Extraordinary moments in life tend to catch you off guard. But when you arrive at the centre of the Catholic faith, St Peter’s Square, with a mother in a wheelchair, a neurosis and an illegal substance – er, foodstuff – you could miss them altogether.
All over Rome were billboards advertising the premiere of Woody Allen’s new movie, To Rome With Love, a romantic comedy featuring an ensemble cast and Allen himself, set in the Eternal City.
Apparently the film itself is rubbish but the signs are a constant reminder of Rome’s enduring love affair with itself. It’s not hard to see why – the special status of Vatican City as an independent state, the mystical statues and fountains flaunting its romantic history, and the fact that it is home to the holiest man on the planet, the leader of the Catholic Church and successor of Saint Peter.
We South Africans also used to think of ourselves as a “special case” because of our political miracle, but we seem to have outgrown that romantic phase and now love to loathe ourselves.
But the Romans love themselves, their heritage and their city and, euro-zone crisis or not, seem to spend each day celebrating their existence.
I was not feeling particularly in love with Rome on the morning we arrived outside the Vatican for the pope’s weekly audience, which on average draws about 25,000 people from across the world. I was worried about getting in when I saw the long queues, whether I would be able to push my mother’s wheelchair on the cobblestones which pave most of Rome’s roads and whether, after all that trouble, we’d be able to even get a proper glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI.
Photo: Pope Benedict XVI. DAILY MAVERICK/Ranjeni Munusamy.
My mother was suddenly looking at me stricken. She couldn’t find her bag and had either left it in the taxi or back at the hotel. Considering where I was standing, I had to make a really big effort not to curse out loud.
The priority was to get in and I decided to worry about the bag later. Turns out that with pre-booked tickets, there is no difficulty getting through the security checkpoint. But as soon as we got into St Peter’s, the hysterically dressed Swiss Guards started waving me in a different direction to the rest of our group.
“Wheelchairs that way,” they said, pointing me to the far left of the square. “But we’re all together,” I said, trying to show them our tickets and not stare at their orange and blue-stripped court-jester outfits (it must take real courage to stand in front of 25,000 people in pantaloons).
“No, that way.”
“Don’t swear, don’t swear, don’t swear,” I mumbled, pushing the wheelchair past the great obelisk to the opposite end of the square. When the old man following me kept ramming his wife’s wheelchair into the back of my ankles, I knew there was now no doubt I’d be going to hell.
The guards kept waving us through a maze of gates and cordoned-off walkways. With Bernini’s colonnade bearing down on us, I had no idea where we were going and kept pushing until we were in front of the giant statue of St Peter, which stands as a sentinel at the front of the square.
“You can sit here,” the usher said, positioning my mum’s wheelchair in front of the cordon hemming in the crowd, and gesturing me to an empty chair next to her.
I couldn’t believe it: we were in front of the front row with absolutely nothing but the fresh spring air between me and the magnificence of the 120m front façade of St Peter’s Basilica. If there is anything that can make a person feel small and insignificant, it is to look up at the 13 travertine statues of Christ the Redeemer and the 12 Apostles crowning the top of the basilica.
I wondered if this was the extraordinary moment of my life I had always been searching for, if all the bizarre and inexplicable things I had done were about to reach some sort of climax for which I was not prepared.
If I was in awe, my mum was ready to pass out. “Is he going to sit just there,” she asked breathless, pointing to three empty chairs on the canopied stage in front of us. (She had calmed down after I phoned the hotel and they said they had found her bag.)
Beside us were a young American boy chirping animatedly and his Filipino grandmother falling asleep in her wheelchair. He nearly burst with excitement to discover where I was from, explaining that he had been to South Africa several times on study tours and adored our country.
“And I looove biltong,” he said. I then remembered that someone had given me biltong for the flight over, and I still had it in my bag. As I took it out, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a EU ban on meat products from South Africa and I had brought the biltong into Italy illegally.
I didn’t know whether it was also a sin to distribute illegal products in St Peter’s Square but, since I was eager to get rid of the evidence of my absent-minded crime of smuggling banned goods, I gave Lorenzo some of the biltong. Besides, where better to have a bout of Catholic guilt than at the Church’s HQ?
An SMS from Father Chris Townsend, the spokesman of the Southern African Catholics Bishops’ Conference, who was also in Rome at the time and sitting elsewhere in the square, made me realise something extraordinary was about to happen.
“You have the best spot – he will drive straight past you.”
It was not an exaggeration. The crowd behind us started getting excited and was chanting “Papa! Papa!”A burly guard walked past and instructed us: “Don’t get up.”
The pope’s open-top buggy came out from the side of the basilica and started to drive slowly along the row of people in wheelchairs towards us. Should I be taking a video or a picture, I panicked, fumbling with the camera. The people around me either fell silent or I went deaf.
“This is the moment!” a voice was screaming in my head. “Don’t fall over like you did (literally) on Gaddafi!” another voice screamed. “Why the hell am I thinking about Gaddafi?” “Don’t say hell in St Peter’s Square, you git!” “You smuggled biltong, you’re going to jail before hell!”
The “shut up!” I heard next must also have been in my head because the pope’s blue eyes were tranquil as he passed in front of me. I took the picture and the moment passed.
“No, no, no. Go back and start again, I wasn’t ready,” I wanted to call out.
For the next two hours I watched Pope Benedict on the stage, wondering how to find the next defining moment of my life, considering how I had messed this one up worrying about the camera, Gaddafi and biltong.
Before I left Rome, I threw some coins into the Trevi Fountain, which, legend has it, ensures a return to the Eternal City. It’s the only chance I have of a do-over. DM
Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having “been there and done it” – from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story.
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí