Joachim Sanchez leaned forward as if he were sharing a secret with the twenty of us gathered in the hotel sitting room. “If any of you ever get lost here, there are three words I want you to use.” He paused just long enough to make sure we were all listening and then perfectly enunciated the Italian “Dove il Campo?”
At a gesture from Joachim, the twenty undergraduates, myself included, repeated the phrase. Many were only half-trying, preferring to botch the pronunciation completely than to get it partly wrong. He made us repeat the phrase five more times, until he heard all of us saying it loudly and pronouncing it correctly.
“Very good,” Joachim nodded. “That means, ‘Where is the Campo?’ The Campo, in case you don’t know, is the town square right down the street from this hotel. Once you find the square, finding the Locanda Garibaldi is easy. Right, Marc?”
“Right,” I said.
“Now,” Joachim continued, “the only one of you who has ever been to Italy is Eileen here. She went on this same trip with Olansky and myself two years ago.”
Eileen, the girl who I had spoken to briefly on the way over, smiled and waved to the group. She looked familiar, which meant she probably reminded me of an obscure actress, but it wasn’t coming to me. Once again, I found myself half wondering what it would be like to take her out to dinner.
“Eileen said she’s willing to help people who can’t find their way around Siena,” said Joachim. “Like Marc, for example.”
I tried to assume as natural a pose as possible considering all eyes were on me and managed what I assumed was an “Oh, what the hell?” smile.
Joachim returned his full attention to the others. “How many people here speak some Italian?”
I was on of the few people to raise my hand, despite my lack of any real mastery of the language, would up being the most proficient student on the trip. The other person who knew some Italian was Adnan Elshenaway, an Egyptian-American in a Les Miserables T-shirt who hadn't found it very funny when I told him I preferred the sequel, More Miserables.
“I’m sure Marc wouldn’t mind helping any of you with some difficult conversations, just as long as you don’t use him as a dictionary,” said Joachim. “He’s a good man, but his moral compass is better than his physical one.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“You know you’re never gonna live this one down?” Joachim asked.
“I know,” I said.
I actually welcomed the ribbing because I wasn’t particularly sore about the whole experience getting lost. It was a little adventure, and I’d had precious little of that in my lifetime.
The only problem I had with being a celebrity is it meant everybody knew my name before I knew theirs. All the others besides my roommate Colin were practically faceless extras to me in this little drama, like members of the Chorus in a Sophocles tragedy. I had trouble keeping them all straight in my mind.
But I knew who Eileen was.
While I had been wandering the city-state the night before, Colin had picked out a room for us in the hotel. It was one of the few two-bed rooms in the hotel. The other guys on the trip slept in the more barracks-like rooms adjacent to ours, equipped with five beds apiece. Eileen had picked out a room with only one massive bed, that she opted to shared with another girl, Drusilla, who looked a bit like Liv Tyler, so I learned her name pretty quickly, too. These choices delineated from the outset who the loners were and who the social butterflies were. Part of me was glad that Colin had made the decision, but my goal was to become more social and make new friends, not spend my vacation shackled to him. I was worried this would be the first in a series of decisions that Colin would make to divorce us from the rest of the group, which was compromised of exactly the fraternity types he despised. My fears were quickly realized as it soon became clear that he only wanted to eat meals with me in restaurants that he picked out and at times that he approved of. It would also not help any that he quickly turned on Eileen, who I was hoping to spend time with. At this point in the trip, I had no serious designs on her. As someone who rarely had any luck with romance, I often found it a privilege being in the same room with a beautiful woman, let alone cultivating anything more than a friendship with her.
I lingered just outside the entrance to the hotel, looking out on the wet streets, wondering why it had rained for the first two days I was in Italy. It had spent a good deal of time walking around Siena since I’d gotten there, but I still didn’t feel like I actually knew what the place looked like. It was just a wall of rain to me so far. I was hoping it would let up soon, so I could enjoy the beauty of the land and take lots of photos of it. If not, I’d go home with twelve unused rolls of film.
I was standing on the ground floor of the hotel, which doubled as a restaurant. Since no food was yet being served, I sat down at once of the empty tables and vaguely considered going to get one of the text books assigned for the class I was supposed to be taking.
Should I read Medieval Italian City States, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe, or Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death? Gee, Dr. Olansky sure had a lot of nerve assigning so much work to us. Didn’t he know we were here more to see Italy than for the three-credit class on Medieval Italy? Sure, it would help me complete my minor and I was interested in the topic, but still.
I didn’t notice Eileen until she had sat down across from me.
“Believe it or not, the best book is the one on the Black Death.”
“Really?” I said.
She lightly tapped the cover. “Yes. It got me interested in art, actually. I knew I was in the wrong major when I was reading it and switched from Psychology the next semester.”
“I wouldn’t be too hopeful. Everyone else thinks it’s more boring than watching fly fishing on television.”
I picked it up, trying to find something to do with my hands to keep them from fidgeting. “Then I should like it. I never agree with everyone else.”
“Of course, I’d glad I’m not taking the course again,” she admitted. “I don’t have to read all those books a second time. I’m just along for the ride.”
I put the book back down on the table and pushed it a few inches away from me like a half-eaten meal I didn’t want to finish. “Don’t remind me of that too often. You’ll make me hate you.”
Eileen pulled a pad out from her duffel bag and flipped it open. She then placed alongside it a copy of “Let’s Go Italy” and a map of the country. “You’re going to Rome this weekend, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I know I have to see the Vatican before we leave, but I was considering going to Venice this weekend.”
