This article was first published in the Pilcrow and Dagger Literary Journal premier edition in January 2015 http://pilcrowdagger.com/issues.
I scrolled through the checklist on my cell phone one more time before heading to the security checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport, en route to my first nuclear conference in Rome, Italy. I had never been to Rome, or even Europe for that matter. Two weeks ago, I didn’t even have a passport. Now my virgin passport, itinerary, makeup, hairbrush, credit cards, and the inevitable stash of “must-have” medication filled my purse to bulging. My conference materials and an oversized, hardback novel fought for space in the laptop case rolling along at my heels. My suitcase and a week’s worth of hastily purchased traveler’s clothes lay somewhere in the belly of the plane. I tucked the cell phone away. I didn’t want to be here.
My husband, Robert, should have been with me on this trip. Other members of the conference team were bringing their spouses. However, we hadn’t planned on or budgeted for a trip to Europe. As a conference speaker, my expenses were covered, but the costs for Robert to accompany me, and the lost income from his time off from work would have totaled over $3000.
My going alone made eminent sense, and we are sensible people. Still, I’d done years of solo business travel without this odd, hollow feeling. Perhaps the conference was simply too close to the holidays. I hadn’t started our holiday shopping, the house wasn’t ready for guests, and the pile of unfinished work awaiting my return was dismal. Perhaps, just this once, I didn’t want to be sensible.
My plan had been to fly out of Phoenix International on Monday, November 2: arrive in Rome and attend the pre-meeting on Tuesday; do the conference on Wednesday and Thursday; fly back to Arizona on Friday. Get in, get out, and get it over with. My plan did not survive the first phone call from Tom Laubaum, our conference manager.
“It won’t do, Kath. Fly in that late, you’ll still be jet-lagged on Wednesday. Rome is ten hours ahead of Arizona, and changing time zones will be harder for you than the rest of us.” Most of the team would start their trip from the east coast.
“I can sleep on the plane,” I lied. I never sleep on planes, and my stomach clenched at the thought of a night flight over the Atlantic.
“You need to fly on Friday, October 30th,” he insisted, “Phoenix to John F. Kennedy in New York, then JFK to FCO, the international airport in Rome. We’ll arrive mid-morning on Saturday, and Mel has three days of team-building activities scheduled. He’ll expect you to be there.” Mel Arey was our industry chairman and the conference team leader.
“Why JFK?” I was curious. Travelocity.com routed all my connecting flights through Atlanta.
“Because most of us are on the Friday afternoon flight from JFK to Rome. Mel wants everyone on that flight. He’s arranged for minivans to meet us at the airport in Rome.” Tom gave me the connecting flight number and time. “Got your passport?”
“Not yet,” I admitted.
“Well, get it as fast as you can,” he advised. “You’ve only got six weeks, and you can’t book a hotel room without it.” That, I had not realized, and panic ensued.
I found the passport application online and managed to fast track everything needed to get it on time. The panic now settled down to roiling anxiety. Bad enough to be the only ‘single’ woman traveling in our group. Our European colleagues expected a presentation team in formal business wear, representing the best of America’s nuclear professionals. Instead, they’d be getting a short, overweight woman with only one engineering degree, travel anxiety issues and nothing suitable to wear.
I found two ‘plus-sized’ tailored business suits at one of the larger malls. My passport came through, and I faxed the necessary pages to the Marriott Grand Flora in Rome. I would fly out of Phoenix at 6:15 am on Friday, October 30, with the same connecting flight from John F. Kennedy to Rome as most of the team. Like it or not, I was going on this trip.
It took me three hours to pack the night before my flight instead of the usual thirty minutes: too much dithering over what to take. I finally moved the suitcase from our bedroom to the dining room table, to avoid keeping Robert up past midnight. Maximus, our miniature dachshund, spent the evening staring reproachfully at me. Maxi hates it when I travel, and knows my packing routine; that big red suitcase meant at least a week’s absence on my part. Packing finally done, I let him curl up next to me on the bed by way of apology for my imminent desertion, and spent the next three hours trying to get some sleep. Robert never stirred.
My well-rested husband delivered me to Terminal 3 at Sky Harbor at 4:00 am, Friday morning. He could tell I was ‘off my game,’ and had insisted of a last-minute review of my checklist before we left the house: laptop, cell phone, camera and cables; adaptors for European power outlets; passport, with extra copies in my purse, laptop case, and luggage; medication; and emergency contact numbers for the conference team. He’d made a copy of that last item for himself, “just in case.”
