Update from Italy: Aunt Fettunta

The ideal olive oil is pressed from olives in different phases of ripening. No self-respecting Italian would ever store good oil in clear glass. Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

I walk every day around Florence. Since the colder weather came in and our liberty decreased due to regional efforts to limit the spread of the virus, I take advantage of every possible moment, every sunny day, dry day, day without rain. Before work, in the afternoons. In late afternoon I sprint to the kids’ school and make our kids walk home with me. I take the heaviest backpack between the two of them, temper their whining, hold a hand or two. We skirt and step around the unfortunate canine deposits. I treasure the walks with my children, hearing them talk about their school day, all the gossip fit to share from the worlds of first and fourth grade. The walks on my own are another kind of treasure: exhilarating, free, unburdened, brisk. My headphones deliver a soundtrack to my private world. If anyone should ogle me or call out, I am protected by ignorance. 

When I returned to the palazzo yesterday from a five-mile stroll, Chiara was in the foyer, her head deep in the hollow of the massive walnut trunk that holds court over the steps and flagstones. A carved crown sits atop its high back, each pointy tip topped by a ball the size of a nut. 

“I am looking for Maria Luce’s skates!” she hollered at me from inside the trunk. Balls, portable pumps, shoes, boots, Frisbees, all flew from the trunk. Chiara grew up in the palazzo and inhabits it with an enviable ease: her family home. “I have found everyone else’s skates, but who knows where hers are!”

I admitted that I had not seen the skates. Usually I am loath to open the trunk as it is positively overstuffed with family detritus, and I fear I may not convince it to close again. Chiara’s ponytail bobbed up as she lobbed me a pair of rainboots. “You can have these,” she said, “too small for Maria Luce.” I looked down at the boots. They seemed to be between my kids’ sizes, in good shape, an expensive brand. “Sure, I’ll take them up,” I said, unthreading the headphones from my ears and mask and scarf. There is often a hopeless tangle of items from my shoulders up these days. A gleam caught my eye. “Is that all your olive oil?”

Chiara’s head bobbed up again. She was still resolutely digging around inside the trunk, her posture reminding me of a terrier at the beach, pawing through sand. “Yes, fifty liters!” she crowed. New oil season in Tuscany is a reason to cheer. It lifts the mood, the knowledge that olives will yield their bounty in the late autumn of each year, the luminous oil poured through funnels into steel cans. Those who receive their olive oil before everyone else are the objects of envy. O delectable elixir! The very color of health and good food, the taste of love in the kitchen. I confess that until I was patiently taught, I never knew what good olive oil should taste like. I just bought Bertoli at the grocery store. It tasted like hay. I thought this was good, a good taste, but my palate was ignorant. My husband made the sign of the cross over my olive oil when we were first dating. “This olive oil is dead,” he intoned. “May it rest in peace.” 

At first I could not get used to the spark and pepper in new oil. What do you mean it’s like wine, blended and vintage with speciality labels? I asked my husband. This is weird. It tastes bad. I don’t like it. But the initiated are soon converted. The pearls cast before me just a handful of times. Seventeen years later, now I like it, now I get it

The first thing – the very first thing – that a Tuscan will make to eat with the new oil is fettunta, literally a fetta unta, a unctuous slice. (Unta as in unctuous.) Tuscan bread is unsalted, and for reasons of taxation and an argument with one or more popes lost in a deep swirl of centuries, it tastes awful – but still they make it. They choose to make this bread even though they’ve been able to easily come by salt for centuries since, and still they make their bread this way. They say it is because their cuisine is so salty, the cured meat is so salty, the zuppa is so salty. The slices are grey and sad in the restaurants. No basket or cheery checked napkin can dress them up. And woe betide any unsuspecting visitor who might pop this wad of old paste into their mouth. It tastes of discarded plaster, chalk powder, nothing. But oh! When fresh, and cut into slices, this pane toscano – Tuscan bread, so designated for its utter lack of salt – is toasted, and brought out to be drizzled with the new oil and a pinch of sea salt. 

