Those days in Rome

To read other stories from THOSE DAYS IN ROME click on the underlined titles below.

"Travels with Emidio" " Cat on a Hot Tin Train" "Procession" "The Prince" "Saints and Sinners" "The Mugging Papers" "After You Called" "HOME"



Travels with Emidio

by D. Darteo Sommese

EMIDI0: Darteo, where do you go when I don't see you. DARTEO: I go on my own adventure, because when I am with you, I only have time for your adventure.

EMIDI0: (With a practiced pathetic expression on his face.) Darteo, can you spend some time with me today?

DARTEO: What will we do?

EMIDI0: (getting excited as a small child might.) We can go to Ostia, to the beach. I have two tickets for the train in my pocket.

DARTEO: (Giving in, knowing full well that, the trip would surely be something to write home about.) O.K, I want to see Ostia.

EMIDI0: You wont leave me like you did last time will you?

DARTEO: Emilio, I told you tree times I had to go. I only say things three times, then I am gone.

EMIDI0: (trying the old fear of God routine, His voice getting scary.) How could you leave an old man like that? God will punish you...

Darteo: Well I asked God about it before I got on the bus. God said, "Don't worry about that old man, he has been getting himself home for 77 years, he will be ok."

EMIDI0: (he's thinking sympathy is not going to work with this guy. A different tactic must be employed. He accepts the challenge)

Darteo: OK, Emilio, here are the ground rules, if we are going to spend the day together, you can only talk to people when we are moving, as in on the bus or the train, otherwise I am gone.

EMIDI0: (With childish glee.) OK, OK, Darteo.....Let's go to Ostia!

Emidio was born in Tratevere. A very old quarter of Rome, that had since turned into a Mecca for tourists. He has hustled more tourists in his time than Carter used to have liver pills. He is now 77 years old and has refined his act to a fine art. His has flowing shoulder-length snow white hair, and an unusual way of dressing. Normally he chooses wild colored flowing pantaloons and crazy things hanging around his neck. One item is a long strand of chartreuse plastic beads, which are part of the bead curtain that normally hangs in a doorway of his apartment. He wraps them dramatically around his neck, like Isadora's scarves. To him, his apartment is called the Palazzo di Pupazzi, the palace of the dolls, or the puppets, which he has hanging out of all the windows. He said to me once, "I am a stranger to my own people, why is that?” The Italians for the most part are quite conservative people. I have seen Emidio strike real fear in some of the people he has walked up to. They just are not used to men his age dressing like that. So to answer his question, in my blunt but honest way, (thinking he his asking me a question obvious to both of us), I said. "Well take a look at your self! You don't dress like your people!” You have to see his toothless grin to know he appreciates my own eccentricity. He's challenged by my candor.

Emidio and I communicate in a curious way. He tells his friends, "Darteo talks to me in English, but I don't understand English..." and he laughs. I do think there is something intuitive going on. My Italian is still quite primitive, so when I look like I am getting lost while he is talking to me, he switches over to English to give me some pointers in the way the conversation is going. This helps me follow our conversation. "You are like the Americans that used to come here after the war", Emidio tells me, "Today they are shit, dead in their hearts".

Emidio lived in Rome through the Muselini years, the German occupation of Italy, and Rome, as well as seeing the Allied liberation of the peninsula. During the German occupation of Rome, at age 14 he was stood up against the wall to be shot for trying to help a young Jewish girl escape the city. At the last minute he was let go. He doesn't know why. "Are you Jewish?”, he once asked me. " I said, "No my family is Catholic." Emidio answered with a wizened expression, "We all have a little Jewish in us you know."

I keep trying to figure out how crazy Emidio actually is. God knows, I am no stranger to eccentric people, but I find some of his behavior compulsive and beyond his control. He absolutely wants to talk to everyone he passes on the street. Like a small child looking for affection or attention, he will try to do this at all times, as impossible as it might seem in a large city like Rome. Walking with him means going nowhere. After being absolutely lucid, he will interrupt himself and go up to a complete stranger and say in Italian, "Do you know where the Palazzo di Pupazzi is?" Most of the people on the street are very kind, and even though they seem quite alarmed by his appearance, they rack their brain to help this poor old man find the Palazzo di Pupazzi. I wonder if he is just messing with their brain, or he actually thinks they will come up with the right answer. I am always laughing inside, but sometimes I can not hold it in, and there I am by myself a few feet away, laughing my head off like a person who just smoked a funny cigarette.

