story time

We arrive in Rome at night. After spending the previous day and night snowed in at the Dublin airport, we’re so tired it’s almost like our bodies have reset and we’re energetic again. Thrilled to arrive back at our hotel, we hastily check in with the clerk. He seems to speak more English than the other workers, which we’d appreciate if we weren’t in such a hurry to shower and change out of our days-old clothes. He takes our passports and inputs them into the system. We give him money, he gives us keys.

A few showers, blow-dries, and perfume spritzes later, we’re walking through the Campo dei Fiori to dinner. We don’t make a habit of eating in the Campo, because its expensive prices cater mostly to tourists and American college students on daddy’s dime, but we find an affordable place and make an exception. Dinner is incredible; there is cheap wine and plenty of bread. When we’re finished eating, we forgo dessert but agree on drinks at a nearby American bar, at which our favorite Italian-Colombian bartenders work. A few beers later (after having passed up free shots multiple times), we decide to call it an early night and head to our room to watch MTV Italia in our PJs and rest up for our last day in Italy.

As we walk back to our tiny hotel on the outskirts of the Campo dei Fiori, the place I spent three months in college, the place that holds incredible memories, I realize how much I love Rome. Italy. My life. I think of M., how to really know me he has to experience this place, and I think of bringing him here. We can’t get married, I think, until I’ve dragged him to Rome! With cobblestones under my feet and nearly 60-degree fresh air all around me, I couldn’t be happier.

And then, the cops. A. sees them first; I notice them, but think nothing. The entire time we’ve been here, I’ve made a joke of the polizia‘s habit of standing on street corners: They just stand around all day. What are they even doing? I sure hope no one is trying to call about an accident! We go inside, and as we shut the door behind us, they start to ring the buzzer. Rather than deal with these policemen who are clearly not here for us, we run up to our second floor room, giggling.

In our room, I mean to flop down exhaustedly onto the bed. Instead, I near the bed and make the mistake of looking out our window – and scream. The second floor isn’t that far down and our blinds are open; one of the cops is staring up at me, looking straight at me, cracking up.

Okay, we think. They’re playing with us. Maybe they think we’re cute, maybe they like to tease Americans, maybe they’re bored. The buzzer to our room starts ringing.

It’s one of those buzzers you answer with a phone, so A. picks up and says hello. “Hello! Goodnight!” comes the reply. “We need Christina!” There’s no Christina here, which she quickly informs them. They’re laughing like their lives are just hilarious, so we laugh, too. They keep asking for Christina. Finally – still thinking this is all a big, hilarious joke – A. says there’s no Christina, but she has me. “YES! That is the one we want!”

It’s still hilarious (we’re exhausted, we’ve had a few drinks, and the situation is so strange it can’t be anything but funny), and I laugh when she turns to me and says “The polizia want you!” Of course they do.

They’ve told us to go downstairs, so we go. When we answer the door, they’re holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and they demand my documentation. I run to grab my passport, and when I hand it to them, they glance at it and say I have to go with them. Life stops being funny and turns into a mess. We’re in disbelief, but we go get our coats and purses obediently. I start crying, but I tell A. I think I’m only crying because I’ve had a few drinks and I’m tired and this is just so weird. I don’t even know if they’re real cops – in America, there are faux cops all over the place ruining lives or trying to. I don’t know what else to do but go with them; the language barrier is too strong to explain anything else.

We go, and A. is dismayed that the police car lacks seat belts. I’m still laughing a little, a combination of crying and laughing and being utterly weirded out. Is it bad, I ask, if I really wish I could take a picture of us right now? They’re leading us down all sorts of winding back roads when their car stalls. Before I can be too convinced they’re going to murder us, their car starts up again and we’re back on our way.

The questura reminds us of Amanda Knox. I’ve let A. borrow my copy of an Amanda Knox book, and she’s been reading the part about the questura. The police take us into a room, sit us down. In Italian, they try to explain why I’m here. In Italian, they ask for my permesso. In English, I tell them I don’t have one. In English, A. yells at them. She doesn’t understand why they’re demanding a permesso from me but not her. We’re the same, we studied at the same time, our permessos expired in 2007. They keep asking for it, expecting me to get it from… somewhere, I guess. I think they try to tell me it’s no big deal, but I don’t trust them because if it’s not a big deal, why am I in the police station after midnight?

It’s a back-and-forth of Italian and English, neither side understanding the other. I keep trying to stay calm but finding myself in tears, and I keep telling A. that I’m convinced of Amanda Knox’s innocence, that I understand where it went wrong for her and how hard the questioning must have been with such a language barrier. The police are exasperated, clearly frustrated at the language barrier themselves. It seems like the only English they can say is it’s no big deal, but they don’t understand that it is, that I’m not sure how to get out of this, that I’m afraid – terrified, really – that I’m going to be stuck here or in jail.

A. keeps exploding at them, and it’s worse when they say come back tomorrow. We can’t help you now, anyway. We’re closed. She yells at them for this, for expecting us to give up our time to come back when we did nothing wrong to begin with. We’re on holiday, she says. We were students years ago. We don’t have permessos because we don’t live here. We leave in two days, why should we come back tomorrow?

