Update from Italy: Street Views

Photo by Josè Maria Sava on Unsplash

I have been getting out on a more or less regular basis for walks that consist of thousands of steps. I am very happy about this. Jason has only accompanied me the one time; every other time I have loaded up a literary podcast and tied my laces, still garnished with a sprig of flowering weed that attached itself on the San Domenico stroll, and which I have left in place as a reminder/protest.

I have a few urban circuits. The narrow streets in centro are too confined and claustrophobic for me at this time, and indeed, many of them seem to challenge the idea of social distancing even when pedestrian frequency is low. My main route right now goes up the viale toward the Arno, turn right at Crazy Bar, right again on the way to Piazza Savonarola, walk down to Mazzini, up to Campo di Marte train station, and back home. If I make the whole walk, it’s about eight thousand steps, and I feel great. A perfect walk. The antidote to quarantine-exacerbated lower back pain.

One thing I noticed recently coming back on the home stretch. It was shocking as I realized it. A pair of university-aged women walked toward me, long straight hair, generous hips. As they drew near I realized they were Italian. But they looked American. I was shocked. They were speaking Italian. As I looked around, it occurred to me that everyone around me was speaking Italian. The tourists were gone. Many other expats, not tourists, have packed up and gone home. I was the lone non-Italian for blocks and blocks. Piazza D’Azeglio, where we live, increased in diversity; the non-Italians there were clearly not European.

I asked Jason, when was the last time Florence was so … Italian? I ticked backward through decades. Perhaps pre-Unification (1860)? Or in the decades just after? How about after Florence lost its status as a national capital, and was relegated to cultural treasure-keeper (post-1870)? In any case, in those years I am quite sure that the Grand Tour was in full flux, and the English abounded, with their trunks and their money. Maybe sometimes trunks of money. Just kidding, the trunks were full of paint supplies for their portraitists.

Seeing the Italian-not-Italian students made me realize how the city has changed in the weeks since we hunkered down. Florentines and long-timers common complain, and very vocally so, about the tourists, the daytrippers, the students. But they’re gone now. No more students, no more daytrippers, no more people squinting at maps in the piazza and asking me where they might find the synagogue (it is right next to our building but you can’t see it. Sometimes people think our building is the synagogue.) Being quarantined at home, away from the whole of Italian society, speaking English all day with Jason and the kids, I forgot a bit where we were.

And reading the endless scrolling WhatsApp threads of the other moms (to a one, almost all Italian) moms from the kids’ school, all in Italian, with many emojis and much punctuation, was like visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, watching the fish and manatees and manta rays swim by. No one does friendship like Italian moms with kids. Man, they are tight. My sense of isolated sharpened to an acute condition. Every now and then one of two moms would message me to ask me how we were, in March, in April. Finally one morning I broke down, typing in tears, to a mom I trust. She’s very international; we have bonded before over a shared love of Spain, drinking prosecco from cracked plastic goblets. Daniela? I began tentatively, tapping out buon dì. My language does not arrive to my feelings about all of this, I tapped. But really what I wanted to say was, You are all somehow finding so much comfort in one another and in your friendships and shared culture, and I don’t have that. I’m out here on Expat Island, speaking English, feeling desperate and alone. The Italian moms were desperate too, but they had a lot of inside jokes. On the other hand, many of them had isolated, elderly parents whom they were very worried about. Don’t worry about it! Daniela reassured me. Your Italian is fine! I lived in Madrid with six Japanese girls; I have a high water mark for confusion!

But maybe it was more that my Italian does not connect to my feelings. In March and April, I needed language tools close at hand, as those of you know who have been following along with me on this journey. I needed tools, and I did not have those language tools, because I no longer have time to return to a younger version of myself to building up that memory bank of feelings+words. I have those in Spanish, in French even. But I fear that that ship has sailed. I am just being realistic.

I watched the two Italian women continue down the sidewalk to the crosswalk, their masks down over their chins, chattering away. I felt ashamed and sorry for myself as I walked that last block to our portone.

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