“Next time you’re getting your passport and coming with me. I don’t care if we have to charge the tickets,” I said.
Robert finally caught on. To him, this was simply another of my business trips. Travel went with my job, and I usually relished it. This time, he could see it was a miserable chore. Robert opened the trunk and set my suitcase and laptop case on the curb. “We’ll do something special when you get back, okay?”
I nodded and hugged him, and he gave me a thorough, goodbye kiss that left me blushing as I walked into the nearly empty terminal. The blush faded by the time I reached the Delta ticket counter and handed over my e-ticket and passport.
“Vacation?” The ticket agent asked, noting my destination as she weighed and labeled my suitcase.
“Business,” I said, “Just business this time.”
The quick check-in left me with extra time, and a book at Hudson Booksellers caught my eye. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Seventeen hours of flight time and a three-hour layover at JFK lay ahead. I bought the book, wedged it into my laptop case, and headed for the gate.
Tom Laubaum and his wife, Debbie, met up with me at the international gate at JFK. Both were dressed casually for warmth and comfort and excited about this trip. Debbie showed me a paperback labeled, “Pocket Rome.”
“It’s a travel guide by Rick Steves,” she explained. “He’s great. We used his travel guides in London and Paris when the last two conferences were held there. I’m using this one to plan our tours in Rome.” Debbie’s enthusiasm was a bit unnerving. “You packed walking shoes?”
I nodded. There would, I supposed, be time for a short tour. I spotted Mel Arey, who introduced me to his wife, Kathy. Behind them came Tony Nowinowski, our project office manager, and his wife, Dee. Like Debbie, I’d met Dee at other conferences. We’d even explored the Pike Place Market in Seattle together, at one of the few conferences where Robert had accompanied me. Everyone else in the group was excited about our upcoming flight and destination. None of them, I thought grumpily, had been up at 3:00 am to make an early morning flight.
Rothfuss’s novel kept me awake most of the flight; that and the solitude of a night flight over the Atlantic. The plane was half-empty, and I had an entire row myself. Around midnight I moved to the window seat and peered into the darkness below. The lights of several cargo ships were visible through the thin whisper of clouds, lit from above in the moon’s glow. The ocean itself was a black mystery, roiling beneath the speed of our passage. I sat there, my face pressed against the cold window, and listened to the steady, comforting hum of the engines until a flight attendant stopped by with an offer of coffee.
We set down at Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport at 9:30 am on Saturday. I made it through customs, collected my luggage, and piled into one of the waiting mini-vans with the rest of the team and their spouses. I’d now been up for 22 hours with barely three hours’ sleep. The Grand Flora Hotel was only 30 minutes away. I would collapse as soon as we got to the hotel and I made it through check-in and dragged body, laptop, and luggage up to my room. At least, that was the plan.
Our ride ended atop a massive hill that abutted the sprawling garden estate of the Borghese Museum. There the Marriott Grand Flora held court like some Grande Dame of the past century, dominating the crest of the Via Veneto, one of the most famous streets in Rome. I stared up at the neoclassic pink and white edifice and then looked across the road at the looming, red brick wall, perhaps 40 feet in height and all of 10 feet thick. Huge arches opened along its massive length, allowing modern sports cars to pass below.
The driver smiled, pleased with my interest. “The Aurelian Wall? It was built in the third century, but the road itself goes back before the time of Christ.” He pointed to one of the arches. “That’s the Porta Pinciana, the gate that welcomed travelers back into ancient Rome.”
I stared at the old wall, reluctantly impressed. “And the hotel?”
“The Lady? Perhaps one hundred years.” He gestured toward its upper level. “There is no finer view. From the terrace, along the restaurant? You can see the Tiber and the Basilica.” He rolled my suitcase into the lobby and refused an additional tip. I joined the conference team at the registration desk and thought briefly about heading up to the top level to check out that view, before collapsing in my room like a dead woman. Mel, however, had other plans. After check-in, he granted us a mere 30 minutes to settle into our rooms before reporting to the lobby.
My room was actually a small suite with a tiled foyer, opening into a bedroom on the left, an elegant bathroom straight ahead, and a wide, mirrored closet on the right. The rich, wood furniture was precisely fitted to the suite’s small dimensions, and the overall effect was warm and inviting. I unpacked and managed a quick shower before changing into fresh casual clothes and those ‘sturdy walking shoes,’ and reluctantly headed back down.
