The trip back to the States after our first olive harvest was the new routine: get up early in the morning on the day before the flight back, drive the rental car back to the Rome airport, check into the Hilton Hotel at the airport, get up the next morning and fly back home.
The five-hour drive from Cisternino to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport was mostly uneventful. The only drama resulted from Jessica’s lack of experience with soda pop physics. Now, I very rarely drink sugary soft drinks but, when I make long drives, I make an exception to that policy. Nothing works for me like a nice cold cola when I need to stay alert. After about an hour and a half into the trip, as we left Puglia and entered the region of Campania, we stopped at one of Italy’s famous AutoGrilles, a culinarily-superior version of our “truck stop” along the Autostrade. A quick espresso, a leisurely pee and a plastic bottle of Coke to go was all I needed. I asked Jessica to hold the Coke while I visited the facilities. She was waiting for me at the car when I came out though, at some point out of my sight and with the Coke, she must have jogged around a bit or perhaps she was listening to some music that she couldn’t help but dance to because, a few miles down the road, as Jessica dozed in the passenger’s seat and I held the bottle of Coke between my legs and I twisted the cap open, the soda exploded into my face and onto my crotch until most of the contents had been absorbed into my jeans.
Predictably and, dare I say, justifiably, I began to curse until the atmosphere in the car was a blue haze. And, just as predictably and, dare I say, justifiably, Jessica began to laugh until the tears in her eyes turned everything hazy. And that, predictably and justifiably, made me all the more angry.
“My pubes are sticking together!” I yelled, looking for some small bit of sympathy. “And, I look like I pissed myself.” Now Jessica could no longer breathe, her laughter was so consuming. By the time we got to Rome, my pubes were still stuck together, but, with the soda having dried completely, I no longer looked like I had pissed myself.
We returned the rental car and took the walkway that connected the airport parking garage to the hotel. Fortunately it is a short walk since, with each step, hair in various parts of my groin were being ripped out of the follicles. We checked into our room, freshened up (including a quick use of the bidet by your humble blogger and a change of clothes), and headed back down to the lobby to catch the hotel’s next shuttle into Rome. One of the very attractive features of the Hilton Hotel Rome Airport is the free ride into central Rome. The shuttle leaves the hotel every two hours from morning until late evening and returns to the hotel on alternate hours. We caught the two o’clock bus and, by 2:30, were in the city.
There were two items on our “to do” list. The first was to see an exhibit on Audrey Hepburn’s time in Rome at the Ara Pacis museum. It included photographs, clothing, film clips and memorabilia from the iconic actress’ twenty years in Rome. The Vespa that she and Gregory Peck rode in Roman Holiday was a featured item. We arrived at the museum about two hours before it closed for the night and, because it was the first day of the exhibit, the lines were long. It took us about an hour to get in, but it was worth the wait. Audrey Hepburn was not only a wonderful actress but, as I discovered that evening, she was a beautiful human being, devoting most of her later years to fighting disease and starvation among children in impoverished lands. We left the museum feeling uplifted.
The other item on our agenda was a stop at a little restaurant in the Trastevere section of Rome called Ristorante Spirito di Vino. Jessica saw a reference to it in a magazine in the hotel room and the name rang a bell for me. Rachel Ray did a food tour of Rome for a Food Network show and I had seen it several years before. What I remembered most about the story was that the restaurant was built over the remains of a 2,000 year old synagogue. We thought we’d try to have dinner there but, with the amount of time we had spent waiting in line at the museum, we would have to get there quickly if that were going to be possible.
The streets of Rome were very crowded that night, it being the end of November and the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The sidewalks were so jammed on the main streets that, despite heavy vehicle traffic, pedestrians were forced to walk in the streets. We were simply trying to walk. Heads down, in single file, Jessica and I weaved our way between and among people, cars, motorcycles, trash cans, light standards and dog poo. For some reason, I looked up at the oncoming crowd.
