Leggerezza – Lightness

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.

Kiddos

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.

Piazza people

Piazza bikes

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?) “!”.  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.

Montecarlo

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.

 

 

A Different Reunion: The Colosseum

I had written a post on a late afternoon passeggiata in the center of Rome to share a moment of light-heartedness. I have decided to set it aside because I did not want it to read as insensitive with regards to what I hear on the news, and so instead, I would like to take you with me on my first visit to the Colosseum since it reopened.

Colloseagull

I walked past it numerous times after the lockdown ended but without ever looking too long or getting too close, perhaps almost avoiding it. I have always adored the way its spectacular ancient bulk sits amidst the chaos and fast pace of modernity: school kids and commuters rushing out of the metro station to catch a bus, trams and scooters, the ear-splitting drilling of never ending construction. I loved the contrast between the fleeting present and the permanence of its stone arches, a constant reminder that there is always more weight and significance to any given moment.

I have spent so much time looking at it, thinking and talking about it, worrying about crowds, lines at the bathroom, looking for shade in the sweltering summer heat and shelter in rainstorms, my eye on my watch thinking of the next site on the tour, the next chapter in the story I wanted to share. Most of all, the Colosseum provoked amazing breakthroughs with the travelers I met there.

It has been said that there is no other building in the world that sums up a civilization as precisely as the Colosseum sums up the ancient Romans. It is so iconic; everyone carries a mental picture of it with them along with an expectation of what it will be like to see the real thing in the real place. Yet on arriving, the first impression tends to be that nothing can possibly prepare for its true presence and scale. The realization that architecture is art we walk through, that we can comprehend the scale of a building only by measuring it on ourselves, is one of most magical thresholds we cross when we travel, the exhilarating leap from looking at pictures and reading books to the personal experience: the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual connection to a place that we will never again think of as foreign but as our own. That is exactly where I like to start my story about the Colosseum as a guide, by saying “You are here!”.

Because so much of my life is tied up in these ancient stones, I was a bit wary of seeing it closed and empty, without its mad orbit of motion and sound, imposing as always but somehow naked and hollow. Then it finally reopened to the public and I felt compelled to go, to understand how visits will be organized with new safety standards, but also because it was just time to return.

I meet my group of colleagues at the base of the Colossus, the bronze statue that gave the Flavian Amphitheater its common name, gone as so much else is today, and still feel a bit uneasy. It is lovely to see staff members with whom we normally exchange exhausted smiles or concerned looks while standing in line to get in. Our face masks hide our smiles today, but we see them regardless and reinforce them with words of encouragement and optimism. Temperature, metal detectors, ticket check, we are in. Only groups of fifteen people, one every 10 minutes, on an established (but smart) route, and yet we do not see anyone else during our time here.

Is it getting old, me describing the emptiness of these places; why is it still hitting me so hard; why do I seem incapable of appreciating the supposed luxury of having all of this to myself? I try to be honest and admit part of it has to do with the fact that this is where I make a living and I am not working now, but I peel that obvious layer off and find more. The emptiness of Rome these days, although it is receding, has a million nuances; each one of the iconic places I visit seems to have its own. The Colosseum without visitors feels painfully desolate to me. Without the eyes of visitors marveling and igniting them with their imagination, the stones feel heavy and dull. It is a ruin in an obvious, literal sense that – I acknowledge the absurdity of this – had never found space in my experience of it.

People often ask me why I don’t get bored coming here day after day, year after year, and are surprised when I say that, along with the Roman Forum, this is my favorite place to show visitors, more than any off the beaten track, little known place. The Colosseum sums ups my core beliefs as a guide about how travel can change us. It is a unique place to confront our ideas on history and how we can relate to it, on violence and power, the value of thinking in context;  a place that challenges us to consider that understanding is harder but more interesting than judging .

“I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” ― Baruch Spinoza (17th century Dutch philosopher).

