Monday, December 4, 2017

In The Beginning: New York To Rome By Way Of Africa

November 1978, eleven at night, five weeks after my then-husband and I had left New York for good, just inside Tanzania. The two soldiers who stopped our truck were so drunk they barely managed to keep their bayonets pointing in our direction. Andrea and I, about to close our six-week African parenthesis before settling in Italy, obediently climbed down to be escorted at riflepoint to the tent of an equally sloshed camp commander, who dressed us down and ordered the protesting driver to haul us back to Kenya. An abrupt closing of the Tanzanian border, due to fighting near Uganda, had dashed our dreams of watching lions stalk wildebeest at Ngorongoro Crater and smelling the cloves in Zanzibar. Public busses between the two countries had been halted, railway lines had never existed, Andrea’s awkward stab at bribing a ship’s captain had fizzled, and our final attempt to cross the border, by hitchhiking, had now met the same fate. The trucker fumed all the way back across 10 miles of no-man’s-land and dumped us at the Kenyan border station.
There were two benches outside, narrow, wooden, and painful, where we got snatches of sleep until a workingman’s bus stopped at dawn, en route to Mombasa, and picked us up. In my dreams that night I said farewell to my American life. That dusty nowhere in Africa seemed to straddle not just the edge between two countries but a watershed between my old world and my new one. Perhaps it was facing those bayonets as a couple that hammered it home: I really had thrown in my lot with my Italian husband and with the unknown. When our plane took off from Nairobi a week later, I was ready to leave all certainties behind and begin a joyful adventure in chaos.
Chaos aplenty awaited us, joy zero. The Rome we touched down in was bewilderingly dark, depressed, menacing, with none of the raucous street life that had seduced me as a tourist a few years back. Just months earlier former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro had been kidnapped by the leftist terrorists of the Red Brigades. When he was murdered and his body dumped two blocks from his Christian Democratic party’s headquarters, it made headlines around the world.
The oil crisis was at its peak, forcing restaurants to close at 9 pm when in normal times people would have just been sitting down to eat. Trigger-happy cops manned the intersections, and the few pedestrians scurried like rats from doorway to doorway. My personal gloom deepened when I learned my Italian medical license wasn’t there waiting for me, as a nice but ignorant lady in the New York Consulate had promised.
Fortunately everything came right in the end. Yes, the license took a year and a half to come through, but by 1981 Rome had regained its bustle and I had launched a medical practice that would with time become the envy of my American colleagues. I’ve gotten to play the old-fashioned country doc for decades, treating three and four generations in the same family, while enjoying a clientele – one-third American, one-third Italian, one-third miscellany – that’s included Kenyan diplomats, English nannies, Burmese nuns, Italian auto mechanics, and Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky. I have the world’s best medical secretary. I practice blissfully free from the diagnostic coding and insurance company pre-authorizations and electronic medical record regulations that torture physicians in the US, and I can choose for myself which medical guidelines to follow and which to ignore. OK, I haven’t had the peace of mind that comes from top-notch hospital backup, or accumulated a fat investment portfolio like my colleagues back home, but between the professional plusses and the glorious Italian lifestyle I wouldn’t exchange my Roman career for any other.
A slightly modified version of this post is being published simultaneously in The American In Italia as the first entry in my new column, Bedside Manners.


  1. Not only is your writing style genuinely beautiful, Susan, which already draws me in, but your personal story is really engaging and rather exotic. Furthermore, I would agree that you have the best medical secretary in the world!