Losing My Way to Rome

Chris Schafale: Look out over the water. Sunset in Rome. Winks across the River Tiber. The color: liquid orange, same as the paint peeling off the buildings. The weather: sticky, hot (as advertised). The Ponte Sisto: an old, dirty-white bridge with brilliant algae climbing up the ancient stone piers.

            I admired how effortlessly the water flowed through the imposing gapped teeth of the bridge. Such ease when faced with an unexpected bend. It was my last day in Rome; I hadn’t yet seen the Vatican or the catacombs, but my bag was packed, and my itinerary laid at the bottom of a trashcan a few miles away. I had met a tour group of half-drunk Australians earlier that day, who spontaneously offered me the extra spot on their bus. As I had no commitments or traveling companions to consult, I agreed to meet them at their hotel early the next day.

About an hour before I paused atop the Ponte Sisto, I was following my phone through a shaded, cobblestone alley to what Google called “the coolest English language bookstore in Rome.” On almost any other day, I might’ve agreed, but combing through all the stacks of reprinted classics made me want to vomit a little.

The store was stuffy and crammed with pretentious expatriates of America, Ireland, and England, seeming caricatures of themselves who discussed how this or that new book missed the mark in this or that old way. They all ignored me when I came in, arguing over the sound of the bell on the door. “The conclusion about Homer was far too effusive for me, disproportionately excessive to the scope of the work. Hasn’t she gotten wind of Fagles…”

I swallowed the vitriol more easily than I would have if I was in one of their classrooms back in the States; the magnetism of a good argument had worn off since I’d arrived in Rome. I let the door close on the wannabe professors and left them to the nausea of their little store. I ducked into the alley and nodded at the tanned locals smoking cigarettes on their breaks or unpacking boxes of fruit.

            I strolled around the bends of the alley, wandering for a bit. People my age—students with bottles of wine tucked into the crooks of their arms and mischievous eyes—called up to friends through balcony doors. Flip flops slapped at cobblestone as one boy caught up to another. Vespas piddled slowly around

At the vine-shrouded mouth of the alley stood a few street vendors’ stands. I smiled at them and responded, “Ciao,” when they beckoned me to their wares. I didn’t have much money to spend, so I didn’t stop until the last man’s wobbly, little wooden table. He was large and sat on a barrel with his trunk knees spread wide. He was selling bracelets of beaded stone, plastic, and little metal workings. He smiled at me a half-toothy, half-toothless smile—just the way a bridge frowns.

            “Ciao,” I said, walking on. He responded with an assault of Italian so quick I paused mid-step. He waved his hands over his products, pointing out different pieces as he went, explaining one thing or another. Mesmerized, I hardly noticed I couldn’t understand him. He eventually noticed my blank stare, smiled again, and asked in flawless English, “Do you speak Italian?”

            “No, no. Sorry. I wish,” I said dumbly. I felt like one of the stuck-up expats in the bookstore, insulated in Anglophonic comfort behind the shop windows steamed to opacity with breathy, pointless observations.

            “Grahahaheeha! Wish you spoke Italian…” He laughed a smoker’s laugh and coughed a smoker’s cough before he said, “Me too.”

            I was confused. “What? Weren’t you just—”

            “Look,” he cut me off, “French.” The bracelet vendor cocked his head toward the sky and rattled off something in a cartoonish, high-pitched French. He had somehow deprived it of the sensuality everyone says it has. “Now Spanish.” He looked down and started speaking Spanish in a deep voice, fluttering his eyelids while he did it. I laughed in confusion, understanding nothing. “Here. Arabic.” His head was sideways, and his face became expressionless, his eyes went faraway.

Whatever he recited sounded very prophetic and wise. I had quickly forgotten why I had been avoiding these vendors in the first place. He looked me square in the eyes and said, “Yes, I have a bit of six languages, amico, but if it was up to me, I’d have none. Language… it is nothing if it is not communication. Do you agree?”

