by D. Darteo Sommese
"Why do you sit there alone, come and join me!" he said in an assured manner way beyond his years.
As a vegetarian I need to have a meal of vegetables a few times a week and the best place to get that in Italy is a Chinese restaurant. There is one I like to go to right off the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, not because the food is so spectacular, but more because it is close to the section of Rome I find most comfortable. I was trying to explain to the proprietress, who I knew from the last time I lived in Rome five years ago, that I wanted my vegetables to be spicy. The food there simple and direct, but not very creative on the vegetarian side. Some times people think not wanting meat in your food is synonymous with wanting it bland. The woman I was speaking to only spoke Chinese and Italian. I was trying to be both tactful and speak Italian and it obviously was not working. I got a knowing look from the young gentleman sitting across from me who was also dining alone. I smiled at him and asked him if he spoke English. He nodded his head and invited me to join him.
Picture Robert Downey Jr. with a think black Van Dyke (moustache and goatee) playing an Italian, with an aristocratic and slightly comic air. The dark excessive eyes roll. The head bobs from side to side. The cigarette held with a certain refinement, a working class man would not have. "My name is Andrea (An-DRE-A), "I know that in your country this is a woman's name, but this is not correct, because Andrea means man." I just nodded knowingly since I long ago have become accustomed to this Italian name. "I am a lawyer," he said, when I asked him what work he did, since I am constantly angling for a job. I began to count in my mind the number of lawyers I have as friends and lost track immediately, deciding this is just another pattern in my life to meet lawyers. I am a lawyer 'magnet' I decided, which may or may not go along with being a "nut magnet" like my friend Jeanie so expressively put it. Meaning I attract nutty people. I was thinking that Andrea might be falling into both categories. He seemed delightfully eccentric for a 27 year old.
I am noticing that Europeans move differently than Americans. Americans move in a staccato fashion, where as the Italy movement seems to be more lyrical. When they speak English which comes from a different place in their throat and chest than their own language does, their voice often becomes pinched as they work hard to form words they are unaccustomed to speaking. Andrea seemed bright and intelligent. He knew English, but it seemed to suffer from lack of practice like any second language might if not used often enough. In the States a 27 year old might still be acting like he was still 17. Andrea was completely an adult. I had to constantly remind myself I was not consulting with someone older than myself, because of this world weary air about him. The artist meets the young conservative.
Andrea to my surprise was also an artist, who painted in oils though I suspect his full time position as "Internal lawyer" for a company who's main office was situated in Parma (you know where the cheese comes from) kept him from his paints. We put together the typical small talk people do when they first meet. I am great interviewer and genuinely interested in the 'story' of everyone life. The details almost do not matter. It is the way a person tells his or her story I find fascinating. In this way I think you find out the essentials about the person you are meeting, issues concerning honesty and how great their capacity for love is. The Italians don't only speak with words and their hands, but in their facial and head movements there are a vast unwritten language of their own. I kept thinking ole' Robert Downey Jr. would love to be sitting where I was, just to study this guy.
Andrea calls his place of origin Naples and I guess that is where he was born, but his father's work with and for the Italian government kept him moving from town to town. I am under the impression when you meet the son, you also meet the father. It has been my experience that the apple does not fall far from the tree when it comes to fathers and sons. From the way Andrea told his story I could see he was both educated and kind, exuding all the warmth I have come to expect from the Southern Italians.
Andrea looked at me for a second with a look I can only describe as confessional, with an expression that said, "You will find this out about me soon enough, so I might as well be the one to tell you. "I am a pr......" I could not quite hear the word and I thought he said Priest, with the black shirt and all it seem plausible. Did he think it would matter I thought? "I am a Catholic." I said matter of factly, trying to reassure him that it was OK. Annoyed he said, "What does that mean?" "You are a Priest and I am a Catholic," I said, to clarify the situation. "I am not Priest!", he said indignantly, somewhat shocked that I could even think such a thing. I am a Prince! I gulped audibly wondering if I heard him correctly. "Principe?" I asked, saying the word in Italian to make sure we were both on the same page. "Yes," he said emphatically, "My father is a Prince and I am a Prince after him." "Hmmmm" I thought this could give new meaning the phrase "nut magnet.
