KarmaCafe: A meeting place where those who travel pass through the doorway find meaning, redemption and understanding as they discover their lives intersect in surprising ways and that we are all interconnected in some manner.
This is not my story. Rather, this a story about all of us. Our story will be told through the likes of Alessia, Luca, Marieke and Matteo. As each travel on their own journey, there is a piece of common thread among them that weaves in each of us. Perhaps you may relate on a personal level, but also through your relationships that interconnect us all – a friend, relative, neighbor or acquaintance.
VIGNETTE #1: Alessia was furious that friday morning, still livid at her sister from their conversation the night before. After all, they both got the news about their Father last night but only Alessia leapt into action and immediately booked a ticket to Rome. “Why on earth am I always the savior of the family?” Alessia cursed out loud, as the taxi driver nervously peered through his rearview mirror. “She knows I have a great career and hate flying and yet she cannot even get on a train from Florence to help out the family? She’s a barista, for God’s sake! It’s not like the cafe will even notice she’s gone!” Alessia was prone to outbursts and simply could not control herself this early morning. The taxi driver again glanced up, wondering if his temperamental passenger would be good for a tip. “Eh, pardon, madame,” he stuttered, “which airline at Charles de Gaulle airport?” He was deftly navigating the side streets of Paris with one eye on the road and the other on his attractive customer, who was clearly out of sorts. “Alitalia, per favore, avanti” Alessia answered, her mind already in Italy. “Va bene, Signoria,” he replied, surprising her with his perfect Italian and getting the reward he had hoped for as Alessia flashed a smile. Alessia felt a brief bolt of energy from that exchange before surrendering into a long yawn after her sleepless night. She gazed out the window as the sun was slowly advancing up the horizon in this pre-dawn morning. She was so restless, climbing the walls all night, that she felt she had to get out of her apartment and just be in motion, movement, any kind of distraction for her busy mind. Her flight wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. but she just needed to be with people, see activity and the flow of energy, to calm her anxiety. How ironic, she mused to herself, that she chose to arrive early at the airport to relax herself when she has such a dreaded fear of flying. But somehow this all made sense to her at this moment as she sighed a deep breath.
The taxi driver expertly weaved into the perfect drop off spot in Terminal 2 and Alessia tipped him handsomely as he handed her her small suitcase. “Buon viaggio,” he said happily as he spotted the ten euro tip. “Merci, Monsieur” Alessia replied, returning the favor of speaking in each others native tongue. Alessia made a mad dash to the ticket counter, thinking she could then finally relax with ticket in hand. She was surprised to see the Alitalia area empty and strolled right to the ticket agent, flashing her passport and asking for a window seat. “Ma Signoria, your flight does not leave for 4 hours, why are you here so early?” “Si, si, lo so,” Alessia replied, now feeling foolish, “I am just so excited to return home I could not sleep,” she fibbed, surprising herself how well she just sold this lie. “Ah, then I have good news for you. We have an earlier flight leaving in 20 minutes – if you hurry we can get you to Rome in time for your morning cappuccino!” “Perfetto,” Alessia flashed her winning smile for the second time this early morning and raced towards security with her new boarding pass.
As soon as Alessia’s flight touched ground at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, she raced to the adjoining train station for the short trek to Centrale, Rome’s main station in the heart of the city. She packed light, affording her the advantage as she weaved through the confused tourists with her small luggage stroller. She bought her 9 Euro ticket at the self-service kiosk and climbed aboard just in the nick of time. Twenty-two minutes later, she raced out of her train to the nearby bus station to catch bus #64 to Campo dei Fiori, a bustling piazza. She always grabbed a window seat as she loved observing how the skilled bus drivers navigate the chaotic cobblestone roads. Alessia took pride in being pragmatic by taking public transportation but it was her way of immersing herself in the culture. By the time she arrived at Campo dei Fiori, she was perfectly acclimated to her home, bell’Italia, once again. She leapt off the bus with renewed energy, racing down the colorful Roman alleys toward the Tiber river as Trastevere was just on the other side. Trastevere literally means Beyond The Tiber and, although the neighborhood is flooded with tourists, it also has the largest hospital for locals which is precisely why Alessia’s father was rushed here last night after collapsing with heart pain.
Alessia quickly discovered navigating the corridors of the hospital is as frustrating as getting assistance in the banks as she could not get any details on her Father. She poked her head into a few rooms, searching for a nurse, a doctor, concierge, anyone. She finally cornered an administrator who said several staff members were on a coffee break and to return in thirty minutes for details.
