On the first page of Alizah Holstein’s remarkable debut memoir, My Roman History, she tells the story of her seventeen-year old self who, having been introduced to and entranced by the poetry of Dante, decided one evening—long after her family had gone to sleep—that she simply must travel to Rome, immediately. Armed with a full backpack, she caught a late-night trolley on the Green Line to Boston, her destination the airport. But before too long it occurred to her that she would need a passport, something she didn’t have. Adventure deferred.

Yet Holstein did eventually travel to that longed-for city, and dedicated her life to the study of medieval Rome during the era of Dante. Which brings us to “Americana,” a chapter in her memoir that Ninth Letter is absolutely delighted to present to you today.

Yet how can I properly describe “Americana” in order to prepare you for this extraordinary essay you are about to read? Do not be deceived by its seemingly calm beginning as she recounts her preparations—as a newly-minted PhD in History—to meet with a distinguished Italian historian at his apartment. Because once Holstein’s mother advises her to “Leave plenty of time to get there,” you will have reached the top of the first rise of the roller-coaster that is this essay, and you are in for a wild ride. What follows is a narrative of twists and turns of pathos and surprise, humor and absurdity, digressions that heighten the story’s tensions, and a retrospective summing up filled with regret and wisdom, all of which will leave you breathless right up to the last, devastating sentence.

–Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large

In September 2005, a little over a year after returning from Rome, I successfully defended my dissertation. Although the university wouldn’t officially confer the degree until January, I was essentially a PhD. In late October, I would travel to Venice to participate in the German Historical Institute’s medieval history seminar—where historian Patrick Geary would ask us why we wished to devote our lives to the Middle Ages. After that, I would return to Rome on a research grant for the month of November. Javier, on a teaching sabbatical, would join me.

Through my brother’s girlfriend, we found a room to rent near Porta Latina in the apartment of a coquettish Roman woman in her sixties who flirted unrelentingly with Javier and who seemed to regard me as a pesky intrusion on their new life together. It worked out well—while I was out at the Vatican Library, Javier worked on his book, and then the two of them cooked up delectable meals to which I returned, tired and hungry, at the end of the day. Saltimbocca alla romana one day, seafood paella the next. I relished my reimmersion in quotidian Roman life: the produce market twenty steps from the apartment, the bar at the corner whose coffee cups clinked cheerfully each morning as I passed, the cobbler’s shop just a block away where I could resole my shoes and boots, the weekends we would spend climbing in the Roman countryside.

In what felt like a stroke of fortune, I managed to arrange a meeting with a distinguished professor of medieval Roman history. A friend of a friend had connected the two of us, and to my surprise, in the final week of my stay, the historian invited me to meet him at his home.

I had seen this professor once before, at a conference in Rome I had attended a few years earlier. Organized around the topic of the Roman Middle Ages, it was my first conference in Italy. I was the only American there, and also, I think, the only graduate student. Fifteen or twenty scholars, men and women whose names I knew from books and journals, sat on heavy chairs arranged around a large oval table. I, and the few others who did not fit at that table, sat on metal stacking chairs that had been dispersed throughout the room, a few here, a few there, facing every which direction like lonesome, disoriented travelers. The scholars presented their papers and then discussed them as a group.

The conference had a kind of intimacy, in that the scholars were deeply immersed in the same small world. There was animated debate, for example, about whether the term senatorial aristocracy was useful, and about what features distinguished the medieval Roman nobility from the noble families of other Italian cities. The terminology was familiar to me, and I had been mulling over these same questions for three years. So it was strangely disjunctive to be so inside this world on paper, and so outside of it in every other way.

The two days I spent in the conference room did little to change that. There were no registration lists, no name cards, nothing that would document the fact that I had ever been present. I might as well have been observing the conference through a two‑way mirror. During coffee breaks I milled about, hovering at the edges of small groups engaged in conversation. Like the others, I held my ceramic plate in one hand and drank espresso from a little cup in the other. But I was too shy to break into their circles, too unsure of my Italian, too young, too American, too inexperienced, too socially unconnected, too self‑conscious, and possibly too female. Eventually I resigned myself to sitting on one of the many modern white sofas that dotted the break area and opening a book, any book, to pass the time until the next session. Over the course of those two days, though, the names I recognized from the card catalog gradually morphed into the figures, albeit still beyond my reach, of actual people.

During sessions, the professor—I could never have imagined then that one day he would invite me to his home—sat expansively at the center of the table, one arm draped across the back of the seat next to him. From that position he presided, occasionally leaning in over the table and reaching toward others when making a point. As the group debated the cultural capital of Roman noble families and how it changed between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, he was articulate and vocal. He could also be cutting. He was charismatic, trim, and handsome, and with his sandy hair, he appeared younger than many of the other scholars around the table.

I had noted in my readings that this professor’s scholarship exuded a comfort with the scholarly literature of many languages, American English included. His cosmopolitanism distinguished him, in my eyes, from some of his Roman counterparts, whose work seemed more deeply entrenched in the specifically Italian academic milieu. He was versed in a historical world I recognized, an international landscape I hoped I would one day be part of.

