Update from Italy: Sunday Stroll

Grove Wood, Rayleigh, Essex. Photo by Ricky Rew on Unsplash

I continue to tie on my trainers and get long walks in on a daily basis, whenever possible. A 5k at a fast trot does wonders for my well-being. I come from a family of walkers. We took walks all the time, mostly in the evening before bed, when I was a child. Now I walk alone, any time of day that it is possible, as Jason or I needs to be at home with the kids, still far too little to be on their own.

Few people had ventured out this morning at nine-thirty. To keep myself company, and I know I am a decade late to this party, I have begun listening to BBC4 Bookclub podcasts on Spotify. What a treasure trove! Today I was joined from the archives by Muriel Spark, regaling an audience with tales of interwar Edinburgh and Miss Jean Brodie, and more recently with Sarah Perry discussing The Serpent of Essex (2016). I confess I have not read either of these novels but am moved to do so and soon, particularly the Spark, which I did not realize was so twined with the Spanish Civil War. I am intrigued by Muriel for her long association with Tuscany, indeed with Florence; she was laid to rest in 2006 in a parish plot in the Val di Chiana.

A few pairs of joggers chugged by unmasked. I walked toward the river on the viale, and made an extra loop around the empty arcades of Libertà for the pleasure of it, just as the Scottish host of Bookclub was grilling a Scotswoman about her experiences at the Gillespie school, upon which Jean Brodie was based.

An Italian man disinterestedly walking a scrubby mutt in front of me high-fived a Rom mother on Piazza Savonarola. He spoke with her a few seconds too long and erased her opportunity to supplicate to me, next in line. Her two young boys with matching enormous eyes sat silently on the stoop, one of them wearing a pair of rubber maid’s mules. At the church and monastery of San Francesco on the corner of the piazza an usher in a lime green traffic vest carried a clipboard, monitoring the comings and goings of worshippers under the new rules. The piazza was quiet and full of sunshine, but almost every bench was already taken, mostly by old men dressed in in unseasonable tweed.

I snaked through the blocks until I was almost alongside the train tracks, and followed them up to Campo di Marte. I placed a euro coin atop a pyramid of tissues being politely hawked by an African vendor, both gloved and masked, standing in front of the Conad on Via Massaccio. I noted a beautiful red building across the street with striped teal awning on its top-floor balconies. By this time I was with the voluble Sarah Perry laughing about the serpent of Essex and explaining, to the host’s dismay, how fictive characters were nothing more than plot devices, and how she crammed everything she loves, every fact from history, science, and medicine that she found, into this book inspired by the Brontes and Hardy (“and to a lesser extent, Dickens and Eliot.”)

A father and a very small son came toward me, the boy on a balance bike, a tiny mask under his chin. His feet pawed uselessly for the pedals, where are the pedals, where are the pedals, he asked. Amore, there are no pedals, the father said through his mask. Sarah Perry was discussing norms of behaviour and how people think that one person’s behaviour is abnormal when it is, in fact, a perfectly logical coping response to chaos. I haven’t lived in the UK, so all the chippy comments about Essex kind of went past me, but I would like to see their salt marshes and oyster middens dating to Roman times, and wonder what Roman artifact I might dig up from a private vegetable garden in the county. All the internecine English snark about counties and what’s a less desirable place to live seem so ephemeral and trivial; I, for my part, am glad to not be weathering another tornado season, and God help me, I never will. I wouldn’t mind a giant mythical serpent in the hills, however, keeping the villagers humble.

Update from Italy: Bubble Settings

Photo by Paul Schellekens on Unsplash

The news from America marks a contrast from the news here in Italy. After seven weeks of hard lockdown together, as a nation, inside, we are all happy to regain any modicum of movement. Wearing a mask is not a big deal at all here. Some Americans seem to think that wearing a mask is akin to assuming a new sort of health risk; indeed, a cousin in my greater family matrix insisted that wearing a mask in Costco yesterday, somewhere in the American west, gave her a migraine. I wondered if her resentment, anxiety, and misplaced anger might not have contributed to the migraine trigger.

What is your bubble setting? Where are you on the safety bubble spectrum? Will you try to stay cloistered like a Trappist monk in the Swiss Alps, or will you enter shops? Are you somewhere in the middle? Why?

