Cobblestone Wanderings

Grace Haynes

I.

You’re thinking right now. I’m thinking right now.

Passive. Observant. Fleeting. Deep. Nagging. Reflective. Recurring. Candid.

But nonetheless—thoughts.

The mind is a home in and of itself. A harbor for the multitude sailing through our minds. A haven for the timid, shy feelings seeking shelter. A sanctuary for meditations, desires, aspirations. A refuge for when the demands of the world weigh down on us, and a retreat to the comfort and compassion of our private beings.  A home for our spiritual identities. Different pieces reside in different quarters in deep corners of our psyche, waiting to be called upon and sent into action. To deliberate the quiet musings of our hearts. To debate external contradictions of our internal beliefs. To reflect upon the inward image of ourselves that we outwardly portray. To determine how we want to interact with the world around us.

The mind is my home. A secluded retreat from the pressures of the outside world. A conference room to discuss situations, interactions, or memories. A garden to plant my dreams, to sprinkle fertilizer on them, and to harvest their growth. A mirrored room for self-reflection. A movie theater to replay episodes from the past. A critical eye to my words and actions. A nagging, pestilent voice that chips away at my confidence with harsh criticism of each miniscule shortcoming or failure. A familiar, intimate space to return to as I journey through life.

My home grew from a rickety framework to a more solid structure through time and experience. Traveling to different places and encountering unfamiliar situations, collecting bits and pieces of memory, storing snapshots of the past in mental photo albums to flip through on future days.

I think.

You think.

We all think.

I am at home inside my mind—a place to return to when I get lost in the world.

II.

“Cinquanta euros per favore,” the cab driver barked.

I reached for my wallet, frantically attempting to decipher the cab fare cost. “Cinquanta” euros? Thirty? Forty? The weathered, graying driver tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in frustrated triplets. Tap-tap-tap raced his fingers as I thumbed through the bills in my wallet to the syncopated beat. The shiny, intricate details on the foreign currency made me think that its worth was no more than Monopoly money.

“Ragazza, cinquanta euros!” the driver croaked as he unfolded his tan, sweaty palm in front of me.

“Uh, uh, what? How much?” I mouthed slowly in attempts to convey my stupidity, though my body language of shrugged shoulders and open palms, along with my frantic tone of voice and heavy southern accent already did that for me.

“Cinque. Zero,” he mimed, holding up 5 fingers on one hand and forming a zero with his other.

“Oh, Oh! 50!” I exclaimed, scrambling to fish out a fresh fifty euro from my wallet. “Grazie,” I shouted from the back seat, the only Italian word I’d remembered from my brief study of an English-Italian dictionary on the plane. He scoffed and grunted, motioning me to get out of his car and claim my bags from the trunk.

The June heat engulfed me as I stepped out of the taxi, the humidity settling on my shoulders and clinging to my t-shirt. I hoisted my suitcases out the black sedan’s trunk and moved to the sidewalk outside of a sandstone apartment building that stood five stories tall, waving goodbye to my disgruntled Italian friend. Setting down my overweight duffle bags, I reached into my purse for my housing information. “59 Via degli Scipioni” scribbled on a crumpled gum wrapper matched the street sign and number of the apartment. I guess I’m here, I muttered, furrowing my brow as I scanned the massive, weathered green doors with intricate brass handles that stood in front of me. I heaved open the leaden door and marveled as I walked onto the marble floors of the front parlor. Scrawled on the gum wrapper under the address read, “Appartamento 3B.” I dragged my hefty suitcases to the staircase, muttering profanities with each laborious step up the three flights. Drenched in a physical and nervous sweat, I reached the mahogany doors of my new summer home. My eyes widened upon entry as I gazed at the foyer’s tall ceiling and tarnished chandelier. To my right, glass doors led to a living room with paint chipping off the white walls and dilapidated tapestry chairs. Scanning the perimeter, I lifted the rickety lack of the bay windows and pushed on the milky windowpane, allowing a summer breeze to flutter through the moth-ridden, gauzy curtains. Craning my neck outside, I noticed the handsome Italian businessmen in tailored suits enjoying an after work appertivo at the bar across the street. A pair of elderly women passed by on the sidewalk below walking twin French bulldogs. My eyes veered to the horizon, the sun glistening behind the Vatican’s monstrous white dome.

Ciao, Roma.

***

The Italians disapproved of my summer dress code—shorts and sleeveless shirts of bright, tropical colors. Despite the scorching temperatures, the Italians maintained their uniform of black, modeling both long sleeves and long pants at all hours and occasions. The brooding Italiani zipped by on Mopeds, one hand on the handle bar and the other holding a cigarette with pouty, judgmental smirks on their faces, mocking the vibrantly dressed American tourists. I closed my apartment building’s heavy green doors behind me, slipping on a pair of sunglasses shield myself from the native’s critical looks.

Coffee—the only proper way to start a morning. On this, the Italians and I agreed. My caffeine addiction drove me to a local café for liquid energy before a day of classes, the school a converted monastery lacking air-conditioning and with a professor who lectured on about the wonder of Greco-Roman art and the beauty of the Roman Empire. My beginner Italian classes and Iphone translation, however, left me helpless in real-world conversations that exceeded the words “Ciao” and “Grazie.” My coffee dependence overpowered my hesitation towards interacting with the locals, thwarting me to an open spot on the café’s glass counter top. Fresh pasticceria and dolces gleamed back at me, glistening with sugar crystals and begging to be eaten for breakfast.

The barista and I made eye contact—there was no turning back now. Mustering confidence and piecing together the accurate phrase in my head, I requested, “Un café americano per favore.”

“Con leche?” the barista inquired, testing my slim vocabulary.

“No, grazie,” I replied, averting my eyes in attempt to end the conversation.

Letting out a deep breath I gained a little confidence in my coffee request. I had even thrown in an Italian accent our class had been working on. But it only took one glance at my vibrant pink chino shorts and crisp white t-shirt to destroy my attempts at assimilation. My tacky tourist outfit stood out amongst the black fashions at the café and highlighted my alien presence, as if my failed endeavor of an Italian accent hadn’t done that already.

The barista noticed me standing alone at the bar and observing the café’s décor and sweet treats. He smiled and said, “Good morning” in forced English. I replied with a hesitant “Buenacera,” hoping to close our language gap while he chuckled at my attempts to blend in. Playing along he began rambling in Italian, pointing out the ham and cheese panino, the chocolate cresente, the popular cinnamon biscotti.

Floundering, I said the only word that came to mind. “Boh?”— I don’t know.

“No, grazie?” I tried again with a shrug of my shoulders, throwing out any phrases I could, afraid of offending my new barista friend, “Malto buona? Per il pranzo?”

I offered a pathetic smile, hoping to telepathically convey my confusion. He received the message, replying with a smile of his own.

“Buona giorna!” the barista called to me as I waved goodbye and walked out of the café.

I returned each weekday after that, communicating with the barista through a smile and a nod at each other, and with an understanding that overcame our verbal miscommunication, he slid a café Americano in my direction on Monday through Friday mornings.

***

The only pleasant time to run in Rome is in the morning. As the sun rose over the top of the Vatican, I took off the opposite direction down Via degli Scipioni, taking a right on Via del Corso, a left on Lungotevere Michelangelo, and crossing Ponte Pietro Nenni that overlooked the Tiber River. I dodged the cars in morning traffic, Smart Cars and Mopeds zipping to the office, and took a left on Viale del Muro Torto, running uphill through monstrous stone arches with Villa Borghese carved into its top bow. Too many glasses of vino rosso at last night’s dinner took a toll on my uphill climb, each step a struggle to keep down the pasta carbonara that was churning in my stomach and inching up my esophagus. Stopping at the top of the hill to catch my breath, I walked towards my favorite part of the park, a garden with stone fountains and tall trees, whose natural setting reminded me of rural Alabama roots. I breathed in the crisp morning air, not yet at scorching temperatures and not yet tainted by the malice of everyday life.

“Andiamo!” I heard someone yell from behind me.

Startled, I jumped and shot my head around to find an Italian man running up from behind me.

“Andiamo!” He yelled again, motioning for me to join him on his morning jog.

I tried to think of any Italian phrase off the top of my head to say to the forty-year-old stranger, but only a pathetic “Ciao” left my lips. My mind raced and my thoughts grew frantic. This is the kidnapping episode my mother warned me about! It’s like the movie “Taken” all over again, except I have no Liam Neeson to rescue me. Oh my God, Oh my God, I’m about to get taken.  I froze, unsure whether to join the stranger or sprint in the opposite direction. But in broad daylight at seven in the morning, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and shrugged off my anxieties, joining my new acquaintance on a jog through the garden.

Conversing in limited Italian, the man and I exchanged information, he a businessman with a wife and new baby, and me a student abroad attempting to learn the basics of Italian and study art history. He spoke little English and I spoke a little Italian, so we mostly bonded over our love for a summer morning spent running in a beautiful place. Together we continued around the circular pathway, exiting a tunnel of trees and approaching a clearing. The man guided me to an overlook that stood above the Piazza del Poppolo and the entire city. From the edge I saw the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, Castile de St. Angelo, the Collesium, the Roman Forum, the Wedding Cake monument. All of Rome in one panoramic gaze. The man turned to me and waved his palm across the view, smiling with pride, and said, “Mi Roma.” We exchanged smiles and shook hands. My friend continued on his jog, and I stood at the edge in awe of Rome.

***

Standing in the cobblestone square of Piazza del Popolo, I squinted up at Villa Borghese’s overlooking edge, to both the Italians and foreigners studying Rome’s horizon. The intricate designs engraved into the stone ledge sparkled in the sunlight, adding magic to the history of its construction. The Italians basked in richness of their history and boasted an intense appreciation for their country. As a foreigner I observed their devotion from the fringes, studying Rome from a removed perspective and understanding its residents’ contentment in the poetry and beauty of their home. Though estranged from the culture, I simultaneous felt a part of it by sharing an appreciation of its rich history and passionate way of life. The language barrier hindered my verbal communication with the locals, so instead we communicated in our own way through mimed gestures and warm smiles. The Italians understood that I was foreign but also understood my mutual love for their home, and they helped me on my way.

I strolled down the cobblestone streets, venturing away from the Piazza and into a quiet neighborhood. Ivy climbed the brick walls of apartment buildings, outlining the iron rails and black shutters of the balconies. Outdoor cafes resonated with chatter, couples enjoying vino rosso and appertivo, exchanging details of the workday over dim candlelight. The enticing aroma of fresh pasta spiraled up my nostrils, the spicy carbonara sauce and grilled pancetta filling the street with a savory fragrance. I ventured deeper in to the streets, wandering aimlessly and lost in thought. Purposelessly maneuvering through the cobblestone paths, watching the locals in their native habitats, until the sounds of human voices grew louder, excitement and emphatic conversations filled the air. I walked upon Piazza di Spagna, greeted by a multitude of visitors to the Spanish Steps. I climbed the white stone steps, venturing to the top and finding an open spot to rest my forearms on the cool ledge, leaning over and craning my neck to the left and to the right. The sun began to descend behind the Vatican’s white dome, a flaming orange ball sinking into the dark abyss of a summer sky. Oceans away from Alabama, I nestled into the comforts of my thoughts and discovered a familiar home inside my mind. Loneliness left me, and I filled my being with aimless wanderings of the mind and spirit.

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