Look at the gorgeous Istanbul Literary Review.
Don't you just wish you were in Istanbul!
They published my "A Bowl of Zuppa" in their May 2011 issue.
Don't you just wish you were in Istanbul!
They published my "A Bowl of Zuppa" in their May 2011 issue.
A BOWL OF ZUPPA
The dwarf who serves me the bowl of heartwarming, cheek-blushingly hot bowl of zuppa on that cold winter’s evening is short and squat, with a warm, stretched-out smile. The cloth on the table is cotton, checked with red and yellow. The tabletop is filled with glassware, like an apothecary’s shop. Olive oil and vinegar sparkle with red and yellow clarity inside elegant bottles. Wine glasses in different shapes and sizes stand side by side. Sunshine-yellow napkins nestle in the rounded depths of wooden holders.
“Roma! Roma!” The waiter is impatient as I try to dig further into the heritage of this tantalizing zuppa—Genoa? Sardegna? The steam rises from the thick broth.
Who’s the cook? I ask, as if I can extract the recipe by finding out the exact identity of the person who put it together in the kitchen.
“My faather! My mooother!” he exclaims with impatience. He walks away, disgusted with this questioning. How could this foreign girl not understand a good Roman zuppa in a local trattoria when she saw one? His irritation is instant. People in Rome, it appears, lose their temper quickly. They don’t have the large tolerance for strangers that one comes to expect from a tourist hotspot. This is understandable when you live in the most glorious city of the world, and the barbarians who invade it every day disgust you with their lack of ancient sophistication, and their gawking.
This place, for all its color coordination, looks like Delicatessen, the movie. It is long and rectangular, filled with exquisitely set tables, all empty, except for one table of jovial diners. I spy the two cooks now. The mother looks like the woman out of American Gothic, only more lean and mangy. The old man in the background, who I take to be the father, hovers with sad-eyed, wrinkled intensity. He holds a giant knife up as he stares at me. I am sola, a sole traveler eating a solitary meal in an eatery meant to be filled with the chatter of big families.
I hurry with my hot soup, savoring the broth and trying to finish as I see the group sitting three tables ahead of me pay their il conto. That group of people, refreshingly normal, chatter and laugh with the proprietor as they get ready to leave. I spoon hot zuppa into my mouth, sprinkling fresh olive oil on the bread, and stuff it into my mouth, trying to chew without hurting my new and ill-fitting dental crowns.
The long restaurant, curtained with red curtains, is eerie in its emptiness. I don’t want to get caught with Mama and Papa and dwarf son in Delicatessen alone. Strangers of the brown-skinned hue draw special disdain. I have seen Bangladeshi vendors selling umbrellas in the unseasonal and ice-cold December rain. Bangla immigrants, it appeared, were the Arabs of Roma—the scapegoats of all social and economic ills.
Italy was sinking under the weight of China, it was clear. The Chinese dragon was eating Italy alive—everything once made in Italy was now, quickly and cheaply, made in China. The only way the Italians could get back was by savage treatment of the foreigners they could see. This meant the Bangladeshis, who tried to sell bunches of red roses to couples dining inside restaurants and got shooed out as if they had mental illness. This meant me—trying to buy a fake pearl and amber choker in the market, I smell the rank-smelling string jokingly to determine the exact status. It appears to be rawhide leather. I wonder if I can put it in my carry-on luggage and not get stopped by the airlines staff. My expression riles the vendor, who says an insult so unbelievably bad that the whole tableful of browsing customers march off in protest.
Perhaps this hospitable couple had a cellar below their little trattoria where they kept a live tiger, feeding unwary aliens to the cat.
I met a predatory Roman the moment I stepped down from the Termini’s exit, stepping down from a train from Milan. The taxi-driver who had picked up me and my American friends demanded twenty euros for the taxi ride. The American friends, a nice, friendly couple with whom I’d spent a month at a scholar’s retreat, agreed without a squabble, smiling in their genial Mid-Western way. They waved aside my concern. I pointed out that my hotel-guide had told me it would cost 4 euros, but they didn’t mind paying extra. My suspicions aroused— I am used to taking cabs in Nepal and India, where a taxi-driver can never be trusted— I asked if I could be dropped off first.
“No, them first!” The taxi-driver said, with what appeared unnecessary force. Something about this didn’t feel right—my hotel was a four minute ride from the Termini. But because my friends smiled with such friendly trust in humanity, and because I was a stranger in town, I didn’t dare protest.
The driver dropped off my friends, then took me to a nice, narrow street and told me to get off—it was a one-way street and he couldn’t drop me off to the door of the Hotel Des Artistes. I looked left and right, and saw residences, but no hotels. I suspected foul play. I demanded he drive around to the hotel’s entrance. He scowled, and did a screaming U-turn into the alley. The alley, it turned out, was filled with posh residences, but there was no hostel in sight. He accused me of giving the wrong address. I demanded he drop me off to the hotel. The driver got in, slammed the door violently, and started to drive.
The driver drove, or rather speeded, down roads for about twenty minutes. The driver gripped the steering wheel tightly, obviously furious. We appeared to be going a hundred miles an hour. The cab speeded through what felt like a highway. That’s when I knew something was wrong. The hotel directions I had downloaded from the Internet had told me I would get to my hotel in four minutes. I had now been in the taxi for almost half an hour. “Stop!” I said. Or rather, I threatened. I can be threatening when I want, and even the most carnivorous of Roman taxi-drivers doesn’t like to be caught in a taxi with a screaming female. Finally, he stopped.
The driver opened his door, and stormed out. He was screaming and swearing in Italian. The road was deserted, except for two women who stood by their car, which had broken down. I shoved the 20 euros into his hand, started to drag my suitcase towards a building. The driver followed me, and grabbed the suitcase out of my hand. “Thirty-six euros! Thirty-six euros!” he screamed. He shook his fists into my face—I sensed imminent physical violence. He was obviously in the midst of some intense hate orgy. His face was twisted with ugly rage.
“Please!” I begged the women by the road. “He’s supposed to take me to the hotel. The Hotel Des Artistes!” The younger of the two women, with thick black mascara, and red lipstick, an almost cartoonish figure of housewifely femininity, shake their head: “No English. No English.” They wanted no part in this scene, except to enjoy it vicariously. It was obvious these women would enjoy the spectacle, and whatever gory end it might bring, but they would not interfere.
The women’s lack of interest in the proceedings strengthened the man’s resolve. He got even more violent. He started to drag my suitcase towards his taxi. “I call the police!” he screamed. “Now thirty-six euros!”
I felt like I was caught in some movie of the Second World War—one where fascism still reigned supreme. This was not the Italy that Americans love, the “Under the Tuscan Sun” variety of Italy. This was Italy as the Jews had known it between 1930s and 1940s. This was Italy as the Ethiopians had known it. This was Italy that Mussolini had created and reigned in. This was Julius Ceaser’s Italy, and it certainly did not drip with olive oil and homebaked bread. It stank of hatred. I looked around in desperation. The highway looked deserted. I was caught in twilight in the middle of Rome with a fascist driver and two fascist sympathizers. It was clear to me I would become a statistic of violence unless I took action.
That’s when I noticed the three men walking down. One of them was dark-skinned—he looked Arab, or African. “Please, I am supposed to go to this hotel! Tell me where it is!” I say, pointing to the map in my hand. It is amazing how you can’t really scream “Help!” like in the movies. In real life, everything is muted. A taxi-driver may be on the point of committing a violent crime, but all you can say is: can you please help me find my hotel?, praying that the people interceding will understand the language you speak.
