Rome at a Glance
Rome derails my presumptions. The classic photos do materialize—the Coliseum, the ruins of the Forum, the Vatican, and art art art art—but the city rattles at a pitch that makes me vibrate, uneasy. Taxis, cars, Vespas swerve at impossible speeds yet miraculously never crash. And the heat. And the fact that the hotel shuts off its air conditioning during the day. And the way everything packs together with no room to breathe.
My husband Graham skims along the surface of the city, never mired and never shaken. Not exactly what I expected from a man who only got his passport this year. But then, what ever turns out like you expect—vacations, foreign countries, marriage?
I’m partially, culturally, prepared. As a high school history teacher, I know the ages that came before, the context. You just need scholarship to dissect the guidebooks and know the facts they gloss over. Take the Gypsies.
Turn to the guidebook index, look up Gypsy, and see nothing. Same with the formal term Romani. But in the “Safety” section, the stereotypes are between the lines. Disheveled-looking women and children that “work” in groups. Warnings jam the pages: wear a money belt beneath clothing, avoid eye contact, cross the street. Fear children.
I know the Romani’s origins, their history of persecutions. Based on percentages, more Romani died in World War II than Jews, but the tour books elide this. They are good for navigation but bad for the complete picture.
I’ve already seen them. The small children who cluster, phalanx-like, asking for change and tugging at clothing, women with babies in slings worn around their necks. But how can we judge what are societal adaptations to centuries of hardships?
Getting the Most Out of Travel
Sympathy is key. Take my grandfather. After the war, he came home not only minus a foot, but also minus any balanced view of Germans.
Without an open mind, I’d never have made it to Graham, made it to marriage. You must keep the objective view. For the rest of his life, my grandfather refused to frequent businesses owned by people with German last names. He never forgave me for buying a Volkswagen.
Fitting the Itinerary to the Traveler
I’ve been trying to seize the day, but after a few hours of seizing, I get tired. The quiet heat of the hotel room tempts. Quiet because of Graham’s absence. Married over a year—and after years of failed relationships—realism tempers our expectations. We have different interests, different desires in a vacation, so we separate. But we always spend the evenings together. Better to miss small shared moments than kill each other.
After dinner—and two bottles of Chianti—we relax in the chilled room. I flip through a guidebook while the TV transfixes Graham—a Julie Andrews movie dubbed into Italian. The songs are still in English.
A photo of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa mirrors Graham. He’s lying on his back, just in his boxers. The ones I bought before the trip, little yellow boots of Italy on a red background. My finger pulls across the ribs of the elastic. He raises his eyebrows. Kissing his stomach, I skirt the edges of his chest hair. My hand slides underneath the Italys while I watch the easy smile that pops over his face as he closes his eyes. He beams innocently, but there is something else—a beatific lust. Then his eyes open and he looks down at me, smile drifting away.
“Your eyes are always open,” he says.
“I like watching.”
“I don’t like the look on your face. It’s smug.”
“I’m sure I look like I love you,” I tell him.
“You love me smugly?”
I sit up. “Never mind, then.”
“Don’t stop.” He pulls me back down, but he reaches over and snaps off the light. I can barely make out his face in the projected glow of the TV. The Von Trapp family whispers in Italian, then launches into “Edelweiss.”
Doing the Unexpected
The next morning, Graham and I breakfast at a tall table in the hotel coffee bar. Italian coffee shops never have chairs. Why would you not want a chair?
“Since when do you drink straight espresso?” I say. He has always been a grande latte.
“When in Rome,” he says. He stares at my cup, regular coffee stained white from milk, with condescension. “What’s your agenda?” he asks. “Walking Tour Number Five?”
As if there is shame in seeking advice. But that’s what Graham wants me to say. I try to think of something else. “Fountains,” I tell him. “No guidebook. Looking at whatever fountains strike my fancy.”
“Just solo wandering? No detailed directions?” He finishes his drink in one long swallow. “Sounds fun.”
“You looked up the address for Byron’s house last night.”
“But I don’t clutch at it all day.” He reaches over and pulls the guidebook out of my bag. “Talk to people if you get lost. Interact. I dare you.”
“No cheating. No buying another book or heading upstairs to get one of your others. I expect a full report tonight on your assignment.”
When we first met, he got off on my being a teacher. Elaborate scenarios of staying after class, missed homework, disciplinary action. He used to like it when I told him what to do. Now he’s instructing me.