And what glory it becomes. It is the snack of choice for children, the perfect pick-me-up for older relatives. In our son’s daycare in Arezzo, when he was just a year old, the snack cart would roll out with its silver platters of fettunta, a woman in a white cap, neat apron, and clean gloves would pinch a warm slice from the platter with a pair of silver tongs, depositing the treasure on each child’s plate. Fettunta is an item you might feed an ailing relative, or a mother struggling back from a bad bout of bronchitis. It even sounds like the name of a trusted wise auntie, in rhyme with the old-fashioned Assunta, “You know what Fettunta always says, to not skip the oil!” The new oil, full of health, packed scientific compounds that are named to bolster the argument for non-believers, but no one, no one in Tuscany, needs to hear this argument. They feel it the minute the oil touches their tongue. They all know it in their bones.

I walked slowly upstairs with the rain boots – they’d need to be washed; their soles still caked with gravel and mud. I opened the door of our apartment on the mezzanino, the former servants’ quarters but comfortable by any standard, and saw my husband had proudly lined up his five green cans of new oil. Fettunta for weeks, months even. The fettunta season will abate somewhat when warm weather returns, but for now, the forecast is all fettunta.

Oklahoma Notebook: Where We Found France

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

The mid-nineties. A particular shop on Twenty-third Street in Oklahoma City. I live not far away, and the store is close to my office. The sign over the shop door says Provénce. No joke. Misspelled and all, a lost accent to add authenticity and continental flair. Provaynce. Two men owned the shop. Maybe they said it like that. It was full of bronze angels, pewter teaspoon racks, plaster cherubs, Hobby Lobby craft tapestries and faux Louis XVI gilt.

I bought a pair of bookends there. Two angels, identical. On sale for twenty dollars because one was chipped. A white glimpse of the polymer from which they were cast gleamed like a tooth. They weighed a ton. I wrote a check for them.

I brought them home and took them out of the paper Provénce bag. I immediately noted that both angels faced in the same direction, as though they had lost their mates in the original sets of two, so one angel in my improvised pair now always faced the wall, as though ashamed. I regretted not having noticed this in the shop. I tried to make the chipped angel alone face the wall, but that didn’t work, because the chip faced outward, so the chip was visible. If one faced the wall, they both faced the wall. I could not hide the cherubic chip. It was like a cruel puzzle. Even as I try to explain it now, I fail. But like some Mobius angel, the chip always showed. The bookends never made sense and never looked right. This was why the cherub bookends had been marked down on sale.

I kept browsing the merchandise in Provénce anyway, looking at brass inkwells and pewter salt cellars and lavender-scented the candles. I missed France. But I couldn’t find it in Provénce.

I finally gave the chipped cherubs away, years later, after I twice shipped them across country. The final jettison was precipitated by our move to Italy in 2016. Someone in Oklahoma has the chipped twins now. I wonder where they are. On a mantle? Other bookshelves?

Paris Notebook: Première Partie

She could not explain why she felt so at home here. It had not been a dream of hers to insert herself in Paris.
Photo by Alessia Cocconi on Unsplash

Paris in the mid-nineties instantly felt like home. The international milieu, the wide streets, the plain logic of the arrondissements fanning outward like a snail. She had arrived first to France on a ship, savoring the vintage transport method and vibe, boarding a regional train from Roscoff to Rennes, then climbing aboard the sleek TGV bound for the Gare de Montparnasse. The wheatfields flew by in a blur, washed white by the August sun. It all felt so orderly, so familiar. She had no explanation for it. She had never been the type to dream about Paris, to put herself in its mise en scène.

In the Paris train station the escalator smoothly brought her down to the ground, all white enamel and steel and primary colors. Fresh, clean, new. Waiting. She stayed longer in the city than she’d planned, never mind the questionable hygiene of the auberge de jeunesse where trim young men binged beer in the courtyard garden. She was pleased to put her French to use, cobbled together in less than two years. The locals, to her astonishment and contrary to all warnings, were kind. Complimentary, even. C’était incroyable, votre français, sans accent, they said. But they shook their heads when she told them her final destination. Strasbourg? Dommage. It is so … Gérman. She laughed. They were obviously wrong. Strasbourg would be magnificent, the literal crossroads of Europe since the heyday Roman Empire. She was going to love it. She did not hold their judgement against them. They were, after all, Parisian, and had been unfailingly kind to her. This was in August.

