An Italian Love Story

It’s Valentine’s – that made up holiday in which the western world celebrates the martyrdom of Valentinius.  The funny thing about it is that no one seems to remember why.  In fact, other than the fact he was killed on February 14th, no one seems to know anything about him.  Oh, sure, there are lots of stories about why he died or what he did as he was dying, but at the end of the day, any one guess is as good as another.

With all the talk about love, hearts, and…..feelings, I’m reminded of the most romantic real life love story I’ve ever known, and I was there for its beginning.

Once upon a time a woman went to Italy.  She was no girl, for she had been married, and divorced, and had children, and to her, romance was something that had long ago passed her by.  She was in Italy for the first time.  In fact it was her first time in Europe, and this was the first time she had ever left the United States. She was traveling with a group of people on a tour that started in Italy and would wind its way up the peninsula and over the mountains, and into Switzerland.

The beauty of Rome immediately overcame her.  The food, at even the most humble of restaurant was delicious.  The scenery was delicious.  To her, even the people were delicious.  She absorbed everything.  She spent the first day often falling behind, her mouth agape, in wonder of everything around her.  The cobblestone streets, the ancient buildings, the attractive men, the gelato- she commented on it all.


The second day was much the same.  A trip to the “Wedding Cake,” the Altare della Patria was planned for late in the afternoon.  It’s a large white marble monument in the middle of a major boulevard in the city.  Most everyone that sees it, hates it.  Foreigners call it a “wedding cake” because of its gleaming white color and square shape.  Italians call it “the typewriter” because the dozens of steps look like typewriter keys.  It’s ugly, but it does have some of the best views of the city and so we slowly walked several blocks to the monument.  The woman was always a dozen steps behind, constantly looking not ahead of her, but rather around her.  She occasionally bumped into people, and sometimes even tripped over the cobblestones, but she didn’t mind.  She was in Rome!  We gathered at the corner of the boulevard, waiting for the light to change.

At this point in the story it is important to understand something about Italian traffic.  Italian traffic isn’t like traffic in the rest of the western world.  Street signs and street lights are seen as  more suggestions than actual laws.  Drivers swerve in and out of each other’s way without thought.  They blow their horns with glee and abandon.  They drive at such speeds, that sometimes you can actually see inertia taking effect and pulling their faces back.  They intentionally turn corners so fast that the car will raise up onto two wheels.  This is how the elderly drive – the younger generations are much, much worse.

The most harrowing thing about the streets of Rome though, is how wide the streets are.  Eight, ten, twelve, sixteen lanes of traffic on one street?  No problem in Italy.  One would imagine, if the streets are so wide, then the stoplights must be lengthy to allow pedestrians to cross the street.  One would be wrong, if one assumed such things.  In fact, I don’t think you could count to six before the lights change. Lane markings?  Oh, those don’t really exist in Rome.  One might also believe that when drivers see someone in the crosswalk, they wait for that person to get to the other side.  One would again be wrong.  When the light changes, all bets are off.  The drivers will gun the engines on their Vespas and cars and suddenly the poor soul is caught in a real, life and death game of Frogger.


       We stood at the corner bracing ourselves for the light to change.  After walking the several blocks I felt stretched out.  I can’t be certain, but I believe a couple of the people gathered around us had even gotten into the starting position of track runner.  All of us waiting, staring at the light.  Red. Red. Red. Red. Red.  Green!  We scrambled across the crosswalk.  Plastic bags full of tourist crap, backpacks, and even bottles of water must have all combined to turn us into a blur as we darted along the black and white stripped crosswalk.  We kept an eye on the light and suddenly it turned Red again, there was no yellow.  I knew the streetlight must have turned green, and heard the engines engage and race as they took off.  I jumped onto the sidewalk and for a moment felt the utter joy of being alive, then I heard a single long blare of Vespa’s horn.  BLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

The woman was laying down in the middle of the intersection, and a Vespa was  on its side a few feet behind her.  The man and the woman who had been on the Vespa were walking over to the Woman.  Cars were driving around them all.  The light changed again.  I ran out to them with my friends and picked the woman up and took her back to the sidewalk.  She wasn’t crying but I could tell she was upset.  She was in shock.  The Italian’s (being Italian) told us they were going to their cousin’s house, and we could find them there.  They gave us the address, said, “Ciao” and drove off into the sunset on their now wobbly scooter.  The woman’s hands were scratched up, and she complained that her side hurt.  She also had a rip the leg of her pants.  I pulled the rip apart and found a large 8 inch gash in her leg and she was bleeding, badly.  I left her with our group and ran back a couple of blocks in the direction from which we came, because I had remembered seeing a few police cars sitting there.  Luckily, they were still there.

