Okay. I didn’t mean to take such a sabbatical from blogging that I might end up with my picture on the side of a milk carton, but I did. My bad. I will make up for my badness by blogging more frequently. Promise.
It dawns on me that I have not posted my adventures in Rome, so today, I post them herewith while I get busy writing the vampire short story I have due.
On the plane to Rome, I sit next to a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. As I was married in Italy, it automatically warms my heart. Scott and Sara are from San Francisco, by way of Oklahoma (Scott) and Montreal (Sara). Sara’s hands still have the partially faded mendhi designs on them. I ask to see, and she shows me that it’s a peacock. Cool.
Scott and Sara met because they both loved a band called Broken Social Scene. We discuss Canadian bands that rock—Arcade Fire, The Dears, and their beloved Broken Social Scene, which I hadn’t ever heard of but will now search for on iTunes. After the flight, I wish them well and find my taxi driver. It has just rained in Rome, and the night air smells like the earth—hearty and sensual, a smell you breathe in without ever fully breathing back out. The taxi driver drives as taxi drivers do in Rome, which is to say, like a frustrated Indy 500 competitor, but that’s fine by me. Tentative drivers make me nervous. Maybe it’s years of living in NYC, but I want my taxi drivers to attack the road like gladiators.
The hotel is just off Via Veneto, made famous in “La Dolce Vita” as the place of the “beautiful people.” Well, I’m in a pair of wrinkly jeans and some old Chucks—not exactly Anita Ekberg territory—but at least I’m a stone’s throw from Fellini world.
It’s nice to be in one spot for a few days so that I can unpack just a bit. I go to plug my computer in and…well. I can’t quite figure out what’s a plug and what’s not. I see one under the desk, or think I do, but I’m not entirely sure, and see, the thing is, I took lighting design for my theatre degree. And I can hear Bruce, my lighting professor, saying that there was only one thing we had to know for the course and that was, “green is ground; voltage kills.” Right. It does. And that outlet looks really dubious. So here’s how my first conversation goes with my adorable PR goddess, Elisa:
Elisa: How was your flight?
Elisa: And the room?
Me: Oh, it’s great. (pause.) Um. But. Could I ask a favor?”
Elisa: (warily) What kind of favor?
Me: Um. (I don’t even know how to start this one.) I can’t figure out where the plug is in my room.
Elisa: Oh! You need an adapter?
Me: No. Heh, heh. I have an adapter, it’s just…it’s kinda funny, but, um, I can’t figure out where the electrical outlets are? I was just sure I was going to electrocute myself by trying to plug into something I shouldn’t. So. Yeah. Outlets.
There is a second of silence, and then Elisa bursts into laughter, and I do, too.
Elisa: Yeah. Sure. I can help you with that.
And with that ignoble beginning, I head off to a fabulous dinner with Elisa, Loretta, and Simone, one of the editors at Elliot. Dinner is lively and funny. I can’t even remember what all was said—lots of talk about books we love, books that are interesting, books we want to read. Simone tells me about his travels to India, which are fascinating. (How I long to see India sometime.) I get to know a bit about Loretta’s little boy, Lorenzo (so cute!). And Elisa tells us about living in Sweden for a bit and how incredible it is to be there in the summer when there is daylight for 21 hours a day. And, of course, everyone has a great laugh about the outlet situation. At least this time I knew to put the card key in the slot to turn the lights on.
Loretta and Elisa follow me upstairs to my room and point out the bounty of outlets in the walls and Loretta even plugs in my computer for me and we laugh so hard I’ve got tears in my eyes. It feels good, like our first shared joke.
Saturday night is daylight savings time in Italy, so I get an extra hour of sleep. Hooray! I feel really well rested. I do some work, have some breakfast, dress and meet Elisa for the bookstore appearance. Taking a taxi through Rome is intoxicating. History everywhere you look. The sun is shining. It’s warm, about seventy-five degrees, and I can think nothing but happy thoughts.
