My Roman Holiday


For seven days my husband, my daughter and her two children (age 14 and 11), and I crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea. We walked on the red carpet in Cannes, admired the night view of Palma de Mallorca, visited a turtle sanctuary in Ajaccio, tasted freshly made pesto in Genova, marveled at the still leaning tower of Pisa, and learned basic steps of Flamenco in Barcelona (FYI, the most important element of  it is passion!) . Our cruise ended near Rome, where we stayed for several more days.

Rome was hot, humid, and overrun with tourists. Still, I reserved excursions there, too — a tour of the city, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum. The Vatican was our last organized destination and I was looking forward to it.

“Tomorrow we are going to the Vatican,” I said to my family the night before. “Don’t forget to cover your knees and shoulders.”

“OK,” My daughter and my husband said in unison, while my grandchildren looked at me gloomily.

Having done a lot of sightseeing already, all they wanted to do for the rest of their vacation was “nothing,” and going to the Vatican wasn’t that.

“I can’t cover my knees.” My grandson said.  “All I have is shorts.”

The thing about my grandson is that when he doesn’t feel like doing something but doesn’t want to admit that, he comes up with a variety of dubious excuses. Once in London (my daughter’s family lives in England), when I wanted to take him to a public library, he said, looking at me very sincerely:

“In our country, Grandma, they don’t allow children to public libraries.”

That was such an obvious fabrication that I burst into laughter. A librarian myself, I knew that although the case can be made that the Brits like their dogs more than they like their children, they surely build public libraries with children in mind.

“You’ll be OK,” my daughter said to her son. “I have your track pants.”

Here my granddaughter chimed in.

“My ankle hurts,” she said. (She was jumping all over the rented apartment five minutes earlier).

Yet, to her utter disappointment, I reached into my extensive first aid kit and pulled out a muscle relaxer, so a visit to the Vatican became inevitable.

 

“Your tickets don’t include any museums.” Our tour guide said, looking at our reservation, and my grandchildren’s faces lit up, while their mother’s expression soured.

“What does that mean? I said. “Are you saying that we won’t be able to see the Sistine Chapel?!

“That’s right. Unless you buy additional tickets.”

“Sure,” my husband muttered under his breath. “Let’s fleece the tourists.”

Yet we paid extra and — with 30 other sightseers – headed to our destination.

 

At first, the tour guide showed us around the Vatican’s grounds, and then she herded us to the additionally-paid-for museums. Of course, these were not the kind of museums I was used to — with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. These were ostentatious displays of unqualified power and wealth: gold-leaf ceilings, sumptuous decorations, luxurious carriages and pope-mobiles and, of course, famous paintings and sculptures. It was overwhelming and I fully expected my husband to comment on that or to say something inappropriate. Like the time when we were in Florence, walking around Michelangelo’s statue of David, and our tour guide said, “Does anybody see anything unusual about this sculpture?”

“He’s not circumcised,” My husband said immediately.

At that point, I quickly withdrew my hand from his and pretended that I had never seen him before, while our female guide raised her eyebrows and — not waiting for my husband’s other insights — quickly informed the group that one of David’s legs is shorter than the other, and if he were standing  up straight, we would clearly see it.

This is time, thought, a body part comment came out of the mouth of my 14-year-old grandson.

“Why did they tell us to cover our knees and shoulders?” He said looking around. “There are naked pictures all over!”

That was a very good question, but while I tried to come up with an appropriate answer, the dense crowd of visitors picked us up, pushed us through several galleries and flights of stairs, and deposited us into the Vatican’s Jewel – the Sistine Chapel.

With every inch of its surface covered with frescoes, the Chapel did look like a jewel box — or rather a jewel box filled with ants, as the visitors stood there shoulder to shoulder. My pulse quickening with anticipation, I lifted my gaze to the ceiling, fully expecting to be struck by another Michelangelo masterpiece — “The Creation of Adam.” Yet from where we entered, the famous fresco appeared backwards and I couldn’t make much sense of it. I spent some time craning my neck and twisting my body, so I could see both God and Adam the way I was used to from observing numerous reproductions, but the collective noise and heat emanating from the crowd made me feel lightheaded and I switched my attention to the walls.

Unfortunately, the number of people pressing on me from all sides did not allow for much maneuvering. Besides, to my horror, I suddenly realized that not only did I lose sight of our tour guide, but I also lost sight of my daughter and, worse, my grandchildren! The only familiar figure I could spot in the distance was my husband’s.

The loss of my daughter in a strange city was somewhat distressing but clearly, I wasn’t in a position to save every member of my family. Therefore, I stopped looking at the frescoes and began scanning the crowd for the kids. Thank goodness! They were only twenty yards away, so I desperately pushed my way through the overheated bodies, grabbed my granddaughter’s hand with one hand and my grandson’s with the other and pulled them to the exit, toward the pennant carried by our tour guide, which loomed far ahead.