Meeting with this professor would be the first time I talked to an Italian scholar about my work, and I was excited at the opportunity. But even before meeting him, the old question surfaced in the back of my mind: What can an Americana tell anyone about Roman history? What could she say that an Italian had not already said? How could I know anything about Rome that an actual living, breathing Roman did not?

This turns out to be a fundamental question, one that I now understand actually does direct the different types of work that American and Italian historians tend to do. Scholars who live in Italy and who have been brought up in the Italian educational system have broad and regular access to archives, and as a result they often know their way around them with a depth of knowledge that can take newcomers years to attain. With a strong command of paleography, they have excelled at producing the edited editions of primary sources that, once published, are so valuable to other scholars. They also have the benefit of an innate familiarity with some aspects of the medieval world that have been preserved in the culture around them. No one needs to explain to a Roman teenager, for example, that la lupa is a symbol of their city, or that to be a notary was to belong to a highly esteemed profession.

By contrast, scholars working in America and other countries outside Europe must navigate a historical world that lies far outside the realm of their everyday experience. Without regular access to archives, they must limit their research plans to what they project they can get done in a specific amount of time—say, over the summer break or during a sabbatical or fellowship year. Because of this relative distance from the archives, some scholars working outside of Europe have also, I would say, been inclined to center their work around contemporary theory.

At the time I was setting up the meeting with this professor, however, I had not consciously dwelled on these differences, and any deviations I noted in myself from the standard I saw around me I interpreted as my own weaknesses. But, nervous as I was, I steeled myself. I had a dissertation under my belt. It was time to share my work and begin making connections.

“Leave plenty of time to get there,” advised my mother, who was visiting at the time. Yes, yes, I nodded, of course, plenty of time. With the smug satisfaction of a job well done, I closed the gate behind me and struck out onto the sidewalk near Porta Latina a full half hour earlier than necessary.

At the bus stop, I scanned for bus 118. Nothing. But only half a block away was the cobbler’s workshop where I had left my boots to be resoled. The weekend forecast was for rain, and although my boots were not waterproof, they were warm: brown Spanish riding boots that hit just below my knees. A leather band around the top had been perforated with small geometric shapes, then laid over a white layer to create an intricate pattern. When buying the boots, I had endured the incredulous scorn of a Madrid equestrian shop salesman who seemed offended that I liked the boots simply for their style and that, no, I would not be doing any actual riding in them.

I checked my watch and five minutes had passed. Still no bus in sight. But looming ever larger was my innate desire for efficiency, combined perhaps with a dose of self‑sabotage. Sprinting over to the cobbler’s shop, I came up just behind an older woman swaddled in a voluminous fur coat and a clear plastic rain bonnet. Carefully, she stepped up the single stair, balancing herself against the doorframe, while I slid reluctantly to a halt.

The cobbler greeted the woman familiarly and went about locating her shoes, extracting them from a large stack and placing them into a crumpled plastic bag. With his muscular, blackened hand, he extended the bag to her like a chicken grasped by the neck. And she, reaching up with her own tiny, liver‑spotted one, retrieved it. She plunged in a furred arm and rooted around, glancing outside and shaking her head as if the weather had dealt her a personal insult. One by one, she pulled out her shoes: one pair of blue Prada stacked heels, and one pair of very long and pointed canvas flats with a yellow flower print. Did she really wear these shoes? Humming with satisfaction, she flipped them over to examine the work. As she ran a finger over their edges, the cobbler waited patiently, resting his palms on the counter and looking out at the glistening street. I followed his gaze and, in the blink of an eye, caught sight of my bus sailing by.

With my boots finally in hand, the bus stop now felt colder, damper, more forlorn. I pulled my earbuds from my pocket and turned on my iPod Shuffle. Johnny Cash began serenading me with his litany of regrets as I, watching the minute hand of my watch tick ever forward, meditated sullenly on my own. An accomplished historian had invited me to come speak with him and now I was stuck, by my own doing, on an empty sidewalk while my bus sped on without me toward his home.

When the next bus finally pulled in, panic was batting around in my chest like a bird hell‑bent on freedom. I was going to be late, and there was nothing I could do about it. I looked at my boots on the seat beside me. Why had I wasted valuable time picking them up? And what would it look like, showing up for a meeting with an extra pair of boots in a crummy bag? Why had I not thought of this sooner?

As soon as the driver swung open the bus doors, I bolted and ran several blocks before realizing that the street I was looking for was nowhere to be found. Retracing my steps in this pre‑smartphone era, I ran the map over in my mind. Two blocks straight and then one block left, wasn’t it? Or was it, as I now feared, one block straight and then two blocks left? I ducked into a bookstore and beelined for the travel section, flipping hastily through maps of Rome to find the street I needed, and then was off again, blowing past the cash register and galloping down the street I had just come up. How had I missed it? His street was right there. I hooked a left and ran uphill another block. And there it was: his building.

