by Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna
That was two days after Christmas. My two travel buddies and I woke up very early, prepared our things and checked out of the hostel. We were scheduled to leave Rome that day. After all, we had been travelling all over Italy for the past six days. Having seen my first speck of snow in Milan, admired the gorgeous gondolas in Venice, have been enchanted by the incandescent beauty of Florence, awed by the tower of Pisa and beguiled by the magic of Rome, it was time to finally say goodbye to our Christmas holiday in Italy. We took the metro to the bus station with a dazzling image of us celebrating New Year’s Eve in Madrid. Ten minutes later, the same image broke into pieces when at the ticket booth, the strict Roman lady unapologetically informed us that there were no longer available buses going to Spain until Dec. 29. Now why on earth didn’t we ever consider buying a two-way ticket in the first place? Blame it on our amateurish attempt at spontaneous travelling, our Italian trip came close to the heels of our recently concluded Portugal trip which turned out smooth and fun. So basing from that unforgettable trip, we instantly expected that later trips would be hitch-free and efficient. Well, that would be possible if it were not a holiday season in the first place and that, if we had two-way tickets! Excitement took over us the moment we found a very cheap one-way flight from Barcelona to Milan. We immediately zipped our bags and flew the following day.
We didn’t mind spending another two days in Rome though, only that we were running out of cash. For an unexplainable reason, my ATM card was not working. We rushed to the nearest airline offices but everything was booked. We dashed to the Termini station to check the trains, but no luck. Harakiri was the best option. Or not yet.
Meeting Tita E.
The Termini station was a picture of pandemonium and madness. Everybody was apparently eager to find any possible ways to get out of Rome. Scenes of angry and tired passengers shouting at the ticket sellers demanding for available seats and additional trips but were only shouted back in return were already a normal sight and sound at the station. My remaining pocket money told me that I could still manage for the next two days if I spent strictly on metro rides, food and a bus ticket to Spain. Clearly, I didn’t have a budget for a two-day accommodation. Little by little, I submitted to the possibility of spending two nights at the Termini station just like the vagabonds and several stranded travelers that were scattered everywhere inside the place. But the moment we tried settling our luggage in one corner, I already spotted two people eyeing at our belongings. We abandoned the idea right away. But deep inside, I was aware that when worse came to worst, we would be forced to reconsider.
Suddenly, it occurred to us that it was time for Plan C: Our fellow kababayans, to the rescue. During our first six days moving around Italy, we met a handful of Pinoys everywhere. Inviting us for a Christmas dinner at their place in Florence or greeting us happy holidays in the streets of Rome, our fellow kababayans would definitely not turn their backs on us.
It gave me the impression that we were in one of the McDonald’s outlet somewhere in Manila. Judging from the number of Pinoys in every corner; chatting, laughing, gossiping, eating, selling and shouting, the Mc Donald’s inside the Termini station was undeniably the hang out place of our kababayans. About ten Pinoys cared to listen to our plight and took the initiative of helping us find a place to spend two nights. Nobody judged us for not purchasing return tickets to Spain. I found myself sighing in relief. Everybody was calling everybody, uttering the same dialogues to the ones on the other line. I could hear them saying “There are three students from Spain who got stranded in Rome without a place to stay and don’t have enough money for a hostel. Is it possible for you to accommodate them?” I couldn’t blame them if they actually would like to say “Three stupid students from Spain got stranded in Rome without return tickets. Don’t have enough money and got no place to stay. Bunch of idiots!” But no, everybody was sympathetic to our predicament. However, by process of elimination, one by one gave us a sorry look and an apologetic “Sorry, got no place for you guys.” Our hearts sank and started to pound heavily. The image of us lying on the floor of the station for two days started to play in my mind. Fortunately, as my grandmother would always say, “If God closes a door, he opens a window and serves you a free dinner”, God sent us Tita Eva. A charming middle-aged Batangueña who, judging by the manner how the other Pinoys addressed her with respect, was a very nice and upright woman. After listening to our ordeal and without asking too many questions, she asked us to follow her.
