Cultural gaffes Rome Travel SNAFUs

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cloister

If all goes according to plan, this spring my husband Otto and I will be strolling through the ancient ruins of the Forum, sipping tea at Antico Caffè Greco, and dining al fresco at a cozy Trastevere eatery. However, that remains a big IF. Ideally, the number of new corona cases in Italy will continue to drop, but given the uncertainty during these pandemic days, our decision will probably be last-minute. Like most people we know, we are eager to travel abroad again.

In what seemed a sign, I recently came across a story I’d written in 2006, the year Otto and I first traveled to Rome together. There was no mask or social distancing mandate then, but other perils awaited us upon our arrival. Whether or not we make it back to Italy soon, you can be sure we won’t be hailing a taxi in Rome ever again, especially after what happened on the way to the cloister. Travelers beware…

ROME, March 2006

This is not another monk-abducts-nun-from-cloister story as was the case with beautiful Lucrezia Buti and the Florentine painter Fra Filippo Lippi during the fifteenth century. My husband and I aren’t even Catholic. However, that didn’t stop us from booking a room during the busy Easter holiday at Casa di Santa Brigida, a peaceful oasis that’s close to downtown Rome, yet away from the tourist crowds.

Before our trip, Sister Patricia had warned that if we weren’t careful in choosing a taxi, we could expect “abusive” behavior and outlandish meter charges. She advised us not to pay more than 13 to 15 euros in cab fare. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when the ten-minute ride from Termini train station to the cloister resulted in the near abduction of my wallet.

The taxi driver seemed friendly enough at first, asking, “Where you from?” between puffs on his cigarette.

“I’m Finnish, and my wife’s American,” Otto innocently replied. This led to the driver’s tirade against the Bush/Blair/Berlusconi (or 3 B’s) antics in Iraq. Thankfully, his mobile phone rang, sparing us more anti-American sentiment. With one hand grasping the phone the other the steering wheel, he tore down narrow one-way streets to our destination. Arriving at Casa di Santa Brigida, I inhaled deep breaths and looked up at the palm trees swaying protectively over the four-story villa. Now, after the long, dark Finnish winter, we can finally relax.

He pulled up to the curb outside the cloister and diverted my attention to the posted fare: 14 euros, 30 cents.

Otto searched his pockets, only to discover that the smallest bill he had was a 50.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got a 20,” I told him, handing it to the driver as Otto exited to retrieve our suitcases from the trunk. The driver handed me back five euros. Realizing that the 70-cent difference wasn’t enough of a tip, I gave him an additional euro, or about a 10% gratuity, which seemed quite generous considering his horrendous driving and snarly attitude.

He snatched the coin from my fingers and shook it at me. “What is this? What is this?” he shrieked.

“The rest of your tip,” I said.

“I give you five euros and you give me one back? What is this?”

“I gave you 20 before you gave me 5 back,” I reminded him. “That’s an extra euro for your tip.”

“You no give me 20 euros,” he claimed. “Look!” He opened his money bag to show the pittance inside: a 10 with only a few coins.

“I gave you 20 euros and you know it!” I shouted, waving the five-euro bill at him. “Why else would you give me this back?”

He jumped from the cab, his arms flailing. “You steal my money! You keep the five and no pay.” He whipped out his mobile phone and pretended to dial. “Polizia!”

Otto’s prosecutor ears perked up. “Police?” He had missed the whole interaction and moved to me at the side of the car. “Why is he shouting about the Police?” I tried to explain that we were being scammed, but my words were drowned out by accusations induced by far too many cappuccinos.

“Your wife no pay me,” the driver said, pouting and opening his purse. “Why she no pay?”

Otto looked down into the God-forsaken purse and then curiously at me.

“That’s not true, Otto. Don’t listen to him.” I grabbed him by the elbow and directed him toward the buzzer on the cloister door. By now, a small group of nuns was gathering on the other side. I was mortified that this heated exchange had disturbed their tranquil abode.

Otto glanced over at them. “This is too much. Let’s end this now.” He frantically dug into his pocket and retrieved the 50-euro bill. (Finns are famously conflict-avoidant, which makes for a harmonious marriage but isn’t too helpful in earthly matters.)

“Don’t you dare give him any more money,” I snapped,” guiding the bill back into his shirt pocket. “This is exactly what he expects you to do.”

Sensing Otto’s hesitancy, the driver continued to shout “Polizia!”

Otto turned to me, his usually serene face now breaking a sweat. “In Finland, you can go to jail if you don’t pay the fare,” he told me. But we weren’t in Finland, where the taxi drivers earn a decent salary and don’t rely on tips.

“No one’s going to jail,” I assured him as I pressed the buzzer. “This is a scam. One of the oldest tricks in the book. If we don’t help put an end to it, he’s going to leave here and do the same to the next customer.”

“Can’t we just give him some money to shut him up?” That sounds tempting.

I dug into my bag and pulled out another 20-euro bill, then offered it to the driver. But that wasn’t enough, either. He’d seen my husband’s 50 euros and wouldn’t be satisfied until it was sitting snugly in his purse.

Like a vision, the Mother Superior suddenly appeared, and before there was time for proper introductions, the driver was already shouting that we had cheated him. She turned toward me and asked what had happened. After I relayed the details, she motioned for Otto and me to go into reception while she dealt with the situation. My face burning red, I turned toward the Sisters, who had made their way to the scene. “A little misunderstanding,” I said, gesturing behind me. The nuns stood motionless, some with their eyes closed, which I hoped meant they were praying for a quick resolution.

The Mother Superior soon returned and handed me ten euros, saying that the driver had kept the other ten. “I told him this is very bad for Rome’s image,” she said. “He can’t be doing this to tourists. What will they think?”

“Thank you so much. Grazi, grazie,” my husband and I gushed. We had only lost an extra ten euros, and although badly shaken up, we realized our Roman “welcome” could have been much worse.

Once inside the safety of the cloister, two nuns whisked us away from the other guests to our lovely clean room on the third floor, located above the chapel next to the belfry. Exhausted from our trip and the driver’s shenanigans, we collapsed onto our neatly-made beds and rehashed the events of the last 30 minutes. What had gone wrong, and how could we have prevented it?

Otto and I agreed that in the future, we would both stay in the taxi during payment to witness the exchanging of monies. We would also have close to exact change ready to avoid handing over larger bills. (We nixed the idea of using our credit cards due to identity theft.) Also, with so much anti-American sentiment due to America’s military involvement in Iraq, we decided it was probably best to say, “We’re from Finland” and leave it at that.

Afterward, I suggested that the best way to wipe the bitter taste from our mouths was to experience some la dolce vita. And I knew exactly where to find it…

To be continued…

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