I took a few seconds to catch my breath. Don’t huff and puff into his intercom, I reminded myself. I removed my earbuds and stuffed them in my jeans pocket. When I felt sufficiently calm, I pressed the button for his apartment, and moments later, his voice, slightly staticky and electronic, directed me up. I began climbing the stairway up to apartment number . . . wait, what was the number? I had been so fixated on controlling my panting that I had not paid attention. What choice did I have but to climb as slowly as humanly possible, praying he would open his door and save me the embarrassment? Slowly, dutifully, I ascended the stairs, all the way to the very, tippy, you’ve‑got‑no‑choice‑but‑to‑turn‑around‑now top. It was on the way down that I finally encountered him.

“Coming from upstairs?” he asked, perplexed.

“It’s . . . an American custom,” I answered, hoping my joke would put an end to his inquiry.

He looked just like I remembered him from two years earlier, with one notable exception: he was wearing furry slippers, so furry, in fact, that it looked like a small animal—a marmot, maybe, or a possum—had wrapped itself around each of his feet.

As an undergraduate, the first time I was invited to a professor’s home was in my sophomore year—a Christmas glögg party at which I discovered by process of elimination that I was the only undergraduate who had been invited. The professor was youngish and Swedish and had a distinctive flair that made his classes entertaining. Wearing his signature clogs and a long pink scarf draped over one shoulder, he and his colleague—a hip American scholar who wore a lot of leather and denim—led us energetically through the paces of modern European history. One of their memorable lessons concerned the divisions of Europe. This was 1995, and when you talked about division in Europe, you generally still meant the Berlin Wall. Even though it had been down for half a decade, the wall still defined the way we, or at least I, thought about Europe.

“What is the most important division in Europe?” they asked, brimming with expectation.

Many hands shot up. East and west? North and south? Catholic and Protestant? After we had hazarded all the usual answers, the professors projected a map onto the screen. No, the real divisions of Europe, they showed us with unconcealed delight, were defined by habits of alcohol consumption. The real map of Europe was divided by two mostly horizontal lines that created three geographical divisions: the vodka zone in the north, the beer zone in the middle, and the wine zone in the south.

My history professor came from the vodka zone, but his Christmas party was organized around glögg, the Swedish version of mulled wine, which I had theorized, correctly or incorrectly, to be the cultural by‑product of Viking invasions of southern Europe in the Middle Ages. With my facile handle on the history of alcohol, I showed up to his glögg‑fest. My old high school friend Dave was visiting that weekend, and he came along too. The sharp smell of hot wine greeted us at the door, and after following “Lasse” (as he told us to call him) down the long entry hall, we landed in his mostly empty living room. He then skipped off merrily into the kitchen, which was jam‑packed with professors I had taken courses with or seen in passing, including my adviser, who waved to me with a big smile from amid the crush of bodies near the stove.

Sensing that the kitchen was no place for us, Dave and I befriended a bowl of clementines and the professor’s music collection, which we pored over as if it were an intensely absorbing work of art. Not far from us, in the center of the room, were four chairs arranged in tight circular formation. They had been commandeered by four women dressed in black and gray who were intently debating the particulars of tank warfare in World War I. Giving them a wide berth, we lingered in the corner for what seemed an appropriate amount of time, after which Dave and I gave each other the signal and headed toward the door. Our host saw us, thanked us for coming, and held the door open with a smile. Dave left, and as I was about to pass through, the professor stopped me and kissed me on my lips.

Dave froze, stunned.

“Was that a Swedish thing?” he asked as we exited the building.

I had no idea. Nor was I certain I wanted to know the answer. Better just to pretend it had never happened. This strategy seemed successful, in the sense that the professor never brought it up and it never happened again. I was not entirely silent, however. The event became a story I recounted to the other history students, those who had not been invited to the glögg party and who were eager to hear what it had all been about. My report was in part a boast, about being the only undergraduate we knew who had been invited, and in part a field report, in which I returned dutifully to my kind with observations about the professorial fauna in its native habitat. I was also, I think, asking for guidance. When I got to the part about the kiss, I gauged their responses. A few laughed, but no one seemed to think much of it. The enigma of the kiss remained just that.

It wasn’t until college graduation that I next set foot in a professor’s home. To celebrate, our adviser had invited me and the rest of his small group of advisees to his townhouse down in Chelsea. He and his wife had arranged a small buffet for us in their living room. We sat in a circle and talked about history, and about our futures, the contours of which were still entirely malleable. I told them that I was heading up to Ithaca to live with my boyfriend, who was beginning a PhD in mathematics. My friend Tamar, with whom I’d shared a prize for best senior thesis, would be going to Jerusalem to work at the Cinematheque. To both of us, Professor Kaye felt a little like a father—serious but also comfortable and funny. Historians, professors—they were not yet real to me. They were inspirational figures, people I might emulate but never actually approach. That May evening, I stepped out of my adviser’s home exhilarated by the first unfurling of what felt like real adult life.

