[…] Freedom at 16 years old will make a person do a lot of strange things. Not having been a coffee drinker up until that point, I very quickly became an addict while living in Italy between August 2003 and May 2004. I think this addiction was due in part to the fact that Italian coffee is delicious beyond belief, but maybe it had more to do with the increased caffeine level of espresso coupled with the fact that I could say I was going to the “bar” multiple times a day (a bar in Italy is simply a coffee shop, not a place that serves only alcohol).
While today I may slightly regret allowing myself to become hooked on espresso (I get massive caffeine headaches by noon if I don’t have it), one thing I don’t regret is following my intuition and taking the time to get to know a Sicilian soldier named Benny.
For three days at the beginning of October 2003, Benny kept watch outside the American school in Viterbo. And for three days, I would wander down in between classes to chat. I couldn’t begin to tell you all these years later what it is that we talked about - also because I barely spoke Italian and his English was even worse - but somehow we communicated and somehow those three days were all it took.
Benny was at the end of his year’s mandatory service in the Italian army, so after day 3 he was bound for home in Sicily. Luckily he had the foresight to ask for my phone number and I had the foresight to give it to him.
We exchanged messages, spent hours on the phone, me stumbling through my Italian and him through his English. My school was taking a 10 day trip to Sicily toward the end of November and we were planning to see each other again.
Sicily’s beauty overwhelmed me. While the school’s focus was mostly on the island’s rich historical sites - the Greek Theatre and Ear of Dionysus in Siracusa, the Greek Theatre of Taormina, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento - I couldn’t get enough of the stunning coastline and delicious food. We ended our trip in Palermo and that’s when Benny and I had planned to meet. But I couldn’t reach him - for two days. No answer to any of my calls. I figured things had run their course and that was that. We were taking the ferry to Naples the next day.
But as I stood on the deck of the enormous ship bound for Naples, he called. He had been hit by a car while returning from work on his motorino and had been stuck in the hospital. He promised to come meet me in Rome on Sunday, just two days away.
I returned to my host family on Saturday afternoon and broke the news that I would have to take the early train to Rome the next morning because it was very important that I attend my protestant church the Sunday after Thanksgiving. [Sixteen year-olds really are the worst.]
I woke up early that Sunday to catch my 6:30am train to Rome. I still remember exactly what I wore - light brown velvet pants, black boots and a black cowl-neck sweater I had just purchased on my trip to Sicily. (I still have the sweater tucked away… I just can’t bear to part with it.)
Rome (or any major Italian city for that matter) is pure magic in the early morning - especially on a Sunday when most everything is closed anyway. If you ever want to feel like you have the world’s most popular tourist attractions all to yourself, go visit them early in the morning. I arrived at Valle Aurelia station shortly before 8:00 and hopped on the metro toward Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish steps where we had decided to meet. I still remember how empty and quiet the vast piazza was.
I made my way toward the metro exit where Benny would be arriving, and sat on a bench under the tall palm trees to read my book and wait for him. I wish I could remember what book I was reading but I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually read it. I was really more focused on seeming scholarly.
After a few minutes, people began coming from the direction of the metro. I looked up and there he was - 12-hour train ride written all over his face, but smiling.
Yes, that’s right. He had traveled 12 hours on an overnight train to Rome so we could spend a mere 3 hours together before he had to return on the same 12-hour train.
While our goodbyes each day in Viterbo involved first a handshake, second a double-cheek kiss, and third a hug, that cold November morning in the shadows of the Spanish Steps in Rome we shared our first kiss under the towering palm trees.