When in Rome….
by Alice Kocourek

An annoying buzz wakes me. I can’t make out where it’s coming from. Or is it inside my head? My mouth and throat feel like I’ve just blow-dried them, making it very hard to swallow the tart taste tripping over my tongue. Too much white wine last night. I pull the covers over my head. The buzzing remains. Or was it the Limoncello? Definitely too much Limoncello. The bitter tang lingering in my mouth is proof that I’ve had one too many of that poisonous lemon liquor. Make that two too many.

It had been a fun night out though, with the Italian Hewlett Packard crew. Silvia, one of the permanent British staff members, insisted I come out with her and our fellow Italian colleagues. “It’s about time,” she told me in her squeaky voice. “Three weeks you’ve been in Rome and you still haven’t been out? It’s a positive disgrace. You have to come out with us.” And so, feeling somewhat pressured, I reluctantly went out. We ate, we drank, we danced. Lots. Somewhere in the middle of it all I began having a good time. I relaxed and thought to myself, when in Rome….

It was almost dawn when I rolled out of the taxi and stumbled into my hotel. The city was still sound asleep.

What time is it now? I turn over onto my side and feel my stomach churn. It feels like the gluey Limoncello has also made it to my eyes and has pasted them shut.

Buzz, buzz, buzz …. There it is again. Or has it been there all the time? I don’t know but I suddenly realize what it is, that annoying drone. It’s my phone! I’d put it on silent last night when we went out. A hoarse “Hello?” is all I manage and I’m sure I sound like a man.

“Alice? Is that you?” a voice blasts through the other side. “Al, I’ve been trying to reach you for ages!”

“Huh, Nick … stop shouting at me love, I’ve got a stinking headache.”

“I’m not shouting. Are you ill? It’s ten o’clock already.”

“Ten? Really? Feels more like six … still.” By now I have finally managed to sit up and half open my eyes. My dark hotel room seems to be swaying from left to right. At least the little I can make out of it. The heavy curtains are closed and only a very pushy ray of sun seems to have made it into my room.

“Have you been out?” Nick’s loud voice continues. “You know I’ve been waiting for your morning call, my coffee has gone cold.”

“Sorry,” I groan into the phone, “Yeah, Silvia took me out for a few drinks. What you doing? Sitting outside?”

“Been out for a few drinks, eh? You know you sound like shit.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, it’s a beautiful day here. Been sitting out on the balcony with the cats.” His voice has gone softer now, or perhaps I’m more awake.

The cats. The balcony. Nick. I rub my temple. “Wish I were there with you. This hotel room stinks.” I’m sitting up straight now and looking around my small and shady room. The bed takes up most of the space, leaving only some room for a writing table pushed against the wall and a single chair. My clothes dropped on top look like a collapsed corpse. The art-deco wallpaper flowers look wilted. “I wish I were home. I miss our morning coffees out on the balcony. I miss the cats. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“Well, it’s you who insisted on going to Rome for six weeks. I told you, you’d miss us.”

“Nick, not now. I don’t feel good.”

“You shouldn’t have drunk so much. Why did you have to go out in the first place, you don’t like going out?”

“Oh c’mon, not now …. We’ll talk later OK? I feel claustrophobic. I need to get out.”

“OK, go and have breakfast and call me when you’re feeling better.” There’s a long silence. “Love you.”

“I know.” A hysterical mosquito buzzing in front of me disrupts another long silence. I manage a strained “Love you too,” before I start wafting the insect off with my phone. “Don’t you dare touch me, creepy creature.”

After this sudden anti-bug outburst, my head hurts even more. I need some fresh air, some food and some sleep; I feel cold. Wretched air-con.

A gentle spring sun greets me as I walk out of the hotel onto the Piazza Bartolomeo Gastaldi. The pink cherry blossoms sway against the blue sky and the song of a thrush fills the air. It’s only about 20 metres walk to Antonio’s Alimentari, but when I walk through the colourful beads of the flycatcher hung above the door, I feel warmed-up and a sudden appetite takes over.

