anuary 15, early morning: Queer, sullen days in the city of sun, whole rows of them, their darkness casting a pall over all early stirring. Rainy winter weather is far from unusual in Rome, but these days have a leaden feel to them, as if made from the same wet clay as malaise itself. The sun lurks luminous and warm behind these day-long overhangs but simply refuses to muscle its way to the front and center, as if moody or on strike, awaiting better wages in the form of human tidings.
My condominium’s accountant called me on Friday over a mundane matter. Usually cheerful, his voice had the timbre of these mornings. I asked him why and he burst into tears, unlike anger, an unheard of male emotion in these parts. His son had died in a scooter accident on New Year’s Eve, he said through the tears. He had just returned from a visit to the grave, and he simply could not focus on the mundanities of his work. He apologized and we chatted as friends. “This is a bad time of the world,” he said. “I feel like all my bones have been dislocated.”
Maybe the days are awash in this kind of trauma and grief, somehow aware they cannot insist on brightness with as much conviction as before the start of the plague years, in Italy almost precisely three years ago.
Many already hail what they say will be a thick and ample (and much-needed) tourist year, but few seem certain about much at all, and anti-anxiety drugs have never sold so well, nor tears fallen so easily, and not only over sons killed at age twenty.
My friend Pia, who has two young teen children, says she’s spent hours on the phone trying to console anxious fellow mothers who worry about widespread inflation, about children who are not as they were before they were forced from their classrooms, now either more uneasy or simply worried about their place in the future. Her method, she says, is to preach calm: all will be well in time, she soothes. Yet she herself has no timetable, so the pall lingers and the sullen days add to their totals.
11:25 a.m. In the solemn interests of full disclosure, it’s my duty to note that the sun, perhaps chafing for mention, made a sudden, sweeping appearance, briefly shoving aside the wet-cushioned sky. But the cameo was short-lived, the light swiftly whisked away as if by a broom – which leads in turn to the matter of brooms and their ilk.
Midday into the afternoon: After years of stubborn, self-reliant resistance, I have finally capitulated. Never, I had told myself, would I hire a maid. I would defy Neil Young’s wonderfully strange lyrics (“A Man Needs a Maid”) and clean my own place with my own hands, choosing all the right products and the ideal vacuum cleaner. To my modest credit, I followed through, and my apartment, while not pristine, was at all times kind to mixed company — including judgmental middle-aged Roman wives.
But now I am semi-blind and times have changed. The malaise of glaucoma has seen my place gather dust, which I of course cannot see.
Now, I have not one maid but two, this to satisfy a friend, whose maid was in dire financial straits, and my brother-like doctor, who insisted his family maid Marta (who works also for his two brothers) was ideally suited to helping me, since she was a splendid cook. I carefully avoided mentioning I did not need one, not wishing to offend him, or Marta, who now knows me well enough not to bring up food — thought she shops for me with zeal.
These two new women in my life could not be more strikingly different. Marta is from southern Italy, is seventy-five, and has served two generations of my doctor’s family. She is upright, precise, kind, and under no circumstances will address me by my name, as I have asked her to do. No. She belongs to a more formal era. I am “doctor” or “professor” and she applies only the Italian formal form, Lei, kin to the ferocious French vous (the latter an established slice of French etiquette).
Marta is not so much a maid as a visiting Lady of the House, who, taking pity on distracted men, repairs their homes toward modest elegance. I get along well with Marta, who is glad to come to a home without pets — my doctor has a giant hound —and sometimes she brings along her husband Rolando, less a husband, or so it seems to me, than a manservant. “Rolando is here to repair that broken light fixture,” she will tell me, then adjusting her tone to that of Evita Perón when facing Rolando. “Go now. Down the hall. The light. Fix. Come back when you are done.” If by chance Marta is not pleased, Rolando will suffer. “Can’t you see the light base should be in the middle of the table!” Rolando merely smiles, long ago inured to his wife’s commander status.
The other maid is Elena, a Romanian woman of about fifty who had a longtime maid’s job in a leading Rome hotel until the plague undid everything. She was fired, as was her husband who worked as a groundskeeper. He then suffered a stroke, but at the heart of Rome’s COVID period. His emergency care was limited and he is now paralyzed on his left side, no movement in his left arm or leg, a horror hospital doctors freely admit would not have occurred, or would have been less invasive, had he not been, like many others in 2020, been all but ostracized from systematic intensive case. Elena now works all over the city to earn enough cash to make ends meet. She also visits her husband daily in rehab, which means that between trains and public transportation (she lives outside the city) she logs about a hundred miles a day. Her daughter, meanwhile, slid into severe depression during the lockdown phase and now depends on therapy and anti-depressants to remain active.
With Elena I speak more freely and she has come to know me as “Krees,” a name she enjoys pronouncing. She does not recognize malaise as such, only life, which for her has always been difficult and now is swelled with further challenges. “Hard times,” she says laconically, nonetheless bringing me fresh oranges from the small orange tree in their tiny suburban back yard.
At times, Elena cleans with a vigor so intense she seems to vanish from the present, unaware even when I call out to her. Work is passage into another world that perhaps, because of her singular focus, blots out painful concerns.
Yet Marta, though she comes from another world, is not unaware of the prevailing mood. “I have been doing this work all my life, and with many people, but I am not sure I have ever been as sad as I am now. Maybe it is my age, but I don’t think so. You could once say, ‘Oh, but at least the kids are happy,’ but you really can’t say that any more since even the kids are not quite right. There is a lot less laughter in the households.”
So it is that Marta and Elena reflect the January sunlessness. No one speaks the language of the old tourist cliché, Sunny Italy. “Some broken things you cannot fix,” says Elena, referring to her husband, but time and again I sense that the implications are far broader, as if the whole of the West had to some extent woken to a stroke and found itself unable to shake aspects of the paralysis.
Evening into night: When you live the whole of a Rome day in near-Scandinavian darkness, no reassuring sunset intercedes to divide the natural halves of time. All feels buio, pronounced BOO-yo, the Italian word for dark or darkish, and more generally for all that is too obscure to make out.
I spend these days listening to audio books, but at times all the fine words seem futile, unable in their acumen or beauty to neutralize January’s gloomy quilt (and the forecast for the whole of the week into next month’s end, calls for this humid nether-light.)
Outside, at hourly intervals, I hear loudspeaker announcements from the nearby zoo, called the “Bioparco,” mostly the ones telling patrons closing time is at 5 p.m., by which time the rainy darkness has thickened further. I ask myself, Who goes to the zoo on a rainy weekday in January? A maid? A lover of all things odd and melancholy? Though I have no answer. I do still hear the roar of the lions and the throaty howls of the elephants. And they sound, thankfully, as they always have, untouched by human turmoil, eager above all to eat, perchance to sleep, to then get on with daily life in their own eternal lockdown.