august 25, 2002
Eloping, Italian style
Fasten your seat belts for a marriage in Rome

By David Farley

Before I could fasten my seat belt, we were zooming through Rome's crowded, narrow streets. Ms. Daniela, as we were instructed to call her, looked surprisingly relaxed at the wheel. Her left hand was swung across the steering wheel while her right, loosely holding a cigarette, alternated between the stick shift and her painted, wrinkled lips. There goes the Forum. Wasn't that the Colosseum we just sped past?

Ms. Daniela's reckless driving didn't bother me. It took my mind off the nerve-wracking event about to take place. I was about to get married. I was in the front seat watching pedestrians gesture wildly at Ms. Daniela, our wedding coordinator, and getting brief glimpses of famous historical monuments, while my soon-to-be-wife, Jessie, was crammed in the back seat with Antonella and Giacomo, our two hired witnesses.

Moments earlier, while standing on the steps of Rome's city hall, Antonella had wasted no time telling us her opinion on love. "Man are terrible," she announced immediately after introducing herself. "I no man have," she added, waving me off with one motion of her hand.

"Nice to meet you," I'd responded, not knowing what else to say.

For nearly two weeks Jessie and I had been traveling in Italy where we observed, with both fascination and amusement, Italian life and culture. Large extended families spent entire evenings in restaurants heatedly debating what seemed like important issues while ingesting plates of pasta. I tried to imagine what topic was causing such cacophonous discussion. Whether we were lounging in a trattoria imbibing bottles of Chianti, or standing around in a crowded piazza, we envied the modus vivendi in Italy.

But suddenly finding myself crammed in a car with several Italians I'd never met while chaotically tearing through the streets of Rome gave me a less romantic view of Italian life.

Minutes before we were to arrive at the wedding chapel, Giacomo cleared his throat. "I have been to Texas," he announced. I apologized that he had to experience such a poor representation of the United States. "Yes, I agree, it is a terrible place," he replied, nervously running his fingers through his shock of white hair. "But you don't understand. I was in prison there."

Everyone in the car grew silent.

"I was captured by the Americans while fighting for Italy in World War II. They took me to a concentration camp in Texas."

Giacomo continued the story, his hair by this point completely disheveled. I stopped listening and looked straight on, gripping my seat when I saw Ms. Daniela drop and then pick up her cigarette without blinking an eye, or slowing down. A few honks and near misses later, we were in front of the wedding chapel.

I first met Jessie, a writer who was living in New York, when she happened to sit next to me at a concert in Prague, where I was living and she was vacationing. A half a year after that first long night of talking and drinking in Prague's many pubs, we were living together in San Francisco.

When we announced we were eloping to Italy, most of our friends, family and colleagues thought it was very romantic; some, however, thought it was strange. The notion of not having a "real" wedding--the day some have dreamed about since childhood--went beyond their suburban sensibilities.

American weddings are fun, but after attending several in a short period of time, the experience played out like a movie I'd seen 100 times: The best man's speech reveals that the groom knew his new wife was "the one" the day he met her, the new couple have their first dance to a cheesy rock ballad, dad or Uncle Bob take the term "open bar" way too literally, and toward the end of the evening, aided by three or four gin and tonics, grandma shakes her booty to Kool and the Gang's "Celebration."

Much to our surprise, there is a whole industry dedicated to helping Americans (and other non-Italians) get married in Italy. An Internet search reveals dozens of companies. The agency we chose was the quickest to respond to our e-mail requests and also happened to be the cheapest (about $1,200).

There were many wedding locations on the Italian peninsula to choose from: Florence, Venice, the Amalfi Coast and Siena. I'd like to confess that we chose Rome because of its potent symbolic value--for the near-mythic power it once yielded throughout the known world, for its gorgeous churches, palaces and squares. But that would be a lie. We wanted chaos. We wanted the unexpected. These were the conditions in which we met; these were the conditions in which we wanted to get married. What better place than the Eternal City, where the proclivity for disorder and surprise can be found on any cobblestoned street, or in any car ride.

