Two Inch Heels Part 19b – Roma

So the next morning, Thursday November 15, I set out on my own into the streets of Rome with the task of making my now much anticipated flight home a reality. I was headed to the BOAC office to book my already paid for return flight from London to Detroit, and then to the post office to mail postcards. Eyeballing my Rome city map, and folding it in such a way that just the route from the hostel to the airline office was displayed, I calculated it to be about a five kilometer walk, maybe forty minutes, and with as much walking as I was now used to doing, what I now considered an easy hike, even shouldering my fifty pound pack. I was carrying it because I would try again to call Marcello, and hopefully hook up with him and head directly to his mom’s house and enjoy the hospitality of him and his mom.

Morgan had not slept in my bunkroom and neither he, Sarah or Jen were anywhere to be seen in the main common room as well. Morgan had said something last night about heading out to a breakfast interview this morning, and I had failed to tell him about my own plans to try and hook up with Marcello. It only occurred to me this morning that if I did end up staying with Marcello at his mom’s house I might never see Morgan, Sarah or Jen again. After making such connections with the three of them yesterday, that did not sit well with me this morning.

I was perhaps doing a lot of what Steve would probably have called “overthinking” about all that, which led to whether to bring my pack with me as I headed out from the hostel that morning. Part of me was determined to follow through on my original promise when I had met Marcello in the Basel train station early yesterday morning to go stay with him at his mom’s house. If I reached him byon the phone and he gave me directions, then I could go directly there. But then part of me fretted that he was most likely a drug dealer, and though that was not a pejorative thing around my peers and me, who used some of those illegal drugs and relied on a few among us to sell us the stuff, still, was Marcello really who he came off as and not a more nefarious character. Was I heading into some sort of den of thieves, vulnerable and on my own with no one else by my side for support or aware of where I was. Finally, and speaking of support, I craved more of that connection with my new comrades, presuming I could hook up with them again.

As I walked through the city, the sidewalks were full of people and the streets were packed with speeding cars. I continued to notice how generally physically fit and well dressed most European pedestrians were. Most of them walked with a grace I did not recall seeing back in the States. Their clothes weren’t necessarily expensive or high fashion, but generally well put together with a bit of flair. And it struck me in that moment that the city was called “Rome” by english speaking people, but called itself the way more debonaire two-syllable “Roma”.

In that context, the occasional fellow American I would encounter tended to stick out, and again I could often pick them out from a block away. They tended to move a little more awkwardly and dress less nattily with less attention to overall style. I know I wasn’t much for style with my limited wardrobe of three shirts and two pairs of pants, but I did think I looked particularly good when I wore my nicer paisley shirt, flared slacks and my two-inch heeled shoes with their two-toned corduroy uppers.

In this big unfamiliar city, walking by myself with my whole life on my back, I felt that aloneness again that I had really not experienced since I had met Steve back in Paris several weeks ago and we started traveling together. Or maybe briefly again yesterday morning in the Basel train station before I met Marcello. For those last few weeks together, Steve and I had been a platonic couple of sorts, doing most activities together, including sleeping in adjoining beds when we slept in cheap hotels in Spain rather than hostels. Sometimes Steve had gotten on my nerves, but he had been a good companion for the most part, and I had never really felt lonely. And since we had parted several days ago in Mulhouse, events had found me pretty much in the company of other acquaintances, or at least sleeping in a bunkroom of unknown backpacker comrades, until my foray out this morning.

To mitigate that aloneness, as it usually did, my mind’s internal jukebox kicked in and spontaneously “played” a song from my memory and I would start to sing along to it over and over while I walked. Depending on who was in earshot, maybe out loud, maybe in a whispered voice, or just in my mind’s unspoken voice. I had actually been doing this for years, particularly when I was walking a fairly significant distance alone, say to school in the morning or home at the end of the day. The particular song could be one of a hundred or more that I knew and liked, and which one I started up with in a given walk could be triggered by hearing it playing somewhere on the radio, something I saw or heard said, or mostly completely randomly.

