Jun 13, 2016

Men of Rome

The Church of St. Augustine reopens in fifteen minutes, so I take a short walk towards the Pantheon, to the café where Russell works. Last week I had a macchiato there while waiting for Carmen and Amanda, and we struck up a conversation - turns out he's been to Singapore before, because his brother works there. "Do you know Eunos Avenue 7?" In his delight at meeting a Singaporean he gave me a free gelato and said I should come by again, so I guess now's a good time.

He's serving a couple of people at the counter but the moment I walk up to the counter he gives a happy "Hey! I saw you walk by in the morning!" Over cappuccino I tell him the places I've visited, and he says he could take me around someday after his work shift ends. Russell charges me one euro less for the coffee, so it goes to the man with polio in the piazza.

At the Church of Saint Augustine I linger at the souvenir counter, deciding on a postcard. "Hello," the man at the counter smiles. "Are you from the Philippines?" I shake my head, ask him to try again. "Hmm... Korea? China? Malaysia?" "Close!" "Indonesia?" "Close! It's in the middle." He still struggles for a while, so I give him the answer. He tells me he's from India. "Where in India?" "The north, Punjab. You know it?" "Ah, yes." "You do?" he asks, pleasantly surprised. "Yes, there are a lot of Indians in Singapore." "Ah, Singapore. It's a beautiful city." He tells me that he came from a Hindu family, but converted to Catholicism, and has been working for churches in Rome for five years. We both marvel at the beauty of this city, and the effort the country puts into preserving its history. After a while I go off to look around the church a little more, but I return to the counter to ask him for his name. "Sandeep," he says. "And this is a brochure for you, so you can know more about the church." "Oh, thank you, that's so useful! How much is it?" "No, it's for you. Actually I wanted to give it to you earlier, but you walked off so fast!" He refuses to let me pay for my postcard of the Caravaggio painting, either. I tell him that this is actually my second time in this church, because I want to write about it for this week's assignment - upon hearing that he reaches into a drawer and presents me with a bigger book that contains detailed descriptions of every painting and chapel. Again he lets me refuse to pay the €5: "I don't take money from students!"

Armed with the book that has all the information I need, I'm wandering around the church when he taps on my shoulder: "come, let me show you this." He unlocks the gate to the chapel of Saints Augustine and William; fifteen minutes later I'm still there, taking in the massive paintings of Saint William being healed by Mary, majestically dressed in blue and orange, and of Saint Augustine contemplating the Trinity. "Oh, you're still here. Let me show you something even better, before Mass starts." He walks towards the high altar, up the platform - I stand at the threshold, but he motions for me to come in - leads me behind the main altar through the curtain. "We don't usually allow visitors in here..." - this is where the choir stands? The apse and the paintings behind the high altar tower over me; I cannot take it all in. I let myself marvel at the sheer size of the space, and at the privilege I had of meeting someone so eager to share the beauty of this church with me.

The rosary is being said as I leave; I stop by the souvenir stand again on my way out, to get one more postcard of the same Caravaggio painting - for Sam, perhaps. The stand is swarmed with tourists now, and Sandeep is attending to multiple people at once; I try to make him take the mere 50 cents that it's being sold for. He keeps refusing, and motions for me to come to the front of the counter. I reach out to give him the money; instead he gets out a bracelet from his drawer and slips it around my wrist - "this is for your friendship." A man beside me at the counter who witnesses this looks at Sandeep and says, "You are a Gentleman." I'm so touched - "you keep giving me stuff!!" - we shake hands again, my heart full of the grace of people I have met in Rome. On Day 1, half an hour after I left the airport, my valuables were stolen by a pair of men. Even now my guard is usually still up, and I've been wary to the point of being a little rude to a few people - not without reason, though. But since then I have had the privilege of meeting so many kind people who have given without asking in return, and they have really helped to to redeem my perception of Rome and its people. Thank you, Roma :)

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