“So, this is the ring he gave you. I don’t like it.”
“Dad, please. And don't talk so loud, he'll come back in a minute. He can listen!"
“Come on. Maybe he can listen, but he can’t understand. This is not his language.”
“But dad, of course he understands! He speaks like us. He is one of us, now.”
His father-in-law's sarcastic expression explained what he thought about the "one of us" part. He could see him and his newly-married wife in the lunchroom: he stopped just before entering when he understood they spoke about him. He wanted to avoid another embarrassing scene; like almost everyone he experienced since he proposed to her.
“How long is he staying in the toilet? Is he asking how it works? I know they don’t have real bathrooms but...”
He entered and the four people in the room changed immediately expression. His wife smiling and pretending his father didn’t talk about his presumed lack of hygiene, his father-in-law wrinkling his nose and clarifying that yes, he exactly meant it. While his mother-in-law and his brother-in-law, and friend, standing next to the table set for dinner and hoping that food would have brought peace among them.
“Now that we are all together, we can start the dinner," his mother-in-law said.
“Of course, after we had to wait for him…” his dear father-in-law grumbled.
He moved towards his wife, whose smile still stayed on like on a theatre mask. But his father-in-law read his intention.
“Sit here. Please.”
“Here” meant on the side of the table opposite to his wife. He looked at her irritated; she begged him silently. Damn, he really loved her.
“That’s fine” he answered.
So, on his left, there were his parents-in-law and in front of him his wife and friend; on the last side there was him, alone.
Immediately the servants started to pour the wine. How many were them? Three, four? He was not used to having so many people around when he ate at home.
Dinner started with a boiled egg, then a salad with olives, dried fruit and the terrible sauce, which tasted of rotten fish and likely it was. How was it possible that in a such an elegant house, where the good dishes were made of silver and the basin to clean the hand during the meal smelled of roses, they ate such disgusting stuff? And with so much enthusiasm.
He added more sauce on his vegetables: his father-in-law kept an eye on him, sure that he would have not eaten it. And few things irritate people more than not eating their typical dishes.
He made eye contact with his wife, who knew that it turned his stomach and smiled, moved by his braveness. Marcus, her brother, made a sign to a servant so that he poured other wine to his friend to rinse his mouth out. His brother-in-law remembered too how he always avoided the sauce when they ate together in an inn.
His father-in-law cleared his throat loudly. He knew what he was thinking about: that by the end of the dinner he would have rolled drunk under the table, like all those of his people.
Like a true friend Marcus shifted the issue on business. A smart move: his father-in-law could not complain about his job since he did the same one.
“So, you managed to reconfirm the contract. Congratulation!”
“Thanks. Your uncle was satisfied with the provisions and he chose us again as suppliers for the military bases next to our city. Now that we are the same family, the business will be even easier."
“Oh yes," his father-in-law said. "Let's thank my brother and his wife who lured my little Camilla to the end of the world to have some company in these desolate and freezing lands, even finding for her a husband in my place."
He raised his cup and made an ironic toast. His wife patted his arm because he was already a bit tight.
Camilla looked at him, worried for the rudeness of her father. He didn’t know what to say, so he kept silent. He fixed his clothes, which were making him sweat. The air of the evening was still hot and the wood wrapped him in a cocoon, that at home, in winter, could be pleasant but that in the southern summer was terrible.
On the table arrived the pork, spreading the sweet smell of honey and spices which seasoned it. He tried to joke to temper the tension.
“Is this in my honour? To celebrate the pork meat that the men stationed in Bonna will have."
His father-in-law was impassive. “Very funny. Your people usually don’t joke” he said and his gaze lifted to his hair.
He ran his hand through his hair fearing that breadcrumbs could have arrived there. Yet the hair under his fingers was clean, short and in order like his father-in-law's people liked. And actually, he too, who never loved the long hair and the bushy moustaches which his relatives beyond the border had.
“Maybe" he answered, overlooking his sarcasm. "Indeed, my father said that it was evident that I was born already with citizenship. He is less funny."
“Are you saying that we are clowns?”
His mother-in-law nudged him and changed the subject. “How are your parents?”
“Er, fine, thanks. My father still helps me with the work. He started the business from scratch and he really cares about it.”
Marcus said: “That happens to somebody, not being able to relax after the military service. I don’t think it will happen to me: twenty years are enough.”
He smiled at his friend’s words. Error.
“Why didn’t you enlist?” asked his father-in-law. "After your father gained citizenship with the military service, did you take everything valuable from us so that it was useless to serve the new fatherland?”
“No, not at all, I never reasoned like this.”
He moved uncomfortably on his bed, getting trapped in the noble and too large wooden garment. Crazy clothes, even the rotten fish sauce were fine, but he would never get used to eating lying down, moreover in two or three on the same bad, like his in-laws were doing.
“Typical of the barbarians” stated his father-in-law, and he couldn’t understand if the man referred to his supposed lack of patriotism or the inability to lay properly on a triclinium.
“Flavus is Roman, dad" Camilla protested. "He even wears the toga, while Marcus doesn't."
“It’s too hot for the toga!” Marcus said.
But Flavus’s father-in-law didn’t listen to reason. “The law made him Roman.”
“Rome grounds on laws, dad” Marcus replied. “It’s for this reason that we are a civilization, and not barbarians, like the ones in Germany.”
‘Uhm, thanks?’ Flavus thought. They were speaking of a big part of his family, after all.