We stared at each other. Surprisingly, I did. I couldn’t explain it any better or add to it, but I understood. We instinctively shook hands and he moved on to other topics. I learned he had done just about everything, been just about everywhere, but now he was only interested in metal-working and bracelet-making. He spent his days crafting and talking to people like me. He didn’t earn much, but that was okay according to him. “I never went hungry!” He slapped his belly, and his shoulders heaved as he laughed.

He eventually made his sale. I bought two bracelets. “Any two for 5 euros. For you. Usually, it’s 7 for one, but you get the linguist’s discount.” Laughing, he winked at me, and his teeth did too, half sparkling, half gone.

I thanked him, shook his hand again, and continued wandering until I ended up on the Ponte Sisto just in time for sunset. There were men, young and old, casting their rods into the Tiber, catching the glinting sun on their backswings. All my thoughts—of bookstores and bridges, Italian students and American emeriti, literature and bracelets—all thoughts except those of water left my mind. I watched the sunset ripple, rip, tear, and smooth back together on the river’s surface. The current slowed or accelerated here and there, but it all passed just the same. My last day in Rome was calm and unusual.

II

            In the hours before I had set out for the bookshop—before I came upon the Ponte Sisto and listened to the man of many languages and of none—I napped off the last of my jetlag.

It was early afternoon, and Rome’s August sun was streaming through a pair of slotted double doors into one of the Palladini Hostel’s fourth floor rooms. The double doors leaned inward but only so far; a zip tie across the knobs held them shut.

When I’d arrived at the Palladini at 2:00 AM three days before, the zip tie had been a major nuisance, one more terrible affliction suffered in the initial 30 hours of my first journey alone. I wasn’t able to step out for a smoke, and of course, I needed one badly. Norweigan Air had lost my luggage—everything I’d packed for my month in the Mediterranean—leaving me with nothing more than a phone, a wallet, and a little pocket-sized version of the Tao Te Ching, which had been a gift from a friend the day before I left. There had also been a delay in my connecting flight and many instances of airport grease staining my only pair of pants.

Once inside the slumbering dorm room, I gave up on the idea of smoking away my concerns and instead cried in a bunk bed until falling asleep with my contacts in, because I had no solution—it was wherever my lost bag was.

But waking up from a deep and dreamless nap in the middle of my third day, the zip tie seemed like a blessing. I blinked slowly at the empty top bunk in the shadows across from me.

Scraps of dust lazed through the air and danced between the downward shafts of sunlight. The empty room was thick with heat and calm, time suspended, dust suspended, my mattress suspended. The seven other travelers—one for every bunk, like the dwarves—were elsewhere, probably exploring the Colosseum or one of the many Cathedrals or getting good and drunk with the help of the heat (I knew that’s what my Australian friends were up to), and here I was, in a sleepy corner of Rome, emerging from an oceanic rest.

Surprisingly quiet for Rome, only a few distant voices floated up from the street below. It was nearing 3:00 PM and the tourists were out and about, but the real Rome was still taking il riposino pomeridiano, “the afternoon’s little nap,” the Mediterranean’s greatest innovation. Forget about “democracy,” “tragedy,” and the “Renaissance;” these people know how to sleep. During the hottest hours of the day, people go home and eat themselves comatose with family members (or lovers), and they go to sleep (or don’t).

Slowly waking, I heard the faintest slide and click, click, and the hallway door opened softly. A man—a sagely hobo, I’d come to find—walked in, seemingly at ease with this culture of dreams, as if he had just woken up too, surprised and amused at every one of his own steps. His worn flip flops stuck to his heels like a natural extension of himself as he walked to the bottom bunk across from mine. He had a big black bag slung over his shoulder. It was an odd bag—circular, bulbous, and shaped sort of like a UFO. He dropped it on his bed and grabbed a notebook and a pen from a more normal-looking bag. He moved quietly, privately, as if he was alone. He sat down at the table in the middle of the dark room, facing streamers of sun from the balcony doors, and he opened his book.

