It seems to me that people in Italy spend a lot of time leaning out of their windows. There, I said it. It’s an outrageous stereotype, but coming here from London, I believe there’s something quintessentially charming about the window-to-street interactions you’ll find in Italian towns and cities. Look up and you’ll catch people in windows everywhere: the polite nod of the head as you meet eyes, the candid half-smile, the obtrusive stare at passers-by, the pensive puff of the cigarette, the gaze into the distance, the warmth of sun on the face. Sometimes, a few words are thrown. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
When Italy went into lockdown in 2020, weeks before the rest of Europe, the world was moved by opera singers regaling their neighbours from bedroom windows across ghostly cities and communities brought together in a time of unprecedented loneliness. This window to window comradery during the darkest days of the pandemic inspired the world.
Even in more normal times though, sitting or standing at the window feels much more commonplace here than in other European countries. Perhaps it’s because historic Italian apartments on old, narrow streets are often without much natural daylight, as is the case of my own home in Florence, and standing right by the window is the only place to see the sky. Perhaps it’s because people want to smoke, or because old stone buildings (again, like my own) are naturally cold and heating is expensive: the air is warmer outside than in. Or perhaps it’s just because there’s always so much to see on the streets from the perch of your own home. Speaking on the phone in loud and animated voices, chatting with neighbours, or just watching the world go by: all these are perfectly normal window activities. Looking the other way, and without trying to be too poetic, I could say that the vignette of the window is a momentary peek into people’s lives.
In any case, would it not be the first scene in a quintessentially Italian romance to glance up and see a well-dressed young man leaning out of his window smoking a cigarette?
This is exactly what happened to me one ordinary afternoon in June. I was chaining my bike outside the palazzo where I lived and caught the eye of a man in the first floor window, directly above the heavy wooden front door to the communal courtyard. “I’ve never noticed a window there before,” was my first thought (note to self: be more observant), followed by, “I wonder if he lives there.” I smiled, nodded, and went on my way.
When I came back outside an hour later, the figure was still there. He had dark hair and my third thought was that he looked very handsome, like someone from the 1950s, reading a book with one arm resting carelessly in the sunshine. There was another half-smoked cigarette resting on the stone window ledge. For some reason, I decided to say “ciao”. He replied, and we made small talk through the window for a few minutes until his friend Timo, our mutual neighbour, walked past and asked us if we wanted to go for aperitivo that evening.
In the end, Timo couldn’t make it, so I went alone with this mysterious window man for a negroni by the Arno river. That window led to a home that, over the next few months, would become my second home too. It was an impossibly hot Florentine summer, and we’d eat platters of chilled watermelon in the merciful evening breeze, legs dangling out into the courtyard. If I forgot my key, I’d simply call up to the window and ask for him to let me into the building. If I forgot both of our keys–as I once did–he’d scale the drain pipes like some sort of sun-tanned spiderman and clamber through the window to let us in. And if I just wanted someone to throw open their shutters and shout ti voglio bene (I love you) from above so I felt like I was in a black and white movie, he could (in theory) have done that. When I walk past our old street now, I still occasionally look up at that window and think about what would have happened if I hadn’t that one time.
English friends roll their eyes gleefully when I tell them this story of how I met the smiley Turkish politics student I now reluctantly call amore. Curiously, Ata doesn’t think it’s strange at all that we met through an open window, and only wonders why I didn’t introduce myself sooner. Much later, he admitted earnestly, “I’d seen you walk below the window many times,” as I was coming back from the market with armfuls of vegetables or stopping in a sweaty mess after a run, “but you always looked like you were in such a rush I didn’t want to bother you.” Once, he’d apparently thought to stop me and say hello, but just as he was about to open his mouth, he realised I had my AirPods in and was on the phone. Woops.
So what life lessons can we take from this accidental romance of mine? Don’t rush up and down the streets of an Italian city on the phone. Don’t be too distracted to take in the faces around you. Or really, just open your window.