Update from Italy: Our Historic Amnesia

Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

Day 22 of national quarantine, which was extended last night to April 12.

The week before the Italian government decreed a national quarantine, I lifted an unassuming book from the lounge at Gonzaga in Florence. The Merchant of Prato (1957), by Iris Origo – perhaps best-known for her non-fiction narrative War in the Val d’Orcia (1947; republished 2018) – is an archival study of the papers left by a fourteenth-century merchant and successful global business magnate, Ser Francesco di Marco Datini, who came from Prato, a town (now massive metropolitan area) just a quick hop to the north of Florence.

The author’s name is still mentioned often in Italian literary circles – indeed, when I rented a desk at the Collab of The Student Hotel in Florence, the professional translator who took the desk to my right, was working on an Italian translation of War in the Val d’Orcia. Iris was an Anglo-American aristocrat; her father, William, was born into an extremely wealthy American who married the daughter of an Irish peer in the Edwardian era. Her father so loved Italy that he traveled here often and spent significant time here, but alas, contracted tuberculosis there too, and died at 29. His widow, Sibyl, went on to marry two more times, and raised Iris in Italy, as William so beseeched her before he died. Iris was brought up in a breathtaking world of privilege, ensconced high up in the Villa Medici in Fiesole with a small army of European governesses, deftly – and deeply – educated to view Italy with a bird’s eye of both its history and landscape.

The genesis of The Merchant of Prato is remarkable. In his will, Francesco (1335-1410), who today would be described as fantastically successful and grumpy, with more than a hint of OCD, indicated that all his papers should be saved for posterity. The man was an unstoppable letter writer and recorder of his business activities, in Avignon, Prato, Florence, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Venice, and countless other ports of call, trading mostly in cloth, and eventually in every possible item of luxury known to the later Middle Ages – silk, stockings, linen, drape, spices, fine furniture, jewelry, beasts of burden, delicacies, glassware, and more. His papers were all stuffed into cloth sacks and stored in the basement of the City Hall of Prato – more than 140,000 pages of them. The volume of material was augmented by the addition of all missives and logbooks of other merchants who traded with him. Considering at the time the literacy rate, this is incredible. I imagine a sighing City Hall staffer dragging the burlap bags one by one downstairs, until they formed a small barricade of history against a brick wall. Fortunately the space was dry, because everyone forgot about those papers until 1870, when another sighing City Hall staffer dragged them all back upstairs again, to the astonishment of historians and scholars and archivists. The letters covered literally every possible aspect of life in an era gone dark for most people. The quotidian details of both his business and his home life are preserved in incredible detail. No paper was culled from the collection; they were all gathered together, and remained so for almost half a millennium.

I could not have picked a better companion across time and space for these anxious March days. Ser (Sir) Francesco knew his share anxiety and uncertainty, and among his concerns, his import business decisions and tax problems and fine dinner table, one of his primary concerns was plague and epidemic. He survived no fewer than six outbreaks of the Black Plague in his lifetime; the first, in 1348, claimed both his parents and launched his business career at fourteen out of necessity. Highlights in the collection include the bickering letters between Ser Francesco and his much younger wife, Monna (Lady) Margherita. (“Your words are as true as the Lord’s Prayer; however…”)

The narrative that Origo wove so well by examining the letters paints a vivid picture of life in Tuscany, when waves of plague routinely rolled through both town and country. People were much given to penitence and alms-giving as a way stave off the invisible, bloodthirsty predator (“Through propitiatory acts, men hoped to receive protection from the terrors and mysteries of life n this world, as well as God’s mercy in the next”). The panic and fear and loss that accompanied each epidemic were devastating. In 1383, he wrote, “the plague waxes in various places and spreads in this direction… I find the people here much afraid, and the deaths are beginning.” It broke out again in 1389 and in 1393. “It will come here too, and will dispel the tribulations of many folk who are grumbling now.” Plague was pretty much always on everyone’s minds. What it had taken the last time it struck, who and what had been lost, and the fear of when it might come again to towns and households. When it came, people lost their minds. City dwellers fled to the countryside for the fresh air and prayer; those in the country flooded into the city in search of physicks and priests. He praised his wife for her cool head in one outbreak, when they were separated, he in Florence, she in Prato, telling her “The wise may be known in times of need” praising her for acting well in a crisis – protecting neighbors, feeding the needy, tending to the animals.

The book brought to mind our bigger picture of humanity and epidemics. Since World War One, as a global people, we have lost much of our humanity, along with our sense of mortality. We’ve had widespread vaccinations and antibiotics and skillful surgery for less than a century, but their entry into our world predates the memory of most living generations.

People used to examine their conscience all the time! and tried to be better! because they were literally being chased by death – not during wartime, but by plague and infection. We have entered into a unprecedented period of global health and security, and yet few people examine their conscience anymore. People now feel such a robust safety net that extreme sports and recreational drugs are things. While certainly entertaining for many, they are pursuits that generations before us would have never dreamed of chasing. They got their adrenaline rush just by surviving the most recent outbreak, or the year, the week, the day.

The Merchant of Prato became a timely and well-written call to reconsider the counsel of our ancestors – wise, and versed in the ways of loss, fear, and anxiety. And disease, and death before eighty, which most healthy people today don’t even consider. Perhaps our ancestors perished of disease that swept away entire households and towns, babies and children and grandparents and adults of all ages in between. Fortunately for us, a baby was born in the chain that led to us, or we would not be here. Can we ask ourselves if we have, maybe, become grabby – and aggrandizing and entitled – in our demand for life, health, and certainty? (And I just have to ask, Is this what the toilet paper is all about?) We have all moved into a state of fragile communication and some distant cell memory of this precarious life, and together pick our way across this newly-plowed field.

