Rome Sweet Rome

When his wife was invited to study in Rome rent-free, Stephen Heuser took a six-month sabbatical and tagged along. 'La vita' doesn't get much more 'dolce' than that.

So Jennifer and I enrolled in Italian classes. Every day we trekked nearly an hour to the Piazza di Spagna to spend the afternoon under the crisp tutelage of Costanza, our infinitely patient teacher, wrestling with the past imperfect or the bizarre Italian double-pronoun. ("Did you give him the cheese?" Costanza would ask. "Yes," we'd reply. "Him-it I already gave.") It was one small step for our Italian skills, and a giant leap for our grasp of the city. Pretty soon we could get from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain three different ways; we knew how to find Parliament, the only heated mall, the best gelato.

But I still had to think out my sentences before I said them. I'd greet waiters with a crisp "buona sera" and they'd hand me the English menu. One morning I stood in a café with my friend Carl, an American who gesticulates and fires off ciao bellas like he was born in Italy. He had a brilliant piece of advice: "You can't say 'um.' The minute you do, you're toast." He sipped his macchiato. "Italians just stretch out their words and make an 'ehhh' sound until they think of something else. Or if you really need to buy some time, say 'dunque.' " My dictionary said dunque meant "thus," but Italians use it as a kind of drumroll.

So I started dragging out my syllables, peppering conversations with "dunque-aaay," "cioè-ehhhh," "però-ohhh...." I tossed in a few choice Italian gestures. Part of speaking the language right was acting it, according to Carl, and eventually I felt like I hit a kind of rhythm when I went to restaurants and asked for a table. But I still got the English menu.

We emerged from the Catacombs of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, a giant maze of tombs beneath a remote eastern neighborhood, into a bright February day when my cell phone rang. It was a reporter in Rome who worked with the Globe.

My leave of absence had a string attached: If anything happened to Pope John Paul II, my Roman holiday would be put on abrupt hold. For a month and a half the news out of the Vatican barely stopped. My life orbited the surreal Vatican pressroom where every day the pope's dour spokesman would emerge to deliver the news in Italian. His Holiness invariably remained "tranquillo," despite the painful-sounding things being done to him.

On April 1, we were told that the pope was "conscious, lucid, and serene"; during the night of April 2, he died. I was at home when I heard the news, and I immediately ran all the way to the Vatican. It was like speeding through two worlds in 20 minutes--the Rome I knew, where students still went to bars and families crowded into little trattorias--and a Rome that had suddenly erupted from history, with thousands of Catholics and tourists flocking to St. Peter's, looking up at the pope's empty window, saying Ave Marias by candlelight, packing a square that had been built 350 years ago for just this purpose.

Journalists stepped off planes and wrote about how the Eternal City was being overwhelmed, but nothing could have been further from the truth: Rome had transformed from a place where buying a stamp can be impossible to one that casually kept 500,000 pilgrims housed and hydrated. Tens of thousands of volunteers emerged from nearby towns in matching yellow vests to help maintain order. The Knights of Malta, founded 1,000 years ago to treat sick crusaders, set up a modern, red medical tent right in St. Peter's Square. Every day the city delivered freight pallets loaded with bottled water to hand out to the crowds. This being Italy, the water was sparkling.

Once Pope Benedict XVI said his inaugural mass, once the pilgrims went home and the story died down, I found that Jennifer and I were living differently. We stopped carrying a map. I could arrive at an unfamiliar bus stop and figure out, in 15 seconds, whether to hop on the bus or not. We knew if a cabdriver was taking us the long way.

The weather had broken; walks at night were suddenly beautiful. My parents visited, and then Jennifer's parents visited, and we both slipped easily into tour-guide mode. Showing people around made me realize I had internalized a whole set of rules: Italians never wear shorts, never eat dinner before 8 p.m., never drink cappuccino after noon, never pay attention to don't walk signs. They call ahead for a table, but not too far ahead. I learned to describe Jennifer, who has brown hair, as bionda, or blonde, because of her light complexion.

Perhaps most gratifying was that after weeks of wheeling and dealing with Vatican officials, recalcitrant nuns, and three different kinds of police, my Italian actually worked. My phone calls got more fluid, and the last time we booked a table at our favorite neighborhood trattoria, the "reserved" card on the table next to us said stranieri--"foreigners." On our table this time, the card said stefano.

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