I am in an unusual prison cell, isolated in Room 54 of the Collegio Internazionale, in Urbino, because I have Covid. The Italians require seven days of isolation from the time of my “extremely positive” test results yesterday afternoon. The pharmacist gave me the document for that (got my passport back, but forgot the 3 euros change for the 12-euro test. Brain fog.). I’ll need another test, with certified negative result, after seven full days. Seven is better than 40, which is the Italian word that gave us “quarantine,” from the old practice of having crews stay on board in anchorage in the days of plagues.
What’s most unusual about this cell is its view out double windows that can be flung open. It’s a beautiful view. The aged terracotta tiles slanting up on the building 10 feet away, across the narrow cobblestone street four floors down, is all I can see from my sickbed. But leaning out of the window, I can see a whole gorgeous world. In an instant, I fall in love with that world again. “There is no world without Verona’s walls,” Romeo says, and I see what he means. To the right, beyond more slanting roofs of fishscale tiles and TV antennae, I see the campanile bell tower and dome of the Duomo, Urbino’s cathedral. To the left, I see beyond more tile roofs the green landscape of cedar-fringed hills, terraced farmland with the yellow flowers called ginestra, and the beginning of the Apennine mountains. Looking up, the deep blue sky of an Adriatic morning. Down, the alley that is no longer boisterous with University of Urbino students yelling and singing their obscene graduation song, but at peace.
This peace floats up, like the breeze I see gently playing with the tablecloth hanging on the railing next to clothes on clotheslines. Italians know that sunlight is better than an energy-wasting dryer. The Italians will need to find more ways to reduce their dependence on Russian energy now. But it’s not politics that strikes me, looking out this window on the world. It’s sheer beauty.
In his novel “Lancelot,” not his best, Walker Percy has a character who narrates the entire book from a jail cell. The character is clearly crazy, but it’s in his sickness that he sees things more clearly. And he notices how the narrowness of his jail cell’s view of some tiny slice of New Orleans gives him the attention needed to really see. That’s what I feel looking out this window. Libby has moved to the room on the other side of one wall. She has brought me coffee.
If this is Covid for a 70-year-old man fully vaccinated with one booster, I pray for the protection needed by anyone who has not been vaccinated. I have the symptoms of a bad cold. But I know this highly contagious variant of Covid-19 (I’m sure I caught it from a 30-second conversation with three of our students at the open-night reception, one of whom tested positive two days later) can be deadly for the unvaccinated. It is wilding through the body, looking for weird ways to wreck havoc. Fortunately, I can tell, my immune system is there to stop it. And that’s why I feel rotten, but alive to this incredible window view.