Know where you’re going, but not where it will take you.
Bewildered and amused, it was this philosophy that kept me grounded. And after the afternoon I’d had, I was in need of some grounding. It would have been too easy to assume that I’d made the whole thing up: That it was the heat or exhaustion or hunger that was responsible for my poor sense of reality.
But the truth was that the warmth from the sun was exhilerating, I had walked several kilometres but had had a nice break, and the pizza ordered for me had left me more than satisfied. Rome had gotten to my heart, but it hadn’t gotten to my mind.
Confident in my own sanity, the question then became: How do I tell an unbelievable story without others doubting my clarity?
As I stood in the sun outside a wonderful family-run pizzeria in Vatican City, shaking hands with the chief of the Vatican police, laughing with an Italian man who managed Germany’s best local soccer team, and a man from Munich who worked at a hotel frequented by presidents, princes, and movie stars, I couldn’t help but think how no one would believe me.
* * *
I’d overslept. And by that I mean I’d gotten back to my hostel somewhere around 5 a.m. and woke up a little too close to when I had to leave for my pre-paid tour of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums. (The evening had consisted of drinks with new friends – from Algeria and Tunisia – over bruschetta at an English pub, followed by drinks at the hostel bar with a crew from Norway and America, and a private wine party for two in front of the beautifully lit Colosseum – sans tourists or traffic.)
The crumpled map I’d been using didn’t do the distance between my room and the world’s smallest country any justice. An hour and a half of power-walking and power-navigating Rome’s chaotic streets later, I was 20 minutes late for my tour, and without any means to let anybody know that I was desperately on my way.
Miraculously, I didn’t get lost. It was almost as though my subconscious recognized that I couldn’t afford to make any wrong turns, and consequently heightened my senses. I weaved in and out of tourists like a real Roman woman on a mission, crossing streets with confidence, accutely aware of where I needed to go, all the time.
So as I hauled my burning calves up the hill to the meeting point, it was with great relief that I saw the tour guide’s bobbing red flag slowly heading toward the museums.
Once inside, I promptly proceeded to lose the tour. The truth is that there is some truly stunning artwork in the Vatican museum, and while the English-speaking guide will highlight a few of the most prominent pieces, you could really spend days taking it all in. I’d had enough rushing for one day; I wanted to meander the holy halls at my own pace.
Somewhere between the Sistine Chapel and the cafeteria, I accidentally exited the building.
That was it. No re-admittance, no more tour.
Hungry, I decided it was about time for some lunch. And that is how I met Joseph and Lars.
As I contemplated which sidewalk table offered the best view and the most sun, a man asked if I wanted him to take my photo outside of the Vatican wall. I approached his table and handed him my camera. He put it on the table, and said: “Later. First, we eat.”
He spoke very little English, and gestured in Italian. His friend spoke German, was fluent in English, and knew a lot about Canada. They ordered me a prosciutto pizza and got me some water.
Earlier in the day, as I was rushing to my tour, I’d passed what I assumed was some sort of funeral procession leading out of a Basilica. The area had been cordoned off, and was surrounded by fancy cars, and even fancier suits. As it turns out, both men had driven 10 hours from Munich to attend the service of an Italian policeman.
They were waiting on a friend as I had happened to stumble into their lives, and then they were to head back to Germany. Halfway through my pizza, a sleek black car pulled up to the corner, and out stepped an armed bodyguard and the chief of the Vatican police.
What Joseph’s and his business was, I couldn’t understand. But I was introduced as the bella from Canada, and I believe he asked me if I was in Italy for Easter break. To whatever he said, I replied: “Si.”
Before leaving, we went in to the pizzeria to say goodbye to the owner, to whom I was also introduced. Rambunctious singing broke out, and my new acquaintance announced La Bella from Canada to the entire restaurant, which was filled with a delegation from Cuba.
After a nerve-racking scenic drive back to my part of town – it’s hard to say whether the drivers or the pedestrians are crazier – we all parted ways. (But not after the Italian man insisted I take a banana for the road, and a chocolate marzipan Easter egg – he apparently knows the owner of the company.)
I had spent most of the day lost and wandering about, but in hindsight I like to think that I ended up, at every stage, exactly where I was supposed to be; I just didn’t know it at the time. I certainly thought I knew where I was going, but I was taken almost everywhere but there.
It’s all about the journey.