Per La Prima Volta
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear." - The Princess Diaries
The literal translation of "to give birth" in Italian is dare alla luce - "to give to the light". It was a long and bumpy ride over the Atlantic. Flying east through the blackness, it felt as though we were chasing the sun, looking for the light that had left us behind in Chicago. Somehow, somewhere, sometime, I must have fallen asleep because I awoke to a shallow, pale blue dome finally beginning to brighten the wing of the plane. As I watched the sunrise, I couldn't help but think how this was a very real kind of rebirth for me. Welcome to the light.
I expected to be moved to tears when I landed in Rome, overwhelmed with joy and relief at having my dreams realized. Instead, I began to panic. It was a gorgeous, sunny, seventy-degree day, and the city was every bit as stunning as I'd imagined - ancient, tiered apartments and narrow cobblestone streets winding past outside the cab window - and I felt nothing but the clammy grip of crippling terror.
I found my guesthouse - a feat which I considered to be nothing short of miraculous - and buzzed upstairs only to discover that my hosts - a motherly white-haired grandmother and her husband, Mario - spoke no English at all. I shadowed the woman on a tour of the modest apartment, nodding and smiling as she explained in rapid-fire Italian how to work the medieval shower head in the bathroom. Sure, I thought, whatever you say. When I finally figured out how to turn it on and adjust the temperature, the water drizzled with pitiful pressure straight down into a claw-foot bathtub that looked like it was designed for leprechauns. This was going to be interesting.
Once my hair and face were washed and I was in clean clothes, I fired off a quick e-mail home letting my mother and father know I'd arrived safely, then took a couple of much-needed hours to sleep off the jet lag. It wasn't until I killed another forty-five minutes unpacking my suitcase and playing with the voicemail settings on my international phone that it occurred to me I might be stalling. There was an old and strange and wonderful treasure trove of a city outside waiting to introduce itself to me, but after the horror stories I'd been told, can you blame me for being afraid to leave my room?
I listened to the muffled Italian trilling through my closed door as my hosts conversed amiably in the kitchen and wondered, not for the first time, what I was doing here, all alone in a foreign city with strangers who couldn't understand me. The woman had asked me when I'd arrived, curious as to my business in Rome, and the only reply I could think of was, "Boh." I don't know. I huddled under the covers on my bed for hours, taking sole comfort in the company of the family cat I'd nicknamed Piccolo - "little one" - and thinking that they - every friend and family member whose concerns had so aggravated me before I left - had all been right. I was crazy. I longed for the presence of a parent, a friend - hell, even a boyfriend would do - anyone I could talk to, ask questions and commiserate with. I couldn't do this on my own. Then my stomach growled. This was something I couldn't ignore, and I was forced to acknowledge the fact that I would have to leave my room eventually.
Determined to at the very least get the lay of the land, I emptied my handbag of carry-on items, leaving only bare necessities including my pocket knife, tucked my remaining cash into my bra - because, let's face it, if someone gets to it there being pick pocketed is probably the least of your worries - and left the apartment with one simple starter-goal: find an Internet cafe. If I could do that, I could do anything.
It was easier than I thought. Donning my sunglasses so the nervous shifting of my eyes wouldn't be so obvious, I strode purposefully toward what sounded like a bustling main strip. I paused on a corner to get my bearings, and a man in his sixties introduced himself to me in Italian, causing me to clutch my handbag a little tighter to my side. He asked if I needed help, and described himself as "un testimonio di Dio". At first I thought he was trying to tell me he was an angel, but quickly realized he was a priest, and loosened my hold a little on my bag. He directed me down the street to a hole-in-the-wall containing four phone booths and five computer stations. It was 1 euro for an hour of internet access.
Leaving the cafe, I was beginning to feel like I could conquer the world. If I could locate and utilize international communication in a strange city, I could certainly find my own food. I combed the strip for about half an hour, investigating my options. Finally, the gnawing hunger became intolerable, and I stopped a local carrying grocery bags on the sidewalk. "Scusi," I said, suddenly remembering that I'd just completed a semester of University Italian, "sono a Roma per la prima volta e sono molta fame. Dov'e una buona trattoria - non molto caro?" I am in Rome for the first time and I am very hungry. Where is a good place to eat - not too expensive?
The woman pointed to a gold awning at the end of the street, a little corner bistro complete with tablecloths and parasols. Perfetto. A quick glance at the menu and I knew exactly what I wanted. The waitress appeared, pen and notepad poised, and I ordered bucatini cacio e pepe with a quarter litre of the house red wine, in Italian, of course. The pasta arrived in an elegant nest on the plate, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salty pecorino and fresh-cracked pepper. A quintessential Roman specialty, it was a prime example of everything that made Italy better than any North American country; back home, pasta with cheese and pepper wouldn't be anything special, because the ingredients, which are processed, mass-produced and shipped great distances, limiting freshness, were nothing special. Here, though, the sheer simplicity of the dish was precisely what made it spectacular. As Anthony Bourdain put it, "It looks like nothing. It is in fact, everything."
"Ah, che bello," I marvelled. "Grazie mille." Then I dug in. Total bill: 9.50€. I'd had more expensive pasta in Windsor.
I was striding back to my guesthouse with my head held high and a fresh spring in my step, wondering if I looked enough like a local yet to fool anyone, when I was stopped again by a stranger. "Scusi," he touched my shoulder tentatively, his wide brown eyes like a lost puppy's. "Il mio Italiano...not so good," he apologized. "Do you know...a good place to eat?"