Tuesday, September 30, 2008


We went on the overnight train to Rome. I told Olivier that’s how we were getting there, two days before we were leaving, and his exact words were: Ooh la la. Les trains italiens. Ooh la la. I don’t think I need to translate, do I?

But taking the overnight train to Italy: that was something that we had talked about from the get go, from the moment that L called me up and said they were moving to Paris, and I hung up and told C, and C said, well, we could go, too. (There are other, more official, stories floating around out there, but that’s the way I remember it.) We got out the maps, and C said, look, from there, we could take the train to Rome for the weekend. It’s not that we really especially wanted to go to Rome; we didn’t. It was the idea of it, the idea of boarding a train at night in a French city and getting off it in the morning in an Italian one. I think that taking the night train to Rome was one of the things that got us over here—through all the hurdles of making C’s transfer work, leaving my job, renting the house, selling the cars, preparing the children—it was the sense that if we could just pull all those things off, if we could just believe that we could pull all those things off, then we could have the kind of life that would contain such adventures.

So we decided we would go over E and G’s vacances de printemps. We asked people who knew Rome and two who didn’t even know each other recommended the same place to stay: the guesthouse of the Convent of Saint Bridget, on the Piazza Farnese. We took that as karmic instruction and made our reservations; once we got the neatly typed and hand-signed letter of confirmation back from the nun in charge of guests, we booked the train. Nice to Rome, departing Nice at 9.45 p.m., arriving Rome at 9.15 a.m. We had to go to the local gare to buy the tickets because, not so surprisingly, the French trains website and the Italian trains website did not get on well enough together to allow us to purchase tickets for a train that would go between the countries. Our hopes for the agent at the train station down the hill from the Collège des Vignes were not high, either. We have stood in enough lines in front of the guichets of French fonctionnaires to have adjusted our expectations.

We walked in, though, after lunch one day, and right up to the window. An agent appeared; we told her where we wished to go and when; she sold us the tickets. Real paper tickets in a special ticket envelope. For a moment after I put them away in my purse we felt almost dizzy: here we were, in France, buying tickets for the overnight train to Rome. Just what we had talked about doing.

And then everyone’s reaction was the same as Olivier’s: Ooh la la, Italian trains. They didn’t say a lot more than that—several did do that thing that French people do with their hand, when they hold it parallel to their waist or hips, palm facing in, and shake it up and down loosely, like they’ve just picked up a pot lid they didn’t realize had been on the stove. It means, idiomatically translated: Mmmph. Hmmph. As in, That’s a lot to manage. Or, Man, that’s tough. Or, Ooh la la, Italian trains. Once again, we adjusted our expectations. We did not expect to bump into Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint in the corridor. We took along some antibacterial disinfectant.

It wasn’t bad, though. The train station in Nice was no darker or less glamorous than usual, and the train was at the platform when we arrived. We found our cabin—four bunks; shrink-wrapped blankets and pillows (the shrink wrapping was a nice touch); a room-darkening shade on the window; a working lock. The bathroom down the hall was no worse than you would have imagined. In fact, it wasn’t as bad as you might have begun to imagine along about the fourth time someone did the hand shaking gesture. And the train left on time.

We watched as Nice and Monaco rolled by, and then as we crossed the border into Italy (alas, no agents came to check our passports) we all peered out to see some sign of cultural difference. A train station in this part of the world, though, is pretty much a train station, so after a few more rolled by we pulled down the shade and went to sleep. The girls went to sleep, that is. C and I just laid very still so as not to wake the other one and, eventually, dozed off into parental half-sleep. At four in the morning, we stopped at a station and I woke and lifted the shade a little: the sign opposite my window said Pisa. I laughed a little. We were passing through Pisa, on our way to Rome. Here we were. Now.

A few hours later we pulled into the capital. The train station was beautiful, swooping arcs of light and space, and the wonderful mysterious sounds of a foreign city: the sequence of chords that announces an announcement, voices calling eagerly to each other in sentences I could not split apart into words, luggage trolleys and the clink of spoons on porcelain in the cafés. We walked out and into a taxi, and the taxi drove us through busy streets of shops and fountains and tourists and signs and locals taking their children to school and priests in their collars and nuns in their habits to the Piazza Farnese and the Convent of Saint Bridget. We were in our hotel by 10 o’clock.

