ach day I run down and climb up the sixty-three steps to my apartment at least once, often several times. There are three flights, each one divided in eight plus five plus eight steps. I know this to be true because I keep count; sometimes I count them going down, but always I count them coming up. I can tell what kind of day I’m having or how scattered or panicked my mind is by how I count them. If I count eight plus five plus eight, my mind is full and confused and I lack clarity. If I count twenty-one steps per flight but separately, I’m doing ok. If I get to the top and I’ve counted all the way to sixty-three, I am on top of my game. Sometimes, though, I can’t even count the first eight. That’s when I might as well have stayed inside.
The steps are in graniglia, that blend of granite, stone, and cement that was used for its aﬀordability and durability. The landings in white marble bear the marks of time. They’re sturdy but worn to the point of slipperiness. When I come in late at night, I remove my shoes at the bottom so that the ticchettio of my heels won’t wake my neighbors. I love the feel of the worn stone beneath my stockinged feet.
I live in a loft at the top of a three-story building (four, if like Americans, you count from the ground up). It was built in 1921, just one year after the first bricks were laid here in Garbatella, the working class neighborhood of case popolari, subsidized housing. From my loft, I hear the life of the neighborhood float up from the street, through walls and windows, and above my head, on the surface of the slanted terracotta roof where yesterday’s hailstorm sounded like a herd of antelope playing on the tiles.
The building behind mine, onto which four out of my large six windows look, delineates where “historic Garbatella” ends and the newer buildings of the 70s and 80s begin. They have a parking garage, the gate of which unlocks by remote control. I can hear the cars and mopeds slow down as they approach and the mechanism clicking before opening with a slow eek. A few seconds later, the gates close — first one side clangs against the metal stop, then its twin bangs up against it before the lock clicks into place. This opening and closing blends into the conversations among shopkeepers and children playing ball at the end of the street.
When the man with the motorcycle comes and goes, the hair on the back of my neck bristles. Middle-aged, he sinks into the seat, his hands stretched wide and high on the handlebars. I can hear the manufactured rumble of his gutted muﬄer from blocks away. I never used to take notice but then lockdown happened and his was the only noise to be heard besides the birds, the sirens, and the once-a-day-balcony-sing-along. He didn’t go out every day — no one did — but he went out more often than the rest of us.
I first heard him while I was doing an online yoga Nidra class. I’d never done meditative Nidra before. I chose to lie in my bedroom in the loft, my mat on the hardwood floors, the rafters above me, and a warm blanket around me. The polished, warm voice of the instructor traveled through the screen from London and asked us to close our eyes and pay attention to the noises in our room. There were none. And then the noises outside our room: the rhythmic gurgle of my refrigerator was all I detected.
And then, she instructed, further away, outside. What did we hear? I heard birdsong as if I were not in the center of Rome but in the hills of Tuscany. I told myself it was this birdsong and not fear that kept me up at night, as even nightingales and blackbirds came to grace us in Rome back when time stood still. She instructed us to move from one sound to the next, the closest to the furthest away. It was then that in counterpoint to the birdsong, I heard the menacing rumble of the motorcycle still several streets away, revving as he changed gears on the deserted roads, and punctuating our anxious silence.
There is a loquacious dog in the neighborhood whose hoarse bark sounds like a combination of nervous anxiety and laryngitis. As I sit and read I wonder if the Carabinieri or Municipal Police will take notice. I remember one summer they set up a spotlight onto a building not far from this one in the middle of the night. It was bright enough to wake me and several neighbors.
Someone had gone away (for the evening? the weekend? the summer?) and left their dog on the balcony prompting the police to set up a spotlight and climb up to save the dog. I wonder if they’ll investigate this nervous dog with laryngitis.
Each night at dusk the green parakeets of Rome swoop down in flocks, chattering as they do, ready to perch in the jacaranda trees nearby. In spring, their bright green feathers against purple blossoms remind me of Frida Kahlo’s paintings.
The furthest window from my entranceway — the one sandwiched between the bookshelves on the left and the beautiful Jeanne Carbonetti painting on the right — overlooks the street. Across the way, sits a small evangelical church, Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica Battista, reads the lettering above the door. Here a humble smattering of the faithful gather for worship in English every Sunday. Though English is probably not the congregation’s native language, it is the common one among them. From the open church doors, traditional English hymns float up into my loft at 11a.m. and 5 p.m. every Sunday. They are at once cognitively dissonant and a perfect addition to the neighborhood’s cacophony, perhaps not unlike a longtime foreign resident among locals.