Antonio welcomes me with his usual bright smile and enthusiastic gestures; “Buongiorno signora Alice.”

Over the last three weeks I’ve come to like the way of the Romans, it’s not just what they say, beautifully lyrical to a cold Northern European as I am, but the way in which they say it, with their whole body and soul. Each mundane sentence sounds like an exquisite opera, each gesture an elegant dance.

Buongiorno Antonio. How are you today?” Although I still feel lightheaded, I twirl around the fruit stand. “You’ve got some beautiful peaches again today,” I sing to him in English. We struck a deal two weeks ago. I would teach Antonio some English and he would return the favour in Italian. A win-win situation, as far as I’m concerned.

I pick one pink peach and walk over to the glass covered food display and choose two slices of pizza, one with extra sun-dried tomatoes and the other with mozzarella. As a little extra, to spoil myself, I also decide to take a slice of apricot cake.

Antonio carefully wraps them all in paper and hands them over. “Godere della bella giornata di sole, enjoy the sun, signora Alice.”

“Oh, I will, Antonio. I’m going to relax somewhere in the shade in the Villa Borghese, a domani. Ciao!”

Back out on the street, armed with all the delights, I continue my walk to the Villa Borghese, my favourite public park. It’s only about a ten-minute walk from my hotel and even when going into the city centre, I walk through the park and down the Spanish Steps, leading into the heart of Rome. Right now I want to avoid the crowds. All I want is to loosen myself of this morning’s sickly feeling and unwind on the soft moss, away from everyone.

Walking further down the Via Luigi Luciani, it strikes me how green Rome really is. It has majestic plane trees alongside the stately boulevards, charming cherry and apple blossoms in the smaller streets and the many umbrella pine trees looking as ancient and mysterious as the Roman ruins resting in their shade. On the balconies people are growing yuccas, olive trees, prickly cactuses and of course grannies geraniums in terracotta pots and colourful plastic containers in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Scooters zoom past as I carefully cross the wide Via Ulisse Aldrovandi. A guy shouts out at me: “Ciao, bella!” and disappears off hooting a taxi for being too slow.

Bella, bella,” I say it out loud and, feeling like a princess, I enter the Villa Borghese.

A gravel path leads me through a lush garden, landscaped in a classical 18th-century style where green slopes are set around a large artificial lake. It’s still quiet and only a few people are walking through the park, some hand-in-hand, a solitary jogger runs past and I see a few elderly people sitting on the iron benches reading.

On the grass in the shade, I spread out my blanket and sit down. I have a bit of a giggle looking at the beige blanket. It’s just so fantastically tacky: the city’s twin founders, Romulus and Remus, are embroidered on it while suckling their wolf mother. It’s so cheesy I just simply had to buy it.

Now that I’ve finally made myself comfortable, I have a bite to eat and try to nap. I close my eyes and I hear the soft zooming of a nearby insect, ducks scatter up from the lake, a pigeon coos; in the distant I can hear the monotonous buzz of the city. It doesn’t take long for me to doze off.

It’s not just an ant tickling my bare arm, but something I can’t quite put my finger on that wakes me. It’s almost as if I can feel someone’s breath, hear someone exhaling. Close to me. Too close.

I open my eyes. For the second time today I feel like everything around me is moving from left to right. Staring up to the sky, the leaves of the trees are actually swaying in the soft breeze. It’s not just my imagination. I press myself up and rest on my elbows. Instead of seeing the lake, I’m looking straight at a man. Sitting. Next to me. I look straight into his eyes.

In one fast move, I sit up and pull my feet towards me. My head hurts from moving too quickly and for a moment I’m too stunned to do anything. The man just sits there and smiles at me. He’s young. Has slender long arms and legs. Wearing jeans, white shirt, unbuttoned, and sandals. He’s got a slim face, large square glasses and pointy, pursed lips. He looks like a giant mosquito.

What the hell is he doing sitting so close to me? And how long has he been sitting there? I’m in no mood for a confrontation. With a big huff I get up and, with great force, I pull the blanket from the ground and walk away.

