Book Review: THE DELIGHT OF BEING ORDINARY by Roland Merullo (fiction, 2017)

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The narrator, Paolo dePadova, is a cousin and trusted First Assistant to the Pope of Rome. The Pope has been having some very odd dreams, “almost like God is sending me messages in a kind of code. I want to get away for three or four days vacation. No formalities, no guards, no publicity. Just you and I; your wife Rosa, if she wants to come.” Among the state visitors that day is the Dalai Lama, Buddhist leader in exile from Tibet. He, too, has been having similar dreams, and is invited to go along.

Paolo and Rosa no longer live together. His previous travel agency was a failure; her hair styling business has blossomed into a chain of shops, serving many of Italy’s top celebrities. Paolo phones her with the Pope’s proposal. She is delighted with the challenge of smuggling their cousin and his guest out of the Vatican secretly. The Vatican has several ancient escape tunnels; the problem is getting away from the security guards and through the streets of Rome.

She meets them with a strategically placed car next morning.

“What were you thinking, Rosa! A hundred-thousand-Euro, silver-striped Maserati?!”

“A hundred and fifty thousand,” she says proudly. “Borrowed from a friend. If two humble holy men are escaping, what’s the last vehicle they would choose? Now give me your phone; it has a GPS chip. We’ll hide it under this bush.” She drives them to the rear door of her nearest shop, for an entire appearance makeover. Hide the holy beads, change the hair color and skin tint; different clothes. For good measure, Paolo is disguised as a refugee from Libya or Syria. They head eastward, avoiding main highways. No agenda; just seeing Italy as ordinary tourists.

The city of L’Aquila had suffered a major earthquake five years before, killing over 300, with massive destruction. Many are still homeless, and the national government is not popular here. The cafe where the four stop for lunch still has a bust of dictator Mussolini, now long dead, on the counter. The cashier is openly hostile to Paolo as he pays, supposing him to be one of the many refugee boat people, finally telling him she doesn’t want his money; just leave! He catches up with the other three on the street, who are talking with a beggar woman, and they give the rejected lunch money to her.

In the mountains the Pope stops them near a lone shepherd. “Sorry to disturb you. We came to pray with you. Do you mind?”

“Va bene (Okay)” the shepherd says and offers a brief prayer.

Their next stop is a scenic mountain national park where Rosa insists they ride the chair lift up to the peak. Paolo knows the Pope is terrified of heights, especially when the chair lift stops with their chairs a hundred feet in the air for half an hour before re-starting. A thunderstorm approaches as they finally reach the top and they stay at the inn there. Miserable food, photos of Mussolini line the walls, but no one recognizes the four.

Day 2 – The national news media: “Pope and Dalai Lama kidnapped! Nation-wide search! Pope’s assistant suspect!” Paolo’s and Rosa’s twenty year old daughter Anna Lisa lives in Rimini, a beach resort town north of them. Rosa phones her: is it safe to visit? Anna Lisa instructs them to meet her on the crowded beach, then guides them to a nearby meditation room. Piero, the meditation leader, soon arrives. Anna Lisa shyly introduces him as her boyfriend, formerly Jewish, now converted to Buddhism. Oh, and she is pregnant. She introduces him to the Pope and Dalai Lama; Piero takes it as a joke, and is then extremely embarrassed to realize it is not, even though the two accept him graciously. But it is time to move on to stay ahead of the police. Rosa instructs Paolo to drive out of town before stopping for food.

Rosa admits she is no longer a practicing Catholic, but has a lot of questions to ask both Pope and Dalai, and her husband. The conversation gets quite heated despite the two holy men’s calm replies. Suddenly, the Pope says “STOP HERE!” A lone woman is lounging outside a trailer by the roadside. Prostitution is declared illegal in Italy, but the law is often ignored. The Pope gets out of the car. “We have come to share our lunch with you,” he tells her.

The prostitute is taken aback at first, but willing to take part in the food they spread on the hood of the Maserati. “My name is Tara. Working name Martha.” When offered a way out of her profession, however, she refuses. “That’s a quick way to get me killed.”

The Pope writes out a note and phone number. “The police have a reward offered for word of us,” he says. “Phone this number tomorrow, and only this number, or someone will cheat you.” The four drive on.

Rosa can always find a friend willing to take them in for the night. This time it is an aging movie star who has a villa near Padua. Not only has he room for her guests but insists they attend a masked ball that evening, costumes will be provided. Ironically, Rosa is dressed as a nun, the Dalai Lama as a police captain, the Pope as a king (he refuses the brass crown) and Paolo as a psychotherapist. They do escape before the ball becomes too wild.

They seek a more peaceful place to end their travels next day. Paolo drives them to Lake Como in the far north of Italy, where he spent his childhood. But the last day is weirdest of all, beginning when a group of total strangers tell them, “We’ve been waiting for you for three days.”

The reader should remember that this is fiction. That being said, this reviewer found the story not only highly entertaining, but thought-provoking as well.

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