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In October, I arrived in Italy to attend a conference, filled with mild disbelief that I was actually there, in another country, despite corona. Face masks and QR code scanners were everywhere, but I didn’t care. After months of video screens I was finally in a physical room full of people. Fascinating, intelligent people, from all around the world, brought together by their passion for their subject. At first I was shy of their expertise and of the fact that they led far cooler lives than I did. But they were also friendly and unassuming, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying their company over the next few days.

After almost two years of restrictions on travel, I couldn’t resist staying on once the conference was over. I spent a wonderful day exploring the city. Then, as the evening drew on, I was faced with the question of what to do next. In similar situations in the past, I was overwhelmed with embarrassment at the prospect of eating out alone, and fell back on the safety of a takeaway meal or, on one occasion, the lazy indulgence of a spicy diabolo pizza from room service. But, in the meantime, my partner has been working hard to eliminate my self-consciousness about sitting alone in public by training me in the joys of people-watching. So, instead of creeping away to seclusion, I found myself a spot on a terrace in a bustling street in the old part of town. Armed with a plate of delicious bruschetta vegano and a glass of good Italian red wine, I settled myself down to watch.

With a constant flow of passers-by, it was impossible to be bored. A group of young friends swaggered by, clearly on a night out, calling loudly to each other and guffawing with raucous laughter. Shortly afterwards, a group of old friends went by, behaving in a pretty much identical fashion. An elderly couple strolled slowly, the man limping slightly, clutching a pile of books (a retired professor perhaps?). A beautiful young woman in an impossibly short skirt strutted past, provoking a stab of jealousy that I don’t have the sort of legs required to get away with wearing something like that. A woman of large proportions wobbled along, also in an impossibly short skirt, provoking another stab of jealousy that I don’t have the guts to wear whatever I like and to hell with any judgements others may make about my body.

Each face was unique, but it was amusing to observe the various fashion tribes, the hipsters with their long hair and ripped jeans, the many men with identically trimmed beards and the mottled grey jumpers that were apparently the fashion in Italy at that moment. Some faces caused a jolt of false recognition, as they reminded me of people who couldn’t possibly be there, the scouting leader running the camp my daughter was attending that same weekend, the uncle on my partner’s side who is long dead.

Despite the late hour, the Mediterranean culture meant there were plenty of children around. As always when I am away from my family, I felt a combination of melancholy at the absence of my daughters, and exhilaration that I was temporarily liberated from the burden of parental supervision, free to observe the youthful exploits around me with amused tolerance. An intrepid child at the next table attempted a precarious climb up into his high stool, past teetering glasses and plates, and was saved from disaster at the last minute by an alarmed parent. A mother and daughter posed for a selfie, their bizarre small dog straining at the leash, unfeasibly slender legs trembling, hairy ears twitching. A toddler, who had successfully pestered its parents to buy one of the transparent balloons with led lights that the hawkers were pushing up and down the street, was now gazing up at it with the disarming look of absorbed awe that only a child can produce. A boisterous brother rammed his little sister’s pushchair along the street with more enthusiasm than accuracy, while she sang away with gusto.

Past my table, delivery couriers scooted along on bikes with bulging rucksacks. I couldn’t imagine who could possibly prefer ordering food to their home instead of joining the cheerful throngs on the streets. The busy staff at the market cleared the tables as soon as the dishes were empty, forcing me to clutch my almost-empty wine glass every time they came by, as I was far from ready to leave. In fact, I stayed until the October chill penetrated my bones, and I started to shiver. Only then, reluctantly, I stood up to depart.

Autumn holidays abroad have always meant the chance to tank up on sunlight, to recharge my batteries to get me through the depressing darkness of the winter. Since corona, it is contact with other human beings that has become a scarce commodity. I saw more people on that single evening than I will see for many months to come. Now, the memories of that trip, along with other such snatched moments, are my precious supply of fuel laid up against the double gloom of a winter lockdown.

I sometimes believe that the ability to survive on the memory of joy – or to transmit it – is the quality that most clearly separates the human from the beast

Quote from a novel by Barbara Hambly

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