Your ability to remain calm in the coming months has a lot to do with the radius of your bubble. With how many people do you come into daily contact, and what are their relative health thresholds? Or, better put: how well are you aware of their relative health thresholds? Also: how aware are you of the relative health thresholds of strangers with whom you come into contact?

I’ve been told people over 70 should be quarantined until a vaccine is available. I have been given a furtive look by a person who felt I was off my loopy public health rocker. I have been reminded that stores are open and that I am free to shop in them. I have been told I do not care about the economy, that being safe means businesses fail and families starve.

Obviously I am very worried about my older set, whom I know through our palazzo and my network at St. James Episcopal Church. I am thinking of my friends who live with lupus and RA, diabetes, COPD. Stress and anxiety (this should cover about 98% of the global population right now). A friend younger than I who had major heart surgery this year. Initial serological reports from populations that have been in lockdown (I recently came across papers about Florence, London, and NYC) indicate that a smaller percentage than expected is testing seropositive. We’ve got a long way to go.

So, if you can, find that remaining calm corner or your heart, and look kindly upon your family, friends, and strangers. Calm down, if you can, as a part of the global effort to cope with a historic pandemic. Limit your social activity and respect those who are limiting theirs. Wear a mask, for heaven’s sake, if you are coming into contact with someone who is working (a checker, a bus driver, a taxista) because odds are, they would much rather be safe at home if they could. If people seem more cautious, perhaps they are in a vulnerable bubble. Perhaps they have unseen vulnerabilities that are not up for discussion. There is no place for Team America here. It’s perfectly normal to wear a mask, and choosing to not wear one in public makes a breathtakingly selfish choice. Don’t want to wear a mask? Don’t leave home. People don’t have some sort of inalienable right to run around outside without a mask on right now. We’ll get through this phase, but this is what it is right now.

It’s not just your bubble. Everyone is in a bubble. It is not easy. Be generous and imagine what is unseen and difficult for others. Try to take a deep breath and remain calm.

Update from Italy: Growing with Language

Photo by Emily Levine on Unsplash

Vic: Why I have to have a videolezione that starts at 9:30!
Me: You have to learn. You haven’t been to school since March 4.
Vic: They’ll add an hour to it when we are supposed to finish! (This had, in fact, happened just the day before.)
Me. Welcome to the word, kid.
Vic: (Putting on the gamer headset Jason bought him for quarantine; it looks like a carnival ride) Oh, it is English. This will be easy.
Me: Things are getting better every day!
Vic: Mommy, do you see this teacher? This is the one you say messes up all the words and does not know English.

The Italian teachers of English language are not C-2 level. I don’t think native speakers ever proof their assignments or corrections, resulting in famous incorrect corrections such as “I got my hairs cut.” Incorrect corrections all over the place. Worksheets provided for the students to complete, rife with errors. As a person who has plowed hours into language learning and instruction, I can honestly say that I will always ask a native speaker to proofread or verify anything I write in Spanish, French, or Italian. They are not my mother tongues. I have a mother; she speaks English, and only English. I was in my mid-twenties before I accepted that I could not reinvent myself form the ground up, starting with language, for the simple fact that I cannot rewrite my personal history in the U.S. Midwest with two American parents, much less twenty-one years of education, primarily in English, save for three semesters in Europe and six semesters of the Spanish graduate degree. I am who I am. I am in English, with new things added. Extra lenses, additional layers.

We pay modest tuition plus an upgrade for enrichment English here – a newly-formed class meant to target native speakers. Don’t screw it up, please; we speak English at home, but our child needs to learn to write and read. You or mai best friend. All this what you said? and I hadded a popsicle? that Victor and Eleanor say. I will correct the kids gently until they remember this time fondly as a lovely linguistic chapter that they experienced together as children. What you did? What you said? I hadded a dream. I love Victor’s spoken grammar and orthography, but I know this will all come back to bite him if he does not even see it the right way. I tell him now, look Vic, it is super cute, but I don’t want anyone ever to make fun of you for saying things incorrectly in English. EVER.

An amusing aside to this is Victor’s response to British English. He quickly wearied of the tyranny and now refers to it as Brat English. (I find this hilarious, and I love you, England.) In some ways Florence holds high and yet the gold standard of RBP (received British pronunciation), and Victor rebels. He does not appreciate being made to feel like some barbarian from a colonial outpost. Isn’t it funny that Brit and brat are so close? he will say. Well, Victor, I respond. Both versions are valid, but yes, in the EU, the UK version might hold a bit more sway. Followed by a long discussion about why we say “I don’t have,” and not “I have got,” in our house.

