Gelato in Generous Portions

Dear Joy,

Do you remember?

We woke up just outside of Rome on a hot, sticky Tuesday morning. It’s been awhile, but I’m picturing a hotel at the top of a hill, with thick red carpeting in the hallways and mustard yellow padded walls in the guest rooms. It was criminally early – 6am or so – and after a quick breakfast, coupled with somber warnings and a crisp “good luck” from our tour guide, all fifty-one of us followed her bobbing blonde head down the hill to the bus stop. It was rush hour in Rome, our destination was St. Peter’s, and we had no idea how to get there.

Our entire group managed to stay together in the middle of Rome’s subway stations, buses, and crowded sidewalks. (Remember this gem of advice from Lou Lou? “No one obeys traffic laws in Rome. If you want to cross a busy street safely, find a nun and cross with her. They’re the only people the Italians are afraid to run over.”) Bus 31 to EUR Magnolina, Metro line B to Termini, Metro line A to St. Peter’s. All fifty-one of us arrived, miraculously, outside the Vatican.

That day was a hot, mind-blowing blur: the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s Pieta, a quiet cafe, souvenir shops. Somehow, apart from our trusty tour-guide, we maneuvered our way back toward our hotel via public transportation, but got off a bus stop too early, and had take a sweaty, frightening walk down the side of a highway, trucks whizzing by, dust in our faces, and heat radiating off the pavement. We collapsed back at the hotel, took a four-hour nap, and woke up refreshed, ready for another go. (Hi, 21-year-old Sherah, I wish I were you again.)

The five of us girls skipped dinner with our tour group and, now experienced Rome transportation experts, found our way back into the city. We walked around the Colosseum, through the Roman Forum, past giant monuments, giggling and picking our way through world history. We stumbled across an international festival, and an Italian concert in the middle of the Roman ruins. We skipped up Michelangelo’s steps, meandered past the Circus Maximus. We bought juicy peaches from a street vendor, and took pictures while dusk turned darker and darker.

Finally, we decide to head home, except this time, we were not exactly transportation experts anymore, because it was dark, and because we still could not read Italian. I remember all of us getting on a subway car outside the Circus Maximus, and the rest is blurry until, finally, we were back on the bus line that took us to our hotel – the one where, earlier that day, we had gotten off a stop too soon. Determined not to make that same mistake again, we stayed on the bus… and sped right past our hotel at the top of the hill. (Maybe we were supposed to pull a cord to tell the driver to let us out? Who knows. We sure didn’t.) Our bus continued on, in the dark, into some suburb of Rome. When it finally stopped, a few miles down the road, I was legitimately freaking out. We jumped out, the bus drove off, and there we were.

It was still fairly urban – lots of industrial buildings, dark streets, brick buildings – but on the corner was a gelati shop. The place was going nuts, packed out with Italians, all singing and ordering their gelato. People were spilling out of the shop and out onto the street, sprawled on the sidewalks and curbs, laughing.

There we were, at some gelati oasis in the dark streets of Rome. It was late. We probably didn’t remember the name of our hotel, we certainly didn’t remember the address, and we didn’t have a map or an iPhone (they barely existed back then). We didn’t know when the buses stopped running. I, the oldest and “most responsible,” was feeling all of this rather keenly. (Sitting here in my dining room, all these years later, I want to give my 21-year-old self a pep talk and a little slap on the behind, but back then, I just remember feeling very much alone, without any bearing of where we were.) And some of the girls decided, Hey! Might as well buy some gelato! They found the back of the very long line, and looked around, smiling, enchanted by the hundred or so chattering people surrounding us. But instead of joining them, embracing the chaos and the beauty of that hot June night in the middle of Italy… well, I decided to camp out at the bus stop, where I assumed a bus would come to take us in the opposite direction at any moment. Never mind that the rest of the girls weren’t with me. I told them that I was going to sit underneath that bus stop sign, watch for the bus, and drag those girls out of line and onto the bus as soon as I saw it coming.

Of course, about ten minutes later, when I did see a bus in the distance, I turned to motion the girls to GET OVER HERE, WE’RE GETTING ON THIS BUS! And, of course, the girls were at the front of the line, in the middle of ordering their gelati. I can see my sister, through the shop window, carefree, deliberating over the brightly-colored tubs of frozen sweet cream. Pistachio? Strawberry? Hmmm…

The bus blew right past the stop, and disappeared down the dark street.

The girls came out of the shop a minute later, carrying the biggest and brightest cones of gelato we’d seen yet on our trip. I slumped on the curb while they slurped their desserts, sure we’d be stuck in who-knows-where Rome for the rest of the night. They could sense my uneasiness and probably gave each other eyes over my bowed head. So we’re stuck on a street in Rome? So what?

Do you remember that night, Joy? I think you were one of the first in line for gelato, but probably threw a few concerned looks my way as I waited on the sidewalk, because you were considerate and mature like that. Anyways, I’m telling this story again, because lately, as we go back and forth, “vulnerable” is the word that comes to mind. Marty tells me that my impulse is to distrust people, until they prove themselves trustworthy (obviously one of my finer qualities). So, for me, writing is deeply personal, deeply freeing, but also opens me up, threatens to wound me. I’m afraid of criticism. I’m afraid of people. But we also know that the trade-offs can be beautiful. Writing, truth-telling, is an offering to others, a chance to bear witness to what we’ve learned, and how far (or not far) we’ve come. It’s a tribute to the power of honesty, and humility.

So, I was trying to think of a time when I felt particularly vulnerable. There have been other times in my life when I’ve felt unsafe, or threatened, or just really fearful. But at that moment back in Rome, tired and overwhelmed, unable to speak Italian, unsure of everything, vulnerable was the perfect descriptor. I fought against it, that vulnerability, instead of accepting where we were, digging deep down (for a few extra euros), and buying a giant scoop of gelato. Vulnerable is not comfortable. Vulnerable makes me squirm, actually. But vulnerable can also bring the unexpected, a trip far off the beaten path, where people sing beautiful words in a language you don’t know, and where gelato is served in giant, generous portions.

You know this: we made it back to our hotel. Another bus eventually came (surprise!), and we somehow got off at the correct stop this time, in spite of the dark. We stumbled up the hill and into the light of the hotel lobby. And I felt like we had narrowly avoided disaster, but also a little bit silly.

Just like traveling, writing is good for me. It’s even better when I’m not doing it alone. So, Joy, thanks for telling your own beautiful story from the middle, with full confidence in the ending that hasn’t arrived just yet. Thanks for prodding me along on the journey, and winking at me over your cone.