I step off the train a few days later to a Rome full of hot, sunny, eternal disorder, where-- immediately upon walking out into the street--I can hear the soccer-stadium-like cheers of a nearby manifestazione, another labor demonstration. What they are striking about this time, my taxi driver cannot tell me, mainly because, it seems, he doesn't care. " 'Sti cazzi," he says about the strikers. (Literal translation: "These balls," or, as we might say: "I don't give a shit.") It's nice to be back. After the staid sobriety of Venice, it's nice to be back where I can see a man in a leopard-skin jacket walking past a pair of teenagers making out right in the middle of the street. The city is so awake and alive, so dolled-up and sexy in the sunshine.
I remember something that my friend Maria's husband, Giulio, said to me once. We were sitting in an outdoor cafe, having our conversation practice, and he asked me what I thought of Rome. I told him I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I'd end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn't belong to me, and I couldn't quite figure out what it was. Just as we were talking, a helpful visual aid walked by. It was the quintessential Roman woman--a fantastically maintained, jewelry-sodden forty-something dame wearing four- inch heels, a tight skirt with a slit as long as your arm, and those sunglasses that look like race cars (and probably cost as much). She was walking her little fancy dog on a gem-studded leash, and the fur collar on her tight jacket looked as if it had been made out of the pelt of her former little fancy dog. She was exuding an unbelievably glamorous air of: "You will look at me, but I will refuse to look at you." It was hard to imagine she had ever, even for ten minutes of her life, not worn mascara. This woman was in every way the opposite of me, who dresses in a style my sister refers to as "Stevie Nicks Goes to Yoga Class in Her Pajamas."
I pointed that woman out to Giulio, and I said, "See, Giulio--that is a Roman woman.
Rome cannot be her city and my city, too. Only one of us really belongs here. And I think we both know which one."
Giulio said, "Maybe you and Rome just have different words." "What do you mean?"
He said, "Don't you know that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn--what is the word of the street?"
Then he went on to explain, in a mixture of English, Italian and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people's thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be--that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don't really belong there.
"What's Rome's word?" I asked. "SEX," he announced.
"But isn't that a stereotype about Rome?" "No."
"But surely there are some people in Rome thinking about other things than sex?"
Giulio insisted: "No. All of them, all day, all they are thinking about is SEX." "Even over at the Vatican?"
"That's different. The Vatican isn't part of Rome. They have a different word over there. Their word is POWER."
"You'd think it would be FAITH."
"It's POWER," he repeated. "Trust me. But the word in Rome--it's SEX."
Now if you are to believe Giulio, that little word--SEX--cobbles the streets beneath your feet in Rome, runs through the fountains here, fills the air like traffic noise. Thinking about it, dressing for it, seeking it, considering it, refusing it, making a sport and game out of it--that's all anybody is doing. Which would make a bit of sense as to why, for all its gorgeousness, Rome doesn't quite feel like my hometown. Not at this moment in my life. Because SEX isn't my word right now. It has been at other times of my life, but it isn't right now. Therefore, Rome's word, as it spins through the streets, just bumps up against me and tumbles off, leaving no impact. I'm not participating in the word, so I'm not fully living here. It's a kooky theory, impossible to prove, but I sort of like it.
Giulio asked, "What's the word in New York City?"
I thought about this for a moment, then decided. "It's a verb, of course. I think it's
(Which is subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles, I believe, which is also a verb: SUCCEED. Later, I will share this whole theory with my Swedish friend Sofie, and she will offer her opinion that the word on the streets of Stockholm is CONFORM, which depresses both of us.)
I asked Giulio, "What's the word in Naples?" He knows the south of Italy well.
"FIGHT," he decides. "What was the word in your family when you were growing up?" That one was difficult. I was trying to think of a single word that somehow combines both FRUGAL and IRREVERENT. But Giulio was already on to the next and most obvious question: "What's your word?"
Now that, I definitely could not answer.
And still, after a few weeks of thinking about it, I can't answer it any better now. I know some words that it definitely isn't. It's not MARRIAGE, that's evident. It's not FAMILY (though this was the word of the town I'd lived in for a few years with my husband, and since I did not fit with that word, this was a big cause of my suffering). It's not DEPRESSION anymore, thank heavens. I'm not concerned that I share Stockholm's word of CONFORM. But I don't feel that I'm entirely inhabiting New York City's ACHIEVE
anymore, either, though that had indeed been my word all throughout my twenties. My word might be SEEK. (Then again, let's be honest--it might just as easily be HIDE.) Over the last months in Italy, my word has largely been PLEASURE, but that word doesn't match every single part of me, or I wouldn't be so eager to get myself to India. My word might be DEVOTION, though this makes me sound like more of a goody-goody than I am and doesn't take into account how much wine I've been drinking.
I don't know the answer, and I suppose that's what this year of journeying is about. Finding my word. But one thing I can say with all assurance--it ain't SEX.
Or so I claim, anyhow. You tell me, then, why today my feet led me almost of their own accord to a discreet boutique off the Via Condotti, where--under the expert tutelage of the silky young Italian shop girl--I spent a few dreamy hours (and a transcontinental airline ticket's worth of money) buying enough lingerie to keep a sultan's consort outfitted for
1,001 nights. I bought bras of every shape and formation. I bought filmy, flimsy camisoles and sassy bits of panty in every color of the Easter basket, and slips that came in creamy satins and hush-now-baby silks, and handmade little bits of string and things and basically just one velvety, lacy, crazy valentine after another.
I have never owned things like this in my life. So why now? As I was walking out of the store, hauling my cache of tissue-wrapped naughties under my arm, I suddenly thought of the anguished demand I'd heard a Roman soccer fan yell the other night at the Lazio game, when Lazio's star player Albertini at a critical moment had passed the ball right into the middle of nowhere, for no reason whatsoever, totally blowing the play.
"Per chi???" the fan had shouted in near-madness. "Per chi???"
For WHOM??? For whom are you passing this ball, Albertini? Nobody's there!
Out on the street after my delirious hours of lingerie shopping, I remembered this line and repeated it to myself in a whisper: "Per chi?"
For whom, Liz? For whom all this decadent sexiness? Nobody's there. I had only a few weeks left in Italy and absolutely no intention of knocking boots with anyone. Or did I? Had I finally been affected by the word on the streets in Rome? Was this some final effort to become Italian? Was this a gift to myself, or was it a gift for some as yet not even imagined lover? Was this an attempt to start healing my libido after the sexual self- confidence disaster of my last relationship?
I asked myself, "You gonna bring all this stuff to India?"