Once everyone returned to the lobby, and Mel eyed us like a general reviewing his troops. “We’re going to take a walk and grab some lunch along the way,” he announced, “then we’re going to walk about three more miles. It will help us switch to local time.” No one groaned – quite. “First stop is the Spanish Stairs. After that, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and –” Mel waved his hands, a bit maniacally, and grinned. “Other stuff!” He nodded to the Laubaums. “Debbie’s our tour guide,” Debbie dutifully raised her copy of Pocket Rome, “and at the end of our walk, there’s a little surprise.”
I quickly discovered why we needed those ‘sturdy walking shoes.’ Most of the older streets and sidewalks in Rome are made of dark, volcanic rock, carved into sharp-edged, cube-shaped cobblestones and set just far enough apart to snag a dress heel, or twist an ankle. I could easily tell the local women from the tourists; they were the slim, agile females navigating the cobblestones with surreal ease – in 4 inch, spiked heels no less! Few of them smiled, though – navigation took every scrap of their attention.
I studied my comfortable leather Nikes and found my mood lifting. I was in Rome, and (according to Debbie) headed for the Trinita Dei Monti Church and ‘the sprawling Spanish Stairs,’ immortalized in Alfred Bester’s classic novel, ‘The Stars My Destination.’ With friendly, familiar people. In sensible shoes, no less.
We reached the Stairs right before noon, having stopped for Paninis and cold drinks along the way. The late morning sun flooded the plaza below us with light. To the west, the Tiber River flowed along the borders of the old city, passing smoothly under the massive arches of the Holy Angel Bridge, sparkling under a vivid blue sky.
Farther west, St. Peter’s Basilica rose above the walls surrounding Vatican City, its great dome a rich, pale grey. To the south, I could glimpse the ruins of the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and Constantine’s Arch. I turned to Mel, who was grinning like a kid. “So. Tours?” I gestured toward the distance Colosseum.
“Oh, yeah.” He pointed back toward the hotel. “We have tickets for the Borghese Museum, right after breakfast.” Breakfast, I recalled, had been included in our room contracts. “It’s only a short walk from the hotel,” he added. “After lunch, we’ll head for the Colosseum and the Forum. There’s a metro station near the hotel that’ll take us there.” Mel looked toward the church that held court above the Stairs. “You might want some souvenirs.”
I followed his gaze to the street vendors who clustered before the church and the artwork on display. Giclée canvas offerings and watercolor prints abounded, and Mel’s wife, Kathy, was already exploring the offerings. I moved toward some prints, matted, signed and ready for framing, of the glorious vistas spread out before us. Sidling closer, I gestured to the artist for permission to browse, and pointed at a large watercolor of St. Peter’s Basilica, gleaming in the sun above the Tiber River.
“Thirty euros, Senora.” Kathy heard, caught my eye, and frowned. Thirty euros was a lot. I smiled at the artist and picked up a smaller print of the Spanish Stairs instead. “Ten euros.” I shook my head but set it next to the larger print. Next came a small print of the Pantheon. The artist said nothing, only waited. Finally, I picked up a small print of the Colosseum, added it to the others and looked at him. ‘Sixty euros, Senora.’ I sighed and began to walk away. “Forty euros?” I turned back and rummaged in my purse for the envelope with my personal funds. I thrust forty euros into his hands, and he bagged my purchases and passed them over. We smiled at each other in perfect understanding. Speaking Italian was easier than I’d thought.
Kathy peeked into the bag as we moved to join the others. “Forty euros? I do any street shopping, you’re coming with me!”
The rest of our group began making its way down the Stairs. Mel looked back, saw my package, and gave a ‘thumbs up.’ Kathy bounded ahead. I followed a bit more cautiously, my steps quickening. The Trevi Fountain waited down there somewhere, and the Pantheon, and doubtless, more … stuff, as Mel would say. Across the Tiber gleamed the dome of the Basilica. Below me lay the Spanish Stairs, and more wonders within walking distance. I moved determinedly down the crowded stairs. Rome in all her glory awaited, and that old Seals and Croft classic was true. We may never pass this way again. So don’t waste it.
At the end of our walk, and the visual feast of famous statues, buildings, fountains, and plazas, we finally reached Mel’s surprise: the minivans, waiting to haul our exhausted thighs and calves back up the Via Veneto to the Grand Flora Hotel.
