Last time (23 April), I wrote that Mom bought us bicycles for our birthdays in August of 1958. I turned 11 and David 9. We had moved to a comfortable, ground-floor flat on the Via Aurelia, in the Madonna di Riposo neighbourhood, located at the top of the hill near where three broad, dual-carriageway avenues Via Gregorio VII, Via Baldo degli Ubaldi and the Circonvallazione Cornelia met and intersected the Via Aurelia. Our new neighbourhood represented the western frontier of Rome’s urban sprawl, an effect of Italian prosperity in 1958. Construction was everywhere, but among the new, tall apartment buildings, there were still many empty lots covered with cane breaks. Significantly, the new flat was only two kilometres from our new school on the Via Aurelia. Mom did not want to spring for the expense of the private bus service for that distance, and she was right. We could ride our bikes, take the public bus No. 296 (for 25 lire, four cents US), or just walk.
Once we cleared the blocks west of our building, the Via Aurelia became a simple road, with the opaque walls of various Pontifical Colleges on one side and open country on the other.
She did not know that we could also hitchhike. If one of our classmates’ parents did not stop, we could flag a ride with the school bus. We lived after the last stop on the bus route, so unless they were running behind, the bus drivers did not mind stopping for us.
They recognized the two blond boys, and would pull over if we caught their eye. No one seemed to notice or care when we occasionally got off the bus in the school drop-off zone. Once David was older, we both rode our bikes most days.
David did not ride his bike around quite as much as I did. After all, at that age, two years was the difference between old age and normal. On the other hand, I continued my habit of wandering around during the time between school ending and Mom getting home from work. Only now, I felt liberated: from tram schedules, from ticket prices, from the rails, from almost any constraints as to where I could go and when. We did not have as many hours in the afternoon as before, but I could go more places. And I did.
One sunny day – I think I was still autumn before the rainy season started – I was heading toward our old neighbourhood in the Trionfale section. That required riding east over several hills on the Via Aurelia, taking a left at the back wall of the Vatican City and following the Viale delle Mura Vaticane downhill to the corner where our old elementary school was. On my right, the massive fortifications of the Vatican looked down on the traffic like so many ants; on my left, buildings built in the last two centuries rose from below street level until I reached the school, which went from a metre or two below street level to the grade. I revelled in that descent, which took me past the Vatican Museum across the street from the old school to the intersection with Via Leone IV, where the Viale delle Mura Vaticane ended in a T.
Traffic was always snarled at the end of the descent, because Rome had few traffic lights or crosswalks in those days. The growing crowd of Fiat 500 and 600 automobiles was injecting a new confusion and slowness into intersections that had previously flowed like water sluices, channeling pedestrians, bicycles and motor scooters.
This particular day, I pushed my shiny new bike down into the traffic, planning to move smoothly around the cars, when a white Fiat 500 stopped suddenly in front of me. The brakes were useless, so I pulled back hard on the handlebars and lifted the front wheel.
An 11-year old boy does not weigh much, not that much more than a steel bicycle. I rolled up the rounded back of the car, over the roof and down the rounded front. As I dropped onto the front window, the driver braked, which allowed my bike to move forward off the front of the car instead of down into the street.
I landed square on both wheels, still moving at breakneck speed into the intersection. The whole operation took place in a perfectly straight line, so nothing pushed me to fall to one side or the other.
I can only recall one feeling: embarrassment, bordering on shame. Embarrassed that I had misjudged. Embarrassed that I had scared the driver. Embarrassed that I had hit a car (well, had I really “hit” it?). I had not yet acquired the vocabulary for such occasions, but I only wanted to get out of there – fast. I sped straight for the corner of Via degli Scipioni which was pouring traffic into Via Leone IV about a half-block from the intersection. It was one way the wrong way (and still is today, BTW). I hopped onto the sidewalk and raced into the dark shadows of the side streets.
I never knew whether I had done any damage. No one chased me, and I never read or heard anything about it again. I took a right on Via Ottaviano, two blocks away, then carefully made my way back home, my enthusiasm for adventure sated for that day.
Trip update: I can’t say that I took a trip this week, but I did make a quick (2.5-hour) run to Mondragone on Sunday between finishing installing mosquito screens in the transom windows and the handyman’s arriving to measure the front doors for screens. It was a sunny, cool day with a stiff southwesterly breeze that kept the diesel exhaust out of my face. I rode down the Via Appia and crossed the lazy Garigliano River into Campania. Where the ancient Via Appia turned inland to climb the Apennines to Bari, I continued parallel to the coast on the Via Domitiana.
All around me the vast plain of farms and buffalo pastures stretched from the mountains to my left to the sea on my right. Delighting in the smooth road with light traffic, I completed the 56-km round trip without stopping – and I did not ride over any small cars!
The rest of the week included verifying that my National Health Card will serve to renew my Sojourner’s Permit. Now we just have to wait for the envelope with the application file to arrive at the Police Station. Any day now.
Next week, we will conclude the three-part piece on the bureaucracy of establishing a residence in Europe. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them here.
Beginning this week, those of you who post questions and comments on Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+ will see the replies there and here.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,