But their words rang in her head after her first few months in Strasbourg. It wasn’t that it was so German. It was rather that it blended the most difficult components from each culture whose artificial border it straddled, the blue Rhine slowly flowing as wide as the Mississippi. The city was cold, the collective identity scarred by centuries of conflict: 1870, 1918, 1945. The years like a chain around an invisible neck. People were guarded, closed, reserved. They spared no time, and never smiled. Oui, Place Kléber was grand, and indeed, the new tram slipped by silently on electric rails. But Alsatian greetings were delivered with tight lips, narrowed eyes. By November – November! – she had to hand it to the Parisians. They were right. She wanted to tell them they were right. 

At night when she slept she dreamed of sun-filled corners of the country where people were friendly and smiled, whose energy was not stunted by a long memory of war and betrayal, of rations and blood-soaked battlefields. She dreamed of the mountains, of the Mediterranean provinces perfumed by rosemary and lavender, of the south with its Roman ruins. Of the wild western coast where her ship had docked and gently handed her onto land in Bretagne.

She vowed to return to Paris as often as possible. Forget this grey, gravelly city, with its dark evenings and endless rain, bureaucrats and closed doors. The train ticket, when purchased in advance, was inexpensive. She was accustomed to travelling on her own, finding her way and places to stay. She returned to the city once a month during the year she lived in Strasbourg. It never disappointed. It was hers each time from the moment the train stopped in Gare D’Austerlitz and she stepped down to the platform.

In March, she stayed in a different auberge de jeunesse that featured a family of bedraggled rabbits in an enormous plexiglass cage in the middle of the building. She planned to visit the Rodin museum and the Musée D’Orsay. And on Sunday, before she returned home on the train, she would dine at the Closerie des Lilas on Boulevard de Montparnasse. Steeped in the Lost Generation for years, it would be glorious to eat where Ernest and Scott themselves may have drunkenly argued over the bill. La Closerie des Lilas!

The maitre d’ showed her to a table by herself, a row of four one-tops lined up against a long leather bench. She took a deep breath and sat down. He opened the menu and placed it in front of her. Ceiling fans twirled lazily overhead. The lights were low. All the other diners looked very calm and comfortable, tucking into raw oysters and steak frites. The prices were much higher than she had expected. She took another deep breath and went for a classic order. It was fine; she could put it on credit. Never mind the balance.

When the immaculate waiter arrived, she ordered a glass of wine and a steak with a gratin. She people-watched for a while. Sons with elderly mothers, august couples, les grandes dames at lunch. The kitchen was taking its time, so she pulled a blank book from her bag and slowly began to write down a few ideas.

The waiter returned with her glass of burgundy and steak. It was grilled just so, à point, the gratin perfectly melted. 

He raised his eyebrows at her as she rushed to close the journal and place it on the bench.

“Writing, eh? That’s great. That’s great. No one comes here to write anymore. Oysters all day long, mon Dieu.” He cleared his throat. “Bon appétit, mademoiselle.”

An older gentleman next to her on the bench was also dining alone, in a tailored Sunday suit and a neat silver haircut. He cut his steak neatly, placing each piece in his mouth and carefully chewing. She had felt his eyes on her when she was seated. His interest increased after the exchange with the waiter about the journal. He leaned toward her. 

“Writer?”

“Student.”

“Ah. You’ve done well to come here. Bon appétit.”

She carefully cut her steak and chewed it with precision, savouring the reduction with which it had been lightly dressed. The gratin was a dream of perfectly unctuous, premium dairy. She saved the bitter side salad of frisée and vinaigrette for the end, having learned this good habit since she’d arrived: that the purpose of the salad is to cleanse the palate, and it should therefore be sequenced after the meat. You had to hand it to the French. They’d thought of everything. The way they fitted together the pieces of the world to make a coherent whole was admirable.

The meal exceeded her expectations, likely due to the continuous wishes of bon appétit. She resumed her people-watching over the empty plate, sectioning a seeded bun from the silver basket on the table and spreading it with pale butter. Les Closerie des Lilas. She could hardly believe she was here, eating. Why, you could feel the history, sense the past. She wondered what Ernest and Scott would have been arguing about, exactly. 

The waiter returned. “Tout va bien?”

“Oui,” she responded, wiping the corner of her mouth with the napkin.

“Espresso? Dessert?”

Her mind raced. Really, a hundred and fifty francs was what she budgeted for this. She really wanted the dessert. French pastry! But she employed resolve and limited herself to just an espresso. 

“Really? Just an espresso? You do not even wish to see the carte des desserts?”