In more recent years, these stones have helped me accept complexity and ambiguity as essential components of our experience of the world, to resist the need for simple, easy answers. The Colosseum is undeniably one of the worst killing fields in history, and yet it is also one of the most extraordinary buildings of all times, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. The ancient Romans are both terrifying and fascinating.  A great Italian scholar, Andrea Giardina, concluded a lecture by reminding us that the animal that appears in the legend of their origins is a she-wolf, traditionally wild and ferocious, but she is tender with the abandoned baby twins: the origin story is the story of an adoption, there is kindness there too, even if it will end in violence with one twin killing the other. More and more I see the potential enrichment of learning to consider contrasting angles on things and I learned this at the Colosseum.

Also, ruins need to be brought to life with the imagination. I love the idea of “informing” the imagination of visitors so they can evoke what was, along with seeing what is. Imagining becomes a means of interacting with what we are looking at, it is never passive, and for me that justifies crossing the world on an airplane to see this place in person. We must walk through these arches in and look onto the arena from the upper level to “see” the crowds from 2000 years ago, to hear the cheering, the music, the roaring of the wild animals. Creating a connection with a place in time so distant from the present can be immensely powerful and dwells in the mind longer than the dates and the bare facts (although they matter a great deal, of course).

Colo empty inside

Colo cat
Colo inside

As I walk through and experience the emptiness, I realize how much the Colosseum has to say. If there are no visitors to listen, its stones are bound to stay eerily silent and inert.

I diligently take note of how future visits will work, compare ideas on architectural details and interpretations with my colleagues, but then look for a redeeming thought before I leave, and I find it. In its long, long life, the Colosseum has been a structure for ancient spectacles and the display of imperial power, a quarry of building material, a fortress and dwelling place with artisanal activities, storage and stables, a place of Christian pilgrimage, a garden, haunted and unsafe at night, a romantic ruin, a destination for travelers of every era. I decide its emptiness during the pandemic of 2020 will be just another chapter in its story, one of many, and other, more exciting ones, are certainly ahead of us.

A new Travel with Rick Steves podcast

Ciao a tutti, I hope everyone is well and staying safe as we wait for better days ahead.

If a bit more Rome might offer a pleasant distraction, please listen to the latest radio show Rick Steves dedicated to this incredible city. It was a joy for me to participate and I hope it sounds like an invitation to visit and to always feel part of it regardless. Buon ascolto – Happy listening!

https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/radio/programs/program-601

Origins

1. Getting there

My friends and I have been sharing images of our first walks. Another dear friend I made through Rick Steves Europe, sent a picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Somehow that image kept resurfacing in my mind for a few days as something that had drifted very far from me, as if finding it again would require a different kind of journey I have been avoiding.

I stopped giving tours of the Vatican years ago.  I became convinced I lacked the filters, the adaptability, and the fortitude even, to deal with the crowds, and gave up. That picture of the Pietà took me back to where everything began, where I found the key and my voice as a guide. I started in my twenties, it took me a long time to wrap my mind around the ancient ruins and understand how I wanted to narrate them; the Borghese was closed for restoration back then so that came later. My story as a guide started with the Pietà, and if this crisis can also lead to personal growth or a rebirth of some kind, I needed to go back to it, and I did.

Empty piazza

I arrive in Piazza San Pietro at 4:30 pm. The light is changing from the exhausting brightness of the middle of the day to the soothing golden glow of the afternoon when the whole city seems to exhale, one of the many things worth living for in Rome. The square is eerily deserted; the metal detectors under Bernini’s colonnade are all hidden by thin plastic covers that rustle in the breeze. I follow the new signs on the cobblestones that tell me how to proceed safely. A guard tells me where to stand and takes my temperature, we share a quick joke and laugh almost out of necessity, to affirm that these new rules and procedures don’t have to alienate us from each other, and we will make sure they don’t.

 

I go through security and enter. The basilica is empty, there seem to be less than thirty people wandering around, looking slightly stunned and hesitant. The first thing I notice is the quality of the silence and stillness; I don’t think I have ever experienced it before. The word I want is the Italian for “hushed” because it is so exact. We say silenzio ovattato from ovatta – cotton wool, the silence that feels wadded, dense. It somehow fills the immensity of the church interior, almost cramming it, making what is normally daunting and majestic, close and intimate. I allow myself to become porous and available to the silence, the space, the light. It is more than the oppressiveness of the past months lifting, for the first time I feel peace.

