Phase Two begins: My first steps back into Rome as Italy finally loosens the chains

Me at Villa Doria Pamphili’s lake on the first day of Italy’s Phase 2.

I knew Rome was getting back to normal when I crossed my narrow street Monday, the first day of Italy’s Phase 2, and nearly got clocked by a car. I’ve been so used to no traffic when I made my 200-meter trip to the supermarket during lockdown I never bothered to look up my hill.

Yes, Italy, the first nation in the world to lock down the entire country, began its slow, cautious sneak back to normal this week. Phase 2 has begun. Open for the first time since March 9 are restaurants for take away, parks and factories. You can exercise outside and even — gasp! — jog more than just around your block.

Family members can meet but no big family reunions. Friends can not but boyfriends and girlfriends can. Finally, Marina and I don’t have to make conjugal visits carrying Tachiparina, Italy’s Advil, for each other’s hurt leg, knowing neither of ours is all that hurt. Police stopped Marina once at a bus stop on her way to my place. She told them my leg was injured (mostly a lie) and I couldn’t walk to the pharmacy (a blatant lie). She gave them my phone number and address and did not get fined the customary 400-3,000 euros for having a lame-ass excuse. She immediately called to warn me that the cops may show up at my place.

I spent the next half hour practicing a limp.

Uncomfortable questions

The new Phase 2 is vague in all the wrong places. Imagine you’ve just started dating someone. The new regulations force couples to define their relationship. Are we friends? Are we boyfriend/girlfriend? I guess it’s the perfect excuse for the man to say, “Well, if we want to see each other again we’d better step up the relationship a notch. So … what do you like for breakfast?” I imagine Italian women repeating one word a lot this month.


My corner Romagnani Caffe started offering take away on Monday.

I took full advantage of Phase 2. Of all the things I’ve missed during this lockdown — soccer, sun-splashed trattorias, fine wine in tony enotecas — one of the simplest is the exquisite chocolate cornetto at my corner Romagnani Caffe. Last week I saw one of the Romagnani brothers fixing up the bar for Monday’s reopening. I would’ve hugged him if I wasn’t risking death.

“AH! MI MANCHI! (AH! I MISS YOU!”),” I yelled, keeping my two meters distance. “Ho bisogno di i tuoi cornetti cioccolati! Ho una dipendenza! (I need your chocolate cornettos! I have an addiction!”)

Monday I strolled in, surprised they had no line. I asked where their business stands after the lockdown. Italy expects to lose 8 percent of its gross domestic product and have an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent. He shook his flattened hand side to side, the one Italian hand gesture that needs no translation. He handed me my chocolate cornetto for 90 centesimi and I took it to my balcony with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a bottle of cold milk. Biting into my first flaky Italian croissant with creamy chocolate filling I immediately started channeling Meg Ryan in “Harry Met Sally.”

Yes, folks, after six years in the food capital of the world I have perfected the fake female orgasm. Few releases in life felt better than that cornetto after a two-month lockdown.

Monday’s breakfast on my balcony.

It was a gorgeous 70-degree day with a beautiful sky never bluer after two months of little traffic. What timing, the perfect day to explore the far reaches of Phase 2. I walked the three-quarters of a mile to Villa Doria Pamphili, Rome’s biggest landscaped park and my escape to Mother Nature.

I passed my supermarket and another sign that Rome is back to normal. The same beggar has returned to stand outside the store, hat in hand. Traffic seemed back to normal, too. For the first time in two months, I had to wait for passing cars to cross one of the main drags of Via Donna Olimpia.

The park is 445 acres, covering much of the southwest end of Rome and it was nice to see people trickling back in again. As I passed through the gate, which had been locked for nearly two months, I immediately passed joggers who’d finished their run. I joined flocks of women pushing strollers, children kicking soccer balls, men and women power walking on the gravel and dirt trails. It’s as if we were prisoners in cages looking out to the most beautiful city in the world and they were finally unlocked.

Villa Doria Pamphili finally opened its doors.

We didn’t miss spring. The paths were lined with yellow daffodils. Birds were everywhere. The foliage was the green of shining emeralds. Without a cloud in the sky, it was like trading in your iPhone 5s and looking through the camera of the iPhone 11. I forgot how beautiful Doria Pamphili is.

I took my normal path through a cutaway in the forest to the lake in the center of the park. I sat on a bench and knew, with social distancing, no one would sit next to me. The geese and birds seemed to miss us. They strutted back and forth next to the short fence, seemingly waiting for food, or looked at us forlornly floating near the bank. Mothers cautiously tried to get their toddlers to feed geese twice their size.

Wildlife and mankind got reacquainted again.

On the path behind me came a steady stream of joggers, huffing and puffing in likely their first run in two months. Men and women walked wearing stretch pants or loose clothes. Two police cars slowly patrolled the premises. Only about two-thirds of the people wore masks.

I did. Despite the discomfort, the goofy look I’ve long since become accustomed to and the increased heat index when the temperature hit 70, I sat on the bench, fully masked and read The New York Times on my cell phone. I read where one of Pres. Trump’s internal reports estimates that more than 200,000 will wind up dying in the U.S. from the coronavirus. By June the death toll will be about 3,000 a day. I breathed a sigh of relief for my chosen city of retirement. Here I was back in the middle of Rome’s paradise again, in perfect weather, in good health with the future looking brighter than ever.

Then two police approached me. They told me to leave. I can only read at home.What? Why? Where am I? East Berlin?

This spot by the lake was a popular spot — for a while.

Apparently, the park is for exercising, not for hanging out and, well, enjoying the park. I continued up the path and saw groups of people sitting in fields, nearly hidden in tall grass that hadn’t been cut since early March. When I returned I passed my park bench. The police had cordoned off it and the three other benches with thick yellow tape. It looked like some weird mass murderer had just off’d a bunch of old men looking at ducks.