We ate together that night at a casual restaurant within a short walk of the Grand Flora, and Tony Nowinowski’s wife, Dee, introduced me to lemoncellos by way of dessert and therapy for sore, tired feet. The wait staff insisted on bringing us a round of ‘traditional antipasto to start – cheeses, prosciutto, marinated mushrooms, and olives. This was followed by warm, fresh-baked bread, grilled steaks, and pork chops, and several wonderful pasta dishes, all served family-style. I considered the miles I’d walked today, and the tour planned for tomorrow, and bid my diet farewell for the duration.
I studied the spousal contingent as I sampled the sweet, lemon-flavored drink. That five-mile walk with this crew had done much to break down the sense of isolation I’d felt, traveling solo. Debbie was a short brunette like me (only skinnier) and Kathy, an athletic brunette of medium height, but Dee was a tall, blonde, slender woman, whose joie de vivre was highly contagious. All three had made a real effort to ensure I didn’t feel left out. The whole group passed our cameras around and compared our digital bounty, collected in the course of the day’s walk; judging from the pictures, our first day’s tour was a major success.
“The trick,” Dee said, tapping her glass against mine, “is to have a great time in Rome, take lots of pics to make Robert seriously jealous, and get his passport ordered early next year so he won’t have an excuse to beg off.” Debbie and Kathy nodded in unison.
“We pay our share of travel expenses,” Debbie said, “but coming along on these conferences is our reward for putting up with all the guys’ other business travel.” She rolled her eyes toward the male spouses and wrinkled her nose. “Robert just needs a bit of prodding, and you need to have a good time! Next year, we’ll be in Barcelona.” All three women looked at me expectantly.
I nodded, a little embarrassed to be read so easily. “Thank you. We’ll be there.” I looked down at my camera, but my heart was lighter now that I had something to work toward. I’d also managed to snap over 300 pictures in less than four hours. Of the two of us, Robert is the better photographer, but some of these were actually frame-worthy. I emailed a few of them home that night and refrained from adding any sub-text. The pictures spoke for themselves.
The next morning, Mel rousted us up in time for an early breakfast and the walk to the Borghese Museum. The garden walkways led us under tall trees and past weathered statues of ancient Romans, most of them missing their heads, but regal all the same.
The Borghese itself was an imposing granite building, filled with brilliant marble sculptures and paintings that gave vivid glimpses into the intricacies and politics of 15th century Renaissance Rome. The Cardinal Borghese had built his palatial home to serve as an art mecca of the Italian Renaissance and had filled it with the best statuary and paintings the Pope’s largesse and connivery could acquire. Dee and I spent some time staring at the magnificent marble sculpture, La Dea Paolina Bonaparte, a life-sized rendition of a wealthy young noblewoman reclining on a cushioned bench. Gracefully undraped in a portrayal of Venus, she held the apple awarded to her by Paris, whose decision to take a bribe had destroyed ancient Troy.
“Nice boobs,” I finally commented, ‘but she obviously didn’t do her Pilates.’ Dee turned beet red, trying to strangle the laughter that threatened to erupt in the crowded gallery. It wouldn’t do to be thrown out of the Borghese!
That afternoon we took the metro system to the center of Old Rome, and wandered through ruins of the Colosseum; all that bloody history had weathered and aged into a vast serenity. It was an oddly peaceful place, filled, incongruously, with grace notes of verdant grass and wildflowers.
From the Colosseum, we hiked the short distance to the Roman Forum and wandered through stone ruins, bereft now of the bright paint and red tile roofs that had been a hallmark of the place in its prime.
Dinner that night was at yet another “traditional” Italian restaurant near the Grand Flora. Once more, the staff refused to allow us to order from the menu. Instead, we were treated to a culinary adventure: antipasto selections (again!), followed by a selection of fresh-baked bread and an assortment of tender steaks and seasoned chicken, accompanied by herbed pasta and other local dishes, served family-style.
Near the end of the meal, a young troubadour joined our table and proceeded to serenade the ladies. I got my own special song, a ‘gift’ from my husband who’d been too sensible to join me on this little holiday. Tony raised his glass in a silent toast to the performer’s valiant effort to perform Windy by the Associations – a special song from our high school sweetheart days.
Each of the ladies received a rose. I eyed Mel and Tony with suspicion, but they only grinned and signaled for the staff to bring the desserts. The guys had ordered two of each, served family-style, my introduction to tiramisu.
