Rome is not a foliage destination like New England, but the sycamores along the Tiber River turn yellow in the fall, and a walk along the banks has the same rustling crispness. The chestnut vendors return to street corners to roast their wares, and the scent of smoke and sweet mingles with the city-hint of diesel. The vendors split the nuts’ burnished brown shells with a swift knife stroke and slide them into a horn of rolled paper. Heaven.
In the fall of 1973, I was appreciably rounder than I’d been when I boarded the plane for Rome at the end of August. With some effort, I could still button my Dentyne pink corduroy blazer, but the strain on the fabric was evident. Who knew when I would return to Italy? Who knew when I’d again eat pasta so incredibly good? Of course, I had to take advantage at meal-time! I knew my mother would be horrified, but when the nuns came round with refills, I was ready for them.
Nuns? Yes. Having never before left the shores of the U.S., I was in Italy for Trinity College Rome Campus with close to forty other students, all housed in a convent, just up the Aventine Hill from the Circus Maximus. There was a crucifix on the wall of every cell-like room, and in the bathrooms, the shower nozzle thrust from the wall without benefit of curtain or stall. Unfortunately, it took more than one sodden towel to remember to remove linens and toilet paper to avoid the water sprayed on every surface within reach. A new world.
I was twenty years old, in Rome for four months with some of my best friends and my boyfriend. My career goal at the time was to be an Egyptologist: yes, I know, wrong country, but I loved ancient history in general, and the ruins I’d studied since seventh grade were within walking distance of the convent. From my current vantage point at age sixty-one, I could weep with envy at the good fortune of that young girl. Thank you, Mom and Dad.
When first we arrived, the city was in the midst of a cholera epidemic; our parents must have loved sending us off into that. We’d been vaccinated, and were cautioned to avoid seafood when eating out, but what did we know of the words on the menus? Not enough, and our sign language must have been poor, for Frank’s first restaurant dinner was a heaping platter of fried fish. Perfect. We worked hard at improving our restaurant-Italian after that.
This was a school semester, let’s not forget, and I was in Italy to study, so in addition to eating as many bowls of pasta as I could comfortably consume (really, I’m not exaggerating), I joined my friends on motorbike excursions along the Appian Way: in explorations of Hadrian’s Villa, Pompeii, and Ostia Antica; and in scrabbling the slopes of Monte Testaccio in search of sizable pottery shards. While watching black and white films in Italian Cinema class, we pondered the craft and dark themes of “neorealismo.” In art class, we took to the streets of Trastevere with paints, canvases, and easels, and wandered the Forum and Colosseum for “Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome.”
On one memorable weekend, we went to work on a vineyard in Tuscany. As we clambered from the bus, all so young, strong, and eager, the vineyard owner probably thought he’d gotten a great deal in free labor. Mm, maybe not so much, as it turned out.
Warm, yellow sunlight bathed an expanse of gently rolling land neatly striped with rows of vines. Clippers were distributed, and we were released to the harvest. Throughout the morning, we bent beneath curling vines heavy and fragrant with purple grapes, plucking some to snack on as we cut bunch after bunch to load into rustic wooden carts.
After hours of snipping and wiping sweaty brows, we were invited to feast on sausages, cheese, bread, and wine. With that, the industry of the morning fled. A grape fight erupted while Bons, Ozzie, and FaPoco did yeoman duty, volunteering to shed their shoes, leap into the cart, and stomp grapes.
Recently, some of my fellow Romans decided it was time to get together. Last year Bart arranged a lunch in Boston’s North End. This September, Donovan scoured the Internet and enlisted Trinity’s alumni department in an effort to locate as many of us as possible, and invited us to gather at his place.
It is the way of long-awaited reunions that one enters a room filled with strangers, strangers with expectant faces, hesitant smiles, and eyebrows politely raised. And then, there’s a shift, a dissolve, just like we learned in cinema class. Something about that person’s smile, or the sparkle in the eye… and there they are! Despite hair longer, grayer, shorter, or absent. Despite weight added or taken away. Despite those glasses, nearly ubiquitous, there were our fellow grape-tossers and ruin-scrabblers. And as our day in Donovan’s backyard unfolded, our collective memory helped restore the magic of that semester together, a semester immersed in antiquity, art, opera, cinema, wine, and plenty of pasta.
We recalled the scratchy, screechy hall intercom. Menzies in his blanket. Fried artichokes at “Vecchia Roma.” Breakfast rolls with Nutella. Primavera. Lucchesi’s portrait of Bonnie. Prostitutes luring customers (none of our group, mind you, at least not to my knowledge…) to the brass bed hidden in the shrubbery along the Circus Maximus while the boys played football… And beyond specific incidents and experiences, a new sense of a world to be explored and our own desire and ability to do so.
Thank you, Donovano, so very much, for bringing us all together. Thanks to Pam for flying in from California, Jonny from Cincinnati, and Vicki from Cleveland. It was a joy, beyond words, to laugh, reminisce, and re-connect.
For me, fall will always smell a little like Rome.