If there's a Siberia in Rome, we were in it. Earlier in the day, our young and enthusiastic guide on a food tour of the Testaccio district had... enthusiastically recommended restaurant Fernanda Osteria, writing its name in his careful hand on a list of his favourite eateries in Rome. "It's wonderful," he exclaimed enthusiastically.
We should have known better than to trust anyone born in the nineties.
We began to sense that the evening was going awry when the taxi driver didn't know how to get to the restaurant, first pulling into one dead end street, then another. The restaurant was found in the final dead end street, where we saw our second omen – a bank of full-to-the-brim garbage containers, side by side, blocking the end of the dead end. (Rome, you may have read, has a serious garbage pick-up problem. Something to do with the Mafia apparently, but we didn't want to inquire too closely.) We paid the driver the twelve-euro fare.
There we were: dead end street, garbage cans, parked cars jammed right up against the modern facade of Fernanda. We were a few minutes early so we decided to explore Irkutsk. We passed the overflowing garbage bins and headed toward the district's bright lights – the dollar store, bingo hall (at least we thought that's what it was), a bench where a couple of signoras were having an evening smoke break.
You see, Mark had been travelling with three combs, including one he liberated from the spa at Domaine Verchant at Montpelier. A person, as you know, can't have too many combs. But somehow between packing in France and unpacking in Italy, two of them went missing. Combs must be replaced. We walked into the dollar store, which had nearly as many combs for sale as it had too-bright lightbulbs in the ceiling. One euro later, Mark had a replacement in his pocket.
The doors of the restaurant swung open and the young hostess welcomed us by name. They were expecting us. No wonder, we were probably the only people with a reservation. Fernanda was modern, clean, lonely, and sad. A half dozen diners were scattered among its tables. It felt like being trapped in a melancholic song.
The hanging lamps above the tables were badly placed; high enough that the halogen bulbs shown directly into our oh-so-senstive retinas. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows next to our table afforded a view of dented Twingos and Fiats, parked nose-in less than a meter away.
And the music.
A mix of assisted-suicide tunes, sounding like it was selected by the Cowboy Junkies on a bad night, was oozing out of hidden speakers, including the depression-causing slow doo-wop version of I Only Have Eyes for You. Our stomachs clenched up and we searched our pockets for any spare Valium. Diane said it was like being in a dream that you can't wake up from – one of those dreams that morph into a nightmare. Could we escape?
Diane. "No. We're here, we stay."
Diane. "We don't know where else to go."
Mark. "I'm shocked. You want to stay?"
But even Diane's resolve evaporated halfway through the next selection from Vlad the Impaler's jukebox. We summoned the nice hostess and broke the farewell news to her, sending the restaurant's accountants into a state of despair, losing 25% of the night's take.
Another twelve-euro taxi ride later we were back in the real Roma, dropped off near our now favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant where the tomato bruschetta drips with juices and the calamari is so light you have to tether it down. The tiramisu is the best ever and the servers reward the diner with free glasses of limoncello at the end of the meal.
"That was a narrow escape," Mark said, crunching on calamari as he styled his hair.
-Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft