Once, I went to Italy, and my friend Corie tasked me with a number of things to do on my trip. The last thing on my list- a bonus, if you will- was “Fall in love with Italy.”
I was there for ten days, and it took me not even one to fall in love.
The light is different there. Better. Even though it was cold, there was something special about it just because it was Italy, and I was ecstatic to be there, in such an old land, walking in the same places where so many people had lived and breathed and died before me, people whose histories I had read but never really understood until I stood there, on their graves, on the sites of their churches, temples, shops, gardens, prisons, homes. I stood in the Coliseum, in the same place where the emperor sat, and in the shade of the umbrella pines. I stood where the Vestal Virgins walked. I watched the sun set over the canals of Venice and the sun rise over the Mediterranean. I climbed the Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Spanish Steps. I marveled at the Duomo and the heavy gold doors of the Baptistry. I saw the divine in the Sistine Chapel, and I walked in the shadow of Vesuvius.
And then I came home, returning, after a brief stop in Connecticut, to my adoptive city, Boston.
Boston is old- the birthplace of American freedom- but not as old as Italy. The Romans were ruling from their Senate two millennia before we even dreamed up ours. It is a city that has adapted time after time, building in and around and over what was. In that way, it is not so dissimilar from Rome. There are places in the North End where one could swear one was in Florence. Next year, I hope to spend more time in those places.
But not long after my return from Italy, something happened. Something terrible, unexpected, unpredictable. I waited, terrified, pacing up and down the halls of my dorm, until I heard from my friends who had been at the Marathon when the bombs went off. When they made it back to me, I kept them within eyesight, because if I could see them, they were safe.
The next day, I went for a walk. I walked for two hours, around Boston, alone, listening to music and my thoughts. I walked to remind myself why I loved Boston.
I walked through the Fenway Victory Gardens, planted as a reminder of the triumph, in WWII, of American will over foreign hate. Even when there was a war, people planted roots and survived.
I walked across the Muddy River, to the head of Boylston, where flowers, in memoriam, already crowded the police barricade. I walked down around the barriers, down a pretty side street that could have been the Boston of two hundred years ago, if one only removed the cars.
I walked to the Christian Science Building’s reflecting pool. If it were warmer, I would have stopped and sat, but instead I let the wind buffet me as I walked the pool’s length, pausing only to look behind me at Boston’s tallest buildings.
I walked through Northeastern, to MassArt and Wentworth.
And I marveled. In the midst of a terrible tragedy, still, the flowers bloomed. The world was pink and white and green and yellow, every blossom competing to show me how much beauty there was, and I didn’t even have to search for it. Finally, I walked home, where I was greeted with food and love and affection.
The next day, the sun came out. I basked in it. I prepared for presentations. For three days, I lived my life best I could. I listened to President Obama remind Boston: We are tough and resilient. I took pride in being part of a city that refused to let terrorism get its spirits down, a city that bonded together so tightly when threatened. I wrote BOSTON STRONG proudly wherever I could. I embodied it.
And then, late, on Thursday, April 18th, I heard of a shooting at MIT. My roommate and I turned on the radio, sat transfixed for the next four hours in front of it, eventually falling asleep to the sound of uncertainty. I turned it off at 3:30 and crawled into my own bed.
I woke up at 7 the next morning to the sound of the radio clicking back on, to find out that classes had been cancelled, that the city was on lockdown, that the bastard was out there, but no one knew where.
I spent much of the day in bed, curled around Conrad, the stuffed dog my roommate made for me at the Build-A-Bear in Quincy Market. When I wasn’t sleeping, trying to avoid what was happening because there was no help in being awake, I was checking my phone, constantly refreshing twitter. The photos of an empty Boston haunted me. That was not what cities should look like. That was not what my city should look like.
The sirens were constant. I began to be able to distinguish the type by noise pattern. That was not a skill I had wanted to develop.
My friends were all gathered in the lounge, baking and watching old Disney movies, but I didn’t want to do that. Where before I wanted to gather everyone I loved to me, now I only wanted to stay snuggled in my blankets, hiding. My friend Caroline brought me brownie cake.
A general sick sense of terror filled me all day. I had called my parents the night before, scared and frightened and needing to hear their voices, but the new day’s fear could not be dispelled by sound alone.
When they called off the Shelter-In-Place order, we turned off the radio. It had been on for twelve hours, cycling around and around, but always coming back to the same point: no one knew anything for sure.
The silence was worse.
I went for dinner, mindlessly collecting rice and chicken to take back to my dorm, when my friends walked in. We’re here for food, they said, but let’s eat in the room with the TV. They think they have him surrounded.
It took a minute for that to process in my brain. When it did, I glued myself to the television in the dining hall. When it looked like they were getting close to catching him, this man who had caused so much pain to my city, I realized I did not want to be in the dining hall when they caught him. I wanted to be in my room, or in the lounge. Safe places. Home places. I closed up my Tupperware and I ran.
The television in the lounge, too, was blaring. We waited with bated breath as reports came in of police getting closer and closer to him, of shots being exchanged, of the military approaching.
And then, finally, the word came through: We got him.
I took the shortest shower of my life, and then I went out into the streets to join my fellow Bostonians in cheering on the officers who saved our city.
We were a happy, drunken city that night; buoyant, proud. We sang God Bless America and Sweet Caroline. We chanted for the Boston Police Department and the Ambulances and hell, even the taxis.
When we eventually got herded off the streets, we went back inside and got more drunk.
The next day we watched the moving opening ceremonies at Fenway, nursed hangovers, and heard Big Papi declare: This Is Our Fucking City. We watched the Red Sox win and we cheered for that too.
Last week, I visited the memorial, now that Copley has reopened. I left flowers and tears. Today, my Boston Strong t-shirt arrived in the mail. I will never be prouder than when I wear that shirt, because I belong to a city that does not back down. We’re far too Irish and stubborn for that.
My love affair with Italy took hold of me in a day. I fell head-over-heels for it. I was sad to leave it, and I cannot wait to return, someday, back to that golden light and the beautiful antiquity of it.
My love affair with Boston took longer. It grew on me, sneaking up. Boston is not the biggest city in the U.S. It is not the most politically powerful, the sunniest, or the most exciting. New York, Washington D.C., and L.A. will give you that. The public transportation closes down at 12:30, which still confuses me. But Boston will love you.
I may not walk on streets that have been streets for three thousand years when I walk in Boston. But the streets that I walk on have been tested, and they have not been found wanting. The light may not be golden here, but the sun setting and back lighting the Pru is something special all its own. We may not have umbrella pines or cypress trees, but the Public Garden is nothing short of magical, beauty in bloom. There are not words to describe how much I love this city, in all of its flawed imperfect beauty.
Tomorrow, when I leave Boston for the summer, I would not be all that surprised if I cried, just a little. Because Boston, you’re my home.
Guest Blogger: Madison Gretzky, she is a first year English and Women’s Studies major at Simmons College, in Boston