Pink-eye. You haveknow it! It sucks. It's the worst. For three days Rome reached me through a watery lens, and always from behind a bunker-sack of puss in my eye. But on this foreign soil, ancient center of the universe, I was doubly afflicted: I fell in love, or I should say – in the spirit of Italian football – I was down and then kicked in the groin. I’m still in love now. It’s a scientific fact. I deny it, but my stomach insists that I am, and my mind was been screening her, back to back, twiddling her hair, sipping Chianti at the bar at Cascabelito. What did I see? I saw nothing. Pink eye or not: Rome was neither Colosseum nor Pantheon, neither pasta nor pizza, Rome was wholly and entirely Francesca. I’m a sucker, a Balkan sucker and I hate it.
Quaker Oats put us up in a dump near the main station, Termini, concourse of Roman riffraff. Night one – under the pretext of meeting “chicks" "ASAP” – Brendan insisted we go to a tango salon . What? That’s right, that’s his embarrassing hobby, not mine. I have no part in it. No part in flowy pants and wing-tips. It’s a lot of fiddly footwork and sissy cross-steps and such. The women lean against you (this I appreciate), and then you glide them around while they appear – if all goes well– entranced. Francesca only just started. She was there with her friend Rosangela, a decent dancer. Francesca danced once, struggled and was never asked again. The men in all their swarthy elegance and facial landscaping are brutish and wasteful: all these beautiful, beautiful girls just sidelined. I was disgusted. I would have danced the “Bulgarian squat” with these angels. I’d, I’d... it kills you!
Anyway, the upside is that I got to talk to her, i.e. I got to speak words to her – she speaks no French, no English, no Dutch, no Serbo-Croatian. Mi deo!. Language was barred. My main asset frozen. What to do? I touched her hand, she withdrew. I touched her arm, she recoiled, but on Brendan’s advice I stayed steady, operating under the assumption that “no” in Italy comes – like gelati – in a vast array of flavors, and this “no” was no plain vanilla, no rich chocolate, this “no” was all pistachio. It said, “I’m not sweet, not at first, but just you wait.”
I didn’t wait. I fell while it was still salty. And so it remained.
Day two we had scooters: Brendan and Rosangela ahead on theirs, her arms clasped around his American build. Francesca on the back on mine, and Rome spread out like a fan of postcards in her hand, pointing right, pointing left – destra, sinistra – but never touching me. Not once. My loins ached; my Balkan heart quivered. Ruins, aqueducts and statues shorn of genitals, all mere props in this tragedy.
Brendan wore his linen pants, said ciao all the time, and abandoned his Starbuck latés for machiatos. A fool. He’s from Portland, he works at K-Swiss in Spaarnwoude. By Sunday I hated him like you hate a Serb; I hated his whole Quaker Oats coupon scheme, I hated this place and I hated the food, the endless permutations of pasta: rolled, cupped, stuffed, tricked, spun. What does that do to the taste? Answer me! What? What did you say? Italian food is so much more than pasta and pizza??? Show me! And no cold tomato soup in a glass, and none of those turds of white putty they swear by lunch and dinner. Show me! I’m open. I’m from Zagreb. We eat porc. We it straight and on a stick, but we don’t have a culinary high horse. I’m ready to accept. Make me believe. Make me something. Dazzle me with basil and Parma ham. Do it. I’ll even allow pesto. But please, not another feat of geometry. What’s next, the double helix tortellini?!
I left early on Sunday. I was done. Quaker Oats was cheap and flew us Ryan Air out of Ciampino, the hooligan hub. I sat in the lounge watching Richard Quest... before he got caught with meth in Central Park, his balls in a Roman sling (haven’t your heard? this is not a joke This is dead serious. The new Airbus will never be the same). I sat there trying not to think of her, my beautiful Francesca. I sat on the ground, gutted, like discarded cannoli.