16 – Roman Holiday

Continued from Il Bel Far Niente, or More on The Beauty of Doing Nothing

“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days
three such days with you I could fill with more delight
than fifty common years could ever contain,”
Letter to Fanny Brawne, July 1, 1819, John Keats

*******

Thankfully in this instance, Gil Grissom’s general thoughtful and thoroughness when it came to gifts also included a sensible simple pair of flats. They might not be properly broken in, but they were certainly better than the alternative. For one, the boots she’d been wearing for the better part of the week wouldn’t have quite gone with the dress. That and heels were in Sara’s opinion and experience evil incarnate.

Even more so here. How le donne romane managed on the notoriously uneven cobblestone walks, she had no idea. And was more than happy not to have to find out.

So that when her husband proposed they walk rather than take a cab across town, Sara readily agreed. Unlike earlier that afternoon, the evening was clear and calm, cool but not cold, perfect for walking. And a piedi really was the only way to see Rome. Even if the traffic was murder.

With all of its aggressive cut and thrust drivers, il traffico romano was almost a living thing. And the cyclists on their harshly, yet aptly buzzing Vespas were almost worse. This coupled with the narrow roads and frequently even narrower walkways, pedestrians navigated le strade of the eternal city at their own peril. And when it came to crossing the street, it hadn’t taken the two of them long to realize there were only two types of pedoni in Rome: the quick and the dead.

All so much so, that at lunch that day, Sara had shook her head and lamented over the strange oversight whereby Rome had its own patron saint for motorists in Santa Francesca Romana (for whom cars would line up for miles just to be blessed every March) and yet not one protecting those who traveled by foot. Perhaps St. Christopher would just have to do.

Despite or perhaps in spite of the endemic near homicidal vehicular recklessness, there was along with the rest of the chaos of Rome a measure of sense to it all.

Maybe it was time, contradictory as the concept was in a city where old and new stood side by side.

Something no more in evidence than in the Trastevere neighborhood they passed through on their way to dinner. With its endless zigzagging maze of cobblestone streets and small, richly earthy-hued houses draped in ivy, bedecked with flower boxes and with the day’s laundry hung as it always was overhead outside, their hotel’s rione or district was very much as it had been more than six centuries before. The sailors and fishermen who originally made Trastevere home had long been replaced by artists, merchants, café owners, restaurateurs and university students, but the mix of Old World sensibilities and bohemian bonhomie still remained.

It wasn’t all picturesque. No place ever was. No matter what the travel brochures promised. Pollution and acid rain had done more to destroy what antiquity remained than centuries of barbarian hordes or requisitioning popes. And while Trastevere remained mostly safe from the blight of graffiti, it colored much of the rest of Rome, no matter how much the city tried to keep it at bay.

Perhaps it was in the blood, this seemingly indelible human desire to mark one’s presence, to exclaim I was here! in such a tangible way. A thirst for bit of immortality, even if it only lasted until someone came by to clean it up. For when the buried city of Pompeii was finally excavated nearly 1,700 years later, archeologists found amongst the well-preserved buildings, mosaics, possessions and artwork, the scrawl of vandals on the walls. Perhaps some things never really did change.

Used as they were to all the tagging in Vegas, the spray paint didn’t bother them. Rome may not be perfect, but it certainly had an allure all its own, causing Grissom to intone to his wife, “‘The charm of Italy is akin to that of being in love.’ Stendhal,” he supplied.

“Is that so?” Sara laughed, taking up his arm as they crossed over the Ponte Sisto and into Rome proper.

He nodded and she waited for him to expound upon this, like he was often want to do. She was frankly perplexed when he didn’t. So that when he left it at that, she prompted, “And?”

“And what?” he asked in return.

“And that’s all you’re going to say?”

Grissom merely shrugged, “You do know what Anatole France said about quotations.”

“I haven’t the foggiest.”

“‘When a thing has been said, and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it,’” he offered, then said, “Some quotations need no amendment.”

Sara only shook her head and sighed. Yes, some things never did change.

*******

Throughout much of the morning and early afternoon, Rome’s Campo dei Fiori was home to one of the largest and most famous fresh produce markets in the city. At this hour, only a lone flower seller remained in attendance. Still, Sara steered Grissom over for a better look.

It was a habit she’d picked up in Paris, making the time to literally stop and smell the roses and other flowers on display. Even if she seldom ever bought any, as vibrant and alive as they were, the bright blossoms were just too tempting to resist a peek.

Here cellophane wrapped bunches of fiery red lilies, fresh faced daisies, sunny sunflowers, fragrant carnations and smile-inducing Gerbers peered up from their buckets begging to be admired.

And unlike most men, well those not in search of the floral equivalent of I’m sorry, Grissom appreciated the spectacle. Or perhaps more precisely appreciated his wife’s appreciation.

Unsurprisingly their lingering loitering attracted the stall keeper’s attention.
The olive skinned and well-weathered faced older man greeted them with the customary “Prego,” before asking, “Americani?”

As Grissom replied, “,” both he and Sara wondered what made it so obvious.

“Married?” the man asked in an uneasy sort of English.

,” said Grissom again.

“Soon?”

By which they both took to mean recently.

At her husband’s third answer of “,” Sara was having a hard time concealing her amusement and shot Grissom a meaningful look as if to say I told you so.

When they’d first arrived on the continent nearly a year before, Sara had laughingly assured Grissom that everyone was going to think she was his second wife. At the time, he’d openly scoffed at the notion. Since then all evidence tended to point to Sara being in the right.

Grissom however was far too occupied by the fioraio taking off his battered driving hat as he motioned for Grissom to lean in.

“You are very lucky man,” the man grinned, then murmured almost conspiratorially, “She is very young and beautiful, your wife.”

While Grissom whole-heartedly agreed with this sentiment, Sara had to work to choke back her disbelief at such a flagrant display of flattery. For by her own estimation she was neither. As she was nearing forty these days, it wasn’t that she was old, but it had been quite some time since she’d thought of herself as young exactly.  As for beautiful — yeah, right.

But the venditore was just getting to the crux of his sales pitch, saying, “Un bel fiore per una bella donna. A beautiful flower for a beautiful lady.”

Sara whispered, “I bet he knows how to say that in ten languages.”

To which Grissom replied, “Doesn’t make it any less true.”

“Sucker,” she chuckled.

“Why not?”

Seeing that her husband was indeed in earnest and knowing the impossibility of getting him to change his mind once it was made up, Sara simply shook her head and gave the offerings a more critical eye.

After a moment she said, “Have a suggestion?”

“Roses,” came his immediate reply.

“Isn’t that a little cliché, Gil?”

“Not in Rome,” he answered. “When in Rome choose roses.”

This time he didn’t hesitate with further explication. “Ancient Romans adored roses. Stuffed their pillows with them. Scented the public baths and fountains with rose water and the awnings at the Coliseum and other amphitheaters were steeped in the sent. They scattered petals at ceremonies and banquets. Cleopatra knowing the Roman penchant for roses welcomed Antony in a room carpeted more than a foot deep with petals. And once Nero accidentally smothered a guest to death from the sheer weight of the shower of rose petals.”

As ever impressed by the breadth and depth of her husband’s reply, Sara said, “Why don’t you just help me pick one.”

To her surprise, Grissom inclined to choose by smell rather than sight. From among the pristine whites, hot pinks, deep crimsons, lemon yellows and pale apricots he withdrew a bloom that began golden but blushed coral at its tips.

“This one,” he said, handing it to her before turning to pay the man.

The merchant sent them off with a smile and a “Grazie, signore, signora.”

Taking up her husband’s arm again, Sara smirked, “I’m telling you he uses that line on everyone.”

Grissom shrugged. “Can’t fault his salesmanship. It worked.”

“But perhaps not exactly how he planned it,” she rejoined. “You still carrying that pocket knife of yours on you?”

He gave her a reluctant, “Yeah.”

Sara held out her hand. “Hand it over.”

Which he did, but not without a leery sort of “Okay,” and watching her with a hint of horror proceed to deftly cut down the stem, added, “Sara, you do realize the most expensive part of the rose is the stem and not the flower?”

“Noted. But it’s not for me. It’s for you.”

That stopped him in his tracks.

Sara slipped the bloom into the buttonhole of his suit jacket.

