You might consider yourself a spiritual or a religious person, someone who thinks the Universe or God or some cosmic energy is guiding you down a path. Or maybe you feel signs are not connected to a higher power and you are simply noticing patterns in the fabric of the world around you that seem to point and that’s enough for you to take a direction. Or you don’t believe in signs at all – everything is random, we are the masters of our fate, and in our decisions and our circumstances, we act alone.
These days I find myself having conversations along these lines more and more. As a tour guide, I never know what group of people I will find myself in front of and what they will want to talk about. Will they want history and ancient Roman economy? Will they want to compare modern Italian lifestyles to that of a Renaissance cardinal? Will they want to throw the tour plan out the window and drink wine and talk and laugh for four hours – you know who you are What I find is that whatever the tour focus is, people simply want to connect and I find myself jumping from conversations about how to quarry a piece of marble to how to live a good life with purpose and passion, from Brunelleschi’s engineering to how to be kind, from a portrait of a Medici child long gone to how to love. This month, the conversations have turned often to signs, to blessings, to the calls within our souls that keep us searching.
I want to tell you a story and you tell me what you think it means. What kind of message do you see?
It had to happen sooner or later. I just didn’t think it would happen on a bus surrounded by elderly Italian grandmothers. But somewhere in the crowd of the gray-haired, fur-clad old ladies on bus number 75 from Viale Trastevere down Via Marmorata, my purse was unclasped and a hand neatly lifted out my wallet. I didn’t feel a thing and didn’t realize it was gone until later when I reached into my bag and found it empty. My wallet with €50 inside, was gone.
As an English teacher I was making just enough to cover rent for my room in a shared apartment in Testaccio with about a hundred euros left over to cover all my expenses. Bus passes, grocery shopping, toiletries, a beer … when my roommate’s dog ate a pair of my shoes, I couldn’t get more… it all had to come from that hundred euros and the constant stress of counting what I had left, making the daily decisions to save a little here or there and saying no to getting dinner with friends was wearing on me. I want to be clear – this is not to say: woe is me I’m so poor because I moved to Italy… it’s to show the reality of what moving here was like.
I’d been in Italy for six months, getting lessons set up then seeing them dry up around Christmas when everyone went on vacations which meant: I didn’t get paid. I’d used my savings to pay for the English teacher certification course, my plane ticket and my first month’s rent and expenses so I was living paycheck to paycheck (which in Italy meant envelope to envelope). My bank account was at zero. My student loans were on hold and would remain that way for many years.
The answer to every question seemed to be: Money. People innocently asked: Why don’t you get a motorino to get to work? Why don’t you take some Italian lessons? Why don’t you want to go back to California for Christmas? Why would you take such a bad job? Money, money, money.
I will never forget the friend at home complaining that he was “only” making $60,000 a year or another saying that when he bought a car and had a mortgage, he could consider himself successful. This was exactly the kind of success I didn’t believe in. Your wealth and your worth aren’t linked to your money but in the US I found, it can be very hard to separate those things. I didn’t need to make $60,000 a year and I certainly hadn’t come to Italy to do that, but as I counted by euros and looked at my short term future, I’d ask myself: Did I make the right choice to come here?
I have to admit, I still think this all the time and I don’t know any other foreigners living in Italy who don’t have this thought on a regular basis.
Ok, so the wallet was gone and so was €50. Great. As soon as I got home I opened my drawer to see what I had for the rest of the month. €10. That was it. Not one more coin to my name existed in the world.
But there was more I’d lost in that wallet that I couldn’t replace. My college ID showing me with a round baby face and my short, short hair reminding me of the identity I’d just left: a college student in Tacoma, Washington. The slip of a Fortune Cookie fortune from Su Hong on Menlo Avenue – my family’s comfort food place throughout my childhood. A picture cut from a magazine of the film Chariots of Fire that was my inspiration when running cross country races in school and which I’d always kept in my sports bag for every race. A quote I’d written on a scrap of paper to inspire me. The wallet itself, yellow with a silver buckle, I’d bought with my mom the year before. I felt the loss of the wallet not just for the money stolen but for all the little talismans that would be scattered and thrown away, for the feeling that my strings to my home and family that were now thousands of miles away had gotten just a little bit thinner.
