Update from Italy: Post-Quarantine Strolls

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

The new normal is slowly materializing through the shimmering daze after the weeks of quarantine. I am trying to get a long walk in most days, after lunch, but well before dinner. Three urban miles feels close to perfect. This is easy to do in Florence. The sidewalks go on and on; the wide bike path that follows the viale is matched by a sidewalk of the same width. It seems few people walk around the viale. The cars are loud and make considerable commotion. No country walk there. On the plus side, the viale is framed by plane trees that could easily date from the nineteenth century. My route roughly traces Piazza D’Azeglio, through Piazzale Donatello, to Piazza della Libertà, and if I’m feeling energized, down to the Fortezza. Back up to Libertà, up a couple blocks to Piazza Savonarola, then an optional detour up to the Campo di Marte train station, then back to our piazza. If I trotted out all that in one day, I suspect it would be four to five miles.

The viale – the ring road – maintains its historic importance as the remains of the great wall that once surrounded noble Florence, interrupted by the gates which alone remain in the road, like lonely sentinels with poetic names: Porta San Niccolò, Porta Croce Rossa, Porta San Gallo, Porta al Prato, more. One can see how Calvino was inspired for his Invisible Cities. How the ancient stones in the wall must have creaked and sighed in tired protest when Poggi’s team of men pulled taut the ropes to pull them down after centuries of service. To breathe the air of this history, I am willing to put up with a little traffic. My headphones are charged, linked to my phone in my backpack, on which I stream BBC4 Bookclub podcasts that are engrossing and make the traffic fade into mere background noise. I went so stir-crazy in two months of lockdown that the viale could be full of bloodthirsty monsters commuting on foot and I wouldn’t care. I probably wouldn’t even notice. I am that happy also to see other people and civilization. I’ve made a few notes.

A young woman on Piazza Savonarola answered a call. The ring tone was “Moon River.” This seemed impossibly romantic to me, under a sky gathering rainclouds, her trench coat firmly belted around her slim frame.

I was trying to manifest a sudden an unexpected find of a fifty-euro note. I can sometimes make this happen. I have found so much money on the ground in the course of my life. But alas, no stray banknotes to be found. Just a scattering of security service slips on the sidewalk in front of a grand palazzo. Our friend Courtney laughs at the slips, says they serve no more than to alert thieves to the owners’ absence, as it is easy to count the slips and see how many days it has been since anyone opened the door.

The clouds began to gather to the north, over the hills of Fiesole. Drops fell lazily from the darkening sky.

A young couple embraced on a side street, stroking each other’s hair, their masks under their chins, after the long separation. They were young, normal-looking. Just regular people finally in a moment, in a place, to be able to touch.

Hair salons busy, clients at a distance, mask-wearing seemed to be at about 50%. Barbers and stylists are going to have work for months, but that sounds as nerve-wracking to me as the grocery store. Still, now that the normally impeccably-groomed Italians all now look like wild underbrush, no one will forego an appointment. I will continue to let my hair grow.

I walked through the tiny Piazza Agostino Conti, where the Le Poste ATM must be the most germ-ridden surface in town. It is always in use, with a line to use it, no one wearing gloves. A middle-aged woman with hair dyed red and tied into a dry ponytail walked slowly in front of me without a mascherina, smoking. At first I felt annoyed, but my annoyance quickly transformed into compassion when I saw that she was wearing a Carrefour smock – she was a grocery checker on her break. A line snaked from the supermarket down the sidewalk. The hospitals are doing fine in Tuscany now – the main hospital in Florence closed their Covid-19 ICU on May 19 – but the grocery stores continue to be the frontline for invisible exposure, and will be for months to come. She shouted a greeting to a friend across the street. How are you getting along? the friend asked. Oh, you know, she called back, walking back toward the store with no great joy, stubbing out her cigarette on the sidewalk and crossing the street.

When I arrived back in our apartment I washed my hands, took off my mask, plugged in my phone and headphones. I tied the white canvas apron around my waist, the front folded down in half, to get ready to make dinner. Checked in on the kids, checked in with Jason. A stack of pots and plates stacked in the sink awaited housekeeping attention, so I started with them first, opening the tap, waiting for it to run hot. It had begun to rain outside by now, I saw from the open window, fat drops falling through the air of the courtyard. I passed my hand under the tap as pink and white flower petals fell into the sink from the containers of roses on the rooftop garden.

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