At the bookstore, there are three teen girls standing outside. I meet Isabella, Laura, and Marie. Their presence makes me feel less nervous. Isabella has a Nightmare Before Christmas purse, which is a bonus. The bookstore is really lovely—very modern and light-filled. Coming out from the shelves are these thick, plexiglass blocks with superimposed photos of various authors—George Orwell, Philip Roth, etc.—to mark the different alphabetical sections. It looks really clean and sleek and cool, and when I see the one for David Foster Wallace, I feel sad that he’s no longer with us. I meet my interviewer, Vittorio, and my interpreter, Matia. They are both incredibly lovely. We do the reading interview style which takes the pressure off of me. Vittorio’s questions are terrific. I particularly love the one he asks (I’m paraphrasing) about whether I would ever write something about Pete Townshend or about music in general, which has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Matia is an amazing translator. His mother is British and his father is Italian, so when he speaks English, he does so with a British accent. It’s just amazing to me that he’s able to listen and translate at the same time. Holy cow.
After the reading, Loretta, Elisa, Matia, Matia’s girlfriend, Paula, Patrizia, and I stroll to restaurant where we dine al fresco. Sitting in the Italian sun eating pasta and drinking espresso, well, it doesn’t suck, people. I’m not gonna lie. I like watching the apartment building directly across the street. On the second floor, the green shutters open wide, and a woman leans out to smoke a cigarette and watch the street. Below her, a young Italian man stands at his open window talking on the phone. In the apartment next to his, there are several pairs of shoes resting on the window sill and at first, I think they are attached to somebody who’s just leaning back, out of sight. But no, they’re just shoes. Later, I look again, and the original shoes are gone and in their place is a pair of sneakers. Hmmm….
Across the way, laundry dries on clotheslines strung below windows. The bright blue and yellow of a shirt is a stark contrast to the pale coral stucco of the building. It would make a great photo, but there’s no polite way to take it. Paula doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Italian, but she shows me a beautiful book on the couture collection of a designer whose name suddenly escapes me. This particular collection from the late 1980’s through the 1990’s was based on Japanese samurai armor. Paula’s mother was a seamstress for the designer, and she shows me which dresses her mother worked on. These are gowns that took squillions of hours to sew by hand, and the artistry is phenomenal. When Paula was a little girl, she and her sister helped twist ribbons of silk to make one jacket. She said the silk stretched down the hallway of their apartment. It’s really incredible. Matia shows me some great places to visit on my map and, by chance, gives me some information for a novel idea I’ve been working on. Kismet. He offers further help via email if I need it.
When lunch has ended, Loretta drives me back to the hotel by going the long way. The streets are so packed with people that I’m amazed anyone can drive in Rome. It’s crazy! She shows me the Vatican and the Castle d’Angelo (sp?) and the Tiber River, which I remember from my years in Latin (though I remember precious little else). I say, “Ciao!”, change into my sneakers and set out for a walk. I walk around for a few hours and, when it’s dark, I end up at the Spanish Steps. The rooftops and monuments, crosses and city lights of the Eternal City roll out before me in a glittering panorama, a postcard come to dazzling life. Around me, tourists sit on the walls. They snap cell phone photos. Couples kiss. Down below, a woman trains her camera up at her boyfriend who waves his arms. To my left is the pink house where Keats died. Elderly couples dressed in their Sunday finest stroll down the narrow streets on their way to dine. A tour guide holding a stick with a scarf tied to it leads a posse of Japanese tourists up a hill.
To me, Rome is a city I share with my husband, and I wish he were here. So I do the next best thing: I text him. Ah, modern love. ☺
ROME, DAY TWO
Day two starts with a television interview on Rome’s largest network. Excuse me for just a sec—I need to go vomit now. Patrizia meets me in the hotel lobby and I am introduced to my interpreter, Sara, who has just had a baby boy. This is her first time away from him, and I feel her ache. Being separated from your baby is almost a physical pain. Horrible. I’m tempted to say, “Let’s just swing by and pick that baby up and bring him with us.” But after a phone call home to her mother, Sara hears he is sleeping and her new mother worries are soothed for the moment.
Patrizia, Sara and I make it to the studio, which is beautiful, and I am whisked into a chair for make-up. Brushes and sparkly things and glossy glosses are applied to my face, and when I look, I go, “Whoa!” People, if we all had make-up artists following us around, we’d all be red-carpet worthy. I’m wearing about a pound of lacquer, but I have no pores. It’s magic!
