Lost in the Eternal City
When I first arrived in Rome, scared, excited, and full of hope, Rome wasn’t quite what I expected. I didn’t expect the dusty air. I didn’t expect to see graffiti covering the cracking walls of ancient buildings. I was startled when the taxi took an unprotected left hand turn. I didn’t expect the bored-looking street performers, the stray cats, or the chaos. Rome wasn’t the elegant city I had seen in pictures and dreamed up in my head. It wasn’t until I was peering out from the rooftop terrace of the place I would stay for the next four months that I caught a glimmer of the Eternal City’s magic. I saw the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica lit up in a purple sky on one side and the Tiber River flowing right past our door and winding through the city on the other. The rest was a sea of landmarks I had yet to discover.
Two weeks into my stay, I got lost. My brain always seemed to short-circuit when I tried to remember important things, like directions or street names. There was absolutely no connection between my sensations to my short-term memory. It didn’t help that the narrow streets of Rome meander like spaghetti noodles and change names every block.
That day two of my friends and I went to the Co-Op, a grocery store only a ten minute walk from where we were staying. After inspecting every kind of cheese, my friends and I went to the checkout line with fresh mozzarella balls in water, spaghetti, prosciutto, tomato sauce, Nutella, and a basil plant. We politely declined when the cashier offered us a plastic bag for eight cents extra. The idea of having to pay for a plastic bag was inconceivable to us at the time.
When my friends asked if I would bring the groceries back while they went on a short jog around the neighborhood, I agreed blithely. Oh go on ahead, I will catch up. I knew I had to be on my own sooner or later. I wanted to be self-reliant. They placed the groceries in my arms one by one, the basil plant in the crook of my arm, and I watched them disappear from sight, thinking that they were the type of confident I wanted to be.
When ten minutes passed and I wasn’t home, I knew something was wrong. When an hour passed, I was panicking. The Co-Op was long gone, and I couldn’t see anything even remotely recognizable. I was nervously speed walking with long strides and heels pounding against the cobblestones. My hips ached from swinging my legs so hard and fast, and my arms were sore from clutching jars, packages, and a plant to my chest. I had no one. I had no cell phone service in this country and only a beginner’s grasp on the Italian language. I knew I had to find the Tiber and follow it home, but I had no idea which direction to go. All I could see were closed off mansions, hotels, and other large unrecognizable buildings with grand terraces.
“Per favore,” I said to an Italian man passing by. “Tiber? The river? Um, dove il Tiber?”
The man looked at me like he was afraid I might get my stress on him.
“Not possible,” he said, much to my confusion. I would later hear “not possible” when being told not to sit on the steps of the Gregorian library or not to make so much noise on the bus. The phrase would seem funnier in later contexts.
I shifted my groceries and started walking again. Soon I found myself forging a small hill and stopped to take a breath when I reached the top. I set down my groceries and peered out at the city. I could see the dome of St. Peter’s in the vague distance. I prayed. What now? I was tired from walking and seriously considered giving up and just staying on that hill with my groceries all night. Deep breath. Pull yourself together. I realized I had passed a bus stop a moment ago. I thought the bus might be able take me in the right direction.
Soon I was clinging to the railing of the bus with one free hand, and frantically looked out the window for landmarks. The bus lurched to a stop at a corner I had seen before. As I got off the bus, I noticed a tall man walking a dog. He waved. I looked behind me. Did he wave at me? All at once, he was walking toward me.
“Is everything alright?” The man asked in a cheery British accent. Is it that obvious that I’ve been lost for the past two hours?
The man produced a plastic bag from his coat pocket and gently placed my groceries inside, the now-limp basil plant on top. My arms dangled awkwardly at my sides with nothing else to carry.
“I’m fine. Just lost,” I said, like it wasn’t something I was concerned about. But I was enormously relieved to encounter another English speaker.
“You have been lost this long? You poor thing,” he said. “Let’s get you home.”
“It’s near the river?” I offered, not intending for it to sound like a question.
“Well, that’s easy enough,” he replied and began leading me forward. I heaved a sigh of relief.
I followed awkwardly behind him and his dog not completely convinced I could trust him but also not convinced I had any other option.
“Rome is so confusing,” I said, breaking the silence.
“Oh, you’ll get used to it,” the man said. “It’s not that big of a city.”
“I don’t know much Italian,” I added.
“Ha! My Italian is rubbish,” he exclaimed. “And I’ve been here four years!”
Suddenly I could see the brick barrier that lines the steep drop off to the Tiber. I felt extremely light and had the sudden urge to do a cartwheel or walk on my hands the rest of the way.
“What’s your name?” I asked him as we turned onto my block.
“David,” he said.
“David, you are my guardian angel.” I felt silly saying that. It was something my grandmother would say with her classic charm that made everyone feel important. But part of me wondered if it was true.
“You got to be careful around here, walking all by yourself,” David said gravely. “I mean, I’m a nice guy, but you got to look out for the Italian mafia, you know.”
In the privacy of my room that night, after cooking with my friends and laughing off the events of the day, I finally broke down in tears. For several minutes, I shook uncontrollably, releasing the built-up anxiety of the day. Then, sprawled on my bed near the open window, I remembered the random hill with the view of St. Peter’s and my conversation with David. It was probably coincidence that brought us together, but I liked the idea of a guardian angel. Perhaps they come in many forms. Either way, I sent out a small thanks to the universe for getting home safely. I didn’t know it then, but soon I would fall deeply in love with Rome: the cobblestone streets, every breath of espresso and cigarette smoke, the automated voice on the metro saying, “prossima fermata,” and tracing spaghetti shaped streets on a paper map, which I definitely needed. I didn’t know it then, but there would be a time when I would give anything—save the cost of a plane ticket—just to carelessly wander the streets of Rome once again.
Lizzie Klaesges is a writer of essays and reviews with work in The Critical Flame and Rain Taxi Reviews among others. When not puzzling over a notebook or laptop, she enjoys frequenting local bookstores, listening to the same songs on repeat, and spending time with her husband and kitty. She currently resides in Minneapolis, but her heart is stuck in Rome.