I have been on every side of this issue. I have unintentionally sounded like a child in a language I was trying to speak. I have shed bitter tears in different ages after failing to communicate well, or correctly, or being judged for my language. I cannot have Victor be taught English incorrectly only to run around speaking like an unwitting caricature when he is doing his level best, totally unaware of how his language differs. He’s got linguists and language learners for parents; we will address it candidly. Victor and Eleanor are living a very specific type of childhood, between cultures, and they won’t be able to rewrite it. The years are now being etched. Jason and I always say that the way in which we are able to raise our children, with a virtually pain-free bilingualism supporting their curious and flexible minds, is the one way in which we have been able to level up as parents from the upbringing we received in our childhoods. I hope we are right on this one. I think we are, but I really hope they agree in about 15 years.

Update from Italy: Post-Quarantine Strolls

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

The new normal is slowly materializing through the shimmering daze after the weeks of quarantine. I am trying to get a long walk in most days, after lunch, but well before dinner. Three urban miles feels close to perfect. This is easy to do in Florence. The sidewalks go on and on; the wide bike path that follows the viale is matched by a sidewalk of the same width. It seems few people walk around the viale. The cars are loud and make considerable commotion. No country walk there. On the plus side, the viale is framed by plane trees that could easily date from the nineteenth century. My route roughly traces Piazza D’Azeglio, through Piazzale Donatello, to Piazza della Libertà, and if I’m feeling energized, down to the Fortezza. Back up to Libertà, up a couple blocks to Piazza Savonarola, then an optional detour up to the Campo di Marte train station, then back to our piazza. If I trotted out all that in one day, I suspect it would be four to five miles.

The viale – the ring road – maintains its historic importance as the remains of the great wall that once surrounded noble Florence, interrupted by the gates which alone remain in the road, like lonely sentinels with poetic names: Porta San Niccolò, Porta Croce Rossa, Porta San Gallo, Porta al Prato, more. One can see how Calvino was inspired for his Invisible Cities. How the ancient stones in the wall must have creaked and sighed in tired protest when Poggi’s team of men pulled taut the ropes to pull them down after centuries of service. To breathe the air of this history, I am willing to put up with a little traffic. My headphones are charged, linked to my phone in my backpack, on which I stream BBC4 Bookclub podcasts that are engrossing and make the traffic fade into mere background noise. I went so stir-crazy in two months of lockdown that the viale could be full of bloodthirsty monsters commuting on foot and I wouldn’t care. I probably wouldn’t even notice. I am that happy also to see other people and civilization. I’ve made a few notes.

A young woman on Piazza Savonarola answered a call. The ring tone was “Moon River.” This seemed impossibly romantic to me, under a sky gathering rainclouds, her trench coat firmly belted around her slim frame.

I was trying to manifest a sudden an unexpected find of a fifty-euro note. I can sometimes make this happen. I have found so much money on the ground in the course of my life. But alas, no stray banknotes to be found. Just a scattering of security service slips on the sidewalk in front of a grand palazzo. Our friend Courtney laughs at the slips, says they serve no more than to alert thieves to the owners’ absence, as it is easy to count the slips and see how many days it has been since anyone opened the door.

The clouds began to gather to the north, over the hills of Fiesole. Drops fell lazily from the darkening sky.

A young couple embraced on a side street, stroking each other’s hair, their masks under their chins, after the long separation. They were young, normal-looking. Just regular people finally in a moment, in a place, to be able to touch.

Hair salons busy, clients at a distance, mask-wearing seemed to be at about 50%. Barbers and stylists are going to have work for months, but that sounds as nerve-wracking to me as the grocery store. Still, now that the normally impeccably-groomed Italians all now look like wild underbrush, no one will forego an appointment. I will continue to let my hair grow.

