Monday, April 27, 2009

Ero solo a Roma (I was alone in Rome)

I just realized that the don't-tell-Mom-for-at-least-five-years statute of limitations on scary vacation stories has run out, so I am now at liberty to share with you the episode to which I have referred obliquely a couple times before on this blog.

In 2003, I decided to take a trip. It was at the end of the Seeds of Faith campaign for the Diocese of Winona, and I took a summer leave of absence from my job as a fundraising consultant. I packed up my stuff in Minnesota (mostly furniture and other big things, since I sold most of my stuff to friends and family in order to help pay for the trip, but also a couple nice gifts I got from the people I had worked with, including a special rosary and a stainless steel cross hanging on a necklace which was comically large, but as I was just starting to reconnect with church, I thought it was cool, even though it was so big I couldn't wear it under my shirt and had to wear it on the outside) and headed back to home base (Mom and Dad's in Carmel, Indiana) prior to leaving for the trip.

The main part of the excursion was five weeks in Ghana (in West Africa) doing volunteer work through Cross-Cultural Solutions, but I figured I would make even more of a trip of it, stopping in Italy on the way over and the UK on the way back. I thought, I'm crossing the Atlantic, why not do a lot while I'm over there? And my ticket to Ghana was routed through Milan anyway, so I decided to take about ten days in Italy on the way.

Deciding to go on the trip was a big deal for me. It was the summer I was turning 30, and it seemed like a good time to take a look at my life and see what I could see. One of the observations I had made about my life was that, in the previous three decades, whenever someone would ask if I wanted to try something new, my default answer was "No, thanks." And although this choice had theretofore saved me from heartaches, headaches, and jail time, it didn't necessarily lend itself to a memoir-able life. So I decided on this trip that if anyone invited me to do anything, I would say "Yes."* Kind of like that Jim Carrey movie that came out a few weeks ago, only it was about my life, and it was almost six years ago.

My Italian itinerary was Rome-Florence-Verona-Rome (or, possibly, Rome-Verona-Florence-Rome). Anyway, on my last night in Rome the first time, I was tired from having spent most of the day wandering around the Villa Borghese, so I took a shower, got dressed up (including the ridiculous-to-you-but-cool-to-me, over-the-shirt stainless steel cross necklace) and was out looking for a place for dinner, just tooling around about three blocks from my hotel when, at my side, popped up this odd-looking guy who spoke with a Cockney accent. This man appeared to be in his mid-to-late 40s, wealthy, jovial, and though it took concentration for me to understand it, he spoke more English than most of the people around. So, he had that going for him.

"Well, 'ello there," he said.

At first, I didn't realize he was talking to me.

"'Scuse me? Looking for a bite to eat?" he asked. I told him I was, and he told me that he had just talked to the concierge at his hotel (he pointed at the hotel we were in front of) and the concierge had recommended some place for drinks and another place around the corner from it for dinner, and did I want to join him? "It's called 'Club Ha'ee-foah," he said, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I figured he was simply mispronouncing some Italian.

Though my Spidey Sense tingled, this was the first major test of Just Say Yes. Would I go on the adventure, or would I wuss out and eat dinner in my hotel room, watching Il Gioco di Match on the Italian-language TV with the Italian-language remote control I could only halfway figure out?

"Sure, why not?" I said, defying all logic and all safety precautions, and off we went.

My new best friend told me his name, but I honestly don't remember now. Hugh, maybe? (I think I e-mailed some friends about this after it all happened, but I can't find the e-mail if I e-mailed you about this and have mixed up some details, let me know please.) Anyway, let's call him Hugh. Hugh told me about his family's recent trip to Tenerife ("You know, 'at's in Spain, mate. The Canaaary Oislands.") which accounted for his significant suntan. He shared details about his family's considerable wealth and also his sexual prowess with the ladies.

As we walked to this place that I had no idea where it was, what it was, or why I was going there, it occurred to me that it wouldn't be all that impolite to just turn around and walk away from him, even if it might be confusing to him. But, I figured, in for a penny, in for a pound, and even if we've been walking down deserted streets for 15 minutes, surely we'll find what we're looking for eventually.

Friends, it is a miracle that I was not mugged or killed or otherwise harmed. Literally no one in the world knew where I was at that point. (Well, maybe Hugh did, but I sure as hell didn't. And certainly none of my Emergency Contacts knew.)

We were walking and walking, and we passed a uniformed Italian police officer on the sidewalk. I figured that if Hugh was Bad News, he would respond inappropriately to the cop. (Being the brother of a police officer, I am sensitive to these things.) But Hugh's response ("Good evening, sire" with slight tip of the head) elicited a smile from the cop and cautious approval from me.

After what seemed like a way-too-long walk, with Hugh assuring me, "It's right around heah somewheah," we finally happened on Rome's Hard Rock Cafe on (if I remember correctly) the Via Vittorio Veneto, which seemed like (a) a safe place to be (meaning, a place where there were likely other Americans) and (b) a street that seemed fairly significant, even if I had no idea where we were and where that was in relation to my hotel.

