Lost at the Vatican

Judy S. Richardson

In April of 2008, I boarded a plane in Skopje, Macedonia along with 24 other tourists – all native speakers – who had booked a tour to Rome. I wasn’t concerned that I spoke very little Macedonian, although I did know how to say “zdravo/hello,” and “blagodaram/thank you.” After all, I had managed reasonably well for several months in the Balkan country while teaching English Foreign Language courses there. Most people in the small Balkan country knew some English and wanted to practice speaking it with me. And I assumed that, once we arrived in Rome, surely everyone there would speak English.

On the plane, I sat by myself, perusing my Lozzi Roma Rome and the Vatican Guide, unconcerned that I couldn’t understand a word my companions spoke. They didn't know me as yet, but once they did, we would surely converse in English.  Arrogance and assumptions often go hand in hand with American travelers.

After landing, we boarded a bus to a Parco de 'Medici Hotel Residence, nearer to the airport than the city. We were staying wayoutside the city, about a forty-minute journey into the city of Rome. Built in a cylindrical shape, the building reminded me of theColosseum. After signing in, the clerk gave me a key and said a curt “first floor, right down the hall” in English. Irina, the tour guide, was also given a room on the first floor. These were singles, designed for the disabled, with wide spaces and roll-in showers. If I had owned a wheelchair – or even roller skates – I could have zoomed around in the vast area. The bathroom was almost as large as the room itself, with an immense shower.

When I had freshened up, I went to the lobby to meet the group for dinner. Irina was at the front desk complaining in English (the universal language) that her room had no “tube.” The clerk looked at her, more bored than puzzled.

“I think she means tub,” I explained.

He responded in Italian with what sounded much like an obscenity. It was clear to me that, although he knew enough English to have greeted me at check-in, he wouldn’t speak any more of that language than he had to, and certainly not to this Macedonian woman.

As we tourists trooped along to a restaurant not too far away, Irina chatted with me about how much she had looked forward to a long soak in her tube. I didn't correct her but wondered just how proficient in English she really was.

The group ordered several pizzas. They requested ketchup, to my mortification. In Macedonia, many do squirt ketchup on pizza, but in Rome? The waiter grimaced but brought the bottle.

***

The next morning, April 25, on the first full day of touring, I scribbled rushed notes as we traveled into the city, just in case I ever got separated from the group in this unfamiliar territory. We walked 2 kilometers to the Muratella train stop, then traveled four stops to Trastevere and transferred to a blue line (Parcheggio) to arrive at the Roma Termini. Thank goodness that, although every sign was written only in Italian, icons are universal.

“take train 4 stops to where you see T”;” “blue P;” Colosseo; Cavour; follow everyone walking to exit.”

At the final train stop, on the edge of Rome at Stazione Centrale Roma Termini, taxis and buses were lined up along the U-shaped entrance. Wow, I thought, what a lot of Hop-On Hop-Offbuses. When weboarded our reserved bus for the day’s excursion, we were welcomed by a Macedonian guide, which delighted every one but me. Why had I expected that our guide would be speaking English to a Macedonian tour group? I tried following her commentary by referring to my travel book at each sight we came to: Via Veneto, square Espagna, square Venecia, the Roman Forum, and Via del Corso. However, by the time I had found the information and matched it to the picture of what we had just seen, we were on the way to the next place.

The guide had lost me completely.However, at theColosseum, where we stood on a hill above but did not enter (that was an extra charge during our free time), she noticed my bewilderment. At the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, as I gazed at Michelangelo’s Moses, she sat me down and gave me a whirlwind translation of where we had been. I appreciated her thoughtfulness very much, but so much information provided so quickly in Slavic-accented English made my brain hurt.

Thank goodness our next stop was Trevi Fountain, where we enjoyed Salvi’s marvelous architecture, the fountain spilling into its large pool, and the lovely breeze spritzing us with cool water. Afterward, we all stood in line for a delicious cone of ice cream exorbitantly overpriced. Smiling, we all climbed aboard for the trip back.

When we returned to the train station, I pulled out my rumpled notes, double-checking as we walked in reverse, and adding details. Back in my hotel room, I fell on the bed in a jumbled state of exhaustion. Although I had seen a lot of Rome today, I hadn’t understood much. I admitted to myself that I should have taken time to learn a bit more Macedonian in the previous months, as well as memorized some phrases in Italian.

Early on the Saturday morning of April 26, the day before Orthodox Easter, we visited theVatican. I rented headphones with English audio. What bliss to walk through gardens hearing my own language, one eye on my group but independent of them. We were now on our third day of the tour, although no one but Irina had yet said anything to me.

Before we went to the Sistine Chapel, we made a bathroom stop. The other women pushed into the small bathroom, oblivious to an orderly line and eager to use one of the four stalls. I was last to a toilet and last out; everyone else had gone on. Panicked, I rushed to find them. I hardly glanced at the beauty of the halls. When I arrived in the Sistine Chapel, I walked all around, barely paying attention to Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. My heart beat very fast. I did not see any familiar faces. No one called to me. For once, I longed for a Macedonian voice. They had left me. I was lost.

