Dusk in Viterbo, Italy is like nowhere else. The air is silky while the sky is an electric orange and the sun lingers after a busy day. Storefronts have their doors flung open and are bursting with bubbly customers gliding aimlessly through conversation. The smell of warm bread and pasta chase me along the cobblestone streets as restaurants prepare for the sacred dinner hours. It is time for me to return home, not because it is almost curfew, but because there is something I must do.
As I squeeze my way across Corso Italia, through an Escher-like labyrinth of mothers, fathers, and young children, I see three of my friends on a leisurely stroll, but I swiftly duck away into the crowd of strangers. The beauty of Viterbo is that the new does not obliterate or mask the old but further knows how to turn it to a dazzling advantage. Everywhere the city is buzzing with fun and commerce because naturally it is the most social time of the day–but for me it serves as the contrary.
I sometimes think that you could make up an Italian calendar, with each of its hours given over to particular cities. To Rome, I would assign 4:00 pm, the post-lunch hour fit for a walk through Villa Borghese where yellow bicycles decorate wide paths and posh couples camp out at restaurants while sipping an afternoon tea ready to people-watch. Venice, up in the north-eastern side of the country, has claimed 6:00 am. This is when the sun, after trekking over Asia and the Middle East, first wakes up the west. The first splash of a gondolier’s paddle can be heard and the water of the Grand Canal sparkles and hardly has to beg to be looked at. Trieste is its pristine self in the hour following dinner, when the glowing houses from the surrounding hills gaze down upon the city. The wind is crisp and the baroque buildings proudly tower over the decorated piazzas.
Viterbo, by contrast is the pious saint of 7:00 pm, the spiritual home of those hours that are mediocre or hidden in other corners of the world but subtly beautiful in this Medieval town. I face my apartment building’s pre-war rickety staircase with purpose. I huff up the stairs two at a time until I reach my rooftop. It is a deck of concrete and peeling paint, serving no purpose beyond drying my host family’s laundry. For me, it is a place to sit and watch the sun begin to set. At the end of whatever madness my day consisted of, I managed to find fifteen minutes out of the day to watch colors erupt out of the sky. Even after torrential rain, the sun manages to part the clouds and shoot out beams of yellow, orange, pink, and sometimes red to kiss the Italian countryside goodnight. I envy the sun and her admirable resilience.
Although I sit alone on my unsophisticated rooftop, I am not the only one who has admired the spectacle that lies above our heads most evenings. I asked my peers if they had taken a picture of the Viterbo sunset in hopes that someone was able to perfectly capture through a camera what I see with my eyes. Soon, several of my friends flooded my phone with dreamy pictures of the famed dusk. While I do not believe that a photograph has the same effect as being vulnerable in the presence of the heavens, I am pleased that I can take home a small artifact from my nine months here that will serve to remind me of the romantic part of my life in Italy. I can now reference what “la bella vita” actually looked like to me.
As the light drains from the sky and all that is left is dark spaciousness, I begin to notice the small glimmers of silver light poking through the black veil that has slowly covered the sky. I step down from the rooftop and scramble to find my keys. With two twists of my wrist I enter into a completely different atmosphere where the kitchen is bursting with warm aromas and my host father loudly calls out “buonasera principessa, come andata a scuola?” over the television pumping out Italian pop songs. The sunset and this house prove the astounding duality of this country. This sunset is special because when it arrives you feel its warmth, however on those unlucky days where it hides its vitality you know the popes have looked away and forgotten their haven for the evening. 7:00pm is just a moment in time without any particular significance on a world scale, but in the City of the Popes that moment is the epitome of glory. It is the moment when you plant your flag in the soil, and as the wind batters its colorful thread, you can say “I did it.”