So we walked past the Hard Rock and up this kind of wide stairwayed alley thing, to a kind of boulevard/plaza area where there were other restaurants and bars and such. Hugh pointed to a small building and said, "Well, 'ello, 'ello. 'Ere it is! Club Ha'ee-foah!"

Using the elegant blue neon sign on the low white building, I was able to decode "Club Ha'ee-foah" as "Club 84!" And I am not kidding about the exclamation point.

So, I realize this is kind of a long story. Let us pause for a moment to recap:
  1. I am in Rome.
  2. With a stranger.
  3. Who has led me to a place that I don't really know how to get back from.
  4. Which has an exclamation point in its name.
  5. With no way, really, to get a message regarding my whereabouts to anyone I know and love.
Up to speed then? Great, let's continue.

So I followed Hugh past the large Italian bouncer dude into Club 84! and was shocked to see a small room with three or four tables, a raised stage-like platform, and -- wait for it ... wait for it ... wait for it -- a brass pole. Hugh had brought me to a strip club.

Before we even sat down, two, um, hostesses came to our table to sit with us. Hugh bought me a beer as we introduced ourselves to each other (we in broken Italian, they in broken English). Bear in mind, of course, that I had never consumed an entire beer in my life up to that point. But a combination of the walk, our location, and the pure WTF-edness of it all conspired to lead me to down the entire beer within about ten seconds. To this day, that remains the only complete beer I have ever drunk.

I glanced around the room, trying to figure out how to extract myself, mindful of the fact that I really didn't know where I was and that my only hope for getting back to the hotel was to re-trace the steps that got us there in the first place.

Meanwhile, I was neglecting my "date" (they had cozied up to us pretty closely), and Hugh was encouraging me to buy a bottle of champagne for her. "I bought champagne for me and..." He paused to ask his "date," "What's yer name, Luv?" but she didn't understand the question and answered "Sì, sì."

Hugh continued: "I bought champagne for me an' Sisi heah. You should buy some, too."

I tried to figure a way out but none came to me. My "date" was nuzzling my ear at this point, and Hugh signaled to the waiter, an old man in what seemed to be an even older tuxedo, to bring another bottle of champagne for me to buy.

Well, at this point, there was money on the line, so the embarrassment of leaving was overridden by the voice of my dad, whose legendary cheapo-ness we had mocked for years but now served me in good stead. "Champagne's expensive, Bugs," Dad whispered into my ear from 5,000 miles away.

The waiter brought the champagne, and I used one of the few complete Italian sentences I knew. "Quanto costa?" I asked, and time seemed to slow to a crawl as I looked at Hugh, Hugh looked at Sisi, Sisi looked at the waiter, and the waiter looked back at me.

"Trecento..." he started, as he went to unwrap the gold foil.

Trecento. Three hundred. Three hundred?! Three hundred what? Euros? Dollars? Either way, no thanks.

I'd had enough of this -- finally! -- and, drawing again on my limited Italian, I yelled "Niente di ciampagna!" (who knows if that even means anything, let alone, "None of that champagne!"), squirmed out from under my "date," and headed for the door. It's possible that in the de-lapping process, my "date" may have ended up sprawled couchward or, perhaps, floorward. All I know is, by the time I made it the five steps to the door, the large Italian bouncer dude was on Red Alert. He was all puffed up and looked primed to kick some American butt, and I got more than a little nervous.

Faced with a massive Italian man blocking my way to the ambiguous freedom of Who-The-Hell-Knows-Where-I-Am-Now, I instinctively put my hand up to my chest and touched the cross hanging there. The bouncer dude looked at my chest, looked at me, looked at the cross on my chest, cocked his head like a confused dog, and then put up his hands in a "go ahead" gesture, looking over my shoulder and saying something about "Dio" and "chiesa" to his co-workers as I walked out the door.

I started walk-jog-running back to the hotel, tracing step-for-step the route Hugh and I took, stopping only to head to the internet cafe by the hotel to e-mail some friends with the complete story and to assure Mom and Dad that I was OK, with the need-to-know parts -- basically, "I'm still in Rome."

I did not see the police officer on the way back, nor have I ever crossed paths with Hugh again. I've often wondered if I was just an easy mark tagged on the street, and Hugh still wanders the streets of Rome looking for Americans to take to Club 84! and splits the champagne profits they make on dopes like me, or if he really was a rich guy who just got into Rome from Tenerife (You know, that's in Spain, mate. The Canary Islands.) and I totally blew the chance to be his best friend and live a jet-set-lifestyle-by-association over a measly three hundred dollars (or euros) worth of champagne.

* Despite the aforementioned hilarious, though not at the time, consequences of this plan, I did get a lot out of the Just Say Yes policy -- namely, connecting with a really cool church in Ghana, seeing the Italian red-carpet pre-release premiere of "The Italian Job" in Italy, and getting invited into the home of some nice family in Verona for supper. I realize that last one could have ended up with me dead, but after my near-mugging by gypsies/homeless/whatever the night after the strip-club experience (which maybe I'll write about some other time)** I was on my guard and ready to both punch and run, as the situation dictated.