Exhausted and exasperated, Alessia decided to go for a walk just to clear her mind and get her sanity back. It had been a whirlwind of events this morning and she felt out of sorts. She was looking for a panini but stumbled on an intriguing cafe and has never been one to resist a good espresso, especially one that seduces you with their aroma from the street. She walked into the charming cafe which was buzzing with energy and brimming with friendly chatter. The vibe inside had such a welcoming ambience, with soft colors and cozy, plush chairs that she could feel herself instantly decompress. The sign above caught her eye which read Welcome to KarmaCafe: cause & effect in a cup of coffee. Hmm, how enchanting, Alessia thought, as she soaked in the atmosphere. As she looked around, she quickly observed how social everyone was. No one appeared to be alone and, equally odd, no one was glued to a computer or iPhone. There were small groups and gatherings everywhere as the ambience was so conducive to enjoy the coffee experience and not just simply to get a caffeine jolt. This was clearly a destination for connection, for friends to gather and talk among one another.
Alessia was beyond fatigued from the events of the day but despite not being in a sociable mood, she felt energized by this happy crowd. It seemed a flashback to simpler times, when people went out to be with other people and connect with their community. It also reminded her of one of her favorite things to do on a lazy Sunday, sitting anonymously in a beautiful piazza on a summer day, simply watching her fellow people and happy to feed off their buoyant energy. She didn’t need to be an active participant, but simply observe and soak it all in as she found this to be a calming influence to relax.
As she sipped her espresso and was comfortably taking in this soothing environment, Alessia noticed some commotion in one corner as a group of young people were talking frantically. The conversation was friendly, but escalated in tone due to concern. She could only make out bits and pieces, words like “up in flames”, “a spectacular fiery crash”, “horrific”, “worst nightmare”. An older man who had an earpiece plugged into a radio appeared to be giving updates to the group. Alessia summoned the courage to walk over and ask the old man, “Mi scusa, che sta succedendo?”, trying to grasp what is going on. “Signoria,” the old man looked up with fear in his eyes, “a plane just crashed into Fiumicino airport and burst into flames. Mio Dio. Incredible, no survivors!” Alessia was taken aback, steadying herself on a barstool. “It was an Alitalia flight,” the old man continued, pulling out his earpiece, “arriving from Paris.” Alessia collapsed to the floor, realizing that was the flight she was originally scheduled to fly on this morning.
VIGNETTE #2: Luca settled into the comfortable booth at KarmaCafe, thrilled to be back in Rome and his favorite coffeehouse. There is an inexplicable vibe, a magical frequency, he always connects to both in this magnificent city and magical cafe. He took a long sip of latte, feeling satisfied and content. Sometimes we have to run away from ourselves in order to find ourselves again, he mused to himself, and these escapes to Rome always found redemption within. He pulled out his pen and started to write:
“Dear Roma: You have welcomed me when I was lost in this world, when I was in love, when I was in deep pain and despair, when I was rich with happiness, full of hope and desire. You have seen my many moods and the depths of my emotions, yet faithfully received me every time with your omnipresent wisdom. Don’t change, Roma, never change.”
The words just flowed from his pen, on Italian stationary he would mail to himself to joyfully receive back home a few weeks later. Rome is indeed the Eternal City, Luca thought, forever shining brightly for centuries. She has borne witness to it all, the full spectrum of human emotions: Lust, greed, agony, wonder, despair – not to mention the ones Luca just inked. Luca peeled the two stamps necessary to deliver his message across the pond, licking the backsides of the stamps and carefully affixing them to the upper right corner of the envelope. His tongue cringed at the dreadful taste that just moments ago had the robust flavor of espresso.“Un altro?” The Barista asked, almost on cue as if he knew how bad those stamps taste. “Si, anche un acqua,” Luca replied, preferring to wash that taste out with water first before enjoying a second latte.
Luca always arrives into Rome with such exuberance and renewed energy, ready to explore any adventure. He is a different person here, feeling so unencumbered from all the things that weigh him down so heavily back home in the States. Granted, many are of his own making: the walls and boundaries that are self-imposed, the rigid daily routine, the absence of spontaneity. It’s hard to escape it when you’re in the midst of it. He keeps falling into that trap, a gradual lethargic acceptance of his new reality until at some point he convinces himself this is his new normal. It creeps up on him so slowly as the habits become more ingrained day by day. He becomes too consumed with the minutiae in his own life, dealing with his own needs, desires and problems to rise above and see the bigger picture. Ultimately, he buys into the belief system that this is all life has to offer as he can no longer see the forest for the trees. He has seen this pattern repeatedly and now knows that only by shattering that existence – by extricating himself out of his daily routine and flying to a foreign land – can he break free from these shackles and reflect on an optimal life he wants to create for himself.
