Global game is an ice-breaker — and can help burn off calories from a schnitzel dinner
By Bob Berwyn
It had seemed so important that morning, as we all sat around the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, deciding that we’d seen enough classical sculptures for the day. A Frisbee was what we needed to liven up the breaks between site-seeing, and since I was the only one of our ragged group of backpackers who could speak a passable sentence of Italian, I volunteered.
After several near misses that didn’t faze Van Tazzi in the least, I was breathing deeply, trying to slow my heartbeat. I watched our 15-year-old fixer race into the crowd, chattering as he went, no doubt asking everyone where he might find a “Friz-a-bi.” The flying discs are apparently as rare in Rome as flying pigs.
“A why-a you wanna Friz-a-bi?” he asked us when we first told him about our quest, adding that he could find some hashish for us much more quickly. But when we offered him 5,000 Lira, he happily obliged. “I’m-a-gonna help-a you. I know exactly where to go,” said, buckling up his helmet and gesturing toward the rear seat of his orange Moto Guzzi.
Three hours later, we were still buzzing around the ancient city, but as we zoomed down the Via dei Due Macelli, Van Tazzi promised we were close. And sure enough, after a hard right on to the Via Tritone, I saw them, hanging on an outside wall among toy tractors, pails and shovels and other plastic knick-knacks. Elated, I jumped off, grabbed a purple one and dashed inside the store to pay.
Van Tazzi was waiting, a broad grin on his face, and his arms spread wide, palms up.
“See, I told-a-you we gonna find your Friz-a-bi,” he said, revving the tiny motor and simultaneously flashing his index finger and pinkie in the sign of the ox to a car trying to maneuver into a curbside parking spot.
Back in the Piazza Navona, the gang was waiting: Renee, the French-Canadian with his sleeveless t-shirt and bouncy head of red curls, Anne Marie and Pia, the Swedish teachers from Linköping, Michael Bonnet, the 17-year-old Deadhead from New Jersey, and Mel and Janet, the hairstylists from Cork, Ireland, who had just joined our crew on the last train ride from Munich.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back at the entries in my journal from 30 years ago, I think it was that Frisbee — a simple toy we all had in common — that helped solidify a bond among us as we toured down to the toe of the Italian boot, crossing the Strait of Messina to Sicily, back up the heel to Bari and finally to Genoa, playing Frisbee all along the way.
Nor did I spend much time thinking about the symbolism of Bernini’s classic fountain. According to my journal, I was much more interested in drinking wine. My description of waking up in a sleeping bag in a downtown park with an epic cottonmouth takes up more space than any sort of historical account of the masterpiece, which was sculpted in 1651 to depict the Ganges, Nile, Plate and Danube, the four major major rivers known at the time. An appropriate landmark for our intercontinental group of travelers, I think.
I didn’t even mention the fact that we were playing in a nearly 2,000-year-old arena, where chariots once competed, with architecture that makes it one of Rome’s Baroque showcases.
The few paragraphs about the fountain focus more on Michael’s juggling antics — and the story of how we nearly lost the hard-won Frisbee shortly after buying it, as an errant toss sent it skidding along the cobblestones and underneath the wooden deck of a restaurant in the oval piazza, where the good-natured waiters helped us retrieve it with a long wooden broom.
But somehow, it all sank in. Even though I haven’t been back since, I can still picture the white marble and the aquamarine water, along with the smiles of my friends as we chased the disk through the air. Ever since then, I’ve put a Frisbee into my backpack or travel bag for every trip, always thinking about that hair-raising moped ride in Rome. And every game of toss evokes memories of stops along the way.
Everybody, in nearly every country, recognizes the round disk, making it a great way to break the ice and meet locals, and a great way to pass some time if you miss a flight or get stranded by a train strike.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years. I’m packing for a trip to Europe with my nine-year-old son. On our first day out, we wander into the English Garden in Munich, where wide-open fields practically scream out for Frisbee throwing. Even though Dylan is having a hard time keeping his eyes off the nude and semi-nude sunbathers, we manage a decent game.
But it’s not until about a week later that it really clicks for my boy. We’re in Linz, Austria, on a day so warm that we eat ice-cream for breakfast to cool off. After a stroll along the Danube, we end up in the shady courtyard of a monastery. As monks stroll by in cassocks and sandals, he suddenly gets that snap of the wrist that allows him to put some spin on the disk, throwing it accurately, and for distance. Some of the older monks seem a bit disdainful, but one of the younger men puts down his book and takes a turn in the field, laughing as a gust of wind lifts the disk just above his fingertips.
From then on, it’s Frisbee every chance we get. Waiting for a tram in the main square, we throw it along the smooth pavement trying to make it skip, when a Japanese TV crew asks if they can film us. One day, my dad, now in his 80s, even joins in for a few tosses, and I think back to a family trip to Italy, when I was about the same age Dylan is now; another hot summer in a seaside campground. All of a sudden, I remember the feel of the sharp pebbles underfoot as I chased down my dad’s throws again and again until we finally decided to cool off with a swim.
On the same trip, Dylan and I spend a few days at Mondsee, a fine alpine lake in the Salzburg region. After a big schnitzel dinner, we wind down with yet another game of toss, feeling a summer evening’s dew form in the grass under our bare feet. We play until it’s dark, almost by intuition, as the Frisbee disappears in the shadowy twilight.
We decide that, for our next trip, we need a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee.