Reflection: Reading in Rome


My feet were killing me. It was a brisk Tuesday evening in late November. After a harrowing experience on Rome’s overcrowded public transportation system during the morning rush hour, I had decided to walk back to my apartment that overlooked the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. 

I’m reaching back about ten years, during a period in which I spent a month at a time in various European cities pursuing language-learning vacations.

I had enjoyed an afternoon of lunching and window-shopping with a couple of new friends from Torre di Babele, an intensive language school in a lovely, centrally located art nouveau neighborhood of Rome. My international friends and I parted in the considerably older, very historical section of Campo dei Fiori, and I reasoned that walking back to my home-away-from-home might actually take less energy than waiting for, pushing onto, and balancing inside a bus.


Roman flower delivery


With a few blocks to go I was beginning to feel hungry and remembered there wasn’t much of anything left in the fridge. Fortunately, my street had a number of options for pizza. I decided on take-out as I was a bit tired to face the “table for one” routine. My favorite place that sold by the slice was also a bakery, so I felt lucky to find it still open after dusk.

I selected one pizza with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, and the other, a less conventional, but a favorite of mine, the thinly sliced potato and rosemary pizza. I walked away with larger pieces than I had wanted, as I hadn’t wished to offend the food server who appeared increasingly insulted as I brought my hands together in a vain attempt to receive smaller portions. The pizza was sold by weight.

My accumulated body heat from the walk home dissipated quickly in the cold apartment as I ate my dinner. My plan was to find something to read and spend the rest of the night under heavy blankets. The November 15th official starting date for seasonal heat had come and gone without recognition by my landlord. He did have lots of books and blankets, however, so I selected the thinnest book and the thickest blankets to settle in for the evening.


Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano


Carta bianca by Carlo Lucarelli. A procession of three heads sculpted in fascist style glared ahead with purpose from the inset of this slim edition with a navy cover. The bottom corner was badly worn, very wrinkled, and almost a bit torn. Situating myself under the covers with my Italian-English dictionary, I was ushered into Italy at the end of the Second World War. A street bomb, a murder, a police detective, the fascists, the Nazis, and a very distasteful level of corruption could not keep me awake much past the first twenty pages. Tuckered out from the day’s activities and with a hand cramp from trying to keep all but my fingers under the warmth of the blankets, I set my alarm for the following morning.


After a quick breakfast I hustled down the street to the bus stop where a bus happened to be pulling up as I arrived. All the seats were full, but I hovered, watched, and waited until someone got up just before the next stop. Slipping into the seat as gracefully as I could manage, I looked up, directly at the now familiar navy blue cover with the aggressive fascist heads marching imperviously forward. The strange thing was that I wasn’t the one holding the book.

Carta bianca by Carlo LucarelliA young woman sat calmly reading what appeared to be my book in the seat straight across from me. The edge was worn in exactly the same manner as mine. My first thought was that I had dropped it, but I was sure I had left the book on my nightstand. Furthermore, the girl looked to be about three-quarters of the way through it.

I sat there thinking that this was the type of thing that happened in the movies. If it were a small, independent film, this meeting as well as everything leading up to it could have been more or less the thrust of the picture. A Hollywood blockbuster would have made one of us an incredibly good-looking man and after this initial meeting and a series of mishaps, we would be happily together for the rest of our lives.

After wrestling with my imagination for a few minutes, I decided that I was destined to say something to the young reader. My initial, “Excuse me, but you’re not going to believe this . . .” elicited a strange look at first, but as I continued to babble, she warmed to the coincidence.


A student of anthropology at the local university, she didn’t know anything about the author. She had found the paperback on her father’s bookshelf and thought it would be an easy read for the bus. Of course, as a student of the language, what she considered light reading was the equivalent of Umberto Eco for me, and not something I had the skill to read while jostling through the streets of Rome. (I would read Il nome della rosa a few years later from the comfort of my armchair at home.) She was interested in my Italian studies and graciously complimented my competency. She had studied English in school but admitted to not getting very far, and was excited to talk about the trip she had taken to California several years earlier with her parents.


Bus Area by Steven Burt

Other riders began listening to our conversation, at first discreetly and then, as they realized I was a foreigner, almost longingly as though they wished they had been the ones chosen for this early morning cross-cultural exchange. After about half an hour the student reader said her stop was next and she had to begin making her way to the exit door. We shook hands with warm smiles and wishes, both feeling good as a result of the chance meeting.

I made my way out after several stops and the necessary pushing to get out the door didn’t bother me as much as it usually did.

A few days later, I finished the book, discovering that the meaning of the title was not literal. Carta bianca would not be translated as “white paper,” but as “carte blanche,” as in free rein. And when I googled Lucarelli, he turned out to be a well-known Italian mystery writer. This was his first book, and the cover hadn’t changed much since it was initially published in 1990.

A couple of years later, the TV miniseries Il Commissario De Luca, based on Lucarelli’s trilogy featuring police commissioner Achille De Luca who first appeared in Carta bianca, would premier to great acclaim on Italian television.

Photo Credits: The Saints are Coming? by Giampaolo Macorig – photo of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome (St. John Lateran Archbasilica), Bus Area by Steven Burt – near the Vittoriano in Rome

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Comments 6

  1. Enjoyed your article AND the “thinnest book and the thickest blankets” phrase! Since I already knew of the encounter, I especially liked reading about it, once again.

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      Thank you. I definitely recommend choosing the “thinnest book” when starting to read in a foreign language. Thicker books can be discouraging if you don’t have the endurance to stay the course. And, the “thickest blanket” is just plain survival!

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      Thinking back on that bus encounter, I wonder why one can’t have more such chance meetings. A pleasant conversation and a warm smile can do so much to make a situation that might otherwise seem hostile rather palatable and even enjoyable. All that’s needed is an icebreaker. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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