There are many exits from theVatican. I chose the first one I found. Surely someone would have recognized a group of 24 Macedonians leaving. Ha! The guard, who tried his best to understand me, suggested that I should leave theVaticanand walk down the street to St. Peter’s Square, “A five-minute walk.”

The sun beat down, very hot by now. I was sweaty when I reached the courtyard twenty-five minutes later. I stared at the immensity of the placeand the herds of visitors. I wove through crowds, trying to determine where the line ended, but it looped on and on. I peered at faces, squinting into the sun, trying to find anyone in my group. They were nowhere.

I asked two policemen for help; they understood the gist of my plight and pointed me to an information booth. The woman behind the counter shrugged. People get lost all the time at St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Do you know name your hotel?” she asked me in passable English.

“Not exactly. But I have the address.” Fortunately, the paper I had been using to plot my route was hotel stationery.

“Then you take taxi back there.”

“How much should that cost?”

She looked at the address and shook her head. “Very far. Maybe 35 euro.”

I gulped. I had brought only 10 euros with me; we had been told to keep very little cash because of pickpockets.

“Will a taxi driver take a credit card?”

“Some, maybe, but that will cost more. Better to find an ATM.”

In 2008, many taxis were not equipped to take credit cards; also, I had been warned about ATMs in Rome. I wanted to call Irina, but my cell phone – a cheap Macedonian edition – was of no use because it didn’t work out of the country. Feeling incompetent and stupid, I asked if I could use the phone I had spotted in the information booth. The attendant’s stare reminded me of our hotel clerk’s. She shook her head, muttered an Italian phrase I didn't need a translation for and handed it to me.

Irina’s number rang and rang. Apparently, her phone service did not include international access either. Since Irina hadn’t given us any other emergency number, I was stymied. I thanked the woman, who didn’t hear me as she had moved on to another customer.

For a few minutes, I slumped on a bench staring at the crowds, envious that they were enjoying their visit. I glanced at my watch: 1 PM. Well, I had choices here: I could sit and hope; panic and cry; wait for a solution to "come to me" or…

I sat straighter and decided that I would not waste this day. SinceI couldn’t be any more lost, I would get back in line and visit St. Peter’s. Maybe I would find my group. If not, then I had the hotel address and would risk using my credit card. Thirty-five euro was pretty steep, but being lost in Rome all night wasn’t appealing either.

After waiting in line for two hours, always looking for my group, I finally got inside and forgot to be lost. There was too much to see. I went everywhere allowed until I got in line to ascend to the dome – a line as long as the one to get in. After I had waited 30 minutes, shuffling only steps closer to the steps that I would have to climb to the very top, I decided my now-wobbly legs had been standing long enough.

Sweaty and exhausted, I stood at a balcony, looking over the Basilica Square. Across the plaza, I saw bright red buses: the Hop-On Hop-Offsthat drive passengers all around Rome and stop last at the termini. Almost light-headed, I scrambled down to the square and wove my way through the crowds still waiting to get into theBasilica. I boarded a bus that promised headphones in English. The cost was 10 euros. Sitting at an open window, a breeze blessing my face, I saw most of the sights I had passed yesterday.This time, Ilearned about them in English. I became almost calm as the bus headed toward the train station and the end of my nightmare.

When I stepped off the bus, I pulled out my notes and walked towards the track I needed. My landmarks came into view. With each one, I brightened, letting out long-held breaths. Finally, almost 40 minutes later, I arrived at the platform at Muratella and staggered back along the dirt path to the hotel. The clerk who had sworn at Irina about her “tube” looked up and nodded.

“They are looking for you.”

I turned around to see several of my group lounging in the common area. When they recognized me, they jumped up and ran to hug me.

"You're here! We were so worried!"

Until I got into my room, from which I did not budge until morning, it didn’t occur to me that they had been speaking English.

***

The next day, Orthodox Easter, I entered the breakfast room and walked toward an empty table. “No, come sit here!” A familyin our tour group invited me to join them. They handed me a boiled egg: red, decorated in an elaborate pattern. We toasted to Easter by cracking eggs, an Orthodox tradition.

I was officially part of the group now. It turns out that everyone could speak some English but didn’t want to be embarrassed by mispronouncing a word. I have a suspicion they were also checking me out. Apparently, I had now passed their test.

When we walked in the Ville D’estin Tivoli that day, I noticed surreptitious glances in my direction. If I wandered a bit far from the group, someone broke off and followed behind me. One woman offered to take my picture in the gardens, probably so she could show the polizia, in case Igot lost again.

Now, when I travel, I always have a backup plan that includes a reasonable amount of cash stashed somewhere hard to reach on my body, a notebook and pencil, and a map. Oh yes, and a phrasebook in the language of the country I am visiting.


About the Author

Judy S. Richardson lives in Richmond, Virginia. As a professor of Education, she wrote numerous articles for academic journals as well as three textbooks. She received the Virginia Commonwealth University Award of Excellence, the Association of Literacy Educators & Researchers Laureate Award, and two Fulbright Scholar awards. The professional articles she enjoyed writing most were in narrative style, so she could focus on the story behind the research. Currently, she is writing short stories, memoir, and fiction. She has been published in The Penmen Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and Persimmon Tree.