Before we exited the chapel, I glanced at the ceiling for the last time. From this direction both God and Adam looked right, and feeling relieved that I finally solved the puzzle of the creation and my grandchildren were safely in my hands, I left the building.

 

On our last evening in Rome my husband and I went to the Trevi Fountain. The night was starless, and by the time we reached the famous fountain, set against a baroque palazzo and brightly lit from all sides, it looked like a turquoise oasis in the dark desert of the night. People crowded all around it — talking, taking selfies, or just enjoying the view. So many people, in fact, that we couldn’t get close to the sparkling water — even less to toss a coin without landing it on someone’s head. Instead, we kissed. And it was a nice moment.

When we turned to leave, I noticed a young couple with two little girls just behind us. The man looked Middle-Eastern and the woman wore a headscarf. They, too, were trying to take a selfie, but the girls, who were too young to recognize the uniqueness of the moment, kept twisting and turning, making it difficult for their parents.

Had I met that family somewhere else, I would never have approach them. Had I met that man in any other crowded place, I would have put a distance between us. Yet here, by this fairytale fountain that spoke of romance, hope and goodwill, I looked at the pretty woman and the cute girls, and said:

“Would you like me to take a photo of you?”

They did.

I took several pictures, handed them their phone, and we left.

 

“Too bad we couldn’t toss a coin,” I said to my husband on our way back.

“Do you want to return to Rome?” He said.

“Sure …” I started. But then I stopped.

The one way I would enjoy that — I realized — would be returning here all together, hopefully when my grandchildren are older and can appreciate it better. As for me, my happiness does not depend on this city or this fountain. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any patch of earth. For me, a Jewish Russian immigrant to America who lost her roots a long time ago, whose parents passed away, and whose daughter no longer lives in the same country, happiness is defined by being needed, being able to help and also being able to create memories that will live after I’m gone.

It also depends on relationships – between me and my family, among my friends, and, ultimately, among all of us humans — no matter where we came from or where we’ll go next. Or, to put it simply, on everybody following the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

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After the Funeral


1-IMG_8428Several month ago, my husband’s aunt died, and we drove to Kentucky to attend the funeral.  It was a cool but sunny November day – not sad enough for the occasion but also not too depressing to make one feel that life is meaningless.  Aunt Anne would’ve liked it, too; she used to enjoy spending time outside — playing golf or going out on a pontoon boat.  She was from the category about which people say, “they don’t make them like that anymore:” tall, active, with a decisive expression and an equally decisive mind – a piece of which she never hesitated to share with you.  She was also a long-standing Democrat (who knew there are Democrats in Kentucky?!), and in fact, she voted by absentee ballot from her hospital bed several days before her death.

There were many people at the funeral, and a Baptist minister, a middle-aged stocky man, gave a nice eulogy, obviously designed to make those left behind feel better.  (Well, he did say that God grieves when a Christian dies, which made me, a Jew, wonder about my situation.)  Afterwards, women from the church provided a potluck lunch, giving the grieving family a chance to talk with people they don’t see often and reminisce about the past.  Not having seen the Kentucky relatives for a while, I couldn’t help notice that those I remembered as early middle-aged looked quite a bit older, and those I remembered as kids looked mature – some of them already parents on their own, and it was good to see this never-ending renewal, as it was sad to think about the never-ending departure.  After the service, the minister continued his vigil, cheering teary-eyed family members and greeting out-of-town relatives.  He had the mild manners of a good Southerner and the soft touch of a person who officiates at baptisms and weddings as well as funerals.  At the end, he approached us, too — asked for our names and where we came from, and then said, “What church do you go to?”

Being the only non-Christian there, I felt slightly uncomfortable with this question, so I mumbled under my breath, “Well, I’m Jewish,” hoping to end the conversation.  But, to my amazement, my husband suddenly said, “We go to a synagogue.”

We do?! – I almost said loudly but stopped myself just in time.  The thing is that I go to synagogue on the High Holidays only, which amounts to one or two visits a year — depending on my willingness to suffer through the long sermons the main topic of which is trying to shame those in the audience for not coming more often.  As for my husband (who is not Jewish!), he joins me only if I threaten him with passing all that suffering on to him — which usually works once a year.  In any case, after I got over my husband’s surprising statement, I started inconspicuously pulling him by the sleeve, for the only thing I expected next was an attempt to save us by immediate conversion, so a quick retreat was in order.  Yet I was wrong.  Instead of proselytizing or banishing us from the holy grounds, the minister, without missing a beat, broke into a monologue about his days in divinity school and his experiences with learning Hebrew and Greek.

