By BRODY LEONARD
I never ask for travel advice but in the weeks before I traveled to Rome, it was passed on to me without prompting.
For example, I was warned about certain pickpockets who first threw an infant at you, and then proceeded to rob you while your arms were baby-laden; so I trained myself to sidestep soaring newborns. I was also told that swarms of thieving children were commonplace: before leaving, I mastered an elbow whirlwind that promised to decimate any threatening crowd. Street-vendors were painted as chary folk with nothing but ill intent. I learned to radiate ire after hours in front of the mirror.
I was ready.
Or, so I thought. Fast-forward to my fourth night in Rome, a Thursday. My roommate was holding palaver with a British girl in our common area, and after joining in their conversation for a little while, I decided to give them some space.
I left Gianicolo, my residence building, an hour before midnight. My destination was G-Bar, the only place I was familiar with. The street was roiling with clueless Americans and creepy Italians – at least, that’s how I remember it. My attempt to enter the place saw me inadvertently grinding against five rear ends, none of them female. After the owner of one such rump gave me an overly appreciative look, I fled the scene.
Wandering soon became the theme of the night. I would find a bar, stroll in, have a drink, learn some names, forget them immediately, and move on. Hours later I found myself in Campo dei Fiori, a square that is home to such classy establishments as Sloppy Sam’s and The Drunken Ship. I’d heard horror stories about this place from actual Italians, but decided that breaking my pattern would likely bring ill fortune, so I continued.
Sam’s was as sloppy as one might expect, and the Ship as drunken. More important than cocktails imbibed or names discarded in these places, however, was the walk home. Despite a light malaise from inebriation, my senses became sharp, my step lively. With the gullet of an alley pinching Campo de’ Fiori out of sight behind me, and the streetlights spreading shadowy wings beneath many a silhouette, I was struck by a sledgehammer of adrenaline.
The stories rushed back.
Murderous gremlin children. Ankle-shanking gypsies. Trigger-happy con-artists. Dark faces appraised me from the corners of my mind. My back arched and tensed and tingled, feeling like it oftentimes does when I am rent by some beast in a nightmare.
I found myself rushing out of the alley, past a stone face frozen in surprise and vomiting water, up onto the street, and across the Tiber. By some divine providence I was not sent sprawling by a stray cobblestone, but at one point I did run bowels-first into a railing, putting unfair strain on my already ballooning bladder.
It was about three in the morning by the time I staggered into Piazza Trilussa, still doubled over but regaining my breath. The steps loomed before me, dotted with lingering nightlife. I managed to nestle into a spot between a snoring man and a group of young Italians, who were sharing some sort of herbal cigarette. I put my head down and began to breathe easier.
A few moments passed before I felt a finger at my shoulder. Half expecting the boogeyman, I looked up and instead met the eyes of a dazzling lass: perfect Italian complexion, dimples parenthesizing her white smile, a sheaf of brunette hair to her shoulders.
“Ciao,” she piped, still smiling.
“Uh, ciao.” She sat next to me, comfortably close. Over her shoulder I saw a group of men, a few steps up, sipping Peroni and staring at us. I registered their gaze as jealousy.
“Parli inglese?” Man, she cut straight to the chase. That was supposed to be my line.
“Yeah,” I managed. Eloquence incarnate.
She began speaking in English, introducing herself as Giulia and prompting my own name in return. Her accent was thick enough that I had to ask her to repeat her next utterance. “What are you doing out here alone” she said, more slowly this time, so that it hardly seemed a question.
“Getting acquainted, I suppose.” Her raised eyebrows indicated I should stick to more elementary language. “Finding my way around.”
Our conversation continued for a few minutes, she formulating questions in broken English, I spouting cognizant, if curt, responses. Prurient interests aside, I was just happy to have someone to talk to. Especially someone who seemed neither able nor willing to pull my spine out through my nostrils.
It was another span of minutes before I began to open up, and I found myself having a reasonable engaging chat with the girl, especially given the language barrier. It probably helped that we were talking about the language barrier. This was about the time I noticed that the men a few steps over were still staring. I also came to notice that there was a half-empty Peroni sitting on the step next to the four muchachos. Next to the beer, a purse.
Suspicion clicked in my mind, almost audible. The group’s gaze, only moments ago envious, became predatory. Giulia’s current sentence blurred to mush in midair. That sledgehammer had struck again. I’d fallen for a classic honey-pot.
I rose without warning. “Piacere, ciao,” came out of my mouth, a combination of ingrained politeness and attempted nonchalance. I quick-walked down the steps and out of the piazza, and, once it was out of sight behind me, broke into a jog. I didn’t stop until I reached Gianicolo.
Upon waking the following morning, I believed I’d acted correctly. Rome had almost swallowed me, I thought. Every man (and, apparently, woman) had been out to get me. Every alley had been an artery to the darkest recesses of the human heart, bloated with the capacity for evil and blackened with a proclivity towards the same.
But, as the event slips farther and farther up the calendar, I’m coming to believe that the only blackened heart that night was my own.