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By Judith Works
One evening after I finished the last of the Italian expat stories stacked up on my bedside table I said to myself: “No one has had my experiences. They all write about vineyards and old farmhouses. I lived in Rome.” So the next morning after I poured a second cup of coffee I sat down in front of my laptop. The screen was blank and so was my mind until I thought back to that first day in our Roman apartment when I could hear my husband screaming “Stop that!” I had rushed into an empty room to see him hanging out the window yelling at a group of nuns who were dumping garbage behind our apartment. Well… yes, it seemed that there was a story to tell. No rural idyll, but the story of life in Rome and a job working for the United Nations. A story with plenty of weird adventures (like falling in the subway and getting arrested by the carabinieri) and wonderful times eating, drinking and laughing with new friends. A story of traveling around Italy and even travel to some of the places the UN works to provide humanitarian assistance. A story of running away in middle age to join the circus (the Circus Maximus in Rome, that is).
As a lawyer I spent my career writing in dull passive legalese. To tell a story I had to change my thought process entirely – become a story-teller instead of an arguer trying to prove some arcane point. That was a challenge. Another challenge was to shape the story. My husband and I had two stays in Rome, the first for four years and the second for over six. Should I deal with one or throw them both in; did my husband mind having stories told about him; how should I depict some of our more exotic friends and acquaintances? Should I talk about the difficult times or only write about the best? Should I begin at the beginning or at the end and look backward?
It took well over a year to get the stories down and more time to get rid of the ones that were uninteresting. Then I had to overcome the trepidation attendant with showing the work to anyone. So I started with my husband. As he read along he would say, “No, that’s not the way it was – it happened like…” Discussion followed. Who was right? Each problem was settled until I showed it to my daughter who knows Rome well. She would say, “But you forgot…” More revisions!
Now it was time for a critique group. Every other Monday we went at it. “I don’t understand this?” “What do you mean by that?” Or, best, “Yes, that’s exactly the Rome I saw.”
Finally I had a completed manuscript. It told the story of an important period in my life and marked the exciting finale of my working career – a summing up one might say. I had clarified some events and contemplated the meaning of others to reflect on the meaning of it all.
Being an unknown author, I decided to take a chance and just put the book on Amazon for e-readers, a decision I have not regretted. Readers and travelers love Italy for good reason. With the ability to price the book at a modest level I have attracted many more readers than I could have hoped for, earned many new friends who have written me about their own Italian dreams and adventures.
About Coins in the Fountain
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Coins in the Fountain:
“Hey! What are you doing? STOP that!!”
I sprang up from the floor where I was lounging on a deflated air mattress and rushed into what was supposed to be our dining room in the echoing, still-empty apartment. Why was Glenn shouting? I found the answer when I saw my normally mild mannered husband hanging out the window yelling at a group of nuns in their crisp black and white habits as they dumped wheelbarrows filled with garbage onto the open space behind our building. They looked up briefly. Then, paying no further attention to the outraged foreigner, they finished their work and swished off toward an unseen convent.
It was Saturday morning. To our great surprise, I had gone to work for a branch of the United Nations a month earlier. We stayed in a hotel on the Aventine Hill for the first two weeks after our arrival in Rome and then in a new colleague’s apartment for another two weeks while he was back in California. Now, at the unsettled beginning of the second month of a planned four-year stay we were tired and cranky from sleeping on the living room floor on a bed of flattened cardboard cartons that originally held an air mattress, a few dishes, pots and pans, two folding chairs, an old card table and some clothes. These items comprised our air shipment, meant to tide us over until the shipping container arrived by sea a couple of months later. The air mattress we hoped to use over the cardboard had slowly and irreparably deflated, paralleling our naïve enthusiasm for the whole adventure of a move to romantic Italy.
We had been desperate to find a home. The hotel was expensive and my settlement allowance was running out. The American Embassy located apartments for its staff, but my new office offered no assistance. The rental agents we contacted from newspaper ads had nothing satisfactory to offer, nor did the few ads on an office bulletin board. Word of mouth eventually led us to another agent, a disagreeable American who made her living finding apartments for greenhorns like us with minimum effort on her part. She insisted that we take the bus to the apartments she suggested, leaving us scrambling to find buildings in unfamiliar locations and waiting until she drove up at her leisure and parked her car on the sidewalk. Worse, after she signed us up we began to hear stories that circulated in the gossipy expatriate community that was welcoming us. One story in particular made us especially cautious about the woman: Several years before our arrival Marge invited a client for lunch at her own apartment that was filled with cats and their untended litter boxes. After a microwaved meal of Fettuccine Alfredo, she announced that she had an appointment and left, locking him inside. He was trapped with the cats. After waiting an hour, he managed to signal a neighbor on an adjoining balcony who reluctantly let him climb over the railings to escape an unknown fate.
We weren’t subjected to such dramatic events but then Marge hadn’t shown us anything livable either with her numerous dark and dilapidated suggestions. At the point when we were getting agitated she finally produced an attractive solution that we later heard was yet another apartment where she had resided. Our proposed new home had large windows on both long sides of one wing of a small building…. Best of all, there were two balconies on one side and a sunny terrace opening off the master bedroom and living room on the other. The outdoor spaces were the real attraction for migrants from our cloudy home near Portland, Oregon…
Early fall, it was still hot. I tried to focus on a remark by the ancient Roman orator Seneca: “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Well, I always wanted to have a change of place, and now my wish came true. But sometimes mental exhaustion was a more common sensation than new vigor as my brain tried to get organized to meet the dramatic change in my life.
Our nights were spent lying awake on the floor contemplating my job, the antics of the nuns and the difficulties of getting settled. Packs of incessantly barking dogs left behind when their owners went on vacation provided a background to our thoughts. Adding to the noise, eerie sirens like those in World War II movies split the night air. We squirmed on the flat, sweaty air mattress while considering our decision-making skills – deciding to leave secure jobs for a flight into fantasy. Mamma mia! What had we done to ourselves?
About the Author
Life was routine until mid-life when the author decided to get a law degree. After graduation a chance meeting led her to run away to the Circus (Maximus) – actually to the United Nations office next door – where she worked as an attorney and entered the world of expat life in Rome. Now retired, she continues to travel, having fitted in over 100 countries in between many journeys to Italy where she always tosses a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure another visit. While her suitcase is cooling off she writes for several on-line magazines, blogs, and volunteers for arts and literary organizations. She has just completed a novel about expatriates set in Rome.