When in Rome,

“To the girl sitting at the stairs,
You are a fucking goddess.”
~Anonymous


Gatwick Airport, London. A woman dressed in black was yelling at someone on her phone in Italian. I could filter out the swear words. And it appeared so could the little Spanish girl standing behind me in the check-in queue. ‘She just swore again!’ we told each other and giggled in our collective imagination. Yes, I am still eight that way.

The woman in black turned to me suddenly and said, ‘My flight got cancelled.’

‘The flight is cancelled’ is what I heard and I was jolted with a horrible flashback. No, not again, please.

The last time I had travelled internationally, I was stranded at the airport for three days. When I finally arrived at my destination, after a long struggle, the airline had misplaced my baggage and I had reached my university stinking quite literally and metaphorically with the world’s worst travel experience, the tale I would tell everyone I would meet and still do.

‘I understand sister. I understand’, I thought as I feared how I might be swearing soon too. She turned and started speaking on the phone again. Her frustration was palpable. When she finally hung up, I tried to console, ‘I got stranded in the airport once. I know how you feel.’
‘Oh, thank you. It’s horrible…My flight was yesterday and it got cancelled. This airline is the worst! The hotel room they gave me was in Brighton!’ she replied in thick Italian accent.
‘Brighton?’
‘Yes! Do you know how far it is! I have been here since yesterday.’
‘But today’s flight isn’t cancelled, right?’
‘Yes, hopefully.’
I was relieved. Her phone rang and our conversation ended.

What began as a casual remark about a book, soon became a discussion about reading, writing, parenting, politics, trade unions, love, grief and depression with a middle-aged man from Dublin named Patrick, who sat beside me waiting for the boarding gate to open, silently reading until I interrupted, ‘Kane and Abel, I love that book.’  Soon we parted ways and I found myself sitting in the plane. I had a window seat and when the plane approached Rome about an hour later I got to enjoy the aerial view of the city. The turquoise ocean, the islands, the beach, the boats, white trails behind them and the colourful small little buildings, all kissed by the sun that was caressing my face too. It was breathtaking.

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The immigration line was long. I was listening to a techno playlist and watching people around me. Most of them were Asians. I am an Asian too, I reminded myself. An hour passed slugging through the queue. The immigration officer looked at me, looked at my passport, scanned it, stamped it, I offered a weak smile, he offered none and I was in Rome. I found my way to the metro station. A friendly woman, blonde and pretty, who was also the ticket checker, guided me to the correct train. Half an hour later, I reached in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t supposed to be nowhere, it was supposed to be the city center. I stepped outside the station and all I could see were old, plastered, slightly vandalised Roman buildings. And they scared me back into the station.
I checked my phone, restarted it, restarted it again and still it caught no signal. I had thought UK SIM worked in all of Europe. But apparently, not in Rome.

I waited for my friend hoping that he would miraculously appear through the gates I sat facing. I knew he wouldn’t. That place just didn’t seem a right place to be and my instinct told me that he must be looking for me somewhere else.

I got hopeful when I found the station’s wifi signal. But sadly that was a hoax.
‘Ye ceiling dekho na, kitni sundar hai,’ a lady walked by admiring the interior design along with her husband. Definitely Indian. I thought and wondered asking them for help but settled for asking the man at the info point instead. After all, guys at the info points are helpful, right?
Apparently, not in Rome.

‘Excuse me, umm…I can’t connect to the wifi and..’
‘Yeah, there’s no wifi.’ he said.
‘Oh, okay. So I have a problem. I can’t find any signal on my phone. And I need to call a friend. It’s very important-’
‘I can’t help you.’
I stared at him, unable to believe what he had just said.

I braved to step outside again. I was sure I was at the wrong end of the station. I turned right and stepped further into oblivion. I expected Rome to be crowded but I couldn’t find a single soul – just distant traffics sounds, abandoned scooter under the bridge and bright yellow street lights.

‘I don’t want to be mugged. I don’t want to be raped. I don’t want to be murdered.’

Fortunately, I found a person who looked like the kind who wouldn’t commit any of the above.
‘Excuse me what’s the way to the central station?’ I asked him. I wasn’t surprised to find that I was heading in the exact opposite direction. I made a U-turn, passed the exit I had stepped out of half an hour ago, continued walking ahead. More and more people came into sight. I felt more and more relieved. And there it was, my destination – the Central station, in all its grandness and glory, holding my joyous and grateful heart. But it wasn’t to last long.

I looked around for my friend for a while. Several minutes passed by. I was panicking again. Suddenly, I caught his glimpse. ‘He trimmed his hair’ I wondered. And in a flash, he was gone. I ran to the place where he stood but he was nowhere to be seen. Did I just dream him?

Behind me stood a bored looking janitor. ‘Excuse me, I-’ He flicked his hands indicating that I go away. At least the guy at the info point SAID he couldn’t help.

Janitor’s rudeness paralyzed me. Did that just happen? Did he actually do that? I took a few deep breaths. ‘I am asking wrong people,’ I concluded. I looked around. There were many people but none of them seemed to be the right one.

Sitting in the middle of the stairs, her rucksack to her left, was this young woman with long black hair smiling at her phone.

It was love at first sight.

I went and as politely as I could, explained my situation and asked her for help.
‘I don’t have enough balance to make a call. But I can call through WhatsApp,’ she replied.
‘That would work, yes! Thank you!’
I sat beside her, told her the number, watched her saving it the wrong way – without inserting the country code. I knew what she was going to tell me in a while – ‘I am sorry. He is not on WhatsApp.’
‘Umm…can I..can I take your phone and try to call him, just once? I am sorry I am bothering you but this is really important.’

‘No’, I had once told a little boy when I was waiting for a friend at Dadar station, back in Mumbai an year ago. He had come to me and asked, ‘Didi, mujhe meri behen nahi mil rahi. Aap phone doge call karne ke liye?’ I looked at the child wondering if he wanted to steal my phone.‘Vo police mein hai. Ye hai uski photo.’ The child showed me a photograph of a girl in a police uniform claiming that she was his elder sister. Definitely a scam.‘Jaao, jaao.’ I had asked him to leave.

She took a second but she said yes.
I took her phone. I saved his number the correct way. I called him praying he would pick up. He did. I told him where I was. I saw him holding the phone, talking to me, a couple of seconds later. ‘I can see you. Just stay right there!’ I said and hung up. I gave the phone back to the girl, thanked her profusely, hugged her, thanked her again and ran towards him.

Welcome to Rome.

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“May you ask bored looking people for help.”
~A Chinese Curse

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