Luca stared out the window from his booth at the KarmaCafe, watching the busy street of Roman life pass him by. This is such a welcome respite, he reflected, to be so far removed from his daily grind back home. It allows the notion for fresh perspective and even revolutionary new ideas. Perhaps like finding a new line of work or even seeking love. Okay, Luca chastised himself, let’s not get carried away into a dream world. Rome is not a miracle worker, just a very cool city so soak in the moment and enjoy this glorious sabattical. He gazed outside again at all the buses, scooters, pedestrians, tourists – all going in multiple directions like a movie unfolding before his eyes. Chaos, pure chaos, but an organized chaos that somehow thrives successfully without incident. A Vespa zipped by right past his window with the post office flag and big mail bags balanced on both sides of the seat. Luca was always so amused at this sight…could you imagine your mailman in America pulling up in a scooter to deliver your daily mail? Oh! He just remembered there was a mailbox around the corner and raced out the door to drop his letter off to beat the Vespa. And that’s when he collided with Marieke.
VIGNETTE #3: Marieke took a deep breath and seriously could not believe what she had just done. She had been down this road so many times, always ending in disappointment and heartbreak. And yet, here she did it again just a few minutes ago, agreeing to go on another date. “Am I really so desperate?” she pondered, applying lipstick to her chapped lips. “Do I really think this will be different?” Einstein once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And yet, here, once again, she just agreed to meet someone for coffee with a stranger she met online. She has bounced around on so many internet dating websites that it was hard to manage her various usernames and passwords and even once referenced the wrong site when asking how long the guy had been online dating. She was a hopeless romantic, but always getting those hopes dashed. She always went out with highest of hopes and a burst of optimism, only to quickly discover chemistry simply cannot be captured on a computer. It is that intangible quality that words and photos cannot distinguish that is the essence of love. “But maybe Simon will be different,” she sighed out loud, brushing her long chestnut hair and trying to put her best game face on. Oh well, at least Simon was geographically desirable and even suggested meeting for coffee at her favorite coffeehouse so all will not be a total loss. She mustered up the energy, vowing to give it her best while simultaneously making a silent pact with herself that this will be her last hurrah. This is it, no more online dating. I’m either going to marry this guy or go the old fashioned way, hitting the bars late at night all liquered up and finding a guy just as the bartender declares last round for closing time. Marieke laughed at her own twisted humor but instinctively knew there’s truth in humor. Hey, desperate times require desperate measures. Unless, of course, Simon turns out to be Prince Charming. Then she will forever embrace the internet gods.
Marieke entered KarmaCafe right on time and quickly scouted the surroundings. It was such a warm atmosphere, with a jovial buzz of laughter and camaraderie. She always felt so comfortable here, in her element, her home away from home. But her smile rapidly vanished as there was no sign of Simon yet. She was hoping to spot her date, looking handsome holding a bright red rose. But no such luck. She grabbed a corner table and waited. And waited. She fidgeted for her iPhone in her purse to see if he texted her with a feeble excuse but then remembered she never brings her mobile here. KarmaCafe frowns on customers using their phones inside so they never installed Wi-Fi and politely ask people to step outside in the event they receive an important call. The manager, Matteo, explained this was a place to disconnect, a sanctuary from the stressful modern world, to be in the moment and relax among friends. At first this blew Marieke’s mind. What a crazy business model, who on earth would come here? She vowed to gulp her cappuccino down and race home to log into Facebook and tell all her friends. And yet, after experiencing some calm and serenity, she now found this to be the most compelling reason she keeps returning. She actually noticed the robust smell of coffee, savored the rich flavor as she slowly sipped, took time to admire the beautiful decor, listened to the conversations surrounding her and even made some new friends. All her senses were enhanced as she felt engaged and connected with the moment.
But all that was lost now at this moment. Simon was twenty minutes late and Marieke could feel her shoulders tighten up. A man casually strolled in, glanced around and came towards her way. No, please God, this could not possibly be him. He was dressed in flip flops, cargo shorts and a wrinkled t-shirt and looked like he had just woken up or headed to the beach. “Marieke,” he shrieked, confirming her worst fear, “Piacere!” Marieke stood up, despite feeling the full force of gravity weighing her down, as she stared into his face. He looked at least ten years older than the photos online, was he posting his high school yearbook pics?
Without even apologizing for being twenty minutes late, Simon launched into his work and projects he was working on. He was so busy, and apparently so important, that he never thought to ask about Marieke’s life as he rambled on and on. Marieke quietly sipped her coffee, noticing the magical KarmaCafe effect abandoned her for the first time. And when Simon then commented she reminded him of his ex wife, she nearly broke down in tears. Insult upon injury as she was quite sure his profile never even mentioned being married before.
Simon was feeling emboldened by this encounter, apparently oblivious to Marieke’s pain and flashing signals that she was not interested. He suggested they walk down to the piazza for lunch and before Marieke could answer, excused himself to freshen up. He headed toward the restroom just as Marieke was pretty sure she just threw up in her mouth. Panic struck her. She knew she had to think fast and come up with a legitimate excuse on how to bail out of lunch. But then the rage seeped in as she asked herself, what do I owe this self-absorbed guy who just ruined my morning? She was so fed up, tired of dating, disappointed with heartbreak. She just wanted to go home and throw her computer out the window to stop this online dating madness. Never again, she vowed, never again. Suddenly, in a surge of confidence and redemption, she grabbed her purse and bolted for the exit. And that’s when she collided with Luca.
Vignette #4: Marieke went sprawling to the curb as Luca slammed into the Vespa, the very mail carrier he was trying to race to the mailbox. That’s one way to ensure he gets his letter off in time! Marieke’s purse flew off her shoulder, the contents pouring onto the cobblestone streets. Lipstick, mascara, gum, tampon, pills…all for the nosy Romans to witness and now freely judge. It was liking opening your apartment to the masses. Horrified, she leapt to her feet to collect her things but was surprised to see this young American spring into action and scoop up her stuff as he kept repeating “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” Several bystanders taking their passeggiata were trying to assess the situation but Luca was quick to remove all the evidence off the street and stuff it back in her purse. Nothing to see here, Luca’s rapid response conveyed to the crowd.
Their eyes met as he stood up, locked in silence. Two strangers feeling an instant connection as time froze and the world stopped spinning. Something felt eerily familiar as a sense of calm descended on the two of them. In what felt like hours but was seconds, Luca finally broke the ice and held out her purse, saying “I believe this is yours” with a chivalrous grin. Marieke smiled, sizing him up as his hair was disheveled from the fall, then noticing his Ray-Bans were still on the street. What a gentleman, she surmised, collecting her things before his precious sunglasses. She normally despised all the sloppy American tourists that invade her city but seemed strangely attracted to this one and quickly forgot all about the date from hell minutes ago. Luca pretended to look away but she caught an approving glance as his eyes noticed how her sundress tugged on her curves. Again, their eyes locked with an unspoken word that feelings were mutual.
A scooter zipped by, rolling right over Luca’s Ray-Bans, crunching them into several pieces. Luca groaned as he knelt down to pick up the mangled frame and shattered lens. “Ohh, I just bought these!” Luca said in a surprisingly cheerful tone despite worshiping his beloved sunglasses. He didn’t want anything to ruin this serendipitous moment with this attractive new stranger. Marieke shyly said, “I know a place, I mean, these street vendors, we call them Marrochinos, that sell these glasses for super cheap. I can show you where, I mean, if you are free at this moment.” Luca looked over Marieke once again as she flashed her warm smile, reminding himself that some of his best memories in Italy were when he surrendered to the moment and seized the opportunity, and this beautiful stranger was a precious opportunity indeed. “Andiamo”, he declared with great enthusiasm.
Vignette #5: Alessia stirred, then finally opened her eyes. She was aware of commotion around her but was too dizzy and disoriented to make sense of it. She could see a colorful fresco, slightly covered by a modern ceiling fan whirling above her, a convergence of old and new world. The blades of the fan would cross right over a cherubic angel with large wings. Alessia wondered if the angel could fly with her gorgeous white wings, propelled by the motion of the fan. She blinked a few times, as her last memory was waking up at the crack of dawn in the tranquility of her Paris apartment. Now, she heard noises, voices, as someone yelling “acqua, acqua!” splashed water on her cheeks and forehead. She immediately sat up, finding her bearings and realizing she was not alone in her apartment. Like a highlight reel fast forwarded at turbo speed, her mind replayed all the key events of this morning…taxi, plane, train…’til her mind collided with the present moment only to discover she was on the floor of KarmaCafe surrounded by concerned strangers. Italian strangers. She quickly grasped she was in Rome and sprang to her feet. Matteo, the owner, cautioned, “pazienza, bella, piano piano” but Alessia was fully aware, the color back in her face. “Mio Padre,” she remember, “lui e in ospedale!” as she raced out of KarmaCafe back towards Trastevere.
