When in Rome

I enjoyed a delightful conversation this week with a communications colleague from Syncrude about storytelling. And as we shared anecdotes I realized that the best stories I've written almost always started by being spoken, shared.

One of my best tales recounts a bizarre day in Rome in 2006. My wife Heather and I were on our first big trip to an exotic location, standing outside the Vatican Museums on a bright and hot May morning.

We were on one those package tours with 16 people from the college, an art appreciation excursion, with requisite stops in way too many churches and congested galleries. Had things gone according to plan, we would have bypassed the long line of thousands waiting to get in that day, but something had gone wrong with the reservation. So, there we were, moving forward at a snail's pace, baking in the sunshine reflecting off the centuries old Vatican wall.

She blew past me, like one of those scenes in the movies when everything suddenly moves in slow motion, oblivious to my presence, heading to the back of the line with a large group of Japanese tourists.

"My God," I said to my wife. "That looked a helluva lot like Simone," my first wife who I had not seen since she left with her new boyfriend, a member of my staff at the radio station I was programming in Stettler. That was about 1991, April or early May, a couple weeks after Easter when I found out about their feelings for each other.

She had not entered my mind in years, and there she was, or appeared to be, in the heart of Rome tens of thousands of miles from home. And just like those many moments when you have second thoughts about a person you think you recognize, I began having doubts. "Well, she definitely looks sort of Italian so it's completely possible that it wasn't her," I said aloud trying to shake off the moment.

Along the Vatican wall, a busker began strumming his guitar and launched into "It's Now or Never." Here I was in the holiest city in the northern hemisphere being prompted by a complete stranger to leave our place in line and find out for sure. I started walking toward the back of the shifting mass of people that had swelled to thousands in just a matter of minutes, looking for the dark haired woman wearing dark sun glasses.

There she was, talking her companion. I walked up and asked "Simone?"

"Yes," she answered softly. "And who are you?"

"Russell," I replied, taking off my sun glasses.

There was a stunned silence as the significance and awkwardness sunk in.

"Oh my God," she said, not knowing what else to say.

I stepped forward and gave her a hesitant hug. "It's been 15 years, I just...just had to come and say hello."

I shook the hand of the fellow she was with saying "I'm her ex-husband."

"I know," he said.

"Well, hope you enjoy the rest of your trip, I'd better get back."

As I turned to go the air was still and they were left confused, dazed, disjointed. I smiled and congratulated myself for having the balls to acknowledge the moment, returning to my group to share what had just happened.

I've told that story dozens of times over the years, and while I'm sure the nuances have ebbed and flowed, the significance of the unquantifiable chance meeting remains. I later found out, after carrying on a brief communication with Simone on Facebook, that not only was it their first major holiday, they weren't even supposed to be in Rome that day. They had changed their mind at the very last minute.

January 23, 2010 - 198.2 pounds, 30.4% body fat

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