I walked through the tiny Piazza Agostino Conti, where the Le Poste ATM must be the most germ-ridden surface in town. It is always in use, with a line to use it, no one wearing gloves. A middle-aged woman with hair dyed red and tied into a dry ponytail walked slowly in front of me without a mascherina, smoking. At first I felt annoyed, but my annoyance quickly transformed into compassion when I saw that she was wearing a Carrefour smock – she was a grocery checker on her break. A line snaked from the supermarket down the sidewalk. The hospitals are doing fine in Tuscany now – the main hospital in Florence closed their Covid-19 ICU on May 19 – but the grocery stores continue to be the frontline for invisible exposure, and will be for months to come. She shouted a greeting to a friend across the street. How are you getting along? the friend asked. Oh, you know, she called back, walking back toward the store with no great joy, stubbing out her cigarette on the sidewalk and crossing the street.

When I arrived back in our apartment I washed my hands, took off my mask, plugged in my phone and headphones. I tied the white canvas apron around my waist, the front folded down in half, to get ready to make dinner. Checked in on the kids, checked in with Jason. A stack of pots and plates stacked in the sink awaited housekeeping attention, so I started with them first, opening the tap, waiting for it to run hot. It had begun to rain outside by now, I saw from the open window, fat drops falling through the air of the courtyard. I passed my hand under the tap as pink and white flower petals fell into the sink from the containers of roses on the rooftop garden.

Update from Italy: Where Do You Go When You Can’t Go Anywhere?

Photo by Nenad Radojčić on Unsplash

Where do you go when you can’t go anywhere?

I am a nature girl by nature; my inner Finn thrills to fresh air, damp soil, petrichor. I don’t even mind getting rained on. I love wind and thunder. I like getting my hands dirty, kneeling in the garden, picking out dead bits to help new shoots grow. I crave rocks and trees, thrill to a coast, have been known to snort water from my palm just to feel afterward like I’d been swimming in a lake.

I have several places in nature to which I return, again and again, in my mind’s eye, with my mind’s ears, my mind’s nose, my mind’s hands.

A deserted apple orchard on the Michigan shore, the weeds thick between the gnarled trunks, the branches unpruned and hanging low. Clouds overhead, the ground pocked with puddles, the trees in bloom like Kurosawa’s peaches, an enchanted tree straight out of Grimm’s.

A stretch of sand in Oaxaca, on the Pacific coast far below the border, embracing a bay where the wild waves broke and not long ago took the life of a woman my age. My Mexican friends said the Shark King, el Rey Tiburón, lived at the bottom of those impossibly blue waters. A pack of stray dogs, scattered from their homes by the hurricane, roamed the beach to scavenge scraps of fish and tortillas. The sun beating down. The shadows not shady enough. The magic feeling that no one will ever find me here.

The grassy promontory of Seattle’s Volunteer Park, the red brick water tower like a laird’s castle. Views for days over Puget Sound through a granite ring, its own standing stone, facing west to funnel all the setting sun. The glass panes of the conservatory that protect miniature biomes of rainforest and desert. Walking in to smell the sweet air, the heat, the fragrance of new green like Calyx.

Emiliano’s estate down the hill from Cortona, olive groves gone a bit awry as they’re meant to, golden hay tamped down between their trunks, flaming poppy petals sparking here and there in the long grass. An eagle circling high overhead in the blinding sun, the gold dome of the monastery further below on the hill. The swimming pool filled with cold clear water, and the enormous fig tree beside it, roots slowly breaking the dry stone wall. 

I have dozens more like this; I return to them again and again in the idle moment, or as I drift to sleep, or in the small hours when all the worry wakes me and I yearn to fetch sleep back to my bed. I return everywhere in my mind, flexing my senses, reconstructing scenes that soothe and free, trying to see just how real I can make it feel.

Update from Italy: Herculaneum and Other Tragedies

One of many caves filled with preserved skeletons, victims of the Vesuvian eruption. (c) Monica Sharp 2020

How many people died in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD? I asked Jason Saturday evening over dinner. These are typical questions in our home.

Don’t know, he said, raising his wine glass to his mouth.

I looked it up. Sixteen thousand, about. Two thousand in Pompeii, and fourteen thousand elsewhere. Those in Herculaneum were the wealthiest.

Our last trip before the pandemic was to Napoli in this century, on a fast train with the children, staying in an apartment on Via Chiaia close to the quartiere of Santa Lucia, festooned with wet laundry off every balcony lining its narrow alleys.