He drew for a while and I listened to the pen drag across the paper. I couldn’t make out the features of his face completely, because my contacts were soaking up the much-needed saline solution that I’d bought at the convenience store the day before. Therefore, I couldn’t pin an age on the man in the middle of what was allegedly a dorm for 18-35 year-olds. He didn’t seem that young, but he didn’t move like someone yoked beneath the burdens of age. The atmosphere somehow felt both playful and wise.

I put on my contacts and sat up in my bed. He waited to finish his sketch before returning my gaze, a slight smile on his face and blue eyes that simmered in the light glinting off the floorboards. Now, I could see him; I could tell his skin was wrinkled from years of laughter (many more than 35), and his eyes were sharp, taking nothing for granted. His patience seemed as infinite as anyone’s.

“Howdy,” I said.

“Hello.”

The conversation continued awkwardly as the man and I exchanged pleasantries but never arrived at any of the topics I was hoping we would. Something about the old man made me crave his validation, but all I got was his patience. I tried coaxing him into telling me some of his best stories, but I only learned the simple stuff: his name was Dan Price; he was 70 years old; he lived in California and Utah; he was on a “street tour” through Europe, visiting musician friends; and he enjoyed sketching something new once a day.

I tried to stay circumspect in our conversation—to be as cool, calm, and laid back, as he was, but I couldn’t shake the need for his approval. Not under the watch of those patient eyes. So eventually, at a lull in the small talk, I launched into the tragic tale of my lost luggage. I don’t know if it was because I was waking up or I was trying to impress Dan, but I could feel my story becoming very long and digressive as I told it—and it became breathless and tangential and humorous (but in the most contrived way). I could tell I was dragging Dan through it. I packed it with unnecessary detail and even more unnecessary hyperbole, using trapezing intonations, overly familiar slang, dramatic syntactic pauses, elaborate hand gestures. I was the social equivalent of a wind up-cymbal-monkey.

And like a toy monkey, I ran out of steam. Every time I looked over, I saw Dan with his same patient smile, and it embarrassed me. I had told this story countless times in the three days I’d been in Rome—to other hostel-dwellers, to locals who lent me their lighters, to the Australians—and no one ever responded with this kind of patience. It was always with excitement or amusement or annoyance or anger or pity, but never with patience.

I trailed off… didn’t even finish my story. And I completely abandoned the final episode, my character’s rock bottom in the story, in which I usually told my new favorite punchline: “I had so little, I wasn’t even worth robbing!”

“Yeah, well…” I looked away and remained silent while I watched the dust float through the afternoon sun. I lounged on my bed with a cheek in my hand and a cheek in between my teeth. Awkward minutes passed.

“I’m happy for you,” he said. Confused, I looked back down at Dan, who was still smiling. “No offense to you, but I’m glad you lost your stuff. Sounds like it was just holding you back anyway.”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.” He made a good point. I mean, I had really been enjoying the new, loose fitting clothes I’d rustled up in resale shops, and I didn’t have to deal with one of the tiny hostel lockers. “My bag was so big they wouldn’t even let me carry it on,” I chuckled, shaking my head. “You’re right; it would’ve been a burden,” I said.

“Exactly.” Here, Dan began really talking. He took over the task of storytelling, though his cadence was quite a bit more relaxed than mine. He told me his own luggage consisted of a small Jansport bookbag and his instrument. Most people called him the Hobo, or the Hobo Artist, because he lived a transient life. He told me how to avoid getting ticketed for sleeping in your car and how big vans are too obvious, so instead, you should rip out the seats in something like a Dodge Caravan and put down a mattress pad. No need for much more space than that when you’re roaming up and down the West Coast as a retired surfer bum. And if you know how to play an instrument, you can busk, and you’ll never go completely broke, unless of course you want to.