Update from Italy: Day 21 of the Florentine Quarantine

See below for the Tale of Twice-Cooked Curly Kale.
There is a happy ending.
Photo by Laura Johnston on Unsplash.

The weekend was sunny and bright. Springing forward on Satuday night revealed some incredible afternoon light in the corridoino (little hallway) on the north side of our apartment, whose windows face south. I might have gotten mildly sunburnt yesterday afternoon sitting there. I certainly began to perspire ever so slightly. It was wonderful.

From our apartment the windows afford no exterior views, but we hear many sounds through the roof, through the back exterior wall behind our headboards, which gives directly onto Piazza D’Azeglio. Buses still shudder the building; buzzsaws trim the trees in the park below. ambulances wail in the distance. Church bells ring through deserted streets. Mourning doves coo, and songbirds we’ve never heard before trill fetchingly. I wish we could see everything too.

Jason took a walk after lunch. I haven’t really felt like it, particularly after he returned from his Sunday jaunt and informed me that carabinieri were in the piazza, reminding people through megaphones that everyone was allowed three laps only around the square. The park was taped off days ago. A stray stubborn cyclist raced through the ribbon and broke it last week. The city workers return each day to repair it, so that no one is filled with false hope that the park might be opening again.

Today I took the three bags of refuse out – organic, recycle, and undifferentiated – and made a very long circuit to drop each one in a trash island in different parts of the square. The quartiere was quiet and eerie and felt like stepping into a Giorgio De Chirico painting. On the plus side, I made about three thousand steps, which these days may as well be a half marathon.

Photo credit.

All the dates are blending together. The original school closure was meant to end on April 3, but no one thinks that is happening now. In fact, we are all pretty much expecting the analog school year to be cancelled, and to have online assignments until then. I can’t even remember anymore what the original dates were for social distancing. March 25 was about a week ago. The initial outbreak towns went into quarantine on February 20. I think, until March 4, the rest of the country was in a “wash yer hands, and keep yer distance” mode, with much fretting about negative economic impact. Starting March 5, we moved into “schools are closed, but still wash hands and maintain distance.” You can imagine how hard it is for Italians to maintain social distance. Well, for anyone, to be fair. On March 8, the Red Zone increased in size. And on March 9, the entire country became the Red Zone. On March 13? 16? they closed the parks. There is a small and beautiful urban garden behind our palazzo but recently there have been some difficulties among the residents with respect to perceptions of equitable and safe sharing, so it is not at the moment, lamentably, a sunny patch to which we feel free to use in any given day. I am hoping a little social diplomacy might grease grumpy wheels since we have, at a minimum, three to five more weeks of this first quarantine.

Today, after repairing the armoire in the master bedroom with equal parts hobby glue and patience and holding a watercolor class for a certain little girl, Farm Wife successfully improvised a fresh stew for lunch. Her bright idea was to make use of the end of a pork roast (two slices) with some over-salted curly kale (gone awry last night), throw it all in a pot with water (due to curly kale that got soaked in the chicken broth reduction) and a diced potato. That was it! But the stew did need some salt, in the end. The fatty bit (not much) of the pork roast added body and flavor to the potato. The curly kale finally reached an edible tenderness and enjoyed a reduced salinity from the overbearing broth disaster of the night before. The pork cubes became tender after 90 minutes on low simmer. Farm Wife felt like it was a very passable caldo gallego which made her inner santiguesa very contenta indeed! Next time she will remember to toss in the white beans. But if you have any pork of any kind (even a modest amount or type), one potato, and some dark, tough green leafy thing, you can make this delicious soup for mere centesimi! File under Recommended Recipes for Quarantine.

Tomorrow, Farm Wife will create some wild yeast and report back. We must have a boule and homemade tortillas.

Update from Italy: Day 20 in Quarantine

Photo by Savannah Bennett on Unsplash

Eleanor (5) is dressed today in her Rapunzel costume, complete with long faux braid twined with silk flowers, blissfully unaware of the irony here on the fourth floor of our apartment. I appreciate her penchant to don fancy dress at the drop of a hat. It gives a true period feel to our palazzo storico when she zips into a satin dress, with latticework on the bodice and striped cap sleeves. Even better is her winter habit of putting on the flimsy dress over multiple layers of clothes when indoors, true to the medieval custom, made requisite by the lack of insulation and single-glaze, wooden window frames. Our apartment in a cold winter feels very vintage. Vintage as in 1350.

The world right now is ramping up to Peak Stress as country after country locks down and goes into lockdown and quarantine. For people who are still in the “let’s wear masks, wash hands, observe some version of social distancing, and using Instacart,” I would say enjoy your time, but what I really want to say is, you are still contributing to the spread of contagion in this pandemic. On a jealous and personal note, I wish I had a day like that. But I don’t, and there’s not going to be one outside in the near future. I am prepping for April April Inside, April Inside, every single one of us spending April inside….

Peak Stress. Let’s talk about that. Farm Wife has a few things to say. She’s earthy and direct. (She made smashed avocado toast for lunch, heaven!) No matter where you are, in what stage of distancing, isolation, and lock down. We’re going to compassionately mute Miss Anxiety for now.