“No, no,” she smiled, “just the coffee.” She hoped she had not offended the waiter. God, she must seem like such a barbarian! Passing on dessert! On the Boulevard de Montparnasse for Sunday lunch, on her own! She looked down at her hands in her lap and, from the tail of her eye, saw the older gentleman gesturing. He was waving farewell. “Au revoir, mademoiselle,” he told her gently, “and keep writing.” He motioned to her journal and winked. “Never skip dessert.”

“Merci,” she responded, sitting up straighter, “merci, monsieur. Vraiment.” She watched the maitre d’ help him into his overcoat, hand him his hat, then his umbrella. 

Looking down she noted the journal had changed direction. That’s funny, she thought, reaching down for it. 

The waiter returned with her espresso in a miniature red cup and saucer. “Mademoiselle,” he nodded curtly.

She brought the journal onto her lap and looked down. From the top of its pages protruded four fifty franc notes, appearing as though in a magic trick. She blinked. Looking up, she saw the gentleman turn around the corner, repeatedly tossing his umbrella into the air by the handle and catching it. 

“Monsieur! Monsieur!” she called out to the retreating waiter. “I’d like the dessert too, please!”

Update from Italy: The Time Before

Photo by Justin Snyder Photo on Unsplash

Note: This piece is dedicated to Jan Morris (1926-2020), who died this weekend. Jan Morris is a giant of the travel writing stage; her work has enriched and informed my own writing since I first purchased her slim tome Spain in a Salamanca bookshop in 1993.

The rain comes down in buckets. What they never tell the tourists is that the flip side of that summer Tuscan sun is all the winter Tuscan thunder. If they said so, people would just laugh. But believe me: it rains, and rains, and rains. The wind tears at the last roses in the garden until their petals hang in tatters like wet pastel rags.

The Arno valley stays socked in, muffled with grey clouds and fog and mist and a nebulous ceiling that seems to hover at about eight hundred feet above the ground. Days you know the sun would be shining above those clouds if you were on an airplane, which you haven’t been for over a year. Not since the pandemic started. 

So you remember the ascent, the dinging bells, the recorded voice of the flight attendant, the shifting and creaking of contents in the overhead cabins. You imagine those minutes that you must have experienced at least two hundred, three hundred, more times in your life. The activities that you knew put you in a privileged echelon, and yet they just seemed to keep coming, keep happening, keep presenting themselves, carbon footprint and contrails be damned. Pack, fly, land. Pack, fly, land. Over and over, in every decade. Frequent flyer miles and an encyclopedic knowledge of airline hubs and routes. Long international holidays purchased with miles. Calendar time marked by your last voyage. And for what? What was there, what were you chasing, in those distant, unknown destinations? 

Back in Florence, the city now empty of day trippers and angry short-timers, the flagrant displays of culture shock. Recall that one round-faced Englishman complaining in the farmacia for having been charged eighteen euros for a cappuccino in centro, “Can you believe it?” he hollered, flushing. The pharmacist clucking and shrugging in her white coat, her eyeliner immaculate. Yes, she could believe it.

The trudging platoons of cruisers, plugged into their headphones with the live feed, the guide up front speaking a laughable English, but those jobs were so secure, so well-paid, so coveted that the Italians who secured one were guaranteed stability and a handsome stipendio. Never mind the fact that they cultivated hoards of tourist zombies who spent little and noticed even less.

The drunk/hungover/both backpackers, sunburned in Piazza della Repubblica, on Calimala and Calzaiuolo, checking their cells for Tinder pings or a while waiting for a drop. One day a blonde young woman, tinged pink and incoherent, slouched against a building, her right breast having slipped out of her spaghetti-strap sundress, the petal of a nipple exposed while a crowd gathered to leer at her and offer false help. 

The street drummer who thumped his collection of empty plastic drums, the bluegrass band in their fetching seersucker, the cute boy in the straw boater playing his homemade bass, the melodramatic violinist who seemed in daily danger of poking out a tourist eye while sawing a too-vigorous bow.

So you hunker down in Tuscany again for the second winter of the pandemic, the cold season of time at home, restrictions and masks, the towns once thronged with tourists emptied out. The headlines say the economy won’t recover in the region until 2027 at the soonest. You can’t help but wonder: what good was it all for anyway? 

