I stood in front of the Galleria Borghese, my eyes darting between three lines that seemed to snake for equally infinite distances through the elaborate Baroque gardens before the villa, trying to decide which to join. It was Museum Night in Rome: the single night of the year when all of its fabled attractions are open to the public, and at 8:00 P.M., when the evening began, the most famous sights were mobbed. It was also my first night in Rome, the beginning of a solo backpacking adventure I had planned through Italy and Spain, and I gloated a little that I had discovered such a budget-friendly way to take in its greatest works of art.
What I hadn’t discovered, unfortunately, was that anyone who wanted to take advantage of the city’s offer had needed to make a reservation: no one could even buy tickets for another week, someone told me when I finally joined one of the lines.
I deflated. All the strain of my journey finally hit me, and I shrank two inches as its weight slumped my shoulders. So far, I had traveled for three hours from the airport to my hostel, using a delayed bus and a re-routed metro line; met the receptionist, who had flirted with me in a shameless way that I had already learned was an Italian trademark, and made me grateful I was only staying for two nights; and trekked through the streets of the city trying to identify famous landmarks like the Trevi Fountain, only to realize that my map was useless (streets here had one name on the first block and then, abruptly, a new one at the next corner) and to consequently get hopelessly lost. And now I was standing in a line that wouldn’t get me anywhere.
Just as I was turning to leave, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Avete prenotato?” It was a small girl with long dark hair and a round face, and she looked concerned.
Most of my Italian had been learned from Sophia Loren movies and a few half-hearted attempts to study an iTunes podcast, but using my high school Spanish and an Italian accent I managed to convey that, no, I was an idiot and had not realized that the museum might maybe be kind of sort of busy tonight.
“Con me,” she said, smiling and beckoning me forward.
“Che?” I asked.
She had an extra space on her reservation, I learned, for a friend who hadn’t been able to come. And then we were sweeping past the lines and into the entrance hall, where she speedily procured our tickets, relieved me of my bag at the coat room, and led me past the ranks of disappointed tourists and up the monumental steps.
“Sei la guida, no?” the security guard asked her as she shepherded me inside. She shook her head and laughed, but I nodded in agreement. She definitely was my guide.
I spent the next two hours wending my way through rooms gilded in gold and ringed with moldings and cornices so ornate I couldn’t imagine how anyone had ever cleaned them. I had to keep reminding myself to look up, because the ceilings were covered in frescoes as beautiful as any of the paintings that hung on the walls. I saw more sculptures by Bernini than I’d ever read about in my art history textbooks. I marveled at the wealth of a family that had commanded the resources to commission all these works and fill their home with such opulent beauty. Maria – the girl who had rescued me – her boyfriend Anthony, and their friends Luisa and Carlo walked with me the whole way, glancing over for my reaction at each new piece.
“Bellissimo,” I kept saying. “Bellissimo!”
We weren’t able to communicate well, but I did my best. The girls were studying to be dentists, and Maria was originally from Ecuador. They had met the boys at a party a few weeks ago. They didn’t know much about art, but they loved it. I just kept smiling and nodding and saying “bellissimo!” I didn’t mind the language barrier much until we reached the exit and I couldn’t express how deeply grateful I was for the favor they had done me. The art in the museum was beautiful, but Maria’s smile and chatter had left a far greater impression.
“Si figuri!” Maria said. Forget it, it’s nothing!
But I wouldn’t forget it, and it wasn’t nothing. I was sure, now, that as long as there were strangers in Rome with such warmth and kindness, my trip couldn’t end in disaster. I walked back to my hostel in the dark, passing Italians beginning their evening meals at street side tables lit with candles. And I didn’t get lost once.
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