FLORENCE, I T A L Y
Today I hugged someone for the first time in 54 days.
I rode my bicycle for the first time in 54 days.
I sat in the park under trees. I saw families and dogs and smiles.
The air smelled so fragrant and the flowers so sweet. Roses, wisteria, orange blossoms! All the things of spring I’d been craving. What a marvelous afternoon under the sky.
Today was the first time we were let out in 54 days – allowed to roam further than 200 meters from our home.
I was so happy to see that Amoré, my bicycle, was still where I’d parked her 54 days before. Boy did it feel good to meander through the streets and all at the same time, so sad. Everything closed, on a Friday afternoon.
I cycled passed cathedrals and clothing stores, gelaterias, pizza shops, and museums. Businesses that should be booming at this time of year but it’s like a ghost town out there. I rode through piazzas and beside the old fort. I rode past the gigantic, lonely palaces and over the ancient bridges. I couldn’t bear the mask so I rebelled and only pulled it up over my face when I spotted police and military or people in close proximity. I wanted fresh air. I wanted to feel free. I rode passed my favorite church. It looked so huge and I felt so small. Maybe because I hadn’t seen it at all in 54 days. I paused at its steps and gazed up at it. I’d always found its façade arresting because of its simplicity. More beautiful and admirable than its more intricate and detailed counterparts. It was simply so good to see it again.
I made my way to my friend’s street like I always had to see if he was home. Perhaps he’d like to go on a bike ride with me, I thought. I stopped outside his door, my finger hovering over his doorbell. Was I allowed to ring someone else’s doorbell? Someone who wasn’t my relative? The new decree said, no visits to friends, only relatives. Apparently, that evening after the decree was announced, the word ‘relative’ was the most Google’d word in recent history. Who can we see? Does relative only mean mothers and fathers and sons or daughters and brothers and sisters or can we see cousins and nieces and second cousins and fiancés? For family-oriented Italians especially, this is a very important question!
I looked up and down the street for police and then pushed the bell. Davide hung his head out the window from his 3rd-floor apartment and with a big smile asked me if I wanted to go up. I grinned and shouted up to him, “Am I allowed to!?” Oh my God! What has this world come to? I thought. Without an answer, he buzzed me in and I ran up the stairs – his dog Nino greeting me before I reached the open door.
And the: a hug. The first embrace I’d experienced in 54 days. The first one-on-one human contact I’d had in all this time. The first face-to-face conversation I’d had in 54 days. I thought I would cry but I didn’t. I was just happy and no one would know as we were behind closed doors. And there we were, two little rebels, sitting at his kitchen table having a chat. Petting his dog. Normal but not allowed. Natural but surreal.
We talked about what we were going to do, and how it had been – all this time we’d been locked up.
He’s been getting the government checks, I have not. I don’t qualify. We both don’t have an income but unlike me, his landlady has not pressured him for rent. He’s Italian. I’m not.
We make a plan for our bike ride. No one must know we are together. If anyone questions us, we don’t know each other.
We race down the street on our bicycles, like two excited children, keeping a good distance from each other. We ride along the river. A cool spring breeze caressing our delighted faces. We hang a left away from the Arno, traversing a street that is usually packed with traffic, but now, of course, we sail right across, as there’s not a single car in sight.
We meander through a quiet residential neighborhood. The first thing I notice is all the roses. Voluptuous roses that have been blooming and which I have not seen for all this time – these 54 days that spring had been happening outside. Secretly flourishing alone, with no one to behold her unfolding. I’d been robbed of the experience of witnessing it all unfurl. I feel dismayed but happy, amazed but grieving the time that’s been lost.
We zigzag up the back street hills and find ourselves in the most glorious neighborhood. An area in which I’d looked at an apartment for rent a few months prior to the lockdown. A neighborhood I knew very well I couldn’t afford to live in but was curious to check it out. They say if you want to feel wealthy visit an expensive hotel and wander through its lavish lounges. Order a drink at the bar and sit and observe the opulent people and surroundings. Soak in the energy of it. So, I met the owners. A Well to do Florentine family, and walked around the property, taking in the views, imagining myself waking up in the gorgeous bed overlooking the rose garden. Gazing out of the kitchen window towards the manicured hedge and lemon trees, as I made tea.
Anyway, I diverge…
We push our bikes up the steep hills, huffing and puffing – our bodies straining from the lack of exercise these last couple of months. The fresh air burns my lungs but I’m just so happy to smell the air. There are a handful of mask-wearing people out and about and a sense of censored relief and refreshment.
As we make our way around the neighborhood, my friend and I poke our heads through the fences of fancy homes where wisteria and jasmine cascade over them. We make up stories about living in one of the villas and how it would be to quarantine in one of the palaces with gorgeous gardens, swimming pools, and incredible views of the Florence valley.
We come across a small park and sit there for a long time, listening to the birds and looking up at the trees. What simple magnificence. We watch dogs and cute children frolic in the grass. The new ordinance says that contact is allowed between children and their parents whilst outside, so things look relatively normal as we observe families interact on this Friday afternoon. Facial expressions masked, we now become more observant of body language, voice intonation, and the expression in another’s eyes.
My friend and I sit next to each other, not really thinking about the distance between us. It doesn’t actually enter my mind. It just feels so good to feel relatively normal and there’s no police in the area keeping an eye out.
We leave our bikes and go for a walk up more hills, passing several people, some of whom have their masks pulled up over their faces and some who just can’t be bothered. I wonder, as the hot and humid months of the Florentine summer approach, if we’ll still have to wear masks. Just the thought of it is stifling.
On this exuberant stride up these hills, I marvel at my body and how it moves. I marvel at the smell of the air and the intensity of the brightly colored foliage. I marvel at the little succulents and the bright red poppies pushing their way through the ancient stone walls of Tuscan properties. I marvel at the ability of my eyes to focus on faraway hills after being indoors, enclosed by 4 walls, for 54 days. They say that people who live in the countryside have far better eyesight because they can gaze at the horizon, whereas city-dwelling people’s eyesight deteriorates quicker because the objects they focus on are far nearer and therefore they become nearsighted.
All I know is that on this day we can see far – further than I’ve ever seen beyond the city and into the hills in all directions. The air is clean and fresh and this moment of relative freedom is fantastic, magical, and exhilarating.
We are made to enjoy and appreciate this planet and to savor nature in all her glory. Perhaps she doesn’t need us but we need her and not a day goes by when I take her for granted. 54 days is too long to be apart and I sincerely hope and pray that we are never separated for this long ever again.