After spending eight months in Polignano a Mare, a pearl of a city buried deep in Italy’s heel, a combination of factors led me to make the move to that famous capital located squarely mid-calf, Rome. In the more than four months I’ve been here, I’ve often questioned my decision to move from a seaside paradise where the locals eat gelato all day and know each other by name, to the rank capital of traffic jams and underhanded business transactions. It’s a bit like dating Scarlett Johansson and then breaking up with her to spend your nights with Cher. It wouldn’t make much sense in the first place, and in any case you’re 50 years too late. Naïve as I was before, I would have dismissed these warnings with a shrug, though the truth is that the trip to my new home had left me with an odd sense of foreboding…
While it might be true that “all roads lead to Rome,” what they don’t tell you is that the journey down some of those roads is more interesting than others.
Bicycles aren’t allowed on standard Italian trains. Not unless they fold up to the point where you can fit them into your suitcase. Not wanting to leave mine behind (as it represented all that was possible in the physical and emotional transformation I had convinced myself would start the moment I arrived in my new city) I was left with two choices. I could cycle to Rome (umm, no) or I could take regional trains, four of them to be exact. Polignano – Bari – Taranto – Napoli to, finally, Rome. That tour around the South of Italy would take around ten hours, and as I also had 3 rather large bags, would make the journey about as fun as a Sadomasochistic dinner party. After brooding over this dilemma with my friends one day in Italy’s finest dining establishment, Restaurant Comes, they exchanged a few words with the Carabinieri two tables over.
For my non-Italian friends, the Carabinieri are essentially the military branch of the police. There are still the standard police, Polizia, and also the financial Police, Guardia la Finanza (though I have absolutely no idea what purpose they serve at this point in financial crisis ridden Italy). Then throw in the aforementioned Carabinieri, because in Italy you need 3 branches of one essential service to complicate and ensure that that service is unworkable. A bit like award shows. Do we really need The Golden Globes, The MTV Movie Awards, and the Academy Awards? Wouldn’t just one do?
Before I could voice my opinion, furthering my plight by annoying fans of the MTV Movie Awards and causing them to join with the already annoyed fans of Cher and Underhanded Business Transactions, my fast-thinking friends at Restaurant Comes lit upon a solution. One of the Carabinieri was leaving the following day for Velletri, a town just 30 kilometers outside of Rome and, provided I give him the money I would have spent on four regional trains, was more than willing to lug me, my unfolding bike and my other belongings to Velletri’s train station from which it would be a short, direct ride to Rome. I happily agreed and the following day, after many bitter farewells, departed my blissful paradise for the other side of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
I might mention now that being driven across half of Italy by a Carabinieri officer despite my somewhat tenuous legal status would have made for an interesting story in itself, except that this particular Carabinieri officer needed no help in garnering interest. Despite being affectionately dubbed “Stallone” by my Polignanese friends, this 40-something year old guy looked more like Jason Statham, only with bigger biceps, and the fact that he was transporting me gave the similarity added effect. He picked me up at Italian time (i.e. an hour late) wearing a pair of Bono-esque sunglasses and a shirt two sizes too small which was now being strangled by his biceps.
“Music is ok?” He asked after a mile or so.
“Cold air is ok?” He asked after another.
“Window down is ok?”
Yes, yes, and yes.
“You like pussy?”
“What?” I said, not sure what that had to do with the music selection or the air conditioning.
“Pussy.” And with this he began thrusting back and forth against the steering wheel to illustrate the point.
He nodded and stopped gyrating long enough for me to formulate a follow-up question.
“And do you, uh, like women?”
He looked at me as if I must be joking before launching into a second set of gyrations, this time pumping his fist into the air.
“Women yes, sex, yes! Girl scream!” He demonstrated this, thrusting his arm upwards in apparent imitation of another body part.
“Great.” I said, realizing mournfully that we’d only been driving a mere 20 minutes.
Now that the topic had been broached, he felt comfortable enough to ask me a favor and handed me his phone.
“Write, in English please, ‘Happy Birthday. My gift is your body.’”
“You mean, ‘Your gift is my body’?”
I typed the words on his phone, he reviewed them and, as if he understood, hit send.
