• Lara Neri

Not Arrested in Italy

Updated: Jun 28, 2019

In the fall of 1995, I traveled to Italy to study for the semester at the University of Dallas Rome campus, located just outside of Rome in a historic area called “Due Santi,” after Saints Peter and Paul. Given their feast day coming up on Saturday, I would like to write a little bit about my first time there, which surely benefitted from their intercession.

Fall Romers 1995

During the Rome semester, on class days we studied part of the time on the gorgeous campus and part of the time enjoying on-site lectures in and around Rome, taking full advantage of our rich location. I regularly did my homework sitting in St. Peter’s Basilica, my shopping in Piazza di Spagna, and plenty of exploring all over the city. In addition to fabulous, thought-provoking classes, the Rome semester was arranged to allow for as much travel as possible - long weekends, a five day break, a ten day break, and Eurorail passes. The other students opted to go on the university trip to Venice and Florence, but I decided to travel to Capri and Sicily instead. When I was leaving Taormina, however, I decided I would drop by Florence after all.

almost 25 years later

The train rattled on its tracks, disturbing my drawing. I was attempting to do my homework for art class assisted by Paolo, a Sicilian who was studying in Florence and on his way back to school. He was sitting across from me in our six person compartment and agreed to model for me. I told him I was on my way to Florence as well, and he asked if I had anywhere to stay. Naive and on a tight budget, I accepted his offer to stay with him and his roommates, despite knowing him for just a few hours. (Looking back I cannot believe I did a lot of the things I did - my kids will all watch “Taken” before traveling on their own.)

back at Santa Maria Novella, years later

When we got to Florence, we prearranged a meeting spot (this was before mobile phones) and then I went to hunt down the UD group. I had one friend whom I had met in my art classes back in Dallas, and we were roommates on the Rome campus. I found her and invited her to join us at Paolo’s apartment for dinner. We made our way to the Church of Santa Maria Novella and found Paolo waiting on the steps. Together we walked to his many-windowed, high-ceilinged, spacious flat, and met his charming roommates, Sebastiano and Andrea. We had a lovely time singing along to the Smiths while preparing homemade pasta and pesto.

After eating, we walked through town with Paolo and Sebastiano to a crowded, blue-lit bar where the boys knew one of the waitresses. My friend and I could understand only a little Italian, and none of the rapid conversation that took place at the bar, but the boys explained that she had invited us to go dancing at a club. We thought that would be fun and agreed to go.

If you have been to Florence, you know how small and very walkable it is. My friend and I thought it was odd that the boys were leading us on a long walk away from the city center to locate Sebastiano’s car when the club was within walking distance, but we went along anyway. Once we found Sebastiano’s tiny, two-door car, he proceeded to drive us even further away, through a seedy neighborhood where the streets were lined with ladies of the night and suspicious looking characters. We asked where we were going and why we were headed away from the city, but the boys suddenly found it difficult to speak English or find the words to fully disclose the situation.

After about half an hour, we pulled down a long drive into an unlit park. Paolo jumped out and ran into some nearby trees, and Sebastiano took the opportunity to explain that in Italy, drugs are not really illegal. I did not know much about drugs, but when we arrived in Rome, the university had made it clear that we were not to mess around - if we were caught with drugs, the university was not going to help us. We would suffer the consequences in Italian prison. To our surprise and horror, Paolo returned a few minutes later with a pretty sizable bag of cocaine. Both of them continued to reassure us that all this was perfectly ok. When we were exiting the park, however, we found two policemen conducting a random car search, and Paolo and Sebastiano panicked. We were pulled over and ordered out of the car, which they subsequently searched. To their credit, the boys told the officers that we were Americans and had no idea what was going on, but the police confiscated our passports anyway. We were genuinely scared, praying Hail Marys and the 23rd Psalm aloud, praying that we would not end up in jail, abandoned by our university to the results of our lack of good judgment.

After a lot of nervous bargaining and begging on the part of Sebastiano and Paolo, our passports were returned and we headed back to the center in agitated silence. After a while, Sebastiano explained in a shaky voice that they had agreed to let us go but wanted to keep the cocaine for themselves. No one felt like going dancing at this point, and my friend headed back to the hotel where the university group was staying. I grudgingly went home with Sebastiano and Paolo, feeling anxious about staying with them now that I knew they were drug dealers but a little afraid of telling them that, plus I needed to get my stuff. We all went to bed, Paolo giving me his room and sleeping on the sofa. I waited until all was quiet and slipped past him and out the front door without a goodbye. I made my way through the city to the university’s hotel and settled myself against the wall by the front door. Eventually, to my relief and