“Bernard! Maria!,” I yelled. There, walking toward us, was the young couple from Malta that we had met a few nights before at the wine museum in Alberobello. The four of us shared some hugs and kisses, said our farewells, and we quickly moved on toward Trastevere.
The word trastevere literally means “across the Tiber” and the neighborhood “where the real Romans live” is on the side of the river opposite the original city. We wended our way through the narrow, ancient streets and soon came across the place we were searching for, though with little help from the small, partially hidden sign that only seemed to announce its presence. We walked through the old wooden door and into a small, warm and well-lit dining area. On the right was a bar, though its purpose could not have been to serve or receive drinks since it was covered with dishes, table linens and serving pieces.
“Buona sera,” said the young man with the shaggy hair and trimmed beard standing behind the reception podium. “Can I help you?” he asked as soon as he saw Jessica and recognized her as Anglo.
“Yes, we were wondering if you might have a table for two available,” I said.
“I’m sorry, but we are completely booked,” he responded, and I got the impression that he really was sorry.
“Would it be possible for us to sit at the bar and have a drink?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “We are getting more and more requests to do that.”
He escorted us to the bar, cleared away just enough of the restaurant paraphernalia to accommodate us and asked, “So, where are you from.”
Jessica and I had decided long before that our answer in response to that question while abroad is “the United States.” After all, no one knows where Pittsburgh is anyway. So, Jessica responded, “The United States”, to which he replied, “Duh! I know you’re from the United States, but where in the United States?”
We told him. “Ugh! I hate the Steelers. I’m a Jets fan.” It turned out that our host studied in New York City and spent most of the previous six years there. “Please sit, relax and I will be right back.”
A few minutes later, he returned with place settings that he put in front of us as though we were about to dine. He came back with a selection of antipasti including olives, cheeses, salumis and bread and left us to greet a couple who had just entered the restaurant. As Jessica and I looked around trying to figure out where the historic parts of the building were located, we were greeted by an older gentleman whom we immediately took for the owner of the establishment. He put two glasses of perfectly-chilled, straw-colored wine on the bar in front of us.
“Thank you for allowing us to sit here,” I said. “We very much wanted to visit your restaurant.” He responded in excellent, though heavily-accented English.
“You are very welcome. How did you hear of us?”
“I saw the Rachel Ray program on the Food Network,” I answered.
“Then you will want to see the cellar,” he offered. “Bring your wine and come with me.”
He led us toward the back of the dining room to a narrow stairway. When we reached the top pf the stairs, he stopped and turned to us.
“Two thousand years ago, the Jews were forced to leave the city of Rome which, at that time, was on the other side of the Tiber only. They came here and built a synagogue on the site where we now stand. The remains of that synagogue where our wine cellar is now, are at the bottom of these stairs. Please, go ahead down to the cellar, enjoy your wine and remember that each step you take down is seventy years back in time.”
We slowly descended the stairs and, as we did, we saw that the stone walls became large brick walls, then walls of smaller brick and, finally, walls made of the thin layers of brick we were used to seeing in the most ancient of Rome’s structures. The light was dim, created by unadorned light bulbs of obviously low wattage. There was a small table with two chairs in what must have been the synagogue’s sanctuary and we sat there, silently, and drank in the history of the place, awed by it. I remember less what I saw than what I felt in that room and I will not soon forget the sense of joy that came to me from the fact that we could have this experience. I felt G-d there.
After a while, we went back up to the restaurant where the owner waited for us, expectantly. He looked at our faces, saw something in them, and, without a word, nodded to us in understanding.
We had to leave to catch the last shuttle back to the hotel so I asked the owner for a check.
“Please, there is no check. I hope you enjoyed our hospitality,” he said with a smile.
“That is too kind,” I said. “Can we at least leave something for the waiter who helped us?”
“No, that is not a waiter, he’s my son. He is well-paid.”
We left Ristorante Spirito di Vino, knowing that we had been changed a bit by the experience of it. Changed in a very good way.
Next: A Very Buon Compleanno