I was 20. It was my first time in Rome. It was my first time abroad. In theory it was a college study trip; in reality it was more a chance to soak up the atmosphere (and a little Lambrusco) of a foreign land. After three days, our group had already "done" the usual tourist sites. At the end of a hard day's slog around the Vatican, I had struck out on my own and was wandering the streets with no direction in mind - just beguiled by the very novelty of it all.
By now it was rush hour. The streets were noisy and fume-filled. As I walked along, a line of nuns approached me. There were about 10 of them, seemingly arranged in order of height like a set of living Russian dolls - though not very living; the youngest looked about 70. As we came together on the pavement, the leader of the troupe (herd? gaggle? what is the collective term for nuns?) held out her arm and spoke to me. My Italian does not stretch much beyond "Una birra, per favore," so I had no idea what this wizened lady was saying.
I gave my best Gallic shrug.
Not satisfied with this, she merely repeated herself, this time a little more insistently.
"Sorry, I'm English ... inglese," I said lamely.
Clearly this was not what she considered a valid excuse. Stretching out her wrinkled arm, she gave me a shove (a firm shove) towards the traffic. I could not understand what was going on. Seeing my look of bewilderment, she pushed again, with much unintelligible gesticulation, until I had one foot off the pavement.
With the third shove I finally got the message: she wanted help in crossing the road. She wanted me, the archetypal innocent abroad, to walk into four lanes of Italian rush-hour traffic and somehow hold it back while the nuns crossed to the other side.
For a second I considered doing a runner, but the stony glare from the indomitable lady left me little choice - I had to give it a go. I stepped hesitantly on to the Tarmac and edged into the traffic with arms outstretched. Maybe it was the sheer incongruity of a lanky, tweed-jacketed figure amidst the speeding cars, or maybe the drivers were simply bewildered that anyone could be stupid enough to try such a thing - but it worked.
The cars stopped. Like a modern-day Moses, I held back a sea of honking Fiats and buzzing Vespas. Irate drivers leaned on horns and hung out of car windows, gesturing madly, but still I held my ground. Even pedestrian crossings offer little immunity from Italian drivers; they merely weave around you; so looking back, I suppose my "miracle" had more to do with the presence of the nuns than anything I had done - running over a lady of the cross must be a sure bet for eternal damnation.
Anyway, the nuns hobbled across the street and went on their way without so much as a "Grazie". As the last sandalled foot mounted the far pavement, I raced for the sanctuary of the kerb and the traffic flowed once again. Even today, 15 years later, I still flinch if I see a nun coming towards me in the street.
`Travellers' Tales from Heaven and Hell', price pounds 6.99, is published this week by Travellerseye, 30 St Mary's Street, Bridgnorth, Shropshire WV16 4DW.Reuse content