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The Passionate Palazzo
When Rome Was All the Rage
By Elizabeth Guider
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth Guider
All rights reserved.
The number 64 bus was crowded though Catherine, practiced in such maneuvers, quickly swung into an empty seat and began thumbing through the newspaper. It could take as long as an hour in those days to traverse the center of Rome from the train station to the Vatican.
Her stop would come before that.
"Mi scusi," a soft yet husky voice said as the bus lurched to avoid hitting someone on the Via Nazionale, one of the city's key arteries, and the straphanger in front of Catherine brushed against her knees and tilted precariously over the top of her paper.
"Niente," she replied distractedly, continuing to pore over the paper.
She had been in Rome for eight months and had made a point of speaking only Italian whenever she could. However much she admired those spirited heroines of Henry James' novels, Catherine was determined to do them one better: She had not come to skim the surface of European society but to plunge headfirst into it. Learning the language was a necessary prerequisite.
By now it was a rare phrase that might trip her up. That particular October day in 1977, the expression she had stumbled over was "ineluttabile." Closing her eyes, she mouthed each of the six syllables, letting the vowels glide over her tongue and the accent fall naturally. In so doing, the meaning came to her: "not to be evaded," just like its English cognate. The word sounded ever so musical to her ear.
Eventually stumped by the fuzzy logic of the columnist she was trying to make sense of, she glanced vaguely around, and then straight up at the man standing before her. He was the color of dark honey, with long slender arms, one of which clutched a passel of books, the other stretched taut to hold on to the bus pole. He was not alone, but spoke quietly and intermittently to another young man, of similar stature and coloring. Despite the incessant chattering by practically everyone on the bus, she could make out the melody of some exotic tongue, the lingo, she imagined, of some hot, desert clime. As they bumped along, Catherine peered again over the top of the paper at the young man and he at her. A barely perceptible smile crinkled his lower lip. She dropped her eyes.
That's when all hell broke loose. The bus had come to a stop at the busy Piazza Venezia, the doors had rattled opened and two tough-looking men banged past a clutch of other passengers, making a beeline across the thoroughfare.
An old woman dressed in black, pudgy around the middle, was wailing "Mi hanno rubato — la borsa, la borsa," ever louder, arms flailing. She had had her purse snatched. Not an unusual occurrence on that bus route since it was typically full of tourists on their way to St. Peter's. More often than not, riders had their heads buried in a map or fixed on the sights out the window.
At this point, the woman's husband felt obliged to take up the cause, and not knowing where to direct his exasperation, eyed excitedly the two young men planted in front of Catherine. "Sono stati loro," he bellowed, his fingers punching the air accusingly. The bus driver closed the doors but didn't budge. Such commotions had become commonplace on his route.
Color rising in his face, the woman's husband began to curse the two men in front of Catherine, as others scoured the floor to see if the woman's wallet or loose bills had been dropped in the kerfuffle.
The young man directly in front of Catherine held out his hands to the husband to show he had nothing in them other than the book satchel tucked under his arm. Calmly, resignedly, he and his friend turned the pockets of their jackets inside out.
"It was two men who already got off. They're gone," Catherine ventured, gesturing toward the far side of the street; several others nodded their assent.
"Va bene. Mi sbaglio." My mistake, the husband backtracked sheepishly, not fully persuaded but not knowing what else to do. Sweat was heavy in the air.
The distraught victim was still lamenting her purse-less fate, though less vehemently, as her husband called out to the driver to open the doors and let them descend. The conductor obliged, and another wave of riders piled on.
A faint flush tinted the faces of Catherine's two acquaintances. Everyone else aboard had gone back to chattering as the bus clanked along on its way again.
"Che stupidaggine," she offered as a way to dispel the discomfort of the two. In Italy it was practically obligatory to comment on whatever incident one might be caught up in, and "stupid" it was, she thought, that such suspicions more often than not fell upon foreigners.
As the young men shifted their weight to turn and get off at the next stop, Catherine did the same. It was not her designated stop, but somehow a connection had been made which, when she analyzed it later, she decided to term "ineluctable."
Once on the pavement of the Piazza Argentina, Catherine found herself pressed up against the sharp edges of books as they all were swept across the median. Her two companions seemed to be headed in the direction of the Pantheon. From there she could walk the rest of the way to her destination.
"That happens all the time," she hazarded, not feeling that she necessarily needed to apologize for the behavior of an entire country, but wanting them to know she didn't share the same xenophobic reflexes.
"It's not a big deal," said the young man without the passel of books.
Then, as was often the case when someone heard her accent, "You must be American."
