everal weeks ago, after my evening shower, I came back to the bedroom to find my phone submerged in a glass of ice water.
Mama’s phone in da watuh, my daughter Julia announced gleefully, later blaming her beloved baby doll for the act.
An older model, my phone was not designed to survive water damage. My replacement arrived a few days later, which meant two entire days without a phone.
This was right around the start of America’s lockdown, and sans phone, it felt like a double lockdown. Particularly unnerving was my inability to communicate with old friends in Italy via WhatsApp about the situation there. Julia also missed my phone because she couldn’t watch her beloved Peppa Pig videos. For better or for worse, at age two, she is more competent with a cell phone than my 80-year-old father. She can text, swipe, and hang up spam calls.
Pondering all this took me back to life without a phone. Once upon a time, there was a little mama, as I often intone, on Julia’s cue, for bedtime stories. And before she was a little mama, she had no cell phone.
I was 23 when I got my first cell phone, in Italy. Given to me by a friend, it was big and clunky, not unlike my father’s car phone. Next I got a much sleeker, bright blue phone. The subsequent phones I don’t recall. What I do remember is navigating Italy before I ever had a phone. I recently read my old diary that speaks to that brave old world:
I spent all of the first Friday I was here on the phone with landlords — who didn’t speak any English. It was an experience, and I am proud of myself for understanding them. The “phone” was undoubtedly the land line at the non-profit where I worked. Or one of the gaudy orange public phones, where I’d use the 5,000 or 10,000 Lira cards, carefully watching, as I talked, how much money I was consuming on the phone’s little display window.
The next sentence in my diary gives me pause: I agreed to look at six of them [the apartments], addresses included — kind of. Who knows what I meant by “kind of,” but I imagine it had something to do with getting lost. Today I would use my phone’s GPS to navigate. But back then, I relied on a hard copy of “Tuttocittà,” a glossy booklet with maps of city streets that came with the city’s thick phone books. And the mercy of bus drivers to tell me when to get off.
More often than not, I found myself on foot, wandering. One whole day, I spent walking around, trying to find housing for myself — at a convent. I watched the nuns, in blue and black dress, without makeup (as if they make it a point to rub color from their faces). Finally, after getting very lost (and even asking German tourists and the police for directions … and I had to stop and have a very overpriced piece of pizza), I found the place.
That same day, I went to St. Peter’s Square for the first time, led there by a Brazilian woman from whom I’d asked directions on the bus. But my comment upon arrival (I will remember the vastness) is anti-climactic compared to my journey to get there. That night, I struggled to find my way back to the hostel. I had to figure out where Campo dei Fiori was in the maze of streets. At least there were lots of people, and I discovered the incredible night life Rome has.
I fell in love with Rome by getting lost in it. After all, isn’t falling in love surrendering to something you don’t quite understand? With all its little streets and layers of history, Rome beckons surrender.
Especially for a wanderer at heart. My first poetry teacher described himself as a wanderer, a label that I secretly co-opted for many years. To an outsider, I might look restless. Certainly, my real commitments in life are few but fierce, more internal than external. The etymological root of “essay” is trying, examining; by extension, wandering.
Nowadays, when I visit Rome, I make sure to save some time for wandering. Last fall, when I traveled there with Julia, we spent an entire day on foot (and stroller), weaving in and out of streets that I may or may not have been down before.