Laughter is the best travel companion. Another joy of travel is that it can reveal a different side of a person. On my first trip to Rome, I anticipated the impressive ruins, the timeless history, the matchless food and the breathtaking art. What I didn´t foresee was the atypical constant and warm laughter that the shared discoveries generated from a longtime acquaintance.
I planned a sixteen day solo trip from America to Rome and Tuscany. However, a work colleague was on an assignment in Geneva. At the last minute, Juliana decided to fly to Rome to join me for my first long weekend. She was an experienced traveler who had visited Italy on several occasions and agreed to help introduce me to the city.
Juliana is normally a serious and reserved individual. There must be something about the Mediterranean clime and diet that relaxed her and made her as talkative as the natives. In Washington, DC, especially at the endless and seemingly pointless meetings, she often wore a frown of disgust and barely concealed impatience. But, not here. Julianna had a case of the giggles all weekend. She was relaxed and in a continuous state of laughing merriment.
At times, her levity got so strong, I grew concerned her lung might collapse or a rib might snap. These weren´t slight, lady-like titters. They started as sniggers and snorts. Moved on to boisterous cackles and guffaws. Then became full on, wine shooting out the nose howling explosions. And loud? You betcha. It was ´chase people away´ loud.
At the Lancelot Hotel near the Coliseum, the breakfast buffet is eaten at communal tables. Julianna got so giddy that when our table companions went up for a second helping they occasionally disappeared to other tables. One morning, a very nice mid-western woman with a tall bouffant hairdo politely asked what were our plans for the day. Before I could describe our itinerary, the typically introverted Juliana cut me off with a wide-eyed account of how she was very excited to go see this "guy in chains". Bouffant lady was aghast by what she interpreted as some shocking trip to an S&M parlor. I hid behind my map in embarrassment. However, her previously semi-dozing husband was suddenly alert and riveted by the account of something he´d never experienced in 40 years of marriage. Midwest woman bolted and dragged her leering husband away from temptation without even a chance to dust the croissant crumbs from his shirt. I didn´t have the opportunity to explain that we were just making a wholesome pilgrimage to the Saint Peter in Chains Basilica to see Michelangelo´s famous sculpture of Moses.
Julianna´s nonchalant reaction? "I think I´ll get some more cantaloupe."
On Saturday night, we attended a performance of La Traviata staged in the large and ornate Saint Paul´s Within the Walls Church. Despite the melancholy subject matter of Verdi´s tragic opera of a doomed romance, Julianna was in an upbeat mood and laughed throughout. She was particularly tickled by the pair of ballet dancers that intermittently appeared and pranced around the pews with no apparent connection to the performance.
For a late dinner after the show, she insisted that we go to a nearby Irish Pub Restaurant. Because, when you´re in Rome, where else do you go but an Irish pub? At the restaurant, we had barely taken our seats when she had an outburst of chortling hilarity speculating about the purpose of the ballet dancers. It was of such intensity that the people at nearby tables simultaneously gave us sidelong glances and subtly inched their chairs away. And this was at an outside cafe, where her laughter had to compete with the sound of buses.
When it came time to order, I selected an appetizer off the English side of the menu. Julianna turned to the waiter and said, "No, no, not that one." I thought I might have made a mistake and ordered something terrible. Or, perhaps, she had a food allergy. Then she proceeded to point to an item on the Italian side of the menu. The waiter was confused, but wrote it down and left. I asked her, "Isn´t that the same thing I ordered?"
She answered, "Yes, but it always tastes better in Italian."
Mostly the cause of this levity was her telling some anecdote, or making an astute observation. They covered a range of topics from work escapades to travel mishaps. The stories were uniformly funny and brought a smile to my face. But, no one laughed as hard as Julianna herself. This made for a jolly weekend.
At art galleries, Juliana had an eye for the bizarre. She pointed out that the ubiquitous cherubs were often disproportioned. Arms and legs twisted at unnatural angles. They possessed excessively large heads and their appendages had strange lengths. With humor, Juliana theorized that this was a sign that the artists were (1) unskilled hacks, (2) biased against cherubs, or, (3) likely drunk when they did that part of the paintings. While I was amused by these suggestions, closer examination confirmed she was right about the cherubs. Who knew if her conjectures were accurate? But, for me, her ideas humanized these century old masters. I started to look closer for these previously invisible anomalies as we proceeded through the over-stuffed Doria Pamphilj Gallery. We shared laughs as my now more critical eye revealed similar discoveries. Although our stifled guffaws attracted bemused looks from more serious-minded tourists, I believe we enjoyed the visit more.
Occasionally, our laughter attracted uncomfortable attention. There was rarely an occasion that we entered a church that she didn´t find something that touched her funny bone. And in Rome, you enter a lot of churches. For example, across the millennia, there have been many popes buried in Rome. It seems every church has at least one pope buried there, or is dedicated to a pope. You can´t swing a limp lasagna without splashing sauce on some pope´s tomb. Most of these Bishops of Rome had chosen names of saints or apostles, or a serious name with religious significance: Pope Innocent; Pope Benedictus; Pope Pius.
However, as we visited the churches, those weren´t the names that attracted Julianna´s attention. For some reason, she fixated on Pope Max. I´m fairly certain there was never a Pope Max. Despite being raised Catholic, it didn´t occur to Juliana that if there had been a Pope Max, she might have heard about him before. Yet, she was now delightedly spotting his name everywhere. It´s like she had a special radar for them. We´d be strolling through a cathedral and she´d point, "Look, there´s another Pope Max." She´d crack up while I and everyone else in a twenty meter radius would look up. Sure enough, there´d be a script carved in marble saying "Pont Max". Most of the onlookers would look bewildered and wonder what the joke was. Others would shake their heads and make the sign of the cross.
Still giggling, Julianna added, "If you name yourself Pope Max, I bet you´re one TOUGH pope."
I attempted to explain to her that Pont Max was a shortened version of ´Pontifex Maximus´, which is an honorary title given to all Popes of the Catholic Church. It wasn´t the name of an individual pope. Especially, not one named Max. However, she was already floating down the aisle, out of earshot, in search of another Max. As we were already disrupting the somber atmosphere, I didn´t think it was appropriate to shout the explanation. Julianna was not similarly inhabited, as I´d hear a loud chuckle echo in the apse followed by a summons, "Come here, Bill. I´ve found another Max." I´d slink over with people staring after me. And, no doubt, telepathically suggesting that I consider stopping in a confessional to get some penance.
After the first couple of times, I´d try to slide away and blend in with the crowd. But, she´d drag me back into her sinful circle of glee. I got so worried that I began looking up fearful that a lighting bolt might emerge from one of the realistic and fearsome statues of a vengeful, Old Testament god. I tried to distract her levity by pointing out some severe and bloody scenes in the frescos and stained glass windows. To no effect. Even these somehow managed to remind her of another jocular anecdote. I finally whispered to Julianna that she shouldn´t tempt divine retribution with her jovial outbursts.
She said, "Don´t worry. I´m protected by Sarah."
Sarah? Puzzled, I asked, "Who the heck is Sarah?"
In a pious tone, Julianna replied, "If you were a little more devout, you´d know that Sarah is the Patron Saint of laughter."
Sarah instantaneously became my favorite Patron Saint. It´s just common sense to cover your bets.