The Train Game

If taking the buses in Rome is like trip to the circus, then the trains should be compared to a crazy day at the zoo. Especially Termini. Mamma mia. Thousands of people following the going-every-which-way arrows to get to their trains. Then lining up like cattle to be herded onto them. I don’t mind the crowds as much as I mind the freaky thought of being so far underground. The air is different down there.

I prefer the A Line to the B Line in terms of cleanliness. A Line trains are newer, seem to run more on-time, have better seats and handrails and are almost sterile looking. The B Line trains, however, are dimly lit, full of graffiti, and let out extra loud, ear-piercing screeches when they stop. The charming details of big city grit. Love it or hate it, it’s there.

Today, on the A Line, I’m shocked that this train is so orderly looking. It almost gave the illusion of an organized city transit system. But, no matter how well-kept or modern the train, when it’s packed full of people, it’s not fun. On those days when you feel like you’re gong to fall out of the train because you’re squished up against the door and you’re getting punched in the face by the backpack of the man in front of you and coughed on by the sick women beside you, and you can’t do anything but hold your breath and try not to breathe until the germs magically dissipate and it’s safe again (count to 30 with eyes closed) – on those days, trains are not my happy place.

But today, the train isn’t nearly that busy. Sitting in the seats that line both sides of the train are mostly locals. Romans. And standing in front of them – a group of tourists. Seats are a prized commodity because standing requires you to delicately balance your foot placement and hold onto a pole, a handrail, or the person next to you for dear life when the train takes off.

The tourists in front of me are in pairs. About four boy/girl couples excitedly chatting away in a foreign language. I always get excited when I see happy tourists. I feel like saying: “Hello! I’m so glad you’re enjoying Rome! It’s great isn’t it?” But that would be weird, so instead I just smile to myself.

The train takes off with a jolt. I regain my balance by holding onto the bar in front of me, but as I look up, I see the  four couples toppling over, one by one, like dominoes. It’s the sort of scene where you laugh a little and don’t feel too bad about laughing because the people who are falling are laughing too. Actually, they aren’t just laughing – they are in hysterics. Like this falling down on the train business is the funniest thing that has ever happened. They get up and exchange giggles with each other and start chatting excitedly again. And posing for and taking pictures (peace signs and bunny ears included).

An older, balding man in a white shirt  walks down the aisle playing an old Italian folk song on an accordion, and woman follows closely behind him collecting money. As they come through, the group of  tourists part like the red sea to let them pass. One of them gives the musician’s lady a coin, and she thanks him. Another takes her picture.

Then, the train begins to slow down, preparing to stop. Instead of holding onto the handrails, which are above and beside them, the group of tourists just stand there, as if they don’t know what’s coming. As thought gravity is lost on them. As the train stops, one girl crashes into another like a bowling pin, and again they’re down for the count. Their respective boyfriends try to help them up, but with the train not yet at a complete standstill, they wobble and topple over as well. The four of them sit on the floor of the train, laughing.

Two of the male tourists that are still standing stabilize themselves as the train stops by quickly jumping with their knees bent and feet spread wide apart, and their arms stretched out to the sides – surfing the subway.

As you can probably guess, when the train takes off again, it’s the same scene. These tourists, refusing to hold onto the hand rails, try in vain to brace themselves against the forces of gravity with no luck. It’s actually starting to look like fun and a part of me wants to let go and join them.

And then I look at the Italians that surround us. Not impressed. More than not impressed, I think they are thoroughly baffled by what is going on. One man has been frowning at the scene since it started, and as it continues, his open mouth curls into a scowl. I’m kind of surprised no one else is laughing. Come on people!

I do sympathize with the Romans, though. They live in a city that attracts hoards of tourists all year round, and in the spring and summer months, they have to deal with the masses. With the masses come: the rude people, the people who litter, the people who complain that the sun is too hot, or that he cobblestone roads are hard to walk on, or that the Colosseum is too big or the piazzas are too busy, or that the pizzas are to thin (GASP!). There are those who will only eat the pasta dishes that they have seen on the menu at the Spaghetti Factory, and there are those who pronounce every single Italian word they say wrong, seemingly, if not completely, on purpose.

There are plenty of those tourists. I’ve only been in Rome for a few months, and they bug me too. However, most tourists are lovely, interesting people who just want to enjoy one of the world’s greatest cities. I guess the Romans have become wary of tourists, because there are so many, and they take over the city.