A little further I find a new spot. Lay out my blanket and lie down. Sure enough, I hear his heavy breathing again. I can’t believe it as I open my eyes. Once more the mosquito man is sitting next to me. Even closer now. I’ve had enough. I grab my sandal and start fastening the strap around my left foot. The man moves forward and, as if in slow motion, I watch him bend over and reach for my right foot. He grabs hold of it and with his pursed lips starts kissing it. Starts kissing my dirty bare foot!

From deep within me I unleash the Northern girl I am. “Oi, you wanker!” I shout at him and with my newly acquired Roman passion, start hitting him with my sandal. “Get the fuck off me, you creep!”

Scusi, scusi, sorree…” The man jumps up and starts running off.

Scusi?” I yell after him. My whole body and soul I pour into my words and gestures. “Fucking scuzi? You dirty bastard!” Around me people stop and start pointing at me. ‘Yeah, now suddenly you notice me?’ I can’t believe this. Ants are crawling over my blanket and I notice that they have crawled into my paper bag with my apricot tart. “Here you dirty bastard, this is what you get from me.” I crush the paper bag under my feet. The beige blanket has a big patch of crushed cake on it. Romulus and Remus are covered in apricot jam and black from the soil from my feet.

I’m sweating and my hands are sticky. I want to go home. Back to the hotel. The sunlight is hurting my eyes. My head. Briskly I walk down the gravel path. My feet are all black from kicking up dirt and sand.

At the busy and dangerous crossing of Via Ulisse Aldrovandi, I have to stop to wait for the green light. As I’m waiting, a sign stuck to the traffic light catches my eye. In bold red letters it says: ATTENZIONE, FERMARE LA ZANZARE TIGRE. STOP THE TIGER MOSQUITO. It shows a little drawing depicting potted plants with water saucers underneath that are crossed through with big red X’s.

I look up at the balconies, at all the pots and plants. If you all would listen for once, you wouldn’t have a tiger mosquito problem. People have died from their bites. From dengue fever for heaven’s sakes.

Scooters and taxis and old Fiats with their disgusting fumes steer past me, their noise loud and irritating. A guy on a Vespa shouts to a girl on the other side of the road, hardly able to take his eyes off of her and her short skirt. Tooooooot! He almost crashes into a taxi in front of him. The taxi driver starts yelling and the traffic comes to a chaotic halt. I shake my head as I cross the road. If only people in this country would keep their eyes off all that’s pretty and focus on what’s important. Official announcements. The road. National safety. Look deeper. Fix the damned holes in the road. I almost sprain my ankle as I step into one. Bah, no wonder this country is politically unstable.

As soon as I walk through the sliding doors at the hotel, the cool, air-conditioned air soothes me. I feel like I can breathe again. The cold marble floors are immaculately clean, the gentleman at the reception acknowledges me with a friendly nod. I’m home.

Back in my room, I fall onto my bed. My soft, comfortable bed. Since I’ve been gone, the cleaning lady has been and my whole room is neat and tidy. The sun is shyly coming through the partly drawn blinds. The art-deco wallpaper flowers seem to blossom in the soft light.

A warm bath, lathering soap smelling of lavender, cleans my dirty feet and washes away the mosquito man’s invisible stains. My clothes and the tacky Romulus and Remus blanket are in the trusted hands of the hotel’s dry-cleaning service, ready for use again in just a few days. I pick up my phone from my bag and notice that Nick has sent me a text: Sorry about this morning. I just miss you. Love you baby and enjoy being in Rome. Maybe ring Silvia for some company. XN

I hold the phone close to me and whisper a soft “I love you too.” I know Nick means well, but Silvia can wait till Monday. I might even go out with her again next weekend, but for now, I’ll just turn my phone off entirely. I really don’t want to be disrupted again.

Clean and content, I roll back into the bed and close my eyes. Can I hear anything? No, all is quiet. No zooming insects, no buzzing phones. Simply silence. I pull the covers tighter and reach over for the room service menu. I’m going to order myself a nice meal. Spaghetti carbonara and a bottle of Chianti. After all, when in Rome….