Update from Italy: The Sink and the Virus

Photo by BHAVYA LAKHLANI on Unsplash

Our kitchen sink in Italy is a handsome slab of solid grey marble at least three feet long, with an indentation chiseled smoothly into it. From the wall of the kitchen above the marble sink slab a very garden-industrial tap juts out. The tap handles are labelled C and F for caldo (hot) and freddo (cold). I stil forget sometimes that caldo means hot and not cold. What a terrible faux ami. The sink resembles a repurposed tombstone. It’s Italy; there’s a lot of marble around.

The indentation in the sink is not graded. The simple drain is in the top left corner of the sink, covered by a loose strainer. The right third of the sink is tough to empty since it is level with the drain. And if you’ve left a greasy pan in the sink overnight, or a stack of pans, forget about it. You’ve just left yourself a nice, twenty-minute chore for the next morning, waiting for hot water to run. Find a sponge or a brush. And start sweeping the food refuse and grease down toward the sucking drain. This is ideal with a square plastic lid, passable with a sponge, worst with your hand. Slippery noodles, slimy vegetables. Starter discard or other sludge that was making tributaries over the marble, running in thin rivulets toward the drain until they dried and hardened. Farm Wife cleans this sink almost daily, rescuing it from bacterial squalor in the most efficient way possible. All our kitchen food waste, waterlogged and otherwise, go into our aluminium trash can with a lid that looks like the wastrel son of Oscar the Grouch might live there.

It is hard to not remember the In-Sink Erator, that omnipresent American appliance, installed in almost every stateside kitchen. We called it a garbage disposal but I now find the brand name so much more poetic. I have a dimming, surprised memory of tossing food scraps into various In-Sink Erators, and often. When I was a little girl, I was terrified of the sound it made, convinced an alligator lived under our sink. It also frequently ate spoons and forks, mangling them irrecognizably. But this seemed a small price to pay for the task, unknown now to many, of cleaning out a cold, greasy sink with your bare hands and a harsh cleaning product. In Italy this product is called sgrassatore, degreaser, but it could also be called spelletore for what it does to your hands. Sgrassatore is the foe of grease, but also the skin. Come to think of it, nonne probably wear kitchen gloves to do this task. I will soon look into procuring heavy-duty gloves to de-grease our repurposed kitchen tombstone.

The American reliance on the In-Sink Erator does relieve cooks from the tedious task of de-greasing a sink. However, the tendency to toss all manner of food into it for the sheer pleasure of the eration creates other issues. Kitchen sinks host more bacteria than the toilet. This is nasty. Is this really worth the convenience of tossing food into the under-sink alligator?

As Farm Wife rolled up her sleeves to spend twenty minutes this morning to de-grease the tombstone, rain began pelting the window even though the sky was bright blue, with fluffy cloud tufts lazily floating west to east with the inbound Mediterranean breeze. I scrubbed the three greasy pots, then got to work on the greasy tombstone. It’s quite literally a chore. The definition of chore. The Platonic definition of a chore.

But what is the alternative? An In-Sink Erator that encourages the harmful bacteria and promotes lazy kitchen disinfecting? I remember when we lived in the US our sink might have been bleached and scrubbed once a week. I hope we did it more often, but I doubt it.

What want to say here is that this is a metaphor where we find ourselves with the pandemic. There are really no great choices here. We give up, we lose on on side; we give up, we lose on another side. Health, freedom, civil rights, the economy, income, careers, livelihood, and education at all levels. De-grease a tombstone sink; put in the time. It’ll be very clean, until you cook the next meal, and then you have to really scrub it again, and again and again and again. Live in another country where you have In-Sink Erators, and throw food scraps to the kitchengator, and it’s easier in the moment (and that sound eventually becomes very satisfying, interesting even), but microbes will grow and multiply, and when you need to disinfect it, it will be worse than scrubbing a toilet.

Update from Italy: Family But Not Friends Allowed

Unattributed, but making the rounds on Italian social media. Hilarious. I wish I knew who to credit.

May 4 has been billed as a big letdown. “So nothing has changed,” people say. “It’s all the same.” Yes, except for WALKS OUTSIDE. I guess that is less of a big deal to some people! Yes, we will wear little masks, and carry permission slips, but we will be able to go outside and see green things and breathe fresh air! To me, this sounds nothing short of glorious.

Italy, like many locales, is trying to manage the social bubble to mitigate contact. Contactless takeaway food. No dining in. No playgrounds, no milling in a crowd. I do think the polizia will be out watching and issuing fines, and warnings, to people who transgress in public. Importantly, however, is that you CAN see your (immediate?) family. You will be able to see your family members, observing safe distance, hygiene, and masked. Of course a polizotto is not going to be in the house, checking on things.

It’s not going to be easy for people who are single and living alone. Might Italy permit them to designate a ‘social bubble’ that then designates them reciprocally? I know a lot of people in this situation and I feel concern.

The rather wry Italian assessment of who constitutes family: Who can I go see?