On our way home, I kept thinking about Aunt Anne, what a strong person she was, and how she always knew what she wanted — even for her funeral.  Then my thoughts shifted to my eventual departure.  At first, I contemplated whether I want to be buried in the ground, according to the Jewish tradition, or cremated.  Then I realized that I have a bigger problem on my hands – where would my funeral take place?  In America?  I have only one close relative here – my husband.  In Israel?  My parents and sister live there, but a Jewish burial has to take place within hours, which, logistically, would not be possible.  Also, the last time I talked to my mother about this subject, she said that she wants to be buried in Moscow, next to her parents!  And if my mother is not buried in Israel, why would I go there?  As for Russia, that is the last place on earth where I want to rest.  It was bad enough to live there for 39 years; there’s no way I’d go back dead or alive!  Now, I had just one option left – London, which my daughter made her home.  Yet I quickly discarded that idea, too, for my daughter has enough things to do while working, going to school, and raising my two grandchildren.

Not finding any solution, I gradually dozed off — still searching even in my dreams.  When I woke up, the sky was turning dark and we were already in Illinois — yet another place I would cross without leaving a trace.  I straightened up in my seat, looked at the rapidly disappearing lights, and, suddenly, it came to me – what does it matter what happens afterward?  As long as I live a good and honest life.

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

 

Choices


I hate having choices! Where I grew up (in the former Soviet Union) we usually had one choice. For everything. In fact we were happy to have that one choice, because most of the time we had none at all. For example, if you saw a line for winter boots, you wouldn’t be picky about the size they had left by the time you reached the counter. You’d try to make them fit (if nothing else, that was a good exercise in building your character), or, in the case of absolutely irreconcilable differences between your feet and the size of the boots, you’d pass them on to somebody else – a family member or a friend.  The same went for jeans, bras, and any other essentials.  Most of the time, when we saw a line, we wouldn’t even ask what it was for – we knew we needed it.

The upside of that life style was that we had no confusion.  Here in America, you can’t order a sandwich without being showered with multiple choices of ingredients, condiments, breads, etc.  And that is not to mention that at the end, the sales clerk will ask, “For here or to go?”  When I heard that for the first time, I – fresh off the plane – said, “Is there a particular place I need to go to with my sandwich?”  (Just kidding, I couldn’t have said that.  I spoke no English then :).)   I was also asked if I wanted a “bottomless cup,” which left me almost in a state of paralysis, for how could a bottomless cup hold any coffee?!

Another thing that is wrong with having several choices is that as soon as you make your choice, you are responsible for the outcome of your decision. This is exactly why my husband avoids making decisions altogether: where we should go on vacation, where we should stay when we get there, etc. In fact, he doesn’t even choose the movies we see! Which means that I am the one who makes all these decisions and who suffers the consequences (well, I usually let him know that I’m suffering, so he’s not completely oblivious).

And you know what his indecision does to me? I’ve become really and truly neurotic. When a waitress walks me to a table, I am never happy with that table, so I ask her if we could sit at a different table – which inevitably turns out to be even worse than the first one, and I have to start all over from the beginning. Actually, my problems start even before my husband and I walk into the restaurant – at the moment when he asks me where I’d like to go for dinner.  This usually happens on a Friday night – when my decision-making ability is depleted by working 5 days in the library and dealing with whatever that may entail. (Did I tell you that the last time I was the librarian-in-charge somebody jumped off the second floor balcony, and I had to call the police and the ambulance, and then talk to three traumatized bystanders who tried to prevent the guy from falling and killing himself? — Don’t worry. The jumper landed on his feet.) In any case, the last thing I want to do on Friday night is to make another decision. So, I say, where do you want to go? And my husband says, where do you want to go? And after several rounds of that, he finally names a place – which is never the one I want to go to. You’d think that after 15 years together he’d know better! Yet he never does. Even worse, as soon as I convey that fact to him, he says, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” And I say, “Because before I didn’t know that I wouldn’t like it!”

Jokes aside, we make choices every day, and even the smallest of them change us in some ways – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and at other times both. Yet we rarely know in advance which one it will be. The most important choice I’ve ever made was to leave my home country. Was it a good choice?  Yes, it was, and I am glad to have made it. But I am separated from my sister and my parents, who now live in Israel, and my daughter decided to spread our family even further – she, as well as my two adorable grandchildren, lives in London. These are the consequences of my decision. Did I see them coming? Of course, not. As Kahlil Gibran said, “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.”

Going back to choices, a week ago, we all made our choice. Let’s hope it is a good one!

P.S. Do share your stories with me, would you?


©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved