Elder Travel Gold Winner: The Elevator in Rome

By Bill Zarchy

Stuck on a hot day.

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” shrieked the voice from the corner. “You don’t understand. I’m claustrophobic!”

It was a warm summer day. Susan and I had boarded an elevator in a poorly air-conditioned archaeological museum in Rome, along with a dozen people from our tour group, and Rachel, our English guide.

We only had to go up two floors, but we had already climbed many steps on this tour, and the elevator would save us trekking up a couple of long staircases. Rachel pushed the button and the door closed. The elevator gave a small lurch, then nothing.

I looked at Susan. She smiled at me, her eyes a bit wide. I smiled back. I knew that getting stuck in an elevator—especially if she had to pee—had long been one of her worst fears. Rachel hit the Open button. Nothing happened.

Susan squeezed my hand. The elevator was hot and stuffy, but we were still there on the ground floor, right next to the main desk of the museum. And we had just used the bathroom.

“What’s going on?” called a woman in the back corner of the elevator.

“Well, we seem to be stuck here for a moment,” Rachel said cheerfully. “But no worries. I’m calling for help.” She wore a mic and headset, which enabled her to communicate with our other tour leaders, who were right outside, waiting their turn to go up. In fact, everyone on our tour wore lightweight headsets, so we could hear Rachel’s descriptions as we toured Rome.

The tour was run by Roadscholar, formerly known as Elderhostel. I think they rebranded because they wanted to market to younger people, and most of their clientele didn’t want to stay in hostels. Our group consisted mostly of folks like us, in their late 60s. Some older, some younger.

Susan hadn’t had an elevator phobia when we met decades before, but over the years she had grown more and more fearful of taking the lift. She would insist on going to the bathroom before riding an elevator, any elevator. Or she would avoid the elevator altogether. When we traveled as a family in earlier years, I would often elevate with the kids, while she sought out the stairs.

Unfortunately, not all stairs go to the same levels as the elevators, and sometimes they are in different parts of the building. Several times we were briefly separated in airports and hotels. Occasionally her phobia led to scary situations, especially one panicky day at the Eiffel Tower, when I took the elevator to the top with the kids, and she suddenly got off at the first level and walked down. Just before we finally found each other on the ground hours later, a human body, an apparent suicide, dropped on the ground next to her.

Earlier on that same trip, she opted to take the stairs—often over a hundred of them—up out of the London Tube, as the rest of us zipped up the elevator and waited on the sidewalk for her. Thankfully, some stations had long escalators.

As we grew older, however, huge staircases had become more challenging. We knew couples where one spouse’s fears had severely limited their ability to travel together, and Susan acknowledged that her elevator phobia was getting in the way. She sought help and began to work with a psychologist. He met weekly with her, at first giving her exercises designed to reduce anxiety. It would be many months before they actually got into an elevator.

Susan learned how to find her happy place, how to visualize calm and bring it into her daily routine. He taught her to acknowledge the fear (“It’s just a feeling”), but not to let it determine her behavior. She practiced reminding herself that her goal—going up or down in a building/airport/museum/hotel—was more important to her than giving in to her panic.

Eventually, they began riding elevators, first together, then Susan alone. A few times she practiced with me. Though she still didn’t like boarding elevators with a full bladder, she slowly overcame her fears. After a year of this behavioral therapy, I took a saucy photo of her posing in a hotel elevator, which she presented to her therapist as a parting gift.

In the museum elevator in Rome, the woman in the corner called out, “We’re stuck? You’ve got to get me out!”

“We’re fine,” said Rachel. “We’re still on the ground, just need to get the door open.”

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” shrieked the voice from the corner. “You don’t understand. I’m claustrophobic!”

It was already warm and humid and crowded in the elevator, but this last exchange seemed to raise the heat by ten degrees. Susan and I smiled at each other again. Her eyes grew wider. She squeezed my hand harder.

Another woman on our tour turned toward the corner. “It’ll be fine, dear. None of us are happy about this. Let’s try to chill together now.”

“I’ve gotta get out. What are they doing to let us out?”

“I’m talking to them now,” said Rachel. “Hang on.” She was speaking over her headset in Italian. “Si, si, grazie.”

“What?”

“They’re going to get the key.”

“They don’t know where the key is? They’re incompetent, that’s the problem!”

