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“I have seen more penguins in the last five minutes,” I say, “than in my whole life put together.”
Dad smiles. Mom frowns. “That’s rude,” she says, “and you know, they all speak English.”
My parents and I are seated at a table in metal chairs, carefully positioned under the shade of a large umbrella. We eat our grilled panini and squint into the raw light of noon, listening to the muted hum of gunning Vespas and adamant Italians, and watching the caravans of nuns glide by.
Yesterday morning at 3 a.m. we had fumbled through the dark for toast, poured into the gummy seats of a cab and driven to the San Francisco airport. We flew all day. The flight felt parenthetical and strangely out of time and place. Now it’s the Fourth of July, and I’m jetlagged in Rome. In the back of my mind I still expect to eat hot dogs wrapped in wax paper in the nosebleed seats of the A’s stadium, my running shoes crackling on peanut shells as I howl at the ump. Malt cups, guys with shirts off, fireworks - I digress. I’m sitting in Rome.
“There are just so many of them,” I say, gesturing at the nuns and grinning. “It’s just funny. Nuns!”
“You’re a block away from Vatican City,” says Dad. “That should explain things.”
“Don’t call them penguins,” Mom says, “it’s rude.” My mom converted to Buddhism at 16 to avoid religion at her Catholic high school. Being in Rome, however, seems to have rekindled some of the old respect. “You don’t want to diss nuns,” she says. “Adds years to purgatory.” She gives me a warped smile. “My stepmother was a nun, for God’s sake. And at my high school, too.” The full story has never been explained to me.
“Where do you think they’re going?” I ask, craning my neck to watch them bob around the corner.
“Don’t talk so loud,” Dad says, “they’ll think we’re American.” He motions for our waiter, who’s been smiling at me through lunch, which gives me the hiccups. I’ve heard of these dark, handsome Italian men. The juxtaposition of my parents and the flocks of nuns, however, makes our chemistry exceptionally repressed. “ll conto, per favore,” Dad requests.
Our waiter grins. “Of course, sir,” he says in deliciously accented English. “Have a good afternoon.”
Dad looks put out. As the war spirals, the death toll rises and the Abu Ghraib pictures keep coming, my parents have grown furious and shamed. In the past month, my dad has looked into claiming Greek citizenship, donated more money to Kerry’s campaign than he can afford, and assured us that we’re moving to Barcelona if Bush wins. I thought he was joking, but he is totally serious. When we packed for Italy, Mom and I bought nice shoes and skirts so that we wouldn’t look so American. Dad planned to do the talking, since he’d studied the phrase book and looks Italian.
So far, Rome is a tangled labyrinth of slim streets, bad drivers, and fruit-colored buildings that grew patched and water-stained before my country was even born. They are the type of elderly, weather-weary buildings that would be torn down in the suburbs of Lafayette, but their dark wooden shutters, iron balconies and raucous window boxes make the buildings seem to wink at passersby. Hanging from at least one balcony per building is a rainbow flag that reads PACE in white letters. They make me think of marathons that raise money to fight diseases, but the flags are too rampant for that. Maybe it’s a Roman thing.
“Where to?” Mom asks.
“Sleep,” says Dad, and rubs his eyes.
“Let’s follow them,” I say.
“The nuns,” I nod at them. They are sweeping through the streets in droves.
“Let’s not,” Dad says.
“Sciarpe!” shouts an Asian woman with no front teeth, aggressively waving a scarf in Mom’s face. She is laden with them.
“No grazie,” Mom says, then turns to squint at me. “You want to go chase nuns?”
“Name price,” the woman says.
Mom says, “I’m sorry, not today. Purgatory, hon, can you say purgatory?”
“No, no, thank you.”
The Asian woman shoves the scarf under Mom’s nose, and Mom backs away. “Name price! Name price!”
“I don’t want it!” Mom shouts. The woman gives us a flat, accusatory look, then attacks a pear-shaped German.
In Rome, Asian women sell canopies of scarves, circling for pagans, for college students who have forgotten (or disregarded) the Vatican’s modesty code and worn tanktops to the Sistine Chapel, and then are not allowed inside. Africans lay fake Prada bags in neat rows. They stand silently together with their arms crossed, blue-black and glistening like ripe plums. Indian men sell roses, watching hawkishly for unhappy wives and husbands at a loss, first dates and half-forgotten anniversaries.
I get up from the table. “Come on. I wanna see what the nuns are up to.”
“That’s kinda weird, hon,” Mom says.
“But they’re going somewhere,” I say, “We’ve got nothing else to do.”