We took a trip inside the trip to Herculaneum, 1,921 years into the past. A few friends in Florence had advised us that it was a better site for children than Pompeii. We traveled to Pompeii in 2013, traipsing around all morning with toddler Victor in a backpack on Jason’s back, watching the sun behind Vesuvius cast long shadows across the agora. It is hard to describe the size and scale of Pompeii to those who are unfamiliar. It is enormous and goes on and on and on. Even if you had a whole day, you could only see a tiny corner of it. In any case, all the treasures have been long since spirited away to the climate-controlled internal rooms of famous museums. The next time we go, we’ll take an archaeologist friend with us. I am not sure which one, but we can surely find someone.

For these reasons, we had Herculaneum in mind. Plus, as a devoted reader and fan of Elena Ferrante, I have had Naples on the brain for a few years now. I longed to breathe the salty air, to close my eyes and inhale the sad remnant of the Spanish empire as it hides itself in the shadows of formerly grand courtyards and street-side façades of peeling stucco.

We stayed in Naples for two full days; on the first, we rode both routes of the city’s sightseeing buses. On the second day, we navigated the Neapolitan metro and the light rail, the circonvesuviale, to arrive at Ercolano – the Italian name for Herculaneum.

“Herculaneum was destroyed and buried under volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption. Although smaller than Pompeii, it was a wealthier town. Unlike Pompeii, the mainly pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum carbonized and preserved more wood in objects such as roofs, beds, and doors, as well as other organic-based materials such as food and papyrus. While roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling debris, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum, causing little damage but nonetheless prompting most inhabitants to attempt to flee.” Very few survived. It is said that a cloud of noxious gas swept down the western slope of the volcano, rolling through the streets of Herculaneum.

I had read that some people in the town had made haste for the beach, where they hoped to outrun the eruption, but how? We picked out way down ramps of honeycombed steel, down, down, down to what used to be the beach, now under four stories of lava and ash, a murky lagoon in front. The current beach is over the forty-foot wall, on the other side. The air grew more and more humid as we descended, the scent of blooming algae strong in the breezeless air. Turning right on a roughly paved sidewalk we walked slowly along the open-air dioramas of terror and death. Bones piled on bones, broken apart but more or less in the shapes of people. Maybe a dozen of these caves lined the lagoon, open to the air and the people, a wooden rail separating us from them.

They had no idea when they arose that morning what that day would bring. When events began to unfold, they panicked; they hastily packed their valuables, and went to the safest place they knew, running with jelly knees under a darkening sky. But those safe places became their tombs. Very safe.

How ironic, how parallel that this trip to Herculaneum was to be our last trip pre-pandemic. Bodies are not piling up in caves on the beach under four stories of ash and lava, but in some way we have all bid a hurried farewell to a version of ourselves that predates March 2020. Frozen in time, those petrified versions of ourselves who inhaled anxiety and unknowing. Victor and Eleanor loved the place, hopping from numbered site to numbered site, exclaiming at mosaic floors, public baths, a fresco. We ate a snack at the temple ruins. They scampered and shrieked over tragedy and history, as we were just weeks away from an eruption of a different sort, a silent eruption in whose wake many perished.

I understand that some do not wish to respect today’s ephemeral remains – the ghosts of ourselves mere months ago, along with a great many who are actually now dead. People wish yet to gather the bones, raise them up, make them dance, as though there were no disaster. Quarantine freedom fests are being planned now for early June in Oklahoma, mere miles away from where we lived. If we could ask those much older bones, the ones we stare at in disbelief, they’d have a good guess as to where these freedom fests might end. Lean in and listen.

I was a Classics and Letters major in university. That education has served me well in Italy, if nothing more than to continue to fuel my curiosity about history, ruins, the human condition. I have always loved stones and bones, as I call them, and carefully incline my ear to hear their whispered tales. They tell me forgotten truths.

Update from Italy: The Cloud of Unknowing

Photo by Michael Voroshnin on Unsplash

“I don’t know.”

“I just don’t know.”

“We don’t know.”

How many times have you said this since February?

There are so many things that we don’t know. Past, present, future. What does it mean to not know? How often have you said, I don’t know? What is your excessive not-knowing quotient, compared to the same time period in 2019?

