Pennsylvanians in Rome
Although we were thousands of miles from the United States, Mother, for reasons I cannot fathom, insisted on communicating with people who lived there. Since we lacked the electronics necessary for global intercourse, she had to satisfy her urge to connect at various Internet points.
Before the spread of Wi-Fi, smartphones, and tablets, these visits would not have been unpleasant. You could pop into a nice Internet café and sip a cappuccino while surfing on a speedy Dell. Nowadays, if you want to use a public computer, you must enter a shady urban den (the sort of place where you’d expect to find men in leather jackets selling knockoff Gucci bags), and attempt to gain the attention of a gruff and frightening immigrant who is, invariably, shouting at another gruff and frightening immigrant behind a counter. After the flurry of strange language subsides, you will be shown to a crippled plastic chair in front of a computing device that resembles something out of the 1987 Texas Instruments catalogue. This device will allow you to read and send email, but at a pace tolerable only to semi-catatonics.
One of these cyber holes (I think that was actually its name, The Cyber Hole) operated directly across the street from our apartment building. Mother had already been there a couple of times, so I was surprised to find her arguing with the proprietor when I came in.
“No passport, no computer,” he said.
“I’ve used them before,” said Mother. “Nobody ever asked for a passport.”
The proprietor pulled up his t-shirt, scratched his hairy belly, and turned to a man at the cash register, apparently for linguistic advice. The would-be translator put down the crude knife he was using to pick his teeth and shrugged.
“No passport, no computer,” repeated the proprietor.
A thin young woman with pallid skin—clearly a creature of the north—got up from her computer. “You have to show your passport to get on the Internet,” she said. “It’s an antiterrorism law.”
This sudden deployment of fluent English, so far from the center of Rome, stunned Mother. Her face took on an expression of unthinking, unblinking oblivion.
“I’m sorry. I thought you spoke English,” said the woman.
“I do,” sputtered Mother. “I’m just surprised to hear it here.”
“Yeah, there aren’t many of us around, are there? I’m from Pennsylvania.”
“Oh, my God,” gasped Mother. “So are we!”
An American conversation ensued. The phrase “it really is a small world, isn’t it?” was uttered multiple times by both parties, with varying degrees of incredulity. The young woman’s name was Diane and her job was Accountant. She hailed from Philadelphia, a city that never fails to inspire loathing in western Pennsylvanians like myself. Every year, that cesspool on the Schuylkill soaks up the majority of state funds, while cities like Erie and Meadville are left to fend for themselves.
“Actually, it isn’t all that small of a world,” I said to Diane. “Erie is closer to Ottawa than it is to Philadelphia.”
“Not true,” she said, adjusting her glasses. “I think you’ll find that Erie-Ottawa is approximately twenty miles farther than Erie-Philadelphia. That’s aboot thirty kilometers Canadian.”
She went on talking with Mother. I withdrew to the counter where the proprietor was absorbed in an Arabic newspaper. I wondered if he’d had previous experience with this obnoxious Philadelphian. I nodded in her direction. “Real know-it-all, eh?”
He regarded me blankly for an uncomfortable period, then said, “No passport, no computer.”
This struck me as a brilliant response.
“I’m going back for the passports,” I told Mother, and breezed out the door.
Having thus deftly extricated myself, I spent the next ten minutes lolling around the apartment. I figured that by the time I returned to the Cyber Hole, Diane would’ve talked herself out and gone away. I downed a Peroni and strolled back to the elevator, whistling Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. When the door opened, I almost choked. There stood the Philadelphian.
“I should’ve guessed,” she said with a smirk. “Angelo told me there were Americans next door.”
“Next door?” I said. “To us?”
“Yeah. You rent from Angelo, right?”
“Right,” I said, attempting a smile. “It really is a small world, isn’t it?”
Diane had arrived in Rome nearly a week ago. Mother couldn’t believe she’d been occupying the adjacent apartment without us noticing. The day after we met, she began asking questions: “You’re as quiet as a mouse, Diane. We never hear a peep. What do you do in there?”
“I read. I cook. I don’t watch TV, so you wouldn’t hear that.”
“Not even Striscia la notizia?” I said.
“I didn’t come to the most beautiful country in the world to stare at a television. What’s Striscia la notizia?”
“A culturally relevant program. I think you’d appreciate it.”
“That’s not the one where the dog is always pulling some girl’s bikini off, is it?”
“Possibly. I haven’t seen every episode.”
