' ' Cinema Romantico: The Covid Hotel Blues

Friday, January 07, 2022

The Covid Hotel Blues

View from a COVID Hotel

There is a nun in a surgical mask walking down the street on a chilly November morning in Rome. It would be dystopian were I not already starring in a dystopia, sitting alone in the third row of a three row SUV and wearing my own surgical mask, my luggage ensconced in trash bags. There is a plastic divider separating the rear of the van from the front seat where an imposing bald man in a yellow hazmat suit is at the wheel. He never once glances in my direction, not even through the rearview mirror, like he’s frightened of me, which he probably is. After all, a few days earlier, ahead of the flight home after the long-planned vacation My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I have taken to Rome, I tested positive for COVID-19. It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving but I’m not going home; I’m being taken to a COVID hotel at the Villa Primavera, which is less lavish than it sounds. Imagine a single-bed hospital room but with even fewer amenities. Indeed, I spend turkey day washing my underwear in the sink. 


When My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I originally booked our Roman vacation in very early 2020, it was merely an extension of our ongoing European adventures. But by the end of 2021, after we had delayed the trip by a year for reasons requiring no explanation, it was less about adventure than escape, relief from almost two years of working from home, not going much of anywhere but from the living room to the kitchen and back again. That’s why if we toured the Colosseum, went to the Vatican and saw the Sistine Chapel, what emerged as our unofficial motto was Do as The Romans Do, like the Uber Eats dude that we saw roll up to La Gelateria Frigidarium, not grabbing a delivery but taking a timeout for his own gelato cone. I’ll never forget him, him or his Zubaz pants, an emblem of the kind of Roman life leisure that will always remain foreign to ABC (always be closing) Americans. The night before, we had dinner at a nondescript neighborhood place in Trastevere, across the Tiber, where everyone was speaking Italian, a whole family was having a feast with no qualms about keeping their gaggle of kids up past 10 PM on a Sunday, and the older couple along the wall took extensive breaks between bites, reveling in the atmosphere. My friends are always poking fun at the unhurried way I eat, but this couple, they took as long to eat as me. “Maybe I’ve always Done as the Romans Do,” I thought. “Maybe I’m home.” 


My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife thankfully tests negative and flies back the Sunday before Thanksgiving as planned. Saying goodbye to her in that moment is as sad and scared as I have ever felt. True, in the last few years I have become a much more experienced international traveler and am no longer intimidated by, say, shopping at a pharmacy when I don’t speak the language. But this is something altogether different. After she leaves, I sit in the nearby wide-open space of Piazza Navona, indifferent to its remarkable beauty, masked and distanced, waiting for my hotel room to be ready so I can isolate, overwhelmed and at the mercy of the mean world, feeling my small-town Iowa-ness more than I have in a long, long time. 


The U.S. Embassy agent advises I hunker down in a hotel and wait for the local medical authorities to contact me even as he advises the medical authorities will likely move as Romans in piazzas do – with little alacrity. Sunday passes, Monday passes, Tuesday morning passes, the Embassy assuring me they are pressuring Rome to get in touch. In Paris I made My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife recreate a scene from my beloved “Ronin” through photographs, but in Rome I live “Ronin” out. “It would be nice to do something,” says Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård) as the crew holes up in some staid south of France flat. “We are doing something,” corrects Sam (Robert DeNiro). “We’re waiting.” I drink instant Nescafé in my hotel room and wait too. In many ways, this is the worst part, wracked from anxiety in not knowing where I’m supposed to go or what I’m supposed to do or how I’m going to get home. “Once I’m taken to my COVID Hotel,” I think, “I’ll be able to handle it.” Oops. 


There’s another American on the floor of my COVID hotel, I realize at some point, and though I’d like to trade notes with her, I can’t, because we are expressly forbidden from leaving our rooms. The door locks from the outside, and the key is always in the door, meaning the door is always unlocked, meaning that even if I’m almost always in the room, it’s also never quite private. And for the next 17 days I am in that not-quite-private 10x13 room with bars on the window, a bed tantamount to a cot that creaks, a couple pillows essentially equaling one, a little bureau, a desk functioning as my dinner table, and a crucifix hanging on the wall over the bed because it’s Italy. Later in the week I am emailed a screener link of Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta”, the one about 17th-century nuns having an affair that Catholics are protesting outside Chicago’s Music Box Theater. I am desperate to watch the movie but don’t dare, afraid that if I do the crucifix will come to life. 

Vaccinated and boosted, I’m thankful to essentially be feeling fine, save for some minor head congestion, suggesting I have been tagged with the Omicron variant, news of which breaks while I’m confined. Every morning I open my Nescafé jar and breathe in the fumes of the grounds, making sure I can still smell. The Italian woman across the hall translates for me when I can’t quite communicate something to the nurses in their language and when I need a prescription filled, the process is arduous, but the minimal cost puts into ridiculous perspective American Big Pharma’s predilection for price-gouging. Meals are hospital food, albeit Italian hospital food impressively emphasizing the four food groups, but coffee, so crucial, is another matter. My first morning I ask the woman dispensing coffee for two 5 oz Dixie Cup sized cafes and she gladly obliges. The next morning, though, it’s a different woman serving and when I request “due?” she says “solo uno” (only one). My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife keeps telling me this isn’t a prison, that if I ask for something they must give it to me. Intellectually, I know this is true, of course, but she also hasn’t seen the stern, belittling face of that woman when you ask for two cups of coffee. 


