To appreciate this post, think back to the world of the 1980s. DAY ONE:
It was my first time in Italy. Unlike landing in London, a place only a few hours of flight time closer to my home, I found I had arrived in Rome with severe jet lag. I remember it was a headache that wouldn’t go away, a bit of shakiness and a queasy stomach. At the airport were armed soldiers carrying machine guns. Horrified to find myself in such a police state, I steadied my reserve and gathered my luggage. I took the rail system to the center of the city and found a pay phone. I managed fairly well with my two years of Italian classes and got the right foreign coins into the pay phone on the wall, but none of the places I had marked as promising had any vacancies.
I was furious with myself for being too cheap to reserve at the hotel recommended to me back home. I leaned against the wall and pondered what to do. I asked a passerby who suggested I try the tourist center near the train station. Fortunately, my luggage consisted of just two flight bags, the sort the airlines used to give you for taking an international flight. So I wasn’t carrying anything heavy. I found the nearby underground rail station and started to feel better that I had a destination.
At the tourist center were mobs of people in haphazard lines in front of two clerks at what looked like bank teller windows. I patiently waited my turn only to arrive at the window and be summarily dismissed and told there was nothing left that day. I backed into the mob and wondered, what next? Then I noticed a woman, with bleached blond hair; she was a bit taller than me. She was dressed all in black, including boots and a cowboy hat, and was pushing her way from the clerk’s window and toward the exit. I was impressed at how smartly the other people were stepping aside for her. She was getting closer to the door!
I dove for her and meekly asked in Italian if she spoke English. She smiled and shook her head no and then she asked me in her Texan drawl, Did you ask if I speak English? I quickly told her my plight. She took my arm and said, Come with me honey. She pushed to the front of the line and reached her arm over the counter and toward the clerk. She pointed at him and told him loudly in English that he needed to find me a room. Then, even more amazingly, he did. It cost more that the hotel I had passed on at home, but I had a room!
I walked out of that crowded tourist center with a ticket for a room across the street from the bus station. My guide book had warned it was a noisy area that wasn’t as safe as other places, but I was euphoric that I had a place where I could lie down. As I was swinging my arms and approaching a skip of delight, a smartly-dressed man firmly grabbed me by my shoulders and stopped me in my tracks. I was petrified.
After a few seconds, I realized he was speaking French. He asked if I could understand him, and I shook my head yes. He told me he would speak slowly for me so I would understand. He said I needed to hold my bags under my arms close to my body if I wanted to keep them because there were many children who were practiced at thieving in this area; I remember he told me it wasn’t the Italians but the Roma. I held my bags close, he nodded approvingly and let me go. I walked on, bracing for an attack that thankfully never came.
The check-in was uneventful. I entered my room, locked the door, got out my ever ready half of a peanut butter sandwich from home and got some water. Two aspirin and a wet towel over my forehead, and I fell asleep. I woke around 4am to noisy street sounds and found a light. I was in a room that was more like a barracks. There were many bunk beds and three full bathrooms. No wonder it cost so much.
No wonder the man at the tourist center wasn’t booking me here. But I felt safe and still very thankful for a place with a locked door for the night. Day One – Lessons learned: (1) Always book ahead for your first night’s lodging. (2) Some of those people, who insist on speaking loudly in English where English is not the native language, are pretty smart. (3) There truly are good Samaritans.