Now, seven years later, I was one month away from officially receiving my doctorate. I was, in all but title, a historian myself. Just before leaving for my research trip, I had written and sent my first applications for academic jobs—thirteen in all, to a variety of colleges and universities across the U.S. I felt eons away from the sophomore doing her best to remain invisible at the glögg party, and from the graduating senior talking about the future over a plate of cheese. And even though I had been to many professors’ houses while in graduate school, those early episodes were still alive in my memory, defining the spectrum of outcomes I might expect.

I set my boots down by the entrance and followed the professor down his hallway. The living room was casually furnished, as I remember it—a blue velvet love seat and a few armchairs, a floor lamp casting a warm glow. There was a framed photo of him with a teenage girl I assumed was his daughter. It was a family home, with the usual casual clutter and lived‑in feel. I had the sense of being in a small hive whose inhabitants were out buzzing about, soon to return.

Would I like a birra? he asked. No, I said, water would be fine. I knew he would object—the way Italians often did with me—as if someone who chose water over beer or wine were vaguely untrustworthy. “Solo acqua?” he asked. I stuck to my guns. With a resigned shrug, he stepped under a wide arch into the kitchen, where I heard the refrigerator seal unstick. “Frizzante?” I liked sparkling water but did not want to impose. No, I said, thanking him, “va bene l’acqua dal rubinetto”—even though I was certain that he would find my “tap water is fine” the true mark of my disappoint‑ ing character. Whatever underpinned my austere choice of drink—Anglo politeness, possibly, combined with graduate student deference, and also a dollop of fear that I might come across as anything other than professional—I already knew it was not helping me here.

The fridge door banged shut and he emerged from the kitchen with a beer in one hand and a glass of water in the other. Pointing to the love seat, he gestured for me to sit. It was a small piece of furniture, quite petite for two, and I was surprised when he sat down next to me. Our knees touched. He took a sip of beer and leaned on the backrest, resting his other arm over the back of the seat with comfortable authority, much as he had positioned himself at the conference two years earlier.

“So I heard you have written a dissertation about Trecento Rome. That’s an interesting choice.”

I thanked him and took a sip of water.

“What’s the title?” he asked.

“‘Rome Before Avignon,’” I replied. It was a relief to begin the conversation on terra firma.

“The same as Brentano’s book?”

I swallowed hard.

“Oh no, obviously not, mi scusi.” How careless! “I meant ‘Rome During Avignon.’” Rome Before Avignon is a well‑known book by the Berkeley historian Robert Brentano, on whose title I had based my own.

He nodded slowly, the arch of a single eyebrow communicating both surprise and suspicion. Who, after all, misstates her own dissertation title? He was curious, he went on, whether I had command of the languages necessary to pursue this field as a career.

My Italian was by now in pretty good shape—not perfect by any means but, well, here we were conversing about medieval history in it. I didn’t mention this, but I could also talk my way up and down a mountain in Italian. All of that vocabulary from the rock‑climbing course was still my principal language for talking about climbing, and it comforted me to know that in that vertical realm, Italian was, and would always be, my mother tongue.

But he was not referring to Italian. Nor to Hebrew, which I could still, several years after breaking up with my Israeli boyfriend, speak and read with relative ease. Nor French, which I had studied for seven years beginning in middle school. Nor Spanish, which I was learning to speak with Javier.

“By which I mean,” he clarified, “Latin—of which I find few Americans have sufficient command . . .”

Oh, Latin—a language so malleable and powerful. With the intensive summer course at Cornell and two months with Reginald Foster under my belt, I had clawed my way to intermediate. But I was certainly no Latinist. In a few minutes f lat, this professor had identified a major weak spot and pressed right on it. It was an easy button to press because graduate school, if it teaches you nothing else, impresses one lesson quite effectively: that you can never know enough. In my answer, I hemmed and hawed, recounting the courses I had taken, which made me sound exactly like what I was—a novice.

E tedesco?” he continued. “German is the most serious weakness for Americans, as I see it.”

All the while, his eyes were sharp and lively, as if our conversation really interested him. Was he enjoying this grilling? I couldn’t tell. I had no other relevant experience, no prior contact with the Italian university system, to help me assess how this was going. Maybe this was just how he spoke with young scholars. Maybe this was his normal set of questions. Maybe if I were just better, I wouldn’t be having such a hard time.

What could I say? Once again, he had put his finger right on it. I was weak in German. Real medievalists, I was starting to accept, began training in the cradle. Whereas by contrast, I had done all my German work in graduate school. Who was I kidding?

I enjoyed German. My kind instructor at Cornell, Frau Lischke, came from Hamburg, and she pronounced the language with such gentleness that it sounded like a poem, like at any moment she might lift off the ground into a pillowy susurration of Schubert lieder. I loved studying the language with her. But be that as it may, I had not pursued it long enough, or lived it in the way a language must be lived to be learned. As Javier, who taught Spanish, liked to joke, “to really learn a language, you have to take a lover.” Alas, I had no German lovers. This sad fact must explain why I could make it through a German academic article only with clenched teeth and a dictionary chained to my wrist. But the effort always left me exhausted, and without a trace of the elation—süße Liebe—that I felt when speaking it, or hearing it, in the presence of Frau Lischke.