This hobo was my hero. I soaked everything up like a sponge, squeaking out yeah, yeaaahhh on every exhale. Dan seemed to take life in stride, exactly as it came, and that’s how he got by so smoothly. He was one of those old hippies who had rolled down the other side of that cosmic mountain, but he had avoided serious brain damage, nostalgia, and crippling ailments by staying pliant through the fall.

I watched Dan walk over to his bunk and unzip his big, UFO-like bag with unwavering attention. He slid out what looked like a torso-sized metal UFO with little craters all around it and a big bump on the top and littler bumps in the center of the craters. “What’s that?” I said. Dan told me it was a handpan; it was sort of like an inverted steel drum, but you play it with the tips of your fingers. He pulled the chair over nearer my bed and sat down so he was striped by sun and shadow. He laid the handpan on his lap and began to play.

The music was beautiful. It was ancient and peaceful, like a river or a church. The reverberations flowed into each other with every new tap. The high-pitched sprang from the low and the low took root in the high, chasing each other around in a circle as Dan’s fingers danced about the curved sheet of steel. He held them loosely in the posture of Christ’s when painted with the ICXC hand gesture—index finger straight out, middle slightly bent with the last two curled in, barely grazing the palm. The last notes fluttered into the atmosphere and echoed. Dan looked back up at me.

“Here’s what you need to know,” Dan told me. He must’ve guessed that I’d come to this conversation wanting to take some piece of quotable advice away. Finally, he gave it to me: “Figure out how much you need to live. Some people need a lot—and, and they should get it. Others need less. Figure out how much you need and try to stick to that.” It was simple, it was obvious, it was deeply profound. I couldn’t even squeak out a yeah; the whole moment was too epiphanic. The obviousness of it jogged a memory, a piece of my Roman story that I had left out.

And telling Dan, I was suddenly back in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I had just given up my bag, quite unwillingly, to the Norwegian Air check-in lady who had told me it was too fat to carry on. I was walking toward security, deeply annoyed, when I remembered that all the cash I’d withdrawn for this trip was in that bag. I ran back and begged the man in charge of the little carousels to give me back my bag, just for a moment, please.

He stared at me, sighed, and pulled it off the belt just before it moved onto bag purgatory. I grabbed it, rifled through it, found my money, and rezipped the bag. Before I handed it back, I remembered Sophia had given me a little book of poetry on the sidewalk that morning, as we were saying goodbye. Sophia was a good friend from school, and we were constantly sharing our writing with each other. Hers was generally much sparser than mine and more imagistic, like that of haiku. It made sense that she’d given me this—Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching—because she was always telling me to slow down when writing, to allow every thought its proper space.

I grabbed the book from the oft-forgotten hip pocket where I had stored it and watched my bag disappear behind the conveyor’s plastic strip curtains. I was finally on my way to Rome—to experience Europe, or whatever my professors had advised me to do—with only three possessions and the clothes on my back.

The Tao turned out to be the most important by far. I hadn’t been able to fall asleep on my transatlantic flight, so I scoured the thing, already creasing the cover. I read it once, straight through, and flipped back to the beginning to read it again. The language—so simple and calm—was welcome relief from the onslaught of anxieties about what to do first in Rome, where to go, what to eat, how to make friends, and how to survive, alone, for the first time, on an entirely new continent. Cover to cover, over and over, I read, and whispered the words as if they were my own:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving,

I read as we rode upon the inky ocean of clouds, turning our backs on a sun setting over North America.

Loss is not as bad as wanting more,

I read before spilling complimentary mashed potatoes and gravy on my pajama pants.

When there is no desire,

all things are at peace,

 

I read as we approached a purple sunrise over Europe.

Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.

When I arrived at London Gatwick Airport for my connecting flight to Rome, I was told there were no other bags arriving from Chicago. I was scared. My fight-or-flight response kicked in, and I decided doing nothing was the way to go. I bought fast food and decided not to call my mom; she never wanted me to take this trip alone in the first place. I wouldn’t worry her.

