In those glory days when I was in my late 20s, living in Rome with my then common-law wife, every day promised adventure. Or so it seems from the perspective of two decades. My work as an art and theater critic threw me in with a good many interesting people, and provided limitless opportunity for diversion. It was diversion in a milieu that included beautiful actors and eccentric artists, not to speak of Fellini and the rest of the Roman movie world, in those last fabled days before the advent of HIV in good old decadent Italy.
One day, not long after Rome had gone into brief if heartfelt mourning for the passing of Fellini's favorite composer, Nino Rota, I received a phone call from Sandro. (The names in this little tale have been changed to protect the delightfully guilty.) Sandro was part of a small avant-garde theater group whose members included a slumming count and Sandro's own live-in lover, the beautiful and talented Francesca. They were a few years my junior and minor rising stars in Italy's rich artistic firmament.
Sandro explained that the group had been commissioned to broadcast a radio play based on an episode in the life of Marilyn Monroe. They had thought to hire me, an American, as a consultant on the pronunciation of American names. In Italy things are frequently not what they seem and, though it went unsaid, I understood that this was partially a ruse to give some work to a friend and fellow party-goer. The "job" would require spending a few days in Bologna, and Sandro made several references to that city's culinary arts, famed even in Italy. Italians like to combine pleasure with work whenever possible and I had little trouble deciding to continue our revels in another setting.
Thus began an interlude that could have easily inspired one of the salty tales of Boccaccio's "Decameron," a work that, for good reason, has never lost its relevance in the country's literary and cinematic traditions.
We were in good spirits during the train journey to Bologna and went
immediately to a fine restaurant for easily one of the best lunches of my
life. The waiters attended us with quiet if evident pride. From our sidewalk
table we could see the city's two leaning towers inclining toward each other
like lovers yearning for embrace -- unlike Pisa's lone example, which has only
heaven to chastely lean toward (no doubt accounting for its singular popularity among Anglo-Saxons).
As we started to wind up our festive repast, Sandro matter-of-factly announced that he had left the script in Rome and would have to return on
the next train to retrieve it. This fazed no one in the troupe and I was
the only person to express concern as we caroused for an additional hour
over desserts and liquors, joking about the latest Roman gossip.
Sandro gone, we strolled over to our hotel nearby, a fine example of 19th century elegance evocative of many a gallant assignation. As we rode up in the tiny elevator, Francesca announced that there was a temporary shortage of rooms and so she and I would have to stay in the same room until Sandro's return. For good measure she offered a mock apology for the fact that we would have to share the same bed. As the young count looked on with a knowing glint in his eye, I realized in a flash that the entire scenario, including Sandro's precipitous departure for Rome, had been thoroughly planned, possibly by Sandro himself.
This came as a shock, though a not entirely unpleasant one. It was a defining moment -- I was more struck by being shocked than by what had shocked me. After all, I'd been brought up in a very Italian Philadelphia family where Italian was spoken and the Italian culture sounded a continual counterpoint to the world around us. Visits by my "American" friends were often occasions for embarrassment over "strange" foods, like zucchini and gorgonzola cheese, and more dramatically, our sexual frankness.
Sometimes food and sex combined, as when my very first girlfriend, a shy polite Irish-American, came for dinner. Everything went fairly well until the very end of the meal, when my grandmother noticed that Maureen, or Marina as she'd been redubbed, wasn't eating any fruit or cheese. Normally, my grandparents spoke very little English so I could fudge things in translation. This time, however, la nonna mustered her best English. "Marina," she said, while proffering a big bunch of grapes and gesturing toward still forming breasts, "Eat plenty of grapes. They make your tits grow."
Despite considering myself a natural player in Italy's continual theater of the absurd, I was taken by surprise in Bologna. Not that it was unusual for men or women to have many "conquests" in the playful world of Rome. Marriages and other fixed relationships, such as my own and Francesca's, were not usually an impediment to erotic fun. Whenever we were apart, my companion, being a Roman, always asked me if I'd met any beautiful women, the natural, rational expectation being that some lighthearted adventure should have transpired.