What am I doing here in this foreign country? How long should I stay here trying to make it work? These questions tumbled daily through my mind. At times I wanted to go “home” but I knew the concept of home was changing. I had to make a new one here but I felt rejected by the fact I couldn’t get a visa or a good job and this little moment of pick pocketing felt much bigger than it would have at another time. I was already low and this felt like a slap in the face.
The next day I had to get to one of my more out of the way lessons. Once a week, I took the train from Roma Ostiense station forty minutes north east of Rome to the town of Monterotondo. From the quaint, yellow station, I walked across the parking lot and down a road with no sidewalks where something about the shiny dark leaved trees and the balconies of laundry and children’s toys reminded me of Macondo in A Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a place out of time where grandmas watched the road from balconies and dogs came to bark at you at the gate. No cars, no sounds but voices from the houses and wind flapping the laundry. I imagined the lives of the people who lived on a street that to me connected nothing more than the train station to the office building I went to teach. What would it be like to grow up here? Did they dream of leaving home and moving to somewhere like… California?
In Monterotondo there is a large complex of warehouses and office buildings for tech companies, big businesses like Mercedes and the offices where I was headed. There was just a short stroll down the shoulder of a HIGHWAY, toeing the painted white line between the road and an unforgiving wall and then I’d teach from 5pm to 8pm returning in the dark to the station to get the train back to Rome. Usually only one of the eight students would come to the class so it would just be me and Davide, the tech guy and the poor thing could not remember “Hello, how are you?” to save his life.
The hour commute there and hour back and my €2.10 one-way train ticket weren’t covered. But as the company had already prepaid my school, even if only Davide showed up I’d get paid the full three hours (€16 per hour) and that, to me, felt like a luxury.
I went to the ticket machine to get my two tickets for that days commute, inserting my last precious €10. After some whirring and clinking, the paper tickets flicked down into the collection slot. I waited for my change but nothing happened. The little clinks and hums stopped and the machine fell silent. Oh no! I thought. No, no, no, please. Even this fucking Italian train station is robbing me. And worse, I realized with a sinking feeling, now I had nothing left at all. I looked around but there was nobody in sight so if I wanted to complain to anyone I’d have to go through the entire station to find the main desk and try to explain what happened in Italian. I wasn’t sure they’d believe me and I was going to miss my train if I didn’t go to the platform immediately. I started to turn away, desperate, sure that Italy was telling me quite simply to leave.
Suddenly the machine seemed to wake up. My change was coming! But not just my change. After €5.80 had clinked out there was a pause, then possibly a quiver of metal, a puff of steam maybe? A blink of a light like a wink… and one coin after another began to rain down into the metal container. It seemed like a waterfall of riches poured out right in front of me.
I scooped up the coins, grabbing them by the handful and dumping them into my purse and ran for my train. Safely in my seat, I counted them. In addition to the change for my tickets, it had spit out exactly what I had lost the day before: fifty euros.
I felt more than an immense relief that I’d be able to buy groceries and make it to my next pay day. I also felt like I was being told something and that Rome was showing me who she was. Rome could be conniving and petty, she could be grasping and selfish, she had the power to take the last things you had left and leave you with nothing. But she was also theatrical and dramatic, she could be generous and even welcoming.
“So you think you want to live here?” Rome had said to me. “Because if you do, you have to toughen up. You have to be ready to give up everything and accept what I can give you.” She had taken what I thought I’d needed and said, “You’re not in control here. Let go.”
Then she’d given it back and reminded me, “You don’t need some scraps of paper to tell you who your family is. And you don’t need money to live your life. You’ve thrown yourself into this place and you know you can’t leave now. Because where would you go? You’re already in it. You’re already in this life and there’s no going back to who you were before. There is only ever onward.”
When I got to the lesson there was, as usual, only Davide present and I tried to tell him the story but he couldn’t understand what I was saying so we just focused on learning numbers in English. Zero to fifty … and more. Why not tempt fate?
So what do you think: Was I crazy to stay? Was I brave or stupid? Was I forging my own path or was I just silly and stubborn? I don’t think Italy gave a shit about whether I stayed in Rome or not but with the return of those fifty euros I felt rich enough, and lucky enough to stay and throughout this whole journey it’s been moments like that, whether given by a city, by the Universe, or by the luck of a messed up ticket machine that broke in just the right way, which have sustained me.
I walked back down the freeway, the weight of my purse strap reminding me of what I had, down the darkened street of little houses, boarded the train and headed home.