In year three, around the time I moved into apartment number two thousand, I got the whiff of an opportunity for a job that sounded like it combined things I loved (art and history) and things that terrified me in the way other people are terrified of finding a large spiders in their bed (public speaking).
My main motivation was escape. I had been teaching English in Rome as a way to get by while seeking other opportunities that would a) pay the rent and b) be something I may actually enjoy and imagine doing in the future. I could barely sustain myself on the sporadic nature of English lessons and I’d discovered journalism wasn’t going to pay the bills anytime soon (I know, shocking discovery).
Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point? He talks about Connectors, these people that know a wide range of individuals in the community and are likely to make introductions that link the right people at the right time. They are the catalysts that can change everything. Michelle is a connector. She’s one of those girls you would kind of hate if she wasn’t wonderful. Intelligent, hilarious, gorgeous, blond, fit, clever and her voice is one of those voices you just want to hear reading even a phone book to you. She purrs.
One day, as I lamented how deeply and passionately I loathed teaching English she said, “Why don’t you try being a tour guide? I can introduce you to my boss.”
A tour guide. So… you talk to people about history and art and they pay you?
I had never even been on a tour. I wasn’t sure.
In highschool I had one of those fabulous and possibly slightly unhinged teachers that at first you can’t decide if you like or hate and suddenly realize you adore. Ms. K had big hair, wore bangles and necklaces with coins on them like Esmerelda and draped gauzy scarf items about her person so that wherever she went she seemed to ripple with teals, violets and blood orange hues. She stood in front of us one day, in a spasm of inspiration, and told us we had our whole lives before us and if she had just one piece of advice to give us it was this: just say Yes! She paused here to let it sink in. We stared at her. Up until that point I’m pretty sure we’d all just been told to say No emphatically over and over again. No to drugs. No to sex. No to uncertainty. No to failure.
“Just say “Yes!” Her arms were in the air and her eyes were wild, “Yes to what the world offers you. You will never know where a yes can take you until you’ve tried.” Then with a sigh she slowly and dramatically heaved herself back to the whiteboard to show us that she had “experienced things” and we went back to analyzing pathos in the speeches of former presidents. I diligently wrote in my notebook: Just say “Yes.”
So here I was at another crossroads. I wanted to make it in Italy, I had to try until I knew I didn’t want to try anymore. I couldn’t explain why. But here I was and here was a job that Rome had offered to me. Just say “Yes.”
I was duly introduced to Larry.
He motioned us to be seated with him in the swanky foyer of a hotel near Piazza Navona in which every piece of furniture was draped in flowing creamy upholstery, tied up here and there with festoons. The place was empty and with Larry presiding over a collection of agendas and cell phones laid out before him with black suited waiters choreographing our approach to the table, it felt not like a place nobody happened to be hanging out in but a place that had been cleared. We sat.
“This is Lauren,” purred Michelle. The man himself wore a gray suit and had a pair of small, black spectacles perched on his nose. His head seemed to balance precariously on his thin neck as it turned to appraise both of us. He smiled with the well oiled precision of a finely tuned machine. As I shook his hand, I tried to hide the look of surprise on my face as Michelle proceeded to elaborate my unknown biography. “Lauren has a major in art history and has already been guiding for about a year but is looking for more work. She’s a dear friend of mine, Larry.” Purr purr purr.
Duh, I got the job.
It wasn’t until he stood up that I realized Larry came up to about my elbow. I’m aware he couldn’t possibly have been that short but in the waves of memory that is what comes back to me: a small, somewhat slimy man with an eerily calm demeanor that seemed to orchestrate everyone in the room around him. We stood, waiters moved chairs, we were swept out onto the street, the interview was over and I had been granted a new future.
When you’ve been living in Italy for some time (and perhaps if you’ve been living anywhere in the world, but I wouldn’t know) you start to take on a philosophical mode of thinking about the city that becomes part of your survival instinct. I’ve heard it many times: Rome is testing me. Rome rewarded me. Rome gave me something beautiful today. Rome is being a complete asshole. It’s like Rome is an entity that has a higher plan for us and the hardships and beauties we find along our path are part of Rome’s design.
As I left that interview I had again the unmistakable feeling that I didn’t know myself, that I was being forced into new shoes and would have to learn a brand new dance… and fast… just to keep my place on the grand Roman stage. The Lauren I knew followed rules. She told the truth. She was prepared. She was … safe. But Rome was asking me, forcing me, to be Laurenissima. Someone who said “Yes”.
That was January. I had the rough start time of “May-ish” so cue studying 3,000 years of Roman history. Larry’s tours were short and sweet. Each lasted two hours and paid €25 per hour, plus tip. Cash of course. One covered the Colosseum and Roman Forum. One was the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. One was the Borghese Gallery. And one was the city center including the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. How hard could that be?
I was still spending over 20 hours a week on public transportation to get to my students and deliver “English”. On these trips I’d listen to podcasts taking notes in a small notebook wherever I was. I started with Mike Duncan’s phenominal “History of Rome” Podcast. God, is that good (that is, if you are into Roman history otherwise I have been informed that it is “unbelievably boring, Lauren” by a friend who clearly is not as inspired by the minutiae of Roman politics some 2,000 years ago).