Despite restrictions that remain, Monday felt like I’d returned to Rome after two months abroad. I hadn’t felt Rome’s energy, the Romans’ zest for life. More than anything, I hadn’t tasted its food. I’ve reached advanced cooking burnout. I’ve gone through five rotations of my recipes and if I have one more bowl of my pasta amatriciana I will start oinking like the pigs I’ve been eating.

Franz welcomed me back with open arms.

That night I went around the corner to Franz, a classic Italian diner that serves some of the best cheap food in Rome. Classic polpette (meatballs) in gravy. Thick, meaty lasagna. Creamy arancini (fried rice balls filled with melted cheese). Pizza by the slice. That’s in addition to the roast chickens they have ready to carve up with giant, razor-sharp scissors. It’s all on display behind a tall glass window, ready to serve for their limited number of indoor and outdoor tables or take away. They’re the one place I go when I’m short of food or too tired to cook.

Monday was their first opening day in two months. They all know me and greeted me with a hearty “Ciao!” and “FORZA ROMA!” behind masks. I ordered the meat cannelloni and repeated my cornetto scene on my balcony that night.

One major problem with Italy’s lockdown is many hospitals and clinics would not take appointments until Phase 2 began. While my said leg is far from crippled, I’ve still walked around for two months with a partially numb shin. I run as if I have a snake in one shoe. I have a nerve problem in my lumbar and needed an MRI.

I finally got one Monday and walked the one mile to Salvator Mundi, arguably the top hospital for MRIs in Rome. The young clerk, one of the few I’ve ever met in a Rome hospital who could count to three in English, told me they’ve been taking appointments only twice a week until now. They’ve been testing coronavirus patients and isolated them from the rest of the hospital.

Italy’s curves flattening

The precautions Italy has taken are a big reason we’re on our way back. As I wrote last week, prime minister Giuseppe Conte made some mistakes early but the lockdown and Italians’ adherence to the edict have made us all see normalcy in our future, however, distant.

Italy’s number of actual positives (total cases minus deaths and recovered), one of the true indicators of flattening the curve, has been in negative numbers 15 of the last 16 days. On March 15 it was plus-4,116.The total now stands at 98,467. Sounds like a lot? It has dropped nearly 10,000 in 15 days.

The number of new cases has dropped from more than 4,000 at the beginning of April to just more than 1,000 this week. The percent of increase from the previous day’s total has been under 1 percent the last six days. The number of deaths has gone from more than 500 the third week in April to about 200 the last three days with a percent of increase also under 1 percent.

In Rome, the hit has been even lighter. Rome’s Lazio region, with almost a 10th of Italy’s population at almost 6 million, has only 3 percent of the cases (6,914) and 2 percent of the deaths (534).

Still cautious

However, I am not even close to exhaling. We still can’t travel outside our region, let alone outside Italy. Our August trip to Greece looks as possible as a morning jaunt to Pluto. Italian scientists say the public numbers cited above aren’t close to real figures if you consider how many people are walking around positive and haven’t been tested. People still predict scores of uncounted dead are rotting in homes.

I also fear the second wave scientists around the world predict. Tuesday’s Il Messaggero, Rome’s main newspaper, reported that 30 percent more Romans were out and about Monday. Public usage of roads had jumped from 7 percent to 15 percent. Termini train station had 30 percent more passenger arrivals, most coming from Northern Italian provinces such as Lombardy which has 37 percent of the cases (78,605) and 49 percent of the deaths (14,389).

The good news is Italians are mostly playing by the rules. Unlike in the U.S., where armed gun owners are storming state capitols, Italians don’t mind the restrictions. Il Messaggero reported that of the 1,500 people stopped in Rome, only 13 citations were written to people without the government-issued auto declaration form. Seventy-two percent of the people are in favor of maintaining control in Rome. Eighty percent of government workers are still working from home, and 52 percent favor social distancing in restaurants when they do open for seating May 18.

One funeral for an 85-year-old man, who didn’t die from Covid-19, allowed only 15 people to attend. And you needed a ticket.

Many not cautious

However, the paper also reported people standing close together in buses and subways. Many are not wearing masks. Lots of joggers, breathing heavy and spitting, aren’t wearing masks, either.

I remain cautious. I wear my mask everywhere. I carry my government-issued “get out of jail” self-declaration form everywhere. I carry a rubber glove just to open doors and push elevator buttons.

Rome still has so far to go. Tuesday night I took the bus, where all the passengers did wear the mandatory mask, to my old neighborhood of Testaccio across the river. I passed by L’Oasi della Birra, my favorite beer bar in Rome with 1,500 wines and 500 beers. The patio benches were my sanctuary three or four times a month. All year these tables are packed with locals and the occasional savvy traveler off the beaten path.

Normally the tables at L’Oasi della Birra are packed year round.

Tuesday the tables were empty. Only a waiter whom I barely recognized behind his mask sat on a bench peering at his cell phone. L’Oasi has never closed but remains open only for take away purchases of beer and wine as well as its designer chocolates. I asked how they were doing. He shook his head.

“We’re surviving,” he said.

On May 18, besides restaurants opening, so will retail stores and museums. Soccer teams can begin training for a season that is all but shot. Italians, and Romans in particular, have shown extraordinary patience through this deadly pandemic. We have been pitied, judged, crucified and applauded. We have been the guiding force to the Western world on what to do and what not to do.

It has worked yet the finish line doesn’t seem much closer. We’d like to be rewarded. We are like the geese on the lake, begging for crumbs, happy for company, dying for love.