In my illustrious career of being locked out of pretty much everything– cars, apartments, work, even my own garage, this was uncharted territory. I studied my current state, and assessed how disappointed my mother would be with me with a sense of gloating satisfaction and a tinge of dread. I refilled my glass of wine, comforted by the fact that for once, being locked out wasn’t my fault. I found myself outside essentially in my underwear, wearing nothing but Soffes and sports bra. In Rome. In December. Kevin and I had a plane to catch the next day.
Being told more than two decades into my life that I had Italian cousins that still kinda sorta know who we are (and we kinda sorta knew who they were) was like being told that I’d been adopted. There was this whole part of me that suddenly needed to know these people in order to know myself. I lamented at the adventure I’d missed out on. Had I known this earlier, I would have … actually, I don’t know what I would have done, but it would have been awesome.
As soon as my dad passed on one of my cousin’s contact info and we became Facebook friends, I took an obsessive interest in he and his two younger brothers. Through the limited looking glass of social media, Nicola, a just a few years younger than me, was fascinating. I later learned through messages back and forth that he was a medical student, a jazz enthusiast and a beer aficionado. He told me had purchased, designed and built a new house that is outside Rome, which he lived in with three other students (all female for the record) that were in the medical school. This dude is the man.
Facebook pictures reveal him and his Italian pals everywhere from skiing the Alps to celebrating Oktoberfest in full-on lederhosen in Munich. His profile picture was of him at a swim-up bar at a resort in Hong Kong. But he didn’t strike me as one who fits the American stereotype of Italians (think womanizing player in tight Armani t-shirt). From simply studying Nicola’s face in pictures I could tell he was soft-spoken, despite his excessive use of emojis in all our messages.
After only a few weeks of messages back and forth, he casually invited us to his 21st birthday party that was in a few weeks ‘if we could make it.’ ‘Birthday party’ doesn’t seem to give his festive celebration justice. His Facebook album later revealed that he had thrown a Great Gatsby-themed bonanza at his house along with what seemed to be 100 of his closest pals. I’m still not over the fact that I couldn’t go. He told me it was great, and that people showed up that he’d never seen before. I became convinced he was the second coming of the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man In The World.
So after several months of buildup I was a completely taken by Nicola. The practical skeptic in me told me that you can’t and absolutely should not judge people based on what you see on social media, because everyone projects themselves as fun, outgoing and adventurous, when in reality, we’re all at work or at home sitting on our phones. But I didn’t care. I had to meet Nicola. I devised a plan.
It’s always a smidge awkward to try and invite yourself somewhere that you haven’t been explicitly invited, but Kevin spending a semester in Prague was the perfect excuse for me to swing by Rome for a few days. I’d been to Rome before, but in the study abroad quasi sense. Back in 2010, I visited a college friend for the weekend who didn’t know how to use public transportation and took me to an Irish pub full of other study abroad students on Saturday night. I remember talking to some retired semi-pro middle-aged English rugby players. It wasn’t a complete fail; I did make it to the Vatican. But this time, my trip would be authentic — I was going to saunter around with real live Italians who were blood related to me.
And so we went. I nicely forced Kevin to meet me in Rome, as I couldn’t be bothered to visit him in Prague (I told him my vacation time was tight at work). So we met at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. We landed within a few minutes from each other (always considered a personal travel booking accomplishment on my end). Nicola was going to pick us up in his car. We had exchanged phone numbers, and that was about it. I texted (still too nervous to call) him when we had gotten our baggage and walked out to the curb.
Me: Ciao Nicola, we landed and have our bags, where should we meet you?
Nicola: Ciao Amanda! 🙂 🙂 I am inside!
It took a few more texts back and forth to find each other. I was regretting recently dyeing my hair a very dark brown, darker than the dusty blonde it normally was. It made me worry that I seemed weird to drastically change my hair color. I hoped I wasn’t unrecognizable.
Nicola was definitely not your average 21-year-old host. He had parked his station wagon and walked inside to meet us, and I had just automatically headed for the street pickup. Most guys I’d met at that age barely take the trash out. Not Nicola. We went around to all the sites and were treated like royalty. He woke up and bought us breakfast every morning from a nearby bakery and took us out to lunch.
Ah, lunch. The famous lunch.
There is not too much to the story about this legendary lunch that Kevin and I talk about to this day. Nicola had driven us into Rome and we had a walking tour around some sites. When we emerged from the Pantheon, he told us he had a lunch place that he really liked. Obviously Kevin and I went with whatever he suggested.
A few hours earlier, I’d asked Nicola to take me to an ATM so that we could withdraw some euros. Kevin walked up to the machine with me while Nicola stood back and waited. We debated how much to take out when we were only there for another day and half. I wanted to withdraw €300 (about $400 at the time) and Kevin, who had been living on probably $6 a day in Prague, told me I was out of my mind. So I took out €150.
So we entered this restaurant–lots of open tables draped in simple white tablecloths, not too busy, as it was a bit later than even an Italian lunchtime. We let Nicola do the ordering, Italian style of course (which in admittedly, I don’t know too much about the different courses) — so we just let him order all the wine and antipasti until he signaled for us to pick some entrees. Aside from him asking us if we liked certain foods on the menu, we didn’t pay much attention to what he was ordering. After all, I spoke no Italian, and Kevin, despite his four years in high school instruction, was not much better.
The appetizers arrived: the bread of course, which is included (obvi), then some shrimp, salad, other kind of grilled fish and vegetables. Kevin and my eyes widened and acknowledged how good everything was with each bite.
“That’s not even everything for the antipasti,” Nicola said with a smile.
“More?” Kevin asked in an impressed tone to show Nicola how much we were enjoying it. We exchanged looks that mutually said ‘good god how are we going to keep eating?’ Our entrees hadn’t even come yet. But, the ever food etiquette dilemma that I’ve yet to find an answer to –how to not overeat without being impolite. I scolded myself for eating so much bread.
So the entrees (some kind of pasta, duh) finally came and Kevin and I continued to eat. I was so focused on the challenge that my plate presented that I never looked across the table to see if Nicola was actually eating or just watching Kevin and I struggle with fascination.
When we finally finished Nicola ordered us dessert and cappuccinos, I knew I was about to die a slow death of overconsumption. Was I drunk or just stuffed? I didn’t know.
It didn’t dawn on me about the bill until the waitress brought it to Nicola. I insisted we pay for it without looking at the bill. It was about $100 per person. As soon as I got it, I shot Kevin a look that said I told you you should have let me take 300 euros out.
Nicola paid for everything and I told him I’d pay him back.
“No, no, you are guests here, it is my pleasure.” Nicola’s English was broken but we never had trouble understanding his wishes.
“Who is Nicola that he just drops $300 on lunch?” Kevin whispered to me. I didn’t know.
After lunch we did a little more touring, headed back out to his house, went to dinner, and then went to a bar with his roommates, Silvia and Fédérica. Both girls were so sweet and I felt so cool just hanging around with them. As they all conversed in Italian, I felt perfectly happy just to sit there, listen, and take in the ambience. Nicola selected all the beer. I watched as he studied the menu with the intellect of someone studying a complex math equation. As a hostess gift, I’d gotten him two Chicago Bears beer glasses, which before the trip, felt right. Then I realized he definitely wasn’t into sports and that the lame glasses I bought off Amazon were definitely not sophisticated enough.
After the bar we went back to their house. I was decently tipsy and ready for bed, so found myself unprepared when Nicola emerged in a robe, bottle of wine in hand and invited all of us in his jacuzzi in the front yard (if you think a front yard jacuzzi sounds tacky, Nicola pulls it off). Nicola had told me he had a jacuzzi, but it had not dawned on me to bring my swimsuit. Silvia and Fede offered me on of theirs but trying to fit into an Italian girl’s swimsuit would have been even more emotionally scarring than the sad alternative I opted for: a pair of red cheerleading Soffe’s from high school (minimum of 5 years old, maximum of 9 years old) and my pink sports bra. Classy. I don’t know why I even packed soffe shorts, but in the moment it worked. I darted in the jacuzzi as fast as I could.
Kevin, who, as a guy, his situation for makeshift swimsuit was much easier, was the last one out. He shut the front door and it locked behind him. Apparently, as the girls realized, the key was inside, meaning we were locked out. Merda.
Most shocking was that no one else seemed troubled that we were indefinitely stuck in a jacuzzi. Kevin and I had flights to catch tomorrow. Yet they laughed, shrugged their shoulders and continued to drink and chat in the jacuzzi. I told myself to chill out and that this must be what it means to be Italian: we’ll figure it out later.
Yet I still found myself exhausted in the jacuzzi and worried about our flight the next day. As my eyes drooped closed and I had visions of myself at Fiumicino Airport in a sorry state of wet hair and a pink sports bra with no passport. I was trying to speak Italian and get the immigration officers to take me seriously.