New year’s eve with Tita E.
The Ministry of Finance stands a few feet away from the station. Tita Eva slowly swiped her “Gate card” and waited for the card detector machine to read it and let her entry. Tita Eva was married to Tio Corrado, an Italian working as a head security guard at the Ministry of Finance.
As soon as we entered the house, she made us feel at home and comfortable. She even prepared pasta for dinner. We finally met Tio Corrado. A stocky and tall man in his 50’s, Tio Corrado was your typical friendly Italian guy who indisputably loved football and pasta. Both he and Tita Eva were bubbly over dinner, exchanging banters as they narrated to us their love story.
The following day, we went to the bus station to once again try our luck to buy the tickets for Spain. The Roman gods and goddesses must have wanted us to see more of Rome. The same stern lady at the ticket booth coldly told us that the next available trip to Spain was on January 2. That would be six more days in Rome! Not wanting to abuse the hospitality of Tita Eva by extending our stay, we looked for trips to Spain by passenger ship. We found one and it was leaving in three days. We asked for the price. It was so staggeringly high that we were forced to trounce both pride and shyness to tell Tita Eva about the latest news. She insisted that we stayed. She didn’t mind having us until the new year. Besides, she didn’t want us to take the passenger ship after hearing about the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia that week. We didn’t have a choice but to stay until the 2nd of January. And this time, we couldn’t afford to take any chances. We bought the tickets for the trip back home.
Tita Eva’s smile was all over her face as she sliced the panetone and put it on the table. She was very excited to greet the New Year with us. According to her, it had been years since the last time she had fun welcoming the new year. She and Tio Corrado would normally have dinner and after that he would go to bed and doze off unmindful of the ongoing merriment. Tita Eva would just wait for the countdown on TV by herself and then went to bed after the clock had struck past twelve. But this evening, it was totally different. We had sparkling sticks, champagne and spaghetti! The photos said it all, Tita Eva had a blast.
Two days later, we were off to the streets of Rome heading to the bus station. As we were saying our goodbyes, Tita Eve made us promise to keep in touch and thanked us for spending the New Year with her. When she saw us off she could not hold her tears. She cried. We felt sad too. We would miss her. Our extended stay in Rome with her was one of the things that made our trip to Italy very memorable. We not only saw a lot of Rome but also met a very special person in Tita Eva.
Missing Tita E.
When I got back to Spain, I never missed greeting Tita Eva on special holidays every year. She would always ask me when I would go back to Italy and see her again. The last time I talked to her was in May two years ago when I called to greet her “Happy Mother’s day.” She sounded so excited because in two days she was going back to the Philippines for a month-long visit. She was also half-complaining that she might pay for excess luggage which were mostly toys for her grandchildren. That was the last time I heard from her. In August of that same year, four years after my first trip, I went back to Rome. I was very excited to surprise Tita Eva. But when I tried calling her phone, I couldn’t get through. I went to the Termini station to look for familiar faces. I got to meet two women who personally knew her. Tio Corrado died a year ago and Tita Eva decided to move to Manila for good. No, they didn’t have her phone number in the Philippines. I left my number to them requesting to text me once they hear something from her. I haven’t heard from them since.
Six years have passed and no longer a neophyte in travelling, (yup, can’t start a journey without a two-way ticket tucked inside my rucksack together with my passport), I have met a lot of Tita Eva’s along the way. Looking back, not having that return ticket gave us the chance to experience the unconditional kindness of strangers. I am writing this story to remind me of this humbling experience where I discovered one important lesson: generosity is universal. There will always be people with golden hearts, be it a Pinoy or not. I am writing this story hoping against hope that maybe, one of the readers of this account happens to know Tita Eva, and though with not so much details about her ( I don’t know her family name), would be a dear to inform me of her whereabouts. The thing is, I now owe her two “Happy Mother’s day” greetings.