My husband and I recently watched Woody Allen’s 2009 romantic comedy Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and I found myself flooded with memories of my summer at the American Academy at Rome back in the mid 1970’s. A newly minted graduate student, I signed up for a course in Roman Art and Architecture offered through the Academy and, enormous hot pink Samsonite suitcase in tow, made my first trip to Italy.
My fellow students were Latin high school teachers out to score Professional Development brownie points (this was back when such rarified creatures as high school Latin teachers, a now extinct breed, still roamed the Earth) and one other graduate student, whom I shall call Amanda. Amanda was a tall, stork-like blonde from Dallas studying Greek vases en route to marrying a rich doctor and spending the rest of her privileged life sitting on the Boards of museums. Like Vicky and Cristina, Amanda seemed to have no financial worries. Once I tagged along with her on a shopping spree (hers) on the Via Veneto, where all the stores had, essentially, bouncers in expensive Italian suits. If your shoes were the right sort, you got in. Needless to say, it was Amanda’s Gucci loafers that proved my passport into these glittering realms, not my bloody and battered Dr. Scholl sandals. Once admitted, however, I disgraced myself by having a full-blown panic attack, forcing us to exit the store in considerable disarray and return to the convent where we were lodged. I promptly ate a huge wedge of parmesan cheese, giving myself a belly ache of epic proportions. It goes without saying that Amanda never asked me to go shopping with her again.
The high school teachers were a jolly lot, there to soak up a modicum of culture and a whole lot of wine. They would gather every night after dinner at one of the local bars to smoke and drink and just generally make merry, grateful, doubtless, not to be knee deep in sullen, insolent teenagers.
I spent my evenings in the Academy’s library, poring over the reading material we had been assigned for the next day so that I could dazzle my professor and his graduate assistant, upon whom I had a minor crush, with the depth and breadth of my learning. I was an appalling brown-noser, always at the front of the pack when we went on our daily field trips, sucking up big time while the high school teachers trailed behind, hung over and sweaty.
I was acutely aware of the social hierarchy that prevailed at the Academy. Eminent American scholars and renowned artists made it their home away from home when visiting or working in Rome, as did recipients of the prestigious Prix de Rom. People who paid to take courses run through the Academy, on the other hand — people like myself — were secreted away in a nearby convent run by an order of German nuns, granted access to the Academy’s library and afforded the privilege of lunching on its grounds alongside the illuminati. The high school teachers were cool with this. They just wanted two aspirin and a siesta. I wanted more.
In my sixty one years I have received three compliments that I cherish to this day. Two of them I received that summer.
The first, hurled at me by Italian construction workers as I dragged my ass up the Janiculum Hill under the blazing noonday sun, was this. “Ecco! Una piccola Venere!” “Behold! A little Venus.”
The second was bestowed upon me my last week at the Academy by an energetic looking young Jewish male in tennis whites – one of the aforementioned and exalted Prix de Rom recipients, in his case for film. He was “doing something” with Fellini, but not that afternoon. That afternoon, it would appear, he was doing me. Pursuant of which, he bounded over to me after lunch, introduced himself and said, “In that hat, you look just like Daisy Miller!”
Now, in case you think he was going all Henry James on me, the film version of Daisy Miller, staring Cybil Shepherd, had come out just the year before. I was pretty sure I didn’t look in the least like Cybil Shepherd, but was willing, for the sake of argument, to accept the fact that in that hat, I did. One thing led to another and I spent the entire rest of that week mooning after him, unable, like Vicky in the Allen film, to accept the fact that what happened that sun drenched afternoon in his spacious room on the second floor of the Academy, was what it was — that I – Piccola Venere, Cybil Shepherd in a hat — was a once off.
Whatever happened to that young, vital man, so full of himself, so sure? In the days before Internet, I was able to comfort myself by imagining dark futures for people who had in some way wounded me. Perhaps like Icarus, he had flown too close to the sun and gone down in flames. It pleased me to think so. However, since we now live in an Online Age, I was forced to google him.
Turns out he didn’t become a hot shot auteur, as he had planned, but an agent in Hollywood with a reasonably respectable clientele of actors working largely in television. Not bad, but not what he wanted. Of course, I didn’t become an eminent scholar either.
Drat. All that brown nosing. And for what?