The Sisters wore full length grey habits and black veils, plain wooden crosses on a long black cord around their necks. The white wimples around their faces had a red Swedish cross on the forehead, the sign of their order with its Swedish founder. They moved up and down the corridors softly, and when we met them they stepped aside and gave us shy smiles. The building was half convent, half hotel, all clean. I’m not terribly preoccupied with cleanliness, but I have stayed in enough hotels that were—well, let’s leave it at not as clean as this was. It smelled of incense and furniture polish and capers, and I think the capers may have been my nose’s interpretation of vinegar. Our room consisted of: a foyer, with a towering carved armoire; a large tiled bathroom to one side of the foyer; and, to the other side, a bedroom and then, past the bedroom, a smaller room with two cots for E and G, and two casement windows that looked out over the Piazza. On the walls were framed bits of needlepoint showing Saint Bridget reading and writing, and the Holy Family, and then, I think, a sampler or two. The tables all had hand-made lace doilies. The furniture was solid, not hotel-issue—the sort of furniture you would imagine finding in a family home that has been lived in for decades and by successive generations, where the side table is the one that Aunt Sophie got from her first husband’s mother, the one whose brother was a cabinet maker. It radiated a sense of place. As the week went on, we felt none of the dislocation that we commonly feel, that I think everyone feels, in an anonymous hotel in a strange city where you don’t speak the language and are far from home. We felt like we were part of the city, part of the life of the city. In the breakfast room each morning we saw priests who were staying with the Sisters while they were in Rome on business; one morning, there was a table full of Austrians on pilgrimage; every morning, an elderly lady from Siena who spent the month of April with the nuns every year. And we were there, too, part of the tablescape: the American family with the lovely daughters (it’s my story, I can say it if I want to), in Rome to see the sights.

One afternoon C had gone for a run and the girls and I were setting out for a walk when we saw that the door to Saint Bridget’s chapel was open. The convent is built around the house that Bridget lived in when she was in Rome in the 1300s. She was a Swedish noblewoman, married off at a young age, who, after bearing eight children, took up the religious life for which she had, so the story goes, always longed. Revered for her piety, she became one of the King of Sweden’s most powerful advisors until she gave him some bad advice. Then she heard the call to Rome and she went there—not by overnight train, but on horseback—and spent the next thirty years, until her death, setting up her own religious order, the Brigittines, and telling the Pope what she thought of his policies. Her room, now a chapel, is at the heart of the Brigittines’ house in Rome.

A young Swedish sister who spoke perfect English took us into the chapel in all its Gothic Revival glory and told us the story of Saint Bridget. It was a small room, as you might imagine a 14th-century nun’s room would have been, but it was decorated to the teeth. We looked around at the painted ceiling, the carved wood, the backlit 19th-century stained glass. The Sister led us to one side of the room where, hanging low on the wall, was a long piece of wood a couple of feet wide, framed in ornate gold, and resting against lace and velvet. We all squatted down to look more closely, and the Sister explained that this had been the Saint’s work table and her bed; that it was on this table that she had died. We nodded and stood up. The Sister showed us a smaller reliquary, even more ornate, on the shelf above the table. This, she said, was Bridget’s hip bone. We must have looked a little confused, or she must have had a moment of uncertainty about her English, because, to make her meaning clear, she put out a hand and, timidly, patted E’s hip. There, she said.

To her credit, E did not flinch, but her eyes got big and round, and so did her sister’s. So did mine, I imagine. I told C about it later that night, seeing the Saint’s relics with the girls and the Sister. I’ve thought about it more than once since, replayed the moment in my head, the nun timidly but also, yes, a little playfully, reaching out to E. It was so profoundly strange—the hip bone in the golden box—and so profoundly human—the reaching for connection. From Saint Bridget’s room we went on to the chapel of her daughter, Saint Catherine, who came to Rome and saw to it that her mother was started on the road to canonization. When our tour was over, I thanked the young sister and we went out for our walk. The rest of the week, though, when we met her in the corridor, or saw her at the reception desk or in the dining room, she made a point of speaking to us. A few times I caught her watching G and E as they ate their breakfast, and when she saw that she had been seen, she dipped her head a little at me, and smiled. When we left to come home, she came outside and loaded us into the taxi and shook hands all around. We slid away from the convent in the early morning drizzle and I glanced back to see her still standing, her hand on the door, looking after us. I leaned back against the seat and thought: this is what it’s like to have the kind of life we wanted.

1 comment:

  1. I've long wondered how to describe that particular gesture that the French (mostly women from my experience)use so often...picking up a hot pan lid is perfect.