Saturday, March 3, 2007

A Series of Inexplicable Events

This post will contain no epiphanies about Italian culture, history, religion, cookery, courtship, politics, or anything else. It will merely be weird. You have been warned.

***


One fine chilly day, Sarah and I made our way to St. Peter’s for afternoon Mass. My friend inquired discretely about my coatless state, but I replied cheerfully that my sweater was warm enough. In St. Peter’s, coats are really unnecessary—it’s the only church here I’ve been in that actually feels toasty. How they heat it I can’t imagine. After Mass, which took place under the saffron light of the Holy Spirit window, I sat for a moment finishing my thanksgiving—and a Polish-looking woman suddenly appeared in the pew in front of me and began exhorting me to take her jacket.

I say she looked Polish, but Sarah thinks she looked Scandinavian. She was middle-aged, slight, and sharp featured; and she had tousled, short blond hair. With the air of a professional good Samaritan, she held out a powder-blue nylon jacket while speaking earnestly in Italian. I told her I didn’t want it, but she seemed not to understand, because she said something that sounded like, “No, no - around you,” and she mimed putting on a coat. After some fruitless back and forth, I decided that I had nothing to lose by taking the thing. Certainly there had to be some occult reason that this strange Italian-speaking Scandinavian lady was giving me a blue ski jacket (from an enormous denim knapsack, I observed) behind the high altar at St. Peter’s, of all places—but at this point, I confess, I was dying to find out what it was. So I put on the jacket (which was three sizes too large and redolent of cigarettes), thanked her warmly, and sailed towards the doors as quickly as was decorous. I saw her once more as she descended the steps. She smiled at me, and was gone. Down in the piazza, Sarah began to make a laundry list of the crimes that Jacket Lady was presently going to frame me for. She had sewn a bomb into the jacket. She had stolen the jacket and she had just seen the man she stole it from in the basilica. She was a renegade spy, and she was sending me out in her jacket so that her vengeful minders would poke me with the ricin-tipped umbrella. (Actually, I may have thought up the last one.) Somehow we made it home alive. Back in our room, I examined the jacket. Although it was a ski jacket, it had patches that said “Tortuga, CA – Surfing Instructor” and “Lifeguard.” Then I went through the pockets.

At this point in the story, everyone was all ears. “What? What was in there?!”

“A ball of tinfoil, a razor blade, and a list of dates and places going back to 1989, written in some Eastern European language. There were a couple of words in Arabic.”

“Whooooaaaa! Meredith, you are in the middle of something huge.” Etc.

I enjoyed the pandemonium I had created within the Rome Program, and I still wonder about that list. But as for the tinfoil, it contained only chocolate crumbs; and the razor blade punctured many fantasies when I produced it in its little plastic case. The Jacket Lady could only have used it to shave her legs, not to rake together lines of hypothetical crack.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not sure what this story means. But ever-prudent Sarah has now concluded that the eccentric pilgrim was simply trying to lighten her load.

***


A fortnight later I fell down the rabbit hole again. This time, though, I had plenty of company. All the students were riding back to Rome after a week spent in Assisi, Florence, and Siena; and we were exhausted by so many wonders. We had made a detour to San Galgano to see the sword in the stone – yes, the original sword – and we had venerated the miracle underlying the fable. A sense of possibility lingered around everything. The darkness outside the bus windows seemed like the darkness of a theater when the scenery is being changed – anything could be concealed there – and the small lights became different things in my mind: factory flares; glowing windows in a small town; the inalienable lamps of that city on a hill that cannot be hidden; Etruscan fox-fires leading the unwary into the dark. Just as I was feeling perfectly stiff and sleepy, the bus stopped to let us get off and move around. I groaned when I saw where we had pulled in. It wasn’t anything so civilized as an Autogrill. There was only a row of grim, rectilinear warehouses in a rain-sodden parking lot.

I wasn’t too keen on seeing the inside, but I went in with my fellow students. Christendom must be extended even to the furthest and most dubious Italian truck-stops, after all. And I was hoping that I could buy some Pringles or something.

A silver turnstile spun us all into the place, whatever it was. The first thing that met our eyes was a long table heaped with bags of gourmet chocolates. The lady over behind the counter urged us to try all the samples. The further we meandered through the room, the more nonplussed we became. I’ve never seen so many different brands of limoncello in one place, and the chocolates and candies were prodigiously varied and expensive. The sausage was wild boar sausage and the cheese was riddled with wine or sliced white truffles. Wines, liqueurs, dried tomatoes... I couldn’t begin to describe it. Most of the signs had Japanese and Cyrillic writing on them, which led us to wonder if the bus companies have a deal to bring all the Japanese tourists through this place. There was clothing, including some overpriced leather jackets, and a whole section of luxurious face creams and cosmetics and such – I found some sort of olive oil moisturizer that was 35 euros, and another jar that may have been 107 euros, unless my eyes deceived me. Christendom was milling around, laughing surreptitiously, sampling the chocolates and the olive oil and tasting the wine with brio. We were the only customers in the store.

As I watched my fellow students gamboling about in this surreal gastronomia, I couldn’t help thinking that the scene was kind of eerie. Maybe that was Circe behind the counter, and the chocolates were going to change us into wild beasts. (If we weren’t already, being hungry college students.) Several people tried to go back through the turnstile, getting only a bruise and a jarring noise for their trouble.

There were more than forty of us, so the samples were getting cleaned out. My friend Anna was feeling bad about it. “I feel like I should buy something,” she said. I considered getting a chocolate frieze of St. Peter’s or of the Mouth of Truth, but 9.50 euro was way too steep. Then I saw a package of curry-flavored chocolate. Anna and I goggled at it and then agreed to split it. Everyone was starting to leave, so I went towards the other clerk at the exit, holding out the chocolate. She smiled, waving her hand magnanimously, and said, “Free! Free!” I stared at her.

“Are you kidding?”

“Free!”

As we ate our spicy chocolate on the bus, Anna tentatively suggested that the Enchanted Truck Stop was a figure of God's grace. At any rate, there is no doubt that it was an expression of some divine caprice.

6 comments:

Johnno said...

I love the way you tell stories Mer!
more pics!

Lost Noldo said...

An Italian giving something away! Possibly two Italians giving something away! I am truly amazed! But then, the strangest things can happen while you're over there- we must meet this summer and compare notes! (And ROADTRIP!!:D) Hope you're doing well, the Craigs (saw them at Steph's church this past Sunday) say 'Hi' and send their best. Best of luck with everything this semester (bewaare the Roman Perspectives FINAL OF DOOM! when it comes) and don't forget to check out Ravenna- make a day trip of it!:)

Joe C said...

You have a gift for storytelling.

But, don't you smoke crack and not make lines of it?

Not that I would know...

Coriel Conquistadora said...

Weird. o_O

Amaya said...

Good post.

some guy on the street said...

I'm now betting the coat has been around the world, several times, on different people, who leave notes in it. Then it was your turn.