So we’re all stressed. What happens with stress? Communication suffers. People are working with about 5% of the bandwidth they normally have. People are going to say things they don’t normally say. They are not going to be able to respond in the way they would normally respond. They are not going to be able to hear and process input because processing bandwidth is full. It’s not going to come back anytime soon, people. I estimate the return to something closer to normal at June 2021, after it rips through the planet and we have a safe vaccine.

I am sure I have said less than kind things and responded inappropriately to questions or jokes. For that I am truly sorry (and humbly repent). I am sure I have misunderstood people, and often. Stress and online communication strip out context. It takes a lot to remain calm and compassion, it takes a lot to take a breath when the whole world is going through the stones as in Outlander, or down that tunnel like in Being John Malkovich. It’s a rough ride and you come out on another side, unsure how of this new reality. You must navigate, observe. You’re going to get some of it wrong. You will misunderstand. You might spread false news reports or unverified facts. You might be talking about theories relative to 5G, the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, an oil war, Saudis and Russians, Nostradamus, that uncle at Stanford. I have had to delete racist vitriol posted on my page. I have been surprised by the responses of many, but none more than myself. I have had distant acquaintances get in touch, and I am trying to understand if they are internet rubbernecking, or not? Because if they weren’t, wouldn’t they ask how we are doing, and then stick around for one minute to hear? If not, I am going to go with internet rubberneckers, and CRTL+ALT+DELETE.

You don’t owe anyone communication. You don’t have to listen or to hear, if you don’t want, in this new landscape post-standing-stones, post alt-reality tunnel. But you do need to rustle up what compassion you can, and distribute it generously to yourself and others, if you can, whenever you can, whatever that looks like. It’s an NPI (non-pharma intervention) that we can all access (along with isolation and quarantine).

I am now crowned with my own silk flower garland, and here on the fourth floor, glued to a sunny window, I’ll take it.

Sincerely, Rapunzel’s Mother in the Tower

Update from Italy: Day 19 of the Florentine Quarantine

Photo by Lefteris kallergis on Unsplash

My name is Monica; for those of you just joining, I live in Florence, Italy, with my husband and our two young children. We’ll all four American, but Italian at heart, and profoundly Latin in our souls, for reasons of history, passion, education, and experience. Jason and I have lived abroad, off and on, both pre- and post-couplehood, since 1993 and more times than we can count, stretching our horizons, in globally healthier times, well beyond a lone undergraduate study abroad program. We love Italy yet consider ourselves global citizens, humanitarians at heart, dedicated to humanistic pursuits, along with the distillation and literary expression of Lessons Learned, whether Dante and Boccaccio or Isak Dinesen and Rebecca West.

I am musing over a rebrand after our numbers turn, as we’ll lose our couplet. Suggestions welcome. Day 20, still not funny comes to mind.

Farm Wife is doing well. Yesterday, after seeing to daily chores of dishes, lunch, and laundry, she darned four items of clothing, taught Eleanor some more basic ironing and sewing skills, creating miniature vestments for assorted unclad stuffed animals (the masterpiece that is Pooh’s new red t-shirt should still be featured on my Instagram feed to the right, if you look.) Jason had a stretch of work and conference calls from four to eight-thirty, so I was on for dinner also. Out of our freezer emerged some suitable spinach à sauter and a pizza to customize with sliced hotdogs for the kids. We have produce from Jason’s midweek run, so out came four potatoes, scrubbed and cut into a passable French fry format. And look! a modest tagliata to grill and share! oh bliss that Jason scooped one up. I would really like some mayonnaise, I said to Jason. No, it’s too much, he countered. Save the eggs, it uses too many eggs. Initially I acquiesced, but as he disappeared into our room and shut the door for a fourth meeting, I skated around on the internet and found a mayonnaise hack that used a modest amount of ingredients. (Five egg yolks, on the other hand? are you kidding? who does that? is this hollandaise or mayo?) I confess here I am an inveterate mayo lover. I attribute this to my time in France. (But I loved Miracle Whip on cheese burgers as a child, so perhaps I was a deracinated french palate seeking its motherland. Learning about actual mayonnaise in France was parallel to my margarine versus butter epiphany at twenty or so, along with crème fraiche, mon Dieu, why did no one ever tell me about this before. It was like seeing for the first time the beauty of UW campus.) I halved the mayonnaise recipe and whipped it up (substituting a drop red wine vinegar, using mostly vegetable oil with a splash of olive oil, and dicing and tossing in a half-clove of fresh garlic), and it came out gorgeous in a minute, just like the recipe promised. The chips emerged from the oven soft on the inside, crisp at the tips. The assembled dinner of tagliata, sautéed spinach, fresh chips, and mayo, all washed down with a bottle of reliable red wine, was an incredible morale booster. I would never eat like that every day, but de temps en temps, why not return with my tastebuds to meals in France that form yet the stuff of my dreams.

And that pantry crumb cake has given us such pleasure. Please make it, if you haven’t yet, if you, like me, are always soothed by baking. It also adapts well to vegan kitchens (mashed bananas for egg and coconut oil for butter). I used blueberry jam for the fruit, and had the kids crack the rest of our Italian local pecans for the topping. Make some cake, and savor it with a cup of coffee or tea. I’ve got eight servings of it in the freezer for the next week. Next time I am going to make it with crushed peanuts and Nutella for the full-on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup effect.

