And I spoke too soon – it’s back, the Italian winter rain; slanted and stinging and freezing cold. It starts in the morning, slows to a sputter a few minutes before siesta, and then it’s on again, full force, as soon as I step out of the apartment. Puddles sopping up my pant leg; my windshield fogged and icy; the beach a mass of soupy mud. So much for the idyllic seashore in winter – give me my blanket or give me death.
But I have things to do; things I was putting off last fall, things that got forgotten during my trip back home, things that have gone forgotten since I’ve returned. Pick out some curtains. Mail out a thank-you card. Refill my fridge. Get my carta d’identita already – that is, my Italian ID so I can stop carrying around my passport like a tourist. And it’s so gross out. And I don’t want to leave the house. And yet.
My first stop is Il Giovedi – the weekly outdoor farmers’ and household goods market, held on Thursdays, hence the name. It’s close to ten by the time I venture out, but because of the weather the crowds are thin and my fighting elbows can stay down. There are no curtains that I like, but instead I buy: 2 artichokes, 1kg of tomatoes, 1kg of puntarelle romane, parsley and mint plants to replace the ones I murdered, and, most importantly, a shrubbery. It’s a ficus and will go in my office. At the vegetable stand, the man behind the counter says: Tourist? And I’m, like, No, man – what would a tourist be doing with a shrubbery? Dumbass but I say, No and leave it at that because it’s too cold and wet to deal. And I bring my coup to the car. I put the shrubbery in the backseat and latch the seatbelt around it just in case it gets any ideas and starts messing with the puntarelle; I need those to copy a salad Maria made last week. You soak the puntarelle in ice water for about an hour or so until they curl up. Then you add anchovy fillets; toss with oil, lemon juice, and white wine vinegar. The puntarelle are crispy and nice, but the anchovies totally make it.
Next, it’s up to the antique city to hit the commune for my carta d’identita. I’m edgy, as I always am when facing an afternoon of Italian bureaucracy. I park at the base of the city and tramp up the long incline to get to the Piazza Municipio, my sneakers squishing and damp. But miracle of miracles – there is someone seated at the entrance of the commune and he actually wants to help me! He says: Are you a citizen? Do you have your residency? I say I am and I do. He asks me my height; notes that my eyes and hair are brown. Asks if I have a photo and Why, yes; yes I do! and I produce a passport photo, the very last of the bunch I took for my Japanese Visa all those years ago. It is easily the best photo of me ever – ever! – taken and I am immortalized thus in two governments: it’s the photo on my Japanese Visa, my gaijin card, and even my Italian passport. My precious.
But the man behind the counter: You only have one photo? You need three.
And: I do? But… oh, cauliflower.
Then: We’ll be open for another half hour. You have time to go down to the Centro to get more photos taken.
So: me, trudging through the rain again, squishing through the ancient streets, looking for a quick way to get from the top of the city to the bottom.
And then I discover this:
There are several stone staircases leading from the antique city to the modern city, but I haven’t used this one before. It’s cut into a crumbling terracotta-colored building, and as I climb down – finally warm and dry – I realize that this must be Via Scalette. I’d seen the sign the week before, tacked next to a small archway on Viale della Vittoria but I’d assumed the door only led to offices. And there are, in fact, offices in this hidden passsageway from ancient city to new but I’m so excited to have found this lovely stone staircase that I don’t even read the signs. In minutes, I’m back down in Modern Terracina, and back in the rain, which splashes me as car after car zooms past me while I’m waiting to cross. And then I cross; find the photo booth. And my hair is wet and my face is flushed so instead of having a carta d’identita with my beaming, soft-skinned 2006 Glamour Shot, I’ll have one stamped with the face of a drowned rat.
I put the photos into my purse. I wait for the light to change and head back to Via Scalette. And then, as I begin the steep climb up to Old Terracina, I see that there are two people – a man and a woman – huddled on the steps, about two stories up. The man is wearing a dark hoodie and the woman is hunched over him. They are muttering low to each other and as I climb closer, I see that the man is holding a small metal spoon and in the spoon is several grams of fine white heroin.
I had a lecturer at Trinity – a madman, a raving genius – who was appalled to learn that I’ve never smoked a cigarette, much less gotten successfully high on pot. Well, have you at least done heroin? he demanded. I think of him now, how thrilled he might be to learn that I have now at least seen the stuff. This, coming upon two junkies in an ancient stairway, is a big moment for me. And in my big, shining moment, I say Oh, and I say, Scusi. And I edge past them. They barely look up; continue doing their whatever-would-be-the-hard-ass-ghetto-term-for-heroin; I don’t know it; I’ve never smoked a cigarette, anyway.
Back at the commune, I hand the man behind the counter my drowned rat photo. He has the grace not to comment as he glues it onto my new carta d’identita.
Here you are, he says. There! Done!
Thanks a million, I say, and shove the hideous thing deep into the recesses of my bag, where I hope no one will ever, ever see it.
It’s stopped raining by now, and I head back to my car and back home. I put my shrubbery in the office. I write a little. I set up my new printer. And then I drive to the train station, where I catch a train to Rome with my friend Katarina and we go to an English-Italian language exchange at a bar in Trastevere. It’s damp and cold in Rome but at least it’s not raining and there are too many English speakers so I play Double Agent because, as I tell the coordinator, I swing both ways. And the English-speakers don’t know I’m not Italian until I tell them. And several of them say: I want to get to your level. I want to speak like you. And if my feet have been cold and wet all day, if my nose has been red and runny, I’m certainly all warm and fuzzy inside now.