Back in the saddle again…


Ah, Roma~

I returned late—very late—Sunday night from Rome, Italy, and there is so much to talk about.

This was my seventh visit to Roma and every time I go I am reminded of my first trip there in Sept of 2001 with Richard and our mothers. Roma was our final destination and, considering that we were in Firenze (Florence) on 9/11, our arrival in Roma 3 days later proved to be a comforting place until we finished our trip and could fly home.

When we go to Roma now, Richard and I stay in an apartment just north of the Vatican (check out the entry on Oct 18 for info on the apartment), but on our first trip we decided to stay in a B&B—actually, a convent (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0809138484/ref=ox_ya_oh_product ) just around the corner of a tiny alley from the Piazza Navona. Staying at the convent was more about inexpensive, affordable, and clean lodging than it was about a religious experience. The nuns were fantastic and they certainly made us feel welcome, safe, and secure at a time when we felt so disconnected from our home and country.

This year, after checking into our apartment and heading out into Roma to explore the city that we love, Richard and I found ourselves bent over laughing in the Piazza Navona. Now, it may have been due to the fact that we had been awake for about 24 hours by that point, but I think it was truly more about a memory of our time in the convent with our mothers and with one nun in particular—Sister Ada (pronounced “ah-dah”).

Sister Ada was a cheerful, older nun, in her 70s, who always greeted us with a warm smile and a caring nod of her head. The convent was always bustling with nuns and other guests, but over the course of our three-day stay we bumped into her the most.

Staying at a convent can be a challenge. There is a nightly curfew and the doors are promptly closed and locked—and not with a simple key, but with a large Frankenstein castle bar that swings down and fits into large steel brackets on the interior side of the door. A large mob carrying torches and using a large tree truck for a battering ram would have an almost impossible feat ahead of them in trying to get in. In actuality, when the clock struck 11:30 p.m. and the large 14-foot-tall doors were closed, the bar lowered and secured, and the large skeleton key inserted and turned in the lock, it felt more like we were being locked in rather than being protected from any outside harm. The rules were strict: if you weren’t back inside by 11:30 p.m. you would locked out of the convent until the doors were opened at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. Period. No exceptions.

Well, the dungeon-like security of the convent was comforting, but it did pose a problem. We had a 6:45 a.m. flight on the morning of our departure, which means that I scheduled a car service to pick us up at 3:30 a.m.—in front of the convent. Are you ahead of me yet? We were going to need to be sprung from the nunnery during the lockdown hours. I didn’t really think of this when we checked in on that Friday, but on that Saturday I woke up in a panic trying to figure out how we were going to be able to get out to meet the driver early Monday morning.

After breakfast, I approached the sister who was working the reception desk and explained to her our need to get out Monday morning and my concern about it how to make it work. She assured me that all we had to do was to “…come downstairs early Monday morning and call for Sister Ada and “BOOM!” she will appear.” We all jumped a little when this sister said, “BOOM!” She was rather forceful in her tone and she made a large sweeping gesture with her hand, as if Sister Ada would spring up from some secret trap door concealed in the floor.

“Really, all we have to do is say is Sister Ada…” I started to say, but before I could complete the sentence—“BOOM!” this nun replied, again sweeping her hand up in the air—more like pulling a rabbit out of a hat than the trap door her gesture implied the first time. We all laughed, but she shook her finger at us in complete confidence.

Over the next two days, whenever we passed this nun in the hallway I would say, “Sister Ada.” “BOOM!” and a swing of the arm would be her enthusiastic response. Again, we laughed and her finger wagged.

That weekend in Roma with our mothers was truly special, but in the back of our minds loomed the insecurity of being on one of the first regularly scheduled flights back to the states after 9/11—and the insecurity of being let out of the convent Monday morning.

On that Monday morning, the four of us only had three hours of sleep before we woke up, showered, dressed, and quietly hauled our suitcases down two flights of stairs and into the foyer, stopping at the reception desk. All the while feeling like prisoners trying to make a secret escape. A convent is a solemn and somewhat serious place during the course of the day, but at 3:15 a.m. it is an absolutely silent and desolate building. It was now time to conjure up Sister Ada.

We all looked at each other, blurry-eyed and laden with luggage, before I took a deep breath and rather sheepishly said, “Sister Ada?”

Silence.

There was no “BOOM!”

“Sister Ada?” I said, louder this time but still not at full voice.