"Why do you bother people! I scold, "Let them go about their life!", only to be answered by that toothless grin of his. Part of me thinks he just can't help himself, the other part thinks he knows exactly how to manipulate people to get what he wants. I am starting to learn that the very old and the very young have a lot of things on a behavioral level in common. Sometimes he talks baby talk and calls me Daddy. He is really quite the clown. Being with him is exhausting, but never dull, and I laugh an awful lot.

Emidio pulls out the family photos with almost anyone who talks to him for more than ten minutes. They come out of a plastic grocery bag that he has rigged to a shoulder strap. The bag changes often, but the contents stay the same. Some of the pictures are just a Xerox copy. A dog eared sheet of many photos, all folded and beat up. He points to his two sons and daughter and tells you their names, giving a quick life story of each. He shows a picture of his beautiful wife who died of cancer a few years ago. He admits, with a look of regret, to being an awful "run-around", but he loved her very much. She must have loved him as well, because I don't think he was ever an easy guy to live with.

Emidio was quite handsome when he was young and still has wonderful features. Sometimes he looks positively 'Hollywood' American Indian, but always a character out of a book. "I look like an old witch" he said of himself once. His family stays at arms length or so it seems. He dragged me past the house of one of his sisters and introduced me to her over the intercom once. He knows my Italian language skills are minimal, so he talks about me and I have no idea what he is telling people. He will say just about anything, because he may be some sort of sprite, or aging Puck, here just to screw with the complacent. His normal line is. "This is Darteo, he is American!", adding zing to the "He's-an-American" part, like a barker in a circus. For all my forward nature, I am really not the one to really enjoy being pointed out in this fashion. I get noticed enough just trying to be inconspicuous. I sit there and blush and I give them an expression that seems to communicate my exact feelings. What ever that expression is, they seem to understand completely, and we all end up laughing at how ridiculous it all is. Emidio loves to get laughs.

"Say something to my sister in English he commands, using me as some charm to get the normally closed door, open. He is playing the 'American' card again. He is talking to his sister from the street on an apartment building intercom. I say, nothing and just glare at him. In my maturity I have become silently obstinate about things. Emilio gives up trying to convince me to say something. In the end she would not let him in. It was a bit sad. Offering an explanation, and always dramatic, he said, "It's the husband, he is jealous of me! My mother never wanted her to marry him." The embarrassment faded from both of us quickly, and we just moved on.

We had not gotten more than 100 feet into our trip to Ostia when he stopped to talk to a lovely young woman, accosting her on the street, rattling off incomprehensible Italian. I can never tell if the people he knows are old friends or people he is just meeting since he seems to treat everyone with the same level of friendliness. In the way of conversation and apology I ask this English woman, who mentioned that she was also a writer, if she knew Emidio. "Oh yes", she says. I reminded Emidio that our deal was that he could only talk to people while we were on moving public transportation. When I asked him how he knew the woman we had just met, he said, "I didn't know her". "She told me she knew you", I protested. "I told her to say that, I didn't know her at all", he said grinning impishly. She knew him well, as everyone did.

As unbelievable as it might sound, Emidio is a babe magnet. Young girls can't seem to resist his charm. He really knows how to pick them as well. They are not only beautiful, but have a heart too. "I was crazy for the 'fucking' when I was young", he offers out of the clear blew sky, "I have not had sex in 15 years, this is why I look androgynous." I just laugh my head off. The guy is too much.

DARTEO: (Offering slyly) Emidio, I think I should tell you a few things about personal grooming.

EMIDI0: (falling for the set-up) What is this personal grooming?

DARTEO: (reeling him in) Personal grooming is what they used to teach to people in school. It's the art of dressing and taking care of yourself.

EMIDI0: (swallowing the bait) What is it you want to tell me?

DARTEO: (delivering the punch line) You have to clean those funky toenails of yours!

EMIDI0: (he says laughing) Darteo! are a terrible spoiled boy!

DARTEO: (laughing and shouting to the rooftops) Clean those funky toenails of yours!

He holds my arm tight in the way that Italian men do when they walk together, and we both laugh uproariously stumbling down the street. Me with my Hawaiian shirt and shorts, looking just as outlandish to the Romans and Emidio does to me. This guy is something rare and perhaps the king of mischief. That toothless smile is worth a million. Emidio is a character out of a book, come alive to walk the earth. Some people only read books, I get the rare pleasure of living one. I get the biggest kick out of doing what Emidio doesn't expect. He seems to get a real kick out of being shocked as well. But at the bottom of it all this he is an irascible con artist, so I feel all the aces are wild. If he can be crazy, so can I.