“There, that’s better,” she finished. “Although I’m not so sure that pink’s quite your color.”

“The sentiment works,” he countered.

“Will I have to wait until I get back to Vegas to ask Greg or are you going to clue me in this time?”

“No,” Grissom smiled. “It means friendship turning into love.”

And Sara returned his grin. That was how it had been with them. Friends into lovers into spouses who were still friends and lovers at heart.

“Thank you,” he said and meant it.

“For a flower?” she laughed incredulous.

“No, dear.”

Sara nodded and smoothed the lapels of his jacket before pausing to peer up at him.

He’d saved his best dress for that night: a blue button down and dark slacks beneath his spring weight jacket. The ensemble coming off the better for the lack of a tie. All in all, he was trés chic. No doubt Catherine would be impressed as to how much Paris was rubbing off on him.

How it had all managed to make it nearly a week in his bag and emerge utterly unrumpled baffled Sara. They were she reasoned probably all made of one of those never wrinkle modern textile marvels.

But as much as the clothes made the man, that wasn’t where the attraction ultimately lie.

For he certainly was handsome, her husband. Of course he always had been. Or at least Sara had found him so.

Yet it had to be one of those cosmic injustices that Grissom succeeded in getting better looking every year and so effortlessly too. But as much as she might bemoan the fact, she certainly couldn’t find fault in the results.

His beard had begun to grow in nicely over the last five days. Even with it slightly more salt than pepper these days, it leant him a sophisticated sort of roguishness that Sara found sexy, even if she knew her husband would dismiss the implication, let alone appellation.

After all the months of fine French food, his face was a little fuller, his features now far more softer and far less angular. And true, there were a few more lines about his eyes and mouth these days, but she knew them to have come more from laughter and smiles than frustration and sorrow. Ultimately, they suited him. And yeah, the grey hair was still attractive, very attractive.

Yes, he really was even more handsome then when they’d first met more than a decade before.

Sara hadn’t realized she’d reached up to caress his cheek until she felt him cover her hand with his and turn to press a kiss into her palm.

“He was right,” he said, “the flower seller.”

“About?”

“You.”

She looked dubious. “Uh huh.”

Grissom quoted,

“’She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes.’”

“Byron?” she asked, recognizing the speaker, but curious at the choice.

“He spent time in Rome.”

Sara was about to tell him he was full of it, but Grissom was looking at her with that same raw awe and devotion as he had that first morning after they were married. She’d rolled over, still half asleep, having woken to the feel of his lips at the back of her neck to find him wearing that exact same expression.

He’d kissed her then and with no quotations, no borrowed words, just open and unguarded honesty whispered, “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

She’d doubted it then, with the sleep still in her eyes and her hair she knew had to be mussed from their lovemaking the night before. But it was truth to him. There was no mistaking that fact.

And she’d been pleased, even if she hadn’t understood it, found it hard to accept that her now husband had long regarded her as beautiful.

So she’d laughed, teased, “Will you say that when I’m old and grey?” and been caught up short when he’d replied, “No.”

But not nearly as much as when he’d added, “You’ll be even more beautiful then.”

Love looks not with the eyes, but in the mind, indeed, she thought.

With those same eyes on her now, she just smiled and took the compliment in the spirit in which it was given.

*******

Even in the very last remains of the day, the Spanish Steps in the Piazza di Spagna were a good place to meet up, write postcards, take photographs, flirt, people watch and indulge in the Italian custom of l’arte d’arrangiarsi, the art of making something out of nothing. Mostly though people were intalliadosi, hanging out deciding what to do and until then simply enjoying the anticipation of the pleasure to come.

It was unquestionably a far different rhythm to life than in Vegas, no less vital and alive, but far less frenzied. And a nice change.

The Steps themselves were a pageant all their own, decked out as they were every spring in riots of pink azaleas. But it was the fountain at their base that caught Grissom and Sara’s attention. Not that fountains were uncommon in Rome. The city was host to more than 200 fontane of various shapes, sizes and spectacle, once causing Percy Bysshe Shelly to maintain that the fountains of Rome alone were worth the journey. La fontana della barca or the barcaccia was certainly a whimsical iteration.

