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Luigi’s Story

May 23, 2012

The Trevi Fountain.

Rome, Italy:  I met Luigi by the Fountain de Trevi, just after nightfall.  I was sitting to the right of the fountain, tucked away on a rock ledge slightly above the crowd swarming around me, yet curved under the level of the actual street.  It was a perfect vantage point from which to observe the thrumming masses, while having a little space of my own.  I saw hordes of high school and college age students turning their backs to Triton and tossing coins over their shoulders, in a motion reminiscent of a superstitious housewife tossing salt backwards to ward off bad luck.  There is a legend here, that if you toss a coin behind you into the Trevi Fountain, then you will return to Rome.   I flung a coin or two myself into the swirling waters of Bernini’s masterpiece.

After having my photo taken with an enthusiastic Italian fireman and ensured my return to Rome, I people watched properly and began to write in my travel journal.  After maybe ten minutes of these pleasurable solitary pursuits, I looked up and there was Luigi.

Luigi stood illuminated by the lights from the fountain, rail-thin, with hooded eyes, dark hair, and a day growth upon his chin.  The circles under his eyes were pronounced and seemed to indicate a hard life of liquor, cigarettes and labor.  I wish I could remember the particulars of what he said to start the conversation; I just recall a general feeling of curiosity with limited caution, as his overtures didn’t seem motivated by the usual cocktail of sex or familiarity without friendliness. He asked me about what I was writing on.  I explained in brief my trip around Europe, and about how I enjoyed writing about my experiences to remember them better.  He said that he decided to talk to me because he was curious about my having started my memoirs half way down the blank page.  We were delightfully frank and direct with each other, having nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so.   The American twenty-something and the Italian 41 year old, discussing humanity by the Trevi Fountain.

Luigi, smoking a cigarette on the Spanish Steps.

His English was good, but not perfect.  We worked around and slowly teased meaning out of some of his more creative uses of the language; my Italian was non-existent, so was I to judge?  I found out Luigi knows how to speak Italian and Spanish fluently, English almost so.  Fifteen minutes into our conservation, Luigi asked me if I believe in God.  I said no, and this made him think.  He told me that he believes in God, but that he is re-evaluating how active his God could be, given what was happening in the world.  He said he derived meaning from living in moment these days, only the moment, because the future was uncertain, and all you could be sure of anyway was yourself as an acting body, not the tendency of who you think you are.  We discussed George Mead’s vision of the acting ‘I’ and the thinking ‘me.’  He said this kind of thinking is intuitive, but he disagreed that a concept of self can only exist within a framework of other minds to compare itself to.

Luigi told me he was happy living in the moment.  But he always got quiet for a minute or two after the repeated assertion.

He asked me what I thought about people.  I clumsily explained my own vision of God as the shared goodness of humanity.  He told me that he did not think much of people, and that in general they were weak and he did not trust them.  He said that everyone lied all the time to protect themselves, and this tired him, it seemed pointless.  He said he appreciated my forthright nature for that reason. Though he didn’t say so in so many words, I got the distinct impression that Luigi didn’t especially like or trust women.  He bitterly asked me why women never initiated conversations with men, why he always had to do it.  I tried to gently explain to him, that first of all, some women do start conversations, and secondly, that often it was dangerous for a woman to initiate because men were very prone to reading more into it than the woman intended.  Luigi agreed that happened, but still didn’t like it.  He also said that women were far too interested in what a man did for a living, and how much money he had.  He paused, waiting for me to ask him where he worked, looking proud and defensive at the same time.  I didn’t say a word.  The roar of the reveling people behind us mixed with the rhythmic rush of the water.

The Spanish Steps at night.

He asked me if I wanted a coffee.  Though I had initially said no, after an hour of chatting, I packed up my bag and followed him down the narrow alleyways to a place he knew that made the best cappuccino in Italy.  He slouched his way into the night naturally, somehow moving more in the cadence of Rome than the tourists around him, though I can’t explain why it felt that way as I walked beside him.  We reached the un-prepossessing coffee joint, and drank our coffees standing up, him with an espresso, me with my admittedly divine cappuccino.  I paid for both of our drinks.  He didn’t fight me on it either, but acknowledged his thanks.

We arrived at the Spanish Steps.  Without prompting, Luigi started to talk about his family in a disjointed fashion, organized on an emotional, rather than narrative structure.   Luigi lives with his mother.  His sister is pushing him away, thinks he is a loser, and he doesn’t get to see his little nieces or nephews often.  His little brother is dead, for reasons unexplained.  I gleaned that Luigi was unemployed.  Had been for a long while now, and it tore at his pride and sense of self.  He didn’t tell me what he used to do, and I didn’t pry.

He offered me a cigarette, which I refused.  He looked hurt, so when he offered me a piece of chocolate from his coat pocket, I took it.  I got the impression that his diet, that day at least, had been a medley of chocolate, coffee and cigarettes only.  He assured me that if he had a little bit more money, he would have taken me out for some pizza at this place he knew.  The cigarette tip burned orange against his lips before he snuffed it out on the ground.

The next hour passed with the conversation focusing on lighter matters: Luigi wished he could travel more, had been to the United States a long time ago, but wanted to return.  He offered to take a photo of me, I took several of him.  We discussed how white is not really white, but comprised of a whole spectrum of colors.  He seemed to really get it.

At last it was getting late, and I thought it best to return to my hostel.  Luigi wrote out his phone number and address in Rome; he had never, once in his life, used the internet, didn’t care to, and therefore had no email address.  He didn’t see the point of the internet- it wasn’t something tangible, and therefore, useless.  As I tucked his address away in bag, he seemed a little lost again, like he didn’t know what he would do with himself once I left him there, on those steps.  His hug goodbye was fierce and desperate, yet surprisingly soft and comforting, considering I was hugging someone I met only hours before.  He showed me to the closest metro stop.  And that was that.

Luigi almost ceases to be an individual and becomes a caricature; a middle-aged Italian man, unmarried, unemployed, living with his mother, and just ‘hanging out’ at night.  He embodies the modern version of the pauper-philosopher.  And it is easy to abstractly intellectualize about the high unemployment rates in Europe, bemoan the failing Euro, and forget that these are real people we are turning into statistics.  These people bleed and think and feel and have a heartbreaking sense of their own impotence in making an impact on the world.  Luigi shouldn’t be a lost person: he is intelligent, and witty, and relatively self-aware.  I feel for him.  Two days after our conversation, I was gone from Rome.  I had funds to go next to Venice, and from there, further abroad.  And Luigi lingers by the Trevi Fountain, watching people toss their Euros carelessly into the Baroque sculpture so they can return to a place that he can never leave.

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