Are you comfortable not knowing? Is the time and space to not know something a privilege? If you have time and space to not know, you have fewer exigencies pressing down on you to know something immediately. Like Jeanette Winterson, a writer whose work I adore, I find that couching abstractions in metaphor grounds them to better illuminate their signified concepts.

The wise one knows that she does not know. She possesses some idea of the vast uncharted expanse of her un-knowledge. We cannot label it ignorance, because she is aware of it; it sails around at the corners of her dreams, rounding the cape, from time to time anchoring tantalizingly in some dark, deep harbor. Merchants have been known to row up to land in their dinghies with wares to trade and sell, knowledge from near and far: an enameled fact, the amber and bitter gall of past disasters, the tightly wound silk of precious dreams, waiting for the right day to unfurl and flutter in the wind.

Every morning she rises, knowing that she doesn’t know. Sometimes she reviews the handful of things she has learned, perhaps long ago. Or they might be facts or bits she picked up as recently as yesterday. This I know. That I know. Always on Square One, every day Square One, in a world in which she wakes every day and which she must decipher anew, untangling the past and its messages to make sense of nonsense. 

This she knows: every day is a new Square One. This is not a bad thing. Square One is a precious gift. And yet. And yet. As a merchant of knowledge, she yearns to fill her warehouse, stuff it with goods and imports and local harvests, even as she knows there is no warehouse that can possibly hold it all. Still, she sorts her stock; she values, she sells, she barters what she can for other knowledge that she lacks.

Knowing that she does not know is her greatest treasure of knowledge. It keeps her curious, questioning, confirming, asking, watching, observing. Not knowing is a gift; coming into knowledge is a literal revelation, an epiphany so grand that she would never forego it, the sheer pleasure of coming into knowledge that illuminates, even were the ship to sail back out from the harbor again to crest the high seas. She keeps her warehouse modest; you can find it on Square One.

Where is Square One?

“I don’t know.”


Update from Italy: Street Views

Photo by Josè Maria Sava on Unsplash

I have been getting out on a more or less regular basis for walks that consist of thousands of steps. I am very happy about this. Jason has only accompanied me the one time; every other time I have loaded up a literary podcast and tied my laces, still garnished with a sprig of flowering weed that attached itself on the San Domenico stroll, and which I have left in place as a reminder/protest.

I have a few urban circuits. The narrow streets in centro are too confined and claustrophobic for me at this time, and indeed, many of them seem to challenge the idea of social distancing even when pedestrian frequency is low. My main route right now goes up the viale toward the Arno, turn right at Crazy Bar, right again on the way to Piazza Savonarola, walk down to Mazzini, up to Campo di Marte train station, and back home. If I make the whole walk, it’s about eight thousand steps, and I feel great. A perfect walk. The antidote to quarantine-exacerbated lower back pain.

One thing I noticed recently coming back on the home stretch. It was shocking as I realized it. A pair of university-aged women walked toward me, long straight hair, generous hips. As they drew near I realized they were Italian. But they looked American. I was shocked. They were speaking Italian. As I looked around, it occurred to me that everyone around me was speaking Italian. The tourists were gone. Many other expats, not tourists, have packed up and gone home. I was the lone non-Italian for blocks and blocks. Piazza D’Azeglio, where we live, increased in diversity; the non-Italians there were clearly not European.

I asked Jason, when was the last time Florence was so … Italian? I ticked backward through decades. Perhaps pre-Unification (1860)? Or in the decades just after? How about after Florence lost its status as a national capital, and was relegated to cultural treasure-keeper (post-1870)? In any case, in those years I am quite sure that the Grand Tour was in full flux, and the English abounded, with their trunks and their money. Maybe sometimes trunks of money. Just kidding, the trunks were full of paint supplies for their portraitists.

Seeing the Italian-not-Italian students made me realize how the city has changed in the weeks since we hunkered down. Florentines and long-timers common complain, and very vocally so, about the tourists, the daytrippers, the students. But they’re gone now. No more students, no more daytrippers, no more people squinting at maps in the piazza and asking me where they might find the synagogue (it is right next to our building but you can’t see it. Sometimes people think our building is the synagogue.) Being quarantined at home, away from the whole of Italian society, speaking English all day with Jason and the kids, I forgot a bit where we were.