I’ll tell you one secret though, about what happens after those torrents fall in sheets from the sky. If you’re lucky, when the clouds break and the blue sky reappears, the concave flagstones hold puddles like tide pools minus the marine life, silvered, mercurial, shimmering. They glitter in the oblique light. But the greatest magic is revealed to those whose gaze casts downward. In the rippling reflections are mirrored the views above, and the Duomo, the Battistero, the onion lanterns of the Palazzo Strozzi and the fortress of the Palazzo Pitti and a hundred other landmarks appear through the lenses of a collective urban dream. Photographers used to gather to find the best one, to capture the image of the image, looking through long lenses and iPhones. Whimsical images more fleeting: a child crying and holding a red balloon; the still gilded carousel holding court in the center of Piazza della Repubblica. Eventually, after a half day or more, the puddles relinquish their water, no mean feat in the humid, cold air. The stone buildings that remain seem somehow less than the conjured dreams that were floating in a million glittering mirrors scattered silently throughout every piazza in Florence.

Update from Italy: The Holidays of Mare Nostrum

Photo by Rohan Reddy on Unsplash

A few days before Halloween, Fatima and I were chatting in the parking lot, waiting for the kids to bounce out of the first grade door. This was a few weeks after our Moroccan lunch. I mentioned that Eleanor’s birthday falls on Halloween, and that the collective classroom birthday was to fall on the Friday as well. (There is one birthday party on the last day of each month for all the kids who had a birthday that month.) The class representative, another mom named Agata, arranged for an impressive delivery of 24 sugar cookies cut into identical ghostly shapes, frosted carefully white, with identical eyes and smiles painted on each one.

“The cookies are really cute,” I offered by way of Inarguable Opinion. Fatima nodded. “But they were all ghosts. A couple of pumpkins would have been nice.”

“Pumpkins?”

“Yes, pumpkins.”

“But they are for Easter, no?” She frowned.

I laughed in what I hope was a kind manner. “Eggs are for Easter.”

“When was Easter?”

I looked up inside my head for a quick response. “About six months ago,” I judged.

“You carve eggs for Easter?” Fatima frowned.

I quickly flipped through mental process flowcharts for hard boiling, then carving an Easter egg into a bunny face and popping a votive candle into the rubbery, hollow white. Was that even possible? Seemed unlikely. “No,” I answered, coming back to reality, “we color eggs.”

“Ah.” Fatima nodded. “But the pumpkins?”

“Yes,” I nodded vigorously. “The pumpkins get carved, then lit from inside with a candle.”

“Why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s what we do for Halloween.”

“On Friday,” she confirmed.

“On Friday,” I repeated.

“And the eggs? Easter was when we had the breakdown.”

I paused for a moment, then realized what she meant. The lockdown. But her moniker was somehow so much more appropriate and meta.

“Yes, Easter was during the … the breakdown.”

Fatima nodded and smiled again, now that all her facts were straight.

How pleasantly disorienting and sense-sharpening to talk with someone for whom cultural points are not at all a given, but rather a transparent mystery of jumbled symbols. How many Americans or Italians could correctly name one or two of the main Muslim feast days on the calendar? As for me, I now want to carve an Easter egg-o’-lantern next year. I’ll put a birthday candle in it.

Photo by Eric Heininger on Unsplash

Update from Italy: The Grand Mufti of Rome

From mosque …. Photo by ‏🌸🙌 فی عین الله on Unsplash

The ancient trope of the Roman Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, is alive and well in Italy, ever at a cultural crossroads. Midway through the school year last year a pair of twins arrived in Eleanor’s preschool. “Mommy, they have almond eyes and are in English. They cry a lot,” she told me matter-of-factly. Muneem and Nissrine are Sudanese via Saudia Arabia, and are here with their mother Fatima, who recently finished a graduate program in Italy. They all speak English as a solid second language, and the twins have quickly adapted to Italian.

However, Fatima is now learning Italian, and is moving gamely through local culture with a brave, if novice, perspective. I have been brought in by the class representatives to help, from time to time, to interpret from Italian to English, and will confess that Fatima reminds me very much of an international student from my campus days. Yet this time around I am in a very different position, as a peer and a potential friend. My time is not regimented; I am not dispensing advice, or making difficult decisions. My role this time is to be a friendly presence, a cultural go-between navigating the spaces between Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the U.S., Muslim religious education, halal exemptions in the school cafeteria, the fondo cassa (class kitty) taken up for costs during the year, among others.

