By Pat Gallagher
It’s been a very long day. This morning, intending to walk to the Piazza Venezia, for shopping and lunch somewhere nearby, I set off from the train station at Piazzale Flaminio. In the wrong direction. Again. My son warned me, the first time I’d embarked on an exploration of Rome, not to orient myself by the Tevere, the ancient river that snakes its way across the eternal city. It is very easy to get disoriented. He, having lived in Italy for most of his adult life, was right. Again. I’d walked straight down the Via del Corso toward the Piazza Venezia. But, turning left at some point instead of right, I’d crossed the river twice, ending up in the hills above the Vatican, far from my destination in a residential neighborhood bereft of cafes and bars where I could sit, rest up from my meandering, and have a bite to eat. I walk and walk, further and further from my original destination. This journey has now become my destination. And while the neighborhoods are leafy and homes quite lovely this is not where I want to be. I am tired, beyond hunger. My head is beginning to ache and I must sit down.
After five fruitless hours of trying to reorient myself I give up. Depleted and dispirited I climb onto a bus heading back toward the center and the Metropolitana subway station. As we travel down the hillside the terrain becomes more familiar and the distinctive “M” signs of the Metro appear. I get off at Piazza Cavour . From there a series of train rides delivers me back to the Piazzale Flaminio. Feeling frustrated and exhausted, I ignore the calls of vendors hawking a variety of goods from many stalls in the piazza. I enjoy street markets but right now I barely notice the racks of fluttering scarves, the bins of socks and shirts and sweaters, the tables set with cheap costume jewelry and other trinkets designed in Italy but made in China. Most of the time I’ve stopped here, wandered about. Not today. The train is scheduled to leave in five minutes; I follow the crowd of commuters streaming into the station. I climb on board the “extraurbano” train, choose a backward-facing seat on the aisle and stare dumbly into the middle distance as the doors close. The whistle sounds and the train lurches into action. We are on our way to Rignano Flaminio. I have accomplished none of my objectives today. I chastise myself for failing to navigate the streets of Rome–once again. Perhaps Rome is not the best place for a spatially challenged person like myself to wander in. I also acknowledge the limits of my physical endurance and stamina–this is the hardest lesson.
Tired, feet and head aching, I glance around at my fellow passengers. The seats are rapidly filling up. It’s the time of day when the train is most crowded. Everyone in a hurry to get home. Across the aisle are two women who– from their traditional garb – appear to be Middle Eastern, possibly Muslim. Several children and other family members are elsewhere in the car and there is some moving back and forth and chattering between them. I nod and smile at them noting to myself how Italy has changed over the twenty years I have been coming here. Immigrants have brought a variety of cultural practices, languages, beliefs to what was once strictly Catholic Italy. Fatigue overhwhelms me and I feel my eyes closing. And then she begins,
“You will only be saved if you take Jesus the Lord into your heart!”
Startled out of my reverie I look up. A tall woman, of African descent, in traditional dress with a complicated, brightly printed head wrap, is moving slowly up and down the aisle gesturing and shouting. In a deep stentorian voice she calls out, demanding to be heard. She speaks in accented Italian, loudly and with such articulation that even I with my rudimentary skills can understand that she is a Christian proselytizer. She goes on and on, repeating the caution that we are all damned if we don’t accept God the Son as our savior (or words to that effect). She pauses, looks directly at the Muslim women, and repeats her warning with force. After a minute or two all the passengers are fixated on her, offering up to those who meet their gaze expressions of wonder, irritation, and in the case of a small group of laughing men standing at the end of the car, great amusement. She has a captive audience and is using this to her advantage. I feel bonded with my fellow passengers, united in the resistance to this intrusion. I feel uncomfortable for the two women wearing the hijab who stare at her impassively. I feel more annoyed than they appear to be. The woman goes on and on, repeating her warnings. She stands beside me and continues to direct all the force of her preaching to the two modestly dressed women seated across the aisle. I want this woman to shut up. Not because of her message and her mission. I understand this to be what she must do. But in my fatigued state I can’t stand the noise, the haranguing tone of her delivery. And I don’t want those women to have to listen to this any longer. Just at the point – ten minutes after she began – where I sense we are all fed up enough to want to take action I hear the word, “Finalmente….” and a moment later she is silent. She gets off at the next station. There is a palpable sense of relief among the passengers. They resume murmuring to one another as the train starts up again.
I close my eyes again and surrender to the gentle rocking as the train rumbles in the gathering twilight to the next stop on its way to my destination. I think about this fervent woman and her assumption of moral authority. I remember a time in childhood when I too was convinced that my religion was the “one true faith”. I remember the nuns telling us stories of the missionaries who went to Africa to bring their religion to the “heathens”, to reveal the salvation that awaited them. I remember in grammar school we were required to make small regular financial contributions to support the missionaries’ work in baptizing the “pagan babies” so their immortal souls would be saved. There was keen competition among the classes for making the largest contribution each month. The class that collected the most money was given the privilege of “naming” a pagan baby, which is to say bestowing on the child a proper Christian name. Whatever their African name these children also bore the names Joseph or Mary or John. We had no idea how – or even if – this was done. That was the missionaries’ job. Ours was to finance the operation. And so we did.
Now here, seventy years later on a local train rolling through the Italian countryside, an apparently proud and confident African woman fervently declares the dangers of accepting any way of life or belief that differs from the path she is walking–the very message preached by those white missionaries who convinced her ancestors to give up their traditional beliefs and practices and follow the example of Jesus more than a generation ago. She represented what, I imagine, the missionaries had in mind when they set out to convert the continent of Africa. They’d have been so proud of her.
All three of these women announced themselves by their manner of dress. The African woman’s dress did not reveal her religious affiliation but it did proclaim her difference from those others in the train car, as did the clothing of the two women who were the focus of her attention throughout her harangue. It gave the missionary a focus, a target for the expression of her passionate beliefs. I took refuge in the anonymity provided by my own clothing, not dissimilar from that of the rest of the passengers. I do not share the beliefs manifested by this proselytizer and am relieved she did not choose to direct her excoriation at me. I am not confident enough in Italian to have countered her arguments. I remember trying to do that in English many years ago with a religious zealot who’d wandered onto our front porch in Maine. “Sword against steel!” she’d railed at me as I attempted to pick away at her arguments. I was in effect sharpening her beliefs by countering them. Not what I had in mind. So if I couldn’t manage it in English I’d have had no chance in Italian. No, this was a situation where keeping my mouth shut was called for.
The train arrives in Rignano Flaminio. My son is there at the station to pick me up. “How was your day?” he asks. A simple and reasonable question. It takes me a few beats to answer. “Well, which story would you like first: 1) the handicap of having a faulty sense of direction and its impact on orientation in a large, ancient, complex city built out from the center thousands of years ago, or 2) the nature and manifestations of religious fanaticism and the effectiveness of passive resistance on silencing the oppressor, or 3) the toll on self-efficacy of a continual effort to accomplish and failure to meet a simple goal that in the end turned out to be insurmountable.
“Oh, that kind of day! Mom, I think you need a glass of wine.”