"Yes, my name is Catherine, or rather, here, most everyone says Caterina," she responded in Italian.
"I'm Ahmad and this is Osman."
They walked a few more steps, Catherine to the side of the one called Osman.
"Shall we have a cappuccino?" she blurted out. "There's a bar down this way, near Piazza Pasquino. Better than Sant'Eustachio's, and they put little designs on the top," she added as a way of making it more difficult for them to decline.
Without saying anything, they hesitated briefly on the sidewalk, allowing Catherine to pass in front of them and lead them down an alleyway toward the picturesque square dominated by the church, Santa Maria della Pace. The two men exchanged some comment in a slightly amused tone, but in a tongue indecipherable to their new acquaintance.
"Tre cappuccini," Catherine called out to the bartender in the bustling bar, upon which her two companions began to reach into their pockets. "No, no," she remonstrated, "you've been through enough on the bus. Allow me."
The female clerk at the cash register gave Catherine the once-over automatic among Italian women, but which lasted longer than usual, either because Catherine was an obvious foreigner or because she had come in with two even more obvious outsiders. Handsome ones at that.
Feeling the eyes of the cashier on her did not make Catherine flinch. She rather enjoyed being singled out, approvingly or not, by the locals. In this instance, there may have been a hint of disdain in the clerk's side-long appraisal because Catherine was the one opening her pocketbook.
However, that idea barely occurred to her, since the coffee cost only 500 lire, not even a dollar, for the three of them, and the one named Osman had already slid a 50-lire tip next to the sugar bowl.
"Tre cappuccini," the barista announced as he plopped three foaming cups on the counter, and adroitly poured the steaming milk on top, twisting his wrist to form outlines of leaves on the top of theirs and a heart on the top of hers. The two men spooned heaping teaspoons of sugar into their cups and slowly stirred them. The leaves faded.
Catherine had been to this bar often of late, and the bartender apparently remembered. A few other customers, all locals, sipped their own brews or munched on pastries.
After a pause, "Are you a student?" they both started to ask her at the same moment.
"Not exactly. I teach English at the university, but since I'm working on a thesis for back home, I guess I am, well, yes, a student," she managed disjointedly to explain. "And you?"
Ahmad was studying economics; Osman ran a welcome center for other emigrés. They added nothing more, seeming reluctant to be drawn out further.
Catherine had already figured out that the two must be Middle-Eastern or East African, but from what country she couldn't have said.
"Your Italian is very good, but your accent: It's not New York, is it?" Ahmad continued, in his slightly standoffish use of the language.
"I'm from the South but went to school in Boston. It's hard to place, but I suppose it's clear to anybody that I'm American," she said, adding hastily, "but yours, I can't place at all."
"We're from Ethiopia," Ahmad proffered. "Actually, we're Eritrean," Osman interjected more forcefully.
The image of tall, thin courtiers holding an umbrella over the head of Haile Selassie popped into Catherine's head. Life Magazine, as she remembered it. She couldn't recall if the emperor was still alive — let alone what was thought of him, a Christian monarch in a country that largely wasn't, and a friend of America, on a Continent that largely wasn't. As for Eritrea, she had no notion whatsoever, though the name reminded her of Illyria, a distant Shakespearean place full of magic.
The cappuccinos having cooled, they drank them down, and one of the two men looked at his watch.
"Bene," Ahmad said, giving their companion a more sustained look as the three turned to leave the bar. Once outside, they ambled across the square and stood awkwardly on the cobblestones adjacent to Santa Maria della Pace. A couple of homeless men were lounging under the arches of its encircling alleyways. Still, it was a treat to behold the church, so theatrical with its curves and concavities. Catherine thought about mentioning the adjoining cloister designed by Bramante, but something in her companions' demeanor dissuaded her.
Just then, a Vespa whisked round the corner, uncomfortably close. Ahmad grabbed Catherine's arm to keep her out of its path. It felt electric.
"They never learn," Catherine said, referring vaguely to Roman drivers.
"No, they expect us to," Ahmad said.
Osman tensed to move on. It was up to her, Catherine quickly calculated, to say something to make possible another encounter.
"Well, at least you didn't end up arrested and having to talk your way out of the police station," she said.
"Thanks to you — and for the coffee," Osman replied. She noticed his slightly buck teeth, wondering suddenly if that made him self-consciously awkward or unconsciously aggressive. He looked at her as though he dared her to make a next move. The latter trait, she concluded.
"Well, if you're ever in the neighborhood, I live on Vicolo Scanderbeg — the Albanian patriot, he lived in the piazza, that is, he did several hundred years ago. I'm at number 88." She gestured in the direction of her apartment, a ten-minute walk from where they stood.
