The best way to see Rome is from the back of a scooter. A scooter is small, it dips in and out of lanes, and it squeezes between cars at traffic lights to jockey for pole position when the light turns green. The pulse of Roman life begins when you give yourself over to the mayhem of the streets – whether you’re on a scooter, bicycle, or bus; in a car; or just hoofing it – but the best way to see the city is absolutely by scooter. This isn’t an opinion, this is a fact. One of the quintessential scenes in “Roman Holiday” has Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck cruising around The Eternal City on a Vespa seeing the sites. Are you going to deny that Aud and Greg know how to see a city? I, certainly, am not.
After I survived the two strokes in September, 2012, my neurologist gave me a list of a few activities that I could never again take part in because they could potentially reinjure the torn artery in my brain–the cause of my strokes. This list included riding a horse, bungee jumping, sky diving, riding motorcycles or other two-wheeled machinery, white water rafting, and even receiving neck massages. (A few others like boxing and head banging were added to the list with an overtone of obviousness.) I had never taken part in the majority of the activities on this list – the biggest shame being riding a horse – and my desire to jump out of a plane or wrap a rubber band around my ankles and leap off a bridge was absolutely zero. Sure, not getting a massage ever again would decrease the pleasure of my life about .05% and I’d certainly have to ease back in to playing guitar on stage with my band, but I didn’t worry about the rest of them too much.
My favorite place in Rome is a small square in the neighborhood of Monti called Piazza della Madonna. There’s a fountain surrounded by a couple of bars and restaurants and a small store to buy booze and potato chips, and people flock there like pigeons (which do indeed flock there, too). It feels like the corner of the balcony in my high school lobby at which my friends and I hung between classes. It was the center of our universe. People came and went, stopped by to say hi, met girls, made weekend plans, and just reveled in the good life. But Piazza della Madonna is a thousand times better. You know, because you can drink there.
In the days following my strokes, the doctors and hospital staff told me to ease up on the intake of greens, onions, lentils, and the like. (Strange when a doctor tells you not to eat your vegetables.) But these foods are high in vitamin K which has countering effects on Coumadin, the medication I was taking to keep my blood thin. And thinning the blood helps the torn artery heal and prevent another stroke. Needless to say the hospital food was even blander when the veggies were removed. On the day of my release from the hospital, the doctors went over a general nutrition plan to keep me healthy and my stomach full when I got home. As we reviewed the materials, I asked, like all good patients would, “What about booze?” “Booze is fine, actually. Not too much, of course. But a couple glasses of wine are ok with dinner.” Odd, I thought. But awesome. I never liked onions anyway.
In the two times I’ve visited Rome, Piazza della Madonna has been the most frequent meeting point for my Roman friends and me. The first time I arrived in Rome in April, 2012, I picked a hotel on TripAdvisor that was near the Colosseum because it was the one place in Rome I knew anything about. And, shit, it’s the COLOSSEUM! It was a total shot in the dark. I stayed at the Hotel Canova on via Urbana which is a twelve minute walk from the Colosseum and a five minute walk from Piazza della Madonna, which is where I first met up with my only Roman friend.
My first night out of the hospital after eight nights being monitored by a team of nurses in the ICU was terrifying. I was all alone in my small Los Angeles apartment and the fear of another stroke was quite high. The journal entry I wrote that night was this:
Eight days later…
I almost died. I almost died.
The last week of my life was almost
the last week of my life.
And I fear that the threat might not be over.
That I may die tonight.
Everything I eat is poison.
Only water can sustain me.
My death is inevitable.
But fear is not.
This is my lesson.
And my distraction.
If only I can quell the fear and sleep.
Don’t die tonight.
On May 3, 2014, the day after I arrived in Rome for the second time, Piazza della Madonna was again the meeting place for my friend and me. We grabbed a couple of beers from the shop, sat on the steps of the fountain, and caught each other up on two years of life stories not easily translated through Facebook posts. When the beers were finished, we decided to cruise over to Trastevere for aperitivo. As we approached my friend’s scooter that was our best mode of transportation to shuttle us through the twisting Roman streets, I hesitated for a moment. I thought about the doctor’s orders about not riding a two-wheeled vehicle. I thought about the headache I had during my first stroke that doubled me over. I thought about the blind spot I am left with because of the permanent brain damage to my occipital lobe. I thought about the twenty months of lurking fear I have endured, like waiting for an earthquake that may or may not strike. I thought about jumping out of an airplane with no parachute. I thought about my being convinced of my own impending death that first night out of the hospital. But most importantly I thought about my waking up the next morning. And that I’ve woken up every morning since. I made it back to Italy; a prospect that I never imagined in the weeks following my two strokes. But there I was on Via dei Serpenti, helmeted, scooter at the ready. I slipped on my sunglasses, flipped down the helmet’s visor, climbed aboard my friend’s scooter, and held on for dear life as we proceeded to snake through the mayhem of Roman streets. As we crossed over Ponte Palatino, I straightened up, opened my arms, and tilted my head back. The sun poked through the parting clouds and the wind eased its way through my moustache. Disobeying doctors’ orders was never so liberating.