And reading the endless scrolling WhatsApp threads of the other moms (to a one, almost all Italian) moms from the kids’ school, all in Italian, with many emojis and much punctuation, was like visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, watching the fish and manatees and manta rays swim by. No one does friendship like Italian moms with kids. Man, they are tight. My sense of isolated sharpened to an acute condition. Every now and then one of two moms would message me to ask me how we were, in March, in April. Finally one morning I broke down, typing in tears, to a mom I trust. She’s very international; we have bonded before over a shared love of Spain, drinking prosecco from cracked plastic goblets. Daniela? I began tentatively, tapping out buon dì. My language does not arrive to my feelings about all of this, I tapped. But really what I wanted to say was, You are all somehow finding so much comfort in one another and in your friendships and shared culture, and I don’t have that. I’m out here on Expat Island, speaking English, feeling desperate and alone. The Italian moms were desperate too, but they had a lot of inside jokes. On the other hand, many of them had isolated, elderly parents whom they were very worried about. Don’t worry about it! Daniela reassured me. Your Italian is fine! I lived in Madrid with six Japanese girls; I have a high water mark for confusion!

But maybe it was more that my Italian does not connect to my feelings. In March and April, I needed language tools close at hand, as those of you know who have been following along with me on this journey. I needed tools, and I did not have those language tools, because I no longer have time to return to a younger version of myself to building up that memory bank of feelings+words. I have those in Spanish, in French even. But I fear that that ship has sailed. I am just being realistic.

I watched the two Italian women continue down the sidewalk to the crosswalk, their masks down over their chins, chattering away. I felt ashamed and sorry for myself as I walked that last block to our portone.

Update from Italy: The Simple Stroll

Photo by Monica Sharp (c) 2020

A brief update from the desk of Normal Life. Jason and I took a stroll yesterday together, our first time away from the home without the kids since February 25.

That particular day was our wedding anniversary and we had reserved one of the tiny four tables at Cibléo on Piazza Sant’Ambrogio for an elegant prix fixe cena. Alas, the occasion was somewhat marred by the fact that Jason was outside on the sidewalk taking a series of solemn, nerve-wracking conference calls. Later that night, Gonzaga University decided to bring home their students in Italy. What was meant to be a relaxing spring break for students and university faculty and staff turned on a dime. Oh how the wheel of fortune turns! I sipped the rosé on my own and ate Jason’s dessert.

Last week as Italy began to slowly, slowly open up again, our regular sitter returned. She is on a contract with us and has been paid for each week of the lockdown as well, but we missed her and she was ready to come back too. So she started last week on a twice-weekly schedule, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just a few hours in the afternoon. Yesterday Jason and I realized we could take a walk! I advocated initially for my urban circuit. No, Jason said. Let’s ride our bikes to Le Cure, and walk up to San Domenico. So we donned our masks and found our bike keys.

The viale was well-trafficked. People seemed safe. We wheeled up to Le Cure and locked our bikes on a pole at a major intersection, close to our old apartment from 2005, next to the stairs where we saw a young man shooting up heroin one night under the streetlamp. Past the caffè where we sat dumbfounded the morning that the London bombs happened, balancing our cornette alla crema and cappuccini on the metal table outside. The stairs are all cleaned up now and paved with fresh concrete. The latticed rail around the caffè is overgrown with vines like a displaced ruin. That corner building has been branded Il Giardino, long since smoothed over with stucco, developed into oblivion, and sold off in small parcels. Elderly Italians continue to pick their way carefully along the sidewalks close to the walls.

We began the climb up and out of Le Cure. A couple in front of us was unmasked, the man gabbing away on his cell phone. I kept my mask on. The trick to exercising (or walking briskly) with a mask on? Do not open your mouth, ever. Even if you think you have fresh breath, it is not sufficiently fresh to breathe through your nose in an enclosed space. The sunlight filtered through the trees; the wet leaves on the ground were perfumed from that morning’s rain. Walls of white star jasmine tumbled over the stones just on the cusp of first bloom. We passed a few dog walkers, and stopped here and there to read plaques and names of villas along the road up in that secluded part of Florence. Villa Stella. Villa Forbici (don’t run on the grounds!). Villa Corbezzolo. A university campus. Olive groves. Low forests of scrub oaks. The meandering song of birds in the afternoon.

