December 9, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Clear 10°C

Goodbye to all that

All roads lead to Rome, which makes tour guides a staple of city life.
By Alexandra Bruzzese
Published: 2016-09-30

esterday, I officially concluded my run as a Rome tour guide. Ask any English-speaking expat what he or she does or did to make money here, chances are most will tell you about teaching, tourism, or maybe a gig at an international organization.

After a brief and unfulfilling stint as a children's English teacher (how grateful I was to bid farewell to JoJo the sock monkey), I followed the road most traveled and became a tour guide.

I never pictured myself in the role, or even actively sought out the job. In a moment of jobless desperation — the school I taught in closed down — I sent a desperate email around to all my Rome contacts. I got one reply, and it saved me.

Never mind that even public speaking made me queasy and that I'd never even been to the neighborhood I was supposed to know inside out, I was in.

What seemed like a last-ditch effort actually turned into a something that lasted far longer than I'd anticipated. What was supposed to be a six-month interim job ended up lasting a startling three years. And while my childhood drawings of adult aspirations included one with the words "FUTURE BALLERINA!" and another with the line, "I want to be an ornithologist!" my time as a guide did anything but disappoint me.

Never mind if you don't know the city. Just talk...

I became an expert story collector. I remember the widow who was on her first solo trip to Italy; the blonde, all-American, Bernie Sanders loving couple that could've passed for brother and sister (they got engaged at the Trevi Fountain right after my tour), and the middle-aged blogger who described me in his review as "zesty" and "like a sexy schoolgirl." "You sound like a seductive bottle of Paul Newman's Italian dressing," my friend commented.

I also met an endearing stream of Italian-Americans delighted to see that "prosciutt" (prosciutto) and "gabagool" (capocollo) were available at neighborhood delis. A British couple recruited me to track down the morning after pill following a boozy night at their hotel suite. There was also a world-renowned operatic soprano who concluded the afternoon with an aria from "La Boheme" as the rest of the group — Australian women in their 80s — grew misty-eyed and waved their handkerchiefs.

The job got me front row tickets to the Met and a steady stream of tips. But it also conferred a superpower: I can now make conversation with a rock.

On days when my group was eerily silent, I dubbed my tour the "Four Hour, One-Woman Show." I developed a near-immunity to embarrassment. Maybe that was because I knew I'd never again see the people I was.

Whatever it was, it worked. When I accidentally proclaimed that one group's pasta was dressed with "peckers" instead of "pecorino and pepper," I didn't even blink.

Yet all good things must end, as I explained in my resignation letter. During my last tour, a burly woman from Fort Lauderdale said, "It must be great to be in Italy and away from all the awful things happening in American politics right now."

"Oh, yeah," I responded. " Trump is absurd."

Bad choice. "I don't mean him," she said. "I mean Hillary."

A grandmother on vacation with her daughter and grandchildren took me aside at our first stop. "Trent turns 13 today, and I'd like you to sing him Happy Birthday in Italian." My remark about not being embarrassed needs amending — I don't sing, not even in the shower. I was suddenly taken back to middle school music class, when I was forced to sing the scale alone as mean girl named Chandler Budlong-Springer smirked.

Her request made me chortle nervously. Ten minutes passed before she took me aside, her eyes glittering. "Did you not hear me when I asked if you could sing Happy Birthday?" At the end of the tour, she asked again, this time a little menacingly. "So, when you do your solo, would you like backup vocals from me, or do you prefer to go at it alone?"

Salvation came in the form of a nearly toothless local seated outside the gelateria with a guitar. Typically, he sang Italian folk songs. Thankfully, Happy Birthday was also in his repertoire.

The final scene was anti-climactic. Trent emerged with his cone, as the stranger burst into song. Trent blushed, looked uncomfortable, and when it was over mumbled thanks as raspberry sorbet dripped down his shirt. The Trump supporters waved goodbye. Trent's grandmother gave me a few euros in tips and squeezed my shoulder in farewell.

To celebrate, I spent the tip money on a gelato, savored it, and then, neither happy nor sad, quickly left with the last physical evidence that I'd ever been a tour guide.

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Alexandra Bruzzese

An avid reader and writer, Rhode Island-born Alexandra lives in Rome with her identical twin sister.

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