By Tom Simpson
It was the first Roman football game of the new millennium, but just another day at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on a chilly, clear skied late afternoon.
Bari, a blue shrouded team from the Southeast coast of Italy, was in town to play against the beloved Romans, dressed in red and yellow. The red for was their "heart, their love, their passion," so said the maitre d’ of the corner restaurant in the Piazzale Couvor. The yellow? He wasn’t so sure about. "The sun is yellow,” he assured me." It must have something to do with the sun." Ah, the romance and confidence of Italy!
For us, the competition began long before the kickoff. We needed to get on the number 32 bus at the Ottaviano-San Pietro metro stop. It’s walking distance from St. Peters Basilica, the Jerusalem, the Mecca of the Catholic Church. But the basilica I was interested in, is 12 bustops away, in the north of Roma. I was traveling with my daughter, Shona, my girlfriend, Maria, and my mother, Giuseppina, the daughter of two Italian born parents. My mother, who turned 88 years old only days earlier, made the 1/2 kilometer walk from the Piazza Resorgimento (near St. Peters) to the metro stop. We were within a few yards of the bus stop, when a #32 rolled up. Within seconds, the near empty bus was filled with anxious looking Romans and a lesser number of Barians, who pushed and shoved their way through the opened doors in seconds. We had zero chance of getting in.
My mom couldn’t move fast enough, even with all of us assisting her. I got anxious. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked my mother to join us after all. I was just being polite when I offered but secretly hoped she’d decline. What was I thinking? She’s an adventurer, she never says no. Besides, she had become a great fan of the game, watching my team; the San Francisco Seals, for the past year.
We waited only a few minutes and another bus came. It didn’t matter that we were the first to have arrived for this bus, nor that we had been locked out of the last bus. The battle was on. It was every fan for himself and herself. We eventually got in, but we were the last to enter. We had to push and shove just to be last. There certainly was no sympathy for the fact we were less competitive. If you can’t make the cut, you can’t play the game. I got my mother inside the door and just managed to get myself through the door as it shut against my backside, rudely reminding me that the time had come to move on.
It was only about 15 minutes from Ottaviano to the Stadio Olympico, but they were minutes filled with worry. Was the guy next to me just another one of the tense looking yellow and red fanatics, or was he a member of the gypsy bus thugs who aggressively pick the pockets of their American victims. How could I protect my own pockets let alone the pockets of my mom? How many times had we already been warned about pickpockets since we arrived less than 24 hours earlier? Even unsolicited advice came our way. When I stopped to change money at the "Cambio," a thoughtful young Italian, born and raised in San Diego volunteered the advice: "Make sure your wallet goes inside the jacket. Nothing in your pants.
And if someone tries to take your purse…(he diplomatically alluded to my mother’s aged condition), let it go. It’s not worth it." I wondered, "Is this a set up?" I was already searching my pockets. "My wallet’s gone. It’s really gone. How did he do this..? In seconds?" I was momentarily frantic. He calmly looked over my shoulder towards the counter in front of the money changer, reached, and then handed me the wallet I had forgotten after changing some dollars into lira. "My God," I reflected. "What am I turning into?" And he added, maybe reading my mind without knowing all the detail, "that could have been the fastest picked pocket I have ever seen." I said my thanks, then walked away disappointed with my cynicism. I had little time to ponder this momentary, personally troubling flaw of self…I had a game to make. Like I was saying, we were on a bus for a Serie A match.
If the guy next to me was a thief, I wondered if I could flush him out. After internally rehearsing the phrase, I blurted out, "Quante fermate a lo stadio?" (How many stops to the Stadium). He looked at me a bit confused, then tossed me that classical Italian look when it seems everything goes upwards…the ends of the mouth, the cheeks, the ears, the shoulders, the hands, and, appearing more like asking a question than giving an answer, he pronounced," due" (two). Then he asked around to get verification from the other travelers who surrounded him. Each looked at him, then another then went on in rapid Italian for a minute or so, then back to him, and he confirmed the story, "due," with a matter of fact posture. I felt a little dumb.
These guys weren’t thieves. They were fans…intensely focused on something, maybe the game, maybe getting a ticket, maybe finding their friend, …but they weren’t focused on rifling my pockets. I had probably interrupted their reverie. Moments later, the bus stopped. The pent up collection of humanity, bursting from the pressure of their excitement, exploded towards the opening doors, forcing us to rapidly exit to avoid trampling. I grabbed mom and jumped to the sidewalk.
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