Husband/wife – YES

Grandparents – YES

Aunt and uncle – WHO CARES

Boyfriend/girlfriend – NO

Friend with benefits (G-rated translation) – NO

Parents – YES

Yeast mother – NO

Motherboard – NO

Father Christmas – NO


I am still laughing about this whimsical jot. I love the scribbles and images. A moment of desperation, clarity, and black humour. Heavenly Father!

Anyway, for people like us, the bubble-enlarging decree of May 4 enlarges no bubble of ours. We are the only people to whom we are related by blood in Italy, so …. nope, no visits. No going to friends’ places. It does help a lot of nonni italiani who have been alone and afraid and very much missing their families, so I am very glad for them to reunite.

On a concerning side note, Germany’s RO (contagion index) has increased from 0.7 two weeks ago back up to 0.96 and 1.0 today. Problematic, given their reopening. Make note of this. Article here in Italian. The fact of the matter is, we are all in uncharted territory, so would do well to look around at what is happening in other countries from now until science turns a corner for us. Given this news out of Germany, I feel very realistic about how the two weeks between May 4 and May 18 might go for Italy. The Italian government is phasing reopening in two-week increments to gauge, assess, and adjust the policy response to the public health chart.

Well, in any case, on May 4, I will be going on a long, long walk, and for as many days thereafter as I can do it. I know I have mentioned this a number of times. I hope my cardio health can handle it. Like those fat people on the spaceship in Wall*E, it is possible that I may have lost some bone density in the intervening weeks of this journey.

Update from Italy: Phase 2 Reopening

View of the Arno from Piazzale Michelangelo, just below San Miniato. Could this be in my near future, in person? yes i will wear the mascherina yes i will keep the very safe distance! Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Quick recap! Our Italian lockdown went into effect on March 9, with a few final things taken off the board in mid-March (playgrounds, parks, outside time more than 200m from your home). That’s been our reality to date. A hour or so a day in the garden, painting and playing badminton like an E.M. Forster novel (the Honeychurch family comes to mind). The other 23 hours a day have been at home.

All told, we’ve borne up well as a family. People are rested and fed and clothed, and our apartment is relatively clean and tidy, and certainly well-provisioned with food and drink. Jason and I are still working. Vic has been following school lessons online and slaying his YouTube metrics. Eleanor makes a lot of spontaneous art. The government owns our timelines and permissions. For me, this is ok. Spain and Italy are, right now, each at about 25,000 known fatalities attributable to C19. Had the governments not taken action, had we not gone into quarantine, I have no doubt losses would have been much more severe.

On April 14, heavy industry went back to work in Italy, in Phase 1 of our reopening. And, last night, Italian PM Giuseppe Conte held a presser about Phase 2 of the reopening. My switchboard starting lighting up with many mad-face emojis (Italian threads) and in-depth wondering (English threads). Italians are frustrated by how quickly they believe the rest of Europe is reopening, while Italy lags behind. (I’m less sure … France, and Spain, io vi guardo. I am looking at you.) While this new step will hardly provide an Edenic freedom, it will permit long walks (with face mask and permission slip) more than 200m from your home. This is itself is all I need. Permission slips will be revisited on May 18. They might look into getting some face masks for the polizia.

We can also take the kids out, one at a time, into the piazza for a walk. Playgrounds will still be closed.

No visits to friends’ houses or apartments. Families can visit, observing strict social distancing, facemasks, etc. Social gatherings of all kinds remain prohibited. Bars and restaurants can fill to-go orders, but no seating on premises.

Our tata (kidsitter plus!), the amazing Risha, will slowly ease back into a reduced schedule to help us out with kids and the apartment, since no children will be returning to school prior to September. She is going stir crazy in her home a few blocks form us. We have continued to pay her during the quarantine, as she is on a contract with us. Time has gone faster and faster as we have become used to this new at-home mode.

I do feel concerned about this fairly ambitious timeline to reopen everything else. I understand that every phase will be scrutinized against hospital loads and positive C19 tests. I just worry that we’ll backslide and lose the ground gained to date, pushing us all back into a quarantine like the past seven weeks. We know some of what we don’t know, but there are still so many unknown unknowns about the virus.

I’m glad to be getting a little freedom. If I can take one walk per day, I will be happy. I could even take the same walk every day. I don’t care, rain or shine. Fiesole or San Miniato, here I come. Maybe even on alternating days!

Update from Italy: Dreaming of Freedom

Quarantined bird wondering where she might fly to anyway. Photo by Irina Blok on Unsplash

On day fifty-something here of a strict quarantine in Italy, I find myself wondering, what will I feel like on May 4? When we went into lockdown in Italy it was still winter, and here we are, summer solstice less than two months away. the sky stays blue well after eight in the evening, the light slanting through our windows. The days of autocertificazioni will be gone, but face masks in public will be mandatory. Perhaps the police and drones will still be out, maybe issuing citations for no face mask / improper face mask.