“My Latin is okay,” I spluttered, “and my German, well, it’s true, it could be better.” I shifted uncomfortably. I took another sip of water. In my mind, I was compiling all the reasons I could never do the thing I had just spent nearly seven years training to do. The evidence was so clear—this professor had simply helped me to see it. Did it occur to me that not one of the accomplished professors on my committee had an impeccable command of all three languages in question? Naturally it did not.

“Well, what’s really interesting is that you picked the fourteenth century,” he continued. “Why, of all the periods of Roman history, did you pick that one?”

Well, maybe I wasn’t dead meat just yet. Finally! Here was a question I felt good about answering.

“Oh, the fourteenth century is so interesting,” I said, with sudden breezy confidence, “even though there are so few people who work on it. With the pope away in Avignon for almost a hundred years, I thought the period raised an important question: What is Rome without the papacy?” The professor discarded the second half of what I had said and seized instead on the first. “But there are so many people working on the fourteenth century! If you had wanted a century that no one worked on, you should have chosen the fifteenth.”

I was perplexed. The fifteenth century marks the beginning of the Renaissance in Rome, and from what I knew, there was no shortage of scholars working on that period.

“Well, there’s always so‑and‑so and his crowd,” I said, mentioning the name of a Roman historian whom I had perceived as central to the conversation about the fifteenth century.

And plunk goes the stone, whence it sinks to the bottom of the lake, never to be retrieved again. His face dropped, and there ensued a considerable silence during which I wondered what I had said wrong. This other scholar, too, had been at the conference two years earlier, though in my memory he had arrived late, or left early, or maybe he was a distant memory because he sat at the far end of the table, or was quiet. I couldn’t remember. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter. The professor leaned forward and sibilated, slowly and precisely, presumably so I would not miss a word of it: “Lui non vale nulla.” Literally, “That scholar is worth nothing”—although this literal translation communicates neither context nor tone. A better translation would be “He is a completely worthless bastard.”

What are we to do in situations like this, when we realize, too late, that we have stepped into the dank, fertile soil of someone else’s resentments? With no idea how to proceed, I employed the most obvious tool at my disposal: I grasped my glass and tipped it back, buying myself some time. But somehow—yes—that glass never made it to my lips. In one go, I poured nearly a full glass of water down the front of my white button‑up shirt and onto my lap, from where it made a slowly expanding puddle on the cushion of the blue velvet love seat.

The professor leaped to his feet, startled. “I’ll get something!” he exclaimed, the slippers scuffing as he beat it hastily to the kitchen.

He returned with a huge wad of paper towels in hand. I dabbed at my shirt while thanking him profusely. It was mostly in vain. Though the towels were soon soaked, my shirt seemed as wet as ever. When I had finished trying, he offered to throw away the soggy mass. I remember thinking that I could not possibly hand this accomplished, charismatic historian a wad of wet paper towels. I remember thinking that maybe all was not lost, that maybe I could still salvage this meeting.

“Oh no, that’s quite all right,” I said. As if to shrug off the whole mishap. Maybe we could both conveniently forget that this had ever happened. While he watched, I stuffed the entire mass of wet towels into the front pocket of my jeans. It was a slow process, given that my pocket was not all that big. He looked on with astonishment.

Non si preoccupi,” I said, patting the widening wet spot on the side of my thigh. “It’s nothing. Nothing at all.” There—could we please move on?

A many‑seconds‑long pause ensued, during which he stared with evident disbelief. When he raised his eyes, it was clear he had made a decision.

“You know what? Why don’t you just send me a copy of your dissertation?”

I knew this was both a failure and a way out. He went over to a small table that held a phone and a tablet of paper and began writing down his mailing address. At that moment a realization dawned on me.

“Aspetti!” I said, feeling a little like a phoenix rising from the smoking embers of our conversation. My dissertation was right here, on my iPod. I had uploaded it a few weeks prior to take it to the printing shop. I would transfer the document to him, and we would get off on a new foot. He lifted his pen, probably weighing the odds of what extending this interaction might bring. I pulled the thin iPod Shuffle from my other jeans pocket and dried it on my sleeve. He relaxed the pen, hesitantly agreeing to download the document.

“My computer’s down the hall,” he said. He led me back down the corridor where I had first entered and into a room on the left. On our right was a very tall and wide wall of books. I find it difficult to remember the rest of the room, so determined was I not to look at anything except the bookshelf. Nevertheless, to the left stood a bed and just beyond it, a smallish desk with a laptop. His study was also his bedroom.

Circumventing the bed to get to his computer, he lifted the cover and pressed the power button. It began to hum and buzz. Motionless, we waited. The computer was clearly an old model, one that takes an eternity, sometimes two or three or seventeen, to boot up. In my memory the room had stone walls, undecorated, and windows only very high up, like a church, or a prison. I tried not to look anywhere except at his books. As it turns out, it was like gazing upon a group of friends. There was Eugenio Dupré Theseider’s Storia di Roma, and André Vauchez’s Roma medievale, and Sandro Carocci’s Baroni di Roma, and many others, all on the same shelf. These were books I had been reading for the past six years, many of which I owned. Looking at this professor’s wall of books, I saw a reflection of my own bookshelf back in Providence. It was the only time I had ever—have ever—seen these same books, my books, all together, in someone else’s private library. I felt a surprising stirring of kinship. I was so at home, and at the same time, so very far from it.

