he hackneyed phrase is time standing still. But there she is, a girl in a blue dress with a map. She’s at the corner of a narrow street lined with cypress trees and a boulevard with elms and a tram. I meet her when she pauses looking lost at the traffic light and turns to me. Scusi is the word.
But it’s American-accented. The girl in the blue dress is tourist looking for a way to get to the park and then to the Spanish Steps. She’s nearly at the park but doesn’t know it. This isn’t Rochester, she smiles, and the smile leads to a chat.
She’s taken a day off from her tour group to walk the city by herself, to get a “feel for what it’s like.” She’s in her late 20s with auburn hair and an easy schoolteacher’s smile that could give some seven-year-old boy his first crush. She smells like the hint of fall that’s all around her.
She asks me why I live in Rome and I explain. I ask her where she’s headed next — Paris — and she explains. We’ve sat down for a coffee at a table in the small coffee bar on the narrow street with the cypress trees. The cypresses impress her. They’re everywhere. Yes, I tell her, but in Umbria they’re mostly in cemeteries. Her grandfather ran an arboretum and her father knew the names of dozens of trees and plants, which he handed down to his three children. She’s the youngest.
Time standing still isn’t just a sudden girl under drooping trees but that the girl doesn’t seem to belong to her time. And she doesn’t. She’s gone walking through Rome in a blue dress with a map that has curled edges and small circles around places of interest. “I like circling things,” she tells me, smiling again.
The girl has no mobile phone (“I didn’t want it today…”) and doesn’t speak the abbreviated and choppy American that phone and web use can make the norm. She doesn’t lapse into slang. She doesn’t say “totally.” She calls the boulevard “beautiful” and not “awesome,” which it is. She tells me about Rome’s subtropical climate and how it fools seedlings into growing at the wrong time of the year, something she remembers reading. Charmed and disarmed, I reply clumsily that I can tell time based on the sounds of the lions and elephants in the nearby zoo. The lions bray and roar soon after 12 noon. The elephants demand attention between 4 and 5. “It must be amazing to live here,” she says. I tell her it is, minus the difficulties of doing business in Rome. She says her father lost his job in 2008 and hasn’t fully recovered. “He feels like he owes it to us to be employed but he doesn’t, not really. I tell him to travel.” Her mother died a decade ago.
If time in fact stood still, I would have asked her to have dinner, or asked for basic information — an email address, a phone number. I would have found a broken branch and scratched a heart in the loose ground. But that would have been an act on loan from another century, the one from which she seemed to emerge, from a time when circled maps were all a girl had when a strange city lured her. Until the occasional boy offered a helping hand and one thing maybe led to another.
That chapter ended decades ago, so I ask her when she’s leaving for Paris. The next afternoon, she replies, though she feels as though she hasn’t spent enough time here, and on the map points to green-circled places she didn’t see. I want to say, “I’ll show you,” but it catches in my throat, and I draw a rudimentary sketch on a napkin, how to get from where we’re sitting to the Spanish Steps. “It’s really nice to meet a nice man who speaks English,” she says finally, blushing slightly. She thanks me for the coffee and I wish her good luck.
When time gets moving again she’s gone. Following my map she’ll be at the Spanish Steps in 20 minutes.