As I approached, I quickly wondered how I was going to explain all of this.  My Italian skills were nonexistent.  I walked to the car and the two officers clearly saw me coming and turned their heads, pretending that they hadn’t.  I knocked on the driver’s window.  He glared at me.  I motioned for him to roll down his window.  He cracked it.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.  He shook his head and started to roll up the window.  Panicked, I motioned for him to follow me.  He furrowed his brow and didn’t move.  I resorted to the only thing I could – finger puppets.  With my right hand I moved my first two fingers to simulate legs walking, and then with my left I made a fist, made my best revving engine noise, and slammed my hands together.  His eyes widened and he and his partner started to get out of the car.  They may have thought I was crazy, so I began to move back in the direction from which I came, again motioning for them to follow, and this time they did.

The woman was pale white now.  One of the people with us was a nurse, and while we were away, she had surmised that the woman’s leg was probably shattered, and a couple of the woman’s ribs were broken.  The woman herself said she wasn’t paying attention, and she hadn’t noticed when the light had changed.  She looked up and we were halfway across the street and she absentmindly followed us.  The light had changed and she was hit.  She estimated she had been thrown 12 or 15 feet.  The police called an ambulance, and she was quickly taken away to the hospital.

Alone, scared, injured, and surrounded by emergency workers who spoke no English, the woman began to cry.  The pain was starting to set in and she was exhausted.  She was sedated in the ambulance.  When she was awoke she was in an Italian hospital ward.  Beds of sick and injured people surrounded her.  The room had 12 beds lined up on each wall.  It was hot and humid and fans turns slowly from the ceiling failing to cool the room in early June.  Nurses came in and out and cheerfully tried to speak to her.  Sometimes it sounded like they were trying to say “American” but she wasn’t sure.  Each time they did, she cried more, and the nurses, unsure of what to do, would slowly walk away.

Hours passed, and the woman had no one to talk to, and she was scared and worried.  Finally, late in the night, the nurses returned, smiling.  Joining them were two men.  The nurses told the woman “Ciao!” and the men began to roll her away.  She worried that she was being taken into surgery, but no!  Down the elevator they went, then to the ambulance bay, and into a waiting ambulance.  She tried to ask where she was being taken, but to no avail.

A moment later and she was off, traveling to the other side of the city.  When the ambulance stopped, the doors opened and a young man said to her, “Hi, ma’am.  Welcome to the American Hospital of Rome.”  So overcome with relief and joy at knowing where she was that she began to cry again.  She was admitted, and then moved into a private room.  Just as the woman was drifting off to sleep, a man entered the room.  He was Italian, dark skinned, and devastatingly handsome.  She was again overcome by the delicious scenery of Rome.  He explained that he would be her surgeon tomorrow.  He would be repairing both her leg and her ribs.  The idea of surgery  brought her to tears. She apologized and said that it must be the stress of the day and her exhaustion.  He handed her his handkerchief.  She took it and dabbed at her eyes.

Then they began to talk.  He too was divorced and had children.  He lived in Rome, but was from a small rural town, much like her.  They made each other laugh, and for the first time since the ordeal began, she felt safe.

The next day she had surgery, and when she awoke, the good doctor was there by her bed.  The day after, he returned to visit her and brought her a gelato.   The day after that, he brought her dinner from his favorite restaurant in town, and told her that the next time she was Rome  he would take her there.  She laughed, and told him she couldn’t imagine herself being able to afford to come back, and so he suggested she take him to her favorite restaurant when he came to visit her.  She blushed, and smiled.

Their visits continued for the next several days, and each one became increasingly longer.   Eventually though, the woman was deemed well enough to fly back to America.  The doctor rode in the ambulance with her to the airport, and they shared a tearful goodbye, both promising to stay in touch.

Fifteen hours later, the woman arrived back at her home in America, and soon after the FedEx delivery man knocked on her door and presented her with a letter.  It was from the doctor.  She had never received a love letter before, and certainly not one from the other side of the globe.  She wrote back, and accordingly he responded.   Thus began a series of correspondence, phone calls, and a return visit to Rome a few months later.   Six months after that, the doctor came to America, and then she again flew to Rome.  For three years they traveled back and forth.

Family and work obligations, though, began to conspire to limit their time together.  Neither of them could continue to sacrifice the time or the money for the plane tickets, and to be away from their jobs.  They still communicate some, though I get the impression that it isn’t with the same passion that it once was.  Maybe it’s better that they don’t .  Sometimes, talking about the thing you can’t have only makes the memory of it more painful.  Sometimes a love affair, has limits, and how we think about the time within those restrains is enough to sustain us.

I don’t see the woman often, but each time, I do, I ask about the good doctor that kept her company and brought her gelato.  She always smiles subtly, thinks for a moment, and says, “He’s well.”


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Categories: Europe, Stories


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