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27 March 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to the Roman Forum

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

When we, myself and partner Matthew, planned our trip to Italy for the second time, we knew we had to begin our journey in the eternal city of Rome [where else?] to see more of the sights that we were rushed through during our trip the year prior. Upon our landing, we had three days – plenty of time – to visit the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Colosseum, churches, piazzas, tombs, and of course, the Roman Forum. While this second and deeper immersion into Rome lived up to our expectations, something extraordinary happened that made this visit a memory to last a lifetime. With that said, this article will not about the famous sights of Rome but one of extraordinary circumstances.

First, I need to back up to our previous tour through Italy last year, specifically through the Roman Forum where we met Antoinette, who fortuitously appeared to us while in search of a tour guide. At the time, our only resource was Rick Steves and while his books are some of the finest travel resources available, they lack the human factor to point out the sites and provide that in-depth historical perspective we were so desperately in search of. That desperation must have shown somewhat on our faces because it was only moments later that we found our guide. And, it’s no wonder – picture two American tourists looking somewhat bemused and befuddled wandering through the forum. We were bait and it was feeding time! Well, that’s what I thought anyway.

Our soon-to-be guide introduced herself as Antoinette and explained that it was SHE who sought US out because unlike most of the empty-headed tourists, as she put it, who traversed through the Forum daily, she sensed we would be receptive to a deeper understanding of ancient ruins and the people of the time. I just had to laugh to myself for two reasons; this was probably the best sales pitch I’ve ever heard and exactly the opposite of what I was thinking! Needless to say, we took the bait – hook, line and sinker. And, I am so glad we did!

When we first encountered Antoinette, she appeared somewhat disheveled with worn out clothes and shoes and her plastic bag clenched tightly in hand. We thought to ourselves that she could perhaps be homeless and living in Roman Forum. Regardless, we were sympathetic to her cause and agreed on her price for an hour-long guided tour through the ancient ruins. Before I proceed any further, I want to mention that at that time we met Antoinette, we were standing across from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina along via Sacra, the main path through the Roman Forum, and next to an ancient-marble column which would later become known to us as Antoinette’s column.

Antoinette's Column.  This photo only: Courtesy of Google Earth. 

And so we began our fascinating journey through 2,000 years of Roman history. Much to our surprise, Antoinette spoke like a true scholar imparting facts about every structure, column, monument, fragment and statue we happened upon and provided the dates and rulers at the time these relics were constructed. As it turned out, the plastic bag she carried was her briefcase, so to speak – brimming with seemingly unorganized paper notes, scribblings, Xerox copies and torn-out pages from guide books – which she referenced throughout her presentations. It was probably the most unusual tour that we’ve been on but nonetheless, the most educational and although her delivery was somewhat manic in nature, I have no doubt that her knowledge was not only her passion, but her obsession. She really was incredibly knowledgeable about the Roman Forum and probably the smartest tour guide we’ve ever encountered.

Temple of Vesta

Looking back on this journey, every moment with Antoinette was indeed memorable. At the end of our tour, which by the way extended to almost three hours, we bid our good-byes and thanked her for allowing us to go overtime.

So here we are again in Rome, Italy and about to embark on our second tour of the Eternal City. From the moment we arrived, Matthew was determined, driven and completely unflappable in his quest to visit the Roman Forum to find our friend Antoinette once again. Although I was a little skeptical, he was sure she was undoubtedly giving her unofficial tours through the Roman Forum to any tourists whom she selected.

During our first afternoon in Rome, we rushed over to the Roman Forum only to find it closed and despite Matthew’s disappointment in not finding his Antoinette on the first day, he remained determined in his quest. He called out unto ruins of the Roman Forum in hopes of seeing her or at least someone else who had seen her. He stopped passersby who were exiting the Forum and asked if they knew Antoinette and even asked the Forum’s officials if they knew her, but all he received were their negative responses.