We take a seat in the lobby to wait. I can’t stop bouncing my leg. Despite downing a bottle of water, my mouth is chalk-dry. What, me nervous? I look like an anime character—all huge eyes. And then Patrizia leans over and says, “The host who is going to interview you can be kind of…mean.”
Oh. Okay, then. No worries. I’m just going to be interviewed by the MEAN GUY! Thanks, Patrizia. I look around for a paper bag to breathe into, but have to settle for staring at the same spot on the wall as if hypnotizing myself. At last, we are whisked into the studio with its banks of TV screens and microphones and various techie things. I am introduced to my host, and he does not eat my head or call me a stain on society or say my books are icky. Instead, he is gracious and tells me how it will work: He will ask me two questions. He will tell me the two questions ahead of time in English. Then, he will ask the questions in Italian on camera. I will answer in English as if I have understood them in Italian. And Sara will translate what I say, coming in over my voice. Got that? Good. We take our seats on the soundstage and a tiny microphone is attached to my shirt.
Now, I’m completely terrified that even though there are only two questions, in my state of advanced nervousness, I am going to mix them up, and he’ll say, “Tell us, why do you think the new gothic movement in literature is so popular now? What does it offer teens?” and I’ll say, “Cats? I love cats! I have two of them myself. Thank you for asking.” Also, I am sure I am going to sweat like Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News” and people are going to call in to see if I’m having a heart attack. I hear a clicking sound and realize it’s me grinding my teeth. The tech guy tells me to look at the camera, but I can’t really tell where on the camera I’m supposed to look so I sort of move my head up and down, left and right, as if I’m leading a Yoga for Your Neck class and try to make it all look perfectly natural. For all I know, the footage will show me being a human bobblehead, my eyes trained on the floor because I was looking in the wrong place.
I answer the first question somewhat coherently, so I’m feeling better. Getting cocky. “That’s right, cats & kittens, I do this all the time. I’m a TV expert.” The second question comes and I actually nod and say, “Ah!” AS IF I UNDERSTAND ITALIAN. Jesus, I am such a cheese monkey dorkhead extreme. I mean, seriously. And that’s it–my two minutes in the sun. I have dropped about five pounds in sweat, which means that I can eat six pounds in pasta and gelato.
We say goodbye to Sara, and Patrizia and I go to the Elliot offices. The offices are cozy and cute, and—THEY HAVE A BALCONY OVERLOOKING ROME! It’s about seventy degrees and sunny, so we sit out on the balcony and have possibly the best pizza I have ever ingested in gulps and make a toast to Claudia, who is having a birthday. She’s turning twenty-nine but she looks fifteen. People, it doesn’t get much better than this. Pizza, fun peeps, a birthday party, and the warm Italian sun. Frankly, I’m jealous of me. It’s really lovely to get to know everyone—Irene, Felice, Simone, Elisa, Patrizia, and the other Elliot folks hanging out on the balcony. Some ladies from a neighboring office drop by to toast Claudia. It’s all a big party. And then everyone has to go back to work, which I would find impossible if I lived in Rome. I would just feel too fabulous.
Simone and I bond over our love of all things music. Simone also runs a music label. (When do these people sleep???) On his computer, he shows me some great video clips for Montecristo, one of the bands he’s managing right now. It’s a vampire prom video, really fun. He shows me some other clips for other bands. The videos are very cool and made even cooler by the fact that they were made on no money, just creative energy. Good ideas > money, generally.
In the afternoon, I have interviews at the Elliot offices. The first is with Chiara, a reporter from La Repubblica We talk for over an hour, with poor Elisa having to translate for both of us. I feel for her. I talk really fast and in a total ADD, non-linear fashion. There are native English speakers who have a hard time following me. Elisa’s face looks like it’s starting to melt, so I force myself to slow down and focus.
After that, I have an interview with Alex from Vanity Fair. I just want to type that again. Vanity Fair. Holla at your girl! Sorry, but it was a thrilling moment for me, and I pray that I don’t say stupid things when I talk. The interview seems to go well. Alex takes my picture, so sometime, there will be a picture of me in Italian Vanity Fair, without lipstick, TV makeup smudges under my eyes, and hopefully no pizza residue in my teeth, because there was no time to primp, people.