Maybe it will feel like that scene in “History of the World,” in the Bastille, where freedom comes and the decrepit prisoner ‘releases’ the birds … throwing the lifeless carcasses through the window bars. “Fly, fly!” This image has come to mind often for me in the past weeks.

I’ve been in this apartment so long I won’t know where to go if the doors open. Funny how that happens so fast. How we get used to limitations and boundaries. And I say this fully admitting that our situation is privileged. We have a lawful immigration status and lawful employment. We are in a safe home with access to green things and fresh air. We are healthy. We can access excellent healthcare. We have savings. We are continuing to work – in fact, Jason has been working overtime since the end of February, trying to manage budget and staffing for multiple pandemic scenarios and recovery models. My work dipped down, but is coming back up now. I suspect there will be plenty of legal immigration work for qualifying emigrants outbound to Italy in 2021 and 2022.

“What will really change for us after May 4?” Jason asked again. I don’t know. Probably not much. Won’t be riding the bus. Won’t be doing any unnecessary shopping. Might take more walks around town or up to Fiesole or San Miniato, with a face mask on, as previously mentioned. Would like to ride my bike around town. Won’t be frequenting social events. No dinners or drinks out. No coffee out. (Reminds me I’d better work on my home court cappuccino game – it is weak.) Actually, a one-hour walk per day would be really, really nice. Maybe I will get some velcro weights.

But I was thinking last night and today about the converse of freedoms we have given up. What are the freedoms we experienced in this two-month period, aside from no-guilt wine with lunch? (I am considering these points from a perspective of economic and cultural privilege. I recognize that.) Our family has gained emotional freedom. The freedom from the tyranny of the daily schedule and the weekly schedule, of bedtimes and school start times and school pickup and office hours. Yes, we’re home all day, but our days became more cogent. We found an emotional rhythm with our children that was difficult to maintain during pre-quarantine weekdays when we ran pillar to post, Monday through Friday. It is easy to see why Victor was frustrated or Eleanor was upset, when those things happened, and to help them back to a greater equilibrium. It is lovely to see one or both of them wake up in a good mood, get themselves dressed, make their beds, get their own breakfast and vitamin. This is freedom to a parent. That we can start our morning without a running start.

What else? I have more freedom than ever before to write, and to make art. This is huge. People who told me to squeeze it into ten- or fifteen-minute window every day didn’t seem to take into consideration how stressed and compressed I was before and after said window. It’s hard to turn the creative tap on and off at will. I’m a person, not a robot. The creative plot has to be cultivated.

And finally, the joy in preparing and eating good food together that we made ourselves. Taking the time to look in the fridge and to ask ourselves, what would be nourishing right now? What do I want to prepare? What can I prepare for tomorrow, or use up now? I feel this is an activity that was quickly marginalized in modern life C19.

I’m no Pollyanna, trying to create a narrative of survival or recovery. This willful realist wants to value the situation for what it is. Yes, some freedoms were lost in the past two months, but some were also found, and I want to recognize and name those. It’s a balancing act. You win some, you lose some. You regain some, you lose the other ones. Maybe. Maybe I will mostly stay in my nest to do my part to help manage the global public health. I am happy to make that choice. Also, and more importantly, our kids are not returning to anything that looks like a schoolday until September, so …. I am home. Safe at home.

Update from Italy: Talking about Reopening

Oh for a walk outside in the fresh air. When it becomes possible, I am going to walk the 6.2k to Fiesole on the footpaths from our palazzo, and I am taking Vic with me and I do not care if he whines. If you’re ever on a layover in Zurich, check out the walks close by. Photo by Azzedine Rouichi on Unsplash

Italy has been in lockdown now for about a month and a half, ever since nationwide decrees were put in place prohibiting unnecessary trips of any kind outside the home.

We accepted mascherine (face masks) and certificazioni to be outside. We gave up fresh air, sunlight, seeing friends around and about. Our daily circuits of home, cappuccino, work, school, grocery shopping, vanished with no more trace than our memory of them. But we remembered them – with some disbelief, were we ever that free?

We watched the news with a concern that bordered on panic. We received updates with grieving friends. Many of us know people have paid the price not just with a temporary loss of freedom – people whose lives have been deeply impacted by Covid-19, and who have lost income, livelihood, friends and family members to the virus. These have not been easy times, for anyone. It is right to recognize and name all these losses, large and small, and to hold in the light those who are suffering. You may have noticed your relationships became strained, as baseline stress made it difficult for many to hear words kinds or to speak free from the filter of panic.

Spring quietly crept up on us while many of us watched from our windows. And what we all gave up, these weeks of freedom, has saved lives. Of that there is little doubt. Nature held the line for us as she leafed and bloomed, just as she always does. The planet tilted back into the sun, on its annual revolution, turning the season from winter to spring. We witnessed the resurrection of life on the planet as we remained in lockdown. Even as we were not free to stretch and breathe, Nature stretched her limbs and took a deep breath for us.