St Peters interiorDome

Pieta

I am ready; I turn right and walk to the Pietà, alone.

2. I am here

Pieta closeup

I take my time, I allow my eyes to wander, as if looking at it afresh while rediscovering my deep familiarity with the details I love. I remember vaguely coming here with my Sicilian grandmother as a little kid, the small reproduction of it my father kept on his desk and have to smile at the web of connections Art creates in our lives.

I go back to my earlier days of guiding and tell myself a bit of the story I told travelers for years…

This is Michelangelo’s Pietà, the work that permanently established his reputation here in Rome, the only work he every signed (he added his name on the sash across Mary’s chest when he overheard bystanders attribute it to someone else), and he was only 24 when he made it. Pietà doesn’t translate exactly as pity because it expresses nuances of sorrow and mercy as well. In art it is the title we give to this composition: Mary holding the body of her dead Son in her arms. It had been a more common theme in Northern European art – it was commissioned from Michelangelo by a French cardinal – and was typically represented with the body of Christ flat as a board, as in rigor mortis, on Mary’s lap, an allusion to the shape of the Cross. Observe how Michelangelo chooses a different approach and almost wraps the body of Christ around Mary.

You may remember how Michelangelo carved his statues out of a single block of marble, claiming that the statue was already in there, contained within the block, and that his task as an artist was to set it free. The technical implications of this approach have always fascinated me and a long tradition has consigned to us the idea of Michelangelo’s prodigious ability to “see” the three dimensional figure in the stone and attacking it mostly from the front. It may not be possible to reconstruct his artistic process exactly but part of me longs to indulge in that tradition and its powerfully evocative image. I love to imagine his statues as we see them now but lying in a tub full of water, picturing the plug being pulled from the drain and watching the water slowly recede to reveal them, bringing them to life. What matters in the end is that through the work of Michelangelo’s hands, the roughing out, carving and endless polishing, a rough block of marble from the Tuscan mountains becomes what we are looking at here. And he was 24 years old.

As we continue observing, something else draws our attention: Mary looks rather young and she seems quite large compared to her Son. If we could imagine them standing, she would be much taller than him. When asked about Mary’s youth Michelangelo replied that as the Virgin mother of Christ, Mary remained eternally young and beautiful. Separating Michelangelo from his faith can limit our understanding, and I don’t think we need to be religious ourselves to access this dimension. The proportions certainly make the embrace appear more natural and believable.

We could perhaps stop here but I want to share what I was taught about this statue in high school and that has been marinating in my brain for what now feels like a lifetime.  It has allowed me to understand how Art is above all communication and how ideas expressed visually 500 years ago can accompany and sustain us on our life path today, creating empathetic connections across space and time. I offer it as a possibility for your consideration, nothing more.

The age and scale factors become effective and especially poignant if we imagine that in the Pietà Mary is holding her baby son in her arms, and is experiencing a moment of foreshadowing; she sees that when he becomes an adult, her Son must die to save humanity. How does Mary react? Let’s allow the overall mood of the statue to reach us, and then let us look at Mary’s hands. With her right hand she is holding onto her Son, as if she didn’t want to let go of him: this is the grief of every mother for every lost child and, and at this point in my life, I think it can be the grief of all of us when we lose someone we love. People come to see this statue from all over the world, with different backgrounds and beliefs, and I sense that everyone feels it has something to say to them personally. Art unites and connects us in the fundamentals of the human experience, one of the many reasons we should always have it in our lives.

We move to Mary’s left hand: it is open, a gesture of acceptance and offering, as if she knows that what she envisions will happen on Friday but Sunday will come, and Life will return. Mary looks at peace; Christ looks more asleep than dead, the wounds from the nails of the cross are hardly visible. Under his lifted foot is a little plant, just starting to grow. Life is never destroyed, Life changes.

