Sunday, December 23, 2007

If Sando-kan, I can too

If Rocky Marciano and Danny DeVito were to have a baby together, the baby’d’ve looked a bit like Mauro. I was sitting next to him on my Alitalia flight from Sofia to Rome. As you’d’ve gathered, Mauro isn’t quite the ideal Italian male – you know Paulo Maldini etc. While gagging on a beef sandwich, he inquired “what country?”. Ducking and weaving between pink and white flecks of semi-masticated bread and beef, I managed to whisper “India!”.

“India?? You not look Indian!” he said. So I asked him who did. He said “ Kuber Bedi!” “Kuber Bedi??” “Yes! Si! He Sandokan. Italian women very much like Sandokan”. “Ah Kabir Bedi!”, I corrected him, remembering the Italian TV series from the 80s featuring Kabir Bedi. “Si, si, women love Kuber Bedi!”. Almost blushing, I thought it was only polite to ask, “So Italian women like Indian men, eh?” But he shook his head, said “only if look like Kuber Bedi!” and went back to gagging. Sorry, did I say Devito and Marciano? Correction; actually he looked more like a love child born after an amorous exchange between a chimpanzee and the Hunchback of Notre Dam. Silence followed. We were busy trying to pick up what remains when reality crashes violently with a fond but brittle illusion.

Away from Mauro and the crummy Alitalia planes, Italy and Italians looked as pleasant as the guidebooks had promised. Bold beams of sunlight danced on window sills, bounced off designer shades and lit up happy faces. And the musical trill of the Italian tongue was as easy on the ears as Monica Belluci is on the eyes. But your columnist wasn’t smiling. You see, first Alitalia blinds you with its garish green décor, then starves you by literally offering peanuts on a flight that seems to last weeks but worst of all, swallows up your luggage as greedily as a Neapolitan Mastiff might bolt down a dog biscuit. So there I was, on a Roman holiday with nothing on me but for the shirt on my back and thankfully, a clutch of euros. The euros didn’t last long though. Italian cabbies are absolutely the most charming in the world. Mine, Paulo, treated me like a long lost friend, told me he liked Indians, and not just because they “always give many tip” and finally dropped me off “just two lanes from hotel, taxi too big, not go there”, with an emotional, “Arrivederci!”.

I thought how wonderful the world would’ve been if all the cabbies in the world could’ve been like Paulo only to discover that my hotel had been a mere walk from the train station while perfidious Paulo had taken me all around the city and dropped me off at the farthest point possible from it. I have a feeling he did it as much for a laugh as he did it for the money. But the man was so charming, he could’ve stabbed me with a blunt knife and I wouldn’t’ve known till I sputtered, died and went to heaven. But redemption for Rome was close at hand. A lady, could’ve been a Belluci, or at least a close cousin, walked past and must’ve seen the lost puppy look (now don’t snigger, if I didn’t look that cute, why’d she stop?) on my face. She stopped to ask, and embarrassed that I’d been cheated thus, offered to take me to the hotel. Chivalry, propriety and stupidity of course demanded that I maintain I could manage on my own if only she could tell me how, and so I reached my hotel after a rather long walk.

Later, joined by my wife, we went exploring. The Coloseum, the Vittoriano, the Vatican. Rome reminded me of Delhi. Both cities have history, and its residue hewn in rock lurks in every corner, often forgotten, yet resilient. And Italians, like us Indians, seemed the nicest and most engaging rogues possible. This place was home. We just had to come back so off we went to the famous Trevi Fountain to toss a coin and wish to return.

There, even as I asked my wife in Bangla to toss the coin, a voice interrupted “coffee khaben?”. Bangladeshis! Hordes of them - immigrants, some legal, mostly illegal, employed with Italians selling souvenirs. And they were so happy to see a “Dasher manush” that they gave some stuff to me for free and sold me the rest at discounts that would’ve embarrassed Wal-mart. An employer screamed at a Bangladeshi for selling a souvenir too cheap but he pretended not to understand and then turned back, winked and smiled, even as we waved goodbye. I loved Rome, for its naughtiness and warmth, and for its history and chaos, but most of all for its sense of poetic justice.

The slip stream

When in Rome, pray!

Visit Rome for its Colosseum, leather, food, fountains and… a country! The State of the Vatican City, no more than 100 acres or so, is the world’s smallest nation that one can walk into right after alighting from a cruise on River Tiber. An ecclesiastical sovereign, complete with a flag and a constitution, the Holy See was established as an independent enclave in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty signed between Prime Minister Mussolini for the King, and Cardinal Gasparri on behalf of Pope Pius XI. It is the only remaining vestige of Italy’s era of papal ascendancy that existed until the unification of Italy in 1870, which was also when Rome became the capital.

Barely packing in more than 900 folks, this seat of the Roman Catholic Church retains the finest motifs from the glorious age of the Italian Renaissance. Even ‘awe-inspiring’ doesn’t serve to relate the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica, the tomb of the first pope, its interiors done up by none other than the peerless Michelangelo. Then there is the Vatican Museums Complex – the largest in the world – so large that it offers choice of itinerary through the Museum, none of which however miss out on the overwhelming Sistine Chapel.

A country to get blessed by the head of state – the Pope!


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