At long last, the computer was booted up, its screen bright as a beacon. I uncapped my iPod and he plugged it into his computer’s USB port. Only then did I remember that the week before, I had deleted it to make room for image files of scanned archival documents.

“Oh.” I began explaining that actually, somehow, the document we had been patiently waiting for was not, after all, on my iPod. That it had been there, but that it was no longer there, and that I had forgotten because I had made that change so recently, whereas before, it had been there for so long. And I was, of course, so sorry. Would he still like me to mail it to him? He turned up his palms and shrugged, in a gesture that said, Sure, whatever. As we were leaving the study‑bedroom, a woman—his wife, I presumed—entered the front door. Seeing me, she stopped in her tracks and looked me up and down, pausing several beats too long on my wet shirt. “Buonasera,” she said icily.

“Let’s get your stuff,” he said quickly. He led me briskly back to the living room, where I retrieved my bag, and he handed me a small piece of paper with his university mailing address. I left my empty glass on the table and headed for the door.

With an astonishing sense of relief, I heard the door close behind me. All that mattered was that I was out. The evening’s humiliations translated into a burst of physical energy that sent me running down the stairs and out into the street. A misty rain was suspended in slow‑motion descent. It felt sublime to run, as if I might be able to outrun, and thereby obliterate, what had just happened. My feet carried me swiftly through the dark streets. Tears welled in my eyes, but I could not identify whether their source was comedy or tragedy. Strange guttural sounds rose from my throat, neither laughing nor crying but a hybrid of the two. A kind of loud gulping that, should anyone have seen or heard me, they must certainly have thought I was mad. I remember wanting, really wanting, to believe that what had transpired was funny, and I offered myself the consolation that one day it would make for a good story. When I got back to the apartment, I would recount it to my mother—how we were going to laugh! The sampietrini were slippery under the thin soles of my shoes and I reminded myself to be careful of falling. Which thought brought me to an abrupt halt, my heart dropping to my feet.

The boots.

For about ten seconds, I entertained a variety of fantasies. That I would leave the boots in the apartment and they would go unnoticed for the rest of time. That they would become the family umbrella stand. That they would disintegrate into thin air. Yet I concluded that leaving them there was worse than not leaving them, and slowly, heavy of heart as a penitent, I retraced the steps of my liberation. Reaching the building, I pressed the call button of their apartment. His voice.

“The boots?” “The boots.”

I trudged up the stairs, this time to the correct floor. He was waiting at the door, his wife peering out coldly from behind his shoulder. He extended the bag, and I took it with a small smile and a nod of the head, as if this, too, were normal. I thanked him, thanked them.

Buonasera,” they said in unison, just before the door clicked to a close.

This time I had no pent‑up energy to dispel. In its absence, I felt depleted, humiliated, abjectly disappointed in myself. The story might not be that funny after all. I took the stairs slowly this time, and walked, dejected and yet also incredulous, to the bus stop, the boots weighing down my arm.

The bus came quickly. A small stroke of fortune, for suddenly I felt so very tired. The mist had already permeated my jacket, seeped in at the shoulders. Inside the bus, there were no seats left. But at least it was dry. I placed the bag with my boots between my feet and grasped the overhead bar for stability. Off we chugged into the Roman night. Three women seated before me observed me uninterestedly. Their arms were wrapped identically around their purses. They wore similarly dark circles under their eyes, the badge of hard work, or earthly cares. I could not wait to be home, to fall asleep, to forget the evening’s ludicrous events. As we began the wide, sweeping turn around the Colosseum, my body pulled to the left. Then the bus driver jammed the brakes, and I very nearly lost my footing. Through the rain‑speckled windshield, I saw a trail of red brake lights that snaked out in front of us as far as the eye could see. Traffic jam. Held hostage with my thoughts, I went over what had happened in the professor’s apartment. My late, inelegant arrival, my incredulity at being in his home. Then there was the love seat that was too small, his questioning of my skills, and the use of my nationality as a categorizing filter. Unfair. He had been stacking the bricks against me. He had pressed my most sensitive buttons. He had arranged our meeting on his terrain, and in furry slippers, no less. He had scrutinized and interrogated me and, in the process, highlighted my weaknesses. I had spilled my glass of water because I was nervous and cowed by his authority, by the fact that he was older and a man and Roman and that he did not have to think about verb forms or whether he should address me formally or informally and what form that takes when you must leap up suddenly and apologize for spilling water on what was in fact very nice velvet.

What could I have done differently? I wondered. I might have instead said: Mi perdoni professore, sembra che io abbia versato tutto il bicchiere d’acqua su questo suo bellissimo velluto blu! “Forgive me, Professor, it appears that I have spilled my entire glass of water on this lovely blue velvet of yours!”

