On the steps of Rome, on the edge of romance

“How come you don’t write postcards like your friends?”

I sat near the foot of Scalla di Spangna, or Spanish Steps, catching my breath after having climbed up and down the 138 steps to the Trinita dei Monti at the top. Around me a gaggle of college women on a school-sponsored trip dutifully poised cards on their knees and scribbled away, presumably to the parents who paid for this trip to Rome, or perhaps to boyfriends stuck back in the States with jobs as camp counselors or delivery boys in their fathers’ firms.

I had arrived in Rome that morning. Having come from Sweden, I was still stunned by the German, Swiss, and Northern Italian landscapes. At twenty-four, I’d barely been out of the Midwest, where the land is flat and vast. In the past few days, seeing my first mountains — Alps no less — I couldn’t get over the fact that humans had the audacity to cut into those monsters to lay train tracks, and that I could be bulleted through the bellies of those beasts.

I was stunned too by Rome. Fountains and ruins, trattorias and cafes, gods piercing the sky next to merchants hawking wares. Alone, I wasn’t quite a part of it, but I wasn’t apart from it either, not like the young women around me, who didn’t bother to look up from their writing much, who didn’t seem to notice the sunlight baking the medieval-looking buildings, who barely noticed a six-team horse-drawn carriage ambling by us.

“I’m not with them,” I said to the man who’d spoken to me, making sure my horror at his association of me with these tourists was clear in my tone. I wasn’t a tourist but a traveler, I wanted my tone to convey. Not merely a traveler either, but a solitary traveler, gaining worldliness at every turn. Hadn’t I just seen Alps?

“No?” he said, raising his dark eyebrows just enough so I could see he was impressed with me. The feeling was more mutual than I wanted to admit. He and a few other men had parked their motorcycles in the street at the bottom of the steps and leaned on the machines, watching the crowds. With hair dark as coffee, fitted black jeans (despite the heat), and a leather jacket, he was nothing like the Harley bikers I was used to at home although they wore jeans and leather jackets too. He was undeniably European.

“You don’t know them?” he gestured to the girls who had by now finished writing and whose chaperones were shepherding them toward a bus.

I shook my head and may well have rolled my eyes.

“So you let me take you for a ride. Show you the real Rome.” He gestured again at the girls. “Rome they don’t get to see.”

All good sense told me to say no.But of course I said yes because in addition to being European, he seemed genuinely intrigued by me. I did have at least enough sense to hesitate first. Despite my assertion that I wasn’t one of those tour-bus girls, I also wasn’t as free a spirit as I made out. Of course, I had heard all of the warnings about the sexual aggressiveness of Italian men toward foreign women, but I was still wildly flattered. I felt noticed. Also, I believed then, and still do, that the travel of one’s youth defines one, perhaps for years, perhaps for life, and I’d thrust myself into the world to figure out just what this definition of myself might be. This meant taking chances.

“Yeah, okay,” I said.

I can’t rightly say I remember the man’s name today, but I’ve called him Pietro in my mind for years because his friends joked that he was a good man to be with, a rock, like St. Peter. His friends were right too. Pietro did just what he said he would do. He whirled me around Rome, taking me to little cafes, introducing me espresso, to his friends, to shops and streets that years later made me feel I’d been to a completely different city than those who described the Rome of tour books.

At dinner that first night, he took me to a tiny restaurant near the Piazza Navona. To my discomfort, he didn’t order for me, but he patiently explained everything on the menu and insisted I order for myself in Italian. It was strange to hear my voice trying to make those elastic sounds that were far too beautiful for someone with an accent from the South Side of Milwaukee to make.

Yet it was good to hear myself speak, however haltingly. I’d barely said a word for days, grunting and pointing to get what I wanted like Helen Keller before she’d met Anne Sullivan. Over pasta with a tart clam sauce, even my English felt slightly charred, but Pietro listened to my descriptions of my family, my love of Lake Michigan, and my impressions of Italy with such intensity that I was convinced he actually thought I was something more than a mere youthful cliche sitting next to him. I allowed myself to wonder if he might be right.

Pietro advised me to abandon all but the best sights and instead to spend my time looking at the people. This was the way to learn a place.

Pietro laughed easily and often, and by the time the gelato was served, I found myself settling in and feeling less like a stranger. He seemed to know everything there was to know about Rome, contemporary Rome with its nightclubs and shopping. He advised me to abandon all but the best sights and instead to spend my time here looking at the people. This was the way to learn a place.

After dinner he drove me to the cheap pensione I’d rented that morning before heading to the Spanish Steps.

“You are something else,” he said as I climbed off of his bike.

I wasn’t sure what that something else was, but I liked the possibility that his words implied.

The next day, at Pietro’s suggestion, I gave up my bed in the pensione and stayed with him in his sun-slatted flat. More money for the rest of my trip, I reasoned, knowing saving money had very little to do with it. With Pietro I had entered the intimacy of this place. I was deep in.

During the days, Pietro came and went, talking little of where he’d been, what work he did, and I didn’t ask too much. I looked forward to languid dinners and frenzied dancing and all that came after the dancing when we were along in his flat. During the days on my own, I went to a few sights, deeply impressed by all things Bernini, but mostly I walked, doing what Pietro had suggested, looking and looking at so many people that after awhile I no longer compared them to myself or people I knew at home as I’d been doing since I left there. My vision was becoming fluent. I felt it as one sometimes feels muscles take on the memory of movement.

After a week, though, my InterRail pass began burning a hole in my pocket. Athens and Nice and Paris waited for me, and I only had three weeks left before my pass expired.

At dinner that evening, when I told Pietro I was leaving, he looked disappointed but by no means crushed. “You could stay,” he said. “I could find you a job. Learn some Italian to take back with you. Language is better than postcards, better than souvenirs.”

It was tempting. I’d gotten comfortable here, and traveling alone scared me more than I liked to admit. Moving around in places where I didn’t speak the language scared me too, and I was learning a little Italian. If I stayed, I would learn more. I’d made it here, I reasoned. I’d found Pietro. Maybe that was enough venturing for a while.

If the travel of one’s youth defines one, this decision would mean a lot. I twirled my pasta on my fork as he had shown me, but I was too nervous to take a bite. I looked at another fountain in another piazza behind another restaurant and thought that I’d never seen anything like that fountain at home. What else was out there that I’d never seen?

“No,” I said, the taste of basil and salt still on my tongue. Pietro was an adventure at first, but I had to admit that now he was safe. “Thank you. Maybe I’ll be back.”

“Maybe,” he shrugged.

Karen Lee Boren is the author of Girls in Peril, a coming-of-age story about adolescent girls in small-town Wisconsin. Her nonfiction has appeared in the anthology Rite of Passage: Tales of Backpacking ‘Round Europe. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | Kellinasf; Mciccone640; MikeScrivener]