So, here, on Day 19 of our humanitarian house arrest, I feel – hesitantly – that I might have hit a bit of a stride. Take care of yourself and your family first. Do what comforts you. Is it a simple meal? Fresh laundry? a card game? A short yoga class, or a bounce on a trampoline, or a dance video with that adorable Aussie? Mix up screen time with manual tasks. Busy hands, happy heart, my farm wife will tell you. I have given her a managerial promotion so that she is now directly overseeing Miss Anxiety. Farm Wife is really task oriented so Miss Anxiety does not get much of an opportunity to talk back or complain about the opportunity for promotions in this office.

I said it weeks ago, but I will repeat here: this is a long game, and managing anxiety, fear, obsession, compulsion, depression, and the rest of it is the lion’s share of the strategy. Ask your family members at the start of each day, and throughout the day, how they’re doing. Limit news and social media. Yield and permit vexatious spirits to pass.

I expect us to be under humanitarian house arrest for most, if not all, of April, and possibly into May. I will be shocked if the kids go back to school. Many schools in the U.S. are already announcing they will not return this school year. Covid-19 is going to own all of us until we have a vaccine and immunity is on the rise, but it’s going to be a slog to get there. Medical experts have said we should all plan to shelter in place perhaps multiple times this year to protect our populations, our healthcare, our hospitals, our people. Even when this initial quarantine is lifted, I fully expect another to be enacted again this year. And maybe we will look back and laugh at how easy the first quarantine was, how innocent we were. We complained so much, I imagine people saying, but it was by far the easiest of the six.

It gives me great pleasure to talk about these small things here. We all saw the numbers yesterday out of Italy and Spain and NYC. My global network is humming as friends from everywhere have been checking in, as much to ask me how we’re doing as to report how they are in China, Japan, India, throughout Europe, in Africa, all over the Americas. More than one friend told me they broke down and cried for the first time in the last twenty-four hours. Please, take care of yourselves. The majority of us will get through this, but it is going to take some strategy and strength. Be gentle. Be kind. Go easy.

Update from Italy: Day 18 of the Florentine Quarantine

Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash

If I weren’t writing these posts I would, by now, have lost all sense of time. If you are entering into a quarantine period, or have started quarantine and isolation in the last few days, start a journal, or a calendar, or something. If you have kids, start something with them that marks time. Truly by now the days we have been in confinement are more important than the calendar. I find myself wondering if this is what certain segments of Italian society felt like during the ventenne of the 1920s and 1930s, when a certain despot started the calendar over with his first year in power. I asked Jason when an event happened, swearing it was in December or January, when in fact it happened on March 6. (I looked in the listserv archives to verify.) And this morning I tore off and recycled the day-by-day calendar for today; Jason woke up before me and had already tossed Thursday, but today’s date still looked like yesterday to me, or some other past date.

I can see how Behrooz Boochani, an Iranian Kurd, wrote his award-winning novel one WhatsaApp text message at a time while detained in Tasmania. I cried when I first read about him, and was not even yet at the crest of the second wave in the global pandemic. (If you do not know his story, it’s prescient; a Profile in Courage for our times.) I started a new creative writing group on Monday courtesy of Sarah Selecky, a Canadian novelist who does fantastic artistic outreach online for writers and makers. I came across her offerings almost two years ago thanks to Instagram, and they don’t disappoint. I’ve made friends through the groups, and indeed owe the existence of my much-loved and very active international writers’ group (UK, Canada, Italy) to the platform.

I continue to shuffle the deck of my memories, searching for times that felt like this, trying to recover what lessons I might have gained. Images and fleeting feelings from the summer of 2012 floated to mind. We had arrived in Arezzo, Italy, with OU, on a one-year secondment to teach and live as faculty-in-residence for the study abroad program there, and Victor had just turned one. The Tuscan summer was sweltering in the flagstone streets; even in the shade, Victor flushed beet red as soon as we went outside. Chubby Victor then was stil a suckling babe, and teething. What a bloody mess. Literally. What this amounted to for me and Victor was a lot of time alone in the apartment (or hotel, if we had joined Jason on, for example, a jaunt with a passel of students to the even more sweltering urbs of Roma), with minimal air conditioning, and almost no fresh air, waiting for dark. Jason was often out and about, and would bring us back gelato, but Victor with the bleeding gums could not eat the gelato, and my customary state at that time, it is safe to say, was well beyond the simple repair offered by a mini coppetta of gelato. I felt anxious then, cooped up in an apartment or hotel room on my own with a baby who was, at best, demanding company, and not yet conversant. I found a few things online that we watched over and over: one, Pandit Lullaby, which Victor and I both loved and played on endless repeat. It is like yoga for your ears, calming the heart, when you can’t settle enough to meditate but would like to approach something closer to circumspection and release. Two, we watched a lot of “one year in a minute” videos (like this one). I found these calming because they emphasized the passage of time, seasons, and forces beyond oneself. There was a really good one that lasted longer which I was unable to relocate (I clear my history way too often). Finally, the excellent, well-produced videos over at The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows are a balm for the anxious soul that longs to be understood while it fumbles for words. I still sometimes hear the quiet voiceover in my daily life, a sort of Big Lebowski-meets-therapist (meets a Dostoyevsky protagonist) narrating the mundane nonsensical.