At night I copied these notes into a notebook and added what I’d learned from books, Yale Architecture courses online, and 3D satellite map features that allowed me to zoom in on things in the Roman Forum and start picking apart which was the Basilica Aemilia and which the Basilica Julia. Where is the Curia, Rostra, Temple of Castor and Pollux, Temple of Concord, of Vesta and of Antonino and Faustina (and who were they?) and on and on. By reading and listening and watching the same information from numerous sources, I got a much more nuanced picture of the time period and also quickly realized that everything you read is a little bit different than the last thing you read on the very same topic. When it says a temple was constructed in year 12 it could mean it was consecrated that year, it was started that year or it was finished that year. “Built by Augustus” in one source could be “built by the Senate on behalf of Augustus” in another source. Sometimes sources were downright incorrect. Every time I got onto a bus and headed to an English lesson, I had more motivation to learn it all.
Every hero beginning their quest eventually meets a mentor (a.k.a. the wise wizard) who gives them something to help with their quest. (For those of you not familiar with Joseph Campbell’s “The Heroes Journey,” stop reading this and go read that.) My wise wizard was a girl named Emily who happened to be the roommate of a friend of mine. It turned out she was getting her phD in art history and worked for a prestigious tour company and when she casually handed me her guide notes she gave me a frame on which to hang the shreds of information I was accumulating on all those bus rides. While a lot of the time it would simply say something like, “tell the apple story here” and I’d have something new to look up, those notes were the beginning of turning a pile of information into a story, without which the information really has no point.
In the Vatican alone there are about 20,000 pieces of art on display. These include pieces from ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance and modern art. There are the stories of artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and, by the way, what is that plaque on the wall written in Latin with the name Leonardo da Vinci in the middle? Explain the Sistine Chapel. Tell the story of Genesis. Explain the history of the Vatican and the papacy. Why is this statue of a boy holding a duck by its neck? What kind of marble is this? What did Leo XIII do, I see his name above the doorway there. How do you make a tapestry? How much did this cost? In todays dollars? Where’s the bathroom?
On weekends, I visited the sites. While it felt like I knew every bus line in the city to get to English lessons, the city center on foot was still a labyrinth to me and I tracked where I would walk if I started from certain monuments or hotels since the tour start point would change depending on where guests were staying. I began to explore Rome in a new way, an almost desperate way as I realized how much I needed to know if I was going to pull this off.
Lastly, I followed numerous tours with a woman named Francesca from whom I learned not just information but pacing, storytelling and how to be authoritative. Talk, make your point (always next to something you can look at) and walk away. Keep talking. You’re in charge (hopefully).
Along the way I had a few meetings with Larry to “see how I was getting on” (in which we never actually discussed anything about work or tours) one memorable excursion being in a friends restaurant shortly before I was to start. It was where he arranged cooking classes so he introduced me to the chef who prepared an amazing meal for Larry, myself, and a friend of his who got progressively more and more drunk throughout the evening until he was standing on chairs playing an accordion and encouraging me to sing along.
Here are a few rules about working in Italy.
1. You have to know someone to get a job. Introducing yourself with a flawless resume is close to worthless.
2. The creation of the “amicizia” or the “friendship” is very important and without it, you simply can’t do business. How can you trust someone that isn’t a friend and will sing to drunk accordion playing with you?
3. Bringing up money outright is incredibly rude.
In the US we would prize (or at least make a show of prizing) keeping things professional and being upfront and clear about money and expectations. In Italy everything is muddled and unclear and the art of it all is being able to manage your way through with grace and elegance. “What about the money” is so very crass, darling. You’re supposed to act like you’re doing this job for fun and because you just like each other so very much.
At one point during the dinner Larry had leaned across the table and said, “And it’s too bad you don’t have the license but we’ll just try to keep you on the smaller tours.” I pretended to know what he was talking about and called Michelle the next day. What’s this license? Something you “technically needed” to be a guide but it’s not a big deal, a ton of people don’t have it. Francesca had one but she said the same, “just stay kind of low” she said, and it’s not a big deal. I thought it was kind of like the English teacher certification. If you have it, better. If you don’t have it, carry on anyway.
I can say this about being an immigrant: there are just a lot of things you totally don’t “get” either because of the language barrier, the lack of social and cultural capital and, if you’re in a financial bind, the reality that you don’t have many (maybe any) options. I would prefer to have this license but it’s not like I can get it in the next few weeks. The seasonal work of English teaching was coming to an end and on a salary wavering below 1,000 euros a month for a little over half the year, I had two choices: Go ahead with the job or go back to California. I didn’t consider that a choice.
My first tour was approaching: the Roman Forum and Colosseum and I was ready to more or less kill the couple I would meet with a barrage of way too detailed information about the fall of the Roman Republic. Little did I know that the license wasn’t just something it would be “good to have.” To work without it was illegal.