Probably more subconsciously that randomly, because usually the song was a good indicator of my mood at the time. If I was feeling light hearted, maybe something like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” or the Beatles’ “Obladi Oblada”. If I had more bearing on my soul, perhaps Ron Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” or Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. Those were just a few examples, it could be any of a hundred songs that I had in my memory and could hear playing in my mind’s ear with my “phonographic memory”. The cadence of my walk would then tend to sync itself to the beat of the song, and I could go for an hour. Given my tendency, I would sometimes consciously launch into a song of choice while walking, but more often than not it would come from somewhere inside and represent some deep take on my own current circumstances. This morning was a reprise of Ron Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up”…

And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving
And if they shout
Don’t let it change a thing that you’re doing
Hold your head up

And some of the pedestrians I passed did stare at me a bit with my big hair and backpack, an obvious outsider in their midst. So I followed Argent’s lead and let them “burn their eyes” on my moving, strutting along, two-inch heels and all.

I noted that at the major intersections, particularly the big circular ones with five or six streets coming together, there often was a traffic cop standing on a sort of elevated podium in the middle of things directing traffic. But a further observation was that nobody seemed to pay any attention to him and just drove into or through the traffic seemingly willy nilly. Crossing one of these big busy streets as a pedestrian seemed like taking your life into your hands, but everyone did it, and I quickly learned to do it too. It wasn’t a matter of waiting for a signal from the traffic cop or any sort of traffic or pedestrian light, you just walked out across the street, and whether two lanes or ten, the drivers just avoided you somehow. I chuckled to myself that it was like a huge anarchic yet choreographed dance with people and machines that had all learned to do comfortably together, though looking like a dangerous nihilistic chaos to an outsider, anarchism and nihilism being very different things.

At the BOAC office I waited in line for an agent and then produced my plane ticket and my passport, and in about twenty minutes I had a reservation on flight 525 leaving London Heathrow Tuesday December 11 at 11:45am, arriving at Detroit Metro at 5:00pm with a stop first in Philadelphia. I needed to contact a BOAC office up to seven days before the flight to get my seat assignment. From the BOAC office I got directions to the closest post office,where I sent out a round of postcards home to family and friends with my return date and flight info.

I had settled on the 11th as my return date because I had gotten a note from my brother at the Paris American Express office that my friends Avi and Jerry were planning to go to the Alice Cooper concert at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor on Wednesday December 12th, and wondered if I would be back and wanted to join them. At the post office I mailed my postcards, including one to my brother telling him to get me that ticket for the concert. Thinking it might take a while for him to receive the card, I actually paid several thousand lire (about $5 U.S.) and had someone at the post office help me send a telegram to my brother confirming that I wanted that ticket. It was so exciting to me to be beginning to make my return home a reality. Seeing Alice Cooper’s outrageous glam/shock rock show just my second evening home would be such a huge culture shock and “welcome back to the U.S. of A.” for me, but it felt good to anticipate, feeling I would immediately be back in the energy and embrace of my closest circle of friends. Now I just needed to play out the next four weeks as best I could to complete my journey in proper form.

At a payphone in the post office I tried to call Marcello again but with no luck. I realized what a hassle this whole thing with him was for me, though not his fault. It would be much easier for me to just continue to stay with my backpacker comrades at the hostel, and I figured that would be more of a boost for my fragile spirit, having that array of fellow travelers to talk to all the time, particularly (hopefully) Morgan, Sarah and “Comrade” Jen. But how could I tell Marcello that? I decided to try to call him again tomorrow, not necessarily to take up his hospitality to stay with him, but at least meet somewhere to hang out together for an afternoon maybe. I didn’t want to let him down, since he had been so nice, and he deserved the effort. But I also made a new vow that I would do whatever I needed to keep my still fragile psyche as bolstered as possible.

Back at the hostel with my definite plan to stay there for the rest of my time in Rome, my spirits were buoyed, given that I also now had my plane flight home booked plus my ticket to see Alice with my friends. It did trouble me that I seemed so dependent on others to make traveling a fun thing for me. But I rationalized that most of my fellow travelers over here had three to five years more life experience under their belts than I did, so it was probably harder for me than some of them.

In the main room I was thrilled to see Sarah, though without Jen at her side. I wandered over her way, and feeling a bit newly courageous, I asked her how things were going. She looked me in the eye with what seemed like a slightly demonic glare with her dark intense eyes and said my new nickname acknowledging my presence in her space.