Alessia got all her energy back as she raced into the hospital. Once again, her frustration levels spiked as the corridors were empty of any staff. She finally chased down a nurse with a clipboard, who informed her of the doctor’s name that was going to perform surgery. Surgery? The nurse indicated the surgeon was with her Father conducting some biometric tests and Alessia raced down the hallway as soon as she heard the room number. She burst into B408 and saw a young man in scrubs leaning over her Father, taking his pulse. Her Father looked old, drained of energy which, in turn, instantly drained the color in her face once again. And, yet, she could not take her eyes off the young man tenderly holding her Father’s wrist. He was lean but muscular, with long jet black hair tied back in a bun as if to showcase his high cheekbones and thick sideburns. Alessia treaded closer as he looked up at her, offering a smile that exuded warmth and confidence. “Buon giorno,” he said, continuing in perfect English, “you must be Alessia, the daughter of Giulio.” “Si, I mean, yes, I am”, Alessia replied, torn between staring into his green eyes and her dear Father grimacing in pain. “Piacere, I am Dottore Cantu. Giulio had a very difficult night but we finally stabilized him. I will give you some privacy but please find me so I can explain your Father’s condition.” He flashed that tender, disarming smile and disappeared. What was he, 35, 40 years old? How could he possibly be Papa’s doctor, thought Alessia.
Alessia turned to her Father, reprimanding herself to focus on him and not the dreamy surgeon that just walked out. She tenderly brushed her Father’s hair back as she assessed his health. He looked pale and fatigued, but calm, almost resigned to whatever fate has intended for him. Alessia always admired her Father’s steady demeanor, the strong and silent type that could weather any storm. So much so, that her pattern of boyfriends always had this personality trait despite often wishing for someone more expressive that could articulate his feelings. Perhaps this was why she was still single in her late 30s. Her mind drifted back to Doctor Dreamy down the hallway as she whispered to her Father she needed to talk to his doctor.
Alessia tapped lightly on Dr. Cantu’s door, who was feverishly typing in medical notes into his computer. He spun around and offered her a chair, once again disarming her with his mild manner. “Allora, so you arrived by train from Florence?” he asked, trying to break the ice. “No, no, my sister lives in Florence. I flew from Paris.” “Mio Dio”, the doctor said, “we were just talking over coffee about this horrible plane crash, that could have been you!?” The walls started to spin and Alessia felt faint, reliving the drama in her mind. She took a deep breath and proceeded to tell him the dramatic events that transpired, all the while noticing his very attentive bedside manner. He listened so carefully, making her feel like she was the most important person in his world. Alessia nervously babbled on, describing her hectic morning from leaving Paris before sunrise to collapsing at a coffeehouse. “Incredible,” Doctor Cantu said, shaking his head in awe, then pausing before saying, “you must have good karma.” “Funny you say that”, blurted Alessia, “because I collapsed at this cute little coffeehouse called KarmaCafe!”. “Mio Dio”, the doctor said once again, “my brother, Matteo, is the owner of KarmaCafe.”
Vignette #6: Matteo was still thinking about the brunette. Usually, he was keenly aware of all the pretty ladies that enter his coffeehouse but this one slipped under his radar. It was only when she had collapsed had he noticed this delicate beauty. How did he miss this one? I must be losing my touch, he mused. Worse yet, he never even got her name as she raced out as soon as she regained consciousness, mumbling something about her Father in the hospital. Oh well, he lamented, easy come easy go. It’s a revolving door of beautiful girls here but this one made a lasting impression into his memory banks. He promised himself if she returns one day to not let her slip away so quickly before learning her name. Normally a shy guy, he was in his element here and took full advantage of it under the pretense of being a concerned owner as he could approach any gorgeous gal and simply ask about their coffee experience; after all, he was the owner simply interested in satisfied clientele. Sneaky, he acknowledged, but quite crafty as he laughed out loud of his manipulative ways as it proffered many phone numbers.
Matteo surveyed his café and was proud of the ambience and décor. It had a spiritual vibe without being overbearing, with carefully placed Buddha statues and wind chimes delicately fanned by the spacious open windows. Business was steady with a constant stream of customers, often the same ones returning later in the day. He observed the room, recognizing several familiar faces and new ones, typically tourists, who were always initially annoyed and confused by the No Wi-fi: Disconnect to Connect sign prominently displayed. Perhaps, he wondered with a jolt of excitement, that brunette may reappear. Lightning can strike twice, and he would not let her get away so fast next time. Basta, he said, shaking his head, there is work to be done here as he reprimanded himself for not staying focused. He went behind the bar to his tiny office to count receipts and prepare paperwork.