We follow the nuns as they move with small pursed steps, their black shoes clopping the cobblestones as they murmur. Their orders are infinite. Some look as if they’ve stepped out of “The Sound of Music” while others are dressed in faded periwinkle skirts and wimples and look more like Red Cross nurses. Some are creased and hunched and walk like they’re shuffling across hot sand. Some are young and giggle quietly. As usual, it surprises me to see diversity outside my own country. Nuns from Holland, Poland, France, Germany, Spain, Africa, Asia ... as I listen to the hiss and patter of whispering in unknown languages, I suddenly know that for all their pious gliding, the nuns are excited. The two speaking Chinese are visibly suppressing the urge to skip. They have traipsed the world, saved for years, waited their lives to come here.
“I wonder if they know the Pope’s not divine?” I wonder.
Mom’s voice has a serrated edge to it, “Teresa ...”
“Well, he’s not. The Bible never says he is, they just totally made it up.”
“Opiate of the masses,” Dad says very solemnly.
Mom glares at him. “Would you be quiet? I’ve known way too many good Catholics for you to be disrespectful.”
“Christ,” she says, “talk about memories, just looking at these nuns and they all come back. My grandmother, she was the religious one. I went to mass with her every Sunday. She’d make me do confession, too, and I’d always get so freaked that I’d just lie and make up sins to get forgiven for. Not exactly kosher, huh?”
“My lovely wife,” Dad says. “Hardly born again.”
“No,” Mom agrees, “though there was this month-long period when I was five. In our church, there was a round stained glass window above the altar. I had this dream that I was in church when this giant hand with a metal accordion arm reached down. It opened its fist and out popped Hansel and Gretel. Gretel was the Swiss Miss hot chocolate girl and Hansel was this happy blond guy with a pageboy cut and green liederhosen. The two of them did this happy dance on the palm of the giant hand, and then it took them away.” She smiles reminiscently. “The next few weeks I was so attentive at Mass. I kept staring at the window and waiting for the puppet show, but what do you know, it never came. It took me a month to realize it never would, and I was devastated. To be honest, that was the clincher. Never paid much attention in church again.”
“You know,” Dad says, “if I’d known you had dreams like that before we were married, I might’ve gotten with Cookie Kabazakalis like my parents said.”
“Is that why you stopped being Catholic?” I say. “Because the Hansel and Gretel puppet show never came?”
She grins. “It’s a little more complicated than that.”
We follow the flock of nuns into Vatican City. The murmuring is deafening now. Japanese tourists click their cameras in what sounds like a chorus of sneezes. German children dunk their heads in a nearby fountain. Two priests with whittled Mayan faces adjust their black-noose colors and shout. There are avalanches of people on all sides, the untuned band of different languages clattering like the din of an aviary, the smell of sweat and sunblock and dandruff and smoke, tweed suits and saris and shirts from the Hard Rock Café, sandals and ball caps and straw hats and wimples, so many wimples and nuns. We seep together in one army between the smooth white trunks of pillars into the shell-white plaza and embrace of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“The Pope,” Dad says suddenly. “Just overheard it - the Pope’s making an appearance.”
We blink at him. “No way,” Mom says.
Dad says, “Be quieter, will you? They’ll think you’re American, for God’s sake.”
In the square in front of St. Peter’s, there are two fountains. There are so many people that I don’t know they exist until Mom points them out.
“It’s like Wrigley Field,” Dad says, lifelong Cub fan, then catches himself and scowls at his blatantly American reaction. The nuns are crossing themselves with deft and fluid grace.
“Where’s the Pope?” I ask. “Where is he? I don’t see him!”
“PA-che!” a street vender shouts, and flutters one of the rainbow PACE flags above his head. “PA-che!” A Frenchman stops to buy one.
Hearing it pronounced, I recognize the word. Peace. Seemingly every building in Rome has a flag, protesting the invasion of Baghdad.
I make a vow to buy a PACE flag. I will speak English as I buy it, speak it loudly and wear my Che Guevara shirt, so that everyone will know I’m proud to be ashamed. The Italians will bristle at my California accent with a sixth sense that alerts waiters to speak in English, venders to prey on my mom, taxi drivers to charge too much and someone to scrawl Yankee Go Home! near our hotel, in English so the right people read it. My nationality oozes like an itched scab. I want to tell them what our newspaper looks like - more lies disinterred, more boys dead in the sand.
The nuns and pilgrims erupt, and the cheering sounds like fireworks. The Pope appears at a window in the far left corner of the Vatican offices. I can’t make out his face, but I can make out how he sits. He is old. He is curled. The power is palpable, crackling and lithe and sizzling, and I’m saturated by it, have the urge for the first time in my life to kneel down, but the power doesn’t come from him. It is radiating from the nuns.
John Paul II speaks. His voice caves. He coughs involuntarily. Only a small cluster of the people present know enough Latin to understand him, but when he stops the tourists and devoted clergy shake St. Peter’s to its foundation - this must be the true cause of earthquakes and entropy - and even my mom cheers.