Monday, January 5, 2009

The Rape of the Taxi Riders

We’re starting to wonder if the Italian word for stroll” is “Standini in frontini of Jane and Mk-ina.” It appears that every person in Italy is out shopping this weekend, and has every intention of turning their body into a leg-propelled anti-American missle device aimed straight at one of us.

On Sunday, we went to the Borghese Museum, but we had a few minutes to spare so MK thought we’d take a quick side trip to see a Vermeer and Rembrandt exhibit at an art gallery near the Spanish Steps. Not so hard, we thought.

After all, we’d negotiated the muni to get to the Spanish Steps on Saturday, and braved the crowds and the threatening baby Jesus display in the middle of the steps. We could wade through the religious paraphernalia to get to an art show. At the top of the steps, there was an art show of a different sort, with local artists displaying their wares. I couldn't help but be tempted by a lovely portrait of the lovebirds Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes that graced one vendor's stand. Who wouldn't want a lovely rendition of Fake Heterosexuality hanging on their walls?

Aas we came down the steps, we didn’t know that they disguise the neighborhood just below them, which is filled with stores from Armani to Fendi to Capitalismimo Up Your Ass-o. Looking around at the opulence in the stores, and then the opulence on people’s backs, we realized that we found the Rodeo Drive of Rome. Perhaps that makes it Rome-O Drive. Either way, both of us began to say to each other, at first under our breaths, and then louder and louder, as a woman of a acertain age would approach us--”Dead Animal Alert.”

Minks and chinchillas passed us every three minutes, adorning the backs of women who looked much more unhappy than a $5,000 coat would suggest was right. I told MK, even though I know it's sexist, that each fur coat we saw was payment for adultery. MK had asked Aubrey (our Vatican tour guide helper) about the inordinate amount of fur we saw, and she had replied that most of it was inherited. Inherited or not, there is enough fur in Rome to carpet George Bush's special apartment in Hell.

MK at one point accidentally ran into a dark brown number--once again, a victim of the Italian Stroll--- and whispered to me, “It was soft.” I nodded. We knew that it was soft. Little animals often are. Little dead animals can’t be any different.

So we pushed and shoved our way through rich Italian people, and finally found the right street. The Italians have a cute habit of numbering addresses how they’d like. So we were looking for 320, and since the numbers in front of us ran as 192 and 194, we turned in the direction of the numbers going up. In the next block, the street numbers were 82 and 84. The next block brought 485 and 588. In Paris, it is easy to believe that capriciousness of this sort would be the result of hating anyone who isn’t French. In Italy, we just assumed that it is the result of an obliviousness that anyone unfamiliar with the area would even try to negotiate something so complex as an address.

Eventually, we gave up. We had an appointment at the Borghese for 1:00PM, which meant we needed to be there by 12:30, and it was almost noon. Even if we found 320 Via Corgolonossibustamenate Leone IV, we wouldn’t have time to see a single painting. The girl with the pearl earring was going to have a lonely Sunday afternoon.

We trudged back to the Spanish Steps, stopping on the way for a quick lunch at a café. I had a plate of spaghetti with mushrooms--the promised fish never arrived because it was apparently having a chat with the girl with the pearl earring--and we then hurried over to the stand with horses and carriages and the Baby Jesus overlooking the Gucci and Prada extravaganza below. Someone once told me that Jesus overthrew the tables in the temple, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the little lord in the manger on the Spanish Steps was getting ready to shake his groove thing and stomp down those steps with a vengence. We didn’t want to find out; instead, we hopped into a taxi.

The taxi driver was in his 60s, a well preserved George Hamilton kind of guy. His coat was a beautiful grey wool and he wore his cream colored scarf like an ascot, folded neatly beneath his coat. He looked as if he might have been a Borghese himself, or at least married into the family. He asked us where we were from and MK said, “The United States.”

“AH! Cal E Furnya!”

I was surprised. I’m used to Europeans knowing we’re American; how could he know we were from California? Did we smell of Coppertone and patchouli? “How did you know!?” I asked.

Big smile from Georgio in the rear view mirror. “Chay luggisimo ventana linguani beligiani.” Or something like that. Of course.

He gunned the little car down the street, while MK blanched and grabbed for her seat belt. I felt as if I was on a ride at Disneyland, as we veered down narrow, cobbled streets, barely missing other motorcars that seemed to think that they had the right of way just because their light was green. Georgio ignored everyone else on the road, and grinned with his big white teeth every time he grazed another car, motorcycle or pedestrian. He was playing for keeps, and we were captive to his driving skills.

“Remind me never to drive in Rome,” I whispered to MK.

“Be quiet. I’m praying to a god I don’t believe in.” The wind whistled outside our car windows as he scraped by a green and orange bus, and the taxi then simply hopped the curb, scattering the waiting bus passengers into the street, where they were safe for a few moments from Georgio.

I began to look out the window, trying to avert the seasickness and terror I felt when I watched through the windshield. There was a cute, quaint little restaurant. There was a small park. We tore around a corner and up a freeway onramp, while pedestrians and bicyclists throughout Rome heaved a sigh of relief. But then off the freeway, with a quick, screeching turn past a villa and a speedy acceleration into a residential neighborhood, emerging without any obvious human road kill onto a large thoroughfare. And then a cute, quaint little restaurant. Wait. It was the SAME cute, quaint little restaurant. I glanced at the meter. We were at $7Euro and we didn’t appear any closer to the Borghese than we’d been a few minutes before.

“Soon?” I said.