Silence.

“Well, damn…where’s the BOOM?” Richard’s mother said in her Southern accent. Of course, that made us all burst out laughing, and immediately we hushed each other, covered our mouths, and tried to regain composure.

Silence.

Panic now set in. It was almost 3:30 a.m., the Frankenstein bar was down, and there was no Sister Ada. We each started looking for doors and began tapping on them and saying, “Sister Ada?”

“Okay, seriously, where’s the boom?!”

She was not behind the door to the hallway linen closest, nor in the chapel, or behind the several other doors that opened onto the foyer. We started branching out farther down the hallways and “Sister Ada” was no longer a polite question whispered into the sleeping convent air. We were desperate and needed out.

“SISTER ADA!”

“Si, si, si. Un momento,” and from behind a door down a long dark hallway appeared our Sister Ada—wearing her habit on her head and a floor-length dressing robe. She greeted us with her usual smile, turned the key, raised the bar, and swung wide the large front door, revealing our waiting car running at the base of the convent’s front steps.

“Arrivederci. Buon viaggio!” And with that, Sister Ada waved us off and closed the door.

On this morning, eight years later, as we walked through the Piazza Navona, we saw the alley leading to the convent, and at the same moment Richard and I turned to each other and said, “Sister Ada…BOOM!…Where the hell is she?” And laughed.

I love Roma!

**The attached photo is from a very famous shop in the Testaccio neighborhood of Roma. Volpetti (www.volpetti.com ) is an amazing place filled with cured meats, salami, cheese, wine, and a selection of freshly fried vegetables including zucchini blossoms. One of the men working there noticed us drooling over some of the many prosciutto on the shelves and quickly sliced off tiny pieces of one from Spain and another from Parma for us to taste. He moved on to giving us samples of several cheeses and dried figs. He drizzled the most exquisitely sweet and tangy balsamic vinegar over a little chunk of freshly broken off Parmigiano-Reggiano that he placed on a small slice of bread. We were hooked! We bought a bottle of the vinegar, some slices of pizza, and a small bag of the assorted fried vegetables. He was a smart salesman and we loved every bite.

Buonissimo~

Have I said yet how much I love Roma and the Italians?!

Ciao e a presto~

Mark

 

About the Author

Mark LeslieMark Leslie, seen cooking on NBC’s "The Today Show" and Hallmark Channel's "Home & Family," loves to cook for anyone with an appetite, vacations in Italy every year, and lives to eat his way through every plate of pasta and cone of gelato placed before him. His first book, “Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family,” tells of his life in Italy while cooking with an Italian grandmother. He shares his food experiences on his blog at www.beyondthepasta.com and has taught cooking classes in California, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, and across Alabama. While judging for high school culinary events, he was chosen by the US Department of Education to judge for their "National Education Startup Challenge." Mark can be regularly seen cooking on NBC-affiliate, WSFA-TV 12's "Alabama Live! each Friday, bringing easy, locally sourced recipes to central Alabama. His iTunes app “Beyond the Pasta” features helpful videos and more of Nonna’s family-style recipes that she shared with him, plus, upon its release, it was named “New & Noteworthy” by Apple. DaVinci Wines chose Mark as their "2012 Storyteller" in Language Arts—where they sent him to Vinci, Italy, to write about wine, food and life. Mark, his home and book have been featured in such national publications and blogs as House Beautiful, Paula Deen, Food Republic, The Kitchn, Apartment Therapy, Field & Stream, and The Daily Meal. A Chicago-area native and “Yankee” by birth, Mark has lived in Alabama for over 24 years, and celebrates the fact that he started life eating farina, progressed to grits, and finally arrived at polenta. Buonissimo!View all posts by Mark Leslie →

  1. SJSJ11-20-2009

    Great story, Mark. Loved it!

  2. Mark LeslieMark Leslie11-21-2009

    Thanks! The story of that experience always reminds me of the humorous way Italians look at situations. They certainly love to have fun–and explaining that a sister will go “Boom!” when she appears to you is a great example of that. Hope you read the other entries in the blog and enjoy them as well. If so, I hope you’ll pass the link along to others. Ciao e buona giornata~ Mark

"Beyond the Pasta" is owned and operated by Mark Leslie. Unless otherwise specified all content, writing, recipes and photography is original and held in copyright through the Library of Congress. It may not be used without the express written consent of Mark Leslie.