Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Roman Holiday By Paula Diperna

With some time to kill waiting in Rome for a bus to Abruzzo, I was planning on a nice Sunday lunch in the city center. I took a taxi from the station to the Via Margutta. The cab approached my destination and the streets were throbbing with tourists. I was suddenly gripped by the need to get far away. “Never mind, let’s leave,” I said to the taxi driver, who had been gently threading his way through the ancient pathways of the eternal city. “Let’s go instead to the Piazza Bologna,” I said, which was near the bus station. “I’ll have lunch there.” “But do you know that’s the other direction completely?” the driver asked. I said so be it, and I would explain en route. I explained that even though I was a tourist, I preferred not to be surrounded by them. I added that I was headed to Abruzzo to visit relatives. His face broke into a huge smile, “I also have relatives there, signora.” With that, he unleashed a cascade of helpful hints: Abruzzo was “wild and known to be tough but gracious;” the bus station could be dangerous and I should be very careful. The driver took me to a restaurant in the Bologna neighborhood. He kindly put my bags on the sidewalk and we said goodbye. The day was unrolling perfectly, thanks to this fellow. When I later told my relatives about his niceties, they said it had to be a miracle. Ten days later, I was back in Rome, this time with a full-day. I had no agenda, but a Dutch couple I had met had raved about a sculpture they had seen by chance — “Il Pugile,” a first-century A.D. bronze of an exhausted boxer. So contagious was their passion for it that I decided I should see it too. My hotel concierge spent about 30 minutes on the Web trying to locate the piece. He found it, but when I got to the museum, the guard told me the Pugile was elsewhere, in another museum on the other side of the city. Not to be thwarted, I crossed town. The Dutch woman had eloquently called the piece “a kind of time machine, defying any moment.” And she was right. The spent hero sat slumped, hands wrapped, nose broken, head turned in amazement at his survival, it seemed, though one couldn’t actually tell whether he had won or lost his match. I couldn’t take my eyes off “Il Pugile.” I, too, was awed by its silent drama. Still reflecting on my good fortune of receiving this tip from strangers, I stepped onto the street, and decided to go back to the “wrong” museum, which I had given short shrift. I hailed a cab. The driver squinted with disbelief at me, me at him. “You!” we exclaimed in unison. Here was the very same fellow of my Sunday afternoon escapade nearly two weeks ago. He went on about destiny: “Signora, this is impossible. It has never happened to me before in all my years of driving. Do you know how many cabs there are in Rome? Eight thousand at least! Only fate could have brought you to my cab again.” Indeed. I’ve never gotten the same taxi driver twice in any city, and it seemed incredible that a search for Sunday lunch had somehow connected Abruzzo, a random Dutch couple, “Il Pugile,” me and him. Ever helpful, he recommended I not miss the Caravaggio paintings at San Luigi dei Francesi, which was near where I was headed. He dropped me off and again we said goodbye, both delighted with the turn of events. Friends have asked me why I didn’t take his name, but I think it’s because our calling card is not who we are, but the indelible joy and memory of the unexpected experience we had shared. Paula DiPerna is an environmental policy adviser and author who lives in Cooperstown, New York. International New York Times Photo