Roman Holiday

It took me three visits and over three decades to make peace with the Eternal City. Yes, Rome and I are friends now.  We have finally met as equals.  And frankly, I have fallen in love with it.  Any place seems better when you are (1) not a refugee there and (2) not focusing all your energy on leaving.

There are no photos in existence from that time, but I do have several postcards, depicting the sights I saw live only decades later.

I will never forget the first exciting view of Roma Termini in December of 1980.  In my first outing from the USSR, where train stations were bare, marbled, vaulted, and meant exclusively for tormented and interminable waiting, the bright vitrines of Termini were just spectacular.  There were these display cases the size of small windows, basically shadow boxes, full of various souvenir items and toys, shiny, exotic, and oh-so-Western-European.  They were mesmerizing! 

I have seen many more train stations since then, and they no longer interest me.  Although in Rome things tend to stick around for millennia, the shadow boxes seem to have gone the way of all memories.  Everything else is recognizable, but Termini’s luster has faded.  In contrast, the rest of the city is much improved.  But what a conundrum—in 1980, Rome meant nothing to me beyond the glamorous train station.  I saw so pitifully little of it!  Thirty five years later, the rest of Rome transformed itself into a glorious, romantic, sight- and taste-filled adventure—albeit with a lackluster train station.  What a sleight of hand!

Pensione Milo, which housed many of us former Soviet citizens on our first and one-way trip out of the country of our birth (still united at that time), is now a hotel.  If I live long enough to get back to Rome yet again, I would like to try to dare myself to stay there–provided the scars of memory heal by then.  It is near the Termini, so that makes it convenient.  On my two subsequent visits, I stayed nearby because that was all I knew, but it is actually a fairly charming area.  Milo seems to have been all renovated and fancy, with private bathrooms, no less (according to their website; I have not yet had the nerve to enter).  Well, not exactly fancy, but it is a hotel, no longer a boarding house for refugees.  There must not have been much call for that after a certain point in time.  Back in the day, we had two rooms, because we were two families.  I was made to share with my grandmother, and my mom with my grandfather, because grandma and I caught some terrible illness and were quarantined together.  It was the brighter room, on a lower floor, and it had a sink.  A sink of our own!  The other room was upstairs, with peeling wallpaper, sloping ceiling, and no sink. Occasionally fellow refugee neighbors would use our sink to brush their teeth, as it was such an unexpectedly luxurious feature.    There was a communal dorm-style bathroom and a dining room.  The meals, which included bread rolls of the type that they still serve in Roman hotels for breakfasts, and all manner of pasta dishes with weak tomato sauce, and occasionally tomato pasta soup, were served by a guy named Franco.  I can now pretty much assume that Franco was his name.  At the time, the foreignness of it could have only meant that it was Italian for “waiter”. 

So, for years I thought that Italian food was terrible (both the gobs of boiled spaghetti of the refugee cuisine, and equally the monstrous portions of over-cheesed baked American variety).  It did not compare to the culinary delights of the Austrian prison, where we stayed prior to being transported to Rome.  There was no Italian equivalent of Manner wafers.  But we were free.  Free to do almost nothing but fret about our future. We were pretty confident, I think, that we would be allowed to enter the United States—but when? And what exactly waited for us on the receiving end?  And how do you occupy your time with anything more than survival when you have no money and no language skills?  It is not the lack of money or language.  It is the not belonging.  You are not a tourist, not a guest, not on a business trip.  You are just in a limbo of existence, and you are waiting for your paused life to restart. 

As refugees, we spent most of our time in Rome indoors.  This might have been the only time in my life that my grandmother did not insist that I go outside to play.  What did we even do?  How did we pass the days?  (And how many days were we actually there?  It felt like months, but the calendar does not bear that out).   It seems so strange and unlikely now that we would not have taken the opportunity to explore the city.  I asked my mother about it not long ago, and she really had no answer.  There were plausible explanations—no map, no language, no money—but none of that makes sense if you have the time.  We ate our meals and constantly conferred with the other exiles (“Where are you going, Tevye?” “New York. And you, Lazar Wolf?” “Chicago.” “Good, we will be neighbors”).  This was our version of the last days in Anatevka. 

We stayed within a short walking distance from the Colosseum, which I never saw on that trip.  I walked the entire distance from the near-Termini area to the Vatican on several later occasions.  It is less than a 5k, a distance that I cover on autopilot during my training runs.  Could a merry little band of refugees have walked out of Pensione Milo on Via Principe Amedeo and kept walking?  Not stopping to drink prosecco, not walking into churches, not sitting down to a plate of seafood, but just strolling and staring?  We did at least once, because I remember a group of us, led by one especially fierce female of the species, who kept accosting passers-by with frantic cries of “Dove la posta centrale?”  I remember the terrifying bulk of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, but not whether we ever reached our destination.

We met the New Year in the lobby of the pensione. One of the dads was presented as an unexpectedly believable Grandpa Frost, with cheeks rouged by someone’s lipstick, and gave out gifts to the kids.  Everyone contributed what they could.  I got a chocolate bunny, which was literally the best gift ever.  In our secular Soviet life, chocolate bunnies had no connection to Easter (nor should they ever or anywhere, in my humble opinion), but were an anytime special treat.  I was thrilled.  No one could afford to buy Italian chocolates, but this was a familiar treasure that someone brought from home and donated.  I have kept the foil wrapper for 40 years.

They say that how you meet the New Year is how it will turn out to be.  “They” are decidedly wrong as often as they are right.  But, that New Year’s Eve set the tone not just for the coming Worst Year of My Life So Far (and I just lived through the pandemic of 2020!), but for my Least Favorite Decade So Far, the 1980s.  It might have been a festive Roman celebration outside, but inside, my small world was bracing for the strange, scary new life on another continent. 

4 thoughts on “Roman Holiday

  1. Enjoyed this piece! So often as adults we are unaware of our children’s responses in certain situations, this lovely piece increased my awareness and educated more fully to the refugee experience.


  2. Enjoyed this piece! So often as adults we are unaware of our children’s responses in certain situations, this lovely piece increased my awareness and educated me more fully to the refugee experience.

    Sent from my iPad



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