Photo: the only exterior photograph of the weekend
On the airport concourse a man in his sixties was gathering passengers to fill his people-carrier and in the throng we shrugged and ran with that. The driver occasionally named something important we passed in the dark, such as “Terme di Caracalla”, but his speed didn’t slacken when he took to narrower streets. When he barely missed a second car I looked around to gauge if this really was normal Roman driving. Over my shoulder a dark young Italian man silently buried his shaved head in his hands.
The two girls had a few drinks while waiting for us and the blonde looked tipsy but with her rangy, athletic frame she wasn’t under any pressure. We had a meal first. I ate very little, needing to unwind after the delayed flight, in the presence of a girl just as attractive as she had seemed in Budapest.
Just a month earlier, on the cold, grey afternoon I got back to our base in Beckett’s, E. was talking to two chaps from Mayo who’d rashly taken over an apartment block development in the Bloc. Two retired sisters from Clare then materialized and bought a bottle of wine. They had acquired American accents on life’s journey. A vivacious Jewish girl, a lawyer working for the Mayo men, got into a conversation with the one living in Florida, who spoke Yiddish and used to sell wigs to the Hasidic Jews.
E. and I were seemingly on our own again by the time we noticed two girls had pulled up to the counter on the other side of us. He quickly discovered they were American. He was the kind of guy who would ram-raid us into situations I could later develop. The blonde (K.) was a Cameron Diaz type and the other (R.) had dark red hair. They had come from Rome, where the latter worked. It was their first day in Budapest. I gave them my Rough Guide and when the subject of going further came up they had a little confer before asking if they could come too.
In a heaving Jam in the Mammut malls in Buda I had to change some euro at the bar after (a) running out of forints and (b) having to get some from K. to make up the payment for the first round. She even gave me her last smoke later and wrote her e-mail address on the back of my hand. The bar taxed a tenner out of the first fifty note but a slight tear in the second meant they wouldn’t touch it. Then a big Hungarian chap standing beside me at the bar said he could do it. He had glasses and grey woolly hair and I asked him for “tízezer” (10,000) in exchange. I turned away with that much, only for him to tap me on the shoulder to say he owed me more. For that I was happy to tell him he was a jó ember (‘a good man’) and thus welcome to the same cut the house took. He said he didn’t want people to think the Hungarians were all crooks. He wasn’t the first or last to say that in my experience.
While the redhead was at the toilets, K. had to say something confidential (“It’s you that I like”) and my balanced attention shifted to extreme closeness to her on the dance floor. R. got wrapped in a local in a black t-shirt but later, when the girls were ready to leave, together, at the end, he was cast aside. E. was going on to his own date with destiny at a famous club called Piaf but I got them a genuine taxi outside and gave K. my black cap in the cold. The redhead had to vacate the space between us by getting into the car first and it was then I got the smacker on the lips. She was my Valentine, in a city in which the last thing I expected was a kiss.
That’s how we ended up in a restaurant in Rome. Then there was a long taxi spin to somewhere with a bunch of clubs. In a place called Coyote, the redhead was true to form, messing with Italian gropers, while K. stuck very close to me. E. disappeared on more of his own adventures and, in the end, the blonde and I had to wait while R. was neither fish nor flesh to a couple of Italians outside. “They’ve asked her what I’m doing with an older guy but f*ck ’em, I don’t care about that,” my squeeze murmured. Finally I got both girls to agree to come back to the hotel, which had for some reason upgraded us to a suite with a terrace.
The taxi driver’s Italian I could grasp. He looked like a decrepit version of Benny in Crossroads. In the back seat, the redhead started on about her car, which she’d parked near Piazza Venezia and which she didn’t want towed away. Then, at the hotel, the night porter wouldn’t let the girls upstairs without passports. Even the theoretical mention of money wouldn’t make the issue go away. I should have simply put down Miss Smith and Miss Jones as an addition, when checking in. As this was going nowhere, K. sighed and said she’d do the driving and rescue the car. She kissed me goodnight in a way that doubled the issue. She asked me to call the next day. I was still only on the first few steps of the stairs when E. got back. When he heard what had just happened he gave the porter a long and very large piece of his mind.
“I have never been so insulted in my life!”
“But, Jesus Christ, I keep telling you, it was obvious they weren’t prostitutes. Couldn’t you see that?”
“Why you keep talking about prostitutes?”
It was then that E. picked up a pen from the counter and threw it at him. I told my barrister to take it easy and apologized for the flying biro (“Sorry about that”) but added that I had informed the porter’s colleague when checking in that we would have company later but all he had done was nod and smile without mentioning any Italian law or cops or passports.
Then we went out again and found a couple of bars on a street within sight of the nearby Santa Maria Maggiore, which was lit-up, all alone across the square. Though I’ve technically been to Rome, the Mezquita in Córdoba remains the most impressive building I’ve ever actually been inside.
Spain may never be one of my favourite countries but there is something awe-inspiring about the key sights down there. I didn’t get into the Alcázar – the queue was long – and so missed the gardens but the triangle the fortress forms with the Mezquita and then the Calahorra tower across the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivír is sensational. The Romans took the city from the Carthaginians in 206 BC. The Moors took it from the Goths in 711 AD. The Christians took it back from the Moors in 1236. The great mosque, you’d almost get religion in there, in the sense of understanding it.
The next Roman afternoon we went to Piazza Navona and he found a place called the Abbey Theatre bar where he’d been at the time of his sister’s second wedding. Watching sports and getting hammered was the order of the day. It was the last year I made any kind of habit of that. Two years later I quit smoking for good.
The girls didn’t show up until the early evening and before long E. took it upon himself to take K. outside for a nominal cigarette, to explore her intentions. He came back in and said “No” (“He’s too old for me”). It was a bit like a nut in the face. I investigated further.
“Why did you say what you said to him instead of me?”
“Because he asked.”
“If I were even five years older, there’d be no problem.”
“Why, how old are you?”
“Oh. Oh God. Now I understand. I thought you were, maybe, twenty-seven, and I was willing to chance it.”
I was forty-three. One can’t always be sure about the age of Americans. When I told her I wouldn’t have asked her to marry me she looked at me sceptically and smilingly (“Come on, John”). I changed my story to say I wouldn’t have asked for a while and the look that passed between us then said it all. We kept in contact for some time afterwards and then she got married in a land far away and more power to her for that.
In the morning E. introduced a new comrade with whom he’d stayed up all night. This was Jim, a wired American tour guide, and a passport carrier. We went to a place called Finnegan’s after checking out of the hotel. There was no mention of any nocturnal pen-throwing and I even got my phone handed back. I’d left it in the taxi that had brought me home but I remembered tipping the driver well, from relief at getting out of a long night, and praising his good job, his buon lavoro.
There were always tour guides in and out of Finnegan’s. Shooting the breeze of trivia for the afternoon, I showed off by naming every emperor up until 235 AD. There followed thirty-five years of havoc until Aurelian knocked some sense into that world again from 270. Jim said I could be a guide too, no problem. He added the codicil that he tended to tone down the anecdotal content of his tours if there were children present.