Jason and I are both proactively managing stress levels. He even joined me for a yoga video (previously unheard of). We are limiting caffeine and sugar during the day, making meals we enjoy three times a day, and pouring our red wine at night. I am still rationing my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for the 9 PM nightcap (they pair well with scotch). The delineation of various spaces in the apartment for certain functions has helped make cooped-up days a little less frustrating. I made the kids help straighten up their rooms and the adjoining TV room. Victor, who is 8 going on 15, had plenty of complaint to make, but mamma was on a tear and sick of picking her way through piles of toys, cushions, blankets. pillows, books, and general detritus.

I made two mugs of loose lemon tea (à propos no caffeine) for Jason and me this afternoon. I bought the matching cream crockery mugs, featuring a gallo di Chanti, when we first arrived here. Today, for no apparent reason and without warning, one of them hissed and cracked its length vertically when I poured the hot water over the tea ball, opening a fissure through which the lemon tea slowly leaked. Somehow it made its way into the dishwasher anyway, positioned alongside its mate. I pulled them both out to see which was the cracked one. It was first hard to tell, but then clear as day as the fault line materialized in the light. I promptly chucked it, but the metaphor made me shiver.

Update from Italy: Day 17 of the Florentine Quarantine

Photo by wilsan u on Unsplash

I turned a corner late yesterday and this morning. Farm wife is back, and staying busy. I cannot control what happens on this planet, but I can see to our tiny solar system here, its four planets and innumerable moons. The wave is cresting and approaching other shores now. Prayer is in order, or ecumenical petitions, or yoga, whatever floats your boat. I know my tombstone will not read, Yea, verily she proclaimed, suffer the little fools to come unto her. But I can promise you I will pray for them, in a creaky half-lotus, belly breathing way.

Maybe it’s time to revive my Tonglin practice from years ago. I did like the idea that my breath, my heart, could serve as some kind of filter for the mucky, leafy pools of the world, that I could take on pain for others and alleviate it. Tonglin’s strong suit is that it is a very physical reminder to first put your own oxygen mask before assisting others. The meditation grounds you. A grounded person is a compassionate person. A compassionate person is a person who can truly help others in a crisis. I am not going to say that I jailed Miss Anxiety and threw away the key, but she’s been put to task, washing and folding and baking up front where I can keep an eye on her. She successfully turned out this cake today, for which every planet in the solar system gave thanks. I have to say, that as Anxiety’s manager, she needs a firm hand, but with the right guidance, her output is superb.

We are halfway through week three of a strict quarantine. Week one: Adjustment. Week two: grudging acceptance. Week three: meltdowns and rebellion. Normally sunny Eleanor (5) has a few crying jags per day, and even Victor (8), whose stoicism rivals that of the great philosopher Seneca, cannot hold his tears back. It is not so much for being locked up in the apartment as for having lost the daily, the weekly routine. I held a Vegas clinic yesterday and taught them how to play Go Fish. I give thanks a dozen times a day for the investment a couple years ago in the mini trampoline. I set the timer for Victor to jump. They have both, in general, gotten much less fussy about getting themselves dressed and undressed, snacked, teeth brushed. Victor’s teacher is getting out classwork pretty routinely, but it has been difficult to manage across the three channels, and it is never enough for him. Eleanor’s preschool has apparently been sending out activity videos, which I just realized yesterday, due to the fact that the WhatsApp group of parents for the school is so noisy that it averages hundreds of messages a day, of Italian children endlessly and blissfully baking cookies, playing, and painting as their parents enforce what seems to me to be an alt reality in quarantine. Maybe this is down to our being American, but we have been very candid with our kids, and we are all living the same reality. We are not trying to hide anything from them. We are openly discussing what’s scary, what’s okay, that we’re safe, what is happening in the city, the country, the world. They seem okay with that. Either of them could probably give a decent, data-based interview right now about the unfolding pandemic.

Jason is struggling the most right now. One might well imagine how events are impacting study abroad. Spring term was shut down on February 25 and the students were sent home, which in hindsight was the absolute right decision. But summer is toast and fall is looking iffy. He’s on the phone most hours of the day, talking with local colleagues and counterparts on the mother ship (SS Gonzaga) in Spokane. It’s one day at a time right now. I still feel we are in the middle of a volcano eruption. I remember, with a strange remove, the days in late February and very early March. How people made fun of me, or took me to task, in those days. Saying I was overreacting, that panic like mine was worse than the viral epidemic, that I somehow wished economic ill on people.

Those were hard days, skittish days, wanting to feel hopeful, yet reading the tea leaves. How we thought that it was going to far to put global travel on a Level 4. That all study abroad programs everywhere should end immediately and the students go home. How I vacillated about an event I had planned for March 7, and how Jason said, on February 27 or 28, don’t cancel it. People will be glad to see other people after this week. How by March 5 schools had been closed, and then that weekend that everyone took their ski trips and road trips and had the nonstop dinner parties and raves until the Italian government dropped the martello on the massive party to which everyone had so been looking forward. I’ll tell you, there is no sadder quarantine than 60 million Italians who can’t leave home, see their friends, go out for an espresso or a spritz, see a football game, or dress up for the evening passeggiata. And I think it will be this way for all of April here. I hope I’m wrong, but I think it is the case.

662 Italians lost today. 6,153 new positive cases.

That’s my executive summary. Time to go review the day’s accomplishments with our direct report, Miss Anxiety.

Update from Italy: Day 16 of the Florentine Quarantine

This looks a lot like the window on The Terrace i.e. our guest room. Photo by Vasundhara Srinivas on Unsplash

I awoke this morning to the faint sound of some sort of aircraft over our roof, gently vibrating the window of our skylight. A Medivac? A helicopter? The skies have been so silent for days that it was a genuine surprise to hear anything besides the birds up there. It’s nature’s cruel taunt that the days have been so sunny, so crisp, clear, and cold, filled with sunshine, but also a drop in temperatures that dusted snow over many Tuscan hills. The youngest buds of spring droop their heads in our garden, dreaming their last dream of a summer they won’t know.

Today has been a better day. That was a tough stretch in there from Sunday to Tuesday. Something deep and inward rebelled, but there was nowhere, not even an open window, where I might let loose my barbaric yawp. Plus all the sitting around was making my lower back ache. To remedy this, I have been following along some yoga videos online, which has been very helpful, if only for the soothing voice of those professional yogini. Cassandra and Adriene are my favorites so far. I’ve got a couple of reeeeeaaalllly long playlists of chill music on Spotify that also help alleviate monotony and anxiety. I am also not spending time on social media sites, whose dissonant reality reliably induced a certain feeling of panic.

I’m in Italy in quarantine in our apartment with my husband and two children. Our apartment is generously sized, and for that I am grateful; it is well situated for privacy, laid out in a great O that is closed between The Bog and The Galley. One enters directly into our dining and living area, where we all spend a lot of time together, doing laundry, bathing, cooking, working, watching TV, writing. A large square rug is our gym and mini-piazza: morning yoga, dance class, and trampoline workouts abound here. One step down takes you into the kitchen; three steps up brings you to the master bedroom. Another step up and you’re in zone of the TV room and the kids’ bedrooms. Four steps down and you find yourself in the quiet wing where The Terrace and The Bog are situated.

One drawback is that all our vertical windows face into a courtyard, so the rooms receive very little direct sunlight. When we first moved in, about four years ago, I purchased many IKEA lamps with paper shades as soon as was possible. Last weekend I straightened up our guest room (previously, its sole occupant was Jason’s carbon road bike, very fancy so I gather) and named it The Terrace. Eleanor (age 5) quickly followed suit and relocated a number of books and toys in it too. Even Victor likes The Terrace, but the WiFi is not so great back there. It is, however, very private, and in that regard fulfills a key requirement as a secret garden. The light in this room, from nine to about eleven in the morning, is fantastic as the windows face east, and we are on an upper floor. Sitting on the bench (daybed) of The Terrace in the sun, I can easily imagine I am outside, and the sun’s warmth is calming.

Other rooms in the house have been renamed as we orbit around our tiny solar system: The Bog (back guest bathroom), The Beach. The Beach is the bed in the master bedroom which receives beautiful sunlight and warmth through the skylight, from approximately one to three in the afternoon, stronger sun than the morning sun which we receive while on The Terrace. The Beach is perfect for post-lunch yoga or a human catnap.

I have not named our cucina yet, but a strong contender for the brand is The Galley, because it is like cooking on a sloop: basically a narrow hall with an equally narrow counter, a gas hob, and electric oven, and a grey marble sink that looks like it’s seen a washboard or two since it was installed in 1870 (just guessing; I have no idea when they put in that tombstone). A tall cabinet contains all our cookware and dishes. We have a sexy red bollitore (electric kettle) that I bought from Bialetti last September. It holds court on the grey marble counter and earns its keep, boiling water at least a half dozen times a day for us. (Big tea drinkers here.) A funny green wooden cupboard holds our dry goods, standing alone on lathe-turned knobs made lacy by woodworms ages ago. Atop the green cupboard is an amusing Italian microwave that might be as powerful as a mosquito zapper. The Galley is one lane, one-way, can comfortably accommodate one person at a time. It is not possible to squeeze behind the cook without jostling and bumping them, or risking a scald.

Feast yo eyes on this and tell me if this doesn’t make endless quanrantea taste better.

Tomorrow I’ll detail for you how the rest of my little tribe is managing quarantine. (Preview quote from Jason: “Italy should expedite our citizenship eligibility after this.”) I can tell you, for those of you not yet in quarantine, or who have just entered quarantine, none of this is going to end anytime soon, no matter what the Yam-in-Chief yells. My heart goes out to all my friends in India and everyone there. Twenty-one days of strictly enforced lock down with 1.3 billion people and that population density takes my breath away. I thought it too when China locked down Wuhan. I read the news in January and caught my breath, oh my god. But I really did not think Italy would be next. I am still shocked at this world we’ve woken up in. And I cannot stop thinking about Spain, France, the UK, and the US. My global network feels the impact everywhere. My heart is with you all.

Update from Italy: Day 15 of the Florentine Quarantine

Photo by PRATAP CHHETRI on Unsplash

Yesterday (Day 14) was a rough day in lockdown, plagued with anxiety and the jitters. Feeling helpless. Trapped. Stuck. At the mercy of pathogens and a global screeching halt. I walked at least 30 laps in the garden to arrive at 1000 steps.

Italy’s count today is 743, with 5,250 new cases. Spain is not far behind. They’re loading bodies onto an ice rink in Madrid. Meanwhile the radioactive yam insists that life will be ack to normal by Easter. Got news for you, Yam-in-Chief: it won’t be.

Wuhan is just now coming out of their lockdown; they went into lockdown on January 22. The idea that we in Italy might only be at the top of week three of ten is terrifying. There is no monitoring structure in place in Italy like there was in Wuhan. No mandatory reporting of temperatures, no neighborhood wardens checking in. We’re all just here, inside. Waiting. Watching. Worrying. Trying to breathe.

