint Augustine when we studied The Great Gatsby, an American classic about the fallacy of the American dream and the tragedy of materialism. It was then that I had my own awakening with regards to my own behaviour. I was still trying to fill that place in my heart meant for God alone with empty promises. As I sit waiting for my lift back to the city from that Italian shopaholic haven beyond the eternal city’s ancient boundaries, the city in which St Augustine partied with prostitutes, I think about the many ways in which I no longer used external stimulus to fill my soul, and about the few ways in which I still do.
The driver takes pity on me and returns me early to Rome; he eats his lunch and picks me up ten minutes early at twelve-twenty. It is just he and I on the bus as we drive back and the silence is deafening. I want to break the stillness between us with polite banter but I know no Italian and his English is limited. There are pictures of three young children on his front windshield next to his side view mirror. The two boys and one girl appear to be between the ages of five and ten. I assume they are his grandchildren. “The bambinos est bella,” I say fully aware that my grammar is suspect. Watching his expression in his rearview mirror, I see him smile and nod.
“Si,” he says.
“Your grandchildren, Senore?” I ask.
That is the extent of our exchange. Silence blankets the space between us once more like a thick fog. I watch a young female on roller blades pump her way into the city on a bike path that runs parallel to the highway. Even in Canada, where roller blading is an art form of sorts, I have never seen anyone move with such speed and precision on the sharp-edged vanes, her long blonde hair glittering in the brilliant sunshine. As the skyline of Rome draws closer on the horizon, I try to chat with the driver again. I explain that I had just want to see bella Roma, not shop. “Stupido Canadian,” I say tapping my forehead with the palm of my left hand. He looks at me in his rearview mirror again and nods as if to agree. As we enter the city, he sees a Hop On bus and says to me, “You want I should let you out here?”
I smile, “Si, Senore.” He stops the bus next to the Hop On/Hop Off stop. “Grazia, Senor!” I say. “Mucho, Grazias!” He visibly softens.
Rome is magnificent. I am pleased that I don’t have to pay to use a public toilet and I am in awe of how sexy the older Italian men are. They resemble the erotic, Mediterranean matinee idols of the 1950’s. I go to the Vatican and happen to see the changing of the guard. The Swiss Guard marches with precision in their yellow, red and blue uniforms and I snap pictures along with other spectators. I walk around St. Peter’s Square and speculate about Saint Peter’s impressions of Rome when he walked these streets. What did he think about Rome and its people?
A middle-aged man stares lustfully at a young girl standing nearby as she photographs the square. He looks at her breasts and legs but she remains oblivious to his attention as he edges closer to her. She cannot be more than eighteen, and she seems to be alone.
St. Peter’s Square is packed. Throngs of people bump against one another in the repressive heat. I want to escape both the crowd and the searing sun. A man passes me shouting, “See the Vatican. Jump the queue. No need to wait in line. Last tour of the day. Starts in five minutes. One ticket left.” I want to go with him and see the famous artwork of the Vatican. I want to gaze upon Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel but I hesitate wondering if I can trust this man. No one has ever mentioned that this sort of thing happens at the Vatican and I consider that it might be a hoax. I might pay him and then he could disappear into the multitudes just as I’d seen a woman robbed in a similar fashion in Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. As I decide to chance it and go with him, he disappears. I miss my opportunity to see the inside of the Vatican.
The faithful barter for rosary beads, tacky saint statues and holy medals as they shove one another out of the way. A white canvas bag with a black and white photograph of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn riding a scooter in the film Roman Holiday on its front hangs in a shop window and toy with the idea of buying it for myself. I love that film. I love Gregory Peck. I’ve had a crush on him since I saw him in To Kill A Mockingbird when I was a child. Hepburn’s Princess Anna runs away from the palace and serendipitously meets Peck’s shiftless reporter, Joe Bradley, who once he realizes who she is, plans to take advantage of the situation and exploit her adventures in Rome. But he falls in love with her and cannot bring himself to hurt her in anyway. I hate that they don’t end up together but say good-bye in the end as she returns to her royal duties and he goes back to the press, each of them forever changed by their love for one another. I decide against purchasing the bag with Hepburn and Peck on its canvas front. I don’t need it. I walk back to the bus.
The bus idle for some time waiting for more passengers to board. The heat is stifling and I want nothing more than for the bus to roar forward and manufacture a breeze. Young East Indian men sell water bottles and hand-fans from the side of the bus. I motion for one chap to throw up a bottle of water to me in return for two Euros.
“Three Euros,” he says.
