June 15, 2021, is an important date in California. More than a year has passed since the start of the pandemic, and now we are finally back to business. Restaurants are open at full capacity (and have even set up tables in their parking lot), wearing a mask is now a choice, and wide-open-scrupulous-eyes respecting social distancing are a mere memory of the past. The zoo has reopened and there seem to be a few more species roaming around.
Viktoria and I could not have missed the boat. We were impatient to test the water. But not the ocean water, rather the reaction of San Diegans to the official reopening of the Sunshine City’s gates. Best of all, we didn’t have to bother Saint Peter to give Californians the gate keys, but it was a matter of signing some paper in Sacramento and shouting the news through the media.
The post-pandemic rush can be felt right away on the freeway as Viktoria, and I drive down Interstate 5, headed toward Seaport Village. We are ready to meet the crowd and sing an old Italian song: “Facciamo tutti dei versi, Siamo una grande tribù, Non siamo tanti diversi, Dai prova a farlo anche tu.” (We all make verses, We are a great tribe, We are not very different, Give it a try too).
It’s Saturday. The sun plays pick-a-boo among the whipped-cream clouds, making the temperature just warm enough. Viktoria and I walk along the avenue bordering the ocean, passing by the Star of India and a new restaurant, Brigantine’s, which restores some vitality to this once-neglected part of town. People are coming and going from the entrance of shops and restaurants like bees to a hive. Considering the time, 5:00 p.m., we cannot imagine how busy it will be in a few hours. We keep strolling, making ten yards, twenty, swinging like a parabola, and claiming our presence with a silent: “We are here, we are back. Hallelujah.” A group of elderly tourists take pictures of their family with the background of the harbor’s calm water. Even older people have come out from their bunkers to celebrate.
I observe faces, clothes, behaviors, and I sadly realize that I have lost touch with reality. Where are these people coming from? Is it the same folks I left behind before I hid behind the four walls of my house? Or is it that I have undergone a transformation that I can realize only now, returning to the surface from the dilapidated staircase of my pandemic underworld? I feel like I am in Rio de Janeiro at the onset of the carnival parade. And as much as I look with wonder at the people who come and go, I can see that they are looking at me with the same squinting eyes, with the same perplexed gaze, wondering where I came from. “Guys, don’t worry, it’s just that I’m Italian.” Could my get-me-out-of-this-embarrassing-moment quote, used many times before, help me once more today?
Passersby see a transformed animal. I have long hair, as long as when I was a teenager dancing toWake Me Up Before You Go-Go in Florence’s discotheques. The pandemic made it impossible to have a haircut the first few months, and then I got accustomed to my new, rediscovered look that made me feel younger than my age – it could be said that I am going through my midlife crisis and not even realizing it. Zoom meetings made it even more acceptable for my coworkers to see my transformation. They were not sure what was happening, but they could not figure out what was different about me. Only a few months ago, somebody had the courage to ask me: “Sam, is it the wind blowing in your house, or are you using a new shampoo?” I responded that I borrowed Viktoria’s miracle grow shampoo by mistake, and now I am looking like the king of the forest.
The cool beat of house music playing across the Marriott’s bay attracts us. It’s bazaar time: phosphorescent colors, tie-dye shirts, hats of any shape, naked male chests and half-naked female breasts, ripped jeans, sunglasses covering curious eyes, although I am not wearing sunglasses as I want to take everything in, without filters. Among the dancing characters, I spot Superman and Cat Woman. The event is called Music Church. It is the new way to recruit new members in the club: Herodian party music rather than the Baroque organ playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Lonely hearts are ready to mingle (not to say “to mango”), and they have reactivated the flame kept for so long in the cantina during social distancing. I can hear God singing hip hop words of encouragement: “Grow, multiply and fill the churches, which were deserted even before the pandemic.”
This weekend marks the beginning of a new era: Back to the new normal, which may not be the same as before, but is made of the same good people. Back to business is a continuation of what was before and what is to come. And honestly, isn’t time just an illusion anyway?
Hi world, California is in. We are waiting for the rest of you. Don’t be shy. Come out and meet the sun, and don’t forget to take off your mask. Show your smiling faces. After all, we are tough, aren’t we? What is irrefutable is that we made it through one more time, and we can be proud of ourselves.
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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