“Coopster! What’s happening?” I liked that she used the nickname, though she clearly had issues with, though grudgingly accepting, the “Shakespeare” nickname Jen and bestowed on her. Hey what could you do, Jen was obviously a force of nature, a “bull in any china shop” as it had occurred to me yesterday.

If I’d had any real courage I’d have responded to Sarah, “You’re happening!”, but instead I just rattled off the routine particulars of my day’s chores, BOAC and post office. What had happened to me today at a superficial level, but not what was really “happening” inside my ever percolating mind.

She listened to my recitation with more focus than I thought it deserved, and pondered a moment before responding. That response was not what I expected and way more than I could have hoped for. She told me she had discovered a great gelato place not too far from the hostel and would I like to accompany her. Her mind was so quick, like a good chess player thinking moves ahead.

She said, “Obvious question… what about Jen? A good answer? Not really!” She grimaced.

I gathered that Jen was somehow AWOL, confounding her buddy and de facto handler, who was reaching out to me as an at least temporary companion, given that good looking young women, particularly from foreign countries, often got hit on by young Italian guys when they went out on the streets alone. Though too shy around my female peers to have suggested she join me on such an endeavor, I was nonetheless very willing. But not wanting to appear too slavishly eager, I tried to say “sure” with the most perky nonchalance I could muster.

I guessed that Sarah was about twenty one, those three additional years and the added maturity they implied made her offer that much more surprising to me. Her neatly coiffed, short, straight black hair, parted on the side like a guy, was a contrast to most of the rest of us backpacker types, with our wilder manes, including her partner Jen’s big mop of curly hair. Sarah’s very european look, her slender stature, and her obvious razor sharp intelligence, reminded me a lot of Giselle’s daughter Laurence, who I’d also been quite taken with. But unlike the more reticent Laurence (at least around me), Sarah had that Aussie swagger that went so well with that nasally down under accent. I loved the way she and Jen used the British slang, including referring to guys as “blokes”, where most Americans would call them “dudes”. I liked being her “bloke”, at least for the moment, with our excursion to sample the Italian’s version of ice cream.

As we made our way through the late afternoon hubbub of the big European city, Rome seemed bustling and contemporary, and nothing like its “eternal city” nickname. Sarah asked me about my hometown and my family, and again listened intently as I told her about growing up in a politically liberal college town as part of the academic community, about my parent’s divorce when I was ten, and about my bigger than life mother, kind of like her friend Jen. As I had learned a bit of yesterday, Sarah had grown up in Brisbane, both of her parents were professionals, her dad a banker and her mom a school teacher and active in the center-right Liberal party. She had met Jen as her dorm roommate when they first attended college classes.

“Jen’s Jen of course”, she noted, “But she was a bit of a fresh breeze compared to my button-downed God and the Queen mum and dad.” Then she paused, and delivered the next line with her acid deadpan, “More of a bloody typhoon sometimes.”

At some point near our destination a half dozen or so young Italian guys, high school age maybe, came walking towards us on the sidewalk from the other direction. They were loud and boisterous and though I couldn’t translate their impassioned words, it seemed like they were playing a game of trying to one up each other. As they approached, you could tell by their body language they were all checking out Sarah, and they got quieter glancing at each other and making comments under their breath.

Suddenly I felt Sarah’s right hand slide under my left arm and grasp it. She smiled at the boys and said, “Buongiorno ragazzi”, as they paraded by us on the wide sidewalk on Sarah’s side, laughing and giving looks to each other. Once they were by us and again loudly exchanging with each other as they headed away, she took her hand off my arm, patted my forearm as if to thank me, and withdrew it back to her side.

She said, “Thank you for that little indulgence, mate. I’d have to have a few pints in me before I’d care to share what that was all about. Suffice to say, it’s nice to have a gent around sometimes.”

I was tempted to press her on what that WAS all about, but thought the better of it. This crazy world we’d been born into certainly had its discomforting sexual politics. By pressing her on her issue I’d just be contributing to those politics.