The paperwork necessary for getting married in Italy was slightly worse than applying for a replacement driver's license at the DMV. There were several steps, but with the wedding agency's detailed instructions, the process was more laborious than difficult. After ordering original copies of our birth certificates, we had to have them translated into Italian. Next, we dragged two friends to the Italian consulate in San Francisco to swear that neither Jessie nor I were currently married to anyone else. Finally, the day before the wedding, we had to meet Ms. Daniela at the U.S. embassy in Rome to sign more documents and make more oaths.

As I climbed out of Ms. Daniela's car, a newly minted Italian couple, dressed in traditional wedding garb, emerged from the chapel. A dozen friends and family crowded around them, gesticulating and hollering gregariously. I put on my vintage 1960s sport jacket, Jessie smoothed down her silk navy-blue dress, and the five of us wandered inside.

The chapel is a desanctified church on the grounds of the Baths of Caracala, a massive 3rd-Century complex that was more than just a place to relax by the pool. Sports facilities, concert halls, libraries, markets and gardens made the Baths one of the main recreational centers of ancient Rome. The facade of the chapel is stripped, making the simple, gray exterior look more like an old public library building than a former church.

The interior was similarly spartan. Its gray plastered walls revealed cracks and layers of brick. There were no colorful stained glass windows. The ceiling contained no dramatic baroque frescoes of cherubs looking down from heaven. The justice of the peace, a tall, stern-looking woman in her mid-fifties, sat at the front of the room behind a heavy, wooden table. She wore a red, white and green sash over her business suit, making her look like a former Miss Italy way past her prime. Behind her, next to an Italian flag, two decoratively dressed, surly-looking guards with swords held down the fort.

Jessie and I took our seats in front, along with the two witnesses, one on each side of us. As the justice asked us to stand, I overheard Giacomo whispering in Jessie's ear, ". . . and many Italians died at the concentration camp." Jessie gently touched his hand, which was resting on her shoulder, and said, "Okay, I'm about to get married now."

The justice commenced the ceremony by handing Jessie a bouquet of mixed flowers--compliments of the city of Rome--and then asked, in formal Italian and translated by Ms. Daniela, "Have you come here to celebrate your wedding?"

The justice then began reading a series of articles of the Roman Civil Code. While they mostly consisted of the usual till-death-do-us-part parlance, a few of the articles slightly deviated from what I was used to hearing. If one of us had plans to relocate without telling the other, for example, Article 144 put a stop to it. It read: "The spouses agree together on the address where they will establish their family life and fix the residence according to the needs of both and the pre-eminent needs of the family."

Another read, "The wedding imposes to both spouses the obligation to maintain, instruct and educate their children, keeping in mind their capacities and natural inclinations and aspirations." Thank God someone was protecting our future children from forced piano lessons, little league baseball and the chess club.

The justice read our names amongst the garble of Italian words. It was the question we'd all been waiting for. Ms. Daniela translated, "Does Mr. David declare to want to take as his wife Ms. Jessica here present?"

"Si," I answered confidently, despite the unorthodox wording of the question.

She turned to Jessie. "Does Ms. Jessica declare to want to take as her husband Mr. David here present?" There was a pause. Jessie's eyes suddenly began to tear up. She had warned this might happen. She opened her mouth but nothing came out, as if the tears were blocking her voice.

Finally, she cried out, "Si!," wiping tears from her cheek. Everyone in the room let out a sympathetic gasp. Even the stoic guards cracked a smile.

The justice pronounced us husband and wife, and the few people in the chapel clapped with enthusiasm.

Immediately afterward, Ms. Daniela and the two witnesses escorted us outside and showered us with rice. There were cheers. Hugs. Smiles. Laughter. Giacomo snapped pictures with my camera like he was a member of the paparazzi. Ms. Daniela, car keys in hand, congratulated us.

Just then, I felt someone touching my shoulders--and it wasn't Jessie. Our witness, Antonella, was crying on my shoulder and whispering "bellisimo!"

"Many times I see, but yours is much bellisimo. Belissimo!"