Hope seems to be hovering around May 4. In about ten days, we hope to be able to go outside, to breathe fresh air, to see the hills around Florence. We might sit on a bench in the park in the sun. This is likely all going to feel very strange at first. Even with our mascherine firmly on our faces, we might feel like we are being newly born into a world we thought we knew. Be gentle with yourself and tender as you emerge. The abruptness with which we were all thrust into these weeks of fear and privation requires extra care as we come out of it. In the coming months, continue to look after those who are older, those who are weaker, those with small children. Remember that we have been living in a state of grace in these weeks.

An ambitious Italian timeline has been circulating on social media today. How Italy might open up again by stages, from now until the fall months. This is optimistic, but also kind of shocking to me. A full reopening by the fall? Do they know something they’re not telling? A vaccine is on its way? Less than 95% of the population remains susceptible? An effective, affordable, available treatment? In the absence of those options, this timeline seems fevered at best. I get that people are tired of being at home. I am tired of being at home. We are all tired of being at home. But what would be worse by far would be slipping back to where we were in early March with an uncontained outbreak spreading by the hour.

Jason and I were talking about May 4 yesterday. Obviously the new decree would permit movement, not require it. “Would you change what you’re doing?” he asked. “What would you do different?” I had to admit that no, I would probably not do anything different. I might go for a walk each day, if the polizia chill after May 4. But I will be working from home, the kids’ schools are closed for the rest of the year. Here in Italy we are watching schools open in other EU member states. Why aren’t our schools opening in Italy?

I posit that it has a lot to do with the childcare structure in Italy. Grandparents in Italy do a lot of heavy lifting in the afternoon with their grandchildren while parents are at work. I think this may be less the case in other EU countries. So if Italian schools reopen, they are going to have to rethink the unsynchronized schedules of school versus work. Workdays are going to have to be shorter so that parents and school-aged children are on the same page, keeping grandparents out of the regular equation, and safe at home. The gap between lunch and 5 or 6 is a global issue for childcare.

With respect to what we are learning about C19, this Atlantic Monthly article makes some excellent points, for people who like a healthy dose of science with their news. First, we are still learning about the novel coronavirus. It’s new! So we’re learning about it. Second, there seems to be an immune-system component to the clinical course of C19. We just don’t know who is going to blow up a cytokine storm. Thirdly, and this is what I have been gnawing on today, there are plenty of viruses for which we do not have vaccines. Take, for example, the common cold, whose mutations are so clever that it bounds, in all its iterations, just out of reach, and so we all suffer through whatever version we caught that our immune system in particular was unable to vanquish in the game of microscopic Whack-a-Mole (TM).

I read a lot of science-heavy news, pieces by experts like Dr. Brilliant (best name ever for a non-fictitious character in this line of work), and I hear him reassuring that we will find a vaccine for this, but what if we don’t, or not anytime soon? What if it hops in front of us, taunting us, for a few years to come? What is certain is that there is no magic lever to magically shift us all back to 2019 and pre-C19. This is the reality we got, guys. We do not know what the future holds. The virus holds secrets that we are just very slowly unraveling and beginning to understand. I feel humbled in the face of science and nature. We just don’t know. I am not even going to talk about stealing prescription meds from people with lupus and RA, injecting bleach, or beaming light … somehow … into certain parts of your… body.

We are on just one point of the fullness of time, in all its magnificent splendor. If you are in Italy, may you move into our slowly expanding and renewing freedom, and tenderness toward everyone in your world. 

This post has been adapted from a piece that was published today in the eNews of St. James Episcopal Church, Florence, Italy.

Update from Italy: Kitchen Wins in Quarantine

Mmmmmm cinnamon rolls are good for what ails you. Photo by Kjartan Einarsson on Unsplash

Jason and I are both decent in the kitchen. We have always been a good match in many ways, but in few arenas as harmoniously as when we put on our kitchen whites for meal doubles: he’s the grill/oven/roast guy, very often apértifs, and takes care of the wine. I do veggies, sides, starch, and desserts.

In non-pandemic times, our lovely babysitter also regularly helps us with meals on weekday evenings, so our kitchen muscles have atrophied a tiny bit since 2016. We are very spoiled, and we love her, and no, you cannot hire her away from us. She is also handy in the kitchen. That first day, she made us a zucchini frittata, the zucchini sliced razor thin. Eleanor was one year old then, and still breastfeeding and in diapers. Out came a perfect dish, which we had not made, with a glass of wine, on a place mat. I am pretty sure I cried out of relief.

Risha (not her real name) is originally from Sri Lanka, and her repertory extends to fresh-ground spices, purchased in dozens of small packet and nondescript foil balls from the markets around San Lorenzo, crushed fresh garlic, grated coconut, and wizardries of chicken curry and spicy hard-boiled eggs tucked into biryani that I had heretofore never even imagined. Along with her coconut rice balls and jalepeño-encrusted, sope-like doughnuts … But we have not seen Risha since March 9. That was the last day she was here, all of us nervously navigating the narrow path around the yawning new chasm so swiftly opening up in the coming weeks, and swallowing whole our former routines and connections. I put my apron back on, embraced my inner Farm Wife, and with Jason managing the shopping, we started out conveyor belt of family meals again. We’ve ordered takeout maybe three times in the past 52 days. (This is normal for us, excessive even.)