All of a sudden he see's someone walking down the street toward us and makes a break to go ask them about the Palazzo di Pupazzi. I grab his arm this time and drag him the rest of the way to the tram stop, him loving the drama of it all. It was only the smile on his face that made the people that were watching us not call the police. He is the biggest "ham" I have ever met and played the whole thing up to the hilt. "Just go from point A to point B, it’s all I ask!" I say with feeling. As a former actor and painter himself, he is always performing, always on. At last we were at a place where we could actually get somewhere. On the bus stop, and on the train he can talk to his hearts content, as I sit back and enjoy the show.

"Aspeti per il oumo vecchio!" (Wait for the old man!) I yell to the tram driver as I jump on the tram. Along comes pokey Emidio, distracted by some people to ask the whereabouts of the Palazzo di Puppazi. Once on the tram he works the crowd using his old-man power to start up a conversation with anyone close to him. At first there is silence, but the Italians are quick to smile. If there is a pretty young woman to talk to, that is normally his first choice, but he will talk to anyone. There is no one too poor or deformed of physically challenged, that he will not stop and exchange pleasantries with. Soon the girl is smiling; a boy and an old man join in. Soon the whole back of the tram is talking to one another. The old 'sprite' that Emidio is, claims victory over complacency once again. By the time we leave to make connections with the commuter train, everyone is singing "Ciao" and waving us off the train, like we all just spent the week together.

The semi crowded nature of the small commuter train station is a bit too much for a people addict like Emidio. To get us to the right platform I have to grab his arm again and pull him to the right place where he could talk to his hearts content, as we wait for our train. Emidio had run off just as the train was about to leave. I had to use the "Wait for the old man" line again as Emidio bungled on. Once on the rather beat up commuter train, I had to run from behind to keep up with him, as he chose a seat for the 40 minute ride. He went through the car like a diviner with a water-witch, expert at finding water. I knew by now that the former horn-dog was looking for just the right woman, to park himself next to. He runs up to two middle aged women who had two seats open. They glare at him and he says "No No, not this on one" and runs to the next woman down the line. For some reason she was rejected and he moved on frantically. "Here, here!" he says, choosing a beautiful young woman dressed in a tight red button down blouse, with body hugging bright red slacks to match. She was thin and trim as only the young can be, age 25 perhaps. The initial confusion passes quickly and she is quick to smile. Emidio, I am thinking, has the gift of finding people with a heart. I take one look at that smile, and I settle in my seat, confident this is going to be a fun ride.

She sat there with the same look of utter bemusement most people have when Emidio swoops into their life. Her seat and our seats conveniently faced one another. The young lady in red, looked to me like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Annette Funacello. Considering her age, I wondered if she had heard of either of these women. Emidio wasted no time telling her the story of his life after announcing to the entire train to Ostia that "This is Darteo, he is American! She looked at me wondering exactly how I fit into this picture, I just shrugged as she sensed my embarrassment. We both spontaneously started laughing at the idiocy of the situation. I knew by her radiant smile, that Emidio had struck gold on this one. She was a young beautiful woman with a heart... and red being my favorite color. Was this rascal matchmaking I wondered? He seemed to me to be basking in the chemistry between us. Suddenly I felt embarrassed by my age, remembering the vintage movie posters of the film Roman Holiday in the windows of the book stores all over Rome now, showing Audrey Hepburn riding on the back of a motorina driven by Gregory Peck.

By this time the entire car was fixed on what was going on in our booth. A young ‘salty’ ragazzo, (young guy, Italian body surfer), on his way to the beach closed in like iron filings to Emidio's magnet. He has long dark hair tied back and his skin is chestnut brown from all the hours in the summer sun. He travels light with a pair of swim fins and a towel. He parked himself next to me, hanging on the overhead bar the commuter car was equipped with. The people stand much closer to one another than I am used to. I found myself clutching my fanny pack just in case he was up to something. The paranoia was unfounded. Soon he was part of our little troop ready to entertain the rest of the people in the car, who seemed to be nosily transfixed on what was going on in our booth.

Daniella was her name, and to my good fortune she spoke English. Emilio was rattling on in Italian, pulling out the rumpled pictures, asking us all our astrological signs, now including Paolo, the Italian body surfer, in the conversation. Paolo, who's rather grim of expression in the beginning, turned to utter joy, having been included in the action. More of Emilio's magic I thought.

DANIELLA: (to Darteo, face lighting up and laughing wildly.) Do you know what he is saying!!!