Acquiescing he nods and throws up the water bottle to me. I catch it and toss down the two Euro piece to him. We smile at one another and he gives a little bow before continuing along the avenue to sell his cold commodity to other hot, thirsty pilgrims. I feel the coolness of the water bottle with my fingertips. I roll it along my scorching neck and press it between my perspiring breasts. The bus driver for this particular Hop On tour looks to be in his late forties. He has a medium build and his thick hair is silver, which sets off his perfectly suntanned complexion. He wears mirror aviator sunglasses and chats flirtatiously with the young women working on the bus, who giggle self-consciously at every word that trickles past his full lips. He resembled the Italian actor, Rosanno Brazzi, who starred in the 1955 David Lean film, Summertime, with American icon Katherine Hepburn. Brazzi, a married man, seduces Hepburn’s spinster, middle-aged school teacher character who is in Rome for the first time. As middle-aged female passengers sheepishly climb aboard his bus, shyly smiling at their handsome driver under fluttering eyelashes, I notice that all women over twenty, of which I am one, seem to be invisible to him.
In front of the Coliseum, I snap a photograph of two men costumed as ancient Roman soldiers who pose in front of the ancient ruins. They put out their hands for payment and when I open my wallet they spy the twenty and fifty Euro notes in my wallet, and almost pounce on me in an effort to part me from my money. I offer them a reasonable two Euros for their pose, but they chase me down the street asking for more money. “Madonna! Madonna! Madonna!” they call after me as I run from them.
The Trevie Fountain is glorious. I picture Gregory Peck running up to Audrey Hepburn as she eats an ice cream cone perched upon the steps in front of the fountain, the very ones I am seated before now eating a pasta dinner. Once finished, I immediately regret my dinner as the mussels and white sauce settle heavily in my stomach. I search for a Catholic church about to celebrate Mass, and find a service starting in San Marco Catholic Church.
Relieved, I enter to find sanctuary from the high temperature and passionate crowds. I notice several Italian women in their late fifties and early sixties who are stuffed like fat sausages into dresses that are too two-sizes too small for their ample flesh and about twenty years too young for them as well. Their breasts are spilling out of their open necklines, and I can see their lacy, coloured bras under their flimsy frocks. A nun sits beside me and another in front of me. I seem to always end up surrounded by sisters. I ask God what He is saying to me in that moment and I ask myself what sort of woman I want to be as I age. I no longer want to try to look sexy at fifty. But nor do I want to take the veil. No. I don’t want to be a nun. I still desire men. I want to be kissed again. I want to have sex again but only sex inside marriage that comes with love and commitment. I want to be with a man who loves me and whom I love in return.
I have difficulty locating my hotel room at the end of my busy, blistering day in Rome. As I search, I walk through the now deserted train station and somehow end up on the derelict back end of it. A young Italian man in his twenties approaches me, looks me in the eye and calls me ‘Bella’. He presses his chest into my front as I step sideways away from him. He rumbles words in the back of his throat and makes a clicking noise. He mutters something more to me that I don’t understand but as he looks at me with half-shut eyelids he places his tongue in the side of his mouth and bites down on it. He seems to be propositioning me. I figure he is high or maybe he is a street kid who prostitutes himself or both. I push past him. After asking several people where my hotel is, I find it. The hotel hasn’t taken my bag to my room, so I fish it out of the back closet and go upstairs. The room has no kettle with which to make a cup of tea so I head back out to the streets of Roma, and looked for a cup of tea, but there is none to be found. Upon returning to my hotel, I ask the desk clerk if he could provide me with a cup of hot water for tea. When he refuses I complain of the fact that there is no kettle in the room or no one in the hotel to make guests a cup of tea.
“And the room is like an oven!” I raise my voice slightly.
He starts shouting at me in Italian and I bark back at him in English. It is the heat. I’m hot, tired and hungry. I am also worried about being able to get back to Paris in time for my flight to Dublin. I limp away from the hotel lobby and retreat to the privacy of my room.
I have another cold shower, and try to sleep in my stifling chamber but toss and turn. I pray to God to let me sleep and as I look up I see a huge ceiling fan over my bed that I had not noticed before. How could I have missed such a monstrosity? Why had the concierge not told me of the fan? Bastard! I find the switch and turn it on high over my bed. The son-of-a-bitch desk clerk might have said there was a fan in the room! When the noise of its propellers continue to keep me awake I pretend the whirr is the lull of yet another train and soon fall asleep.
When I check out at six the next morning the concierge comes from the back room dressed in a stained, white undershirt and black trousers with white suspenders that he was hastily pulling over his protruding belly, snapping them in place upon his narrow shoulders. His hair sits in tufts atop his head and I smell that stale odour of a man who has just rolled out of sweaty sheets. I feel sorry for waking him but only slightly. In truth, I also feel some satisfaction for disturbing his sleep. I am still too upset from the previous night to even apologize to him. I just leave accepting the fact that there is not to be peace between he and I in the eternal city.
I can live with that.