Your first day alone in a city where you don’t speak the language is relatively terrifying. I decide to go check out the Vatican City, since churches and art museums are places I feel perfectly at home, and the Vatican has both. I also decide that I will walk down to the Tiber and follow the river through the city. This seems like a foolproof way to not get lost. Apparently the river has been there for some time.
The trees along the Tiber look like they have leprosy. Trees with peeling-off bark are my favorites. They always look half dressed. This day is the feast of St. Peter and Paul, and the city is as sleepy as I am. Religious people are inside being religious, and the unreligious have escaped the city to relax. Most, but not all, businesses are closed.
Bernini’s circle of columns slurps you right into St. Peter’s piazza. I love this. I do not love that the Vatican, completely insensitive to my love for both Peter and Paul (okay, mostly writer spitfire Paul), has not invited me to their holiday mass. In fact, I cannot even enter St. Peter’s church on his special day.
The Vatican City redeems itself by offering me my first Roman cappucino. After pointing at various foods in a cafeteria line, a boy carries my tray of food up to a table. He sets down my tray at a table that is already occupied by five British assholes. At first, I think, yay– they speak English!
Then, rather than saying hello to me, they proceed to complain at length about how there were plenty of other empty tables and that boy had no reason to seat me with them. I assumed the boy does this for mysterious Italian reasons, or perhaps because he was aware that at any moment, one thousand Catholic pilgrims might blast through the door, needing ten tables. I pull out my New Yorker and ignore that Brits.
Eat pasta, drink wine, and then begin my cappucino, which is one of the top culinary experiences of my life (I need to admit they are rather limited). It flusters my tongue with its lightness and bathes my whole throat in mild brown coffeeness on its way down.
Suddenly I don’t care about the British. Suddenly I decide that red wine and cappucino will punctuate every meal I eat in Rome, damn the euros and the heat. (I am the only person I ever see drinking red wine in Rome, actually. All the Italians seem to drink chilled water or cold beer, and the foreigners drink white wine, like reasonable people would when it’s 85 degrees outside.)
Next, I head for the baby drop at the Vatican hospital. My guidebook says that Martin Luther, when he visited, was deeply moved by the numbers of women who were forced, by their poverty, to give up their babies. The Vatican set up a revolving sort of dumbwaiter to accept these babies.
I find myself looking at the iron grill over the opening, its barrel now revolved in. Presumably they are no longer accepting babies at this hospital. I have always loved Luther, he has always been one of my heroes. How many guys had the balls to The Pope, “No, I’m not going to hell, as a matter of fact”? To stand exactly where he stood, and imagine him engaged in visiting the Vatican, wondering and worrying about what God thinks of all this, just blows me away. I manage not to burst into tears, since I am an American Protestant, after all, and public tears are not part of my culture.
That evening, while eating dinner, near my hotel, a woman who appears homeless, crazy, and deformed argues with my waiter. Of course this is in Italian, and I am enjoying that lovely foreign country experience of letting language flow around me like water, without any judgment or questions (especially great for a wordy type).
She must have lost the argument, because she proceeds to cross the alley, lift her skirt up over her ass, and piss against the wall. I lift my book to hide her flesh from my view. I am trying to eat. But it’s nice to be in a real city again.
Note: The baby drop is in my Facebook Rome photos. I’m not yet smart enough to figure out how to post its image here.