At the end of the day, Loretta brings me to a dinner for the Elliot sales force. We go to a restaurant called La Carbonnara and sit at two long tables. Felice regales me with tales of his wife and baby. Felice is hilarious and so besotted with his baby daughter that it’s hard not to love him. He’s like the Papa Bear of Elliot. The food is crazy good and by dessert, I think I may explode. But I’m going down fighting, by god. Bring on the tiramisu! By the time our dinner is finished, I am barely upright, so Loretta sends me back to the hotel in a cab and I crash hard.
ROME, DAY THREE
Today is the big day. Today, I get the opportunity to meet with 140 Italian teens at the U.S Embassy just down the street from my hotel. “Don’t forget your passport!” Patrizia reminds me. (Yesterday, I’d forgotten it and had to use my British Library membership card to get into the TV studio. My library card is not going to cut it at the U.S. Embassy.) You know, I’ve been in a million airports and in certain buildings in New York City. I thought I’d been through security before. No. NOW I’ve been through security. The U.S. Embassy does not play. This is the real deal. Italian Marines with nice hats and big guns greet us at the gate. They check a long list of approved people, and as it takes a while, I’m convinced they know all about me and are not going to let me in. But eventually, they do find me, and we are met by the lovely Emanuela Picozzi, who whisks us into the foyer, where I am asked to hand over every single piece of electronic equipment I am carrying. I hand over my iPod, camera, and cell phone and am given tickets to claim them later. We all walk through a metal detector and then we show our identification to the man behind the bullet-proof glass window and sign our names and state our purpose.
Years ago, when the hubby and I got hitched in Florence, we simply waltzed into the U.S. Embassy without a second glance. They guy at the window was drinking coffee and chatting with us and his co-worker. No security to really speak of. Times have changed. If I ever needed verification that we live in a different world now, there it is.
Once we have cleared security (ahead of the 140 waiting students—all of whom have brought their cell phones, turning the security measures into a nightmare for the embassy), we walk through more secure doors and into a secure elevator that takes us upstairs to an absolutely gorgeous room with huge windows. I meet Monique Quesada, whom I have met over email. I love Monique. She’s a sweetie and incredibly interesting. She’s had posts all over the world, and I hope she will write a book about her experiences because the little bit I hear is so fascinating. I also meet Ann Callaghan, who is in charge of things, and we chat a bit about the States and Rome and all things teen.
It takes a full hour to get all the teens through security. I don’t know why I find this so amusing and reassuring, but I do. I know these measures are all very necessary, meant to thwart terrorists, but there is something endearing about how a group of teens leaves everyone, even highly trained Marines, flustered and out of sorts. At last, we get the signal, and I follow the others into a large room filled with Italian teenagers and photographers and a TV crew. Hello! Who would like to see me vomit in fear? Any takers?
I babble and get kind of manic as I do when I’m nervous and try not to notice the honking big camera. (Once, the guy was over my shoulder and I turned around to a camera in my face and squeaked, “Aaaaahhhhh!” I’m sure that will be pretty on Italian TV.) But thank god for teens, because once they start asking questions, I’m calmed. We’re back to a conversation, which is how I like it. The questions are great, and I’m amazed, once again, by how good everyone’s English is. A girl named Erika asks a particularly great question about the mother-daughter relationships in the book, about trying to be “perfect” and about fantasy as an escape. A guy named Isaiah asks me if I grew up in a religious household. I tell him yes, my dad was a minister, and he tells me his parents were missionaries, and we talk for a few minutes about what that experience is like and the interesting fact that both he and I have left the church. Finally, we come to the moment I’ve been waiting for: watching the video winners. I hope they’ll put these on YouTube at some point or give me a link. It was really fun to watch the three different interpretations. I had a little trouble hearing because the sound was low (and my ears are probably shot from too many concerts over the years), but it was easy to see that the girls put heart and soul into it. And the 1st place video was great. It started with a glimpse of 1895 and then switched to 2008, showing a girl in London and a girl in India whose lives were very different. The point of the video was to show that while some things have changed for some women, for many others, there still is oppression and a lack of equality. The video ended with the two girls holding a sign that said, “MORE FREEDOM FOR WOMEN.” There were loud cheers, wolf whistles and applause…and a few boos from some who weren’t keen on more freedom for women. Just in case you think there isn’t more work to do.
