Update from Italy: Turbulence Frays Nerves

Quarantine Airlines’ wide-body jet, passenger capacity: 60 million. Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

The turbulence on Quarantine Airlines’s descent has indeed been heavy coming down out of our most severe restrictions. We all snickered nervously when the captain said it was going to be rough. We hoped it would not be, but then food flew off tray tables, wet plates of noodles slopped onto cabin walls, even the flight attendants turned pale and hastened to their flip-down seats to buckle in up by the mid-ship galley. Passengers fumbled for the laminated instructions in the seat pocket in front of them, but needed the airsickness bag more urgently and so grabbed that instead.

The days here have been mild and sunny. While we were all inside for those two months, the plane trees exploded with foliage. The grass and wild oats grew unabated in the open spaces of the park in front of our building. Spring slipped through the bars while we were locked down. This week marked a return to some semblance of normal life for us, as Jason returned to a daily office routine, and my remote work picked up. Yesterday he returned to work after lunch at home with us. “I’ll take the kids outside for a bit,” I said.

Lately the kids have been toting around beach pails, their faces long, sad eyes. They have been upset that all their squirt-guns are broken. A couple of times in the past week, they have taken the buckets to the garden behind the palazzo to have water fights. A balloon was involved at one point, and a straw; Eleanor was soaked from behind when Victor unloaded the balloon’s liquid contents onto her without warning. I had to explain (again) one of the cardinal rules of “playing a game”: “everyone must be aware that a game is being played and they have consented to be a part of the game; otherwise, this is actually pretty close to bullying, which Mommy is not at all cool with.” I took Eleanor upstairs to change her into dry clothes and returned with her to the garden and a sulking Victor.

So yesterday I told them I would take them out into the park with their pails for this faux-medieval launching of buckets of water. They put on their shorts and t-shirts, picked up their identical green plastic buckets. Vic and I put on our mascherine; Eleanor, being 5, is not required by the rules to wear one, since they are required for children six and older. Plus when I tried to fit one of the masks onto her last week, I pinch the metal band over the nose too hard and made her cry. “No mask needed for Eleanor,” I said. We went downstairs.

I threw away a bag of indifferenziata, and we walked to the fountain. The one closest to the football pitch was dry. Boys were playing ball in the cage, no masks. High school kids, no masks. Older women sitting on benches talking to one another, about two feet apart – masked, but boy, that’s close. We walked across the park to the second fountain, which was running. The two homeless men who sleep on the benches were there as usual. They were gone during the lockdown weeks, the few times I saw those benches when I took out the trash. Victor and Eleanor filled their pails. “Guys, let’s go in here,” I said, shepherding them into a deserted and minute meadow of daisies, protected by a laurel hedge. They filled their buckets and ran around a few laps, whooping and hollering. “Joy! joy! joy!” Eleanor started to shout. Victor flung his water into the air, scattering a herd of purple pigeons. Eleanor accidentally emptied hers onto herself. “Just a few more minutes,” I said, leaning against the back of a park bench. “Eleanor got wet.” “If we get wet, the game ends?”they asked. “Yes, of course,” I said. “It is not that warm out here.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw an older Italian woman, on her second lap of the pavement on the other side of the hedge. She wore a shiny beige jacket, sunglasses, a visor, a mask. Sensible tennis shoes. I did not have sunglasses on. She must have seen my glance dart her way. “Your daughter is not wearing a mask!” she shouted. “Look at her!” I looked at the woman. “She’s six,” I said stupidly. I meant to say, she is not yet six, but my Italian is not great under stress. “E! appunto!” “Exactly,” she retorted. “So, put a mask on her!” Victor and Eleanor continue to whoop and holler with their pails of water. I panicked. “Cinque!” She’s five, lady! The rules don’t apply to her, and this is the first time we are out together since early March, and as you can see I have corralled them in an empty space to play for fifteen minutes. I felt like saying all this, but didn’t have the language at hand, so I just yelled “Cinque!” again. The woman gave me a withering look of disgust that was palpable even with her visor, sunglasses, and mask. A cold pit slimed in my stomach. Italy’s culture of public scolding is very hard for me, for a variety of reasons, even when a pandemic is not happening. It actually does make me feel really bad. I can’t yell back, first due to temperament, second due to language. And I carry around that weird shame hangover for hours, after it happens. Even if it is pointless.

A father walked by, unmasked, with his son on his shoulders, about Eleanor’s age, also unmasked. About fifteen more comments came to mind dans l’ésprit de l’éscalier, none of them translatable into quick Italian. I stood around for awhile long watching Vic and El. They were the only ones using the fountain at first, but then a family came by on their bikes (all unmasked) to drink from it. “Okay, guys, were are done here,” I called, thinking about the nineteenth-century London cholera epidemic and wondering if the culprit pump looked like anything like that. The kids whined but noted that my energy had changed. The shiny beige nonna came around again on another lap and gave me more side-eye.

We started across the park while Victor whined about how he never got to play “water fight.” They tried the dry fountain again. The ten or so sweaty boys were still playing football inside the cage. “That pump doesn’t work,” a small boy shouted at us. “I know!” I called. “Da non toccare!” the mother shouted. Don’t touch it! “I knoooooow!” I said. “Grazie!” But of course we had just touched the other fountain on the other side of the park about fifty times. Victor was not going to give up on his constitutional right to have a water fight. I finally stopped on the corner before we crossed the street and gave him a talking-to about what is possible and what is impossible. He got very serious. “Ok, ok, ok!” he protested, annoyed. “I get it!” Eleanor looked close to tears.

We went back up to our apartment and washed our hands. I sat down at my desk to get some work done, my heart fluttering, my hands shaking. “Mom, can we have a snack?” Victor asked. “You’ll have to make it yourself,” I said. “Gotta get some stuff done here.” He stole into the kitchen to make ham and cheese sandwiches.

I pressed my nose to the glass but saw nothing. I focused on deep breaths to stave off the nausea. We were still flying through a heavy cloud layer. The food mess would have to be cleaned up when we got down, that much was clear. People would have to pick over the slop and spilled noodles. Condensation streaked diagonally across the oval window as I picked at a hangnail on my right thumb. I decided to wait to put my shoes back on after we landed. This flight has been rougher than any of us could have imagined, back when we boarded in March.

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