I took the rose back to my room, placed it in a water glass, and set it on the nightstand in my room. It was 10:00 pm in Rome, but only 12:00 pm in Arizona and the caffeine in the tiramisu had me wide awake. Robert answered on the first ring.
“Maxi misses you,” he admitted.
“Is he okay?” Guilt swamped me. I hadn’t thought of Maxi, or Robert, for most of the day.
“I took him to the vet. No fever, he lost his appetite and moped a couple of days. The vet said he’s fine, though. He spends most of his time on my lap when I’m home.”
This was news. Robert and Maxi normally just tolerated each other.
“I miss you,” I offered. The image of Robert and Maxi, sitting huddled on the couch in our TV room, made me smile.
“I miss you too. Got your pictures. Send me some more, okay?”
Our third and last day of sight-seeing began with everyone meeting in the lobby at 6:00 am, passports in hand, for a van ride to the gates of Vatican City, and an early, private tour of the Sistine Chapel. The docent who escorted us waited until we stood beneath Michelangelo’s greatest work, before gesturing to the Swiss Guard in charge, who smiled and said, “No flash.” The prohibition on photography had been rescinded.
We spent the next 45 minutes lying on the floor like children, taking pictures of the Chapel’s ceiling and walls. Tony and I both needed a little help getting back on our feet! The rest of the morning was a guided tour through the museums and galleries of the Vatican until we finally found ourselves standing on the steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
I hadn’t known that Michelangelo’s famous Pieta held court in the first chapel inside the cathedral’s entrance, so finding her there was a bit of a shock. So was the bulletproof, acrylic panel, placed there following the statue’s restoration after an attack by a mentally disturbed man in 1972. I also discovered that the huge paintings inside the nave and side chapels were actually mosaics, done in squares of glass so tiny they created the illusion of oil paintings. The Church had, our docent explained, learned from the centuries of soot that had built up in the Sistine Chapel before its latest restoration, an effort that took 20 years (1979 – 1999). The mosaics could be cleaned and looked as vivid and new as when they’d first been commissioned.
We wandered through the massive structure, marveling at its incredible artistry and detail until Dee suggested the whole group walk up over 300 feet of steps to the top of the great dome. At that point, my sense of self-preservation kicked in. I caught a taxi back to the Grand Flora for a hot soak and an early dinner and spent the evening reviewing my presentations for tomorrow’s conference and sorting through the pictures I’d taken these past three days.
I hadn’t known the world was this big, or that I was still this young, for that matter. I called Robert and caught him before his afternoon shift, and we spent an hour talking like teenagers, both of us wishing he were here. I tried to convey everything I’d seen so far in words. It couldn’t be done.
“Next year, I’ll come with you to Barcelona,” he promised. “And we’ll go to Rome on our own or with a tour.” I would hold him to it.
The conference itself passed in a blur, but Mel and the rest of the team seemed happy with my presentations. Several attendees spoke with me during the evening’s reception. “Next year’s conference? Rome again?” They seemed to think I had influence in the choice of our next conference location.
“Barcelona, I think,” nodding toward Mel and Tony, “But I will ask for Rome for the following year.”
“You’ll present again?” My second surprise of the evening! Our European colleagues had liked my presentations – enough to want me back. Thirty-five years of experience had apparently given me a certain gravitas– or at least a reputation for knowing my stuff.
“Yes. If I’m asked, I’ll be happy to present again.” They smiled, pleased.
My flight home on Friday wasn’t until noon, local time, so I joined the team for one last breakfast in the Grand Flora’s terrace restaurant. Dee, Kathy, Debbie, and I all hugged each other.
“Next year?” Debbie asked. I nodded and gave her another, fierce hug.
“You bring the Pocket wherever.”
“And you bring that husband of yours!”
I nodded again and wiped at my eyes. I didn’t want to go.
I headed back to the airport with two other members of our team who had obligations waiting stateside. The rest were staying on, for three more days at their own expense, to see a bit more of Italy. At FCO, I checked in, passed through Customs and Security, and bought some Murano jewelry for my niece in a duty-free shop before boarding the flight that would take me home. I browsed through Rothfuss’ novel while I waited for the call to board.
One fable, told in the first chapter, caught my attention. He stepped to the edge, looked down, and without a second thought he stepped out into the open air… So Taborlin fell, but he did not despair. For he knew the name of the wind, and so the wind obeyed him… I’d known, after all, how to make this journey: One step at a time, open to possibilities, despite that reluctance to step out of my door and onto the road to new places and experiences. I would not fear the wind a second time.