His father-in-law looked at his hair again. “Civilization: which allows us to have red-haired Romans. Great advantage.”
Flavus couldn’t help but touching his hair again. But even his name revealed his origin: Flavus, the red-haired.
“Not only the Germans have red hair. Your friend Rufinus has it too and likely his family saw Romulus when he made the furrow with the plough on the Palatine" said his mother-in-law to her husband.
“One of many. And we can give them Roman names, theatres, spas, but they will never be true Romans."
Flavus was hurt. “In Colonia Agrippina Germans and Romans live together and they mix. Emperor Claudius’s wife was born in Colonia Agrippina too, when it was still called Ara Ubiorum: now thanks to her it became a real city, a colony, changing its name.”
“You speak about mixed cultures? Do you think maybe that Germans beyond the Rhine one day will appreciate the civilization? And what will they become, philosophers?”
Marcus hid the laugh in his cup.
The father-in-law carried on. “Why not! And in addition, what else… musicians!”
Camilla was embarrassed like her mother, while Marcus couldn’t stop of laughing.
Flavus tried to reply, half irritated and half ashamed. “We have our music.”
“Sorry friend, but it’s really difficult to imagine a giant German with a harp in his hands. I can't imagine that one day someone will exclaim: 'Ah, music owes so much to the Germans!" said Marcus.
Flavus flushed and he was aware of the red which stood out against his pale complexion. He envied the two men's skin, which went brown easily and now that it was summer it would have hidden his embarrassment better than his one. He only arrived in Rome one day before and he had already his nose peeling for too much sun.
Camilla laughed a lot for that. Her skin was white like his because she paid attention not to stay too long in the sun to preserve the paleness, anyway she would have managed to get by better than him in this situation. She was a girl from the heart of the empire, while he just a half barbarian from the province: with the craftiness, no contest.
Flavus was still blushing when his father-in-law spoke again.
“Sometimes I ask myself why the empire should go so far. Even Britain now! Another rainy and icy land. What is civilization for all those for?”
“To make them philosophers?” Marcus suggested.
This time was Camilla who nudged. Flavus glared at him, who raised his hands saying: “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
“… at least in Britain, it seems that there's silver," carried on the father-in-law who, as the good trader he was, collected every interesting economic news in the Forum. "But Germany… there's nothing, only too tall men, which crowd at the borders of the empire to run away from the horrible place where they were born."
Now Flavus was offended: no matter that the man drunk too much, he didn't like hear such nasty things.
“Yeah, in Germany there’s not so much sun like here, the food is worse and it’s colder, but there are marvellous woods!”
Everyone froze, while the father-in-law opened his eyes wide and Flavus desired to threw the dish in his face for the gaffe he made.
“Sure, beautiful woods, perfect to hide and then assault our legions, like the Teutoburg forest!"
“The tribes from which my family comes fought with the Romans against-”
“...and in return for that bloody, dishonest ambush, what do we do? We let that our daughters marry them! I’ll end up with red-haired grand-children.”
Flavus looked at his wife, who lowered her eyes.
The mother-in-law said: “They would be adorable.”
Her husband gave her a dirty look. She didn’t get perturbed.
“You know that Flavus is a good guy. His family is respectable and they’re not enemies. The problem is that he took away our daughter.”
“She’s still a baby!”
“That’s not true!” Camilla said.
“So far away, away from Rome, from civilization, from her family.”
Camilla touched her father an arm to comfort him.
“Colonia Agrippina is far away, that's right, but the journey is not so long. We don't live in Syria or Mauretania."
“Why couldn’t you stay in Rome?”
“Because he has all his business in the province.”
“He’s only a pork meat trader.”
“Who supplies the legions which station along the limes” Marcus said. “I prefer to negotiate with him, whom I trust. It’s plenty of traders who try to cheat us; as the supply manager of the legion in Bonna uncle had bad experiences with them, so he is so happy of Flavus. He’s an honest citizen and a good husband for Camilla.”
Flavus understood that he was trying to make amends for his jokes.
“I'm surrounded" the father-in-law grumbled. "Fine, if Rome to stay great must accept that the barbarians marry its daughters, " - he raised his voice dramatically and Camilla looked up to the sky - "so be it. But when Germany will generate all these fantastic philosophers, remember who you must thank" the man said, threatened Flavus with a piece of meat spit on the edge of the knife.
“Maybe... we'll carry on studying Latin in the school as a homage?" Flavus answered warily.
“Of course you will. So you have an alternative to your ugly and incomprehensible language.”
When the dessert with pistachios and almonds was served, Flavus was exhausted and his father-in-law even higher, so the women tried to end the dinner as soon as they could. The parents-in-law went to sleep in their rooms and Flavus and Camilla greeted Marcus too, since the day after he would have left to come back to Bonna, to assume the command of a new horseman squadron.
The two newlyweds crossed the garden to reach their room, while a slave showed them the way with an oil lamp. She took him by the arm and kissed him.
“You were very patient tonight. Thanks. You must excuse daddy, he doesn't actually think of this stuff, but he has been shocked since the notice of our engagement. For him, I'm still the child he bounced on his knees."
“I know, he's not mean. But he's tiring. And when he came up with the subject sons… I'm afraid of how he'll take it."
“Maybe… maybe we’ll announce it the next time” she said, touching her bump that the large dress was still able to hide.
[Ara Ubiorum aka Colonia Agrippina aka Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium = modern Cologne]
[Bonna = modern Bonn]