But I digress. These four couples on the train are not rude, or littering, or bastardizing the language, or complaining – they’re just having fun by falling, again and again. I still don’t know if they are playing some sort of bizarre game, or having a competition to see who can withstand the forces of Roman train gravity, or if they are all just germaphobes who didn’t want to touch the poles.

They get off at the next stop, chatting happily and just as smiley as when they first got on. Cameras around necks, a few of them with marked up legs from falling on the train floor, all ready to take on Rome.

Una Sigaretta? Un bacio?

If the heavenly sun lights Rome from above during the day, then maybe it’s the fires of hell that illuminate it from below by night. The daylight gives color to the trees, the buildings, the fountains and the beautiful people, but the night’s glow brings out something else entirely. Nighttime is when everything other gets to shine.

At night, the Roman buses take on a different feel too. Bombing down a blackened street, a bus can look like a possessed night rider on a quest to take out pedestrians and steal their souls. As is the case with the buses during the day, maybe they come on time, maybe they don’t. Maybe three with the same route number show up within two minutes of each other, and maybe you’re waiting for two hours in the rain. It’s unpredictable. Disorderly. But Italians seem to thrive on chaos. Anything too predictable would become mundane. Boredom would eat them up. And there would be less to complain about.

Standing at a bus stop one night, waiting in vain, I hear voices to my left. An older looking man, maybe in his mid sixties, but weathered and dirty, is talking to himself. More than talking, he’s having a full-on argument complete with expressive hand gestures and rapidly rising and falling voice inflections. He’s definitely making his point.

People stare at him as they walk by. Fellow bus-waiters sit on opposite benches to avoid being near him. I take note of him, but quickly go back to glancing down the street for my bus. It’s raining and I forgot my umbrella. I look down to study the puddles on the ground and to watch as my cute leather shoes get ruined from the wetness.

“Una sigaretta?”

I look up. There stands the man who was conversing with himself a few minutes prior. His tired whiskey colored eyes are fixed on mine, and he bounces his weight from one foot the other like he’s standing on hot sand.

“No, mi dispiace.” (No, sorry)

“Sei italiana?” (are you italian?)

Wanting to avoid a conversation about being Italian, but Canadian, hence my poor language skills, I say “no.”

“Sei spangola?” (are you spanish?)

“No, sono Canadese.”

“Oh Canadese! Tom Jones!! Cigarette?”

I shake my head “no”.

He nods.

“Un bacio?” (A kiss?)

I begin to laugh, and as I do so, he puckers his lips and closes his eyes, waiting.

“Um, no.”

He laughs madly, smacking his hands to his knees, before walking back to the bench to resume his argument.

In Silhouette

I just paid 6 euros for a cappuccino and a muffin. I received a cappuccino and a brownie, and thought ‘why not?’ The brownie tastes like paper and cocoa. It’s not very good – for Italy standards anyway. The cappuccino tastes like cappuccino.

Columns surround me in this ancient structure. There is a building in the near distance that is very old and very stunning, and the more I look at it, the more it speaks of the past – as many of the buildings here do. Like the era it was born out of, it is close enough to be seen clearly, but far enough away to be out of reach. A memory, kept alive by bricks and cement, by columns and earth, by good fortune and hope. Sitting in between two columns, I am surrounded, but not fenced in. Safe but free. Tranquil but alive. Immagine in cornice. A picture in a frame.

I’m here. I’m present and alive, but also a silhouette. Shadows transform me as the sun moves through the sky and changes the light. I’m here. And here, my thoughts are new and different. I’m here. And here my eyes see things with wonder. I’m here. And here, my face looks a bit different but also more like me. My feet are planted on this ground, but my mind forms new paths to walk down. It’s open. I’m open.

I think it was Bob Dylan who wrote “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” This is a new phenomenon for me. The heart, even if it has been ravaged and worn and broken and bruised, can recover. Scars can fade. It can turn from black to red. Time can tick backwards, if only in the heart.

This place I am in is everything I wanted, and everything opposite what I left behind.

Except the men. Because, as was the case back home, they have been generally disappointing. Boys, (and they must be called boys because only boys play the games that these men do), try your best. Best is an overstatement. Although my heart might be young and my eyes wide and naive looking, please don’t be fooled. They have seen more than they show.

