Joe In Italy

I had been muttering for years about seeing a Michelangelo in situ, but I wasn’t prepared when husband Joe came home one evening waving an Air Italia envelope. “Happy Birthday!” he sang, “Start packing.” Years before, he had done his tour of duty with the US Army in Germany, with several side trips to Italy. I had never been farther afield than the Caribbean and now I was going to Italy. He was going to smother me with Michelangelos!

For the next two months, I tried to learn enough Italian to sound earnest and he studied travel guides far into the night.

My birthday was at the end of August and we arrived in Rome in mid-September. There was no shuttle waiting to whisk us to our hotel, which was a little disappointing since cars seemed to be whisking everyone else somewhere. We took a cab to the Hotel Italia. From the outside, it looked like a blank storefront and we held our breaths. Inside it was perfect – marble, marble everywhere, columns and stairways, and a suave Italian gentleman at the desk who welcomed us cordially to his hotel, in lovely English. In our room, green velvet draperies hung at the floor to ceiling windows, which opened outward to frame our own private view of Italy, showcasing purple hills and Respighi’s Pines of Rome in the distance. The bathroom was grey marble, bigger than my dining room at home. “We could dance in here,” said Joe, so we did. Then, he got out his guidebook and got serious.

That evening, after dinner at the hotel, we walked around the narrow surrounding side streets until we came to a simple looking brick church. When we opened the door, the interior spread out like a meadow in Narnia, right through the wardrobe. It was vast, the ceiling vaulted and deep blue, painted with clouds. There were cherubs and candles everywhere. Organ music seemed to be playing, or it could have been angels. Joe burst into tears and almost fell to his knees. I had come for the Michelangelos; apparently, he had come for the Rapture.

There were, indeed, Michelangelos on every street corner, it seemed, and in churches and galleries and private spaces. I was overwhelmed with them. When we finally took a side trip to the Vatican, Joe showed me the exact spot in the piazza where a prostitute had approached him en route to an Easter Service. He was on leave in Rome. He was nineteen. I didn’t ask, just trusted he was there as a pilgrim and not a John.

He insisted on going up the miles of narrow open stairs hugging the wall up to the Cupola in the Basilica. I stayed behind because I hate to sweat and I’m afraid of heights; and falling; and death. I was wearing a skirt and pretty shoes rather than the ubiquitous American sneakers, and since I was standing by the door to the stairway, people assumed I was a guide. After a few “Regrettos” I just pointed them in the other direction. The stairs came down on the other side of the church. It took us an hour to find each other and I was sure I had been abandoned. When he finally showed up, I bought a small plastic Rosary at the gift shop to commemorate our reunion.

Our tour of the Vatican in my spiffy black un-touristy shoes cost me my two big toenails. They hurt like hell and starting bleeding and detaching, forcing me to buy some gorgeous moss green suede sneakers in a shop next door to Ferragamo’s, at the foot of the Spanish Steps. The price tag was in lire, hundreds of thousands of lire. The Via Condado is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world, I soon found out, but I still have those sneakers. Even then, I felt lucky to have them, because we walked everywhere.

We got lost only once, hoofing it to the State Opera House. Joe grudgingly admitted he had no idea where we were and hailed a cab, which took us around the corner about thirty feet from where we were. He was embarrassed.

The Opera was nothing like the Met. Patrons had their own “books” and stomped and cheered and yelled out corrections when they thought they were needed. The orchestra members met us in the bar between acts, with their girlfriends, and we all got progressively happier as the show wore on. By the final curtain, they were feeling no pain and were yelling back at the audience. It was like a Stones concert, with a libretto.

Florence was next. In the Rome train station, buying tickets, Joe, without a word of Italian, managed to win an argument with a local who tried to cut the line in front of him. Joe swelled up like a troll and the Italian apologized profusely. Sometimes, you don’t have to say a word. We rode first class, which got us a hot towel and a box of chocolates.

Our hotel room in Florence had two bathrooms! As well as the stock toilets and sinks, one had a tub and a bidet and the other had a tubular glass shower and a urinal. We had to force ourselves to leave the room, but when we did, Joe’s planning got us way up front in the line for the Academia Della Arte. In the Uffizi line, we met some people from Clifton Park, just a few miles from us in upstate New York. They had also done their homework and were in the first twenty-five tourists to be let into the museum.

We walked around Florence looking for restaurants, eating lots of riboletta and roasted meat. After dinner one night, we stopped at a gelato shop. I ordered a vanilla cone. Joe bellied up to the counter and came back to our table with a soup bowl full of gelato in seven different flavors, with chocolate sprinkles and a cookie. It was around forty-seven dollars American – thousands and thousands of lire. I asked for a separate check.

That was a long time ago, obviously, before the European Union and the euro, which have made travel simpler. Joe has been in a nursing home for a few years now. I had almost forgotten how much fun it was to travel with him. I don’t miss Italy; I found what I was looking for there. But I do miss Joe.