We were sitting on our building’s high central staircase, watching the traffic below. People were coming home from work, jamming their teeny cars into impossible spots.
“How do they ever separate them when they want to pull out?” said Mother.
“Crowbar,” I said.
“Actually, it isn’t that difficult,” said Diane. “Bumpers are designed to bump. Who cares if you get a few dents? Only Americans are anal about that stuff.”
“I wouldn’t recommend testing your theory on an Englishman’s Jaguar,” I said.
We started up the steps. Diane swished her curly mane from side to side.
“So you came to Italy all by yourself?” said Mother. “Don’t you have any friends or family here?”
Mother has always been interested in what’s commonly known as “other peoples’ business.” Her concern could be the result of a Christian upbringing that glorified the Brotherhood of Man, or it could simply be nosiness. Whatever you call it, it is certainly antithetical to my own outlook on human interaction. Why intrude on someone’s privacy by asking personal questions when you can make assumptions and pass judgment on them behind their backs?
“I think she’s a lesbian,” I said after Mother and I had gone into the apartment.
“That’s absurd,” said Mother. “And lower your voice. She’s right next door.”
“Well, who’s this friend she keeps talking about? The one who’s coming to visit her?”
“A girl she went to school with.”
“Yeah. I’m sure lots of people fly four thousand miles to spend a weekend with an old school chum.”
“It is strange. But Diane’s whole trip is strange, if you ask me. I don’t see how she can travel in a foreign country all by herself. Didn’t she ever see that movie?”
“The one with Liam Neeson.”
“Taken? Do you really think a gang of Albanian pimps would be interested in Diane?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Bit long in the tooth for the big money,” I said.
“I guess you’d know more about that than I would. Anyway, I still say it’s dangerous. And boring. Who’d want to go around doing everything alone?”
I raised my hand and asked where I could drop her off. She was about to smack me when we heard a knock at the door.
“Oh, my God,” said Mother. “Do you think she was listening?”
“Yes, and now she’s come to tell you that, as a modern American lesbian, she can go wherever she wants and do whatever she pleases, and that she doesn’t need an old biddy in the next apartment telling her otherwise. Open the door.”
She did, with some trepidation, but found Diane smiling on the other side.
“I’m going in town to hear a Bruckner concert later, and I thought you guys might like to join me,” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Mother. “What do you think, Daniel?”
“It’s free,” said Diane.
“What time?” I said.
“Well, we’ve gotten used to eating around nine. When in Rome, you know.”
“Who’s Bruckner, anyway?” said Mother.
“He’s one of the great composers,” Diane said.
“He isn’t German, is he?”
“Well, he’s dead, actually. But when he was alive he was Austrian.”
“Hitler was Austrian, too,” I said. “And a great Bruckner fan. In fact, he consecrated Bruckner’s bust at the Walhalla Temple in Regensburg.”
Diane seemed discomfited, which wasn’t surprising. People seldom enjoy having their musical tastes compared to Hitler’s.
“We just heard a German composer last week,” said Mother.
“Which one?” said Diane.
“You don’t mean Tristan and Isolde, do you? How’d you get tickets?”
“Daniel arranged it before we left. The Internet, I suppose.”
“How was it?”
“I adore Tristan.”
Her enthusiasm seemed to be authentic. It was the first time I’d seen anything resembling color in her pasty cheeks; they were aglow with the blush and fervor of life at its most operatic. She waited eagerly for Mother to elaborate, which she did: “Over four hours, if you can believe it. Closer to five, really.”
“And how was the soprano? I hear she’s terrific.”
“Quite loud. We had no trouble making her out in the boxes. And I don’t always hear so well.”
“Don’t mind Mother,” I said. “She comes from Erie—not Philadelphia—where we’re all very proud Philistines.”
“Is this Bruckner anything like Wagner?” said Mother.
“Not exactly,” said Diane. “But there are parallels.”
“Well, I think we’d better not. Daniel’s right—we usually have dinner around that time, and we don’t want to throw our stomachs off. Besides, I’m pretty tired. We did a lot of shopping today.”
“That’s okay,” said Diane. “Just thought I’d ask. We’ll do something another time.”
“Yes, sorry,” said Mother, closing the door.
“Well,” I said. “A minute ago you were worried about that poor defenseless waif walking the streets of Rome all by herself. If you were really concerned, you’d go with her.”
“I feel bad that she’s alone. But not bad enough to sit through another German composer.”