My mind, after a long leave of absence, now works fulltime for my heart. She works overtime for her. Like a seamstress sewing, repairing and caring for a delicate lace dress. Every time the heart starts to come undone, the mind will sew her back up again. It’s not that the wise seamstress doesn’t want that pretty lace dress to ever go anywhere or do anything. She does. But she just finished re-stitching the entire goddamn garment, so she can’t let it get all torn up again yet. In time, I suppose, that lace must again get torn. Because the thing about hearts is that if they aren’t torn apart, they can never be repaired, and if they are never attended to, they might just stop working altogether.

So here I sit, between two pillars. One is the future and one is the past. I don’t know where I’m going and I’m scared I might lean too far to one side and a lose my balance, or lean to far to the other side and get stuck. I just cut myself down from a web of my own confusion that I had spent years spinning. I cut myself down and here I am.

Between two pillars. One is my heart and one is my mind. And there I am in silhouette between them. I’m not a shadow, I’m not a ghost. I might have been before, but the light is changing. Just as the sun seems to always light up this great city from the inside, it’s beginning to light me up in the same way. I’m starting to let it.

“Excuse me we are closing,” says the very quiet waiter. This place is so peaceful, the waiters must speak in a whisper.

I’m snapped out of my dusk-kissed reverie. Back to reality, but at the same time, not really. Reality is still a dream right now. That’s the enchantment of Italy.

Three-year-olds and Chocolate Milk

At night time, he always has little fits of glee and laughter followed promptly by bigger fits of crying and screaming. And so, to ease the impact of this nightly drama, and to keep the flat mates sane, his father often bribes him.

“Darius, vuoi un po di latte caldo?” (Darius, do you want some warm milk?)

“Si, Papa, e cocao anche!” (Yes Papa. And cocoa too!)

His little voice is long and drawn out when he is whining and curt and high-pitched when he gets excited. At the prospect of milk with cocoa, he’s excited.

So into the kitchen they go. Father and son. Little Darius wearing his brown onesie pyjama, the father wearing a house coat.

As they walk in, I’m at the sink, washing fruit.

“Ciao Darius!” I say.

“Dici “ciao Carla,” Darius.” (Say hi to Carla, Darius)

Darius whips is head toward me – “CIAO!” – and then whips it back in a flash. His curly locks bouncing as his head bobs up and down, his eyes transfixed on the can of cocoa that sits on top of the microwave.

His father takes the milk out of the fridge and pours some into a mug. He heats up the mug in the microwave.

After the milk is warm, he takes down the jar of cocoa.

Darius grabs the chair just behind him and pushes it towards counter. He climbs onto the chair, knees bouncing with excitement. He father opens the cocoa and begins to put a spoon into the jar. The last thing this kid needs is chocolate, I think to my thinking self.

“Mi Miiiiiiiiii” Darius whines, and the father guides his son’s little hand to hold the spoon properly and scoops a heap of cocoa out. They stir it into the milk together.

“Zucchero?” (Sugar?) asks Darius, looking at his father with puppy eyes.

The father sighs.

“Zucchero! Zucchero! Zucchero!” the kid screams.

“Va bene” (Ok) says his father.

Darius shakes his knees so fast that the chair beneath him starts to sway. His father steadies it with his hand. The little boy licks his lips as his father takes the lid off of the sugar jar.

“MIIIIII!!!!”

“Metterla qui” (Put it here) the father says, holding the cup of milk at his level.

Smiling, the father carefully hands his son a spoon full of sugar to drop into the milk. Darius laughs, gripping the spoon with his tiny hand and swiftly shoves it into his mouth. He pops the spoon back out to licks every last granule off of it.

“Darius!” his father says. His father’s eyes meet mine and I try not to laugh, but not laughing in awkward/funny situations is a skill I do not have. So I burst out laughing. The father laughs too. And so does the little boy.

The little boy knows he’s not in any trouble so he smirks and squirms and dances with his entire body, very pleased with his spoonful of sugar.

His father stirs another spoonful of sugar into the milk and cocoa and the little boy climbs off of the chair. They walk down the hall as the little boy licks his lips, screams, jumps and karate kicks the air.

He laughs, then cries, then screams, and repeats this well into the night.

Oh, sugar.