So there I was, 20 years old, decades before the age of cell phones and GPS's, lost in Rome at night and scared to death.
Now granted, if I'd been a little older and a little savvier and a little less hung up on every dollar (or franc or lira) I spent I'd have thought to look for a taxi. However the thought of a taxi never even occured to me. In fact I was so worried about myself that it wasn't until much later that I stopped to wonder about how my new friend Tina got back to her hotel. But in retrospect, I'll bet she just found herself a taxi. I know she was a much smarter cookie than I.
So I did the only thing I could think of to do, which was to stand under a street light and stare at my map and try not to cry.
Then a nice-looking woman holding the hand of a little girl came up to me. I couldn't understand what she was asking me but I figured from her concerned look that she must be offering me help. I tried telling her in English then in French that I was lost, though I'm sure that much must have been obvious from the map in my hand and the distress on my face.
I pointed to the location on my map of the hostel where I was staying and said, "autobus", one of my few Italian words. She knew what I meant, and so thankful was I that she did that I started using my two other Italian words, molte grazie. ("Thank you very much")
Soon there were a few more people standing around me looking at my map discussing with the woman which bus I should take to get back to my hostel, while I interjected the conversation once in a while with a molte grazie. A couple of men seemed to know where I needed to go so the woman who'd first helped me indicated that I should follow them.
Of course I had no idea whether they were taking me to a bus stop or an opium den, but I followed and molte grazie'd them until we did, in fact, arrive at a bus stop, much to my relief.
There were a few other people waiting at the stop and, bucket-brigade fashion, the two men next passed me on to that group and handed them my map and showed them where on the map I needed to end up. "Molte grazie," said I.
When the bus arrived they showed me and my map to the bus driver, who studied the map and nodded yes. My heart rejoiced. You know what I said.
Finally my map was returned to me by the bus driver but as soon as I sat down the passengers sitting across from me who'd witnessed the commotion of my entrance wanted to see my map and know where I was going. I gladly handed them my map and pointed to the hostel, said "molte grazie" then sat down while they looked over my map and discussed whatever it was they were discussing. Finally they handed me back my map and nodded with a smile, which I returned, overflowing as I was with gratitude, relief, and molte grazie’s all aroun.
Though earlier I was as frightened as I'd ever been in my life, now I was as relieved as I'd ever been.
When we reached my stop the driver kept going and instead stopped the bus right in front of the hostel, I suppose to keep me from getting lost again. And though it wasn't a scheduled stop nobody seemed to mind. Now I felt like crying from thankfulness to this bus full of kind strangers.
I no longer recall if during this trip every single exchange I had with an Italian was a positive one. In fact, now that I think of it, there was that time in Florence when a waiter in a restaurant tried to scam me on a bill and our tour bus driver, Michel, caused a commotion over it and physically threatened the dishonest waiter. I was scared a fight would break out and someone would call the police but instead the waiter fixed the bill and afterwards Michel laughed and said, “J’adore faire chier.” (“I love to make people s**t themselves”).
I’m sure if I really tried I might even be able to dredge up a few more inauspicious moments from that trip, or maybe from my second visit to that country a few years later.
But in truth, when I think of Italy and the Italians my first, clearest and dearest memory is of the time when I was a frightened young stranger in a strange land and of the kindness of the people who rescued me.
[Though I also still remember how much fun I had on that low-budget student bus tour forty-three years ago ;) ].