Then I suddenly woke up from my nightmare when Francesca arrived.
Francesca was Nicola’s neighbor. We heard her red Fiat (False, I have no idea what car she drove and made that up) speed in and screech onto her driveway across the street. What she had been up to after midnight on a Sunday evening was as curious to our Italian friends as it was to Kevin and me. Nicola, ever prepared with his luxury bathrobe, jumped out of the jacuzzi and flagged his middle-aged neighbor down by softly calling out to her. Full disclosure: I do not speak Italian. The following is my interpretation.
“Ciao Francesca! How are you? ” She walked up to the front gate of Nicola’s house.
“Bounasera! Having a little party are we?”
“Ahh, si, my cousins from America are here.”
“Ah, buonissimo! That’s wonderful.”
“But you see, we have a small problem.”
“What’s that? Run out of wine already?”
“Oh no, not yet. We’re locked out of my apartment. I think you know how to break in, right?”
“Why yes! Let me get my supplies, I’ll be right over.” She disappeared into her house.
Fédé raised her eyebrows in skepticism. “I knew Francesca would be around,” she whispered. “She is always coming and going in the night.”
“We think she cheats on her husband.” Sylvia said.
“Or maybe she is a spy.” Fédé added. I was beginning to get freaked out.
Francesca returned in minutes with a small box and a clear sheet of thin plastic. The first challenge was getting over the 8-foot gate in front of Nicola’s house. It can only be opened electronically from inside the house, and since we were locked out, this was not possible. She climbed up and jumped over with ease. In heels. Italian women really are crazy, I thought.
I watched from the jacuzzi as Francesca hacked away at the front door. Francesca’s stealth convinced me she’d done this before.
The girls, Kevin and I continued to converse in the jacuzzi. I kept a corner of my eye locked on Nicola and Francesca attacking the crap out of the door. There was banging and pounding. Things did not appear to be going well, and I, convinced there was no way they were getting in, was preparing my excuse to work why I couldn’t get back to work on time. Nicola’s house was brand new and could certainly sustain some old-school lock tricks. My eyes started to close again and I fell back into my dreams of my sorry state at the airport. I heard Kevin continue talking to the girls. He was 3 feet away from me, but as I fell asleep, their voices sounded miles away.
Then, suddenly, cheering.
“Francesca! Buonissimo!” Water splashed me awake as Sylvia and Fede clapped their hands with delight. I thought I was still dreaming. The door was open.
“Grazi, grazi!” She took a few bows from atop the stairwell as we cheered from the jacuzzi. My hands were raisins from having been stuck in a jacuzzi for several hours.
As soon I as verified I was not dreaming, I was ready to jump out of the water, change into my sweats and crash in Nicola’s room, where Kevin and I were staying (Nicola, the gentleman, insisted he sleep on the couch). But before I could get out, Francesca walked back down toward us in the jacuzzi and started to reenact the play-by-play of exactly how she had unlocked the door.
Fédé and Sylvia listened intently as Nicola went inside to get his keys and make sure we didn’t get locked out again. Kevin and I nodded and smiled as she recounted her heroic effort as if it was something that happened years ago and not five minutes ago. From my context clues, the conversation turned to other things, because her story went much longer than the 20 minutes it took her to unlock the door.
The stereotypical gestures of Italians are well-documented. They love to tell a good story with their entire selves. Francesca’s story went on for an hour and a half with gestures unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From what I could tell from her motions and the volume and speed at which she spoke, she was telling a story of her time as a GI in Iraq and had survived some heavy crossfire. Bombs went off, and she disassembled an IED in the process, saved a military dog who had lost a leg and captained an F-16 back to their base. She may have even strangled and killed a rebel fighter with her bare hands.
Between her stories, she paused to inhale deeply, and every time she did so, it was a tease, because I thought she was finally done talking.
I was fascinated by how she looked at Kevin and I in her story as if we understood a word she’d said in the last hour and a half. She looked at us as she told her story and even asked us questions. We never had time to answer because she would just continue talking before anyone could get a word in to tell them we didn’t speak Italian. When Nicola finally cut things off he insisted we go upstairs to sleep because my eyes had opened and closed in the water at least 20 times since Francesca’s story started. Had no one been there to save me I might have drowned.
I went inside, dried myself and checked my phone. It was 2 a.m. Only a few hours until it was time to go to the airport and back home.