Never again will Michelangelo make something quite so polished, so finished. I have looked at the Pietà my whole life and still marvel at his technique in rendering the wrinkled fabric of Mary’s blouse around the sash, the perfect sheen of the skin, the empty space under Christ’s hip, the almost unbearable tenderness of it all.

Today the glass that protects the Pietà and separates us from it seems ironically timely, and yet the statue glows unperturbed. Life continues in this dimension too, we survive and move on.

I walk away reconnected with my own story, grateful and consoled.

Empty St Peters

Next time, a late afternoon passeggiata through the centro storico.

A Park and a Fountain

Lockdown is a time of wishes and longings that naturally arrange themselves in mental lists, offering unexpected self-portraits and new, often tender insights into people we know well. Here in Italy, but it must be happening everywhere, we have all been compiling and comparing lists of the first things we will do when it is safe again. Some things I know I must wait longer for: half-hour hugs with all my loved ones and Southern Italian-style kisses: at least five or six, loud, enthusiastic pecks on the cheek in rapid succession, my family’s favorite greeting. Others are coming up sooner, cappuccino “al banco”, at the cafe’ counter (Deliverance is at hand!),and thin crust Roman pizza sitting down in a pizzeria with a friend or two, served with the inevitably blunt knife to saw at it ineffectively while anxiously watching the mozzarella congeal into little gummy patches – never thought I would miss that!

Yet the first thing I wanted do is already possible: walking. I spent hours and hours pacing on my terrace listening to podcasts and lectures on the ancient Romans while aching for the city streets, parks and people. I especially missed the Villa Borghese and I finally went there with my childhood friend and colleague, Lara. One of Rome’s many urban polmoni verdi – ‘green lungs’, it expands over 148 acres, which make it larger than Vatican City, and maps clearly reveal that it is shaped like a heart. In the 17th century the Villa was the private countryside property of the aristocratic Borghese family but is now in the city center, public, and much loved by Romans of all generations.

ParkFountainFlowers 2Flowers

It contains the trees that inspired the first movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre for our summers in the city where the Bard’s plays are performed in italiano and, among many others, my favorite museum in the world: the Galleria Borghese.

PinesBorghese 2

As I walk and chat with Lara, we both find ourselves pausing every few steps, going quiet, as if we need to listen more carefully for something, and I experience another, more poignant reunion. I know why I am here, why these elegant avenues, the delightful small fountains, the reassuring sameness of the evergreens have been calling to me. The Villa Borghese contains my entire Roman life. It’s all here: the weekend afternoons of my childhood, riding bikes with my brother Giorgio, the need to ride past our mother at regular intervals, I see her so clearly reading on a bench, looking up and smiling at us each time. Giorgio is in New York now, my mother is in Sicily but they are here, the park is holding them close for me.

Then I am a little older and my mom takes me to the Galleria Borghese. I see us standing in front of Bernini’s marble statue of Pluto and Persephone, the shock of the god’s hand pressing into the impossibly pliable flesh of the terrified girl’s thigh, that moment like a seed planted without me knowing what was to come, when I was studying to become an English teacher. Lara and I walk over there, just to see it, to be reassured by its presence. It is closed now but will be open when you read this, one of the best signs of hope I can think of right now. I stand here quietly: 25 years of guiding, of sharing Rome and its enchantments become alive and present and there is only one word to define it all – love. I look at this familiar white building, sealed off and silent, and it almost starts to pulse. All the moments I have spent here wording my wonder to travelers, inviting them, maybe even forcing them to connect with the here and the now, everything is alive in my mind. I see them too, all the people I met here: their faces, the sudden change in their expressions, the special brightness in their eyes I always wait for, the smiles that mark the transition from education to experience, from duty to pure joy. Once again, I find hope: Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian are just behind those walls waiting for us, with us. We will be back.

