My cousin Lisa and I were at the tail end of a two-week trip to Italy. It was our first trip to Europe and we’d learned a lot – both about Italy as well as ourselves. We learned the Romans did everything on a gigantic scale and Italians valued family, food, and wine not necessarily in that order. We learned to overcome language barriers by piecing together our rudimentary knowledge of German, Spanish, French and what we hoped were universal (and polite) hand gestures. We learned cappuccino freddos and icy limoncellos were the best defense against the scorching August heat. We learned to navigate public transportation; reading metro schedules like seasoned pros while restraining giggles when the bus driver insisted we obliterate our tickets, which translated to simply getting them stamped by the onboard machine.
We spent a lot of time discussing the difference between being lost and just exploring. I was always on the side of we’re definitely not lost but it might be nice to talk to a local and see where we might actually be at the moment. Lisa, by contrast, was the map carrier, the one who knew we were lost but would indulge me long enough to see what trouble we might get into. It was the beginning of a great traveling relationship that has lasted for almost two decades.
Our trip ended in Naples where we spent our last night dodging pickpockets and enjoying a sumptuous meal along the brightly lit waterfront. I’d fallen in love – deeply, soulfully, romantically – with everything about the Italian lifestyle. I was sad to be leaving, weepy sad, sad enough to contemplate extending my stay. Thinking, perhaps, I didn’t need to get on the plane tomorrow. The boys were young adults and would be fine on their own for a little while longer. This wasn’t the first time I’d thought this way. In fact, over the years it’s become a ritual on the last night of our trip. Lisa has graciously taken on the job of cajoling, guilt-tripping and sometimes strong-arming me into actually getting on the plane. Nevertheless, the next morning that I boarded the train from Naples to Rome where we would connect to the express train to the airport.
We’d chosen second-class tickets, partly for the pricing and partly because we’d heard that was where the locals traveled and they were so much more interesting than the tourists. We trundled down the walkway and approached the steps to car number cinque. It was there that we met Giuseppe.
He was short. As we got closer, I realized he was shorter than Lisa, who I often lost while shopping because she’s not much taller than a clothes rack. He was so short that the first step up on the train probably looked a little intimidating, like he might not be able to get on board without a bit of a push. Maybe that was why I immediately thought of him as an Italian leprechaun. Or maybe it was the olive-green slacks, dark brown belt, and shiny pointed loafers. Perhaps it was the roundness of his face; round but tough, like an old walnut with a small wart on his left temple. His eyes were bright, alert and just a little edgy with deeply etched lines springing out like rays of sunshine. His dark, thinning hair was combed back revealing roundly sculpted ears that were just a size too big for his head. His plaid green shirt had seen too many washings, so while clean, it looked as if it would have preferred to stay in the closet. Instead, it was making a trip to Rome. He appeared to have no luggage. Despite his stature, he carried himself with compact confidence. As we approached, he broke into a wide, friendly grin. He was eager to help us up the stairs, handing us our luggage. In turn, I offered my hand to help him board the train. It seemed a dignified exchange of assistance between strangers.
Once aboard, we produced our tickets and realized we were in the seats opposite him. He directed us to put our luggage in the rack overhead. He was much too short to assist but his enthusiastic Italian encouragement was infectious. We settled into our seats and he gestured with a happy shrug of his shoulders and flip of his hands, as if yielding to the gods of fate. It was in that gesture I saw the most remarkable thing about him yet. His left hand appeared to have an extra finger, or more accurately, an extra half finger. I couldn’t tell if it had been a full digit and something had chopped it in half or if it had started out with the intention of being a fully formed digit and just stopped along the way. To this day, I wish I’d had the courage to engage him enough to find out the story.
During the ninety-minute trip, and in spite of the fact he spoke virtually no English, we learned he was going to visit his son in Rome but didn’t intend to stay long – thus explaining his lack of luggage. He had a job that we never did decipher but the phrase la camorra came up a few times. We would later realize that translated to the Neapolitan mafia.
Upon arrival in Rome, we exited the train where Giuseppe offered to help us find the connecting train to the airport. We had less than an hour so we thought having a local guide would be useful and efficient. We agreed to let him help. Thus, we followed him down the escalator and into the underground labyrinth of Roma Termini.
