Date: Thu, 16 Jun 2005
From: Lee Lady
Subject: A Quiet Night in Rome
"So how was Italy?" someone at my neighborhood bar asked me two days after I got back.
"Did you go there on business, or to see someone?"
"No, just to see Italy."
"Oh, you were there on a tour then."
"I guess so. Sort of."
"So I guess what you mean by 'mixed' was that Italy was great, but the person who put together the tour didn't do a very good job."
"I'm the one who put together the tour."
And so once again I'm reminded of how far the wavelength I work under is different from that of most other people.
Since I've never really been on a tour, I guess it's not fair to criticize. And sometimes when I'm visiting a place, I find a tour group standing not far away from me, and I eavesdrop a bit on the tour-director's lecture. And usually I find what I hear extremely interesting. I want to move closer, but I'm aware that I'm really stealing the information he is giving without paying for it.
I guess what repels me about tours is the idea of everyone traveling together, eating their meals together, seeing the sights together. And even when they have a "free day," usually they go shopping with a few friends from the group.
So that the result is that one is going through Italy, say, looking at things like a group going to the zoo. Instead of getting inside the cages with the animals.
But it makes me wonder again, as I was wondering so much while I was in Italy, why I do this traveling thing at all. Yes, it was very satisfying to be speaking Italian and have people understand me (at least a lot of the time). But other than that, what am I getting that makes it worthwhile to spend all that money on airfare and hotels, to suffer the brutal jet lag, and to be limping half the time because lugging my suitcases around is putting more strain on my knee than it can deal with?
But occasionally I come across something good.
My hotel for my two days in Rome was right next to the train station, since I needed to get to the airport fast to make a ten A.M. flight the day I left. A quite disreputable neighborhood, of course. I didn't want to search very far for a restaurant, so I ate both evenings at a small rather unpromising place a few doors down from my hotel. It turned out to be reasonably nice, with a friendly waiter and reasonable food.
Since I finished dinner early (about 10:30), I wandered about a bit the first night looking for some place to go, and decided on a place called Bar dei Amici (i.e. Bar des Amis) which was at least brightly lit.
It's really discouraging in Italy to walk down the street and see the sign "Bar" everywhere, and then discover that these are all snack bars. Yes, they do sell beer and wine and stock and pretty standard range of hard liquor, but mostly one finds people ordering sandwiches and coffee.
At that time of night, at the Bar dei Amici, the customers were sitting outside. There were about eight tables, arranged in four rows. And people were in fact drinking beer rather than eating. About as close to a real bar as one can find in Italy, I guess, unless one goes to a British or Irish pub. (That was often what I did, but British pubs are not all that common in Italian cities.)
The young waiter/proprietor was quite friendly and was pleased, that first night, when I ordered a Peroni, which is actually a very enjoyable beer, for all that one almost never finds it outside Italy, and Little Italies in the United States.
Anyway, the first night there were a group of three guys and one woman, talking English. It turned out that this consisted of a young couple (early twenties) from Norway, who were making a tour of Europe, and a pair of young guys from America who had just recently made their acquaintance, and were also touring Europe. They talked about their plans: a day in Paris, a day in Amsterdam, etc. I could have commented, given them advice, but it didn't seem that they really wanted comments. They were doing fine on their own.
So that was reasonably nice, and therefore I went back the second night. That night there were a group of three African men and a black woman. The three were obviously Africans and not American or European blacks, and not just because of the total black skin color or the fact that they were speaking their particular African language. The woman, on the other hand, seemed like a black American or European, and not just because of the very slightly lighter skin color. But she was able to speak the same African language as the others.
I sat down at the pair of tables nearest to them, wondering why I was doing so.
This night I had decided that I wanted something like a liqueur to drink, so I asked for the menu and ordered a Ricard, which as the waiter explained (and I already knew) is basically the same as pernod. At least I wasn't required to pronounce Ricard in French, which is something I never manage to get right. (Bartenders in France always ask me, "Do you mean a Ricard?")
In addition to the waiter/proprietor, there was also a waitress there, who had caught my attention the previous night, and was another reason I went back. Blonde, small, somewhere in her fifties, she could have been a prototype of the Giulietta Masini character in Nights of Cabiria, Fellini's first well known film (before La Dolce Vita but after I Vitelloni). (Except that she would have been, at most, in her infancy when that film was made.)
If you don't know Giulietta Masini, you should. She is what the French call a jolie laide. A woman with a face so ugly that you fall in love with its beauty. You want to take this woman and shelter her and give her all the happiness which she clearly deserves and never receives.
This waitress, in any case, was certainly not unhappy. She joked (flirted, maybe I should say) with the Africans and was having a pretty good time.
An accordianist who had played earlier in the evening at the restaurant where I had had dinner now came by this bar and played the same stuff as he had before, which seemed pretty clearly to be all he knew. The standard stuff that street accordianists play, gypsy, French, and Italian: "Dark Eyes," "O Sole Mio," "Under Moscow Skies." It wasn't that he played badly. But these are the songs that every first-year accordian player learns, and he played them about that well. He at least got all the notes right, but that was all one could give him credit for. And, needlessless to say, he played very loudly. Afterward he went around asking for tips. The group of Africans gave him nothing. Then he approached me, and I shook my head. One of the Africans gave me a look, almost a conspiratorial wink. We obviously had the same opinion about the accordinian player. I started to think that this African was perhaps more American (or at least European) than I had thought.
A man and a woman who I haven't up till now mentioned had been sitting at a table by the wall, away from the main rows of tables. Now they got up and walked off together. They were not a couple, but a man and a woman who had known each other for quite a while, without anything ever quite coming of this. Somehow, the way the two of them looked walking down the street reminded me very much of the first foreign films I used to watch when I was in high school.
I'd never seen anything like this in American movies. There was something very unresolved about their situation that you would never have seen in an American movie, at least at that time. An American movie would have made sure the audience knew what the bottom line was.
There is a moment very much like this in Shoot the Piano Player. One doesn't quite know whether something is going to happen between these two people or not, but somehow one knows that whatever happens will be by mutual agreement, and there will be no hard feelings afterward. Certainly very different from anything in American films of the time.
Of course the intensity of feeling one gets while watching a film like this is that one wants so badly to believe that the two will in fact wind up going to bed together. What on earth would they have to gain, after all, by not doing so?
Whereas in real life.... My life, anyway. It seems that people always have a hundred and one reasons for not taking the path that is offered.
Back to my evening at this little Rome bar. A nerd type sat down with a his date, young woman. Somehow, I just couldn't help thinking of Roger Ebert. But not Ebert as he is now, but as he must have been thirty, maybe even forty years ago, when he was twenty-five or thirty years old and first starting to become successful as a film critic. This young man I was watching ordered a bottle of wine, apparently somewhat expensive, and went through all the appropriate motions, Sniffing the cork, swirling the little bit poured into the glass and drinking a swallow. Giving his approval. He wanted to show the young woman with him that he knew about wine, but in fact he didn't.
He was hoping that something worthwhile (from his point of view) would happen between the two or them later in the evening. My sense was that the young woman was also open to this possibility, provided that something worthwhile from her point of view developed. But I had the very strong feeling that nothing would in fact develop between them, and they would part from each other both disappointed.
So this moment was what it was all for. This was the reason for spending all the money, getting robbed, suffering the jet lag. I'm glad I finally managed to find that moment before I left Italy.
And, having drank a second glass of Ricard, I went back to my hotel room to pack and be ready to get up early and make it to the train station and then to the airport for my ten AM flight the next morning.
Love & kisses to all,