As we continued to talk, she seemed intrigued by my relative youth, and was curious about how I ended up on this extended sojourn in Europe by myself. So with plenty of time to kill, and neither of us in any hurry, I told her the long version. My involvement in the youth theater group in my home town which led to becoming close friends with best friends Lane and Angie. Their original plan to backpack through Europe together. My asking and being accepted to join them. Lane dropping out. Angie and I, friends but not girlfriend/boyfriend, flying off to London together, only to have Angie decide to go back after the first few days of our travels. Me almost deciding to bail myself, but making the ultimate decision to hang in. She pondered all that for a while, as was her endearing style, before responding that I was a lot more courageous than she was.

Having reached the gelato shop and purchased the wonderful concoction that put conventional ice cream to shame, she then told more of the backstory about how she and Jen had become “best mates” at college and been through some pretty wild times, mostly initiated by her rambunctious and libertine roommate. Jen had then badgered her into taking this trip to celebrate their graduation, and Sarah was now glad she had signed on, even though her travel partner was a handful at times, like she was being right now. I told her I thought that given the circumstances, Jen being Jen, she Sarah was pretty courageous too, or else completely foolhardy, which got a laugh out of her and a lean of her shoulder against mine briefly, with a comment that I was certainly a “charming bloke”.

I was so taken with being a “charming bloke” to this suave “older woman”, and if she was hitting on me at that point I don’t know, and would later ponder, but in the moment it just felt like we were developing the intimacy that was the beginning of being real friends. It was the sort of relationship I was most comfortable with my female peers, and the kind of thing I had with Lane, Angie and several other young women in my theater company. For a more conventional guy, maybe it would have been the entree to make a more romantic gesture, even a kiss perhaps. And maybe it was just rationalizing my sexual timidity, but I craved that deep connection with my peers, and adding the sexual component felt like it took away somehow from that, turning profound agape into a coarser, man “scoring” with woman eros. And yet if she had kissed me on the lips at that point I don’t think I would have balked, so maybe it was just timidity. But when we finally returned from our little sojourn back to the hostel, and Jen reappeared from wherever she had been, I felt enriched to have this new friend, or surrogate big sister even, among my fellow travelers.

Finally parting with Sarah and Jen, I saw Morgan and we checked in with each other and ended up going out to that same Trattoria as last night for dinner, just the two of us. After his morning appointment, he had ended up spending the day touring the vatican. He had gotten there at midday when it was pretty crowded, and said it was frustrating for him when he got to the Sistine Chapel, because it was packed with tourists and was hard to really appreciate the architectural gestalt of the space. He thought he would go back some time and try to get there earlier in the day. He said he had an appointment tomorrow with a research librarian to look at a local collection of Italian Renaissance architecture sources. I said I might try my luck at the Vatican museum tomorrow morning.

We talked about politics. About the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. About the leaders of our home countries and Britain as well. How our home countries had very different leaders, Nixon in the U.S. and Trudeau in Canada, the former neither of us supported and the latter much more in line with our sensibilities and political worldview. Morgan liked that Nixon was being so aggressively gone after by the press over the whole Watergate thing, and said that British Prime Minister Heath should have gotten similar treatment from the British press for the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Derry Northern Ireland in January of 1972.

The flow of the conversation eventually transitioned from politics to music, a passion of both of ours, as we had discovered yesterday evening. Once we got started on that, the hours flew by and it seemed we could go on and on forever. From our starting points yesterday, him with psychedelia, me with jazz-rock fusion, we moved to glam. Mark Bolan and David Bowie on the British side of “the pond” and Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls on ours. For both of us it was an intellectual passion for music. Swapping favorite songs, learning new ones. Bolan’s T-Rex “Bang a Gong” I knew of course and loved, but I had not heard of his other stuff like “Metal Guru”. He knew Cooper’s catalog starting with the Killer album and after, but only his hit “I’m Eighteen” off his earlier Love it to Death album, and not other great songs like “Is It My Body”. We even sang the songs the other didn’t know, to try to convey them as best we could. When the trattoria closed we walked the streets of the neighborhood continuing the back and forth.

It was only getting back to the hostel just before curfew, and off to our separate bunks, that stopped our exchange. But as I slid into my sleeping bag, the sense of a new friendship kept the feelings of loneliness easily at bay.

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