I wanted to note here for my readers a few things we have made in the past seven weeks, which I had either never made before, or had not made for a very long time. I score each one out of 10, ten being YES more PLEASE. These 15 items are all tested by me personally and repeated over (sad quarantine) time, so make your tastebuds happy and get going on one!

Sourdough starter (4 out of 10). I have to start with Izzy. My starter began with the best of intentions, but Izzy was ravenous, gobbling up too much valuable flour and frankly, not really bubbling and going nuts like I’d been led to believe. Her party never really got started, but the after party was always incredible (see additional recipes below). I am not sure what happened. I thought the chlorinated water of Florence might be to blame. I have stopped feeding her for the moment, now that I have my contraband yeast connection here on the inside.

Cinnamon rolls (8). I used the sourdough discard (basically all of my starter has now been designated ‘discard’) to make these cinnamon rolls more than once, adjusting for Italian ingredients (white sugar instead of brown; cheery vanilla MDMA packets instead of liquid vanilla extract). So easy to make. Crispy because of the extra granulated sugar, but made the house smell great and made everyone so happy.

Sourdough bread (6). Kind of dense due to Izzy’s lack of pep, but browned up beautifully in my loaf pan with tinfoil hat. Great for bruschetta and other damp-toast apero snacks.

French boule (7). Went back to my go-to bread recipe. By this time Jason had brought home the cat coffin, so it was easy to bake. The Italian store-bought yeast behaves a bit differently than American yeast, so again, this was denser than I am used to. Still, a success. I’d eat it again like this, but I prefer it on my jacked-up American yeast (“But this yeast goes to 11!”). Really want to press some panini and soon.

Rosemary sea salt sourdough crackers (8). Holy YUM. Pinched a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary from the garden, mixed it up with salt, starter discard, oil, and fresh flour. Out come crackers full of integrity, tasty, dense, rich. Perfect with the goat cheese that Jason bought at the open market yesterday. How can I keep up my discard without messing with Izzy’s overeating and underachieving? Because I want these weekly. I am tired of storebought crackers that turn to dust after an hour in whatever bag I am carrying them in. These crackers will not do that.

Pretzels (10). Easy to make, fun to twist. So fast. Everyone loved these. We didn’t have pretzel salt, so ground up coarse salt with a mortar and pestle. In a second version, I tucked quality hotdogs into each would-be pretzel, and baked them to get the famous Hot Dog Sandwich of Florence, which my kids freak for. Total success. Adults enjoyed with Dijon mustard and wine.

Pantry crumb cake (10). I tried this a few different ways with significant hacks. Blueberry preserves were folded in both times. First cake featured fresh-shelled pecans; second cake, fresh-shelled hazelnuts and orange zest. Both times I cooked it in the oven, in a pot with a lid. Jason and I both agree it is outstanding and needs to go on regular rotation. The recipe is forgiving – perfect for colazione, dopo pranzo con espresso, oppure dopo cena con whisky (breakfast, after lunch with espresso, or well after dinner with scotch). Also freezes well for quarantine cake rationing.

Pan-scared broccoli (9). The best way to make broccoli. Get a wok, turn the flame way up, chop your broccoli, all of it. Oil in the pan. Dash of salt. Sear broccoli on high until you see some nice color. Then add a couple tablespoons of water and put a lid on it. Wait three minutes or so until steaming finishes. Divine.

Orange (or lemon) sauce (10). Chop shallots (or small onion) very fine, sautée on low heat in a couple tablespoons of butter, dash of salt. Whisk in fresh-squeezed orange or lemon juice (if using lemon, add a teaspoon of sugar.) Dresses up your frozen fish, chicken, pork. Insane good. Bright and cheery.

Oeufs à la mayonnaise (10). I made these after I was unable to forget them. I had them in Paris last year about this time in a very old-school bistro for Sunday dinner after the consecration of our new bishop at the Episcopal cathedral. It was like a dream in my mouth. Warm, velvety hard-boiled eggs with homemade mayo, garnished with chopped fresh chives, pickled carrots, and cornichons. High marks for comfort. Which brings us to …

Mayonnaise (9). I mean, why not. We’re at home drinking red wine; shouldn’t we … emulsify something? The first time I made this, we were replicating a French bistro dinner (sound familiar?). The menu that evening was garlic steak, frites, a side salad of dark greens. I suddenly felt an irrepressible urge for fresh mayonnaise. I whipped this up and felt very proud of its garlicky, red wine, fresh egg goodness. If you have not made fresh mayo recently, try it.

