lluvving vespas…………

I put the pen down and looked up via Veneto, the street that the restaurant faced. It was a wide, stately avenue flanked with regal appartamenti decorated with stone balconies and potted plants. It ended at the Piazza Barberini. A hotel sat at one side of the piazza. Its unimaginative brick front looked more like an American hotel, but surrounding it were stuccoed buildings painted brick-orange, their windows and shutters thrown open. Taxis and scooters and the tiniest of cars zipped around the circular piazza. And not just any scooters. Vespas! Rome wasn’t just the capital city of Italy, it was the capital city of Vespa country. They skirted the fountain and shot up via Veneto. I itched to get my fingers on the handgrips of one of them.

I kept thinking about the summer I’d spent in Rome years ago. It was during that time that my friendship with Maggie solidified into sisterhood. Maggie and I immersed ourselves in Roma, in our fellow students, our professors, the tenets of international and comparative law, and it was as if a happy bubble had sprung up around us. Of course, there were the usual traveler’s woes—blisters adorning our feet, having to wash your underwear in a dorm sink—but I loved every bit.
But if the architecture and the setting were somewhat unremarkable, the feel of the place—the energy—wasn’t. Rome is a seen-it-all kind of place. No matter how much the Italians delight in things—food and wine and sex, to name a few—the fact remains that their cultural DNA includes a world weariness of it all. And yet the American students who studied at Loyola were visiting Italy, and sometimes Europe, for the first time. They were wide-eyed, eager to see, to learn, to live. And so the campus with its otherwise sleepy appearance hummed with that energy. It vibrated at a low level but with a certain light that colored everything a pretty ochre, that made the place soothing and yet made it sing.

I kept studying the book, hoping I could divine the gallery Elena had mentioned, the one where she was working and which she said was close to her heart. The problem was, I didn’t know Elena very well. I didn’t know what moved her heart. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure what moved my own heart these dayWhen I was last in Rome, if a reasonably attractive woman stopped on the street to consult a map or much less ate alone at a restaurant, as I was doing, it would invite a torrent of male attention. The men would literally surround you—touching you, shouting come-ons in a desperate mix of Italian and English. It became one of Italy’s few liabilities.
Maggie very much wanted a family. It was the husband part of that proposition that was causing her trouble.

Only one other person was in the salon when I entered, a man lying on his back on one of the four gray chaises in the middle of the room. I sat on another chaise, then feeling a little cautious, I lay back, too. The fresco, called Divine Providence, depicted historic figures frolicking across a luminous, heavenly blue sky. I thought about my father, who always resided in a similar place in my mind—in a beautiful, warmly lit other-universe where he floated about, with no worries, but always able to see Charlie and me, always watching us.

“As you can see, most of the works here are not from famous artists,” she said. “But that wasn’t the point of the Palazzo Colonna. These were amassed to give a collective impression of beauty. The intention is that one doesn’t need to be an art historian to appreciate this place. You don’t need to study each little brush stroke, every inch of gold.” She waved her arm and spun around, and in that moment I could see her as a young girl, joyous and inquisitive and free of any sadness. “I think it is important what this place teaches,” she said. “I am not a historian, but I learn from the palazzo every day. It teaches you to look at the whole. Not one individual masterpiece.”

“Exactly,” she said, clearly pleased. “That is why I love Rome, too, and that is what keeps me here.” She pointed to the cannonball and smiled. “The flaws are many when you look. Mistakes have been made. And yet the overall effect is one of true beauty, a beauty that transcends any mistakes.”
I looked in her eyes. “Do you believe the same about people?” I asked. “That they can be flawed and make mistakes and still have a transcendent beauty?”
She nodded. “Yes, a beauty inside them, not just out.”

“He was curious like you,” Aunt Elena said.
“That sounds more like my brother, Charlie.”
Elena gave me the slow grand shrug Italians have mastered. “Maybe. Christopher wanted to know everything.” She held up a finger. “Correction. He wanted to understand everything. There is a difference.” She looked at me for a sign of comprehension.
I nodded slowly, thinking about what she’d said. “There is a difference between knowing something or memorizing it, and truly understanding it.”
“Yes, that’s right. And true understanding requires a much deeper curiosity, a willingness to seek for motivations and appreciate subtleties. But that kind of curiosity can be dangerous.”
“Why?”

“Because you begin to think that maybe the world isn’t so black and white, maybe people aren’t, either. You don’t realize that some people truly are black. Just black.”