I am in quarantine. My adopted city is shut down. On the pavement below linger protracted queues that stretch and intersect. Calm and willing to wait. Socially distanced; expressions trapped behind face masks. Onto balconies and out of windows at noon we come to play our part, applauding the work of doctors unseen. A few languid flags wave on confused in the wake of a flashmob; cameras and phones, in the midst of some form of history, uncertain which way to face. The words Viva Italia are sung with strength and flutter away.
Back again at six, affacciati alla finestra, at the window. Unite in song. All south-west-facing flats, whether willing or not, are led in a chorus of Quanto Sei Bella Roma by a bronzed man with peach glasses and acid wash jeans from the stereo of his car; doors wide open, and parked in the middle of the street. He ends with a few laps, arms raised as if milking a slightly larger crowd.
The numbers are growing. There is a shortage of blood!
Blood. I have it. I am youngish. I have been staying at home. Unconvinced of analogies to wartime sacrifice. I want to act. And in almost equal measure, I want a genuine excuse to walk through Rome on a beautiful spring morning. For the last 6 days I haven’t ventured farther than the corner shop. To grant myself permission to go outside I must first auto-certify. Print the form and state my reasoning for being outside. I am going to give blood. Try and question that.
The blood bank is in an area I know well.
Or, rather, I have sat and smoked, and drank vending machine coffee, and waited hours for the wrong student office to open outside the blood bank. In this time of national crisis, the student information centre, at the heart of Sapienza University of Rome, has been turned into a blood bank. Without hint of irony. It is surely a kinder and more useful place now.
By rights the city should be mine. As in August when the Romans evacuate for beaches, mountains and holiday homes, fleeing the heat. If you can stand the swelter, the city is yours; empty of traffic, unrecognisably calm. The ratio of dog poo to pavement recedes back to an expectable level and the pollution clears enough to smell the stone pines. Of course, now, the dogs are still in Rome. Nevertheless, today after 5 days inside I am raring to keep my eyes peeled for excrement.
Open, outside and with the bright blue air!
But here where the streets should be lazy and dead, a premature August melancholy should be in full swing, there is still life. I am joined in kind by other devout pilgrims! Each carrying off their own godly duty and each wondering from behind a face mask whether the other has good cause to be out.
Moving through the walls of Rome, and the traffic dies and I am the only wayfarer left. My pilgrimage can begin under the splendour of Saint John’s in the solitude I’d expected. The grand trees that flank either side of the boulevard lay a crochet blanket of shadows at my feet, begging to be painted. It’s hard to believe a tree could look old-fashioned, but they do. And today they are mine.
A Patrol car sputtered
Off in the distance a patrol car slips into view, sailing down the open strait. Taking its time to approach. I check my auto-certificate, still there, I start to go through how to explain my reasons for being out, still valid. The patrol car continues its cruise. It won’t matter which tense I use, but I don’t want to misuse the word blood. God, is it speeding up or slowing down. I wonder if I pretend not to understand anything are they more likely to wave me on. It is almost upon me when I see a shuffle in the front and for some reason, unknown but to the depths of my inner cowardice, I bolt down a side street and run head on into a Roma woman.
Having pulled the ageing traveller to the ground we lay together in the middle of the street under the eye of the patrol car. A plastic fan blade all too dramatically still spinning in the road. We wait. The Roma, by virtue of the massive historic (and contemporary) prejudice against them, should be wary of authority. Her people travelled out of India in 512 AD, their diaspora reside in near every corner of the globe, they have weathered perennial distrust and discrimination and now she and I lie in the scattered hoard of a morning’s bin scavenging. The dumpsters in Rome are public, meaning they are out on the street for all to deposit in and (although not legally) out on the street for all to take from. This allows for one of the most practical recycling systems in Europe, turned industry for the Roman Roma. Sit and watch the bins in Rome for more than 30 minutes and you will see a dedicated Roma pass by and check for items of value. Speaking as someone whose first real contact with a member of the Roma in Rome was to bundle one to the floor whilst trying to escape the police, I cannot protest to know exactly where all this rubbish goes. But there are markets set out on old bedsheets near the large tram intersections and under overpasses. So, it’s safe to assume, at least some of it is fixed and sold on. An economy unto itself. A people unto themselves. Independent, that live in spite of Rome, between its more than generous cracks, not in marvel of it.
The patrol car gives a stomach turning single pulse of its siren. Staring down on me –their fugitive– the raven haired woman and the scatter of broken electricals and scrap metal; the patrol car thinks better of it and rolled back, and drives off.
This blood bank closes at 10.15. Nil by mouth. Digiuno. I have 40 minutes.
Staring at the baker’s grave. Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker. Square in the middle of a multi-lane, tram-tangled roundabout; now dead of everything. It seems fair that Eurysaces should have a break from the usual chaos. Empty beer bottles and half-eaten bags of old bread and pizza still lie about like an offering to the man. His bedsheet markets have retreated. And it strikes me that a city that eats as much bread as Rome should have a few more monuments to bakers.
Misdirection at the gate. I have 20 minutes.
Sapienza university is (at least the campus I am at) surrounded by a tall wall measuring close to 3 km in circumference with a rather meagre distribution of gates. My closest one is open but with a sign asking me to kindly use the next gate 500 metres away. I ignore this and press on through the empty grounds to find my blood bank.
The welcome revives my spirit and quells my doubts. That vaguely familiar white mobile home seems friendly. The group of mostly medical students are happy for blood, plasma and the rest. They’re going to split it up and do all sorts I had never imagined. As I sit in the plastic chair, coffee and biscuits waiting for me on the other side, I allow myself to crack a little smile of content for a difficult journey, but one with good intentions realised. The nurse drops the blood pressure thing on the table and sets about asking me the routine questions like ‘Have you spent more than 6 months collectively in the UK between 1 January 1980 to 31 December 1996’ huh ‘during the mad cow crisis’ at which my heart drops a little and an all too familiar subtle disappointment pulses through me.