I got to my gate just in time, but it didn’t matter, because the plane was delayed. All the seats in the area were taken, so I dropped to the sticky floor to wait. An Italian mother and child sat across from me. The mother wore her face like she was waiting to exchange it for a newer model. Her eyes were dull, and her body sagged in a full-body frown. The child was asleep but still kicking at his dreams; his mother felt them all. I could tell she was thankful to be going home.

I took out my little Tao Te Ching and started reading it to myself again. I was halfway through the ninth poem when I burst into tears. I’m sure everyone stared, but I had my eyes closed and my head thrown back against the wall. I was laughing. Harder than I’ve ever laughed before. It was uncontrollable. My mind was wiped clean of thoughts. My stomach pumped itself like an accordion, and I gasped to keep from passing out, but I couldn’t stop laughing. I was overjoyed; it was like I had taken some sort of drug and it had just kicked in—no buildup, no explanation, no nothing, just full immersion in the moment.

The Italian mother did have a new face when I returned to the airport; she was smiling at me. I was confused—after a senseless ecstasy, now once again surrounded by the exposed, looming metal of an airport terminal. I noticed her baby was awake giggling now too. I saw him through tears and chuckled again. Just like Dan’s words, what had done it was simple and obvious:

Fill your bowl to the brim

and it will spill.

In the hostel three days later, I told Dan about this experience with the Tao and read him the passage. He threw his handpan onto the bottom bunk below me and jumped out of his chair. The atmosphere was now electric. If he had been with me in London, our collective craziness might have cleared the terminal. I got down from my bed and we sort of danced around each other, our kicks dusting the floor. Eyes wide and glowing, the hobo grinned at me like a maniac and shouted, “I think that little book did that to you, maaaaaan!”

III

It was 5:00 in the morning. I could feel it in my bones and eyelids. I was in Rome. That’s new. I was groggy and confused, but I knew this much. In my fugue state, freshly jetlagged and alien to this city, I vaguely perceived a pair of feet, attached to a pair of legs that turned out to be mine; they were stomping down the stairwell in my hostel.

I rubbed my eyes when I hit the ground floor. A great wooden door opened and closed loudly on the dilapidated lobby and cracked tile floors behind me. I stood there listening to the door echo through the neighborhood, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I had spent only one day in Rome, but I knew something was changed. The streets of the Termini district were empty, the lamps dark. I felt lost. The familiar tribes of dust and cigarettes were absent. Apartment buildings were shuttered, all the windows closed. The delightful busy-ness of life was gone. Historic piazzas were only artifacts of yesterday; lovers were asleep; stores closed; the trains had stopped running—yes, that’s it, the trains! I remembered.

I inhaled the crisp morning twilight and strolled sleepily toward the station. It was only my second full day in Rome, and I was already leaving. I had a day trip planned to Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii. I’d be back in Rome by 10:00 PM that night and leaving again with a group of Australians a few days later.

I walked down the sidewalk looking slovenly and confused. I hadn’t shaved for a month (nothing to do with travel; just laziness), and it was coming in long and patchy. All my clothes were varying degrees of used and oversized. I thought the jeans looked stylish, a washed-out grey color like the fog occupying the Via Carlo Cattaneo; they were straight-legged and fraying where they met my sandals. My huge, baggy shirt was a cotton-polyester blend with a forever-wrinkly collar and little diamond patterns winking all over it every time I moved. My skinny American elbows appeared where some Italian man’s biceps should be.

To add to my junkie-like specter, I hadn’t purchased a belt. I walked down the sidewalk with my pants hitched up, twisted, and pinned to my hip bone with my right hand. My cavernous pockets were weighed down by my phone, wallet, and a little book.

Limping along, I passed the empty Piazza Manfredo Fanti, where the gates were padlocked and a pool of water stood still in a Beaux-Arts fountain. It was nearly silent. The colorful, prismatic affirmation of life of last night had dissolved into grey uncertainty this morning.