Twenty minutes later, one of his baristas walked in with a cappuccino for Matteo. Cristina always flirted with Matteo and atop the skim milk was Amore skillfully written. “Well done, mia cara”, as he playfully rubbed her arm. Most of Matteo’s female staff (and some guys) had a crush on the boss but this capo made it clear there were no lines to be crossed at his coffeehouse. Kristina purred, then added, “your fancy schmancy doctor brother is here asking for you”. Matteo always dropped everything for his older brother, some type of Pavlovian conditioning. Without even sipping the cappuccino, he raced out of his office to greet his brother who was sitting under the fresco with the cherubic angel. And there she was again, her!, his dream brunette, sitting next to him! Matteo dropped the cappuccino, shattering glass all over the floor.
Vignette #7: They say all great couples have an amazing story on how they met, as if the Gods were watching from above and orchestrating this serendipitous meeting. In hindsight, Olivia thought she had such divine intervention with an encounter many years ago. Born and raised in a small town in northern Italy, she had lived a fairly sheltered existence, never even traveling out of Italy. Sure, she had traversed up and down her narrow country by train several times and was fluent in three languages (Italian, English, French), but the reality was that she was rarely exposed to outside cultures and never even been on an airplane.
And so it was, at the tender age of 25, Olivia boarded her train amidst the chaos of the Rome central station to return to her small town up north. Though she was in her mother country, Rome could not be more different than the orderly calm of her neighborhood back home and she felt relieved to escape this madness: the hustle and bustle, the assault on all senses, the beeping, honking, yelling, bumping, pushing all made her head spin. Couple this hysteria with the fact that she was exhausted as she had studied all night for her exam she just completed before racing to the busy Stazione Termini to catch her train now and she was beyond fatigued.
Olivia took a deep breath as she sunk in her seat, observing to her delight that the train was only half full. She stretched her legs out in her aisle seat and plunked her massive textbook in the middle seat to deter any last minute wanderers to sit next to her. The conductor blew the whistle signaling they were ready to embark and she exhaled one more time, already envisioning the tranquility of being back home. Just as the train started to move, a young man emerged into her cabin looking for a seat. He was a contradiction of sorts: rushed, as he caught the train with seconds to spare, but controlled with a quiet confidence as if he always enters a train with no margin for error; a foreigner, perhaps Dutch with his blue eyes, but dressed Italian with his skinny jeans and Armani shirt. Olivia eyed him discretely with a combination of suspicion and intrigue as he came into full view.
His eyes searched for an open seat and Olivia followed his gaze as he arrived at her row. Mi scusi, he politely said in perfect Italian, as Olivia lifted her legs so he could pass by to take the window seat diagonally across from her. She did not look up, nor answer, and he made no apparent attempt to make eye contact.The passenger comfortably flopped into his seat with an apparent ease that clearly demonstrated this was his regular mode of transportation and stared out the window as the train rolled out of the station.
Olivia reached for her textbook and buried her head into the pages. Only when the train entered a tunnel and the cabin went dark would she sneak a glance towards the stranger at the window. She was curious, and her trained eye surveyed for clues. He had dark features, a wavy Euro haircut and Italian clothes but his black Nike shoes didn’t fit the pieces of the puzzle. Was he American? All the Americans she ever saw were fat and dressed sloppy with baseball caps, but this mysterious guy was slim and meticulously dressed so now she was really confused. Oh well, she figured, he’ll be getting off the train in Florence in 90 minutes with all the other foreigners so what does it matter as she has another two hours on this train after he departs in Florence.
But unbeknownst to Olivia, the man would selectively steal a glance towards her too. When the reflection from the window caught the perfect light, he could see her with great clarity. There was no mystery here as the pieces fit the puzzle. She was the archetypical Italian with long flowing black hair and almond shaped eyes. Her outfit screamed Italy from head to toe and she was super slim the way only Europeans seem to genetically be. Once, just as the train emerged out of a tunnel, he caught her glancing his direction and smiled to himself.
The train slowly rolled into Santa Maria Novella, the central station of Florence. It was too late now, Olivia thought to herself, for any chance meeting with this stranger as he will surely disembark here. There was a bit of commotion as a few people got up in the cabin to grab their things and get off the train. But the stranger at the window stayed comfortably in his seat just gazing out the window. A tinge of excitement ran through her veins at the possibility of buying more time to randomly meet this stranger. She ran the calculation in her head and the next big city stop was Milan, a two hour destination. As if on cue, the stranger looked directly towards her and smiled shyly, as if to show he was pleasantly surprised she did not get off in Florence either. Perhaps a second chance at a first chance gone awry. Their eyes locked in a moment for what seemed like a blissful eternity, but it was only a few seconds before she looked down at her textbook and he out the window.
