Tuesday, 28 June 2016

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Without doubt as soon as someone discovers my name – usually whilst travelling abroad – they will quote this famous line. They always think they are being terribly clever and original and just can’t help themselves, giving me a nudge or a grin, as they loudly proffer – and often misquote – the Bard’s poetic words. Whether I am holidaying in Vietnam, India or Rome, people smile when I introduce myself.

Being christened Juliet (after an actress friend of my parents, rather than the Shakespearian heroine) has its ups and downs. The benefit of the having a famous name is that it is a conversation starter, the downside is that everyone either asks me where Romeo is, or indeed, if I have found my Romeo yet. When I was studying in America I actually met a Romeo. He is still the only Romeo I have ever met and was introduced to me by a very excited friend at a ‘Eurofag’ party. They were called ‘Eurofag’ parties by our American male student friends, who believed that all European students were gay and listened to gay music... this was the late 80’s after all. In fact, most of the so-called Europeans were from everywhere else in the world, but Europe, and gay or not, the boys were better looking, better dressed and had much better taste in music than their US counterparts. Instead of drinking cheap gassy beer from kegs (a staple of the American frat party), we were offered cocktails, we danced sexy lambada and salsa instead of head-banging to hard rock, and they had names like Romeo and Rafael, instead of Blaine and Cole... preppy boys names that, to me, always sounded like an upmarket Deli chain!

“Everyone,” my friend exclaimed loudly, smooshing Romeo’s face and mine together, “We’ve actually got a bonafide Romeo and Juliet here, it’s soooooo exciting!” Everyone at the party turned to look at us as we awkwardly kissed cheeks. It was my first double kiss too, mwah, mwah, and I thought it was terribly sophisticated. I learnt he was from South America and that he was studying at Brown University (the Ivy league school next to our art college RISD) and that was about it. I apologise for not being more specific and possessing no more facts about Romeo, but I soon discovered he was rather inebriated, the music was excruciatingly loud and he had a very strong accent, so that was as much a CV as I could gather from him. Instead of awkward conversation and sign language, he did what most 19 year-old Latin males would do in a similar situation... he pulled me towards him for a slow dance. A slow dance to a very high energy, techno-pop number. It was awful. We couldn’t get in sync at all and gyrated against each other as best we could. Safe to say, apart from the friction of our clothing, we had absolutely no chemistry, nothing in common and by the end of the frantic song, we couldn’t get away from each other fast enough. My Romeo he was not.

I suppose I’ve been looking for Romeo all my life... haven’t we all? Anyone with a romantic bone in their body wants to find their soulmate, the love of their lives, the person to grow old with, and we can’t help but look to the greatest love stories in history and literature for inspiration... Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, Cathy and Heathcliff, Elizabeth and Darcy, the list goes on and on. But there is an awful lot of tragedy, pain and death that goes along with these pairings and I’m not sure anyone would want that for themselves. I am lucky to have found love many times and I know I will find love again. I have had my heart broken quite a few times but it hasn’t broken me, and I’m as optimistic as ever that I will, one day, find it again. But I’ve also realised that my life is pretty bloody good and I won’t waste a second of it worrying about when, or indeed if, it will happen. I have also been given a new and very expensive titanium knee, so I’d like to do it justice by seeing as many places and experiencing as many things as I can. (Please note: I started writing this a few months ago when my new knee looked rather promising... with the trouble I’ve had since, I’m not sure I would be so bold in my statements. However, please continue reading as if you knew nothing of that.)

An invitation to join a group of friends in Europe for a surprise 50th birthday was certainly an opportunity not to be missed. I knew walking on ancient cobbled streets and flights of stone steps was going to be challenging but I armed myself with prescription painkillers, allowed myself to be felt up at Gatwick security, and wended my way to meet my ultimate blind date, my soulmate, Rome (the omitted “O!” is simply my exclamation at every beautiful thing I saw in this stunning Italian city.) Unbelievably, it was my first time in Rome. I had vowed, years ago, that I would not visit Rome until I could spend at least a month there, immerse myself in the culture and language, and return home with Latin flair and perhaps, a Latin lover (I blame the film Roman Holiday and the book Eat, Pray, Love). But as the years passed I realised that my plan was a little optimistic, I was running out of time, so instead of full emersion, a long weekend break it was. The reason for the trip, as I’ve said before, was for a friend’s 50th birthday. It was, in fact, my friend’s dream (for the last 30 years) to busk on Rome’s Spanish Steps, surrounded by friends and family. He never thought his dream would be realised but what he forgot was that his brilliant wife – one of my oldest friends – would do anything and everything to make it happen, and had spent the last few months arranging this truly amazing surprise. The result... 24 friends and family, from Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and England, converging on Rome for 3 glorious days.

