A Somewhat Fictional Story by Bob Kaster
My first day in Rome was June 5, 1965, my 23rd birthday. I had been in Europe for a short while, and was beginning to get my sea-legs. Two weeks before, I stepped off the boat at Le Havre station and rode the “Boat Train” to the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. Based on a recommendation from a friend, I spent a week at a funky hotel called the “Hotel California” on the Left Bank. This was twelve years before the famous song of the same name was released by the Eagles. When I first heard the song, I thought they surely must have written it about that place.
After a week in Paris, by prearrangement I hooked up with college-age friends I knew from Sacramento, two guys and two girls, who were travelling Europe that summer in a Volkswagen Squareback they had purchased before their trip and taken delivery of in Amsterdam. They would have it shipped back home to the USA afterward, an economically advantageous thing to do in those days. The week I rode with them was delightful, as we motored first to the Mont Saint Michel Abbey, then worked our way across France to Nice and the French and Italian Rivieras, ultimately headed to Rome. My travel companions’ itinerary included a few days of golf in Italy somewhere, which didn’t excite me at all, so we agreed that they would drop me off at the Stazione Termini, Rome’s primary railway station. We agreed to meet up again in Munich in three weeks.
Backpacks rarely were used by travelers in those days, and I carried my luggage in a large hard-shelled maroon-colored Samsonite suitcase that weighed a ton. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night, so I checked my suitcase at a luggage storage facility at the train station, and set off to find a place to stay, my copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day in hand. I had walked about two blocks when I heard a female voice behind me yelling something in Italian. It sounded kind of scary so I kept walking straight ahead, speeding up my pace. But she kept up with me, and I realized her yelling was directed at me, so I stopped, turned around, and saw a dark-haired young lady, speaking loudly in Italian, gesturing and waving something in front of my face. As I got a better look, I could tell she wasn’t trying to scare or intimidate me. She was small, twentyish, and quite beautiful. My fear now wasn’t that I was about to be physically harmed, it was that I might have inadvertently done something culturally wrong or offensive. The Ugly American, a best-selling political novel, had been published a few years before, and partially because of that book, American tourists in Europe were conditioned to be on their best behavior.
She held out her hand and showed me a little red card, and said something that sounded like “scusa caduto questo.”
“Oh, my goodness,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” Then, searching for the right words, I said, “Grazie, grazie,” as it was dawning on me what the little red card was. It was the claim check I had been given when I checked my suitcase at the railway station! All my possessions were in that suitcase. I don’t know what I would have done without that receipt. With the language barrier I would have been in big trouble.
“You are American?” she asked in halting English that was as charming and beautiful as she was.
“Yes, si. I came from the train station. I just arrived in Rome and I’m looking for a place to stay. Do you speak English?”
“A little,” she said. “I am travelling to United States in two days, and I practice. I’ve never been there.”
As she handed me the claim check, I said, “Thank you so much. This ticket is for my suitcase. I don’t know what I would have done without it. How can I repay you?”
“You don’t need to. I’m sure when I’m in America, someone will help me, if I need it. My Nonna has a pensione. A place where you can stay. It is just down the street. I can show you if you want. She is a very good cook.”
My conversation with this girl so far had lasted no more than three minutes, but I was already hopelessly in love. I would follow her anywhere. “Yes, grazie. That would be wonderful.”
“Follow me,” she said. “I work for my Nonna sometimes, and tonight I help her with la cena, dinner. Afterward, I can show you a little bit of Rome if you like, and you can tell me about America. Mi chiamo Gabriella.”
“My name is Bob,” I said.
After her Nonna’s great dinner, Gabriella and I walked the streets of Rome for hours, a night I will never forget. The evening was warm and lovely. I kissed her afterward, a kiss that was also warm and lovely. I never saw her again, but to this day I can picture her in my mind as clearly as if she were right in front of me. During my travels that summer I learned that my first impression of a city often shapes how I feel about that city forever. Rome, the “Eternal City,” is the best.