The train made its subtle exit from Florence and immediately submerged into a series of tunnels. Olivia would sneak her peaks in to gather more information on this mystery man in the darkness and he would reciprocate at opportune moments to get a glimpse of her from the window reflection. They both were intrigued but neither could tell what the other was thinking; they were five feet from each other but it felt like worlds apart. If they could read each others minds, they would realize there was an intense attraction shared between them but both were equally shy individuals. Worse yet, the man presumed she only spoke Italian and he was nowhere near fluent other than a few popular phrases so how could he possibly communicate with her? They both seemed resigned to the fact that it would be impossible to break the ice as she reached for her textbook again and he gazed longingly out the window. Lost in translation.
The man finally nodded off as they were in an endless tunnel so Olivia took advantage to more freely check him out. He actually checked many of the boxes off that would qualify as Italian: slim, not tall, tight fitting attire, floppy dark hair, olive skin; but all the intangibles pointed elsewhere. She leaned in more intensely and subsequently forgot she was staring at him as they emerged out of the tunnel just as the train rocked violently. He abruptly woke up and immediately turned toward her reflexively. Their eyes locked again in the new light and they smiled, almost knowingly, that there was a connection as so much was communicated in that instance, without a word being spoken. Before he could overthink his words, the man blurted out what are you reading? Of all the clever things he was trying to think of to break the ice, this was not one of them. The book nervously dropped from her lap as it slid to the floor. He reached for it and was shocked to see the title Italian Literature written in English. She brushed her hair back behind her ear with her delicate fingers and tepidly replied in perfect English I am a student in theatre. The man perked up, now wide awake but stuttering his words You, you speak English? She seemed offended. Yes, of course! stated so matter-of-factly that the man felt dumb for asking the question. I, I didn’t know the man retreated in his seat, taken aback by her strength and feeling foolish for such an idiotic inquiry. She immediately sensed this and softly added I thought you would be getting off in Florence, where are you going? Olivia surprised herself as she would never be so forward to a stranger but it seems they were both playing off of each others energy and breaking boundaries. Their eyes were still locked as they both seemed to calibrate and process this precious moment. I am going to a small town, it is where my parents live, he paused, adding I am sure you never heard of it. Olivia smiled confidently, after all, she had home court advantage and studied Italian history, art, even topography and would surely know even the smallest town in the northern region of Italy. And so? she smirked, her unique way of saying I dare you to share an answer I don’t know. He liked her mannerisms as she flipped from shy to strong to flirty in a matter of seconds but all in a very feminine way. They live in Monza, a town outside of Milan he casually replied thinking nothing would come of this. But that is impossible!! I live in Monza!!! Olivia nearly jumped out of her seat as she put her hand to her mouth. Her almond shaped eyes were now the size of golf balls as if a fire alarm went off in her head. But that is incredible, I usually just say Milan as no one knows Monza! the man was equally stunned as this coincidence was too eerie. They shared a quiet moment, staring at each other with warm smiles, trying to digest this news. And then Olivia did the most natural thing that came to her mind, she moved to sit next to this man.
They both have traversed this journey up and down the Italian landscape by train more times than they can remember, but this was the only train ride they wish could go longer. The conversation flowed like champagne in the winning locker room at a super bowl party. She came to discover that he, Vittorio, was indeed American but visited his parents every year and was traveling in Rome with a friend before returning to Monza. His Father was Italian and Mother was American so he intimately knew Italy and the ways of the people despite being raised American. Vittorio did not comport with all the generalizations and stereotypes Olivia held of Americans but simultaneously had all the familiarity of an Italian which made this encounter all the more intriguing to her. Meanwhile, Vittorio was counting his lucky stars that this gorgeous Italian was now sitting next to him, exuberantly engaged in conversation.
As they pulled into Milano Centrale, Olivia said her Father was arriving at the station to drive her home. They both knew there was a separate train to catch from Milan for the 30 minute commute to Monza and this was Vittorio’s intention on how to get to his parents home. But now he could see the wheels spinning in her head. Olivia was making a game time decision and blurted out come with me, my Father will drive you home.