Built by Pietro Bernini, the father of the much-celebrated baroque sculptor and architect extraordinaire, the “leaking boat” whose construction predated the Spanish Steps by nearly a century, reportedly marked the place where after the particularly bad flooding of the Tiber 1598, a large barge came to rest. Now a doomed stone ship occupied its place, fated to forever be taking on water as it appeared to sink into the piazza itself.

None of that was what caused them to stop and stare.

Gesturing to the prominent three bee crest that adorned the bark’s prow, Sara took a couple of curious steps across the stone plinth for a closer look and said, “Are those what I think they are?”

“Barberini bees?” supplied Grissom who had followed so close she could feel him behind her. “Yeah.”

“You sound surprised.”

Registering his wife’s own surprise at this, he sighed, “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t know everything, Sara.”

Though her rejoining “Really?” came out dubious, in truth it was more tease than anything.

“I have never –” he protested.

“No, you never have,” readily conceded Sara. “Somehow it just seems to work out that way. Well, most of the time.”

Grissom didn’t need her to tell him what she was thinking. Her smile said it all.

Earlier that day, just after their very early lunch and just before the heavens opened up, Sara had tugged a rather reluctant Grissom into a quiet little haberdashery. Even if she knew her husband would never agree to a new hat, she’d thought it amusing to try. And to his credit, Grissom good-naturedly humored his wife for a few minutes. But when the middle-aged capellaia, came to inquire if there was something in particular he might like to try on, Grissom had politely declined on the grounds that he already had a hat. Or at least that had been what he thought he’d said. But while the clerk had only given him a rather bemused look in response, Sara seemed to be having a really hard time not laughing. A really hard time.

Curious as to the source of his wife’s sudden mirth, Grissom had hurriedly thanked the woman and steered his wife out of the shop.

“What’s so funny?”

Sara had snickered. “Capelli is Italian for ‘hair.’ Cappello the word for ‘hat.’ You just told her you didn’t need a hat because you already had hair.”

“And this is funny because?”

“Serves you right,” she’d supplied, rather unhelpfully in his opinion. “Lunch,” she’d reminded him.

“You’re still mad?”

“No.”

Which was the truth. She wasn’t still mad, though admittedly she had been rather piqued at the time by his commenting upon her ordering lunch at the Pizza al taglio, “Your Italian sounds just like your Spanish.”

So much so that she’d literally turned on him and not quite snapped, “And you can do better?”

His reply of “Merely an observation, not a criticism, my dear,” didn’t do much to help the situation.

“Pot,” she’d intoned.

“It’s not hypocrisy if you know you know nothing,” he’d countered. “Parlo molto poco l’italiano. I speak very little Italian,” he’d offered and his plodding, very nearly inept pronunciation succeeded in earning him the barest hint of a smile from his wife.

There was no point in denying it, they both pretty much sucked at speaking Italian. Their listening skills weren’t all the much better. The native Romani spoke far faster than their ears worked. And most of the meaning behind the accompanying hand gestures were lost on them.

Although it wasn’t just Italian their ears picked up from the crowd along the cascading stairs. Populated by tourists of all sorts, the place was a veritable Tower of Babel, with as many different languages being spoken simultaneously as there were conversations. This of course being nothing new. With The Steps having originally been built to link the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See and the late renaissance church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti which towered above the piazza belonging to the French, for centuries the area had been home to a variety of nationalities. In fact, so many British visitors and expatriates made their home here that it was known as the ghetto of the English.

“See that window there?” Grissom asked, indicating one on the third floor corner of the dusky pink house adjacent to The Steps. “Keats died there.”

“John Keats, the Romantic poet?”

“Or as the Italians regarded him, Giovanni Keats. In 1821. Because of a bad review if you listen to Byron, but really from consumption.”

Sara grimaced. “Not a good way to die.”

“No,” Grissom agreed. Death by tuberculosis was a particularly gruesome way to go. “He and the painter Joseph Severn came here for Keats’ health, ostensibly to get away from the cold, wet English winters. But Keats only spent 100 days in Rome after a problematic nearly two month journey by sea to get here.”

Sara whistled, “Remind me never again to complain about the length of the flight from Vegas to Paris.”