Yesterday was the first day I broke down and cried. I think I scared Jason. I have had three really bad days since the lockdown began, and yesterday was one of them. Suffice it to say I had an unnecessary exchange on social media with a person known well to me, openly coddling a fake news crier at the expense of well-documented global suffering and loss. Why, I sobbed against Jason, why do some people get to say this is not happening? It is happening, and it is all heartbreaking, and it is getting worse. Those who claim hoax and fake news are fortunate enough, in this singular moment, to be free of the impact zone. And yet the lack of compassion packs a shock wave of equal magnitude.

Every day it’s like a market bomb in multiple cities, a handful of massive plane wrecks, and it is going to just keep happening until Mother Nature or science wins it. Hint: Medicine is not going to win it. The pandemic will overwhelm hospitals globally. No one could have prepared for this, for 800 million people globally being hospitalized.

Everyone has not been in our pressure cooker, Jason murmured. They don’t know.

They don’t know. How can they not know? It’s been all over the news since January. Do we all not inhabit one planet? Do we all not eat, commute, fly, work, touch surfaces, and breathe all day long? What hubris induces people to claim that they do not believe it?

Please accept with this post my apologies for sounding frustrated. Day 15 of lockdown has not been an easy one.

Update from Florence: Day 14 of the Florentine Quarantine

Photo by Jaunathan Gagnon on Unsplash

Monday morning has melted into all days. This evening marks two weeks that all of Italy went into quarantine, nationwide. But our week is just one big 168-hour day now. We got up, made breakfast, had about 35 minor disputes related to, but not limited to, the following issues and items: tablets, homework, tablets, getting dressed in day clothes and teeth brushed, tablets, making a fort, math homework, refusing to do any extra work, a grudging effort to help put away clean clothes, no effort at all to help fold clothes. Farm wife is feeling a bit downtrodden. Screw these chores. I would like some fresh air. I would like to go to the top of hill and look around. A panoramic view would be tonic. I wouldn’t even mind getting carsick on the way. It always happens anyway.

Today I am feeling grateful for all the analog experiences I have had in my life, beyond the normal moments like getting married in a church or a family dinner or holding a baby. I am thinking about flying, about hiking in the Cascades, about trains, even the Midnight Train to Zagreb. The travel, the flights. Tasting new food, the Brazilian beaches, Oaxaca for El Dia de los Muertos. The swans of Strasbourg and those narrow streets hemmed in by canals. The alameda of Santiago de Compostela, with its peekaboo view of the cathedral. Los Penitentes on the Argentine-Chile border. The pebbly beach of Nice. As Rias Baixas. San Sebastian. A thousand other entries in my poetic memory, an archive I barely understood until Kundera explained it to me. I am so glad I found his writing when I was twenty-one so I could refer to it internally for the rest of my adult life. Hemingway was like that with Proust.

I find myself wondering now, will that analog world ever come back to us, the tactility we so took for granted? We are still in the early-days uptick of a very, very long cycle. I am beyond angry at the jokes that continue to pop up my my social media feeds. This is a pandemic, people. It’s not funny. None of this is funny. You know, the only thing that’s even remotely funny to me right now? Mockery of the refuseniks, the ignorant, the disbelieving, the noncompliant. And that only last a few seconds, because I remember that their irresponsible, glib actions will contribute so much to worldwide human suffering. What will it take to make people take this seriously? Stacks of bodies? A military convoy? Martial law that barely matters, because losses are so devastating? People want to talk to me about the Constitution; I would like to ask – at what cost do we preserve a Constitution in this unprecedented pandemic? Is it worth millions of dead? Are we seriously depending on private corporations to support us and lead us out of the pandemic? Is the current bill in Congress really talking first about the market and banks and airlines? People are not coming to grips with reality at speed. The virus is faster than we are, on every level. As we saw in China, and Italy, and Spain, and will soon see in France, then the UK, then the US (roughly in that order), voluntarily social distancing is woefully insufficient. Sorry it infringes on your freedom, guys, but a genuine quarantine is currently our only defense against the virus.

Because I do not find, at this moment, much succor in my newsfeeds, I do feel fortunate to have come across a couple of articles from experts. Experts, remember them? (Latin root: “expertus,” to gain knowledge through repeated trials.) Individuals with experience, background, and education, who are qualified to deliver analysis. This interview with the beautifully named Dr. Brilliant, who led the efforts to eradicate smallpox globally, and this compendium of mini-analyses, have each brought me much-appreciated perspective and calm company.

Thanks to everyone who has gotten in touch with me to let me know how my accounts posted here have helped them make good decisions and take appropriate steps. I’ve said it before, but we do not even understand now the implications of the door that has opened, and through which we are all now passing, as a planet, as individual countries, as cities, as neighborhoods, as people. This is not an economic crisis. This is a human crisis. I can imagine, but I still think (fear, dread) that the implications are far graver than my imagination. We are in this together, whether everyone realizes it or not. And if they don’t, they will soon.

Update from Italy: Day 13 of the Florentine Quarantine

The herd won’t quit what the herd don’t know.
Photo by Jorge Tung on Unsplash

I’ll cover the news today in order of ascending filter.

Inner news.