The young man stopped. He came towards me. In broken English, he asked: “You need to go to hotel?” He seemed to know that something was wrong, but there was nothing in his response that reacted to the screaming driver. Instead, he appeared, on the surface, like a stranger stopping to help another asking for directions. Later, I would realize that the way he had dealt with the situation had stopped it from escalating. I looked at him in gratitude. The presence of the man caused the hyperventilating taxi-driver to walk back towards the taxi, punching his cellphone. “Polizia, polizia,” he screamed. He slammed the door, and sped down the highway. As he went, he screamed that he was calling the police on me.
The presence of the soft-spoken young man made me feel like I had stepped from some brutal Roman drama into the soft light of the modern world. As I start to walk away with him, the women called out to me: “Don’t go! Pericoloso! Pericoloso!” Black man dangerous, they warned, as if their abysmal indifference to my physical safety in the presence of their own countryman had transformed to acute concern now that I showed trust in the men they distrusted the most.
I ignored them, and walked away.
“Which country are you from?” my savior asked me.
“Nepal,” I replied. “And you?”
“Ethiopia.” Ah, Ethiopia! I fall all over myself in gratitude to tell him about all the Ethiopians friends I had made and loved and with whom I had spent many good days and nights in New York. My savior’s English is basic. He nods at my effusive descriptions of New York’s wonderful Ethiopians—I am unsure how much he understands.
The Ethiopian man, very handsome and rather young, helps me with the suitcase till another road, and now I see that we are in the middle of a metropolitan area. There are gracious buildings right behind what I had taken to be a deserted highway. There are also a lot of cabs. “What if the taxi-driver will behave the same as the first one?” I ask, trying to communicate to the young man with sudden anxiety. The man views me with a certain wariness—he’s not certain that I won’t try to hold on to him and try to follow him back home, which would cause him inconvenience. At the same time, we are two young strangers, caught up in a strange moment of trust. I have put my life into his hands. There is something about this situation that creates an immediate intimacy.
“Don’t worry. Not all are the same,” he says. His voice is reassuring. He wouldn’t put me in a cab with another fascist. He hails an idling cab, and says something in Italian to the driver. I look inside. Its an older man with salt and pepper hair. I look at him with distrust and weariness, but there is no option but to get in. I try to think of an appropriate gesture of gratitude, but nothing comes out, other than a tired: Thank you so much! I think of giving the handsome Ethiopian my email, but it seems like an imposition, under the circumstances. It is obvious that the man has done no more and no less than what he would have done for any other human being. I don’t want to burden him with giving my contacts, with the added obligation of having to call and check up on a total stranger.
The driver is silent as we drive down to the hotel. He seems to realize what has just taken place, without being told about it. The drive takes approximately ten minutes, and I realize that the fascist had driven me around in circles. I hand another ten euros to the driver—idiot tax, I tell myself silently. The driver, as if to hammer home the point that not all Romans are vicious conmen, hands me back my change with care.
If this had been my only bad experience with a Roman taxi-driver, I would have thought it was an isolated case. But it happened again. Twice. A few days later, I would find myself taken on a merry-go-round by another taxi-driver, and have to drag my bags three hundred meters down a crowded road after shelling out another ten euros for the priviledge of being scammed. The third, and final time, I would be taken to the airport by a van driven by a man who is so angry, and so violent, I wonder if I will reach the airport alive. He is so angry at having to drive me to the airport he almost forgets to take the fare from me. I have to remind him as he wheels away— he turns back, snarls at me, snatches the money, and marches off. As I watch his back, I realize I’ve never been this glad to leave a city.
If it were only taxi-drivers and vendors of the greatest city of the world. The Hotel Des Artistes takes one look at me and puts me in an abandoned building with a clanging iron gate. There are bunk beds in the ground floor. It is completely empty, except for me. I feel like it’s the nineteen seventies, and I’m the black woman who can’t enter the white establishment. They tell me the main building is full. I don’t believe them. I have walked into the main building and I know they have room. This is obviously the dungeon they maintain for undesirables—although undesirables pay the same amount of money as desirables.