Big white teeth appeared again. “Soon! Soon!” and he pushed his foot to the floor and missed a cypress tree by inches.

He began to slow as we approached a large green area. “Elly fants , gee raffs,” he said. “Park Zoological.”

“A zoo?”

“Si, si, a zoo!” I imagined that the zebras and cheetahs were pacing their paddocks, praying that Georgio stayed away from their cages.

“Soon Borghese?”

The brakes slammed on. “Here it ess!” he grinned at us. The meter read $9.50. MK handed him a $20 --the smallest bill she had--and some change. “Thank you! Thank you,” he said.

“No, I need $10 back.”

The motor clattered and died as she spoke, making the meter go blank. It was 12:25, and we had five minutes to confirm our reservation at the Borghese by presenting ourselves to a clerk somewhere. Georgio said, “No, it’s $20 Euro.” Amazing how suddenly he knew English.

“It said $10.” MK wasn’t letting it go.

Georgio smiled at us. He shrugged his grey wooled, handsome shoulders. We had little choice and he knew it. We’d been had by an Italian cab driver. There was nothing to do but get out of the taxi with as much dignity as we could, and try to be grateful that we were alive to complain about him.

The Borghese itself was run like an Italian museum. There were five lines that snaked into each other, thus enabling no one to get where they wanted to go. Of course, there were no signs distinguishing the mandatory bag check line from the mandatory reservation line from the mandatory entrance line. We were lucky enough to stand in a random line behind some Americans who had been traveling in Europe for the last year and a half. They’d been at the Borghese before, and assured us we were in the right line to confirm our reservations.

We told them about our cab ride and they assured us that not all Italians conspire to figure out ways to rip off Americans. MK wasn’t having any of it, since she had not only gotten a free haircut by virtue of the close scrape between the taxi and the bus, but she doesn’t like to be taken for a ride of a different sort. We groused about the taxi experience until the other Americans got sick of us and found something important they needed to do, like plan their route to Botswana.

It didn’t matter. By that time a loudspeaker announced that the exhibit was open to those with 1:00 reservations. We rushed the doors of the palace and landed in front of Bernini’s statue of the Rape of Proserpine. The taxi driver faded from our memories. Pluto’s grasp of Persephone’s thigh, his fingers digging deep into her flesh, suppleness outlined in the improbable medium of marble, defies description. His fingernails were detailed to the cuticle, her terror evident not only in her face, but also in the force with which her hand swept into his forehead, stretching his eyebrow to his ear. It was impossible that this man was truly marble; it was amazing that anyone could sculpt with such emotion.

Our friend Karen told MK that her trip to Italy last Fall was special because she will always think of it as the trip during which she discovered Bernini. And now that is how we will remember this trip, too. Bernini surprised us with his rendition of Apollo and Daphne, again sculpting emotion and tension and life into cold, white marble.

There was so much to love about the Borghese, even in the winter. Paintings by Carvaggio, and of course once again Demon Jesus appeared. The last time we saw a lot of religious art, I noticed that Jesus is depicted in only three ways: at birth, as a toddler, and during his last days of life. Birth Jesus is always an anatomically correct baby. Middle aged Jesus is always long-suffering and virtuous. But Toddler Jesus is my favorite, because he looks like a little devil. Oh sure, he has a halo above his head, and he’s always waving around two sticks stuck together as if he was the damn savior or something, but he also looks like a kid on the edge of a temper tantrum, just about to blow his stack. Demonic Jesus looks like your typical two year old, except that he’s always playing with his little Jewish friend John the Baptist, and cheating at peek a boo. I wouldn’t trust that kid in a poker game or behind the wheel of a taxi, that’s for sure.

At 3:00, a buzzer sounds and it’s all hands on deck as far as the Borghese is concerned. The next set of tourists is coming in, and it’s time to clear out. So we went to the gift shop---of course--and then trudged up the walk. There was a beautiful park around us--those rich counts and dukes and popes sure knew how to live-- but it was cold, far colder than we are used to, and we wanted to get back to our hotel.

Just as we wondered how to take the bus--MK was consulting All Rick! All the Time!---we saw a cab pull up where Georgio had dropped us off two and a half hours earlier. A bewildered couple emerged, almost running to their 3:00 appointment at the Borghese, knowing it was almost 4:00.

"Taxi?" MK asked me.

"Great," I said.

I had my hand on the door and the cab driver was smiling at me. "Are you sure?" she asked me. "He might just rip us off."

"Now or never. I'm willing to try."

She closed her eyes and grabbed the handle.

"How much to the Spanish Steps?" she asked the driver as she pulled her coat, hat, gloves and body into the car, shivering.

"I don't know. Five Euro? Six?"

"Not twenty?"

He laughed. He was a dark haired, young Italian man, someone that I could work up an attraction to if I were alone and about thirty years younger. "No, not twenty Euro! That is too too much!"

"Hmmmph." MK setttled into skepticism. Huey Lewis and the News played on the car radio. "Go ahead. The Spanish Steps." It was a dare.

He pulled into traffic cautiously. No turn signals--those are for wimps--but he did use his rear view mirrors for more than vanity devices, and he braked at red lights. He even slowed for an old lady crossing the street. And we arrived at the Spanish Steps, the Land of Gucci, Jesus and Fendi, in one piece, for $6 Euros. I gave him a Euro as a tip. It was the least I could do for someone who restored our belief in humanity.


Izzy said...

Great post. The ending made me smile.

Mooshki said...

Oh my god, you crack me up.