We drove a few more minutes in silence before his phone rang. He ran off some words in Italian before handing the phone to me.
“What?” I said, unsure why I was being given his phone again.
“Say,” he whispered, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece, “we in Palermo and you like, very much!”
I was clueless as to what was going on at this point but not wanting to irritate a man with a gun stowed in his glove compartment (yes, he showed me) I nevertheless put the phone to my ear and heard a woman rapidly firing off in Italian on the other end.
“Hello?” I said. The speaker on the other end went silent. Not knowing what else to do, I followed the script I’d been given. “We’re in Palermo and, wow! Everything is so beautiful!” Still nothing.
“Palermo!” Muscles said, laughing as he took the phone from me. “In Palermo!”
He rolled a couple more sentences off in Italian at her before disconnecting. He looked at me with a smile on his face.
I nodded and he continued.
“In Villetri not my wife, my colleague. Much sex, big-” His hands imitated two big breasts against his chest. “Much sex.” He repeated, this time following with a series of strange sounds and again thrusting his arm into the air.
“Ba boom, ba boom, ba boom!”
I nodded, wondering how effective the Carabinieri were at their real job, whatever that may be.
“She 24.” He carried on, happy to have a captive listener. “Very sex. Much sex. No sleeping, solo sex. Ba boom, ba boom, ba boom!”
“That’s great,” I said, at a loss.
“Wife no good. No like using mouth for suck-”
“Right,” I said, trying to think of how to shut this conversation down. “That sucks.”
“No, she no suck.”
“No, I mean…”
“But girl, colleague, she suck, she fuck, she do everything I say.”
“Wow. Sounds like you’re pretty happy together.”
At this his brow furrowed.
“I love wife, yes. But also love fuck.”
“Sure, I understand… it’s a bit complicated.”
“Complicate, yes. Very complicate.”
Silence. Blessed silence for another few kilometers until…
“You must to use Viagra?”
“Viagra?” I said. “No, I don’t need to use Viagra. Do you need to use Viagra?”
“Me, Viagra? Aaaaah!” His laughter sounded like the climax of a coupling between a banshee and a Viking.
“I no need Viagra, my dick strong, she tell me, ‘please, no more’ but I no stop. 6, 7, 8 time until sunlight.”
I laughed and “wow”-ed accordingly at the vampire sex monster’s revelations, an idea for an erotic novel slowly forming in my head. Perhaps I’d throw a dinosaur in for kicks…
Silence fell suddenly and beautifully, lasting until I saw him flexing out of the corner of my eye. Looking at his bicep as it bulged beneath his shirtsleeve he offered me the chance of a lifetime.
“You may touch.” He said, his muscle flexed and ready.
“Oh, that’s okay.” I said, smiling so as not to offend him. “Thanks though.”
I laughed and, one eye on the glove compartment, reached over and gently squeezed his bicep.
“Woah.” He said, looking at me strangely. “You gay?” At this he cracks up, slapping me on the leg. I feigned laughter and stared down the unfurling road.
The signs for Rome showed less than 150 kilometers separating us now. Oh, please god…
The ringing of his cell and his subsequent shouted Italian interrupted my pleas. I opened my eyes to find the phone in my face again.
“Say, ‘we in Catania.’” He said, pressing the phone against my ear.
“Hello, we’re in Catania.” I said. “It’s so beautiful here, lots of scenic coastline.”
“Oh, that’s great!” A female voice, different from the first, replied in English. “You’re living in Polignano?”
A few follow-up questions revealed that this young lady, whoever she was, studied English in the same town and lived in nearby Bari with her parents.
I handed the phone back and after hanging up he turns to me.
“That, my daughter.”
“She seems very nice.”
In truth I wondered whether she knew about her father’s infidelity… or the gun in his glove compartment. I felt bad helping him fool his family, but could I have acted any differently? I justified it by telling myself that if the absurdity of some stranger she’d never met having been passed the phone by her dad and answering with “We’re in Catania” and “it’s beautiful here” didn’t strike her as odd than I didn’t know what would.
The last hundred or so kilometers passed relatively uneventfully, with his singing along to Beyoncé and various other pop singers and my thinking this trip might have been a mistake… albeit one bound to spawn a great addition to the “dinosaur porn” genre.