“Oh, Gabriela, this is the experience that you’ll write about!” cries Alessandra, partly serious. A friend of Tony’s and a fellow architect, she’s describing the chaos that surrounds her as the single mother of two very energetic young boys, Giovanni and Ludivigo, both under age 6.

When they arrived at Tony’s for dinner last night, I recognized them from church, remembering the boys’ inability to sit still. Under her rich brown hair, Alessandra’s olive skin is nearly perfect — save for the circles under her eyes, which speak to her lack of sleep…or time to eat or bathe alone.

Giovanni, dark like his mother, is a year older than Ludivigo, though both are slight of build. I marveled at the way they burst through Tony’s gate, dragging their feet to kick deep grooves in his gravel, much to his chagrin. After pursuing the cats around the yard, Ludvi required Tony’s rescue after he inexplicably climbed on top of the roof and enthusiastically attempted to jump off while we were inside preparing dinner.

Alessandra invited us to lunch at her parents’ house today, just around the corner from Tony’s. We climbed the stairs and into their lovely home with exposed stone walls and a small eat-in kitchen. Amazingly, nothing was broken –including bones– as the boys tumbled in and out onto the stone stairs, taking turns refusing to eat the wonderful food that Alessandra prepared, including a zucchini and basil risotto tinted with tomato, followed by a pollo con salvia pounded thin.

Inside her family life, I recognized the same hardships that exist for my single parent friends in America: providing 24/7 supervision, encouraging/tricking the kids to eat, disciplining them when they act up, and struggling to remain a nurturer, caregiver, and breadwinner.

They call Civita the dying city, but I don’t know if I agree. In some ways, it’s an ideal place to spend the summer as a child, such as do Fabrizio’s daughter, Ilauria’s niece and nephew, and of course, Alessandra’s boys. if one can avoid falling over a shear cliff or cracking one’s head open on the stones, it’s actually quite safe. Yet, with that shelter comes restriction.

Like the rest of Italy, things that seem sacred are open to all, and therefore subject to damage or pollution, but one doesn’t see a lot of “No” or “Don’t.” Stores, doors, or streets might be chiuso, but there’s not a truly prohibitive feel – there’s always room for negotiation.

This is clearly a skill learned at a young age, as I can see with blond Ludivigo, who continues to add wine to his water at both meals after repeated admonitions from his mother. Even a swift smack doesn’t dissuade these two from pushing boundaries, which I’ll admit is a universal skill in children.

It feels intimate, to be permitted to see Alessandra and her family in this naked light, to hear her open appeal as to her exhaustion, watching her light a cigarette on the stove’s flame and lean back with a deep sigh to finish her espresso. “Oh, Tony, Gabriela, do you see how it is?” she asks. “What else can I do?” From the serene streets mostly populated by tourists who think no one’s home, one couldn’t guess that all of this is happening inside a “dead” city.

Tony and I met Josè, out for a post-lunch stroll, on our walk home. She inquired about our day and our lunch, then left us at Tony’s doorstep with kisses on both cheeks. As I climbed the stone stairs to my home, bidding her “Ci vediamo!” I thought back to the card game I played with Giovanni and Ludivigo last night, during which they only said two words to me, “Tocca te,” (your turn) with the most reservation they displayed all evening.

As Alessandra came by to see how our game was going, I asked her, “Come si dice ‘shy’ in italiano?

She laughed and shook her head, answering, “In Italian, there’s no such word.”