Updated: Nov 9
Standing in the middle of the cobblestone courtyard In the sweltering, ninety-degree heat, I pointed my camera at the colossal colonnades in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Before I could snap what I considered a spectacular shot, a nasty cough interrupted me. Though I’d been pushing fluids and using hand sanitizer ever since I'd arrived in Italy, my immune system was waging war. Head throbbing, nose running, I was feverish and overheated, inside and out.
The previous summer, when Bill suggested a visit to Rome, I hadn’t hesitated. Having studied art history in college, I looked forward to seeing the magnificent works of Michelangelo and indulging in icy gelato, hot cappuccino and a great deal of pizza. I had no idea I would yearn for cough syrup instead.
All morning I'd been coughing and when it didn’t stop, I finally accepted the fact that I was really sick. In a hoarse voice, I said to Bill, “I can’t do this. You’re going to have to tour the Vatican alone. I don’t want you to miss out. Besides, we’ve already paid for the tickets.”
Bill must have seen the weariness in my blood-shot eyes. He didn’t argue. Instead, he offered to walk me back to the hotel.
I reassured him. “I’ll be just fine. There’s no need.”
By the look on his face, I suspected Bill wasn’t totally convinced, but he must have known there was no changing my mind. “Okay," he said. "See you later, honey. Hope you feel better soon.”
I headed in the direction of the hotel hoping to find a pharmacy along the way. When I discovered the "farmacia" wasn’t open yet, I wanted to cry, but I stifled my tears. I couldn’t afford to further clog my nostrils. Blowing my nose for what seemed like the hundredth time, I slumped down on a large stone bench a few yards from the pharmacy and waited.
While sitting there, a short-statured, round-bodied woman waddled in front of me. She was pushing a small metal cart containing a blue sleeping bag and some fully stuffed plastic bags in assorted colors: gray, white and tan. Undeterred by my hacking cough, she dusted off the opposite end of the bench and plopped down beside me.
The woman caught my interest, such a sharp contrast to the ethereal angels I had hoped to see on the ceiling inside the Sistine Chapel.
Her face was partially hidden by a smudged baseball cap pulled down over her eyebrows. Her hands were sprinkled with age spots and despite the hot weather, she wore a long-sleeved winter jacket. Her loose cotton skirt hung just above her thick ankles and her shoes were scuffed and worn.
The woman sat without speaking, seemingly comfortable, as though she hadn’t a care in the world. She acted as if she had everything she needed. I tried not to stare at her in a conspicuous way, but because I couldn't stop croaking, I caught her attention. She looked my way and shared a friendly, toothless smile, so contagious, I smiled in return.
I lost track of time and momentarily forgot my illness. When the pharmacy finally opened, I stood and, before I left, I turned to the old woman. Looking into her soft brown eyes, I nodded goodbye. She nodded back and I felt strangely better.
Upon entering the farmacia, I spotted a young, dark-haired lady behind the checkout counter. She was wearing a white, medical-style jacket so I figured she must be the pharmacist. Since she didn’t speak English, I made use of my charade skills, pointed to my chest with one hand, covered my mouth with the other, and unleashed a deep, rattling cough. The pharmacist gave me a “thumbs up” and retrieved a bottle of Bronchenolo sciroppo off the shelf.
“Grazie, grazie,” I managed to say.
Cough syrup and a fresh box of tissues in hand, I returned to the hotel room where two maids, Julia and Mirangela, were still tidying things up. Unlike the pharmacist, they understood English, but even without words, my condition was obvious. The women expressed their sympathy and advised me to avoid the downdraft of the air conditioner in the room and adjusted it for me. They told me it was bad for my lungs. They also suggested that, if my husband and I ever returned to Rome, we should visit in April when the temperatures are much more comfortable than in June.
After they left, I gathered my remaining resources: a bottle of water I found in the room’s refrigerator, an open bag of dried apricots I'd left on the dresser and a peanut-butter protein bar inside my purse. I took a small sip of cough syrup, blew my nose, changed into my pajamas, and climbed into the king-size bed with its clean sheets and soft pillows.
Humbled by the woman who shared the bench with me and touched by the kindness of strangers, I had no reason to complain.
I had everything I needed.