** OK, here's the story: The morning after the trip to Club 84!, I was set to take the train from Rome to either Florence or Verona, and I looked on the map and saw that my hotel (right next to an opera house -- or maybe The Opera House) was less than a quarter-mile from the train station. Rather than calling a cab, waiting around, and paying the driver for such a short trip, I decided I could just walk. My duffel bag had wheels, and it was just that and a backpack, so I checked out of the hotel and set off on my way.

The old-timey streets of Rome were very cool and very crowded, but I could almost see the train station from the front door of the hotel. I set off down the sidewalk on my way. I knew I needed to cross to the other side of the street to get to the station, but up ahead was a big tour bus making a turn into a too-narrow alley, blocking my access to that side of the street. So I kept walking on my side of the street and figured I'd cross after passing the stuck bus.

No sooner had I made that choice than three persons -- two women and a young man -- descended upon me, requesting (in Italian, mind you, which I do not speak, and also in Mime, which sadly I do speak) money to help them feed the babies they were each cradling in their arms. Having spent some big-city time in Chicago, I felt up to the challenge.

"Not today," I responded, flashing a smile and wielding the apparently-respected-in-Chicago-but-not-elsewhere homeless-solicitation response.

"Per il bambino (or whatever)!" they said, pointing at their babies and making the International Symbol for Eating.

"Not today," I repeated, doing my best to walk past them with my rolling duffel in tow, trying to avoid an international incident.

"Per il bambino. Bay-ee-bee!" they said again, maneuvering into a wall in front of me.

"Not today, sorry," I said, astonishing myself at my inability to come up with anything different to say.

The three then started touching my arms imploringly. (It was the first of many, many times my arms would be caressed on that trip.***) And then their imploring got a tighter grip, two hands on both forearms. And then their imploring began exploring, with a hand in the pocket of my cargo shorts.

Mr. McGee, don't put your hand in the pocket of my cargo shorts. You wouldn't like me when you put your hand in the pocket of my cargo shorts.

It was at that moment when the slowly-building alarm in the back of my head finally connected with my brain enough to initiate some action. My brain also did some quick math -- there were five hands on my person, yet the "babies" in question were still at chest level. A quick glance verified that these were, in fact, dolls that were stapled or otherwise affixed to the shirts of these muggers.

"Whoa. WHOA! WHOOOOOOOAAAAAAA!" I said, channeling my inner Mrs. Garrett.

And with little ceremony, I assessed that any semblance of gentility and calm had been shattered, and I wrenched my arms free, pimp-slapping (mostly accidentally) one of the women and elbowing the young man in the gut. I gave him an extra shove into the street, got up in the slap-free woman's face and screamed, hilariously, "NOT! TODAY!" and started to walk, ok run, to the train station.

I looked back over my shoulder to see what was happening, and I saw them starting to come after me. But this Italian guy came out of nowhere to sweep the sidewalk in front of his store, and -- literally, like in a movie -- he deduced what had happened and Baba-da-boopied them in rapid-fire Italian, using his broom in a threatening-to-them, reassuring-to-me manner, causing them to run off.

I then proceeded to the train station, double-time, where I went directly to the McDonald's on the lower level, I did not pass go, I did not collect two hundred dollars, but I did get my good-old-fashioned American security blanket: the Sausage McMuffin with Egg. I'd never felt so lonely in all my life, and I'm pretty sure the McMuffin is the only thing that kept me from crying that morning.

*** Right. Not to run-away-from-a-strip-club-and-tell, but my "date" at Club 84! was not caressing my arms, exactly. However, I know I can't write a sentence about much arm-caressing and expect you not to have questions. The reality is that I am white, and I am hairy. My forearms contain a fair amount of blond hair, which stands out even more when I have been in the sun and my skin darkens a bit. In Ghana, whenever I was around kids, which was quite a bit, they would come up and want to hold hands, sit in my lap, whatever -- partly because I am such an attractive guy (haha!) but mostly because I was, to them, a freak of nature: a large, hairy white man, the likes of whom they had never seen. The most common expression of their awe was to reach out and touch my arm, feeling the soft hair (foreign to them, as millennia at the equator have, out of evolutionary necessity, pretty much disabused African men of arm hair), and then either (a) looking at their friends and laughing or (b) running away, as though from a hideous monster, only to come back and feel my arm hair again. An arm-carressing story that is neither sexy nor hilarious, but there was a lot of it in my five weeks in Ghana.


jss said...

I've always thought that traveling alone would be adventurous, fun, and free, but lonely. You sure got some great stories out of your solo trip!

Stace said...

Thank God for the cross -- literally!

Anonymous said...

Hilarious. And scary. But mostly hilarious.

julmille said...

Why would Hugh pick someone wearing a giant cross to take to a strip club???

Scott S. Semester said...

Truly, Julmille, that's one of the great mysteries. Rome brings out the freaky-deaky optimist in even the most hardened Cockney soul, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

It's tough to find the words to say how much have loved this blog. And love this. And now love you. Unspeakable awesomeness.

- L