April 19, 2024
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Italian Idyll II: Rome, Carlo the Bellman and the Italian Chariot

Jake slept well that first night in Fiuggi. He and his wife arose about 7:30 to get an early start on their busy day. Jake had planned a tour of Rome as the day’s activity, with the ancient sites and the famed Jewish Ghetto as the central attractions.

After a quick continental breakfast on the palazzo veranda, the Rabinowitzes made their way to the main entrance to the hotel where their guide for that day’s tour, as well as Gianluca, the van driver, awaited them. Marissa, their daughter, joined them as they prepared to board the spacious Ford Minivan vehicle that would carry them to the Eternal City.

The reader should be aware that Jake, as a result of some circulatory problems, had difficulty walking great distances. As a result of his condition, he had arranged in advance for a wheelchair to accompany them on the trip to facilitate their movement around the city. Along with the wheelchair came an Italian chaperone, Davide Zerte, a 30-ish Venetian who would be in charge of pushing Jake through the streets of Rome. Davide worked a regular job as a sommelier at a posh Roman ristorante, but enjoyed guiding travelers during the summertime. The wheelchair chosen by the tour guide seemed very worn, and Jake almost hesitated to embark without substituting a worthier model. Jake approached the concierge and questioned whether some sort of electric scooter might be available for rental in place of the wheelchair. After several phone calls, Alena informed Jake that they could order a portable scooter from Rome, but it would only arrive later that day. Jake consulted with Belle and they decided to order the scooter; they would, however, take their chances and use the wheelchair for that day’s Roman excursion.

The weather was clear and dry as the Rabinowitzes began the hour drive into Rome through the morning rush hour traffic. Once in Rome, their first objective was to visit the famous Jewish Museum at the entrance to the Jewish Ghetto. Descending from the van, Jake stretched his legs and waited for the wheelchair to be assembled. When he sat down in the chair, Jake noticed immediately that the streets within the Jewish quarter were cobblestoned and he suspected navigation would be difficult. In front of the museum, they met Christina, their guide for the day. She was of Hungarian-Italian extraction and had earlier converted to Judaism; she went by the adopted name of Ruth. She introduced herself to the Rabinowitzes and they soon saw that she was extremely knowledgeable and friendly, with a good command of English. She proceeded to guide them through the various museum exhibits, interspersing observations about the history of the ancient Jewish community in Rome with descriptions of modern Jewish life in the city.

Once completing the tour of the museum, it was back outside for the group into the now hot Roman morning. Around the corner from the museum stood the main entrance to the Great Synagogue of Rome, a massive structure that lived up to its reputation as one of the most magnificent buildings in the Jewish world. Before safely arriving in the cool interior of the main sanctuary, Jake and his chaperone discovered that one of the front wheels on the wheelchair had locked in place, causing the vehicle to wobble badly (when it moved at all). It was only with the greatest difficulty that Davide was able to maneuver Jake in and out of the synagogue, and Jake subsequently opted to walk short distances without assistance.

It was time for lunch. Ahead, along the via del Portico D’Ottavia, lay the central dining area of the Jewish Ghetto, where restaurants and bistros, equally attractive to locals and tourists alike, were located. A large number of kosher dining choices was available for lunch. Jake selected Yotvata, off the Piazza dei Cenci, a friendly, if small eatery whose proprietor greeted them warmly in broken English. They feasted on pizza Romans, bruschetta, risotto, spaghetti and turbot au gratin, sampling the many staples of authentic Italian dining with gusto. They topped their meal off with a touch of kosher limoncello followed by a scoop of chocolate gelato.

When they finished their meal, their guides met up with them to continue the day’s itinerary. They next drove to the Trevi Fountain, a must-see stop on any visit to Rome. The marble used in the construction of the fountain was as white and pristine as any Jake had ever seen; however, the square where the fountain is located was crowded with visitors, making any attempt to throw the customary wishful coins into the fountain a precarious undertaking at best in light of the slippery steps.

As they were leaving the fountain square, Jake and Belle suddenly received cell phone text messages from abroad:

“Please remember when in Rome to buy us authentic soccer jerseys from the AS Roma football team store!” came the request from Jake’s oldest son.

Fortunately, Davide, the chaperone, knew exactly where to acquire these desirable items, and soon Jake, his wife and daughter were haggling with uniform-clad salespeople inside the AS Roma store. After about 20 minutes of difficult decision making, they made their selection, Jake paying for their purchases in euros. As they prepared to leave, Davide appeared at the entrance to the store, presumably to show them where the minivan was parked. Suddenly, to their surprise, Davide stepped into the entrance and shouted for all to hear: “Forza Lazio!!” (“Let’s go Lazio!”) This defiant call was a challenge to every AS Roma fan within earshot, a red flag to a bull, as Lazio was the name of their fiercest rivals. Immediately, a cadre of uniform-clad salespeople and Roma fans, with fire in their eyes, surged forward and began chasing Davide, Jake and the rest of their group out of the store and into the street. It was only by the slimmest of margins that the Rabinowitzes and Davide made it safely back to the van.