Catherine had a penchant for the amusingly abstruse, most people she had given her address to having never heard of Scanderbeg. She hadn't either until, quite by happenstance, she managed to lease the warped-floor but otherwise charming rooms right off the square named after the obscure revolutionary.
To her surprise, Osman had. "He freed his people from the Turks. Without Scanderbeg Albanians might never have forged a national identity," he stated matter-of-factly.
She blinked at this rejoinder but couldn't think of anything to add.
"You must then feel very safe there," Ahmad eventually offered.
"Indeed, I have nothing to fear," she replied, equally bemused. The encounter seemed to be over.
"Allora, ciao," Catherine added after an interval and shook each of their hands.
The memory of their dark-honey skin lingered as she made her way through narrow streets to the grander Via del Governo Vecchio and toward a structure not far from the Tiber which she had come to refer to familiarly as the Palazzo, even though the term in Italian signified any building, palatial or not.
A steady stream of Fiats, motor scooters, even a couple of horse-drawn carts, whooshed by, forcing her to teeter on one foot as they threaded the winding streets. She quickened her step. The next shift was supposed to start at 11 am, and albeit this was Italy and everything began late, the woman who preceded her would be anxious to leave. Nearing her destination, Catherine spotted the unfurled banner waving lazily in the breeze. They had hung it out the top windows several weeks ago, literally within minutes of taking possession.
"La Casa delle Donne," it read in bright red letters, and, indeed, so far only women had been allowed past the imposing entrance and adjacent cubicle from which a phalanx of feminists monitored comings and goings. The owner of the bar cattycornered across from what had instantaneously become the centerpiece of the neighborhood saluted Catherine with a nod as she passed.
To many of those involved, the occupation of this particular palazzo was concrete proof that feminism was taking hold, and was not to be dislodged — not even by the bloated bureaucracy that oversaw public works in the Eternal City.
"Ciao, Caterina. The others are already upstairs. The meeting should start soon," said a tired-looking but tidily groomed woman who had volunteered for the short 6 am to 11 am shift. "You may want to replace the generators as the lights are starting to flicker." Catherine's shift would run until mid-afternoon.
"I'll get onto it. How many women have come in this morning?" Catherine asked.
"About 20. Buona fortuna," the woman said, wishing her luck, as the occupiers did to one another in that first precarious period of the takeover.
These meetings, which Catherine enjoyed but found exhausting, took different turns depending on the day: However, most of those who showed up needed legal advice or medical help, either because they were abused or because they had become pregnant — and didn't wish to be.
In addition, the feminists needed to have one eye cocked for the cops. From the outset, they set up an informal rotation among those who could make themselves available so that the Palazzo itself would never be vacant. Otherwise, the police would repossess the building, and they might wind up in jail for trespassing.
As Catherine made her way up the stone stairway to the second floor, a rat scampered toward a cavernous room off the first landing, which the group hadn't yet had time to explore, let alone disinfect. Hopefully, she reasoned, all of the vermin had now been relegated to this one area.
Up until that point, on the second and third floors they had commandeered four large halls and half a dozen smaller rooms. There were several bathrooms with filthy but still functioning toilets, plumbing being an engineering marvel in whatever Roman epoch. A spacious kitchen had rudimentary sinks with elegantly designed if irredeemably tarnished copper faucets, but they had not yet gotten around to scrubbing that room down. The top floor consisted of a large ballroom, which had seen better days, and several alcoves. If need be, these latter could be revamped as sleeping quarters.
Whatever its challenges, the Palazzo was an inspired choice in a city where almost every edifice had a history — and strict regulations regarding usage. Weeks of research went in to identifying potential targets, until a meeting in September when the feminist groups agreed that the palazzo on Governo Vecchio best fit specifications for a unified headquarters. Not far from the river on one side and Piazza Navona on the other, the premises at number 39 had been built in the 1400's as a residence for some ambitious Renaissance cardinal. After serving as a government back-office under Mussolini, it had fallen into disrepair.
A scouting party had used some feminine wiles to convince the reluctant caretaker to pull out a clutch of keys and open the long-emptied building to inspection. Even so, a small bribe was in order. The report back a week later included a number of nuisances the women would have to deal with: bats and rats, mold, dust and some words in Italian Catherine couldn't fathom and didn't want to look up. All this and no electricity, no hot water, no furniture.
"Sounds ideal," one woman had piped up, to the general merriment of those assembled for the rundown.
Excerpted from The Passionate Palazzo by Elizabeth Guider. Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Guider. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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