I had a dream last night that Jason and I worked and worked on a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner for two days. My last task was to bring him the platter of turkey, cranberries, potatoes, and carrots, and place it on a table in a room where he was having a meeting with some VIPs. I was afraid I would drop it on the path between the buildings. But it seemed ok, I was going to make it, until right before I reached his building, I leaned down to pick up our woven straw footstool and the plate flipped in slo-mo, landing on its face. Jason came out and was furious; I was aghast. I sobbed. A worst-case scenario. There was nothing I could do to hide the disaster or salvage it. He went to the grocery store and got a rotisserie chicken, but didn’t talk to me for days after. They had the fancy dinner without me. Some other stuff happened in the dream I might remember later. Opera singers were involved, a ticket window, a stage manager, and useless words that failed to bring me comfort.

Personal news.

My left eyebrow is still twitching. I tweezed a really long hair out of it this morning. Turbo brow outlier might have been an inch long. I also think I have an ingrown nose hair, so that’s awesome and not at all throbbing in my right nostril. On the other hand, the mix of monotony plus anxiety spurred me to use up all my Bioré strips (TM) and Crest (TM) teeth whitening strips from the U.S. I might be isolated, but my pores are empty and tight and my teeth are sparkling. Even a minor lavoretto (project) like this feels like a worthwhile win.

Apartment news.

I might have overdone the at-home workouts yesterday because now my quads and hamstrings are killing me. But my lower back feels a bit better. You know, all the sitting during a quarantine is not great for ergodynamics. I miss my buzzing, busy daily life in Florence, running up and down Via Cavour, across San Marco, toward the viale. I miss my little bike and our quick jaunts. I miss abundant fresh air and changing light throughout the day, not as seen through our few windows, but as witnessed al fresco, combined with the fresh air for the full effect. I’ve reclaimed our spare bedroom as a sun room of sorts, because the morning light in here on the west side of the building is fantastic. Tall casement windows with a view of the rooftop garden swings shutters wide to let in all the warm yellow sunlight possible until about eleven in the morning. I am now writing from this sunspot, which I might name The Terrace.

Global news.

Italy had its worst loss yesterday: 793 people died. This is horrible and sad and we are not at all in control of what has happened here. All we can do is control ourselves and our movements now. Jason and I think the numbers will continue to climb. There are many cases, and thousands of people in ICU, or who cannot be accommodated in ICU because the ICUs are full. Two weeks ago, Italians were not taking any of this very seriously at all. Quarantine, ok, but why? We are still going to the park and outside and shopping in the open air and at Carrefour. People only started staying home when it became the decree. But from Wednesday evening (March 4) to Monday evening (March 9), people were running around and self-limiting in a very limited way.

Play dates were happening galore amongst children and adults; people gathered for drinks or to gab. Non-stop dinner parties that seemed to miss the danse macabre memo. Some people took vacations. Some people drove or took trains south. Some people went skiing. People were still moving around a lot, all the time. No one thought this was going to impact them, until it did. Italy attributes its current numbers of deaths and new cases to the unclear guidance two weekends ago, in that five-day window when everyone thought it might be a forced holiday. Sound familiar? America, UK, Oz: please look around. You’re two weeks behind Italy, and you’re acting as Italy did. If you don’t stop, drop, and lock, I fear that the numbers of new cases and the corresponding waves of fatalities will wash up on all your shores.

Tuscany’s numbers are set to rise as testing increases. The region will test everyone in hospitals first, and then move down a list. Heads up, UK, Oregon, other places whence I’ve recently received eyewitness reports of refusal to implement a public policy to test broadly for Covid-19: it is always worth it to test. Unless, like the albino banana, you feel that a grand experiment in herd immunity is warranted, and don’t mind sacrificing a few million citizens and your entire healthcare system to find out of your non-science-based strategy was a good one. Hint: it’s not!

The news came out overnight that in the north Lombardy is going deeper into lockdown. They are just trying to contain it. No one will be allowed outside for a walk, or a bike ride, or to run. In an unprecedented move, Italy has decided to shutter all non-essential production, keeping factory workers home to reduce exposure. These are wartime measures. We are at war, but a very different kind of war than any of us have seen before.

Spain has tipped. France is looking iffy.

And I have some grim news: it’s not going to last two weeks, or even two months. I think the school year is a wash, and maybe next fall too. Until everyone, and I mean everyone, has an understanding of what is happening and their role in management and containment when faced with a limitless virus for which there is no vaccination or pharmaceutical treatment, the pandemic will own the globe for months to come.

A plea from the Florentine quarantine.

So, America, and the UK, and elsewhere, if you feel like you are already self-quarantining but you are still going outside, remember what yesterday looked and felt like, and tighten up. Buying crafts at Michael’s to enjoy yourself at home is not tightening up. This is going to be a war for months and months and months, with an invisible adversary. And that adversary is strong, clever, and fast. All we have right now are NPIs – non-pharmaceutical interventions. This means stay home. All the way home. No walks, no bike rides, no going outside. The human equivalent of Snowden’s famous air gap needs to be created and maintained. And again, one meter is not sufficient. The analysis from China shows something more like 5 meters is necessary, if you want to risk it. I am still baffled by our well-wishers who check in with me to say they are worried about us. Viruses travel without passports, the defiant little stowaways. They’re going to spread to billions of people, even in a best-case scenario (20-70%), and 10-20% of those infected will need to be hospitalized, a portion of those in ICU. When I see the news from the U.S., I am far, far more worried for my friends. Please stay home. Please shut your door and stay there. Please.