Smashed avocado (10). Whoa! Traditionally, I have thought that this was a lot of young hipster hype and so avoided it. But I tried this recipe and have to say, this is the best light lunch in quarantine, hands down. Fresh lemon, chili pepper flakes, smashed garlic. It’s big on flavor, low on volume, with nice healthy lipids to help you cruise through an afternoon of kid chasing and remote work.

Lazy strawberry shortcake (10). Cut up a plum cake or white bread, then top with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. Prepare to be amazed.

Espresso con panna (10). Make a fresh espresso, add a bot of sugar, then dollop any whipped cream on top. Stir in and feel like you’re on a mountain hike in France, amidst white linen tablecloths and fluffy clouds. Ahhhh c’est si bon.

Banana al cacao (10). Big crowd pleaser for the under-ten set. Slice a banana onto a plate, then sift Nesquik over it. Serve with fork.


Ginta (10). Pour two fingers of premium gin over ice into highball and top off with orange Fanta. Indescribable. Why does it taste so good?! Ginta take me away …

Update from Italy: I Don’t Want …

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I don’t want. Yesterday I posted what I do want. Today I my thoughts wander, in my spot of southern sunshine that I call Barbados. I am thinking about what I don’t want. This is tougher. I am given to manifesting the positive. No sense saying what I don’t want; the Universe doesn’t really know how to respond to that.

What I do want.

What I don’t want.

In many languages, “I don’t want” takes the subjunctive form of the verb, for whatever the thing is that you want/don’t want to happen. 

The indicative mood represents certainty. The subjunctive mood represents, on the other hand, uncertainty.

English is plaintive and direct, like a toddler.

I want you to cry.

I don’t want you to cry.

Both take the infinitive. What I want and what might happen are hung in time and space, like Schroedinger’s cat. Will you cry? Won’t you cry? Who knows? I want the thing to happen, and both actions are possible. We won’t know until we open the box. Are you crying, or not crying? Open the box to find out.

In Spanish, however, llorar (to cry) changes form with a vowel marker so that your listener or reader knows that you are not in control. There is no direct translation for this in English. I’d rather that you not cry comes closest.

Quiero que llores.

No quiero que llores.

Italian is the same, marking piangere (again, to cry) with a vowel shift so that your reader is aware of your ultimate lack of agency in the situation.

Voglio che tu pianga.

Non voglio che tu pianga.

There’s no box to open, no cat/gato/gatto to discover. The mood of the verb has told you that it may not be possible. It is uncertain, and this shade of uncertainty means the box may skew negative. The cat has a hole in the back of the box, an emergency exit, if you will. The speaker abdicates agency with the verb marker.

The things we want, or do not want, do not rely upon the speaker.

Thinking of what I do not want, my mind immediately goes to Spanish. No quiero que … English is no longer sufficient for me. The gradations do not exist.

In any case, I’ll make the list, doing my best to avoid grammatical backflips.

  1. I don’t want to go back to life as it was before February 23.
  2. I don’t want my children to remember this as a negative experience. I want them to remember how much time they had with J. and me, how much closeness and access they had to us, and us to them.
  3. I don’t want much more time to pass by before I have a pet I love again. And I’m not talking goldfish, iguana, salamander, lizard. None of this Hogwart’s nonsense. I need a standard poodle or a Maine coon.
  4. I don’t want people to protest, of all things, a virus. Has it all really come to this inanity? 
  5. I don’t want to prioritize quantity over quality. At the same time, let me live to be 100, and let it be a good life. I’ve got family precursors for this in the hardy Finnish and Scottish stock. I hope that it might be my lot too.
  6. I don’t want to stop writing.
  7. I don’t ever want to work eight to five or later in an office or elsewhere again. Ever.
  8. I don’t ever want to commute to work again. Ever.
  9. I don’t ever want to have a corporate annual review or set quarterly performance goals again, both tied to a pittance of a payout. Ever.
  10. I don’t want people to suffer or die.

Update from Italy: Wants and Whimsy

Visiting the Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo and looking at the wishes of visitors, we are reminded that even if there are infinite wishes in the world, there is always time to focus on a few. Photo by Lennart Jönsson on Unsplash

I want…

  1. I want to feel as when I was eight, when my body was a transparent user interface, free from bugs and malware, running the latest OS.
  2. I want to hike across the ridges of alpine hills again, past bistros laying white tablecloths in the middle of the clouds.
  3. I want to swim in salt water, smell the freshness of that freshest possible air you breathe after being underwater in the ocean.
  4. I want leadership that is intelligent, compassionate, and effective.
  5. I want my eight-year-old son to move away from the screen time that makes him belligerent (well, for him), withdrawn, and antisocial. This is a struggle every day, multiplied exponentially by quarantine.
  6. I want to finish writing a novel.
  7. I want the planet to emerge from the pandemic more committed than ever to humane ideals: cooperation, care, moderation, justice, equality, transparence, love.
  8. I want a haircut. Okay, maybe a trim. Actually, what I really want is to lean back into one of those notched sinks as Haruyo really gets her fingertips into my scalp for a thorough head massage and hair wash. I miss Haruyo. She cuts the hair of everyone in our family here in Florence, from the Aveda Salon on Via dei Neri, closed since early March by national decree. I hope she is ok, wherever she is. I am sending love out to the gentle Haruyo.
  9. I want to take my readers on a caper with me to a different time imagined in detail, drawing characters they will come to love as I do.
  10. I want every person who survives the pandemic to be changed permanently and for the better after it subsides. I want these lessons taken to 7+ billion hearts. I want synapses rearranged in a massive infinite exercise in neural plasticity. I want everyone to understand that it can and will happen again and, like a dystopic piece of fiction, everyone who remembers their lessons will be more likely to survive next time. I am rooting for survival!