I’m still crying, imagining my future stuck in Italian prison, wondering what I can and cannot say and how to say it so it’s not misinterpreted or the wrong thing. I tell her she needs to stop yelling, that they have guns. Do I really expect them to shoot us?

Instead of killing us, they make her leave. She’s escorted out and I’m left with the rest of them. They tell me it’s no big deal, just come back tomorrow and write a statement. I don’t think they get quite how terrified I am, or how confused I am, how unwilling I am to sign anything I don’t understand. I say I can’t come back tomorrow because I don’t know where I am. I don’t know how to get back tomorrow. They call someone who speaks English, and I think THANK GOD. Too bad all this person can say is, come back tomorrow. They need to give you a “measure.” It becomes almost comical, with me saying I don’t know how to get here, I need directions, and him saying come back tomorrow. They need to give you a “measure” over and over again. They give me a piece of paper with QUESTURA across the top in bold. It is some sort of summons, and thankfully, it includes the address. I decide this is enough and I’m tired of being here. I’m disillusioned with Italy; I thought I loved it yet everything has changed and its police have terrified me and I don’t know if I can or ever want to come back.

They let me go. As one cop is walking me out, he asks if I’d like to go on a walk. Completely creeped out, I spit out a NO. I still feel incredibly guilty about it, because what I think he meant was since you don’t know how to get here, I can walk you back to your hotel so you see where we are. But after being stuck in a room at the police station for over an hour, with no one explaining why I’m there or what I’ve done wrong or how to fix it, I’m a little on edge.

We collect A. and get back into the police car. I spend the ride home not paying attention to where we are, but instead filling her in on what happened once she left. I still don’t get why I’ve been taken in. I don’t know if I should go back tomorrow. I don’t want to sign anything. I want to call the Embassy. Well, really, I want my parents, my boyfriend, but I can’t have those. I don’t have a phone.

She lets me use her phone to call the Embassy when we get back to our room. They tell me their guess is as good as mine. The form I’ve been given says something about an appointment in December 2009 and how I should have showed up for it. I realize, eventually, that it’s a misprint and should say 2010, and is just asking me to return tomorrow at 9am. The girl at the Embassy can’t help me and suggests I either call a lawyer, miss my flight and stay indefinitely, or flee the country with the risk of never being allowed back in. I decide to go back to the questura tomorrow.

In the morning, I walk to Largo de Argentina and hail a cab. I have to point to the address on my sheet of paper; again, my lack of Italian skills has failed me. I wonder what he thinks of me, why he thinks he has to bring me to the police station. At the station, I show the receptionist my paper. She isn’t sure what to do with me, but finds a place to send me. I go up some stairs, turn left, and sit in a chair. For an hour. The police are in their office to my right; they’re laughing, smoking, talking about “the American girl.” There’s another young girl in there, also dealing with some sort of visa issue, but her passport isn’t American and I don’t know if she speaks English or if we’re allowed to speak. Her Italian sounds fluent.

Finally – finally – they acknowledge me. This is after waiting an hour, after hearing la ragazza americana over and over and listening to a pair of women walking by use my full name to talk about me. I’m told to sign a piece of paper. I refuse because I don’t know what it says. Someone comes and explains – in English! – that it’s just an acknowledgment of the other piece of paper they’re going to give me. That one is half in English, and basically says that I had a student visa in 2007, but it expired, and because I’m not a student I can’t renew it, so I have to leave and not stay permanently.

Really. Really? That’s it? I sign it and I leave, nearly gleeful that I’m not locked up in jail somewhere and all they wanted was proof that I haven’t been living in Rome for four years. I don’t know where to find a cab, so I just start walking, and soon I come around a corner – the corner labeled Via della Pigna, the street on which I used to live. I’m so close to “home” and didn’t even realize it.

And then I look over, and between a few buildings I can see the Pantheon. It’s sunny, it’s breezy, I’m standing amongst a ton of old memories, and there are ancient ruins staring at me in the sun. And suddenly it’s like the entire night was a nightmare, something that’s faded, outshined by the fact that police, language barriers, potential jail time aside, I’m in love with this city, with this country, and I have so many things to do on my final day.

[That ended up a lot longer than I expected, and very rambly and overdramatic. I’m leaving it posted because it’s the first time in a long time I’ve really just sat down and written, and it’s good practice. It’s also a pretty entertaining story that I’m glad to have a record of somewhere.

Other disclaimer: I hope it doesn’t come across like I’m a selfish American who hates people who don’t speak my language in their own country. It wasn’t that at all, it was just sheer terror at being unable to explain myself and stand up for myself. That’s what makes me relate to Amanda Knox a bit; I can’t imagine being in a foreign country and interrogated in their language, unable to say what you mean and explain your side of things. I can understand what might have happened to her in that regard, even though my situation was much more minor and obviously turned out completely fine. I figured I’d be able to communicate with the Italian I learned when I studied, but I was clearly wrong! Next time I travel, I’m absolutely going to brush up on the language first.]


2 thoughts on “story time

  1. What an awful ordeal! I can’t even imagine being in a situation like that, and on the other side of the world, no less. I’m glad it all worked out in the end, but it must have been terrifying for you…but it makes for a great story 😉

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