Last Friday was the first day that we were allowed to go out for a walk beyond the 200 meters defined shortly after we went under lockdown. It was cloudy and windy, but people came out to enjoy Florence. Families played frisbee in Piazza della Signoria where I stood to admire the water flowing in the Fontana di Nettuno and listen to the bells ringing at noon. It was a stark difference to just a few days before when I walked to my ortolano (greengrocer) in via dei Cerchi. On that day, only two people were walking through the piazza with their head down while two policemen stood outside of their car.
On Saturday afternoon, I decided to walk up to Piazzale Michelangiolo. The sky was blue with large, fluffy clouds floating above. Before I reached the Porta di San Niccolò, people gathered—with the appropriate distances between them—at the gelateria (ice cream shop) to get a gelato. It was the first time I had seen children from different families playing outside together. They seemed happy to be out in the sun, eating a gelato, and seeing their friends.
Only one other couple was walking down the scalinata next to the Giardino delle Rose while I was heading up. I stopped a couple of times to admire the view of the Duomo over the garden’s wall and breathe in the scent of the roses in full bloom. Of course, I had to lower my mask when no one was around to do so. After reaching the top, I felt a great sense of freedom. For weeks, I hadn’t been able to go anywhere except to get groceries and necessities. And even then, if I stopped for a few seconds to take a photo, at least one passerby would stare at me as if it wasn’t allowed to bask in the beauty of my beloved city.
The police, throughout this lockdown, have been quite relaxed. They reminded people about wearing masks and keeping distances with others, but they were kind. They must have known that it was taking a toll on a lot of people.
In the piazza near my home, people came to sit down just to enjoy the sun on their face. Every few days, I noticed one elderly woman who sat on the steps of a neighboring building on her way to buy groceries. With her empty bag next to her, she looked at the few people coming and going. I wished that I could have gone down to talk with her because she seemed lonely. It hurt my heart to see her shoulders droop and her head hang low.
May 1st will not be forgotten for any of us here in Florence. It was the day we could finally walk and bike outside. We didn’t need to prove where we were going or have papers in our possession stating the purpose of our outing. Even if we were all wearing masks, smiles were evident on most people’s faces.
Last Monday, more businesses reopened. It feels as if we are creating a new way of living in Florence. Over these past two months we have become accustomed to wearing our masks, keeping our distance with others, sanitizing our hands before and after entering a shop, and waiting outside when the maximum number of people are already in a shop.
There is no normal for any of us to get back to. It seems too long ago now and almost like a hazy dream that I can barely remember. I can’t even imagine the crowded streets, the busy shops, and people bumping into me.
It felt odd initially when so many people were in the piazza. Whenever I walked down via dei Neri, I could count the number of people I crossed paths with on one hand. But most people appeared quite relaxed. We now walk past each other and don’t feel the need to leap a few meters away. We protect ourselves as best we can while we enjoy seeing our city come back to life.
One of the nicest benefits I’ve noticed is that people are navigating the city at a slower pace. The energy doesn’t feel as frenetic as it has in the past. Only a few months ago, Florence was busting at the seams. People were rushing around the city, groups were marching through the streets, and bicyclists zigzagged around us.
Not only is Florence coming back to life, but so are we. When I went out shopping and walked through the deserted streets and piazzas, I rarely had the desire to take a photo. It felt like something was missing. Florence is alive when she is giving of herself and when she is admired and appreciated. Over this past week, I could feel how much Florence enjoyed us admiring her as much as we have enjoyed being outside to admire her too.
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