Or perhaps, I thought, it would have been better to say:

Ma dai, com’è successo? Impossibile! “Oh, come on! How on earth did that happen? Impossible!” and then inspected the glass for imperfections that had caused such an unlikely accident.

It was, of course, the first expression—the earnest apology, formal in its grammar and prudent in its acknowledgment of personal fallibility, that came to me more naturally. But the second response was probably more Roman, and would likely have gone over better. It acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation and exteriorized blame in an absurd, borderline comical way. A real Roman might even have looked around the room, for a bat or a bird, or the Holy Ghost—anything to explain the outrageous appearance of water on the love seat.

Instead, deeply ensconced in my role of the deferential graduate student, I’d apologized and fretted. Mi perdoni professore . . .

Though I had submitted my dissertation and within a month would hold a PhD, the evening with the Roman historian had vividly revived the worst aspects of being a graduate student: the long‑winded answers, the inability to cut to the chase and state the core of the issue with confidence, the tendency to speak and write in an endless series of dependent clauses, to allow others to define the parameters of the conversation. Spending much of my twenties in graduate school had given me great freedoms: to live in Rome, to develop meaningful friendships and to live the life of the mind, all while acquiring a considerable body of knowledge and—although it would take me a long time to recognize—a host of practical intellectual skills. Yet it had also accustomed me, early in my adult life, to feeling powerless. For six years after graduating from college, I had relied on my graduate student income, accustomed myself to the limitations of making do on fifteen thousand dollars a year, and to taking out loans when I came up short.

Just as important, I had been dependent on a triumvirate of older scholars, all men: for accepting me to graduate school, for appraising my work, for molding my professional person. In the beginning, I had assumed without question that they took those duties seriously. That they took me seriously. But slowly, incrementally, over the first two years of graduate school, that assumption had begun to erode. It eroded slightly when one of my professors suggested that it might help if I unbuttoned my shirt before going to speak with another about a grade. And a bit more when a professor said he wished he could spend his next birthday in bed with a twenty‑nine‑year‑old—my precise age at that time. And then a little more when another fell asleep and snored during my first lecture, for which I had been preparing for weeks, and afterward, when the students stood and clapped, reproachfully said, “They never clap for me,” and suggested that if I wanted to give a really good lecture, I should look to my male colleague and friend as an example. And still more when I chose to pursue Roman history and was dismissed with “Wouldn’t we all like to spend time in the sun?”

As a graduate student, I was free in many senses of the word, but I was also dependent and powerless in ways it would take me a long time to perceive. That dual state, of freedom combined with powerlessness, became so habitual, so familiar, that eventually it became the most comfortable place to be. And there was an important question I had yet to ask: How seriously did I take myself?

As the bus idled in the river of red brake lights, my nose started running and I rooted around for a tissue. With relief I remembered the wad of paper towels in my jeans pocket. I wiped my nose and, when I pulled the paper away, was shocked to see it stained with a clamor of bright red. Really, a nosebleed, now? I pressed the paper to my face. Already wet, however, it could not absorb the blood, which began running in rivulets into my jacket cuff. I became acutely aware of the other passengers, of their stares, and of those close by, who shifted to distance themselves from me. Now, in retrospect, it seems strange, even oddly dystopian, that no one on that bus offered me a seat, or a clean, dry tissue. That all of us on that night bus watched with morbid fascination as the wad of paper towels paled from red to pink, as the blood, creeping along the paper fibers, met and mingled with the water that had spilled from the glass.

The blood wound its way down my forearm. So strange. A bloody nose is not a common occurrence for me. Mulling it over then, I began to suspect it was telling me something. But seldom does my body speak in symbols. Why, of all times, was I bleeding now? I went over the evening again.

I knew full well that whether or not the Roman professor’s generalizations about Americans were fair, I had furnished him with an abundance of evidence that fit his theory: I was just another American graduate student, with all her usual shortcomings. Our meeting had been a fiasco. But whose fault was it? He had shown up in slippers, true, but who can say for sure that he had not been trying to make me feel at home? He had peppered me with questions about my qualifications, indeed, but that is how historians often speak to each other.

Much of graduate school had felt like a game of one‑upmanship, a contest of who knew the most, who could find the fatal flaw in the argument.

It had often seemed to me, in academic discussions, that those who could criticize and take down a historical argument enjoyed more credit than those who could connect and construct. This professor lived in that world, too. Could I really fault him for that? Finally, it was true that he sat me on a small love seat, in his home during the evening, when no one else was home. Now that I have taught in the classroom, now that I have children, I know that those with authority have an array of choices about how to wield it. That how you position yourself and where you sit or stand in a room alters its chemistry. I know now that home, evening, love seat, alone were choices, and on that evening I felt, to my distinct disadvantage, their cumulative effect. But I had come of age, professionally speaking, in an environment where the rules had never been clear, where relationships between professors and students were not yet critiqued—at least, as far as I was aware—through the prism of power. And with him, I had also faced a cultural divide, which further undermined my confidence about assessing the situation with clarity. Nothing he did explicitly violated the rules as I understood them. Though maybe that was because, as far as I knew back then, there really were no rules.