We decided to not go all the way to San Domenico, and did a U-turn onto Via Forbici (Scissors Way). The views spread out over the city, the Signoria, the Duomo, Piazzale Michelangelo, all visible from the point opposite. We passed more villas; many seemed vacant, their gravel drives sprung with straggling weeds. Some had no name at all, even though they seemed very grand and surrounded by fine property. Others stared blankly out from broken windows, their silent stables walled off from the street.

It was only two miles, but gave us bliss for just a bit. On the plus side, Jason did not have to take any stressful work calls. When we arrived at the intersection where we’d locked our bikes, a trio of Italians was struggling to speak loudly from behind their masks, next to the overgrown caffè. I plan to make a walk like this for as many days as it is possible.

The seven weeks of quarantine would have certainly been mitigated by daily walks like this, had they been allowed. I bear no grudge that they were not. But our quarantine was very different, much more severe, than any quarantine in most other countries, with the exceptions of Spain, France, and China. I keep wondering how the rest of 2020 will unfold. I might guess.

Update from Italy: The Mayonnaise is Insane

Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

I adore fresh mayonnaise, its velvet texture, a pinch of salt, a whisper of garlic, made with good French red wine vinegar. Fresh eggs a must. It has always been my favorite condiment, even when I was a child and only knew about Miracle Whip. A ramekin of fresh garlic with your steak et frites or oeufs à la mayonnaise with a glass of red wine, and you are suddenly the patron of a reliable Parisian bistro with a solid reputation. Homemade mayonnaise makes frozen French fries forget their humble proletarian identity. Let the kids eat store-bought ketchup. I will pass on the red stuff every time. There is something so simple, so basic, about the care involved in making a fresh condiment that it makes everything taste better, and full of love.

I never went to the Cordon Bleu, nor fancied myself an aspirant chef. Lately though I have taken to wearing a canvas apron most of the day, because in quarantine and quasi-quarantine I am often in the kitchen, or thinking about going there, or coming from cleaning there. Mayonnaise is like a small party amid all the pedestrian tasks. And yet my efforts to make mayonnaise are pretty hit or miss. The internet had some tips for me that work occasionally, but not always. This results in frustration. In the garden the other day I was chatting with Maria about my mayonnaise tribulations.

“My mother is very careful with her mayonnaise,” she said. “She whips it slowly, by hand, in a specific pattern. Otherwise the mayonnaise, as we say, si impazzisce.” The mayonnaise becomes insane. The mayonnaise will throw a tantrum.

You cannot change direction of the whisk. You must whisk as though you were a liveried butler at a diplomatic dinner. Phlegmatically, calmly, with a refusal to budge or register frustration. Whisk, whisk, whisk, or it will stubbornly remain separate. The lipids refuse to cohere. You will end up with a runny mess. Do you try another tip or trick to save your mayonnaise? Two teaspoons of boiling water, perhaps, or sacrifice a yolk of yet another egg in this hopeless quest for homemade condiment? The dirty dishes pile up. Multiple runny messes are tipped into the organic refuse bin in the kitchen. It’s just not worth it to waste perfectly good eggs on a condiment that won’t set. I could have made, for crying out loud, a delicious coffee crumb cake with two eggs. No hit or miss about it! But I fear the manual whisk! It seems so iffy. So very Brillat-Savarin, minus the gin lemonade and buttered toast points. The mayonnaise preparation works a small fraction of the time with an immersion blender. Maybe I should keep wasting eggs and taking my chances with the electric appliance?

I think you are way too upset about mayonnaise, Jason said. He sipped his glass of box wine. Try to think less about it.

Box wine is very good in Italy, excellent in Tuscany, necessary as our movement is restricted while flowers bloom, glass and wild oats grow, the leaves on the plane trees spread their veins until they are as wide as a child’s face.

We have had some gorgeous sunny days here recently, surely a prelude to a sultry summer. Italy continues to take tentative steps with maximum precaution. Unlike the rest of the EU member states, public schools in Italy (and Spain, for that matter) will not even attempt to reopen until the fall term. Italy is slowly opening bars and restaurants for takeaway only. We can go on walks outside. Meanwhile countries up north – Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland – are reopening schools with safety distance measures, weekly test swabs, reduced class size, and rotating schedules.

Whisk, whisk, whisk. Whisk slowly so that your condiment coheres. Do not enrage the mayonnaise. Who can keep buying fresh eggs like that, only to tip them away into the bin?