Anyway, it was awesome.
We managed to reclaim our electronics from the Marines and go to lunch with Emanuela, Paula, and Monique at a fabu buffet that offers every dish you could ever want. Heaven. We down our espressos (which I am coming to like—I first thought espresso tasted like caffeinated Drano no matter how many sugars I dumped in, but now I’m down with it. Plus, it wakes you up after all that pasta.) and then say “Ciao” to our wonderful Embassy hosts.
In the afternoon, Irene and I go sightseeing and shopping. Huzzah! The streets are jam-packed with business people, tourists, and students heading to the demonstrations. I love the American couple who ask Irene, “Is this the way to nirvana?” They mean Navona, but Irene and I can’t stop laughing about it afterward: “I’ve been seeking nirvana and it’s been here all this time? Get out!” Around 3:00, it starts to rain. No. Rain is a quaint word. It starts to pour like the sky is good and pissed off and wants you to know all about it. Oh well. What can Irene and I do but take refuge in shop after shop? I see some beautiful things. Beautiful, completely out of my price range things. I touch the pretty things and tell them they are so, so pretty and that, sadly, my budget dictates that they will not come to live at my house, but that I’m glad to have made their acquaintance for this brief time.
Finally, the rain lets up enough that Irene and I can get outside. We try to find a taxi but there are none to be found. So we start walking and eventually, we manage to snag a spot on a crowded bus. Irene takes me to a lovely little cheese shop as I have promised to bring cheese back for the husband. The owner is passionate about cheese, and I love this about him. It’s like having the Italian Wallace (of “Wallace & Gromit” fame) help me select a cheese. I sample a piece of saffron-pepper cheese, and it’s so rich, it’s like a meal. I get some of that and some really aged, sharp Parmesan. Husband will be so pleased with me. Husband is lucky if I don’t eat it all on the flight home.
We meet the rest of the Elliot crew for dinner at a sweet spot near the offices. Loretta announces that she’s got something for me. She pulls out a box with a bow. Inside is a pasta maker! Wow! Patrizia and Elisa give me a tutorial since the instructions are in Italian, and we get some dough from the kitchen and practice right there on the table. It is fun! I could learn to love making pasta, and I’m an idiot in the kitchen. I am very touched by the gift. I promise to send them photos of us making pasta with the pasta machine, which I have already decided to name Elliot. It’s time to go to the radio interview, so I hug everybody goodbye and feel as if I am saying goodbye to old friends.
Remember the rain? Well, it came back with a vengeance. Thunder. Lightning. Flooding. It was quite Biblical, actually. I’m from Texas, where the weather can’t be as extreme as Faye Dunaway in “Mommy Dearest,” and I am telling you this was intense. We get a taxi out to the place where Vittorio is going to do the radio interview, which just happens to be where the Rome Film Festival is happening. Sadly, I did not see Daniel Craig or anyone else. But now, the rain is CRAZY rain. Poor Elisa is soaked to the skin. I’m looking at the calf-deep water going, “My new boots!” Elisa, Patrizia, and I manage to run through the trees and get to the pavilion we need only to face a lake in the parking lot. There’s nothing to do but wade through it. We are all pretty wet. I have to take off my boots and empty them out just like a cartoon. And then, looking like a partially wet dog, I do the interview in the lobby of the Rome Film Festival, my hair matted to my head. Vittorio makes it fun. Matia translates. Sadly, there is no time for me to play DJ, as Vittorio had wanted me to do, and I am forlorn. Next time, Vittorio promises. We say, “Ciao!” and take a cab back to the hotel, laughing that tired-and-drenched-people laughter the whole way, and then I say goodnight to the delightful and quite drowned Elisa and Patrizia.
I manage to cram everything into my two suitcases. They groan at the seams. I have to sit on the big one to zip it. I don’t even care that the insides look as if they have been packed by someone with a thought disorder. I have had a fabulous time, but I miss my family, and I can only think of one thing: home.
Tomorrow I will tell you about the Rome Airport. Because sometimes an experience needs its own chapter.