Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Last Friday I took my first walk in nearly two months.
It was May 1, and the Italian government announced that people would be finally allowed to exercise outside more than 200 meters away from their homes. This little freedom was extra sweet because it came earlier than expected; Phase 2 of Italy’s coronavirus protection measures wouldn’t go into effect until May 4.
I had been having a sluggish day. It was the seventh week of lockdown, and I was quickly losing the enthusiasm I had found in my daily routine of Italian practice, homework, writing, exercise, and cooking at home. I was so unmotivated that I almost didn’t leave my apartment that evening. That would have been a shame.
As soon as I stepped through the front door, I was struck by how markedly different the air felt now that I was allowed to be outside — without any reason besides being.
For the first time in 40 days, the sun on my face didn’t feel like an inconvenience, and standing in the street didn’t feel like a crime. People actually looked like people — laughing, holding hands, strolling along the river together — rather than obstacles to avoid.
I wandered across the Ponte alle Grazie, wondering if I would be able to spot the rocking chair on my balcony from the other side of the water. I saw the trunk of the giant palm tree whose fronds have been my focal point for the last two months.
Doing my best to avoid brushing up against passing joggers, I noticed sounds that I hadn’t heard in so long: Kids laughing. Couples giggling. Easy conversation, instead of irritated instructions from stressed supermarket workers corralling burnt-out shoppers into long lines around the block.
I climbed up to Piazzale Michelangelo, stopping to listen to the rushing waterfalls at Rampe del Poggi on the way, and saw the Duomo stretching reassuringly into the skyline for the first time in forever. I realized that it would have been easier to have left Florence before today; I wouldn’t have seen its beauty in so long that I would almost have forgotten what it was like.
Taking in the view and the quiet of the square, the emptiest I’d ever seen it, I thought about how many photos I’ve taken for strangers up there. How long will it be before people feel comfortable asking others to touch their phones again?
I climbed back down and made a point to meet eyes with masked and smiling strollers on the way.
Despite the new freedoms (mainly the outdoor exercise, but also some reopened businesses and more takeaway options at restaurants), the first few days of Phase 2 felt nearly as hard and pointless as those in Phase 1. What good is it to walk without a destination, without the option of stopping for a spritz or wandering into a ceramics shop? What’s the fun in getting an espresso when you can’t drink it at the bar, which is at the heart of Italian coffee culture?
Now my grumpiness has made room for a little gratefulness.
So many good things have happened this week — mainly the fact that I’ve had more human interaction in the last seven days than I’ve had in months. I’ve chatted with Sergio, the guy who works at the coffee bar on my block, exchanging €1.30 for cappuccinos to-go with sanitized hands. I’ve laughed at an overly animated purveyor of lampredotto and traded books with a clerk at the English bookstore.
I learned that a friend from home has been having a hard time at work lately; she works at a juice shop and says that customers have forgotten how to be appreciative of service workers. It reminded me of how detached I’ve felt in my mask these last few weeks, hurrying through transactions with cashiers and crossing the street to avoid people on the sidewalk. All of my interactions have been polite, of course, but the masks have made them feel devoid of warmth and humanity. It’s like how cyberbullies hide behind a screen to belittle people on the internet. People wear masks and forget that their behavior still makes an impact.
We still have to cover our faces outside, but I’m happy to say that people are looking and acting human again, myself included.
I felt the biggest swell of appreciation for this when I ate a cup of lemon and sage gelato on a bench in Santa Croce. (I’d bought the ice cream from an old wine window — one of Florence’s most charming historical bits if you ask me — on Via delle Stinche, and it was the highlight of my week.)
The square was obviously quieter than usual, but with about one person to every bench, it finally looked peaceful instead of deserted. Teenagers FaceTimed with friends. Older people rested with their canes propped up next to them. I finished my gelato and smiled as a little girl and her dad terrorized pigeons in front of the church.
With nowhere to go next but home, I realized then that I don’t always need a destination. Aimless walks were once one of my favorite things to do in Florence, and there's no reason why they can't be today. Living through a strange time here might still be better than living easily anywhere else.