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illustration of Lindsay Harris and her family on their balcony in Rome

An American in Rome

Open City

American writer and mom of two Lindsay Harris lives in Rome where she remained, nestled in her small apartment, for 8 weeks during the strict Covid-19 lock-down. Now, as the city reopens, she shares the unexpected trepidation of returning back to life as usual.

Written By Lindsay Harris

The morning Rome reopened after two months of lockdown I woke up to find a dishtowel in the refrigerator. It was not unusual for my almost four-year-old daughter to abscond with household items and use them to furnish the worlds she imagined. Recently, a wooden spoon had turned up in her closet. “We went on a train,” she explained matter-of-factly after I had left her with her seven-month-old sister so I could empty the dishwasher. A few days later, a ping-pong ball rolled out from under my pillow. “I had a dream about the moon,” she stated, adding no further clarification when asked why the ball was in my bed, and not hers, or, better yet, in the basket I had designated to store outdoor toys. Of course, we hadn’t had much use for outdoor toys this spring. The girls and I hadn’t moved beyond our front gate since going outside meant wearing a hat. Now it was May 4, the day Italy started “Fase due,” or “Phase Two,” the gradual easing of the country’s Coronavirus restrictions. Like Dr. Atkins’ dieters being allowed to eat chocolate again, we were elated. Finally, we could go back outside, even if with masks and gloves. But when I saw the misplaced dishtowel, which, exhausted after yet another day balancing work and childcare at home, my husband had left in the refrigerator, I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt disoriented by our newfound freedom.

During quarantine, the severity of Italy’s lockdown had limited our exposure to the outside world to the confines of our tiny terrace. In Rome, where the sun shines much of the year, apartments are typically outfitted with a terrace or balcony to provide residents’ close quarters with at least a square meter of access to the outdoors. Across the city, they brim with potted plants, transforming a concrete—and brick and marble—jungle into a landscape rich in greenery.

The strip of terracotta tile behind our rental, however, had little to recommend it. Or so I thought. Wind and seemingly constant shade had discouraged us from using the space in the winter months, while the heat and mosquitoes had kept us away in summer. But this particular spring, cooped up in the house for weeks on end with two small children, our terrace became a godsend. Each morning, my daughter strode out there to ride her scooter in circles, learning early the advantages of a tight turning radius; I followed on her heels, sometimes literally, pushing the baby in her stroller. When our tracks no longer disappeared in the rain, and we had used up our supplies to make chalk drawings, blow bubbles, or bowl with a beach ball and paper towel tubes, we began to scour the terrace itself for inspiration. My daughter, who before our enforced lockdown bolted when something even resembled an insect, started hunting for “black things,” tile by tile. “Look how many legs, Mommy!” she observed with excitement when she spotted her first millipede. “This one’s not moving,” she remarked about a fly that lay lifeless next to an equally dead basil plant. “Let’s pick it up.” I watched in disbelief as she found a stick, poked the fly a few times to make sure it wouldn’t fight back, lifted the motionless bug, and placed it in the dry soil. The baby watched, mouth agape, apparently as astonished as I was at her sister’s newfound bravery.

When we left the house for the first time since the start of the pandemic, we struggled to muster similar courage. We were headed for the park, a once familiar destination we had dearly missed for months. At the front gate to our building, my daughter, usually game for anything that involved running around, balked. “I don’t want to go outside,” she stated. I knew she had been processing the norms of living with the specter of COVID-19. In the bath one evening, she put a washcloth over her mouth and explained she was wearing her mask. Another night, rather than string her magnetic boats together and pull them around the tub, she placed each boat in a separate corner. “There’s Coronavirus in here,” she replied when I asked about the new configuration. Standing on our threshold, I had to admit I also felt waves of unease. Had I brought the hand sanitizer? Should our baby wear a mask? Did they even make masks for babies?

Only when we were inside the park did our uncertainties start to wane. “I’m cold,” my daughter complained initially, hugging herself to show her discomfort. She had insisted on wearing a t-shirt and, seeing the sun stream through our windows, I had approved her choice of outfit. I flinched at her remark even before my husband sighed with exasperation, knowing she had pushed “il tasto magico”: the magic button that turned simmering tension into a full-blown squabble. Sensitivity to cold is a constant debate in our family. My husband, a sun-loving southern Italian, still wears a jacket in June; I have been known to go without a coat well into winter and am determined to prepare our daughters for life in a variety of climates, not just ideal Mediterranean ones. “Actually, I’m okay,” she assured us as we moved out of the shade and into the warmth of the sun I had banked on. Sometime before we reached home again, we lost the baby’s sun hat. My older daughter burst into tears at the news. For days she spoke of nothing else, asking grief-filled questions about who would find it and if they would take it home. About a week later I returned to the park with a friend, and for an hour we talked about a whole host of things unrelated to motherhood. At a point, a bright pink circle perched on a statue caught my eye. “That’s ours!” I exclaimed, running a few steps to retrieve our missing hat. I was overjoyed to see it again. I knew my daughter would be, too.