Carol Stigger is a Chicago-based writer specializing in Third World poverty, microfinance, and travel (check out her blog here). She lives in Rome two months a year writing about ancient and modern Italy and in India during the winter as a volunteer for a community development organization.
I love Roma so much I live there two months a year. But one year, Roma morphed from lover to spouse, no longer striving to delight me. Suddenly, it was enough for the city to span the Tiber with bridges, illuminate the ruins and provide busses with bodies and backpacks oozing from both entrata and ustica doors.
I did not have an "ah ha" moment, rather a series of moments that moved my passion for Roma to echoes of medieval bells and memories of riso gelato. It was good while it lasted. Then it was over.
Maybe it was trying to exit the Pantheon while the entrance/exit area was closed by conquering armies of school groups, stampeding tourists, pickpockets and a guard huddled in his plastic chair looking at the only escape route, the oculus. I tried to show my sister Raphael's tomb, that touching monument still graced with fresh flowers, but all we saw were the backs of T-shirts. Was it the canned beans and the waiter's lyrical lies that he picked them himself? Maybe it was the group from Kansas trooping through Piazza Navona pointing at St. Agnes's church and calling it St. Peter's. Perhaps it was me, the same me who must flame with passion for some author, some artist, some beach, some strawberry, or feel like I am flailing in a black hole babbling over the boredom of it all. I declared a trial separation in this decade-long romance and hunkered down in my Rome apartment on a hill overlooking lines of laundry. I pretended I was in Naples.
The next week, I left my neighborhood only twice and briefly. I walked down to St. Peters to see if Roma was having a party without me. The lines to enter the church were so weary, so long, I suspected Roma missed the quick slap of my sandals as I once breezed through security, the wait as brief as a ciao. I walked to Campo dei Fiori. The crowd was so dense, so raucous, I was convinced Roma missed my strolls around the Renaissance palazzos, the fountain and shadows of the brooding Bruno. Yes, Roma was pining for me, but he had changed. He would have to find another woman, one who could see beyond the crowds and into his eternal heart. I decided to blind date a new country and bought tickets to Spain that would shorten my Roman holiday by two weeks.
Then T.J. called. "Meet me in front of Santo Spirito - we'll have dinner." Which front? Santa Spirito encompasses three city blocks. The church entrance, hospital entrance, the hall of the frescos in eternal restoration entrance, back door entrance - which?
My affair with Roma was in the dust bin, and I no longer cared about celebrating my next birthday.
Then there was T.J., with his engaging smile and warm ciao. He knew how to rekindle my passion - a small trattoria facing the Tiber that has been cooking food with love for more than seventy years. Everyone was speaking Italian. No cowboy hats, no cheap nasty shoes. The bresola was va bene, the pasta carbonara was molto bene, the panna cotta smooth as a Latin lover, and the limoncello was free.
After dinner, T.J. suggested going to the fireworks at St. Peter's Square in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guards. Oh fireworks, oh sure. People spilling beer on my Italian shoes and kids throwing cherry bombs...Oh, T.J. Fireworks. Really! And you even brought your camera. How endearing. They sell fireworks postcards. You can download fireworks screensavers and ring tones.
The night was balmy and St. Peters Square was crowded, but T.J. scoped out the perfect spot. To my right, I saw the molten glow of the church; to the left, a shadowy fountain; in front, an Egyptian obelisk that had been converted to Christianity with a cross on top. One star, a half moon and a white cloud hung like a stage drop behind the obelisk.
The loud speaker crackled, T.J. translated the welcome senors and senoras, the "This square has seen fireworks for more than 400 years to commemorate."
Then darkness and silence. An explosion of lights arching, dancing, dripping to a classical number heavy on the Glorias. Then more lights danced over the obelisk to the Hallelujah Chorus. Is this God when a war ends? T.J. tugged my arm. Are you okay, are you homesick? Oh. I'm crying. Here's why. I have renewed my vows with Roma.
Walking home, the air grew cooler and softer, sweetened by flower markets on every corner. People greeted me, buena sera, as if I had dual citizenship like T.J. I turned from my apartment and walked back down the hill, down cobblestone streets shadowed by ancient palazzos, past fountains that had splashed on 2,000 years of footsteps, into the city filling me again with its mysterious beauty.
Despite non-refundable plane tickets and flippy red dress for flamenco, I stood up Madrid.