It was our last night in Europe. We were at a restaurant in Rome called El Presidente. I can't tell you exactly where it is because I can't tell you exactly where anything is in Rome, and neither can the Romans. That's why the Empire fell.
"Ummm, this is delicious," my wife was saying with a brave smile.
Moved by generosity and good will, she was eating a clam which moments before had been alive on her plate.
"You ate it?" I asked, impressed.
I had never seen anyone eat anything live before.
"I had to," she whispered back. "Giorgio is watching."
I glanced to the left and, sure enough, there was our waiter Giorgio Fontani, smiling and observing us in a spirit of anticipation.
Giorgio was not only a waiter, but our personal tour guide. He was giving us a feast in his restaurant and he desperately wanted us to be happy.
My wife smiled back and ate another live clam.
"Eat one," she whispered, "or you'll hurt his feelings."
I looked down at my plate. It was the biggest clam I had ever seen. I squeezed lemon over it as Giorgio had suggested. God help me, the clam cringed.
I shoved the plate away.
"I'll be damned," I said, "if I'll eat anything that cringes."
"You've got to. Think of NATO."
"What's NATO got to do with it?"
"The alliance is based on the mutual good will of our peoples."
"If Italy joins the Godless enemy because I don't eat a clam, the alliance was on shaky ground to begin with."
"Just fake it," she said.
I happen to be an expert at deceit and trickery, which is why they gave me a column, so with a display of theatrical gluttony that would have pleased both Hadrian and Nero, I tore the unfortunate mollusk from its shell.
You could almost hear it scream.
Then, hands dripping with olive oil, I tore others from their wretched shelters, all the while smiling and chewing and wiping my grinning mouth with the back of a greasy hand.
"Don't overdo it, for God's sake," my wife whispered. "This could get disgusting."
All of the clams ended up, of course, not in my stomach but in my napkin, where for the sake of the Atlantic alliance, they died shell-less, but at least undigested.
Giorgio, no doubt impressed, came for the empty platter.
"Devo cambiare treno!" I said with gusto.
He seemed perplexed for a moment, then shook his head no and went off to get the next course.
"Why did you say that?" my wife asked.
"I told him the clams were delicious."
"You asked him if you had to change trains."
"Wrong! I got it right out of the . . . "
I opened my Berlitz European Phrase Book. She was right.
"Well," I said, "it's good to know we don't have to change trains."
The feast lasted four hours. I don't know what I ate, except for the pasta. I know that none of it is recommended on the Pritikin Diet. Even the napkin was soaked in butter.
That was but one feast of many.
We ate and drank for three weeks throughout London, Paris and Rome. My wife displayed restraint and good sense, qualities of which I have never boasted.
I ate everything but the live clams and drank liquids I would normally not soak my feet in. I had no choice. I gave up ordering martinis in England when an innkeeper laced one with lime juice and put a cherry in it.
Some things, like highway planning and martini making, are best left to Americans.
Giorgio came to us through our travel agent, who knows the dangers of wandering unleashed through the narrow avenues of an ancient empire.
One street changed names three times in the course of a single block. Others aren't even on the map.
When Giorgio wasn't with us, I led the way. Disaster followed.
On one occasion, we drifted lost half a day down the winding back streets, somewhere between the Colosseum and Vatican City.
"I have the feeling, Toto," my wife said, "we're not in Kansas anymore."
We were looking for the Piazza Navona where a restaurant called Tre Scalini served ice cream known throughout the NATO alliance as the best gelato in the free world.
"Don't worry," I said. "I've got a fix on it now. We go down Via Cestari and turn left at the Pantheon."
She stared at me.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "There's something basically wrong with the phrase 'Turn left at the Pantheon.' Would Caesar Augustus have said that?"
"He would if he were giving directions to Tre Scalini."
We finally found it. We turned left at the Pantheon. Well, actually, right.
There were two peace demonstrations in Rome. They were, of course, anti-American. Someone actually wrote "Yankee Go Home" on a wall.
That bothered Giorgi. He loves Rome and wanted us to love it too.
The night we left Italy it was raining. We stood in the rain after our feast and said goodby. Giorgio hugged us. Then he said, "Yankee, come back." I liked that.