I think I can laugh at my moment-of-terror taxi ride getting into Rome from the airport, but on Thursday night I honestly thought I might end up dumped on the side of road. You have to remember I was working on 3 hours of broken, baby-crying, cramped sleep. I was told by the hostel that because I was arriving at night that a taxi was my only option. “Please only use the official yellow taxis,” they said, “otherwise they’ll scalp you.”
I had just left the baggage claim service office where I had spent a full hour trying to track down my bike. Somewhere between Portland and Rome (maybe Houston or Istanbul) my body went one way and my bike went another way. I am still waiting to hear a status report on it. As I emerged from the roped off area separating baggage claim from the public transportation center a handful of taxi drivers hungrily tried to win my attention. It all went down so fast. Two drivers, the brain and the brute (right from a Scorcese movie script) quickly tried to escort me to their taxi while I resisted until I was sure they were legit.
Just as I was convinced that they were the real thing they took me straight through two alarmed doors that set off the airport sirens. I stopped, refusing to go through with them. They coaxed me on. I took a big breath and followed. The doors shut. The sirens stopped and no security police came charging toward us. I think I would have been fine if I had seen a yellow taxicab out front. Instead the area was nearly empty except for one van that was packing a bunch of tourists into it like dead sardines. We walked right by them, the brain of the two grabbed my two boxes of bike gear and clothing, pushed the automatic beeper that unlocked the trunk, and stuffed my boxes in quickly closing the trunk lid once again. I was being ushered into a nearly new shiny black Mercedes sedan. No yellow taxi. No lit up sign magnetically attached to the top of the roof. No meter inside the car.
The brute got in on the driver’s side; the brain opened up the back door and told me to get in. This didn’t feel like an invitation. It felt more like an order. I got in and almost as quickly got back out. The picture wasn’t right. These two men looked like they should be driving a twenty year-old Chevy Impala with creaky doors, faded paint and an overflowing ashtray. The brain quickly got back out too. “I am not comfortable with this,” I pleaded, realizing that my luggage was already locked away. “Are you sure you are a taxi?”
The brain showed me his credentials again, a yellow 3 X 5 card hung around his neck that had large black letters typed onto it, T-A-X-I. I could have forged a better badge than that. He was clearly annoyed with me. I got back in despite my better judgment and began imagining that they had just hooked their easiest prey of the week. I came in at 1:00 a.m., on my own, and clearly vulnerable. They could do anything they wanted with me.
My mind quickly raced through a number of options. 1. Bolt out of the car at a stop sign and run like hell. 2. Give them everything I had (they would love the extra bike tire and chamois butter for my butt!) in exchange for my personal safety. 3. Try to get help.
I chose #3. I texted my girlfriend back home letting her know that I was on my way to the hostel and would let her know as soon as I got there. It was this moment when I finally began to relax. My two supposed captors seemed non-plussed about me texting in the back as they continued to talk to each other in that Italian way that feels like every sentence begins with “What the hell!” It was the first event that felt normal in the whole exchange. After that the brute driver turned out to be more of the brain as he told me about the ancient ruins we were driving by and described just where we were going. We reached the hostel. They helped me carry my bags all the way the door. I paid the fare we had agreed on and I gave them a 5.00 euro tip. What they didn’t know was that that was my way of thanking them for not hurting me.
As I checked into the hostel I described being delivered in a shiny black Mercedes. The clerk looked surprised, but said that at night the regular taxis don’t run and independent contractors step in. A reasonable explanation. Still, what was an American raised on The Godfather movies supposed to think when getting shoved into the back of a shiny black Mercedes by two Scorcese –looking goodfellas?
Despite still waiting for my bike to show up I had a remarkably good day on Friday. I spent the day completely on foot touring through the city of Rome. The highlight of the day was the nearly two hours I spent in the Basilica Santa Maria Degli Angeli (The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels), designed and built by Michelangelo in 1561. If it hadn’t been for the dozens of others around me I would have fallen to my knees and just sobbed. I walked in and the sacred energy hit me like a sudden warm draft of wind. Tears began to roll down my face.
It was strange to see so many of us who were visiting as tourist and taking pictures. Toward the front they had a section cordoned off just for those who wanted to pray. I think only five or six of us actually entered that area. It was nice to be aware from the constant clicking of cameras and jostling for the best angle. One woman meandered up front and by coincidence a caretaker or maybe a priest in civilian clothes was passing through. No words were spoken, but he looked at her, shook his head, and pointed toward the exit. She didn’t press him any further.
But, I was thinking about the time and the people for whom this would have been a great spiritual and architectural achievement. Today we visit as tourists, but certainly would not put our tax money to such extravagance. We would rather build football stadiums or malls with that kind of money. But, who were these people who would commit so much of their wealth to the building of sacred architecture, commissioned art and religious devotion? What would it have felt like to have entered this same space not as a tourist from future centuries, but as a devotee whose religious identity was as tied to that space as our identities are tied to football dynasties, historic stadiums, and team mascots?
The day was much too full to write about now. But, I also visited the Coliseum where Christians were sometimes martyred by the early Roman empire. I paid tribute at St. Paul’s Episcopal and Anglican Church of Rome. I took pictures of the sign where they were displaying the Aramaic and Hebrew letter “Nun”(pronounced ‘noon’) on the front of their property in solidarity with Iraqi Christians who are being persecuted and killed by ISIS. The letter “Nun” is sometimes painted in red on the homes and businesses much in the same way that the Star of David was used to shame and separate out Jews in Nazi Germany.
I ended the evening with the best spaghetti I have ever had. It was a large noodle plate with olive oil, tomato and small bits of bacon. I was stuck by the simplicity of the recipe and by the way it brought my senses alive with each bite. That, along with a cold beer and a good book, made for a perfect evening before returning to my hostel of mostly backpack wearing 20-somethings.
Still a bike to locate and lots of amazing sites to see and experiences to which to open myself.