Neighbors can be nosy, but in Italy, in Trastevere, they are the nosiest. I never thought I would appreciate the seemingly constant appraisal and surveillance of the Trasteverini until a few weeks ago when I was having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad morning.
I was stressed, confused, and lonely. All I wanted to do was call my mom, but the six hour time difference forced me to wait until noon Rome time (6 a.m. EST). I didn’t want to call in the middle of the night, but I decided that the circumstances were such that my mom wouldn’t mind a tearful wakeup call.
While I sat on the stairs in the piazza, Mama answered the phone. I leaned against the old fountain and cried. I gasped through a slightly hysterical monologue, listing my problems and pleading for advice and comfort. “And I’m holding a piece of pizza I bought to keep my hands warm and I’m not even hungry but I’m eating it anyway,” I moaned, my exhalation morphing into a sob.
I sniffled and tried to compose myself, wiping away mascara drips that had trailed beneath the rim of my sunglasses. While the blubbering subsided, my mom asked where I was sitting. “I’m in Piazza Trilussa. It’s kind of near school. But I don’t really care that I’m crying in public because, you know, I’m in Italy and I don’t know anyone here,” I explained.
I returned to my apartment, still a little upset but calmed in that particular way that can only come from a motherly pep talk. Two of my roommates listened sympathetically as I ran through my rough morning. “Let’s go out for lunch. We’ll try somewhere new,” they said. “Come on.”
We didn’t have to walk far to find a new restaurant. It was a gorgeous, sunny Roman day, so we opted to stand around and wait for an outdoor table to open up. After about ten minutes, we were seated. An older man, presumably our waiter but probably the owner of the restaurant, brought us a few menus.
“Are you ok now?” he asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. Confused, I responded, “Oh yeah, we didn’t have to wait very long. It’s good to be seated now though.” “No, no. I saw you in the piazza earlier. You were very sad. Are you ok now?” the man said, clearly very concerned about my emotional state.
“Oh! Yes, I’m fine, thank you. I didn’t think anyone saw me,” I laughed, half-embarrassed and half-shocked at the coincidence. “See? You are so beautiful when you smile! No more tears. Allora, you want some wine? Yes, she needs wine. I bring you some now,” he declared.
The man checked in with me periodically throughout our delicious meal. We figured that he was probably Zi’Umberto, the restaurant’s namesake Uncle Umberto. We ate and talked, talked and ate. The conversation changed course a number of times, but whenever there was a lull, I couldn’t help reiterating my disbelief that this anonymous Italian guy had seen me crying at the fountain, that he remembered me when I happened to walk into his restaurant hours later, and that he had had the gumption to ask if I was feeling better. The fortuity of it all was just incredible.
After we had finished our meal, Zi’Umberto brought three limoncello glasses to the table for complimentary after-lunch digestives. He poured out two shots, one for each of my roommates, and then set the large bottle in front of me with a heavy thud. “Here – you drink all of this, you forget what makes you cry!” he joked before pouring out my shot.
As we got up to leave, Zi’Umberto came over to the table again. He pinched my cheek and said, “No tears. Now go! Be happy!”
And that’s exactly what I did.
This is the story of a bad day turned good. It’s the story of a neighborhood – a place where people watch each other, but where they watch out for each other too.