My first summer of law school, missing Italy like a phantom limb, uneasy about marching into a big-city firm job, I emailed every American lawyer in Rome until one created an internship for me. I sublet a room in a quiet Trastevere street with a couple, an Italian musician by the name of Marco, and his American girlfriend, Anna. Marco was a pin-thin, dead-sexy, grimy drummer in a punk band. Anna was petite, bosomy, bespectacled, with a dark bob and bangs, a mini Velma from Scooby Doo. We were instant friends, and I felt a maternal urge to protect her, even more so because Marco made me uncomfortable. He had an unsettling way of staring at me silently, letting unease spill out of head and onto my face, before answering a question. He was forever working on a song called Clap your Pants, Rock my Head, and while his English was technically perfect, he spoke in jagged tumbled phrases that made comprehension feel like trying to read a reflection in a broken mirror.
By day three, Marco’s strangeness crystalized into rampant alcoholism. He took off after dinner and was gone all night; he came home wasted, triggering a barnburner of a row. This would repeat on a nightly basis. Their other friends shrugged and excused it as “their thing,” but I felt for Anna, who cried herself to sleep every time. I not-so-gently encouraged them to break up, and after a fight that ended with Marco barging in and throwing a male friend (paramour?) down the stairwell, she ripped off the band-aid and he angrily moved out.
After Marco left, the lens through which I recollect our time together is covered in Vaseline. Fresh flowers and bubbling pasta sauce replaced the stink of his smoke-filled Peroni bottles and sweaty t-shirts. I went to work every morning and called Anna over lunch—the Mastroianni to her La Loren—and asked her what she’d be making for dinner. On my way back from the bus, I’d yell up to our window from the crooked cobblestone street, and Anna would drop down 3 or 4 Euros from our kitchen change jar so I could go to the corner store and get a couple of tomatoes, an onion, some plonk. If I found more change in my pleather tote, I’d throw in some peas or a “good” can of tuna. Anna cooked, we talked, and after dinner we’d go up to the 6th floor terrace and make evening plans over a twinkling view of St. Peter’s.
And what plans! On a combined weekly income of about $200, we had to be creative; long chatty walks through the city, way-off-peak daytrips to Florence and Siena, catered events with my colleagues, wandering into the piazza and hitching rides wherever anyone we knew wanted to go. One night after a beach bonfire in Ostia, we fell asleep in a friend’s car and woke up to sunrise on a cliff above Naples, 150 miles away. It could have been glorious if I didn’t have to be at work in 3 hours—and if Anna had been able to see it (her glasses were buried the previous evening in the Lido sand).
We one-upped each other with grand, albeit free, gestures. Anna loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers but we didn’t have enough money to buy Californication, so I begged a musician to play the entire album on his guitar in exchange for a pasta dinner on the roof. I thought I had won the best friend contest until she met me at work one day and said we were going to see Sonic Youth play the Palladium. We definitely didn’t have the money for the tickets; did she get it from Marco, I wondered? I started to worry as we approached the venue and she shushed me, walking me behind the stadium to a clearing in the trees, up a hill, and into a clearing populated by happy ragamuffins, perched on the side of the hill, with a perfect view of the stage from above the retaining wall. My delight was doubled by the mozzarella sandwiches she pulled out of her pockets as we sat down.
Four months and 25 lbs later (thanks to 120 pasta dinners), I left in tears, promising to write. I returned home to the first twinge of Ann Arbor’s endless winter, and my second year of law school. Both Anna and I were bereft; circumstance had torn us apart right as we were building the world’s greatest friendship.
Then, a miracle: Anna moved to Ann Arbor and took up residence at my apartment, where, at first, I tended to her like a beloved pet. I introduced her to my friends and she fed and charmed them as she had me, for a few weeks. After that, my rosy image of her began to fade. The spirit which had been so charmingly free in Italy seemed reckless at home. She up and drove to New Orleans with a friend after a conversation at a dinner party, and moved back in a huff after a fight. The take-her-anywhere amiability had been revealed as a lack of identity, as she compulsively picked up the habits, interests, and sometimes, even accents of her new friends. I never stopped to consider that she had shed her old life, and was in the process of figuring out her new one. Instead, I just wrote her off as annoying. Her flexible schedule, so convenient when it manifested itself as an orderly Italian apartment, translated domestically to drinking beer in front of the TV all day. Our Sofia and Marcello dynamic became an Edith and Archie one as our relationship disintegrated. Like so many vacation affairs, ours just couldn’t exist in my real world.
Perhaps some souvenirs shouldn’t be brought home; ponchos, beaded cornrows, even romances. But thankfully, I’ve been less of a jerk to the Heideckers, who my husband and I befriended while traveling. Tim and Marilyn were standing next to us at baggage claim at Orly a few years ago, and we exchanged polite words about seeing each other in Paris, assuming it was never going to happen. That night, we bumped into them on the street and succumbed to fate. A drink turned into hours at Café Flore, and the foundation of a fond friendship. We live at complete opposite ends of LA, so I know they must actually like us. Also in tow were our mutual friends, Dave and Casi Kneebone.
Our feast was as far from Italian as possible. Marvin Gapulto’s Filipino masterwork, The Adobo Road Cookbook, was a Rodney purchase I hadn’t paid much mind, because I’m ashamed to say that, despite my braggy grasp of geography, I’ve been conflating Filipino food with Hawaiian. I am an indefensible ignoramus, and owe the world and my stomach and apology, because I could eat this food every day.
Side: Bean Sprouts with Tofu
Fried tofu is delicious, and so are bean sprouts. I’ll make this again as a hearty veggie main.
A lighter version of the grease trap you get at Thai and Chinese restaurants. Highly recommend.
Main: Chicken Adobo
STOP THE PRESSES or FREEZE THE INTERNET or whatever, Chicken Adobo is a miracle. I don’t like vinegar or whole peppercorns on their own, but they mellowed each other into a perfect sauce. It’s also the second-easiest chicken dish I’ve made, after Keller’s idiot-proof roast. Lay thighs skin-side down in a pot, add the rest of the ingredients, and cook for as long as you feel like it. Pour over sticky rice and glug. Our 6-person party ate 12 persons’ worth.
Dessert: Sweet Corn and Coconut Panna Cotta
My first departure from chocolate, and another good staple, easy to fiddle with the flavors for different meals. This Asian one was coconut and corn, Indian could be chai masala and almonds, etc. A solid addition to the rotation.
After dessert we discussed podiatric ailments, because we are old people who had run out of things to say about our kids. I looked around the table at our guests’ warm faces and was grateful that I’m not in my idiot 20s. My friendship with Anna was the only one that has ever ended poorly, or ended at all. The shorthand I’ve given over the years goes something like this: “we were really close, and then she moved in with me and went nuts.” I realize now, surrounded anew by vacation friends whose lives mirror our own, that it wasn’t fair to expect her to conform to my life. It was never my place to interfere in her relationship—to create an image of what would make her happy, and then to take it away when it didn’t work for me any more. She didn’t change at all; my perspective did. I came back to my actual life, and then packed up my incongruous sombrero for Goodwill. And Anna, wherever you are, I’m sorry for having done it.
Bonus recipe: Anna’s Pasta with Tuna and Peas, which I make all the time.
1 small can tomatoes
1 can tuna, packed in olive oil
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1/2 bag frozen peas
crushed red pepper to taste
Soften the onion in a generous amount of olive oil. Add the tuna and cook until warmed through. Add the red pepper, tomatoes and peas, bring to a boil and simmer until reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper as necessary, and toss with penne.
Next up: The India Cookbook
Trastevere photo credit: wantedinrome