This building will be an important setting for another Roman drama, which I go on to recount to you, dear reader, at the expense of your disbelief. I can hardly believe it happened to me. The surrealism of this experience is only heightened by the clarity of my own knowledge, and the strangeness of its occurence the chilling cold light of a December night in Rome.
A day after the near death experience with the taxi-driver, I was invited to a family dinner with the friendly Mid-Western American couple. They had an American cousin living in Rome. Of course, I tell them all about the taxi-driver incident. It sounded quite unbelievable after I had repeated it—or perhaps they felt, in their lawsuit-wary American minds, that they were at fault, so they tried to minimize the incident. Either way, I felt like I had blown it up to more than was necessary. The story is repeated to our hosts for the night as a funny story.
The American cousin, lets call her Emily, and her Italian husband, lets call him Marco, sympathize. Roman taxi-drivers are the worst, Marco immediately agrees. We enter the small flat, which seemed to be full of the colors of Italy—corn, chilli, green vegetables. We joke and laugh over glasses of wine. The young daughter, in her twenties, is also present. I sense a return of normality.
However, events soon take a weird turn. An American man shows up for dinner. It becomes clear, over the course of the evening, that this American is a “family” friend—and one who is so familiar he can order Marco around and tell him what to do in his own house. He is friend and companion of Emily, and one who shares her culture far more than Marco ever could. The American is wry, and smart, and funny. He makes everybody laugh. He is companionable with the young daughter. It becomes clear to me that Emily and this family friend share more than just a friendship. In fact, I get the strange sense that they’re the married couple, and Marco, who hides in the kitchen, is an extraneous being who happened to come along for the ride, by accident.
Two more things happen. I ask Marco for an old Italian song. He enthusiastically raids his collection on his computer to make me an Italian song CD. We glance at him at work—and open on the desktop is a number of hardcore porn sites. Does this man spend his time surfing hardcore porn sites to dispel the frustration of his marriage, I wonder. He clicks the open windows shut causally, but he is aware that we’ve caught a glimpse of his private world. Maybe this is what fuels what comes next.
Or perhaps it’s the fact that after dinner, we all sit down to listen to a family history. Emily puts on a CD on the player. It is her mother talking about the most wonderful event of her life—namely, the time when her husband came home and decided to take her and the two young children for a world tour, even though they had very little money. The story was magical and wonderful. It felt like a sharing, and communing, of family life that was very important to Emily. The American companion loved hearing it. Marco didn’t seem to understand the voice of the old woman on the CD. He stood behind in the shadows, puttering in the kitchen. I wonder how he managed to survive these cultural exclusions. Even I, a Nepali who had studied in the United States, understood, and enjoyed, the story in a way he couldn’t. This may have been the fuel for the Roman rage that came next.
Marco drove us back to our respective hotels. I asked, out of previous experience, to be dropped off first. “What’s your hotel’s address, sweetie?” my American friend asked me. This woman was motherly and gentle, too naive about the world in many ways. Some intuition warned me to be careful. I shouldn’t reveal my hotel’s location. The last thing I wanted to reveal was the fact that I was living by myself in a dungeon in an abandoned building. I said I didn’t remember the number, just the street. Just drop me off in this corner, I said causally. It was misty with a slight hint of rain, but I said: gnight! gaily and walked out in the darkness like I was going to enter the friendliest and safest hotel in the world.