I love Monica too

My best friend theorizes I could transform this experience into my own superhero movie – you know, the montage where the main character is in isolation, whipping his or herself into shape. I have grand designs when I first arrive. I’ll sit at the desk and write, like I’m in a Paul Schrader Man at the Table movie. I’ll stare out the window at the leaves and scaffolding and wooden pallets and have deep thoughts. I’ll read more than ever before. Those dreams quickly fall by the wayside. At first, I’m shaving each morning and even gelling and combing my hair, trying to institute normalcy. I’m doing jumping jacks and knee bends and stretches. But after 9 days, when I finally get to take my test in the hopes of testing negative and getting out only to test positive, I eschew combing and gelling my hair that morning. The next morning, I forgo shaving. The following Tuesday I test positive again. It’s official: I will be quarantined the full 21 days. The jumping jacks and knee bends and stretches innately fall away. I try to start Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown” five times and can’t make it more than a few paragraphs. The book seems great, my mind not so much.

My second Thursday here I can’t remember if it’s Thursday or Wednesday; or maybe my second Wednesday here I can’t remember if it’s Wednesday or Thursday. Returning texts to friends nobly seeking to keep my spirits up becomes a chore. I take long naps after lunch but wake up tired, and though my boss is helpfully empathetic, telling me not to worry about work and to just get home healthy and safe, when I do think about the work waiting for me upon my return, whenever that is, I just want to go back to sleep. If I came to Rome to recharge, I have managed the exact opposite, my mind in even more disarray, my spirit even more drained. I watch a ton of year-end screeners, but none bring comfort as much as foreboding old favorites like “From Here to Eternity” and “The Third Man.” Best of all, though, I watch “L’Eclisse”, one of Antonioni’s great Italian forays into existential dread, starring the legend Monica Vitti – whose image I see a few days earlier on a wall of graffiti not far from the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere – in perpetual motion around Rome, searching for something, never finding it. I imagine her starring in a COVID isolation movie, prowling this room, praying to the crucifix and getting no answer, staring longingly through the window bars, the movie ending with the camera circling the room only to find she’s no longer even there, whether COVID got her or the void of existence itself left up to the viewer. 


Back there, in the dark, is a Caravaggio

My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife speculates that I got COVID in the Sistine Chapel and I like thinking of it this way. It makes sense logically, the room the most crowded one we were ever in, the warmth from the body heat palpable. But it also makes sense lyrically, the staggering beauty of the place set against the idea of it transmitting something so terrible. It suggests one of the myriad Carravaggio paintings we encounter at churches all over Rome, like his Madonna di Loreto at Sant’Agostino, how the light of the Virgin Child illuminates the dark world. The oil canvas is just tucked away in a tiny chapel, meaning if you go in the evening, as we did, you wouldn’t even see it if you didn’t know it was there. We pop a euro into a lightbox to illuminate the painting, if only for a couple minutes, a more potent metaphor, really, for 2021 than (possibly) getting COVID in The Sistine Chapel. Because if 2021 seemed poised to be so much better than 2020, especially with the miraculous vaccine’s advent, that vaccine, and so much else, did not prove to be light transcending darkness so much as a mere euro dropped in a lightbox, briefly brightening the world before everything went dark again. 


If My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I crown every evening with a cone of gelato, we inaugurate every morning with a cup of espresso, usually at Tazza d’Oro right around the corner, and often get espresso in-between, like at Bar San Calisto, where a fashion shoot taking place right outside on the street can’t stop us. (The craft services table for this fashion shoot, I notice, has boxed pastries and a literal chocolate cake. The craft services table for an episode of “Chicago P.D.” that I happened by in October only seemed to have Slim Jims. *Americans*.) And if a single espresso might not seem like much, the ornate ceremony of the service and presentation turn a ten-second coffee into nothing less than a work of art, celebratory rather than functional. On the morning of our 10:30 AM Colosseum tour, I hit the caffè when it opens at 7:30. It’s just me and Roman cops. “I could get used to this,” I think. 

But after 17 days of a single minuscule cup of coffee each morning, a strange thing happens: I crave American coffee. I dream of a semi-burnt Venti from Starbucks; I dream of asking for that fifth refill of so-so diner coffee at Golden Nugget even though I really don’t need it; I dream of sitting on the couch with My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife on a Saturday morning and going back for one, two, three helpings of my coffee in my giant Lady Gaga mug. When I sat on our couch for 18 months, all I could think about was drinking coffee in Rome. Now that I’m drinking coffee in Rome, all I can think about is drinking coffee on my couch. All I want is to click the heels of the Pumas I bought specifically for this trip and be magically transported home.

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