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During the night, I dreamt of not having enough space and enough air, I woke up the moment I gave up the struggle, and since I did not escape the nightmare fast enough, the ceiling was upon me. So waking up was not enough, and then there was no waking up from waking up: my possibilities were exhausted. I left the building and I could only summon enough courage to go back inside hours later.
I had the second panic attack much later, in Osaka, in 2013. My husband (a real one, whom I met years after the previous episode) and I were there to take part in a conference. I had too much wine at the opening ceremony, and I was, for the first time in my life, exposed to vertical Japanese urban architecture. I had arrived in Osaka from Kyoto, which is much more open and extended, even if the old buildings have those sliding doors that open rooms inside other rooms. But in Osaka the hotel had miniscule rooms and the windows only partially opened. I felt claustrophobic during the night. When I tried to sleep on the floor, because I did not know what else I could do, there was a moment in which the pressure was too much to bear, I had to run to the lobby and I spent the night on a chair, feeling squashed by everything I happened to think about. I felt I was a burden for everyone who knew me and that soon my family would have to take care of me. I had failed at sustaining life’s burdens and challenges, and there was nothing left for me.
I was born and I grew up in Rome, during the seventies. My primary school, the Vittorino da Feltre, was, still is, an imposing yellow building just opposite the Coliseum. Buildings in the centre of Rome were low, wide, their lines soft and familiar. My school teachers used to say that Rome was the most beautiful city in the world, imparting this information dispassionately, as an uncontroversial notion. It was perfectly alright in those years to refer to the great migrations into the Roman Empire as the “barbaric invasions,” an expression so calcified in my head since early childhood that I used it years later while studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies, causing a little tension.
Rome in the seventies was dirty and not at all multi-ethnic. It was a city of loud distant voices, carabinieri on horses, and child-friendly fontanelle (drinking fountains). I grew up in the Suburra quarter. I remember that my mother used to shop from the grocery store downstairs by lowering a basket tied to a rope with a list of items inside. Looking back now, it was picturesquely unrealistic, but it was an ordinary thing to do at the time. There were gigantic rats in the courtyard and down in the underground with its intoxicating rubbery smell. Of course, I used to identify the city with the borders of my neighbourhood, and I still do, not only in space but also in time, because Rome is the place of my childhood, a circumscribed place that encloses another one, one that has shaped the deepest layers of my onion, and that I have never managed to love since.