I wrote this post almost a month ago and decided to set it aside. It feels like a postcard from a different time now, as things seem to progress positively here. I imagine sending it to you as an invitation and a wish for better times for all of us, everywhere.
In the middle of the lockdown, when time felt like a huge lump that dilated and contracted in ways I couldn’t make any sense of, my friend John sent me a text message reminding me that every day that goes by is a day closer to the end of this crisis. I found myself clinging to this sentence and almost turned it into a physical object, like a smooth pebble I could keep in my pocket and reach for when I needed to quiet the loops and vortexes in my brain and re-sync with a less distorted progression of time.
And then, on one of my recent walks, I found that I didn’t need to make a conscious effort to find positive signs, to interpret and color my surroundings, because Rome was telling me a new story and pulling me into it, mid-sentence, without fuss or fanfare, the way she always does things. As I walked through the centro storico with my lovely friend and colleague Giovanna Terzulli and her teenage son Antonio, we simply saw our fellow-Romans take their city back, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. After the ghostly beauty of emptiness and absence, there it was again: Life Life Life! Undefeated, almost absurdly unruffled, and bearing the greatest gift in a time like this: leggerezza-lightness.
We decide our theme will be the piazza but rather than dwell on its form -history, architecture- we will indulge in its basic function: a stage, a setting for human interactions. I imagine us beading a necklace, as we wander through streets and alleys connecting every possible open space. We rejoice at how downtown Rome doesn’t have a main square, recognized by all as its identifying center: it has a multitude, another sign of the complexity of its urban fabric that resists all classifications and must be simply enjoyed as it is.
We compare the before and after. The new normal of face masks, and the obvious struggle with social distancing are there, as people constantly catch themselves getting too close and take a reluctant step back. I remember reading back in March that the Italian closeness between generations, the kisses and hugs between grandparents and grandchildren was one of the causes of the violence of the contagion. How painful that one of our identifying traits as people put us at risk. Hugs outside of one’s immediate family are still in the future and I realize I even miss seeing men in dark suits and ties walking very slowly while chatting during lunch or coffee breaks, and stopping every few meters to grab each other by the arm when emphasizing a point (how many times did I see my dad and my brother do that!). But somehow all of this stays in the background this afternoon, it isn’t what matters now: kids are riding their bikes in circles and zigzags and kicking soccer balls by ancient temples, women in impossibly high heels and floral dresses greet each other with obvious affection; there are strollers, friends laughing, the occasional car honking and scooter whizzing by.
We decide it is time for a gelato at Ciampini in Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, a local institution. We debate on flavors while waiting for the signal to get closer to the counter: a medium cone, sour cherry and vanilla for Giovanna and me, Nutella and vanilla for Anto. We give the only possible answer to the classic question “panna?” (whipped cream?) “Sì!”. Gelato has never tasted so good and brought such welcome, uncomplicated happiness. It is rich and creamy but inevitably starts dribbling down the sides of the cone, once again revealing the utter uselessness of the tiny square of tissue paper, a sorry excuse for a napkin, provided by every Italian gelateria since the beginning of time. I understand everything must be sacrificed to aesthetics out here, but I daydream of being offered a square of heavy duty paper towel on a hot day with my gelato. We realize we must get serious and so I quote our friend Lara’s great injunction at these critical moments: Il gelato va domato! – gelato must be tamed! – and we stop talking to better savor and conquer.
We continue weaving in and out of piazzas, stop to look at doorways and shop windows, an improvised aperitivo among well distanced friends with a cheese and prosciutto platter and a bottle of prosecco in an ice bucket elegantly arranged on a bench. We comment on everything as if we had been lost to these beloved squares for 20 years like Ulysses from Ithaca, and not half an hour away for a couple of months.
We make a list of Italian idiomatic expressions that include piazza:
Fare una piazzata (lit. make a piazza) – make a scene.
Mettere in piazza (lit. put in the piazza) – reveal something that should be kept discreet and private.
Scendere in piazza (lit. go down in the piazza) – express an opinion publicly.
Letto ad una piazza (one piazza = single bed), una piazza e mezza (a piazza and a half = double bed ), a due piazze (two piazzas = queen/king bed).
Fare piazza pulita (lit. to make a clean square), to get rid of everything, to make a clean sweep.
And even the verb piazzare – to place, to plant.
As the day fades into the violets and pinks of dusk, we decide we need a pizza to make a great outing perfect. One of our favorite places, La Montecarlo, is tucked away in a narrow alley and normally has a few coveted outside tables squished between parked cars and scooters, but we discover they only do take out. Can we really do this? A nice couple, who had placed their cardboard box on a windowsill tells us to forget appearances and go for it, these are special times after all.
So we end our evening breaking decorum rules and overcoming inner resistance, and have a delicious pizza margherita on the steps of a majestic Baroque church and hope the saints and the vigili (local police) will forgive us just this once. Leggerezza, lightness.