Monday, June 10, 2013

Going with the flow.

[Posted 2013-06-15, backdated 2013-06-10.]

When I look back upon last night, I think: I could have wound up sleeping in the streets. Yet there I was at the end, eating tomato salad with cheese and bread in the company of two vibrant Italians, safe and sound in Rome.

I arrived in the city underprepared. I chalk it up to my final days in Switzerland being packed with people, teaching, and adventures. Whatever the reason, I arrived in Rome without a map, guide, list of taxi numbers and contingency hostels, a number for my host, or walking directions from the rendezvous point to his house that would be needed without the phone number to call for a pickup.

Making it to the rendezvous point was fairly easy. My pack is not light (~40 lbs), but definitely manageable in an urban environment.  The directions provided were thorough. It involved an airport bus shuttle, rail line, and another bus.

Trundling along in final bus, I contemplated what to do next. The trouble was I had no solid plan for what to do when I'd arrive at the destination. I was told I should phone the host when getting near, but never had a number to call (might have gotten lost in the shuffle, or never provided). This my directions were incomplete. A blank space between the bus terminus and the final destination, with the words "Cannot load map without Internet connection" printed across it. Yes, this would not have been a problem with mobile data access. While I did have a local SIM card for calls and texts (ringing in at a staggering €20 -- web Switzerland was less expensive), there was no way to look up directions via Google Maps. Remarkable how much that little app has changed the way we navigate. We can embark on a journey and figure we'll work out the directions along the way. As my mind wandered, washboard asphalt roads shook the bus violently and rattled me out of my reverie.

I could use my handy mobile to call a taxi service from that point. I would need to get a number from a local, or try to hail a cab. The flaw in this plan was assuming I would not be in Roman suburbia by that point.

And yet there I stood, in a wastleland of roads and tall apartment buildings and scarcely a soul in sight. It seemed most people were indoors for dinner. I surveyed the scene, contemplating my fate. My plan was quickly falling apart, the house of cards tumbling down at the deviance from critical assumptions.

That was when the universe gave me my first big break. The husband of a married couple I hailed down spoke nearly fluent English. Phoning a taxi service was unrealistic, they explained upon inquiry of a number. No driver would come all the way to the outskirts for a short drive. We stood there, thinking a moment.

"It's a shame we don't have our car here with us," the husband lamented. He was classic Italian: olive brown skin, his beard stubble white with age, and kindness in his eyes. I was astonished. These two were so quick to pause what they were doing (going to the school gymnasium so vote for the next Roman mayor) and offer me help. And not just help from where they were standing; they were willing to join me on this wild goose chase and follow an unexpected path. People told me Italians were very kind. At last I understood.

While they did not know the address I spoke of, they pledged to assist me. I was on a Hero's Quest, and these were my archetypal mentors. With their aid, we flagged down another gentleman who looked up the direction on his phone. It was a long way, 3-4 km (a 20-30 min walk). The couple and I continued along to the main road I would follow. We discussed the importance of travel, the serendipity of helping strangers, and the decrepit state of Roman infrastructure. Once arrived, they pointed me on my way. Follow the road, they said, until a crossroads. You will need to ask directions again at that point, but it should be very close.

So I did. I trudged along, sticking out like a sore thumb among the occasional dog walkers of the late evening. The day was turning to night, the street lights flickering on in the dusk. Jasmine was in full bloom. Sweat beaded on my forehead and my psoas muscles began to ache, yet I was grateful for the walk and the experience.

I entered a convenience store / cafe at the end of the road, inquiring about my destination: Via Filippo Raguzzini. (It sounds so good when the Italians say it.) The folks were largely unhelpful and almost annoyed by my need for directions. I left the store, discouraged. I was so very close.

While standing there, contemplating my next steps, the universe delivered my second big break of the day. A gentleman had been sitting in his car with a lady for some time. Eventually he got out and walked up to me, holding his smart phone in hand and a proud smile on his face. "Here, this way. First left," he explained to me in broken English. I thanked him for the unprompted act of kindness and continued my journey. 10 minutes later, I arrived at the home of my host.

It was almost 10pm, a solid 3-4 hours later than planned. Fortunately the host had not worried to much by that point. My arrival roused the attention of the family's one-year-old, who was suddenly excited to be at the new party despite the hour. The mother fussed over me and fixed me a classic Italian summer meal of tomato slices with olive oil and salt, four different kinds of cheese, and bread. The father played with his child (named Leone) and talked to me about life in Italy.

A good start to a new leg in my adventure.

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