We had all managed to book into the same hotel or nearby apartments, and I was very careful to email ahead to ensure my room was on the ground floor (flights of stairs were still a challenge). Usually I email ahead to ask about having a quiet room (friends and family will appreciate this intolerance) but my knee took precedence this trip and noise had to make way for easy access. I was shown my room by the manager and gulped when I saw that it was the closest room to the lobby and reception, with only a thin glass door to shield against the noise from the street and other guests. I decided on a quick power nap, put in my ear plugs, turned the bathroom fan on (white noise is brilliant) and lay back on the crisp white sheets. Moments later I felt something drop on my face. I opened my eyes and they were immediately filled with fine dust. I sat up bewildered, raised my eyes to the high beamed ceiling and as I did, chunks of plaster fell on to my bed, narrowly missing my head. Eeek. I got up and went to reception, leading the manager by the hand, back to my room. I pointed to the bed and then mimed falling rubble. She frowned and then gasped, putting a hand to her mouth. She started to apologise (I think), and then swear (definitely), and told me to “Attendere prego”, which I managed to translate as please wait. So I waited. I listened to her on the phone in the lobby, frantically explaining to someone what had happened. She then came back to the room, asked me to pack and led me outside. She pointed to a golf cart (the most out of place thing I saw in Rome), heaved my bag onto the back seat, and before I could ask, where, what, how, I was whisked away. Golf carts and cobbles make for an interesting ride, especially at the hands of an eager bell-boy and a not so supporting bra, but by the time I’d said, “Ciao, um, dove hotel?” to him, we were there. He screeched to a halt beside a tiny medieval wooden door and produced a giant iron key from his pocket, the sort of giant iron key you see in old horror films, locking screaming captives behind creaking dungeon doors. He grinned at me, bent to open the door and quickly stepped into a darkened hallway. I gulped and followed him into the gloom. He drew open some heavy tapestry curtains, unlocked another set of doors and there we were, inside this gorgeous apartment... old flagstone floors, thick white-washed curved stone walls, and stunning arched doorways. This was someone’s very beautiful home, I thought, and later I found out it was just that. A friend of the hotel manager allowed them to use her flat when there was an emergency, but it was obvious she hadn’t been there in quite some time because it was absolutely freezing. I mimed cold, the old shudder shudder, wrapping my arms around myself charade, and the bell-boy replied, “Ah, si, no problemo,” and switched on something in a small cupboard. Perfect.

My friend D arrived at my new abode a little later and as he stepped into the apartment, he rolled his eyes with a wry smile, as if to say, “Oh bloody hell Jules, this sort of thing only happens to you,” mixed with a, “You jammy bitch!” He would have the last laugh as you will soon discover. We went to join the others in the square, the first of many to surprise my birthday friend. His face would look up every half an hour to see yet another family member or old pal standing by the table, and it was pure joy to see him so happily bewildered. We had a few drinks and arranged to meet later at the restaurant, a local Italian across the river and in a neighbourhood where every tiny cobbled street looked almost identical. Attempting to read my tiny printed google map whilst trying to look cool and un-touristy was a massive feat, so I decided to do what no man would ever do... ask for directions. We stopped to ask a man standing by some tables outside a restaurant, and he proclaimed gleefully, “But that’s my other restaurant! I show you.” What? Of all the people in Rome we found the actual owner, so a few minutes and lots of twists and turns later, he had delivered us to the bistro. Everyone else seemed to have found the restaurant without problem which was rather annoying, but we all drank and ate and drank some more, then weaved back to our little square and drank even more. The birthday boy had finally been reunited with his two old band mates, so they asked the proprietor if they could play their guitars and sing. Of course, he said. So another few hours passed, songs were sung, drinks were drunk and Rome embraced us.

