Cobblestones

By Sarah White

 

You know how a phrase will barge its way into your life and become part of your permanent collection, of inside jokes? It was like that with the cobblestones.

In 1991 I was accepted into a Group Study Exchange program offered by Rotary International. With a Rotarian leader, I and five other “outstanding young professionals” would be sent to a Rotary club district, to spend five weeks visiting Rotary clubs. This year the exchange was with a district in central Italy. In each town we would have what they called ”vocational exchange opportunities” and present a slide show about our home district of Wisconsin.

On our team consisted of four women and one man. For our leader the Wisconsin Rotary district had chosen Bruce, a man of such distinctly odd character that I have spent nearly 30 years trying to describe him. Picture Humpty Dumpty crossed with Hoss Cartwright.

Bruce looked like a big hardboiled egg. Bruce sounded like a TV left on in the background. He smelled of suits that should have been dry-cleaned sooner. At 53 years old, there was a childlike helplessness to him that might have been endearing if he hadn’t been the authority figure of our group. In a word, he made us nervous.

Bruce had been a child prodigy (so he told us) but said little about his adult achievements. Born to wealth and married well, he’d been taken care of every day and in every way. As a result, he met the world with an excess of buoyant good humor.

That was Bruce. Who were the rest of us? Just five people in our early to mid 30s, chosen for our better-than-average knack for making a good first impression. We quickly bonded over the dilemma of how to get through five weeks led by Bruce.

We arrived in Rome in late April and spent three days being guided about by the first of many Rotarian hosts. Each day we walked miles with our guide pointing out the layers of history all around. Once back at our hotel, the guide would leave us and we would make forays to local restaurants for dinner.

By the third night, Bruce was limping badly.

“What’s wrong?” we asked.

“I bought new shoes just before the trip,” he said. We looked down—where we had been walking Rome’s streets in athletic shoes, he wore men’s leather lace-ups. Bruce reported that his feet were a mass of blisters.

“But don’t worry,” he added brightly. “I’ll be alright as soon as I get off these cobblestones.”

We were on Day 3 of a 35-day trip. We would not be off the cobblestones anytime soon. We whispered to each other about what kind of pampered son-of-a-bitch sets out on a month-long trip with his shoes not broken in.

The next day we boarded the Rotarians’ rented motor coach and headed north into Tuscany where our duties would begin. We would spend the next month touring factories and museums and ruins, followed by four-hour meals where we would quickly learn to make small talk in Italian with our tablemates. Bruce would remain preternaturally good-natured as the rest of us frayed into petty squabbles under the pressure to keep up the good first impressions.

When my husband came to meet me at the end of the Rotary tour, I told him about Bruce and the new shoes. “I’ll be alright as soon as I get off these cobblestones” entered our marital in-joke repertoire.

 

Everything eventually comes to an end, be it cobblestones or a bed of roses. I find that comforting, especially in these pandemic times.

We will be alright, as soon as we get off these cobblestones.

© 2020 Sarah White

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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