A few blocks away from my hostel, the mist began to congeal into an ominous silhouette. Through the fog, shadowy and lurking, all I could see was that an object forming in the middle of my path, directly downstream from me. I blinked and continued approaching the strangely shaped, strangely placed street sign.

When I was about ten yards from the shadow-object, a cacophony of rambling gibberish filled the fog. The sound hummed closer and the babble surrounded me. A hand emerged from the grey and grabbed me by my excess of sleeve. I came face to face with a silhouette that looked—and smelled—very much like a man.

Confused about the gravity of the situation and thrown off by this new stench of urine, I watched him—an attractive man with slender, dark skin and a scraggly beard I often wished I could grow, deep brown eyes, watery red from the booze and lack of sleep, strong, forward nose. We shared a moment in the fog, staring into each other’s tired eyes, the only people in Rome. It was almost peaceful.

Then he dropped the gibberish and croaked out a hoarse whisper, this time in English: “Do you want to die?”

            I was silent; I hadn’t yet ruminated that morning about my own mortality. As I shrunk back—deeper into my oversized clothes—I pondered the silhouette’s riddle. I should have politely excused myself and told him I wasn’t very profound before my coffee. Or, if I was clever, I would’ve just slipped out of my shirt and run away, leaving the empty sleeves flapping from the silhouette like a flagpole.

            He didn’t wait for an answer. “Phone, wallet, give.”

He jostled me weakly, and I knew for sure that I was getting mugged. I let go of my pants, and my three possessions dragged them down a couple inches. I reached deep into my pocket and felt two cubes, one leather, the other paper. My heart was in my throat and I hadn’t even fully screwed my head on for the day yet. I pulled out the book, and holding it between our bellies, I offered the man Lao Tzu’s ancient verses.

I looked down at the already-worn book between our bellies. Beyond it, I saw the silhouette dangling an empty bottle of wine from his free hand, and, beyond that, I saw the fog float over my sandals. Then I saw the curb. My eyes finally opened, and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream.

He saw the book, took another look at me—in clothes that fit worse than his own, without luggage or a backpack to loot—and he must’ve seen nothing he wanted. Stooping low beneath his anger, still clutching my oversized sleeve, the silhouette raised his bottle as high as he could get it. Fog wrapped around his arm before the bottle came swinging down toward the sharp edge of the curb. I stood there and watched, waiting for a crack.

It connected with the concrete and popped off with a boink. I would have laughed at the cartoon of it all if I had been anything other than a confused, scared, and exhausted tourist. His grasp broke, and I sprinted into the fog, holding up the crotch of my pants with my right hand, and clutching the Tao in my left. I knew he wasn’t giving chase—he was hunched over like a sorry toad the last time I saw him—but still, I ran all the way to the train station.

My heart pounded. My clothes caught wind like the sails of a ship. It felt like my phone and wallet were the only things keeping me from slipping out of everything and taking flight. I listened only to my labored breath. Handfuls of store owners began to appear on the sidewalks, preparing the city for another day. Good morning, Rome. I am wide awake.

I hopped on my train at 5:43 AM—right on time. Panting, I smiled at the handful of neighboring passengers and sunk into relief. A man punched the crumpled ticket from my wallet after about twenty minutes, and I opened the Tao. I read one line—I am like an idiot my mind is so empty—and closed it again, smiling. The train rolled into the countryside.

Look out over the valley. Sunrise in Campania. Liquid orange cresting across the mountains of the Roccamonfina. Water running through the valley like lines through an open hand, an empty palm. I stared out the window and watched the sky, as, perhaps, the silhouette had, lying in that gutter, seeing black brighten to blue.


BIO: Chris Schafale is a recent graduate from DePaul University with a degree in English Literature. He is a freelance editor and writing tutor currently looking for work in higher education or the writing/publishing realm. Last year, he created and edited a digital literary magazine for the DePaul community called The Orange Couch. He has a poem published in Abstract Magazine.

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