Update from Italy: Various Coping Skills

Victor’s Tuesday afternoon, minus the mini trampoline. But I bet this cat would have liked that. Photo by yerling villalobos on Unsplash

We’re on day whatever of the lockdwn in Italy. For people who are still asking, no, we can’t have picnics, no, we can’t go on runs, no, we can’t go to the park. We must wear masks outside. We can now all get one free mask per day at the pharmacy, 30 days at a time. We can go outside to get groceries or to go to the pharmacy. We can take trash and recycling out under the watchful eye of bull-horned cops and buzzing drones. So, yes, that is very relaxing. It is, in fact, just like a picnic in the park. Thank you!

Everyone has their different coping strategies. Victor (age 8), for example, has been sitting in a box on the mini-trampoline. When he is fortunate, he and his best friend get to have conference calls via WhatsApp about farts and being covered in poo. Who knows! They just imagine what life would be like if this would happen. I really don’t think he and his bestie are gonna get to horse around again in person in school until 2021 at the soonest.

Eleanor (age 5) seems to be unable to keep up with her sick dollies. Every dollie has a temperature. This is very serious. Her bedroom looks like an ICU, dollies swaddled with binkies and thermometers. “Mommy, please take this baby. She has a very high feeber.” I look at the toy thermometer. She has pushed the little red notch up to 120F. “That is a very high feeber,” I say solemnly. “What are we going to do for this baby?” She hands me a pink plastic bowl that contains plastic celery, a plastic tomato, and a plastic mass of green peas that looks a lot like frog eggs. “Feed her this.” Well, ok, as you say, Dr. Eleanor. This is the child who used to treat her babies with nuclear medicine when she was two, repurposing the scanner on her cash register as a sort of radiotherapy wand. I did as I was told and did not argue.

Jason (age 46) poked his head into our room today as I was trying to wrap up an afternoon meeting that had become more farcical than I had expected due to the vagaries of Zoom and cross-cultural communication. “I can do some yoga?” he said. “Can you do some yoga soon?” I was floored. We have been doing yoga in the mornings on our big rug, but usually I am the one dragging him to the mat, saying”It’ll be good for you! Let’s go.” He called back from the kitchen, “I like the ones that make me feel taller; my neck sounds like an organ grinder’s delight.” Then he dropped our last carton of eggs, breaking all three on the floor. The stress is everywhere.

What am I doing? Scrapping for time to write, baking and cooking up a storm, focusing on low-cal feature plates like oeufs à la mayonnaise and the famous “hot dog sandwich.” Working when I can fit an hour in here or there. Putting away seasonal clothes and precision-creasing t-shirts as though I still worked on the floor at the Gap. Making grandmotherly remarks about the the current humid weather versus the wisdom and/or necessity of doing laundry at this time. Sorting out my current reading by various categories: philology, stuff in Italian, classics I will read sooner or later.

True story: when I was studying abroad in Spain (age 19), and the modern languages department was closed for the day in observance of the patron saint of philology, I thought it was a typo. Surely they mean philosophy. (St Jerome or St Gotteschalk? I just looked it up. Maybe the thirteenth-century Catalonian philologist San Raimundo?)

Italy seems to have a handle on things at the moment, health-wise. I feel safe here, but I would also really like to go outside. But I understand why I can’t go outside. I know that it’s complicated. However, I’m not going to stage some maniac protest. Italy has recorded 25,000 deaths to date, but that number is likely to go up as public records sift through the death certificates from 2020 and compare them to year-over-year mortality. Deaths in Tuscany are under 700, and total cases are under 9,000, which is amazing, considering the ish has been going down here for 8 to 9 weeks. Our actions are saving lives. I appreciate this. And yet, I have a little boy who is bouncing in a cardboard box, a little girl whose contagious baby hospital is out of control, and a husband who asks me to do yoga before dinner. And I am using an astrolabe to decide whether I want to do laundry or not.

So, yes, that is very relaxing. It is, in fact, just like a picnic in the park. Thank you!

Update from Italy: Anniversaries

Riding the waves of world events. Photo by Thomas Ashlock on Unsplash

I had forgotten, until the BBC app notified me on my phone, that today is the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Twenty-five years ago, my senior year in college; I was 21, more than half my lifetime ago. It was a Wednesday morning. I had gotten up and out of my apartment for my 9:30 Spanish Lit course, so was already walking up to campus a few minutes after nine. I had no idea. I sat down, put my backpack on the floor, ready for an invigorating discussion about Latin American literature.

