Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Roman Christmas Eve

Exhausted after my first full day of sightseeing in the Eternal City, I sat down on a flight of steps outside the Coliseum to rest in the afternoon sun. I pulled an apple out of my bag and bit into it as I began to study the vague map in my guidebook. A small man, slightly pudgy with thinning grey hair and small round glasses, asked if I needed help with directions in a thick Italian accent. I said no thank you, but he proceeded to inquire if I liked Rome and where I was from. I answered his questions politely, initially assuming him to be some sort of police officer with his uniform-like navy blue jacket.

Before long he was reminiscing about his childhood home down the block and telling me stories about selling ice cream cones to tourists by the Coliseum as a teenager. He introduced himself as Giovanni and asked where I was off to next. I’d planned to explore the nearby San Pietro in Vincoli on the Esquiline Hill, and he provided me detailed directions. After thanking him I headed up the hill.

A few minutes later he came huffing and puffing up behind me, explaining that he’d seen me take a wrong turn. He insisted on escorting me to the door of the church while informing me of its history. Normally I would have been wary of such a persistent stranger, but he was no taller than me and I judged him to be at least in his sixties. He knew his hometown history as most of his information corresponded with what I’d read in my guidebook. Once inside the cathedral, he pointed out Saint Peter’s chains above the high altar and inserted a coin into the machine to illuminate Michelangelo’s Moses, explaining that his horns represented wisdom and that when the sculptor completed the masterpiece he struck its knee and ordered, “Now speak!” While pondering the statue I recalled the eloquent description I’d read in my Cardogan guide, which suggested that the powerful image is “perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to capturing prophetic vision in stone.” Giovanni offered to take my picture by the statue and then spent five minutes fiddling with my camera to get the lighting just right.

Following the tour of the church he inquired what was next on my agenda. I’d wanted to walk to the Santa Maria Maggiore church. He volunteered to show me a shortcut through a park as it was on his way home. I accepted his proposal, thinking that I had no excuse to dismiss the opportunity to see a bit of Rome with a personal local tour guide. As we trudged up the hill, he took a brief detour to an obscure corner that offered a postcard-perfect panorama of the Coliseum. He took my picture and offered to take a group photo of a cluster of young Spanish tourists as well. While we walked through the park at dusk, he continued recounting me anecdotes about the city, offhandedly pointing out the church where he was baptized as an infant and attended mass growing up, which happened to be one of the most sacred churches in Rome, San Clemente.

He explained that a 4th-century pope commissioned the construction of Santa Maria Maggiore on a site marked by a miraculous August snowfall, and once inside he led me left of the main aisle into the San Zeno chapel to admire the golden 9th-century Byzantine mosaics. As we exited the cathedral Giovanni invited me to stop for a cappuccino. I initially declined, but he reminded me that in Rome stopping for a coffee is a brief affair that takes place standing at the bar. As I drank my perfectly foamy espresso he mentioned that 20 years earlier he'd visited a girlfriend in South Carolina and explained how he’d learned English from tourists. He asked about my Christmas plans and lamented that he would be alone on Christmas day, although his two sons would have Christmas Eve dinner with him before going to their mother’s house.

When he invited me to have dinner with them it seemed like my opportunity to experience the traditional family Christmas Eve feast of fish I’d read about when researching spending the holidays in Italy. However naturally I was initially a bit cautious. I asked him what his sons would think if he brought home an American girl for dinner. He insisted that his two sons, both a bit older than me, didn’t speak English, and as he had a niece in England he could pass me off as a friend of hers on holiday. It all seemed quite strange to me, but he reminded me that the whole city was closing down for the evening and my only other alternative would be to spend Christmas Eve alone and hungry in my hostel. I remarked that I’d planned on attending the midnight mass in Santa Maria Aracoeli, and he insisted that the church was much too far away from my hostel to walk back home after the service at 2 a.m. Besides, he liked the idea of going to the mass and could give me a ride after dinner. I almost declined, but after considering my options I concluded that interesting, memorable experiences require some risk and trust.

He was right; his sons didn’t understand a word of English and oddly accepted the friend-of-the-niece story without question. I was a bit disappointed that they were neither handsome nor especially polite. Both tall despite their vertically challenged father, the older one, a navy officer, looked the part with his tubby, former-high-school-football-player physique, buzz cut and goatee. The younger and thinner one had a clipped beard and wore a bright purple puffy bomber jacket, tight jeans, and gold chains. Playing out the Italian stereotype to perfection, they both made clear their obsession with designer labels and soccer during the dinner conversation.

The feast in Giovanni’s humble apartment in the Roman suburbs was delicious – a first course of pasta with truffles followed my the main course of fish accompanied with wine and cheese and followed with panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas cake with candied fruit. I tried to hide my disgust when the men argued over who would get to eat the fish's head, reputedly the most savory portion of the meal. After eating they exchanged gifts. Turns out Giovanni had come from shopping for his sons when he ran into me by the Coliseum. He'd bought them what they’d requested, designer cologne – Hugo Boss and Armani if I remember correctly. Next he un-wrapped his present, a cappuccino-maker. While the two younger men made a test-shot of espresso he left the room. He emerged with a small red paper gift bag, which he handed to me. “It’s stupid,” he said, slightly misusing the adjective like so many speakers of English as a second language, “but it’s Christmas.” Inside I found a vanilla-scented votive candle and a floral-printed cardboard music box. He’d obviously just scrounged up something, but I appreciated the gesture while his blushing sons teased him in Italian.

After dinner we returned to the centro historico for midnight mass. While we waited for the service to begin, he advised me when I should sit down and stand up and recounted the legend of the church’s prized relic. Supposedly a monk in Jerusalem carved the wooden statue of baby Jesus, and later it was lost at sea during a storm but miraculously reappeared on Roman shores. He clearly believed the story and had a deep respect for the Catholic faith despite his confession that he no longer attended mass.

Although he dozed off a bit during the ceremonious two-hour service in the unheated sanctuary with unpadded pews, he didn’t grumble too much afterward. I understood that he was lonely and not looking forward to another Christmas alone wallowing in self pity. I went home that night with the experience of a genuine Roman Christmas Eve and a bizarre story to tell, and at the very least I added some interest to someone’s solitary holiday.

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