I am delighted that Fatima and I have formed a very casual, warm friendship, and last month she took me to a halal Moroccan restaurant in San Lorenzo with individual stew portions served in small tagines. That October afternoon, well before any return to lockdown or restrictions, was full of sunlight; the modest restaurant was open to the piazza, and the fix or so tables pressed into the compact space were almost all taken by workers and bike delivery people from Just East and Deliveroo and Uber Eats. Fatima bantered warmly with the owner and her sister behind the counter, who praised me for my five words of Arabic. When we finished our lunch, they brought sweetened fresh mint tea in clear glasses inside silver clasps. I thought it was funny that she did not know about the mosque in Florence, which is large and well-attended, not far from where we live. Since that lunch (which was cancelled and rescheduled a number of times, but which I refused to let go, not wishing to fall into the cliché of the insincere American), Fatima and I are genuinely happy to see one another at pick-up and dropoff, as I collect Eleanor, and she takes one twin each by the hand.

Today she told me that she’d taken the twins out of religion class, but that they seem to be learning religion every day. I understood at once that she meant not Islam, although to my mind, the religion class at the kids’ school is admirably ecumenical.

“But they still say these prayers and cross themselves. What are they doing?” she asked me.

“They learn it throughout the day. This is a Catholic school.”

“Yes?” Her eyes grew wide. I thought it best not to point out this basic distinction, or go into an explanation at that time of Italy’s designation of schools as pubblica, privata, or semi-privata. I went with the basics.

“Italy is very Catholic. This is a Catholic country.”

“It is? Why?”

“The Pope is in Rome.”

“Pope?” Wow, I thought, fuzzy on facts.

“Yes,” I said quickly. “Like the head imam of the Catholic Church. He’s the grand mufti here.”

“Oh, you know about imam and mufti!”

I nodded.

“But why the Pope is in Rome?”

I thought fast, fresh off my Greek post from yesterday, I got this. “There were five imams, but about a thousand years ago the imam in Rome decided he was the chief imam. So he became the head imam of the Western church. And the other four imams remained in the Eastern church.” I thought a moment. “Like Sunni and Shi’a Islam.”

Her smile was huge. “You know about Sunni and Shi’a! How?” This was a flattering assessment as I felt pretty certain I had mangled more than a few facts.

“Years in my field.” I smiled back. “But your kids will continue to say prayers they learn at school and cross themselves at meals. It is just a part of the culture. Over there,” I gestured behind me, “the Scolopi priests live. Regular imams.” Indeed, I had just learned this autumn from Jason that the priests are in residence on the west side of the building block. Always happy to share a newly-acquired fact.

“Is that who teaches them this?” She crossed herself. It looked like she was shooing a mosquito.

“Yes, they teach them that.”

“My sister who lives in London wants them to stop crossing themselves.” I wasn’t sure what to say about this, and in any case, Eleanor was first out and down the stairs screaming, “Thank you for saving me, mommy!” as though I had just sprung her out of solitary. I turned to wave farewell to Fatima, but she was already engulfed in a frenzy of twin affection.

… to the Vatican. Photo by John Rodenn Castillo on Unsplash

Update from Italy: All Things Greek

Admiring an ikonos in the Oltrarno. Sant’Iacopo sopr’Arno, Firenze.

In a strange, dreamlike way, even though I have never been to Greece, I feel a visceral connection to Greek culture. I date this fixation to a hardcover book I purchased as a child in a secondhand bookshop in Florida one winter when visiting mu grandparents. The large volume about ancient Greece seemed oprhaned from a series (where were “The Babylonians,” “The Romans,” “The Celts,” “The Gauls,” etc.) and had a slightly stained cloth cover, lavish color plates, and no end of detailed explanations about the city states: what they wore, what might top a column, the gods they worshipped on Mt. Olympus. Picture books were soon replaced with leisure reading along the lines of Edith Hamilton and D’Aulaire anthologies and C.S. Lewis retellings, which became a major in Classics and Letters as an undergraduate in October 1991. I never looked back. A recent podcast binge on Hardcore History took me along with Herodotus and Xenophon on various campaigns, into Assyria and Babylonia, explaining the uses of political propaganda and intimidating in 550 BCE. I gravitate toward these topics.