The pursuit was not without the occasional pitfall. Near the Pantheon is the monumental Piazza Navona, featuring fountains by Bernini and, in those days, a mysterious black-eyed mago, or fortune-teller, who always sat at one end wearing a broad-brimmed hat that did little to obscure his perhaps Amazonian features. One fine midnight, as was my habit, I was admiring the huge Egyptian obelisk -- Roman booty -- from the vantage point of a table in front of the Bar Navona. Two painter friends from the north joined me in my after-dinner drinks. As three beauties passed by on their leisurely passegiata, the two jumped up to follow, urging me to come along. I made the Italian hand signal for "see you later." Falling into step behind them, one of the painters came out with, "Why look at these fine beauties, walking three by three like the Three Graces." Without missing a beat, one of the Graces delivered one of the classic batutte, the improvised quips for which the Romans are famous. In pure Roman dialect she said, "And the two of you, side by side like a pair of balls." Coglioni, besides denoting the testicles, is the rough equivalent of "jerk-offs." The painters swiftly regained their seats.
Francesca still strikes me as one of the greatest beauties I've beheld, but I'd never considered her a potential lover, no matter how attractive I found her. Perhaps it was her extraordinary beauty, commented upon by "tutta Roma," which was daunting. More likely, given my irrepressible youthful impulses, it was a question of imperfect sympathies. In that open, guilt-free atmosphere, there was none of the desperate urgency to copulate which so often leads to equally desperate illusions about the other's nature. Francesca, while good-natured and fun, simply did not inspire me to the heights of desire.
Nevertheless, I readily fell into her arms that day in Bologna, and we enjoyed ourselves for several hours, until, apparently never short of surprises, she asked me if I loved her. I told her, truthfully, that I was very flattered by her attentions, that I greatly admired her beauty and talent, that I liked her very much, but that I did not love her.
"Beast," she called me, as if I had seduced her under false pretences, when in fact I had not seduced her at all. It then struck me that she was, understandably, proud of her beauty, and that I had wounded her vanity. Beauty, after all, is a serious thing in Italy and regarded with true respect. Notwithstanding this slight, we made love many more times over the following two days -- for Sandro had disappeared for a good two and a half days, as Francesca had told me he would. Perhaps he was off on an adventure of his own. Furthermore, as I had plans to go stay with friends in Florence when they returned to Rome, she said she would come and spend a couple of days with me there.
The rest of the crew thought nothing of this and amused themselves in various ways, airily reassuring me that it was no problem to delay the broadcast. When Sandro finally did show up with the script, I moved into my room, which suddenly became available. At dinner that night, they politely dismissed my correction of their pronunciation of "MONroe," saying that Italians would have trouble understanding the name if the stress wasn't placed on the first syllable. Then they relieved me altogether of my "responsibilities," which I'd never really had, and told me to enjoy the city while they knocked out the taping of the "boring" piece the next day.
I dutifully walked under the pleasant and curtained porticos lining the streets of the old center and observed the life of the town. Stopping to chat or to snack on pastries and espresso, I found the Bolognesi possessed of the same good-natured rationality as their architecture. Their restrained cheer contrasted delightfully with Rome's open sensuality; it was rather like comparing one of their delicate sparkling proseccos with the Coke bottles of hearty Rosso di Olevano that Roman children fill directly from wine shop barrels for their mothers. I lunched handsomely at our restaurant, where the radio station thoughtfully paid our bills, and lingered over my coffee while perusing the well-reasoned articles in La Repubblica. At the train station that evening, Sandro handed me my check and, last to board, Francesca smiled, leaned close and whispered one more "Bestia," at once accusing and affectionate.
On the evening before I was expecting her to join me in Florence, I had a phone call from Sandro. He apologized that Francesca was suffering from a cold and that he felt she should not travel. "You can get together when you return to Rome," he offered. To this day, the sight of the Uffizi Gallery, which I could see out my window just across the Arno, brings back that conversation informing me that my brief affair was over.
Back in Rome, I once more partied a good deal with the troupe. I learned that Francesca was in the habit of having frequent affairs lasting one or, rarely, two weeks, but never longer. I, evidently, hadn't quite made the grade. Not only didn't I love her; I'd actually gone off to Florence instead of attending upon her in Rome. I was a beast.
One afternoon I happened to pass down a street in the working-class Testaccio district where a young painter of my acquaintance lived. Some mutual friends were gathered in front of his building. With an air of genuine concern laced with mild Roman satire, they explained that Claudio had barricaded himself in the bathroom and was threatening to swallow a bottle of tranquilizers because he was in love with Francesca. There was another group upstairs, including Francesca herself, who was trying to coax Claudio into coming out. Claudio would only respond with despairing protestations of his undying love for her. He'd lasted the full two weeks.
Since those days, Francesca has appeared in a number of Italian movies, none of which I've seen.
And don't worry, Claudio survived to tell his own tale.