“Our last stop is the Colosseum, folks,” Davide advised, as Gianluca steered the van into the midday Roman traffic. “It’s only a short ride from here. We’re passing the Circus Maximus on our right just now, where the famous chariot races took place!”

In less than 10 minutes, the Rabinowitzes stood at the entrance to the actual “most famous arena in the world” (not Madison Square Garden in New York as that arena’s management had been proclaiming for years!). Davide went off to arrange with Colosseum staff a private tour that would utilize a special, functioning wheelchair and elevators to carry Jake and his entourage through the famous site. In a matter of minutes, the VIP tour touched all the major aspects of the colossal arena and amphitheater where almost 2000 years earlier gladiators had battled to the death, political and religious unfortunates ended their lives and Roman plebeians cheered (and booed) their leaders. At the end of the tour, while looking westward from a high Colosseum terrace 100 feet above the ground, Jake spied in the distance the ruins of the renowned Roman Forum and the Arch of Titus marking the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Contemplating this view, Jake thought how ironic it was that in modern Rome, a city of 496 square miles (larger than New York City), the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood lies immediately adjacent to the most famous and ancient Imperial Roman ruins. Did this indicate some Roman and Jewish affinity through the ages?

Tired from the day’s touring, the Rabinowitzes dozed off on the return drive to Fiuggi and the mountains to the east. Upon arriving back at the Grand Hotel, Jake rushed to the front desk to ask if the scooter had arrived from Rome:

“Yes, Signore,” he was told. “It works fine; we put it in our back office off the lobby.”

In a flash, Jake found the scooter and wheeled it to a quiet section of the lobby to test it out. He inserted the key provided into the ignition, but to his dismay the scooter wouldn’t start. The power indicator showed that it needed a charge, so Jake attached the power cord to an adjacent outlet, but nothing happened. Jake was frustrated by this development and approached the front desk for help. Soon various people surrounded Jake and the balky scooter—mechanics, passersby, handymen, each repeating Jake’s futile attempts to get it going: None of them could get it to work! After a half-hour or so of plugging and re-plugging, the group dejectedly gave up trying. A notable moment came when Carlo, a silver-haired, smiling bellhop who had animatedly “assisted” Jake in not fixing the scooter, happily told Jake not to worry: “Signore, I promise it will work tomorrow morning when you need it!”

Jake did not feel quite as confident as Carlo. Following the bellman’s remarks, Jake headed upstairs to prepare for dinner. They enjoyed a tasty dinner in a large, ornate dining salon, after which they went to bed, weary from the day’s many activities. As they ascended to their room, Jake fretted about the nonfunctioning scooter:

“We’ll be doing more touring tomorrow and Davide said the walking distances will be longer and more arduous than today!”

With difficulty Jake managed to fall asleep around 11:30 p.m. He didn’t stay asleep for long. He awoke at about two in the morning; Belle was sleeping peacefully to his right. Suddenly, still worrying about the scooter, he thought: “What if I google the model number of the scooter and download the operating manual for that model? I might be able to get it working.”

So down came Jake in the middle of the night to the empty lobby where the immobile scooter was located. It resembled the confines of the forbidding Estes Park hotel in Colorado in the classic film “The Shining,” with Jake playing the part of Jack Nicholson, the deranged caretaker; not a sound could be heard. No one but Jake appeared to be stirring. Using the wireless connection on his smart phone, Jake wasted no time in finding the scooter model number online, locating the proper operating manual, and in little more than five minutes getting the scooter to work.

“A good example of Yankee ingenuity,” Jake proudly thought to himself as he plugged the charger into the wall.

After 15 minutes elapsed, Jake tested out his new chariot, driving the scooter through the empty lobby corridors, avoiding any spirits of the night that might be about! Finally, he drove the scooter back to the corner of the lobby, reinserted the charging cord, and took the elevator back upstairs.

But, wait! Jake didn’t actually get the last word in on the subject of the scooter. In the morning, when Carlo the bellman saw Jake in the lobby after breakfast, practicing driving the now functioning scooter, he rushed over to him and said in his broken English:

“Signore, see, just like I tolda you, the scooter will work in the morning!”

Jake in turn gave Carlo a big, knowing smile and scooted away to check out some more Italian sights.

By Joseph Rotenberg

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to the Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a followup volume of stories and essays.

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