Before Latin became the lingua franca of Europe, the language of the learned was Greek. Greek in a Hellenized Mediterranean basin, Greek in parallel with the mirror image of the Byzantine church, and Greek, though frozen in time around 400 BCE, kept pace as a language of scholarship well into the Renaissance, and continues to be so today in Christian seminaries of almost every denomination.

My adventures in the Episcopal church were added to my Greek orbit. You may argue my point, but the Anglican and thus Episcopal churches were not borne of Lutheran Protestantism, instead taking up for a time of unity before the Great Schism of 1054 CE. Let us dispense with the pope, one might hear Cranmer state in as though in a distant dream, and return to an equitable system of patriarchs, distributed throughout Christendom. The greatest gift the Episcopal Church gave me – and continues to give – is a release from the endless analysis and dissections of the Western Church (although appreciated), and an affinity for the Orthodox (and by extension Episcopal) of practice before theory, verging on Buddhism. Gone the Cartesian matching of wits, of theory before practice, the idea that if it can all be explained logically, then I’m totally in. I do think this is the reasoning of many Western atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists. I treasure the Via Media and value a compelling reason (if you’ll forgive my immediate return to the Cartesian redoubt) to lay down the burden of investigation, and to practice.

My total time in a classroom learning Greek amounted to about two months in 2004. Not taking Greek as a young student is one of my greatest regrets in an otherwise full life fairly free of regret. I finished a superb book last week about Greek, La lingua geniale, a play on words of Elena Ferrante’s bestseller, L’amica geniale. The premise of the book is “nine reasons to love Greek,” but it also contains a gentle dissection of Greek grammar: what is lost when a language is lost. Singular, plural… dual? Indicative, subjunctive … optative? The optative in particular, the verbal gradation well beyond the basic subjunctive, of wishing versus possibility through to impossibility, counts as an immeasurable loss in the pantheon of human expression. The willingness to hold in suspension the degree to which we control our surroundings, and the extent to which our hoped-for reality is even possible, seem very timely concepts at the moment.

Tuscany entered the strictest regiment of lockdown yesterday, back to where we were last spring. We have been expecting it for weeks, and in anticipation of a loss of freedom I had been taking extra-long walks all over town. One morning, walking down Borgo San Jacopo in the Oltrarno, I passed by a church I’d been curious to visit for years. It is typically locked up, dark, its chancel hanging over the river and, giving it its moniker of Sant’Iacopo Soprarno (St. Jacob over the Arno). Formerly a landmark church, it is now part of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Sant’Iacopo Soprarno. They say you can hear the river from the front pews. I didn’t hear the water that day, but I love the symbolism of water flowing under a cantilevered chancel.

On this chill morning incense floated into the street, and through my headphones I heard the priest canting. Of course I went in and tucked myself into a corner to hear the liturgical mix of Greek, Latin, and Italian (you have no idea how happy this makes me). Two hundred lit beeswax tapers filled the sanctuary with pools of yellow light. The priest went through his paces behind the altar screen; an acolyte stood at the ready with a long taper, and a reader staffed the lectern. Gilded icons were tucked into almost every corner, illuminated by candlelight like an actual heavenly host. I haven’t been in an Orthodox church since I was last in Helsinki, nosing around Uspenski Cathedral (uspenski = dormition in Old Slavic, celebrating the miracle of Mary being taken directly into Heaven, bypassing all that distasteful mortal business of death), the head of the Orthodox Finnish congregation . I noted that accoutrements of the Orthodox sanctuaries made our Episcopal church of St. James (the Greater) look almost as austere as the Lutheran Cathedral of Helsinki, whose whitewashed walls and wooden pews are scrubbed clean, a bit of blue here and there the only color, its niches hollow. I did not stay for the entire liturgy, but left after about twenty minutes, walking into the warm sunshine, a hint of incense remaining in my coat and hair.

I follow my curious heart wherever it may lead, and the old I get, the more I enjoy drawing the connections among language, art, human experience, history, and faith. How fortunate we are to live in an era of cultural richness not forgotten.

