They surrounded me, these scruffy looking dark-skinned kids, their mouths jabbering in a language I didn’t understand. This was Rome, Italy on a sunny morning in August, about 9 AM and they weren’t speaking Italian.
What were they yammering about and why were they advancing towards me? I counted five kids, small and seemingly innocuous. Then the realization hit me: these were the notorious gypsy kids of Rome! I felt calm, but on guard.
David, the assistant cruise director on the cruiseship I was on at the time, the Costa Classica, had his back turned towards me. He was a couple of yards away, mighty excited and distracted. It was his first time in Rome and he was madly clicking his camera at the ruined hulk of the Colosseum. He did not see whatever impending drama was going to ensue between me and these urchins.
From where I stood I saw several tourists in the distance wandering about or being sweet-talked by fake Roman soldiers. The arch of Constantine beckoned nearby, inviting me to walk into the ruins of the Roman forum up ahead. The splendors of Rome this warm, sunny summer morning would have to wait for the resolution of my encounter with my Lilliputian attackers.
One kid, still murmuring in his gypsy tongue, started pawing at my wristwatch. As far as timepieces went, this was a cheap watch, a Casio. All the same, I was outraged by his action, and reflexively swatted his hand away with the thick “Let’s Go Europe!”guidebook I had been lugging around.
He stopped for a moment, as if considering what to do next, His companions raised their eyebrows at me and then at him. He seemed to be their leader. He pursed his lips, then with a scowl he turned to go away. His gang followed him. I had thwarted my own mugging in the shadow of the Colosseum!
At that moment David turned around. I called him over.
“Did you see that? Did you see that? “ I cried out to him.
“What?’ he asked.
“Those kids tried to mug me,! They tried to steal my watch!”
“Oh,”said David. “I didn’t notice.”
His nonchalance crushed me.
“I could have been killed!”
“Sorry to hear that,” said David with an apologetic voice. Then, quickly recovering, he enthused: ” Man, this is a great place! I love Rome!”
Who doesn’t? I said to myself, slightly disappointed with his lack of empathy.
Much later, after visiting the Roman forum and the Piazza Navona, we went to the Fontana di Trevi. There, a pair of heavily-painted girls who could not have aged more than ten years between the two of them stalked us. They followed us down a street, into a store that sold crap Roman souvenirs, to a pizza parlor across from the fountain. We sat down and ordered a pizza and beer. The waiter shooed the girls away. He seemed to know them. We breathed a sigh of relief. I was annoyed. David, found it amusing.
“What’s with those gypsies?” asked David. Americans are so guileless, I thought.
“Oh,” I said in my most know-it-all voice.”I’ve read that they’ll try to get you interested in them, and at a certain point in time, they’ll shout all sort of accusations at you and try to get you to give them money to keep them quiet. They probably have their brothers and uncles and cousins lurking nearby ready to wallop the liras out of our pockets."
On the other hand, because the area was pretty crowded, perhaps they were more into picking our pockets. That wouldn’t have worked as well, because I noticed them before they could do their dirty work. Ah, the perils of Rome!
To ensure our continued safety and eventual return to the Eternal City, we threw a couple of coins (pre-Euro) into the waters of the fountain, our backs to the cascades tumbling among the ornate marble statuary of Nicola Salvi’s baroque creation, the endpoint of an aqueduct that brought water to Rome.
On reflection, it was a fun day, more fun than when I went barreling through an interminable corridor in the Vatican Museum to spend one minute craning my neck to catch a bleary-eyed glimpse of Michaelangelo’s painted celing. I love Michaelangelo, but at that moment I felt like a cow being herded into an ornate hall with other cows ( albeit discerning ones).
The next time I am in the Sistine Chapel, I promised myself, it has to be when the pope is saying Gregorian mass, in full papal regalia, fragrant incense wafting up to the barely-touching fingers of Adam and God, and no fellow tourists jostling for a view.
“I was nearly mugged by little gypsy bandits in the shadow of the Colosseum!”
Sounds more exciting and event-filled.
Said it a couple of times.