I met Adriana for coffee near her apartment just east of the Colosseum. Her neighborhood, in spite of its proximity to Italy’s—to Europe’s—most famous building, is not especially touristic.
“Rome is home,” she said, when I told her of my relief upon returning to the capital after a less-than-inspiring few days in Sardinia. “And what about the other places you went after Rome—you went to Naples, right?”
I nodded. “I took the train there, and rented a car at the airport,” I stopped for a moment, retracing my proverbial tire tracks as the sunlight began to pierce the gap between the umbrellas above us. “I drove over to Alberbello and explored Puglia for a few days, then spent a day on the Amalfi Coast before heading back to Napoli-proper, which was lovely as always?”
“And then to Sardinia?” She asked, glancing at the menu—a physical menu, which is rare in Italy these days.
“No, I flew to Sicily first and spent a few days there,” I explained, reminiscing on my counter-clockwise, semicircular route around the island’s periphery. “I started in Siracusa, then took the train beneath Mt. Etna to Taormina and Cefalú and finally to Palermo. And then I flew to Cagliari.”
“And then you came back here?”
“Basically yes,” I smiled, not wanting to explain my hot mess of a day attempting to see as many of Sardinia’s beaches as possible, nor wanting to sully Adriana’s morning by rehashing how much the entire experience disappointed me. “Did you want a coffee? It’s my treat, so please order whatever you want.”
“I won’t have one,” she demurred as I sipped my own americano, which was half-gone by this point. “But I brought your pants.”
We had met, ostensibly, so that I could retrieve the pair of jeans I’d left at her nearby Airbnb weeks earlier. But I invited Adriana to the café (rather than just buzzing her from the street) because I hadn’t taken the time to chat with her on my previous swing through the capital. I’d been more focused on ticking items off my bucket list than making connections.
My bucket list in Rome, and the long road that led me to the capital. After crossing into Italy from Switzerland (where I’d reunited with my best friend and her new baby) via Lake Como, I’d followed up three days in Milan and nearby Turin with a long weekend in Venice.
I chased that with a multi-day hike through the multicultural Dolomites and several days in Tuscany. Although my excursions into the wine country and to Cinque Terre were delightful, the trip did little to repair the hard feelings I’ve long harbored toward Florence itself. Well, apart from confirming to me that people—Italians and foreigners visiting Italy—had largely moved on from the pandemic—confirmation of Italy having crossed that rubicon was, on its own, worth the price of admission.
Adriana agreed. “I think by the next time you come back—and stay in my apartment again, of course—this entire nightmare will over. Don’t you feel it too?”
With that moment of hope and solidarity, Adriana and I did each other farewell; I returned to my hotel near Termini Station to wait for the sun to descend to a more flattering angle. She’d been right—Rome did feel like home now, more than ever—which made me slightly less motivated than I might’ve otherwise been to do the tourist thing.
After watching the day’s last light bathe the city center from Janiculum Hill and enjoying carbonara in Trastevere as my last supper, I stood above the constellation of ruined Roman structures that orbits the other side of the Colosseum, as the pink wisps leftover from sunset faded to the blue and then to black. I tried to use the perspective, both spatially and looking back into space-time, to quell my anxiety about the future.
But instead of trying to make sense of any of it, let alone to make peace with any of it, I simply breathed and tried to enjoy the moment—the present one, and the eternity of the Eternal City. The next morning on the Leonardo Express to Fiumicino Airport, the most fiery sunrise of my trip—the only truly outstanding one, if I’m honest—teased and taunted me.
At departure gate, I encountered the last Italian—the last European—I’ll be speaking with until at least next year. She was far more glamorous than someone who works at an airport (a 21st-century, pandemic-era airport, anyway) should be, which is probably why I blurted out a compliment I otherwise would’ve kept to myself. “You look like Marilyn Monroe.”
She paused for a second, expressionless, and held my documents in her hand, than she smiled as bright as the sun had blazed as it came over the horizon earlier that morning. “That’s what I was going for.”
Joy percolated within me as I made my way onto the crowded plane for what I could tell would be a miserable flight. Perhaps, I wondered, and pictured the happiness that had come across the woman’s face, we all have the power to tip the scales from fear to hope.
I hope 2022 will be the year you visit (or return to) Italy. By then, I think, this entire nightmare will be over—don’t you feel it too? Here is a visual wonderland that will compel you to go, so start planning.