“Everyone can hear you on the headsets. It’s all right. They know where the key is. They just have to … go get it.”

“Oh, I hate this,” wailed the woman. I turned as best I could in the tight elevator car, trying to identify the voice.

“It’s Ellen,” I whispered to Susan.

She called out softly, “Ellen, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” But both of us knew telling others not to worry was often a fool’s errand.

“How do you know? They can’t even find the key. We’re never going to get out of here!”

Just then we heard a mechanical rattling at the door.

“See?” said Rachel soothingly. “Not to worry. They’ve got the key. They’re going to open the door now.”

The rattling stopped, followed by the sound of something metallic hitting the ground.

“They’ve dropped the key! It’s probably lost! Tell them to call the fire department.”

It seemed to grow hotter, and, if possible, even more humid. I could feel sweat trickling down my back. Rachel continued to speak quietly in Italian to the other guides, who were just outside. Then, to Ellen, “They can still hear you.”

“I don’t give a crap. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Nobody does, here in this goddamn backward country. Tell them they should call the fucking fire department.”

I looked at Ellen’s husband, a tall guy in a straw hat in a different corner, staring at the ceiling. Silent.

Susan had clawed my hand pretty hard by now, but she stayed calm. “Ellen,” she called. “Take a deep breath. Try to stay calm. I understand. I’m claustrophobic too, but if you try not to panic, it’ll help us all to get through this.”

Good advice. She was validating Ellen’s fears but urging her to control her behavior—for her own good, and everyone else’s—rather than denying the feelings or giving in to panic.

The rattling in the door started again, followed by another clanging key drop.

The guides chattered to Rachel in Italian. “It seems to be the wrong key,” she reported after a pause. I wondered why she told us this.

“Ellen, breathe again,” called Susan. Ellen whimpered a bit, but she stopped shrieking.

Then we heard a banging on the door. “Stand back,” said Rachel.

A steel rod poked through the rubber gaskets between the two closed elevator doors. Whoever wielded it jerked the rod back and forth violently, determined to get us out quickly. The metal doors bulged, groaned, then suddenly popped open with a loud scraping sound.

The fifteen of us flooded out into the lobby, nearly knocking over the sweaty guards who had freed us. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes had elapsed since we entered the elevator.

Energized by our release, we swarmed up 60 steps on an ornate, white marble staircase, feeling liberated and refreshed. The rest of our tour group was waiting there, beyond the reach of the headsets, and they didn’t know about our problem.

“Where were you? What happened?” We filled them in quickly, then got back to our tour, marveling at the mosaics, sculpture, coins, and artifacts.

I smiled at Susan and hugged her. I was so proud of the way she had dealt with confronting her worst fear, proud that she wasn’t the one who had panicked, proud that she had helped calm Ellen down.

Later I told some of our fellow travelers about Susan’s elevator phobia, therapy, and success. Several came up to her in the next few days to offer congratulations and thanks. We never discussed the elevator with Ellen and her husband. Somehow it never came up.

We moved on. The glories of Rome once again demanded our attention, and the memory of our confinement faded. In an odd way, in hindsight, our scamper up the 60 stairs began to seem empowering and significant, like an army storming a strategic hill. Why had we wanted to take that smelly old elevator, anyway?

But later, as we strolled through the Pantheon, awed by the beauty and antiquity of our surroundings, I remembered some of our friends who could not travel, crippled by fears of airplanes, bridges, unfamiliar food, disrupted daily routines, messed-up sleep patterns, strange toilets, and, yes, elevators.

I was fortunate to work all over the globe during my career as a cinematographer, but Susan and I had long hoped to travel together after retirement. I thought about our recent trips to France, Holland, and Italy, and upcoming trips to Ireland, Scotland, and Israel.

I began to appreciate my dear wife all over again. Conquering her fears had opened up the world, for both of us, and we would not be trapped at home by her phobia.


Bill Zarchy is a writer, teacher, and recently retired director of photography who has shot film and video projects in 30 countries and 40 states. His first book, Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil, chronicles his work and travels around the world. Bill’s second book, currently in progress, is a time travel novel called Finding George Washington. His tales from the road, technical articles, and personal essays have appeared in American Cinematographer, Emmy, and other trade magazines, Travelers’ Tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers and literary publications.

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