DARTEO: (sitting there helpless) I have no idea what he is saying and he knows it, so don't believe anything he tells you. He is libel to say anything!

DANIELLA: (still smiling broadly) How long have you known him? DARTEO: (returning the smile, wondering just what crazy thing Emilio was telling her. “Three weeks”.

EMIDIO: (rattling on in incomprehensible Italian, stirring the pot)

PAOLO: (beaming, he can understand the Italian, but not the English)

DANIELLA: (laughing and talking over Emidio) How did you meet him?

DARTEO:(laughing also) He picked me up!... just like he is picking you up right now!

Laughing like this with a perfect stranger is a wordless communication that can not really be explained. It was obvious that we were on the same beam, joined together in the same comic movie, laughing at the same wordless joke. Laughing joined us together. We were like an orchestra playing music together. Emidio was the crazy white haired conductor. I thought Paolo was going to start swinging from the bar above us. He really seemed to be enjoying himself. At his tender age I don't think he had come in contact with a character like Emilio before. I wondered if he would ever be the same after this.

Emidio reached in his bag and out comes the camera. This is also part of his routine. He hauls out the camera and he is snapping pictures of all the people he meets. I have seen many of his snaps shots, but after spending a day or two with him, I have become aware that his little plastic camera is like the guns in all those shoot-em-up cowboy movies, it never runs out of ammunition, because there may be no film in the camera. If the film runs out, he just keeps on shooting! It is not the picture that is important to him, it is the act of getting the people together for the picture. Paolo is delighted to be enlisted to take the picture. All the people in our car of the commuter train are absolutely fixed on what is happening in our little booth. Our shrieks of laughter only draws them in more, all of us by now quite giddy from Emidio's antics. With great flair and exaggerated motion the very colorful Emidio is hamming it up, getting close to Daniella and of course dragging me in the shot, as Paolo twists and turns to get us all in the frame. Within 20 minutes of meeting one another we are all at once one happy family, on holiday together.

As it turns out Daniella works and goes to school in Rome. She commutes everyday to Ostia where she lives with her family. Mom, Dad and brother all live together in a five room apartment. She is a literature major and of course would one day like to write some literature herself. The 40 minute commute to Ostia everyday must be a bit mind numbing on this beat up rattle trap of a train. Emidio of course is still on, and performing like a clown at children's party. Like the Wizard of OZ, he is constantly reaching into his bag and pulling out something or other to entertain us with. At this moment out came a beat up old apple. God only knows how long it has been kicking around in the bag, in some very unsanitary conditions. He offers it to Daniella, who of course is quite aware of how unappetizing it is. She demurs and says no, as I sit back and watch her on the hot seat now, wondering how it will all turn out, knowing that this is just more of Emidio's impish mischief.

EMIDE0: (constantly testing people. handing the apple to her) Take it.

DANIELLA: (smiling and being polite) No, no I couldn't.

EMIDE0: (trapping her with the offer) Yes, take it, it's yours.

DANIELLA: (trapped, unable to be impolite, silently accepting the questionable gift, her expression is priceless)

Without words Daniella looked at me and we both become hysterical, eyes gleaming, again both getting the same joke. The laughter wraps around us all. It is a sort of music, harmonizing with the rhythm of the clickety clack of the train wheels. Paolo and Emidio join in. Emidio with a false expression of bewilderment, while I know, he knows full well what we are all laughing about. By this time the rest of people in the car, who were quite dull at the beginning of the trip, all seem to be in on the joke. They have the same gleam of laughter in their eye. The train comes to a stop, but the ride is far from over.

Daniella living about a block from the beach herself escorts us to the Beach. It just so happens that the bus stop is right under her apartment window. Emidio is naturally doddering behind us and she tells me that she doesn't want her brother to see her walking with two strangers. "He would not understand," she says. Emidio keeps trying to get us to stop at a cafe, he says he wants to sit, but I know he is going to try to hustle Daniella for a glass of wine. He is like a small child, he just likes having perfect strangers buying him things.

It is already five o'clock and the beach is just a block away. I insist we go to the beach and keep Daniella walking because I know Emidio will follow. Emidio involves Daniella in a conversation in Italian which I can not understand a word of, but I can see by Daniella's expression something was wrong. Without out hearing a word I ask her, "Is he trying to get you to do something you don't want to do? ”He wants me to take him home to my mother and have her cook us all dinner." I can not believe this guy! I scold him for being so rude, and tell her just not to listen to him. Emidio just looks at me as if I were defective. "People don't want to have perfect strangers in their home!" I scold.

