When I arrived in Rome on March 4, 2020, I was excited. I was in Italy!!
Despite travel warnings, I had not canceled my trip.
Now, just to recap: when I arrived, Italy had the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in all of Europe. In fact, Italy had the highest rate of infection in the world, outside of China. Almost 28,000 people were infected with the virus and over 2,000 had died.[i]
And, just to be clear: During the first few weeks of March, people in Italy were not wearing masks. NO ONE was wearing a mask, except a few riders on Metro trains. Italians were deeply concerned about the coronavirus but were still largely unsure what to do about it. Those with whom I spoke were mostly concerned about business. The normal crowds of tourists, even in off-season, were nowhere to be found.
Of course, the lack of tourists was perfect for me. I hate crowds, which is, in part, why I had planned my trip for March. I expected the normal crowds to make me crazy. But of course, since I was flying into Rome, there were things I had to see. Six days would allow me to rest between excursions. Time to regroup and breathe. Then the rest of my trip would be small towns and municipalities, the countryside and Sicily.
But with the normal crowds not in Rome, every excursion was easy. I was free to stroll, to take my time, to read signs, and take it all in. I could feel the energy of the place. It was amazing, like a hum in the air. It vibrated in the ruins, in the streets. And the ruins were everywhere. I was enraptured and enthralled. I was in Rome! Finally! I was in Italy!!
Over the course of four days, I walked everywhere, clocking up to ten miles a day. I visited Villa Borghese Park, the Imperial Fora, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and every church I encountered. (Churches are everywhere in Rome.) I explored neighborhoods and toured the Colosseum. I ate at restaurants that were virtually empty. I entered the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Cathedral without standing in line. (As in, literally NO ONE in line, or no more than a few!) How many people were at Palatine Hill and The Forum? Maybe 200, maybe double? That’s a small amount in such a large space. Humans only dotted the landscape, rather than consuming it. Only at Trevi Fountain did I encounter a crowd too large for me. No problem. I turned and walked down another street.
Everyone says you MUST get lost in Italy in order to truly experience it. I absolutely agree.
I got lost a LOT in Rome. Each time, it was deeply unsettling. I tried to tell myself it was glorious but the truth is, I panicked.
As tales go, this was classic foreshadowing. (I should have known.)
Bottom line, the whole point of the trip was not to be a tourist but to experience the country. The lack of tourists was helping this goal significantly. Still, I really wanted to mingle with locals. I needed connection.
Online, I found a Couchsurfing meetup. It was in an area outside of the historic center, somewhere I hadn’t yet visited, and would require taking the Metro. I hesitated. I was tired. I might get lost again. But the gathering was at a restaurant and I needed to eat. So, I massaged my aching legs with Arnica cream, did a little yoga, and took a short nap. Then I put on my only pair of jeans, changed into a clean sweater, and donned my grey-heeled booties. Lastly, I reviewed some conversational Italian phrases. Alright, let’s do this! I was ready to meet some strangers.
In retrospect, this evening could have killed me. I was foolish, careless, and naïve.
That evening was a solid reason to go into quarantine. Two days later, the panic would almost crush me.
[i] In comparison, the United States had only 41 deaths and 1,678 infections on March 11, 2020.