The next day, after completing our tour of the Colosseum with still plenty of time to visit the Forum, we began our journey once again and toured all of the ruins and relics we learned about the year prior thanks to Antoinette. Still determined, Matthew continued to call out for Antoinette as we made our way along via Sacra. Suddenly we arrived at Antoinette’s column but to our disappointment, no Antoinette. It was at this moment I was resigned to the fact that we would probably not find her again despite Matthew’s unswerving ambition. However, Matthew wasn’t willing to give in just yet. He continued to call out her name and just as I was turning around to tell him to give it a rest, there SHE was to my utter astonishment! It was our Antoinette and Matthew’s calls were his effort to get her attention. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. What are the chances?

We walked up to her and somewhat to our disappointment, she did not remember us. Well, could you blame her? She must meet thousands and thousands of people over the course of year. However, we explained that we certainly remembered her!

“You’re unforgettable,” we exclaimed upon our re-introductions.

Looking quite disheveled the first time we met her, she was a changed woman – nicely dressed and looking great! And there was a new glow that surrounded her as well. I thought to myself, her tours must be paying off! Thank God.

Although we didn’t hire her this time around, she insisted on touring us through the sites anyway, once again reiterating the facts about the ruins in a way that only Antoinette can deliver. It was pure delight! We insisted she take some money and we even bought her to a new guide book to replace the remnants still within her plastic bag. If funds would have allowed, a new brief case would have been the order of the day as well. Antoinette was eternally grateful as were we.

We continued through the Forum and exited on Capitoline Hill where we simply stated to each other, “until next time.”

So, until that next time when we return to the Roman Forum and to Antoinette’s column, we will undoubtedly find her once again, choosing her tourists carefully. I still ask myself every day, what are the chances?

Read more and take a virtual photo journey through the Roman Forum

17 comments:

  1. Love that first shot, those were the beautiful memory. I had the same shot but different angle :)

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  2. Thank you so much Sarah. It was a beautiful day at the forum as you can see and these extraordinary circumstances made it a very special day indeed!

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  3. There is nothing like a serendipitous encounter, TWICE! Brings back great memories, my friend. Can't wait to go to Firenze with you.

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  4. Thx so much Charu...you know, we actually met on this a similar post in my Examiner column. You left the nicest compliment I have ever received. Do you remember?

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  5. This is an amazing story. Next time I'm in Rome, I hope Antoinette will find me, too. ;-)

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  6. HI Zabreena,
    It truly was extraordinary when we saw her again...what are the chances...and despite her uniqueness, she is quite brilliant and well read in Roman history...that if for sure. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your kind words!!

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  7. What a cool experience! It's a reminder that sometimes it's good to put your guard down and give someone the benefit of the doubt on a trip. She turned out to be an amazing guide!

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  8. Thanks so much Leslie for you comment...I loved our encounter with Antoinette! Thx for stopping by and commenting as well.

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  9. A priceless story, Jeff! Brava, Antoinette--and everyone else who persues their passion for and study of the classics despite the odds of being able to make a living at it. I met a few classics scholars dealing old manuscripts, antiquities, at TEFAF 2011 in Maastricht, Holland. An increasingly rare breed...

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  10. a great story indeed :) seems like you had an interesting trip

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  11. Hi Lesley and Derby!!

    Thank you both for your comments. It truly was an extraordinary experience and one that I will never forget! Loved writing about it too! Thx again.

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  12. What a beautiful story! In Italian we would say a "incredibile coincidenza" :)

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    1. Thank you so much for the wonderful compliment!! I love your Italian expression as well...I just may put that in my article my friend with credit and link to you!! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with my readers!

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  13. Maybe it was fate that you met her twice. Tracy Burns

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    1. Hi there Tracy! I totally agree with you on that one...fate brought us together twice! I would love to go back again to see if 3rd time really is the charm!! Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

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  14. Jeff, we had a very similar experience at the forum four years ago. I don't remember her name for some reason, but the way you describe this lady sounds so much like the one we met. We did hire her, although skeptical at first, but she really knew her history. At the end, we were so impressed. Her fees were extremely reasonable. I learned a lot from her.

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    1. How fascinating Susan!! Was she somewhat manic in her presentation? Did she carry with her a bag of papers with all of her notes, maps and articles? If so, you met our Antoinette!! We loved her. Thx so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences!

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