This may sound crazy, but I have made more friends during this summer of quarantined solitude and isolation than almost any other period in my life. Uncanny, given the masks, distance, and unease, but true. The most incredible thing is, these new relationships have all started through random, distanced banter, much as they did the last time I befriended so many new people as a teenager in Florence.
Barely eighteen, alone in a new culture and harboring only a small arsenal of Italian vocabulary, I would mitigate feelings of nostalgia for home and loneliness by taking long walks throughout the city. Before long, I realized Italians chat a lot, and to everyone; it is somewhat akin to a national pastime. Whether with the person at the bar over a perfect cappuccino, carabinieri sauntering down the street, kids over a cigarette and vespa, old timers calling across the balconies, or just two people standing on a corner, Italians always take the time and energy to talk to each other. No day too busy, no topic too banal. They chat with passion and with abandon, treating each person as a partner in life, each discussion as an injection of life itself.
At first I engaged with these seemingly random conversations with caution, held back by the fear of infecting someone with my mangled Italian. That trepidation waned, though, as I realized that Italians did not much care about my conjugation, or even if we perfectly understood each other through our linguistic masks. They just wanted to chat, connect, and maybe even become friends.
Chatting, or fare due chiacchiere in Italian, means “to make two chats” for an undetermined period of time about no particular topic. There is no schedule or agenda, not even a specific purpose or underlying goal. Fare due chiacchiere is simply about living, sharing, and existing as two individuals from any walk of life in one shared conversation, a conversation about anything communal existence engenders, which, by the way, is usually a fair amount.
Chiacchiere actually go back to Roman times, and like most great things Italian, are based upon food. Made specifically for the week of the Saturnali, or today’s Carnival, chiacchiere are a cookie that when bitten into, make the sound of chatter. Left on grand tables throughout the streets for the days of party, these cookies served as the conduit to conversation, hence fare due chiacchiere. Interestingly enough, the cookies were, and are still to this day, made specifically to indulge in as a reminder to interact with others in an unbridled fashion before the Quarentessima, or forty day quarantine.
This summer, separated from most of my friends, family, and colleagues, I decided to stop and chat to ‘random’ people again, Italian style. Lisa, always walking her dogs on the beach, Andre, the fellow meticulous about his tomatoes at the grocery store, Michael, the doctor in line six feet behind me at the post office, and even another Lauren, who seems to be on the same running schedule. These chats never start with a predetermined agenda, yet they repeatedly evolve into unique journeys, journeys that have taken me from confinement to freedom, from solitude to friendship.
The reality is, freedom and friendship go hand in hand. In fact, both share the same Indo European root, freund. As I have relearned through my chiacchiere this summer, the catalyst to enhancing our freedom is through friendships, friendships through conversations, conversations through simply being human.
In today’s seemingly endless quarantine, we are all searching for freedom. Freedom to travel, move, interact. Freedom to think, express ourselves, even if it is against the status quo, make our own decisions. Freedom to feel normal again.
I ran across one of my new summer friends Gabriele, coincidentally from Florence, yesterday. We readily stopped to engage in our two chats and one friendship, with zero agenda. After he turned to walk away, he suddenly exclaimed, “I have not felt this liberated since before the quarantine. I feel free. Free!” As the horizon watched over us, I had to agree.
*Photo, Ruth Orkin, American Girl in Italy series