Seven days in Rome: day one, passport control, you look for the hidden camera because the officer who flicks a finger at you to come forward is sporting mirrored sunglasses and nine o’clock shadow at dawn and for a moment you wonder if you might be in the middle of some new Sacha Baron Cohen film. He studies your picture and studies you, muttering inaudible questions, theatrically indifferent to your attempted answers. Then he waves you through so he can consider whoever’s next out of the jumbled mass of arrivals: the yawning, happy Americans pushing SUV-sized strollers, the glowering Poles in rosaries and leather jackets, the erect Germans in jeans that look ironed.
You’re here for a conference at the Vatican, with a free day before it begins. So day two, you enjoy and endure the city. You feel guilty and sceptical walking past the beggar-thespians kneeling along the Ponte Sant’Angelo. You feel superior to Americans – the sine qua non of the Canadian travel experience – when you take lunch at one of those endless charming places down a cobbly nook of a laneway from Piazza Navona, and Carol and Larry from California sit down two tables over. You and everyone else in southern Europe know they’re Carol and Larry from California because they introduce themselves to the waiter with English-for-the-hearing-impaired. When that fails to work its magic, they address him in terrible and enthusiastic Spanish. Your glass of vino rosso tastes unbelievably better as you listen to the Americans ask for una bebida de Diet Coke. Never mind how cringe-inducing you are, with your Ontario schoolboy French slipping into your mumbled Italian requests for coffee and the bill, because at least you’re quiet with your multilingual butchery, merci beaucoup grazie. You stroll away the rest of the day. And because you’re a man on your own, you’re ignored by the African men standing at street corners, showcasing racks of luxury handbag knock-offs along rail-thin forearms, looking out for the tax police with wet desperate eyes.
Days three through five you spend at a Pontifical Council plenary exploring the Church’s relationship to digital technology and social media. With clerics and lay experts from around the world, you’re in a grand two-storey hall just down the Via della Conciliazone from St Peter’s. Speeches are given in five languages for many hours each day, broken up by lively polyglot scrums around the espresso bar set up in the next room. The conference over, you’re given a parting gift possible nowhere else on Earth: a Vatican Library edition of papal tweets, glossy screenshots interspersed with gorgeous images of sacred art. It’s like a beautiful glass of air.
Day six, the papal audience. Amid zucchetto-capped cardinals and bishops dressed in their sacerdotal best, you’re brought into the Clementine Hall to take your seat near the back and – as always happens at some point in Rome – you look up and oh, there’s more magnificence, yet another Renaissance fresco, this time Alberti’s “Apotheosis of St Clement”. But now everyone’s standing and the Pope enters to applause and he greets his brother cardinals and the bishops and everyone else and then he listens gravely to remarks about the importance of social media to the evangelising mission of the Church and gives a sober address of his own on the subject, looking up from his papers now and then to extemporise, bright-eyed and smiling. This generates warm laughter and edified nodding and, these days in the Catholic Church, a little electric curiosity (“What’s he going to say next?”). At least you figure as much: it’s all in Italian with no English translation and you barely speak Ontario schoolboy French. All the while you go through an Augustinian struggle with the temptation to thumb messages to your friends that you’re about to meet Pope Francis. Oh Lord thou pluckest me out, texting. Then you’re in line to meet him, then you’re next, then you’ve got his hand in yours and you’re saying God-knows-what and smiling like a holy fool and six months into the papacy he’s used to this and smiles back and says, “Thank you” in soft-spoken English and someone hands you a rosary and then you’re back in St Peter’s Square, wandering into the sightlines of a rapid-firing photographer working a queue of Chinese couples. You remember all that snapping and flashing when you met Francis, and wonder how you can get one of those pictures.
You ask an Italian-speaking colleague for advice and he makes an inquiry with the woman at the front desk of your residence. She is also happy to help. You just had your picture taken with the Holy Father? Everyone is happy to help! All you want is a web link but, instead, you’re sent off on a two-hour adventure with genuine Roman generosity: phone calls are placed on your behalf at this desk and that shop. Eventually you walk along the serene alleyways of Vatican City until you find the photo office. Your picture identified, emailed and paid for, you’re sent on your way. Being Canadian, you’ve apologised repeatedly for all the trouble, and it is trouble, because it’s well past 1pm on a Saturday, when most shops close in Rome, but you’re a visitor here, and when they don’t ostentatiously tolerate or bluntly ignore you, Romans will do everything they can for you.
And so, day seven, you leave Rome with a picture of yourself with the Pope, and it turns out you need it, because at passport control the officer flips through your document and says, “There’s no stamp. How do we know you came here to Rome?” You flash the new Pope Francis-and-me screensaver on your phone, and the officer makes a fat lower lip and shrugs and waves you past. He calls forward the American couple standing behind you.
Très molto bene, you say to yourself, and go back to Toronto, proud and grateful you’re no gringo cosmopolitan.
Randy Boyagoda’s ‘Beggar’s Feast’ (Penguin) will be published in 2014