I’ve been away on sabbatical deep in the English countryside where darkness fell late in the winter afternoons, and the Northern Lights danced in the night skies. Back in Rome, life laughs and flirts and celebrates all night long. Nearly every night around midnight fireworks go oﬀ very close by. It is always someone’s birthday, always a saint’s day.
The seagulls in Rome are as fearless as fear-inspiring. Their wingspan and caw bring to mind raptors of the dinosaur age. These are not the seagulls of the pastel-hued seaports of islands like Procida or Sicily. They’re nothing like their cousins who dot the sands of the wild beaches of North Norfolk or rocky coasts of Maine. No, these are seagulls who have unionized in support of the haphazard and poorly organized garbage collection in Rome. I hear them perched on the terracotta-tiled rooftop above my bed, their menacing caws and rapid scuttles scaring all other species away. If they were personified, they’d wear studded black leather jackets and mirrored sunglasses. They dive into the bins and back to the rooftops, sometimes brazenly settling on the roof of a car with their haul of orange peels and discarded artichoke leaves or, if they are exceedingly lucky, fishbones.
In contrast, the swifts and swallows build their nests above my daughter’s room; tiny feathers and bits of dirt and pieces of dry grass drift come down through the beams onto the top of her dresser. Once the young ones hatch they peep loudly through the roof if we dare turn on the light or stir beneath them while they sleep.
Nearly every morning, a truck comes by with a megaphone rudimentarily attached to the roof with a mixture of string, laces, and some packaging tape for good measure. The recorded voice is unmistakable. It harkens to a past when women were busy in their homes in the morning hours, doing chores, bringing in the shopping, getting ready to prepare lunch before children returned from school, husbands from work.
“Forza Donne,” the recorded announcement begins, calling for the attention of all the women behind the open windows and balconies where the night’s bed linens hang. “Come on, women! Let’s go! The arrotino and ombrellaio are here! We sharpen knives, repair umbrellas and gas stoves. We sharpen scissors, tailoring scissors, and prosciutto knives. Women! We fix your umbrellas….”
The same cry is heard virtually in every neighborhood of every town and city in Italy. It takes me back to the early years in Tuscany; I found the whole thing outrageously sexist. Why “Forza Donne?” I exclaimed. Don’t men have knives and gas stoves and umbrellas that need fixing? How utterly backwards. Now, thirty-two years later, I find it an oddly comforting and charming addition to the soundtrack of my days.
Before my sabbatical, every morning the doorman of the building behind mine would go to the adjacent bar to get a coﬀee with the watch repairman and the man from the ComproOro (a pawn shop that buys gold from thieves, and residents in need of quick cash). They were all in their sixties but looked older and more worn down. The watch repairman’s shop was to the left of my front door, the ComproOro to the right. They were my neighbors.
Every morning you could hear them fight over who was paying, jostling each other out of the way, the fight over who pays for coﬀee being the most enduring of rituals.
The orologiao Edoardo’s shop closed indefinitely during lockdown. I had a chance to say goodbye and wish him well. The pawn shop where I sold all my daughter’s christening gold last summer to provide her with some spending money must have closed sometime during the year I was away.
I’m afraid to ask after Margherita, the pawn shop owner who sat with her son in that tiny space behind bulletproof glass day in and day out. Both were extremely overweight, the kind of overweight you don’t see often in Italy.
Margherita was well liked in the neighborhood. She would share recipes freely while we waited at the deli counter of our corner grocery after work. On one such occasion, while I waited for the deli attendant to vacuum-pack the Pecorino Romano cheese I was bringing to my daughter in London, Margherita reminisced about her one trip abroad many years before when she and her husband visited London.
What she remembered most fondly were the beans the hotel served at breakfast. “They come in a can,” she told me. Delicious, the best she’d ever tasted. Upon my return to Rome, I brought Margherita, who is renowned in the neighborhood for her incredible command in the kitchen, a veritable Queen of Roman cuisine, two cans of Heinz baked beans. She was absolutely over the moon. The same cans can be found at a supermarket not too far from here but she didn’t know that.