But the corner of the street was not safe enough. At twelve, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard an incredible commotion. Somebody was running up and down the street outside my window. “Go back to America, you bitch! You fucking bitch, bitch, bitch!” The voice screamed. “Go back to America!!!” I came awake with crystal-clear clarity. The man outside was not only drunk, but displaying a Roman rage. I looked up at the window, and realized it was at street level. Only a grille and a pane of glass separated him and me. If he knew I was inside, he would break the glass with a kick of his boots, I was certain. I could see booted feet pounding up and down the street. His voice, in the haze of half-sleep, was thunderous. I held my breath. If I shifted in my creaking bed, he would know I was a few feet away from him. He could break the glass and throw a lighted match into my room, and I would die engulfed in the blaze. The building was empty—I couldn’t call out for help to anybody inside it. If I tried to leave, I would be strangled, and left to die on the street. Nobody would come to help me. The heart-pounding fear I felt was not so much at the anger and loathing in his voice. It was the strangely vulnerable feeling of being betrayed, once more, by somebody who had appeared friendly and normal.
My American friends absolutely refused to believe this incident could have anything to do with Marco. Are you sure? Did you really hear…was it him? You say he had an accent… They asked me so many questions I started to doubt myself. Perhaps it had been a random incident. Perhaps an individual with a grievance against a woman from America had decided, the same night I had attended a rather strange dinner party, to run up and down the pavement next to where I lay sleeping for the night. Such incredible coincidences have been known to happen. But I doubted it. My fear was also for Emily—I felt the incredible hysteria in the voice that asked the woman to return to her homeland was less for me, and more for her.
My American friends laughed. They said Marco adored Emily. Nothing would occur—no violence would ever take place, she would never be found in the garbage with her head inside a plastic bag. And later, I wondered if it wasn’t true. The passive-aggressive way in which he had assuaged his anger, by deflecting it to a complete stranger, would make sense from a man who would never dare use it to confront the subject of his real grievance. And that, I decided, is what was wrong, in a nutshell, with Italy. People were angry, but their anger was spewing at all the wrong people, not the ones who caused them grief. Their economy was water-logged, they were run by corrupt mafia, they had some of the highest rates of unemployment in Europe, but instead of kicking out Berlosconi and his cronies they turned their hatred instead to enterprising Bangladeshis and naïve tourists from Nepal.
This series of strange mutations of friendly people into ugly monsters, from beauty to the beast, would happen one last time before I left Rome. My friend Maria, anarchist, lover of African drums and activist marches, invites me to stay over with her in her sister’s apartment in Roma. Maria was one of my best friends in New York. I do not suspect she will turn into a monster. I take the train down from Florence just to see her. We have dinner, and see a movie. The next morning, she asks me to leave—in the pouring rain, lugging three suitcases. She has been unemployed for several months, and living with her boyfriend in a very small apartment in Sardegna. I’ve talked about the scholars and filmmakers I met while in Italy, the fun I had in the scholarly exchange program I’ve been on. We’ve been living disparate lives. I sense economic resentments. She refuses to let her boyfriend help me with my luggage till the subway station, which is several unfamiliar streets away. I manage to find the station, drag my luggage down several flights of stairs, get into a train, and get out—only to find myself stuck at the bottom of a restless pile of people waiting for a dysfunctional escalator to resume its alpine climb. This is when I vow I’ve had enough of Italy, and that I will never return.
For one glorious day, I did walk through the entire city of Rome, seemingly stumbling upon all its great monument with intuitive ease, as if I was following a well-worn path that thousands of visitors had walked through. Either that, or I was a Roman in a past life. I needed no map. I seemed to know my way around town, going from the Pantheon to the Fontana Di Trevi, from St. Peter’s Cathedral to the Colosseum with effortless ease. And that is how I found the famous Trevi fountain—wandering down a lane, it just appeared in front of me.
A Bangladeshi vendor told me I needed to toss a coin over my shoulder into the water with all the glorious statues. The water inside the fountain was sky-blue on that grey December day. I saw some strange characters around the fountain—an old man wearing clown make-up, a couple of freakish twins. I turned around, and tossed the coin it. “Love, love, and love,” I wished.
“No, no, not love,” said the vendor. “So you can return back to Roma again,” he said in his thick Bangla accent. I was horrified. I thought I was tossing the coin in for love. I almost turned around and went inside the fountain to look for my coin. Two weeks in Roma had convinced me that next time I explored an old civilization, I would choose Thailand.