Over the next few years, I told the story of my meeting with the Roman historian over and over—to family, to friends, at parties. I played it for comedy, and it delighted me when people laughed. What a fiasco! they’d say. As two years turned into three turned into five, though, the story began to feel less funny. Later, when I left academia, I stopped telling it altogether. Every so often, though, I thought back on that nosebleed. Was it a key? If so, what was the lock? What was it I had not been able to see?

It has taken me more than a decade to decipher it. A decade living outside of academia and the life of the mind. A decade spent much more, I can only conclude, in the physical realm. A decade in which I experienced two pregnancies and two births, two years of nursing infants at my breast—motherhood in itself a kind of school of the body. When you’re pregnant, you’re always listening for clues, checking in with what’s inside your self. The brush of a movement, or no movement at all? A hiccup, a burp, a luxuriant stretch. What you eat, what you drink, what chemical compounds might lurk in the walls of your home, in your fridge, in the very cells of your body, which up until now you have more or less blithely disregarded. You get accustomed to losing control, to the fact that now your body has a mind of its own. Whatever your feelings about it, you must go along for the ride.

As your belly grows, you are cheered on by women whose bodies begin to impress you. How come no one talked to you about birth in these terms before? These women use words you have never heard in relation to childbirth: empowering, ecstatic, miraculous. In your births you come into contact with a power you never knew your body had. Your tectonic plates shift, you are a rushing jet stream, a whirling circumpolar current, a giant massif stacked rock on rock, an atom so densely packed you dare it to explode. You learn to take such pride in your body’s work.

Your mind stands by as witness. Right now it is there to support the body, to visualize the body’s path forward, to convince it of what is possible. Concepts float by, untethered to physical reality. You try to latch on to the concept of “mother,” but you sense that to this new creature, you are still simply “flesh,” the source and sustenance of life. You think, for a moment, of la lupa, of the infant twins clutching ever at her body. You let the thought go. Right now you are a mass of muscle, a conglomeration of cells made to feed the hungry. Your baby finds his way clumsily to your breast. In the coming eight weeks, as you learn to nurse him, your nipples will be so raw, will burn so fiercely, that the thought of the next feeding will send a tremor through your body and a cold sweat down your face and neck. Women with kind eyes will patiently observe you and adjust the baby’s latch and position, and they will offer you such solace that you will weep with gratitude. They are angels, you will foggily think, angels descended from heaven. Every week you will weigh the baby, count his ounces like gold coins, all of them, you realize, a bounty derived purely and exclusively from your body’s work.

After two childbirths, after years of nursing babies at the breast, what is a little nosebleed? I might easily have forgotten it. Except that it had been a sign, an undeciphered symbol. The scholar in me, still there more than a decade later, couldn’t let that go. And I had finally acquired the tools to read it.

As sign and symbol, the nosebleed spoke of vulnerability and shame and, somewhere far beneath, of failure biding its time.

To be clear, shame does not concern herself with trifles such as my petty failure to communicate well that evening in the professor’s home, or to assert who I was as a historian and scholar. Likewise, shame had nothing to do with arriving late, forgetting that I had removed my dissertation from my iPod, spilling a glass of water, or having to return for my boots. Those were embarrassments, sure, but they were smaller than shame.

No, the shame was in perceiving, as tenuously as one might sense the beating of a butterfly’s wings in a distant forest, that I might well fail. And I was steeped in a world in which failure came with an inherent fall from grace, from the moral victory that was the pursuit of knowledge. You can always go to law school and make money, as my adviser’s mantra went. And what is the residue of the fall from grace but shame?

The nosebleed, I would come to understand, was portent and premonition. Of how powerless I was as a newly minted historian, and how deep into my person that powerlessness had seeped. Of how far I was from home, how little tangible support I had from my mentors, how few were my academic contacts in Rome, and how closed their circles felt to me. It spoke of the shame I felt under the cold gaze of the professor’s wife, and the assumptions I perceived her to have made. And it betrayed the fragility of my own false bravado of believing for so long that I could do it all on my own, on meager stipends floated by federal loans. It exposed the impossible standards I had set for myself—that I could write Italian history as if I were Italian, that I could become, at thirty, a bridge between distant academic worlds, that I should have perfect command of half a dozen languages—that would freeze me in my tracks, leave me no other option than to fall short. That night my body, years ahead of my mind, perceived the depth of that powerlessness. I believed I was on the cusp of becoming. But my body already knew it wasn’t to be. And so it bled.

From MY ROMAN HISTORY by Alizah Holstein, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Alizah Holstein

Photo credit: Amira Ziyan

Alizah Holstein is the author of My Roman History (Viking Press). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation from Vermont College of Fine Arts’ “International MFA” program and a PhD in medieval history from Cornell University and has published essays in Hamilton Arts & LettersWorld Literature Today, and MarketWatch. Alizah occasionally works as an independent editor and coach for academic writers and writers of creative nonfiction. She lives with her family in Providence, RI.