Letter From Rome: Beauty, Ashes, Finding Comfort In One Another

Editor’s Note: My dear friend Danielle Abbazia, and former associate editor of Dream of Italy, has been in love with Italy since 2003 when she spent a summer in her grandparents’ hometown of Castelvetere Sul Calore in the province of Avellino. At 13, she visited Venice, Pisa, Amalfi, Capri and as soon as she went back home she started thinking of ways to go back to see more. Her passion for language and culture got her a BA from the University of Connecticut in Italian Literature and Culture and she followed her heart back to Rome in 2014 to get a Masters in Sustainable Cultural Heritage with a focus on Italian identity. Danielle now lives in the historic Garbatella neighborhood of Rome with her husband, Alessandro, and their baby Michele (who was born on the festa of Madonna delle Grazie of Castelvetere – you can’t make this stuff up). The lockdown has made her think deeply about the place she lives and loves. Her thoughts follow. — Kathy McCabe

My memories of my first summer in Italy are now sepia-toned vignettes. But, one memory glows in vivid technicolor. After landing in Rome, my grandparents rented us a car to drive to their home in the South. As soon as we got on the highway I saw a small (“So tiny! So European!”) car completely engulfed in flames. I craned my neck as we passed to get a longer look at the scene and saw the police arriving. I was in shock (“How crazy! My friends are never going to believe this!”). I’d never seen something like that outside of an action movie but my grandparents seemed unphased like this sort of thing happened all the time.

A few moments later, my grandma broke the silence, as she always does.

“How beautiful are the oleanders on the highway divider!”

________

This is what you learn about Italy immediately: it is a car on fire on the brink of explosion and it is the most vibrant pink flowers you have ever seen at the very same time. It’s the black smoke billowing in the air and it’s the oleanders swaying in the breeze, baking in the sunshine.

Fast forward 17 years and I live in Rome during this pandemic. Every night at 6 p.m. when the news airs updates from the Protezione Civile on how many Italians died or have been infected, my husband (un romano de Roma) and I watch with heavy hearts. In true Italian style, while we’re processing the news, we find a remedy to the sadness so we can cope.

While the news blares in everyone’s living rooms, we open our windows or go on our balconies and…we sing. We play pots and pans (My baby’s instrument of choice is a wooden spoon longer than he is) and we sing Italian songs. The first night we sang Italy’s national anthem. The second we sang Azzurro by Adriano Celentano and the third Il Cielo è Sempre Più Blu by Rino Gaetano.

I feel an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the people working to save those who are infected in the hospitals all over the peninsula. People who are risking their own lives to ensure that we can go to a supermarket and find milk for our morning coffee. Bus drivers I used to loathe for the perpetual lateness of their vehicles are wearing masks and gloves and continuing to drive their routes should anyone need a ride to the pharmacy or to deliver groceries to an at-risk friend.

Even when we are all so afraid, we’re finding comfort in each other. Neighbors talking from balcony to balcony as we sit outside in the warm spring sun and try to make the best of this lockdown. I used to find it odd how Italians kiss on two cheeks when greeting each other. Even people who are just barely more than acquaintances. These past few weeks we’ve given up on this and I truly miss it. That warmth you get from a hug or a kiss (or two!) from your friends and family has been suspended for the next few weeks. Imagine how great it will feel when they return.

Italy is Italy. It’s my dreams (The history! The laidback attitudes! The people!) and at times my nightmare (The history! The laidback attitudes! The people!). But nevermore than in these strange times have I felt more in love with her. She is resilient and we’ll be back soon in the piazzas with our friends cin-cin-ing to the sunshine and our good health (Salute!) and the Sunday passeggiate we will never again take for granted. — Danielle Abbazia

Also read

Letter From the Veneto: Holding On To Dreams
Letter From Puglia: A Renaissance Retreat