Sitting down to do my accounts, I realized that the economics of an Italian vacation, like the economics of Italy, didn’t make sense. My eagerness to buy Italian goods—Venetian masks, the green and orange wool skirts, Murano glass bracelets, were greeted with active, and acrid, hostility. Later, I would discover those glass bracelets were now made in Taiwan, which may have been a reason for the unprecedented, almost violent, vendor reactions. A tourist from Nepal spends a few thousand euros to come to Italy to buy a glass trinket manufactured in Taiwan, probably by Chinese workers in slavelike conditions, and then stands there while the vendor looks like you are a stinking carcass of rotting rawhide. I tried to figure out if this made sense, on any economic level. The fake Gucci bags certainly did—the African vendors were selling them for ten bucks. But all that money in exchange for all that hostility when you can get the same shit in Bangkok for “hunled baht maadam, only hunled baht”? With some fresh juice and a foot massage thrown in for good measure. It made less sense when I saw the same trinket in a small lane in Benaras, India, being sold by the bucketful at a one-twentieth the price I had paid in Roma.
Rome wasn’t made in a day, and it takes more than a day to see it. So I spent two weeks wandering through the city. How could I not love all those crumbling monuments of past grandeur, the old facades of buildings from thousands of years ago, the Romans who seem to appear out of nowhere wearing the fanciest coats from small doorways? Then, because Rome couldn’t be savored without its cinema, I went to see Harry Potter, all my myself, in Italian, at mid-afternoon, along with elegant old ladies dressed in voluptuous fur and shiny leather coats. Harry Potter made less sense than La Tigre e la Neve, in which Roberto Benigni made a tiger appear and walk through the Roman snow. Rome was, to a Buddhist’s eye, a reminder of how useless, and how futile, it is to try to hold on to the artifacts of human civilization, because everything must one day decay.
And it was, finally, in the red mirror of Rome, that I saw the world coming to an end. The city was in an orgy of shopping during Christmas. People were in a frenzy as they browsed through the stalls—the goods were so plentiful I wondered if all the factories of China had been looted to stock the shops of Italy. Red lingerie was in my face wherever I looked. So were cutouts of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie hundreds of feet up in the air, one on each side of the hoarding board, advertising Mr. and Mrs. Smith. There was unseasonal rain, so much that people were talking about old sites getting flooded and washed away by the rain. Global warming or cycles of weather changes that has occurred through millenea? The Romans I talked to preferred to think it was a geological occurance, a cycle of weather patterns that had happened again and again over millenea. The activities of people, they said firmly, had no hand in the weather changes. The world, it was clear, was coming to an apocalyptic end. And all people could think to do was shop. And go to the movies. The sound of the fiddle was loud, but underneath the music I could hear the whole world burning.
Returning to America, I told my friends about my trip to Italy. Americans, especially white ones, were bewildered when they heard about my experiences. Isn’t Italy marvelous? They said. They all seemed to have had an Eat, Love, Pray experience. They were puzzled when I talked at great length about my fear of tigers and circuses.
I’ve finished my zuppa. The dwarf brings me my il conto. Papa, still holding a big knife, wipes his hand on his apron, comes forward and hands me a colorful card on my way out. His tired smile erases my suspicion, just as his soup had erased the cold. How could Romans with such good zuppa throw me to the lion, or the knife? I feel ashamed of my quick judgment. The bell rings as I walk out.
I am determined to return to that trattoria, and get one more zuppa before I leave Italy. But somehow Florence followed Venice, Capri followed Naples, bad pizza in tourist bistro follows bad pasta in overheated outdoor cafe, and I never make it back for zuppa. I search for the street, just off the Termini, walking up and down the streets, the memory of Italian food as it should be made warming my freezing-cold bones. But for some reason, I never find the place again.