Grissom continued, “He’s buried not far from the garden this morning. The story goes that he used to lie in bed with the window open, listening to the fountain. The sound supposedly the source for his epitaph, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Although Keats was likely commenting more on how little his work was appreciated in his lifetime. He died thinking himself a failed poet.”

“And yet is now one of the most famous,” Sara said with all the resignation of one knowing too well how the world worked sometimes. “I have to admit I’ve never really been all that into the Romantics.”

“He did have a few things right,” Grissom replied. And running his hand down the bare skin of her arm where her shawl had slipped, recited,

“‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.’”

Sara smiled. “You’re full of poetry today,” she observed. Then hurriedly amended, “That’s not a bad thing. I like it. I always have. Well, not always, but…”

“Rome I suppose,” Grissom explained before she could babble her way into mischief.

That made sense. Half the literary world had been to Rome. The other half dreamed of it, or so it seemed. Hence how Rome tended to feature heavily as part of the proverbial Grand Tour, that indispensable element of aristocratic education.

Sara cocked her head and chuckled. “I just realized it. What literary type you are. It makes perfect sense.”

Grissom waited for her to continue.

“You’re the Victorian hero. Patient, disciplined, reserved. A little moody and broody from time to time.”

“I’m not moody.”

“Not so much anymore, no,” Sara agreed. “But even Edward Rochester could be pleasant and charming.”

At his bafflement at her reference she added, “I have read something other than crime books. And you’re doing it right now, Gil. Being broody.”

She could see him about to protest he was not, but seem to think better of the idea.

“It was meant to be a compliment,” she said trying to get him to return her reassuring smile. “And I do like you just the way you are. But that doesn’t mean you don’t drive me nuts. And don’t tell me you’ve never felt the same. But ‘Love is not love…’” she began.

And he brightened at this, mentally supplying the next few lines:

Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark…

His love for Sara was certainly that to him.

*******

“It’s too bad,” Grissom said as they paused to sit at the foot of The Steps for a moment before heading off to the ristorante for dinner, “that you can’t eat gelato here anymore.”

Up until the moment he mentioned it, Sara hadn’t noticed, but he was right. There wasn’t a hint of food here. Which did come as a surprise as she couldn’t imagine a nicer spot for an impromptu picnic.

But it was his rue that more intrigued her, prompting her to ask, “Can’t leave Rome without eating gelato?”

“I take it you’ve never seen Roman Holiday?” he inquired in return. When she continued to look blank, he said, “1950’s classic. Gregory Peck. Audrey Hepburn in her first major role. She won an Academy Award for it.”

Rather reluctantly Sara admitted, “I can’t say I have. It was a little before my time. A little before yours, too.”

Grissom didn’t deign to dignify her jab with a reply. Instead, he said, “Hepburn plays a princess who runs off into Rome to have a bit of freedom if just for a day. And Peck gives her that. Although his motives aren’t entirely altruistic. In the beginning, he’s out for a scoop. Journalist,” he explained. “But she ends up doing all the things she’s always wanted to do, but was never able to. Just sit in a café. Have a cigarette.”

At the disapproving look Sara gave to this, he shrugged, “It was the 50’s, cigarette smoking was still cool. She bobs her hair. Goes dancing on a barge on the Tiber. But she first meets up with Peck again while sitting on The Steps eating gelato. It’s the start of an adventure that takes them all over Rome.

“One of the most famous scenes is their ride through Rome on a Vespa. Peck’s a far braver man than I. I’m not so sure I’d trust to ride behind you on a scooter,” Grissom grinned.

“So now you’re complaining about my driving?”

“Well, needless to say, they leave chaos and destruction in their wake.”

“Sounds like our road trip.”

“It wasn’t that bad, Sara,” Grissom maintained.

“Sounds nice,” she said.

And the movie did. Like all the things a holiday is supposed to be – an escape from usual life, from occupations and preoccupations if only for a little while. Vacate life for a bit.

“So how does it end? Happily ever after?”

At this, a little of Grissom’s brightness faded, knowing as he did that he and Sara would all too soon have to play out a very similar denouement. Still, he kept his tone light when he replied, “You’ll just have to watch it to find out.”

“I’ll add it to my queue when I get back.”

*******

Continued in Bella Notte

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