At the bottom of the escalator, Giuseppe rubbed his hands together, nodded to be sure we were following him, and charged into the crowd with the confidence of a general entering battle. He was so enthusiastic, so full of his presumed knowledge, so pleased to be helping, nay, he might even say rescuing, two women, that we had no choice but to follow him.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a moment of hesitation. We looked at each other and I swear there were thought bubbles above our heads that read:
What could possibly go wrong?
Then . . .
We can easily overtake him if he tries to abduct us, he’s like the Lucky Charm elf.
And finally . . .
He’s so enthusiastic, we can’t ruin his fun.
So, we turned left and trundled down a wide concourse, passing stores full of Italian olive oil, pastas and duty-free wine. We passed shops displaying chic new fashions, jaunty-looking hats and hand-painted scarves. We passed stores full of books, magazines, snacks and toys. We even passed a small grocery store. The smell of strong Italian coffee and sweet cinnamon buns filled the air in a valiant attempt to cover the musky odor created by the hustle and bustle of busy Italians and seasoned travelers – all of whom appeared to know where they were going.
By contrast, we did not.
Lost or Exploring?
Giuseppe’s first stop was at a shoeshine vendor, offering a lustracarpe for twenty euros in twenty minutes. He struck up a conversation with two men getting their Salvatore Ferragamos shined to glassy perfection. The vendor, a craggy, bent-back curmudgeon, voiced his objection to being interrupted, especially when one of his customers got up with much arm waving and emphatically pointed Giuseppe to the left. The other customer appeared to disagree from the comfort of his chair but was quickly shouted down by the first gentlemen who eventually settled back into his chair and snapped open his newspaper. Apparently, the matter was settled. Giuseppe turned and waved for us to follow him down the tunnel to the left. We moved past the two men, nodding our thanks and offering an apologetic shrug to the shoeshine vendor.
This tunnel was darker with fewer stores. We were clearly moving away from the main hub of the shopping area. We looked at each other and then our watches. Time was ticking and we didn’t seem any closer to our train.
Then Giuseppe stopped abruptly and embraced a well-dressed man with an oversized briefcase like they were long-lost brothers. Maybe they were. It’s hard to tell with Italians. And if he really was part of the mafia, they might actually have been brothers of a certain kind. In any case, their conversation was short and sweet. They shook hands and Giuseppe gave us a reassuring grin. If nothing else came of this adventure, I was impressed we’d found a man willing to ask for directions
We made another left and entered a tunnel that looked like it was for administrative staff, full of numbered doors and a solitary coffee vendor. By now, we were really worried about missing our train and we’d made enough turns that we weren’t sure we could find our way back.
Then, like a prayer from Santa Maria herself, a set of stairs appeared.
Up the stairs we lumbered with our wheelie bags in tow. We crested the stairs, emerging from the depths of the labyrinth into the warm humid air.
We paused, looking around and re-orienting ourselves after our circular trip underground. Somewhat miraculously, we stood in front of the train for the airport! We grinned at each other; Giuseppe having the widest, proudest smile of us all. We looked to our left and a wave of recognition washed over us. The train sitting next door was the same train we’d just disembarked. Slowly, a collective lightbulb dawned between us. There had been no need to go underground when we could have taken a thirty-second walk next door.
I looked at Lisa. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress a giggle. We looked at Giuseppe, as his expressive, elven face made the realization.
There was an awkward pause.
Then, we all burst out laughing – deep belly laughs that made our eyes water and our breath catch. We laughed and pointed to both trains and the ridiculously short distance we should have traveled. We laughed while people stared at us and we laughed until the conductor called to board the train. We gathered ourselves and Giuseppe, like the kind gentleman he was, escorted us to our car. We stood next to the steps as if returning to the beginning of our brief adventure together.
He gestured once more, pointing to his left-hand ring finger that held no wedding band. He glanced at us and pointed to our ring fingers, which were equally bereft of rings. No, we said, neither one of us is married.
He grinned, tapped his heart, threw his two hands and ten-and-a-half fingers into the air and shouted, “Libre! Vive Libre!”
With that, he bowed and walked back into the station.
Free, live free!
~ ~ ~
I’ve thought of Giuseppe often over the last fifteen years. Our adventure taught me the gift of putting aside judgement long enough to be curious about my fellow humans. He taught me that I could trust in the kindness of a stranger who really just wanted to help two friendly women. And he reinforced my belief that we were never lost, just exploring the depths of the Rome train station.