February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The Red Bag

By |2018-03-21T18:33:28+01:00July 15th, 2008|First Person|
I wasn't thinking about the Prada bag. It's a gift, I said.

ast month, I persuaded my husband Germano to walk with me to the Vatican to trade my sixth-place gargoyles for a Prada purse.

The story actually began a year ago, when I finished first among women entrants in the annual Testaccio seven-kilometer road race that snakes through some of Rome’s oldest neighborhoods and finishes near St. Peter’s. Walking home, Senegalese vendors peddling knockoff purses surrounded me wanting a closer look at the trophy I’d won. I handed the cup to them and they took turns holding it up in the sunlight, their arms extended, laughing and shouting to their friends in French.

Finally, one of them offered a trade: I could have any one of his designer bags for the cup. Others then made a similar offer. I picked a small white Prada purse. The winner of the barter was immediately mobbed by his friends who continued rotating the award in their hands and reading the engraving aloud.

This year I finished sixth and earned a tall and slender brass trophy that looked like a bottle of wine but was as heavy as a barbell. On the pedestal were the gargoyle-like heads of Roman goddesses.

When I got home with the trophy, an idea hit me — why not another post-race wardrobe barter?

So there we were — Germano and I — walking up Via della Conciliazione under the midday sun headed for the vendors. Since new Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno has been less indulgent toward street vendors than predecessor Walter Veltroni, we suspected we might have a tough time finding vendors.

Not so.

We saw them almost immediately, fit, handsome, dressed in designed jeans, their brightly-colored bags draped over their arms like heavy bracelets. We were soon immersed in a parade of Gucci and Prada purses swinging from the sellers’ arms like helium balloons. It was heavenly.

One word spoiled the moment.


Suddenly, the Africans bundled their goods in sheets and ran. Their arms laden with wares, they shouted to each other in French.

Dove è?” Germano looked around for police. So did I. In the blinding sun we saw nothing threatening.

Apparently the young hawkers did, or sensed signals that we didn’t pick up on. They lurched down a side street, toward us, then away from us. It seemed like an uncoordinated exodus. It then turned quiet and we were left alone among tourists eating pasta and drinking red wine at a sidewalk restaurant.

“I saw a nice red Prada bag,” Germano said ruefully.

I hadn’t noticed.

I’d been disoriented by the dispersing.

“Not white?” I asked.

“No, white was last year’s color,” replied my style-conscious Italian husband. “Red is good with jeans.”

Germano was inclined to call off the adventure, but I encouraged him otherwise. It was the perfect Saturday for a passeggiata. Trophy still in tow, we ambled like determined detectives in the general direction of the vendors, north toward Prati, then south toward Borgo Pio; no luck. Finally we walked east to Castel Sant’Angelo’s pedestrian area. There, like sunning seals relaxing on rocks, we found vendors with their wares spread on white sheets across the cobblestones. We also found the red Prada bag, small and bohemian, and made our offer to the small south Asian vendor.

He looked at the trophy. “Ma che ci faccio?“— “What do I do with this?”

Good question.

“Go ask the Senegalese to trade,” he recommended.

But we couldn’t find the Senegalese — at least not with bags. Instead, we found a few peddling African artifacts and wooden warriors. We approached one, who was busy polishing a wooden sculpture of mother and child. He blinked up at us from his sheet and asked to see the trophy.

We handed it to him and he gave us a toothless smile. He cradled the trophy gently in his hands and began polishing it. He then swung it up and down, demonstrating its weight, saying, “Bella pesante, eh?

He looked reluctant to give it back. His smile made him look like a man in love. By then I wasn’t thinking about the Prada bag.

“It’s a gift,” I said.

He stood up, surprised and pleased. He shook my hand, then Germano’s.

We walked home, one mission accomplished.

About the Author:

Associate editor Katie McGovern is from Connecticut. She graduated from Harvard with a BA in English and American Literature, received a masters in International Affairs on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, and an MBA from INSEAD on a Rotary Scholarship in France. She resides in Rome with her Italian husband and young son.