by Judith Anne Testa
A task that might consume all of two minutes to complete can eat up an entire morning in the Eternal City.
They don't call it the Eternal City for nothing! There are occasions when a seemingly simple task can take an eternity to complete. This fact of Roman life was brought home on the day after my most recent arrival in Rome, when I lost my credit card.
After a totally uneventful overseas journey (the best kind) and a good night's sleep, I felt more than ready to take on my favorite city. The day was gorgeous -- warm, sunny and dry -- with all Rome's colors on brilliant display. Since I'd gone to bed at 9 p.m. the night before, an early morning visit to the food market at the Campo de' Fiori seemed like a perfect way to start the day. The Campo is only about five minutes' walk from my apartment, across the Ponte Sisto, the picturesque, 15th-century walking bridge that connects the Trastevere neighborhood where I live with the rest of the city, and then a brisk stroll down some narrow, winding old streets.
As I crossed the bridge I found it partially blocked by a truck from my favorite Roman municipal division: Decoro Urbano -- the Department of Urban Decorum -- whose function it is to keep the city free of "indecorous" elements, including garbage in the streets, graffiti on walls and people inconveniently camped in public places. On this day the Decoro Urbano crew was cleaning the bridge, but the cleaners must have been an unusually soft-hearted bunch, as they were carefully cleaning around several bums sleeping curled up on squares of cardboard pushed up against the parapets.
The Campo de' Fiori was its usual riot of colors and smells, a seemingly endless number of market stalls, each selling its own combinations of fruits, vegetables and herbs, along with individually composed mixes of salad greens and soup ingredients. Butcher shops punctuate the lines of greengrocers, and stands selling spices, housewares and tourist knickknacks crowd in as well. I made the rounds several times, peering at the goods offered by each seller before making my purchases from a variety of different stalls. Some of the vendors look as old as the piazza itself -- leather-lunged old folks with a few snaggle teeth shouting the virtues of their particular products just as others like them must have done hundreds of years ago. At the center of all this busy commerce, the tall, gloomy statue of Giordano Bruno broods over it all. Burned at the stake for heresy at the orders of the Inquisition in 1600, Bruno became a hero of the anti-clerical Italian government -- hence his statue in this prominent place.
But I wasn't thinking about Giordano Bruno that morning -- I was on a mission to lay in a lot of basic food supplies to get my own Roman kitchen up and running. To that end I was traveling light. I'd left my cumbersome purse at home, and thought I was quite clever to have a wad of cash in one pocket of my jeans and my credit card in the other. Much safer, I thought, than to have my purse dangling on my arm while I hauled a bunch of bags full of groceries. That would be an invitation to the pickpockets who patrol all such crowded places in Rome.
What I'd reckoned without, though, is my own carelessness. At some point during my progress around the Campo I must have reached into the pocket where my credit card was, and it fell to the ground without my noticing. When I stepped into one of the food stores that line the Campo I realized that my credit card was missing. I'm certain that not even the cleverest and subtlest of thieves could have slid a hand into my pocket; this was all my own fault. I made another quick turn around the now increasingly crowded market, looking along the ground for the missing card, but of course no sign of it. A couple of inquiries at the stalls where I'd bought vegetables also had negative results.
OK, I told myself, no reason to panic. All I have to do is call the toll-free number of my credit card company and cancel my card number. That would have taken just a couple of minutes at home, but not in Rome. First, I had to walk back to my apartment to deposit my load of groceries. Then I had to find the credit card company's toll-free number. That required a trip to the English-language bookstore near where I live, to pick up a copy of the English Yellow Pages. Sure enough, there was the toll-free number. I punched it into my cell phone with no results. Apparently, one can't call toll-free numbers on cell phones in Italy, or at least not on the cell phone that I have. So I walked across Trastevere to the telephone and Internet center located on the area's main street, Viale di Trastevere, figuring I could easily make the call from there. But no -- toll-free calls can't be made from their phones. The man at the desk directed me to a bank of pay phones located right outside the door. From one of them, he assured me, I could make a free call, "senza difficoltà." He was right, the call went through without difficulty, but with the incessant roar of traffic on Viale di Trastevere I couldn't make out anything the recorded voice was saying.
New plan: return to my apartment, call my friend Linda and ask to use her landline to make the call. But a call to her found nobody at home, and she wasn't answering her cell phone, either. A final inspiration was to knock on the door of my neighbors' apartment: a charming young couple with a year-old daughter where the wife is almost always at home. But which was their apartment? I hadn't seen them since last year and had only visited them once. I recalled them being one floor up from the ground level, but faced with three apartment doors there, I couldn't remember which was theirs. So I guessed, and when the door opened I found myself facing a grumpy young man preparing to zip up his trousers. He pointed across the hall. To my great relief Helen was there, and happy to allow me to use their landline to make my call. Then we discovered that the battery in their landline phone was so low that all I heard after I dialed was a series of warning squeaks. After repeated attempts, however, I finally heard a phone ringing somewhere, but then it clicked over to somewhere else and all I heard was a busy signal.
By now I was getting a bit desperate. I'd already ascertained that I couldn't get through on my cell phone, but Helen tried on her cell phone, and an actual human being answered! Who knows why one Italian cell phone can accept toll-free calls and another can't? A polite Italian man answered my questions and told me that his office handles only "smarrimenti" (losses) of Italian-issued credit cards; for an American card I'd have to call another number, which he gave me. At last, some progress. The person at the American branch of the credit card company transferred me to a representative of the bank that issued my credit card, and there, at long last, an efficient lady gathered my information, ascertained that I really am the person I said I am, and assured me that no unauthorized charges had come in. (Well, of course not! I'd only just lost the card and transactions take a day or so to go through.) She added that the account would be closed, any subsequent transactions rejected, and another card with a different number would be promptly issued in my name and sent to my address in Rome. I can only hope that nobody will pinch that promised envelope containing my new credit card from my unsecured mailbox.
Readers who've stayed with me through this misadventure will have spent a total of maybe five minutes reading this account. But the incident itself, in good Roman fashion, consumed an entire morning. Meanwhile, I'm back to that quaint old form of financial transaction: cash.