Olivia’s Father was suspicious of this American from the moment he stepped off the train carrying his daughter’s suitcase to when he pulled up to Vittorio’s parents home to drop him off. Vittorio sensed this tension but they managed a casual conversation on the drive into Monza despite Olivia sitting in the front seat and Vittorio in the back feeling like he was in a taxi. The Father was clearly in control as pulled to the curb and abruptly said okay, here you are in broken English, implying you are free to leave and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Vittorio hesitated, unsure of the moment and that this could all abruptly end in seconds. Olivia did not get out of the car, to Vittorio’s great disappointment, as she looked torn between behaving submissively to her Father and following her heart. There are so many key moments in the early stages of love and one critical misstep and it all blows up; it is all such a fragile, delicate process that can crumble like a house of cards with one miscalculation. Vittorio reached for the door handle to let himself out, thinking could it really all end like this, right here, right now? Think fast! He hesitated, then spontaneously said Olivia, my parents have the information you want for that opera, can I give you their number so you can call them when you need it? Olivia turned around to face Vittorio in the backseat, looking like a deer in headlights. They discussed many subjects on the train but opera was not one of them and she was processing the moment carefully connecting the dots. The Father was closely observing Olivia’s reaction, unsure if this was a credible offer or clever move. Yes, yes, the opera Olivia stammered, fumbling for her textbook give me the number as she wrote it down in the back cover. Vittorio exited the car with no hug or any assurance he’d ever see her again. Ball’s in her court he mumbled to himself, feeling deflated, with confidence running at an all time low he would ever hear from her. Thirty minutes later, while having dinner with his parents, the phone rang.
Their first date was a mix of familiarity and novelty. Olivia had roamed these streets of Monza for her entire existence yet now saw them fresh through the eyes of this American. She was a fun tour guide, showing Vittorio her family’s lamp shop, having an aperitif at the bar where she had her first drink and then dining at her favorite hole in the wall restaurant. They had a running joke between them to talk about the opera which neither found important at the moment. Vittorio had navigated these same streets many times himself but Olivia knew all the shortcuts and hot spots and he felt as if he was experiencing this all for the first time. The conversation flowed fun and flirty and even in the quiet moments there was no awkward silence. But she was most eager to take him to her sanctuary, her secret garden, where she goes to escape from the world for a few hours. She had never taken any special guest there and yet she reached for his hand and confidently said she wanted to show him a special place.
Parco di Monza is the fourth largest park in all of Europe and completely walled with a grand entrance for the Kings Palace. But you’d never know that following a long, winding path and entering through a hidden archway that only the locals know and secretly covet. It was dark, nearly midnight, but Olivia expertly navigated the trail as if she could have walked this blindfolded. Vittorio was questioning her sanity, thinking perhaps that aperitif went straight to her head. But it was when they circled around to a gorgeously lit pond with ducks casually floating by that Vittorio had his epiphany on this warm summer night. She smiled, as if to read his mind, and agree this was the perfect intimate setting. It seemed surreal, like a scene from a romantic movie, and so tranquil, a world away from the chaos of Rome. There was a tree – her tree – that had unusual branches flailing from its trunk that magically created a comfortable seating area for two lovebirds, so long as you remain sober and don’t topple over. Nothing more needed to be said, the two just sat there, watching the ducks and sharing their first kiss under the starry sky in each others arms. It was a moment frozen in time.
Olivia has replayed that magical meeting more times than she can remember in the past twenty years. It still all felt so vivid, as if it was yesterday. She would return to her park often, alone, and still feel those butterflies from their evening encounter. Every time she stepped on a train she could visualize her American stranger sitting on the window seat. And especially when she returned to Rome, as she did now, she would fantasize about seeing him in the train station. She had had other romances, as he did too, as they remained faithful pen pals, but the timing never synchronized with their long distance affair. Venus and the Love Gods make it so complicated, she mused to herself as she walked the Rome streets alone, as it requires so many factors to perfectly align to spark a successful relationship. When she was ready, Vittorio was working on a project; when he was ready, Olivia was studying for finals; when she graduated, Vittorio was in a relationship; when his relationship broke off, she just entered one and the cycle continued. Yet, through it all, the emotional roller coaster, they remained in contact and continued to develop a deep friendship now. And yet still, in these sentimental moments, she felt wistful and yearned to turn the clock back twenty years to relive those precious moments.
Her mind drifted off to these nostalgic moments as she navigated the Rome streets and she took a wrong turn into a neighborhood she had not been before. It was late morning and she was in Rome for a theatre casting but had plenty of time so did not panic. In fact, she craved a cappuccino and it was precisely then when she noticed an odd coffeehouse in the corner of her eye. Hmmm, KarmaCafe, what an unusual name, she thought to herself. She wandered in and was taken aback by the energy of the café. The place was full but had a quiet vibe that instantly comforted her. She found the only available stool and as she looked for the barista she could not believe her eyes. There, in the corner, was Vittorio sipping an espresso staring out the window, not unlike how he did twenty years ago on that train.