I met my ride from West Berlin to Rome at a dark and icy corner. I was the smallest, squeezed in the backseat between two larger passengers I’d never met before. The VW Passat was beat-up, and five people brought a lot of luggage; medium-sized bags were under our feet and on our laps. Cheap and uncomfortable, that’s how these rides worked. Off we drove into the cold night. I think the ride took 20 hours, most of it spent dozing, trying to avoid physical contact with my neighbors. Glad to see the signs change to Italian after we crossed the Alps, and the gentle green of early spring as we continued south through Italy.
Even before arriving in Berlin in 1986, I knew I wanted to keep learning Italian. The small-print advertisement for a 4-week program at a Roman language school called Torre di Babele hit the right chord with me: the newly founded institution was housed in a centrally located villa in sunny yellow stucco, plants all around. I liked the photo of serious yet sensuous Italian language instructors. The instruction might even help me professionally, I thought: singers always rely on pianists to help with pronunciation.
I went about realizing this dream with a singularity of purpose combined with an ignorance of how the larger world worked. I was just 25.
I could barely afford the fee in lira for four weeks of tuition and a skimpy per diem for food. But where to stay? Renting a room at a pensione seemed beyond my budget. I’d submitted an ad to West Berlin’s classified newspaper, connected to a Roman newspaper in the same format: “25-year old American woman, can speak a little Italian, looking for a room in Rome from March 15-April 15, able to pay very little.” Weeks later I received a package full of envelopes from Romans ... exclusively men, including one proposition to clean a rooftop apartment naked in exchange for a room! In my naïveté, it hadn’t occurred to me how many buttons my ad text pushed: American (= sexually experienced), young (= vulnerable), travelling alone (= ditto), apparently destitute (= ditto). Two accommodations seemed real possibilities.
My Italian course started the day after we arrived. The first step was to show up at my lodging of choice: a student of Italian literature who lived with his mother and grandmother offered me a tiny triangular room, a single bed along the wall, no window, one chair beside the bed. Mamma and Grandma were shocked that a woman of my age was travelling alone, and kept returning to the subject: “But how can you do this? Aren’t you afraid that it may be dangerous? A woman alone! What does your mother think? Isn’t she worried? Did she really allow you to do this?”
My host Giovanni T. and I met after class some afternoons and made conversation in Italian. I tried to formulate ideas using constructions I’d just learned. In conversation he was scrupulously polite, giving me a book in which he’d published a short story. Our last conversation of the day we conducted sitting on the single bed in the cramped little room. We kissed rather awkwardly—to both of us it seemed we were supposed to get physical. Only when I’d arrived did Giovanni communicate that I could live there just for ten days, as he would then be heading off on a long-planned skiing vacation. On the last night he stimulated me to orgasm in the most cramped and hushed of circumstances.
And then I needed another place to stay.
Most of the other Italian pupils were Germans wanting to learn the language for their studies of history or art history. I was picking up the language quickly, even explaining Italian grammar to them in German.
The second accommodation was a long tram ride up one of the Roman hills to a villa. The house had nouveau riche trappings: a functioning fountain with a shy marble nymph in the hallway, the father’s office in dark paneling and red plush. They explained my duties: I was to assist the 13-year old son with his English homework in the afternoon, and help the maid for an hour a day. In exchange, I’d have an apartment of my own. The son had zero interest in English, wouldn’t even establish eye contact. The maid ... well, the slim, dark 19-year Sicilian, speaking an indecipherable dialect, couldn’t believe how dumb I was: even when she spoke slowly and clearly, I didn’t get her words: “Now we sweep the dust into the dustpan.” I trailed after her and tried to help a bit.
Some weeks the lessons ran from 9 to 1, others from 3 to 7 pm. For the other students, the fun started after school was over. But I dashed for the tram up the hill, the plants lusher, the neighborhood more exclusive the higher we travelled. They wanted me there by 7:30 pm, so I even took to leaving the class early. After ringing the bell, I’d hear the maid or the mother shouting, “I cani, i cani!” The two dogs guarding the place were let out in the early evening, and had the run of the big stone driveway. As I waited outside the gate, they’d leap up against the fence, growling.
Eight days before the course ended, I went to the school office and told them of my housing difficulties. If only I had told them I needed free lodging, they would have tried to help me out even before I arrived—why, they had a whole list of families willing to put students up! I switched that very day. But, though I know the couple was decent, the living situation uncomplicated and close to the school, 28 years later I can’t for the life of me conjure up any concrete images of the place or the people.
published 2 April 2014