To Emidio's utter delight there is a table with an umbrella on a deck next to a gazebo that sold snacks. This was the perfect place for Emilio to hold court. While I went to the waterline to soak my feet in some salt water, Emilio had gotten poor Daniella to buy him something to drink, as he entertained her with of course, him drawing her portrait in his fast scribble style.

Daniella was really quite beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. She was so respectful and attentive to Emidio as we all should be to our elders. Emidio basked in it. She hung on his every word glancing at me from time to time to smile. I couldn't tell, but I think he was still trying to "work" her for dinner. To get him off the subject, I suggested perhaps we all go out and buy some Chinese food. But in the end Daniella had some obligations at home. I heard her say in Italian with a sad look in her "My parents don't like me to go off with strangers." I had to be the one to let her go. She had my card and we planned to all meet in the city one day. We didn't say much of a good-by, not really even doing the Italian kissy thing. As if the whole experience went by the both of us, in review at the same moment, we laughed in silent agreement that it had truly been a wonderful afternoon.

Daniella barely got out of sight, when Emidio had two new fish on the line. The guy is amazing! One of the guys had lived in Rome and recognized Emidio and stopped to say hello. Before I could say Buona Sera, these guys were sitting at the table and Emidio was scribbling their portrait. Like lambs to slaughter, I thought. I could see Daniella over their shoulder turning into a tiny red dot in the distance.

I excused myself for a moment and took the opportunity to walk barefoot at the waters edge. The beach was really beautiful. There were the diehard sun worshipers enjoying what were really the last hours of summer. As a person who has lived at the beach most of my life. I know there is something about the way those last hours feel. The sun is bright, but the day is wrapped in melancholy, the sadness you feel when you know something beautiful is about to come to an end. Yes, there will be another summer, but you have grown so attached to this one.

Its funny how you can miss someone you barely know, but with Daniella gone, the sun shone just a little less bright that day. She disappeared just as the sun was about to set. It was just a chance meeting on a train like so many I have had in my life. As a seasoned vagabond, I have long known you can fall in love with a person you have only known for a few hours. It is comprises both the beauty and the sad thing about traveling. You really have to just swallow hard and keep moving, being thankful for the hours you were given to be with that person. After all these years I know how to do this, but it has never gotten easier. She did have my phone number, but why would a beautiful young woman concern her self with a man old enough to be her father, and one old enough to be her grandfather.

I returned to the table under the umbrella and the two men had turned to four. They were all crowded around Emidio, who of course was sketching another one of them. Two got up and excused themselves and they left. Emidio explained that they would be right back; they were off to get some food and wine. "Did you ask them to buy you food?", I demanded. "They wanted to do it", Emidio whined trying to convince me. How he talks people into buying him food I will never know. But those two middle aged men rushed back with a loaf of bread and large bottle of wine, a pound of mortadella, and the most beautiful Pecorino cheese you ever wanted to taste. We all ate bread and wine as one of the men sang some Roman songs in one of the most beautiful tenor voices I have ever heard. As the sun was setting, and as the sky turned crimson he sang in what can only be described as an angel's voice. His control was astounding, even when he sang in whisper. None of the other drunken sailors drinking the wine could throw him off key. It was clear the man had a gift, it was good to see him enjoy it as well.

We said our good-bys, as the guys we were with invited Emidio and I back again the next day. The train ride back to Rome was a quiet one. Emilio had finally run out of steam, the sun and the wine had taken its toll on both of us. I looked at our reflection in the window, as the landscape turned to shadows and flashed by. Gazing out the window I could see both outside and inside. In the reflection Emilio was nodding. There I was sitting next to him. I had to laugh, mentally recounting the events of our wild day. Some people only read books, I get to walk around in one.

ONE WEEK LATER...................

DARTEO: (cell phone ringing) that you? What happened to you? I thought you forgot about us! Coffee on Wednesday?.... sure...We can meet at the Brek Cafe, Largo Argentina right next to the tram stop...4 o'clock?...I'll see you then.......


*Emidio passed away in 2013. I ran into his brother on the street when I was passing through Rome and he told me. God rest your soul Emidio. I hope God is good to you, because you were good to me.

To read other stories from THOSE DAYS IN ROME click on the underlined titles below.

"Travels with Emidio" " Cat on a Hot Tin Train" "Procession" "The Prince" "Saints and Sinners" "The Mugging Papers" "After You Called" "HOME"

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Copyright D. "Darteo" Sommese 2017