You do a lot of waiting when you live in Rome. I've noticed this over the year I've been here. While it looks frenetically busy to the casual observer, countless hours are logged in restaurant and museum queues or waiting at bus stops and train stations. Often between 12:30 and 2 p.m., you'll find yourself waiting for the shops to open, or for people to return to the office after lunch. The sudden empty quiet of afternoon siesta can be surprising and exasperating, but often I am charmed by it.
Driving in Rome also involves waiting. You wait as traffic inches along and converges, several cars to a lane, and you wait while the motorini (motor scooters) weave in and out. You speed up and inch along some more. It might look like chaos, but there isn't any road rage. It's more like fluid dynamics.
And now I'm waiting once again. On a busy Tuesday morning, after being propelled down the lanes of the Lungotevere in a ribbon of endless traffic, parking the car, puffing and panting my way up four flights of stairs at the American University of Rome, I've suddenly come to an abrupt halt.
I find myself waiting in an empty classroom. My directed-study student is nowhere to be found. I am leaning on the window ledge and looking down into the courtyard. The moment called "now" seems to have escaped from all the others, singling itself out, not as the lesson I had expected, but as a pause. It has become, if not less momentous, certainly a different sort of moment from the one I'd prepared myself for.
Not that it's a bad place to wait, up on the top of the Janiculum. I have a spectacular view from my window ledge. The courtyard below is dappled with the shade of chairs and a great umbrella pine. The only smell is that of the unfrosted ground. The morning is new and it's early spring.
I watch a student in a Rasta hat reading at a table in the courtyard. A handful of other students, carrying rucksacks and shoulder bags, converse under an awning. The shadow of a flying bird moves across the gravel.
On a roof terrace in the building opposite me, two bricklayers shovel cement and fill the gaps between the curved tiles of a roof. All around are cypress and pine trees, along with buildings hued in sienna, peach, and coral wash, with deep green window shutters.
Balconies burst with plants. Sheets hang to dry from rooftop terraces. Oranges dot the trees.
I see beyond the courtyard to Via Pietro Roselli and an ancient wall covered in moss and vines. The grass slopes up to the top of that wall, and from my vantage point I can see students on the other side sitting at a sidewalk cafe. Motor scooters parked along the curb glint in the morning sunshine. The sky is pale, the air full of birdsong and distant traffic.
Suddenly I spot something curious on the top of the slope: four wooden boxes, like outsized birdhouses, painted green and blue. They're lined up together against the wall among the shrubbery. Intended for cats, perhaps? But who made the climb to deposit them there?
A student ambles across the courtyard below, chatting on his cellphone. A motorcycle helmet hangs from his free hand. Beyond the college walls, I see an impossibly tall ladder leaning against a tree: At the top, a man is pruning branches. His red shirt moves in the treetops and his trouser legs taper toward the ladder rung on which he stands. A woman lumbers up the road carrying a bag of groceries. A bus glides down the hill.
The courtyard pauses. The sun is growing hot up here at my window, and there is still no sign of my student. But I don't much care. I'm enjoying this view of the rooftops and the television antennae with their stick-insect arms. So many things seem ready to receive. So many things are waiting.
The boy in the Rasta hat takes a break from his reading to stretch his arms overhead. Then another bird passes with a piece of straw in its beak. I follow its flight through the trees across the way, and catch sight of something else I've never noticed - a needle-eye glimpse through the park at a fountain with glistening water.
So this is what passes for nothing in particular at 11 a.m. on top of the Janiculum hill. It isn't nothing, of course. And I am no longer waiting as much as I am observing and soaking up the scene. How can I do otherwise?
Rome has been the setting for so much and it has such compelling character. How could it possibly be the background to my little story about waiting? And yet, momentous though it is, Rome affords these sweet and gentle pauses between the paragraphs of life. This is part of its charm, and perhaps a good reason it has earned its nickname: the eternal city.
My student never shows up. Instead she sends an e-mail message and we arrange to meet again next week. I pack up my books and lesson plans and trudge downstairs and through the courtyard I've been watching from above. At the corner cafe, I meet up with two other colleagues before the next class.
It's time for another little break. Am I still waiting or am I now moving along? Whatever I'm doing, I feel as though I'm part of the flow, part of the bustle and unique rhythms of another Roman morning. Part of - why not admit it? - something truly momentous.