My dear friend, and RSE colleague, Nina Bernardo and I had promised each other we would meet at the Colosseum as soon as the lockdown lifted to walk in the city center together and reunite with our favorite monuments. For now we can only walk in parks for physical exercise so we decided to stretch that concept a bit, met at the Circus Maximus and headed to the banks of the river Tiber.
I love it when the next season drops a hint to let us know it’s coming. Sudden alterations in the air and the light we always seem to catch passively, at the periphery of our awareness, even if they leave traces of both excitement and regret.
It’s another beautiful Roman day; I walk along the center of the Circus Maximus, on the ridge of earth around which ancient Roman chariots raced at breakneck speed. The echo is still there, the energy of the space is almost physical, thrumming, electric (you should come here and let your imagination go next time you visit).
I catch sight of Nina in the distance, I feel my heart literally swell and there it is: a sudden blast of summer. A different kind of heat I can almost smell and a white glare that seems to erase the very possibility of shadows. It’s there when Nina and I finally meet and look at each other, the first live face of someone we love and who loves us in over 50 days, another milestone in this surreal journey. Looking at her feels more like recognizing her but I recognize myself as well. We start crying, I understand why we say, both in English and Italian, that we “burst” into tears. I immediately say these are happy tears, she says it’s a relief, and again, like in my walk in the park, something tight and constricted in me eases, lets go of its hold. My friend Nina is here but so are all the other friends and loved ones we cannot see yet, our years of conversations, adventures, tenderness and laughter are here, around us, like a cheering audience.And the first hint of summer is here too, it makes this moment shine and we know we will never forget it.
We start walking (a safe distance apart to abide by the rules), down to the banks of the Tiber by the Isola Tiberina, along the river. We comment on how it seems a lot cleaner and how beautiful its almost sage green color is when the full sunlight hits it. Plants and grasses are unkempt and jungle-like, daisies and capers are growing out of the cracks in the embankments, sparrows flitter about and even a couple of herons fly by.
By chance we meet a friend of Nina’s who describes his serious concerns about the future but shows that no fuss resilience that is at the core of the typically Roman fatalism I always marvel at. We go back to the Isola Tiberina and find Rita, a woman we had never met before, in line at a favorite cafe at the center of the island. She offers us “takeout cappuccino” (I never thought I would pronounce these words on Italian soil!) and delights us with her wit and wisdom. How we missed sharing a good laugh with a stranger!
Nina brought delicious homemade scones to snack on and we munch on them as we continue our walk, wondering what will happen next. We find poppies along a road; as we take pictures of them my nostalgia for their arrival in the Roman Forum each year becomes less poignant and I find I can let it go. We are stopped by the police who check our documents and offer us hand sanitizer, stop at a nasone fountain for a sip of cold water while receiving a rather lengthy lecture on the Destiny of the World by the man in front of us. We smell the overblown roses (Italian has a fantastic word for this, rose spampanate) wrapped around the iron gates of the closed City Rose Garden – another place you must visit next time you come – and we are back at the Circus Maximus to say goodbye.
Nina says our Roman morning brought us a wealth of the external input that we missed at home on our own, and how oddly effortless and exhilarating it was to reconnect with our city and our community. We know our lives have changed profoundly, that a lot of uncertainty and anxiety await us. Our normality, our security and our plans are lost to us now but not irretrievably; recovery is possible and we want to be ready for it. We look at each other, blow kisses and wave, and walk away in the sunshine, smiling. Until next time.