We leave the park after sighing contentedly at the view of the city from the Pincian Hill, wander by the Spanish Steps, still and empty like a dreamscape, and our mood starts changing. As we walk to Trevi Fountain the well-being and comfort the park gave us recede, that all too familiar sense of disconnect, of life thrown off the rails, surfaces again. The first thing we notice is the sound. I always tell travelers Trevi is a celebration of beauty and an experience of the senses, you hear the water before you see the fountain, but normally we have to strain, the crowds make it hard to catch. Now it’s distinct, loud, it has the force and rush of a waterfall, and there are only three people here. It’s in full sun, completely on display, the border of the basin finally visible, an elegant uninterrupted white line, the pleasing proportions of the steps leading down to it, the strange swimming pool-like pale green of the water against the clear bottom. Normally it appears like this, unmarked by the glinting metallic dots of the coins and the thousands of wishes to return, just for a few very brief moments when it gets cleaned and the coins are collected once a week. I thought this is what I wanted, after all these years of crowds, to recover something that felt lost. I don’t, or I don’t anymore. I know the crowds had become excessive, I was as upset as everyone else. The vision of the perfect, bare beauty of Trevi Fountain is powerful but ultimately dissatisfying. I didn’t feel this when I looked at the Borghese Gallery from the outside, this is different. Rome’s beauty is distinct because a lot of its art is not behind ropes and glass partitions in museums, but outside. Its fountains, piazzas, the facades of its palazzi are meant to be seen, to be part of our everyday lives, they include us, imply us even: we are part of Trevi, as much as the carved stone and the water. I understand more deeply that it is not just us who await Rome’s embrace, she awaits our embrace as well, but she has the patience and the wisdom of all of her centuries on her side. She is telling us this moment will pass and we will reunite, and I trust her, she knows.

Spainish StepsTrevi 2

Next time I write, the lockdown will have lifted and we will be cautiously, responsibly trying out a new normal with many new behaviors that must be learned and respected. I still won’t be giving tours for some time but we can explore different things and make plans for the future while we wait.

A presto!

 

 

 

Adjustments and Silver Linings

The initial shock of venturing out is starting to fade but not the sense of wonder and excitement. Every walk feels like a compact version of a journey – how fitting that the word comes from the old French for day – journée, the distance travelers in the past covered within that timeframe, when it took so much longer to reach a destination.

As I get ready to leave the house, I recognize that very specific pleasure anyone who has ever been on a trip knows so well. It’s another one of those quick, peripheral things that barely register and are wonderful for that very reason. Perhaps it’s the very essence of anticipation: when we feel our inner world adjust and make space for the new impressions and experiences we know for certain the outer world will bring us. I often picture it in a very simple way, a box that gets filled as we progress through the day. Some of its contents we can consider and process in the moment while others sink to the bottom without us even knowing and pop up years later, woven into a fabric of connections and meanings that have become part of us, that make us who we are. It’s the interaction between the outer and inner world that make travel transformative, and that can happen also during a lockdown walk.

I am quickly adjusting to the new landscape of social distancing, caution and, especially, masks. I am getting over the initial dismay of not being able to share smiles or convey two-second social commentary by means of a chuckle with people I meet on the street, acquaintances and strangers alike. The need to communicate with facial expressions at all times with almost everybody is one of the Italian traits that delights me the most and it comforts me to realize we don’t have to give it up. I am noticing we are shifting to a shorthand version and it’s all in the eyes now. I have already exchanged a rather satisfying range of sentiments from sympathy to annoyance with people in line for takeout cappuccino (alas, the tragedy continues!), at streetlights and strolling in the park, just through subtle eyebrow movements and glances. The Italian need to communicate and connect simply cannot be contained!

True, it may all still be relief or the need for something redeeming and hopeful that give greater resonance to things that would be negligible in normal circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a gift and that it cannot serve us beyond this moment. Taking the time to look and reflect more deeply on what surrounds us today will provide us with a finer skill set we can use when real travel becomes safe and possible again, and it will be amazing. As the lockdown becomes less restrictive, I am going to walk around Rome to prepare for that day and would like to invite you to come with me.

One last thing! I wonder if any of you who have been on a tour with me remember the past and present pictures I use to help imagine what the sites may have looked like in their heyday. Here is an updated version to illustrate The Take Out Tragedy….

Next time, a walk through Villa Borghese and finally making it to Trevi Fountain.

A presto!

BorgheseTrevi

 

Reunion

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.

Circus Max

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RosesNina and Fra

The longest journey starts with the first step

May 4 has arrived, Phase 2 has begun and we are finally allowed to walk in the park for exercise. We still cannot see our friends and it is not clear whether we can go down town for a stroll but after more than 50 days alone at home I will take what I can get. I went to the Parco della Caffarella, over 300 acres of public green area, part of the Regional Park of the Appia Antica (www.caffarella.it)

I leave the concrete and the asphalt, the straight lines and right angles of the city that have been my fixed view for the last 50 days, and I walk into the park. It’s in a valley and it feels like plunging into the sea to swim. At every step knots unravel, the oppressiveness that has been lodged in my chest, gray and thick like fog, dissolves. My senses take over and they feel newly minted, sharp, polished, and eager. I am alive, I am here, and what I am feeling is unmistakably joy. Everything calls to me: the tender green of Spring, the enamel quality of Rome’s cloudless blue sky, the bright red of the poppies, the oily sleekness of a starling’s feathers. I walk in the tall grass and marvel at how it whips at my ankles (why had I never noticed that?). And the sounds: the melodious warbling of a blackbird, the buzzing of the bees, the “singing” of a rooster from the nearby farm, (that’s what they do in Italian, they sing), a flock of sheep crossing a little bridge over a brook, their hooves against the loose wooden planks, snippets of conversation, a child passing on a bike, “Ciao pecora come stai oggi? Hello sheep, how are you doing today?  – Mamma! Mi ha risposto, hai sentito? Mom! she answered me, did you hear that?”.  A couple walks by, wearing masks but holding hands, my mind races to my loved ones, so far away right now, to my partner on the other side of the world: when will I hold his hand again? But then my mind comes back and settles into the moment. I need to be here, now. What does this first walk really feel like? It feels like cold spring water when one is parched. What is it though? Is it Nature, the scale of its beauty and power that don’t even acknowledge what has turned our lives upside down?  Yes, but what it is really about today, for me, is moving in a shared space, a space made up and lived in by others: trees, birds and people. Not the space of my apartment that speaks just about me and my solitude, that looks like the inside of my mind and nothing else. I recovered a sense of community, of belonging to something more vast not just than me, but vaster and more powerful than the hardship of this moment.  And as I walk in the park, I realize too that that is exactly what I miss about guiding: offering Rome, its complex beauty and resilience as a place we can all share in and connect with. And Rome is there, always there, like the trees and the sky, and one of these days we will be able to feel her embrace again.

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New Rick Steves’ shows

Hello friends,

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated my website. I hope you all are well!

If you’ve enjoyed the Rick Steves’ radio and tv shows on aspects of Roman life and history, there are some new ones you may want check out that I am especially proud to have participated in.

First, a timely investigation on Fascism in Europe and its lessons for the contemporary world- Rick recently released a one hour PBS special (click here for more).

On the radio/podcast, we cover more ideas for tackling Rome’s beautiful complexity. Find the podcast here.

Thank you for your interest. I wish you happy travels, whatever adventure you are planning!

 

Water and the city

Ciao a tutti! It’s late September and it is still quite hot in Rome. On a recent radio program, I joined Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw to talk about water and Rome. I always thought that if I could choose two themes for Rome they would be Power and Memory and if I could choose two identifying materials they would be water and stone. The extraordinary capacity of the ancient Romans to move enormous amounts of water with their 11 aqueducts allowed them to use it for hygiene (the great baths), survival (access to clean drinking water), entertainment (mock naval battles in the now disappeared specialized structures called naumachiae), and decoration (the ancient city’s many fountains). Still today as I walk through the streets of the busy city, I always love to hear the trickling sound of the water falling into the basins of my favorite fountains like the hidden, delicate Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) near the Ghetto, and to fill up my water bottle at the nasoni (nearly 2,000 constantly running drinking fountains). You can find the podcast here. I wonder what you associate the place where you live with?