I have learned that you must give someone the benefit of the doubt when you listen to their story. I mean if the guy wants to be a Prince, who am I to deny him. After all I have many moments in each day that I feel rather Princely myself. This is not hyperbole, there is a part of me that is sure I was switched at birth and some commoner somewhere has stolen my Princely life from me. There is also the problem of translation, some terms and words just don't cross the language barrier well. I thought... "Well maybe he means he is descended from royalty". I bluntly mentioned to him that there was no royalty in Italy, after all, they will not even let the grandson of the former King inside the country. "He shrugged, eyes downcast and heavy lidded he said, "Never-the-less I am a Prince". It seems there is some place where his whole line is captured in portraiture. At this I brightened and made a pitch to paint his portrait. "I wanted to be painted in traditional royal clothing. " he said. I brightened even more. "I will think about this." he said, leaving the subject open.
Andrea was new to Rome and was finding it hard to make friends. He mentioned that in the 6 months he has been living in his kitchenless one room apartment in Trastevere, he has not made any new friends. "This is why you see me dining alone," he said honestly. As some one who has pulled up stakes more than once in his life and waltzed into one strange town or another, I understand the need not to feel so alone when you are in a strange city. As an American, and a novelty to Italians, doors tend to open for me faster than for a native, because ancient regional differences still lie under the surface here.
"What are you doing on this, a Saturday night," he said to me. I normally just let the breeze take me where it wants to so it was easy to say. I am flexible, but I said it in the Italian way, not with words but with sign language, shrugging my shoulders and thrusting out my chin out. "We will go to the Stadio Olymico", he announced, tonight there is a fair there. The Stadio Olympico is minutes in walking distance from where I am living. I have often seen the massive crowds and heard laughter and car door slamming late into the night as people who have been there return to their vehicles.
It was magic from the first moment we set foot on the grounds. Our cosmic timing brought us to the ticket window without having to wait in line. There were thousands of people inside. It looked more like the perfection you see on a movie set rather than something in real life. The white vinyl party tents and canopies gave it the air of some medieval tournament. There must have been 20 acres of events and shops, selling things from vacuum cleaners to the last in sun glasses, one shop was even selling Hawaiian shirts! I felt like I was in dream, everything looked so perfect including the astroturf that covered every inch of the immaculate grounds.
I suppose most men are 'horn dogs', Italian men being some of the worst. Even the most reserved Italian men seem to have a hunger for sex I don't really understand. Andrea for all his conservative air, quickly taught me all the slang terms in Italian for women and their various parts and then proceeded to have some sort of fantasy enjoyment of each woman that passed by, something that guys the world over seem to enjoy. Aside from the shops and open air beer gardens and restaurants, there were five dancing tents complete with monster sound systems and flashing strobe lights. "Come we dance," he announced. "With who? I wondered. I found out the last time I was here, the Italian boys and girls, collectively known as ragazzi (ra-GATZ-zee) just go out on the floor to dance, they are not really dancing with a partner. If two people go to dance, they dance together. If Ten people go to dance then they dance together in a flock. If that happens to be ten boys or ten girls, so be it, the ten boys dance with the ten boys and the ten girls dance with the ten girls.... they dance together, but apart. I said, I am from America, I need to dance with a girl. So he dragged me out on the dance floor near a group of some very lovely 16 year old girls and we danced and we danced.
Andrea turned into a sort of party animal once the music started. He put on a pair of black sunglass with tiny oval opaque lenses and started to sing every word of every dance song that was played, punctuating certain phrases with hand and arm movements that kept time with the music and shot straight up into the air. He was unstoppable! We made all the rounds of the various dance floors. Everyone, boy, girls, men and woman, were all spit polished and shinning in a way that people dress when they seem to like themselves. They were all dressed in really clean cut summer fashions reminding me of the 50's or even the 80's. The boys all had the latest hair fashions with the requisite shaved sides of the head, the hair on top either greased and spiked. The woman in Italy are generally speaking, absolutely lovely at any age, their clothes clean cut, but always revealing. I got kick out of the young guys who came out on the dance floor like wild Indians ready to show the world their latest steps. I thought dancing had improved since the last time I was here. It was more expressive and free, and a tiny bit primitive, rather than just bouncing from one foot to the other. Some songs seems to just drive the crowd wild and pandemonium took place with everyone's arms in the air, hands clapping and shouting in absolute unbridled joy. Thus we danced into the wee hours of the morning. My face hurt from smiling so much. The crowd did not dwindle. The Italians seem to have the stamina of great party animals the world over. They can go all night!!!
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