Eileen pulled a face. “Venice. I hate Venice. There’s nothing to see there. No museums, no good paintings, no good sculptures. It’s only scenery.” She tapped the side of her head with the eraser on her pencil. “No mental stimulation.”
I frowned. This was not the first time I’d heard Venice slammed. In high school, all Mike Bonavita could talk about was how much it smelled. And Joachim said it was way too commercial. But I had to see it.
“My mother said that the sight of St. Marc’s Cathedral was so beautiful that it made her cry,” I said.
“Really?” Eileen was clearly not impressed, but didn’t reiterate her dislike of the region.
“I’m actually named after the Cathedral,” I said.
Eileen smiled. “Oh, now I see why you have to go.” After a heartbeat she added, “But go next weekend. This weekend you have to come with me to Rome.”
I didn’t want to agree right away, because I had Colin to consider. He was banking on Venice this weekend. But I knew that going to Rome with Eileen would be logical and economical because she knew her way around. I was a follower, not a leader, and she seemed like a good team leader to me. Besides, she was cute. And did she look a little like Amy Smart from the tv show Felicity? I guess the answer was that Eileen looked like Eileen, and I should stop “casting” people when I meet them…
“I’d like to,” I said. “I just want to check with Colin.”
“Okay.” She flipped back a page in her pad and turned it around so I could see what was written in it. “I’ve made up an itinerary.” She ran the pencil past a list of names written in impeccable handwriting.
“These are all the churches I have to see,” she explained. “They each have a work of art that’s important to me.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“You know how Moses looked in The Ten Commandments, with the big, white beard?”
“There’s a church in Rome with the Michaelangelo statue that the image is based on. I just have to see it. I missed it last time, and I just can’t miss it again.”
The next several days were uneventful in that they were filled up with class time. A three-hour lecture in the morning was followed by a three-hour break and then another three-hour lecture. The second lecture was invariable in a Sienese church, where Dr. Olansky would lead us from fresco to fresco using them to illustrate what life was like in Medieval Italy. Unlike Eileen, I always hated Medieval art, and I found a lot of the subject matters of the drawings difficult to relate to. A lot of it dealt with St. Francis, who I had recently decided was a total wacko based on an anecdote from Thomas of Celano’s biography, in which Francis had himself publicly whipped for breaking a fast by having a piece of chicken. I would later rethink this opinion drastically, and now wish that more public figures would apologize for their indiscretions before they were caught and not forced into an awkward apology by being found out. There were plenty of pictures of Old Testament figures, who I didn’t much care for either. Another popular theme was the Slaughter of the Innocents, the killing of all the children in Bethlehem following the birth of Christ. Being particularly sensitive to the notion of dead children, particularly murdered children, I would have found it all hard to take if the artwork were no so arcane. It also helped that Eileen was fairly flip about it.
“Didn’t I tell you that we’d be seeing it everywhere?” she laughed. “In this church, there are three different paintings of the Slaughter of the Innocents. In the church we’re seeing tomorrow, there’s another Slaughter of the Innocents. And there’s more coming still. Pretty soon, you’re going to be seeing the Slaughter of the Innocents everywhere you go. It’ll be stuck in your head and it won’t go away.”
The next several times Olansky led us past a Slaughter of the Innocents, I found myself laughing. By the end of the week, we had seen eight such portraits, and on the ninth, I could barely contain my hysterics, much to Olansky’s chagrin.
Colin and I sat in the second-floor sitting-room, which was just outside our room, trying to figure out where we would be traveling the next day. After a series of agonizing negotiations, plans were still up in the air. I was not happy. I hate unresolved issues.
“We need a guide in Rome,” I said. “We need a long weekend. If we go tomorrow, we’ll have both. If we wait another week, we’ll have neither. Next weekend is short and Venice is small. We can explore it on our own.
“I don’t want to spend three days in Rome,” he said. “It’s a city. I hate cities.”
I could feel myself starting to sweat. “Isn’t there anything you want to see there?”
“There’s a bone mural that Joachim said is good. It’s like a tomb or something called the Cabella Cappucin.”
“That’s it. I’m not interested in anything else.”
After three days of arguing, I was getting pretty tired of Colin insisting on not going to Rome. “It’s a beautiful city.”
“Eileen is planning on seeing a million churches. I hate churches. And I’m not into art much either.”
I found my heart beating faster. The stress was beginning to get to me. “Well, we’ll probably spend a lot of time in the Vatican. Maybe we can even see the Pope.”
“That’s something you’re interested in. I don’t like being Catholic. You do.”
“Jesus Christ, Colin! If you don’t like art, you don’t like cities, and you don’t like Catholicism, then why the fuck did you come to this country? All Italy is, is one giant church filled with art!”
“Don’t shout at me,” Colin said quietly. “I don’t deserve to be shouted at.”
“Colin, all you’ve done from the first moment we got here is complain and pick fights with people. I can’t take it anymore. I’ve wanted to come to this country all my life. If you ruin it for me, I’ll never forgive you.”
Colin didn’t move, but it was clear I had shaken him with the force of my words.
“Don’t put that on me, Marc. It’s not fair.”
“You put it on yourself.”
Eileen chose that moment to appear at the top of the stairs. “How’s happy boy?” she asked.
“Impossible,” I growled, and stalked past her out of the room.