Luckily my new apartment was a only a street away from the square, and I merrily stumbled my way back, only to find a girl being sick on the adjacent doorstep, her very obliging boyfriend holding back her hair as she heaved and coughed. I could still hear her as I went into the apartment and was slightly concerned until a rather more worrying thing took hold of me... I realised I could see my breath. No heat. I swore and fiddled with the switches in the small box I had seen the bell-boy open earlier. Still nothing. It was freezing, so the only thing I could do was grab anything vaguely warm and put it on the bed; Clothes, towels, an old rug, a moth-eaten blanket and a tablecloth. I got in and was immediately pinned to the bed by the sheer weight of fabric but managed to drop off, even with the dulcet tones of vomit hitting pavement outside.

I woke up with a slightly sore head and went to have a quick shower, running across the icy stone floor on tiptoes. I turned the tap, waited for the water to turn warm and nothing happened, waited a bit more, fiddled with the dials and still nothing. I went into the kitchen and turned the hot tap on. Nothing. There was only one thing for it... do an old school ‘Pits and Privates’ wash using boiling water from the kettle. I was about to fill the kitchen sink when I discovered there was no plug, and the only containers I could find in the numerous cupboards were a cup, a cereal bowl and a small pan. Oh bloody hell! I stood on a small towel and sloshed water all over myself, shivering as the scalding water instantly turned icy. I began to wash my hair over the sink and suddenly realised I no longer had access to the hotel’s toiletries... no shampoo, no conditioner, no soap, all I had was washing-up liquid. You can only imagine my mood at this point... hungover, freezing cold, knotted wet hair and nothing to eat or drink. It was the worst start to a morning I have had in years and it was all I could do to grunt a few words when we all met for breakfast in the square, half an hour later. But it was a sunny day, Rome looked beautiful, the coffee was strong and breakfast was delicious, so my mood lifted instantly.

My knee was behaving so we all set off to discover Rome. We walked and talked and pointed and lingered and saw and wondered and photographed and sat, and tried to take in all that this amazing city has to offer, me vowing to come back and do it all again and again. Late in the afternoon, we headed back to our respective rooms to change, and miracle of miracles, there was not only heating in the apartment but hot water as well. Hurrah. We all met up for another night of eating and drinking and singing. It was so perfectly organised by my old friend, allowing people to do their own thing during the day, and then meet up for celebrations each evening. On the Sunday, after another divine breakfast, we all haphazardly walked towards Vatican City, completely forgetting it was Sunday, forgetting it was nearly noon and forgetting that the Pope would be there to address the crowd. And suddenly there he was, Papa Francesco, in his white robes, standing on the balcony, speaking to us. It was very moving, even more so when you see the reactions of some of the crowd, devout Catholics from around the world seeing their religious Father in the flesh. But St. Peter’s Square was packed, so after the address we decided to do a hop-on hop-off bus tour. We saw it all, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Arch of Titus, ancient Rome, we also saw lots of things we had no idea what they were, the tinny audio guide spluttering various facts through cheap earphones, cutting out just at the wrong time... but we loved it. I used to be a bit cynical about city tourist buses until I went to Dublin for the first time, and had such an amusing guide that I stayed on the bus for 3 tours in a row. I’m now a convert and always go on them to get my bearings in a new city... I even went on the London one with D and my sister, after living there for almost 18 years, and had one of the best days ever! The only trouble with this country and open air buses is the weather. Be prepared for wind, rain, pollen, being lashed by stray branches, falling leaves and getting wet pants from laughing too hard! You’ve all seen all those idiot tourists wearing throw-away banana yellow plastic raincoats? Well that’s why... who wants to wear something nice that you might pee on accidentally?

Rome was amazing, and the friends and family that we met were an absolute joy. We didn’t quite busk on the Spanish Steps (they were being renovated) but we did go around the corner to another set of steps and sang to the nearby restaurant, passersby, and got applauded and filmed on iPhones, so I would say my friend’s dream was well and truly ticked. As for finding Romeo, well, maybe Shakespeare just got the name wrong? Wherefore art thou John, Jack, Sam, has a certain ring to it too.