Our professor came in to the classroom, a thin Peruvian who wore the same, too-large tweed sportscoat almost every day. His high forehead, thick eyebrows, and shock of black hair belied a tender heart. He peppered his lectures with personal anecdotes of his Life Before, as a professional engineer and a Shining Path survivor.

Y esto! Professor Marquez said, y esto de la bomba en Oklahoma City!? What’s he talking about? I thought. Maybe a small pipe bomb. Dr. Marquez went on with his lecture; I have no recollection what we were reading, as my mind had started its uneasy buzzing in the back row.

I hurried back to my apartment and turned on my television (no cable, no internet then). I had a homemade antenna to get the public channels. I sank down in front of my tv and stayed there for three days, a cold lump in my chest. Angry that it had happened, in a state where everyone had always said nothing ever happened here. Now it was clear where that insulation had gotten us. The rumours flew at first that it was the work of Muslim extremists, of course. Members of our own nutty congressional delegation said this on the news.

Those were rough days, but you know what got even rougher? When the truth emerged, and everyone had to deal with the fact that it was a man who looked and sounded like them. Not a stranger. Not a Muslim to conveniently scapegoat. Not an unknown person, wishing ill on a modest landlocked state. No, a person who thought he was winning vengeance for the Branch Davidians. Remember them? That happened when I was studying abroad in Spain, two years earlier in 1993, but after the first World Trade Center bombing (January 1993), back when my friend Amy and I would tiptoe down freezing stone stairs in woolen blankets of our residencia estudiantil to curl up on a wooden-railed sofa and blearily watch Peter Jennings on ABC.

I knew people who died in the bombing. I went to funerals. In a too-close-to-home doppelganger scenario, a young woman named Julie from Oklahoma City for whom I’d done freelance translation work before had died in the SSA office, hired because she was bilingual in Spanish. In 1995 this was a dream job of mine. To work bilingually, in any capacity, really. In another strange twist, Julie had ties to the same rural province in Spain that I did, and that summer, when I returned, her teary friends recounted to me in a bar in Pontevedra how this Julie died doing what she loved. Speaking Spanish to people about their social security questions. She was so warm, we loved her, they said looking away, choking.

The month of the bombing, though, a main concern of mine was how it would impact my international travel and study abroad plans. I was trying to get myself to Strasbourg for the following academic year to burn a year of my twenties learning French in situ so I could be employable. (Recall that the frontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25.) Would my parents still let me go to France? Now that insulated, landlocked Oklahoma was just as unsafe as, say, New York, or Madrid in the 70s, or Beirut in the 80s or Jersualem in the 90s? You have to let me go now, I may or may not have told them, this is proof that misfortune in the form of violence can happen anywhere. That year in Europe, everywhere I went, when I told people where I was from la bombe, mais non, c’est vrai? eyes growing wide, estuviste alli cuando ha pasado la bomba? Were you there when the bomb happened? Country to country to country with my purple nylon backpack, there I was, fielding questions in many languages plus broken English. I soon grew tired of being the onsite reporter for that terrorist attack. I didn’t agree with the person who did it, of course, but neither did I agree with the culture that said they couldn’t believe it happened there. I could.

April 19, 1995 was a day much like March 9, 2020. A day when everything suddenly shifted and my eyes were opened to a new reality, when at that moment it felt heavy to breathe and I heard something rolling in whose impact would be felt for years. After I returned from that year in France, my first professional job was at Catholic Charities. My best friend from high school worked there too, as a social worker; she had just finished her MSW, and her clients were all bombing survivors. Traci has to be one of the most patient-hearted people I have ever known in my life, and she did that work for years for a pittance, helping the many survivors, some seriously and permanently injured, try to get their lives back on track.

I did visit the Oklahoma City memorial once or twice, but it was hard, and made me so angry. The Terrorism Museum was unfathomable. Of course the state did not ask for that to happen to them, but the event really sort of took over the local identity for years. It was inescapable. And if they had been honest about it, they might have admitted that some of the received opinions floating around that part of the prairie had made ongoing contributions to extremist action. There could have been a choice to engage in dialogue, on a socio-cultural level, but that was just not possible. And so it didn’t happen. And so that part of history reinforced local identity.

So, here we are, in an increasingly interconnected Indra’s Net, with today’s headlines featuring not terrorism but pandemic. Much like the Midnight Train to Zagreb later on that same year, April 19 was a day that shifted my understanding of the forces at play in the world, and showed me how we are all snared in global events.

Be safe – safe at home. And listen to other people, for heaven’s sake. Really listen to them and let them finish what they need to say. And answer thoughtfully, when you can. This all takes time. Understanding does not happen overnight, and when we are surfing at the crest of today’s current events, it can be hard to see how and where exactly that wave will break on the beach. But it will. How will you understand the ride?