Update from Italy: La Misericordia (Mercy)

Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

La misericordia. It’s a Latin mouthful, meaning mercy, and I learned it in Spanish, where it seemed a very long word indeed to express mercy. An unmerciful word indeed for the concept, to the mind of an adolescent language learner! However, in Italy, misericordia is also the term for the not-for-profit medical teams that provide medical services, staff ambulances, and dispatch first responders. Not-for-profit ambulances. I want to repeat that for my American readers. Emergency medical responders whom you do not pay. This speaks to a deep history of community support and a robust social contract. No one hesitates to call an ambulance in Italy when in a genuine medical crisis, because the ambulance bill is always nil. In the US the trope of a thousand-dollar ambulance ride has been a running joke for decades now. I wrote about my PTAHSSS four years ago here.

My first ambulance ride of my life was this year, in early March, for an ideopathic incident that still has us scratching our heads, but which we thought at the time to be some sort of cardiac distress (certainly there was a lot of general stress in early March). Four to six medical professionals arrived in lime-green jumpsuits with an impressive kit of start-of-the-art medical equipment, ran a bunch of tests on my person, then loaded me into the back of their ambulance, where we bounced over the very uneven flagstones of the streets between our palazzo and the hospital (not a long trip). They were efficient, well-educated, and kind. They did a great job. And we received no bill for any portion of their services.

Centuries ago, the Misericordia di Firenze was headquartered next to the Battistero and Duomo, in a jewel-box of a palazzo. Its phenomenal history dates back almost eight centuries. Said to be the oldest charitable institution in the world, it was founded in 1244 by a local San Pietro Martire, but really came into its own in the years of the Black Plague, when orderlies would transport the ill to medical care in large baskets. Even today, a mural on the outside wall of their office depicts a cloaked medieval employee of the Misericordia shouldering a sick fellow citizen with no small effort.

In a similar vein, the Ospedale degli Innocenti has been caring for children since at least 1445 and probably earlier, before they moved into the grand early Renaissance complex that today houses a childcare center and a UNICEF office. Their museum has records and artifacts from the Florentine commitment to take in foundlings and care for them since the early 1300s. While it would be a stretch to say that this care was given without shame in the medieval era, the culture does not put much stock in bootstraps. The community takes pride in coming together to care for its members.

When I see the news and updates from the US about the dissent over wearing a mask – a mask – a cheap, noninvasive, and extremely effective measure to control the spread of Covid – I am reminded of what may be the most compelling reason for me to remain in Italy and raise our family here. The social contract is robust. It is life on a human scale, and has been so for a long, long time. As I wrote three years ago, there is an established, high-culture context of expectations for network care in Italy. Spoiler: it doesn’t come from their top five most profitable healthcare corporations. I am checking in with older friends this morning to see if there is anything I can do to help them in the coming weeks, now that we are in code red or whatever. This is a culturally supported response.

Italy. Life on a human scale. Where you’re treated with the respect due a human being. It’s really helped me to grow, mature, and calm down as a person. If this seems hyperbolic to an Italian, I might suggest you try living in the US for more than three years to experience the crush of that cultural wheel. It’s just not doable for anyone with less money or gall than Peter Thiel.

What if the people of the world could be as kind to one another as Italians, moved by mercy?

Update from Italy: Here We Go

The sun really rolled out for my last walk. Gold painted the Arno this evening. Grazie, sole. Photo credit (c) Monica Sharp 2020

Tomorrow the region of Tuscany joins many other Italian regions, entering a code red in a lockdown attempt to manage the upward spiral of Covid positive cases. Hospitals are again strained. Ambulances and emergency vehicles wail through the streets day and night. The faces of Florentines are etched with stress.

What’s different this time, compared to last spring? Well, we’re old hands, have done this before. On a very positive note, the region is prioritizing keeping the schools open for children 12 and under who are not as technologically independent and who struggle with online classes. I have a lot more I could say about usability and online classes; I wish I could point the kids’ schoolteachers to best practices in online pedagogy, and cut their contact time down significantly to three 20-minute sessions or so, with time away from the computer to do an assignment. The memories of a teary, bleary third-grade Vic struggling with online classes are still very fresh for the other three people in the household who was in lockdown with him last spring. It is no exaggeration to say he was enraged, and as a parent and a tech-savvy person in general, I judged him to be most justifiably annoyed.

I felt the familiar panic goblin creeping over my shoulder. Yesterday I stress-cleaned, and overloaded our washing machine, thus breaking it and causing a flurry of palazzo apologies and assistance. The final load duly drained, Jason called Zoppas and the repairman has been scheduled for a Thursday morning house call. Fortunately it was the last load.

I have already begun stress baking, but more mindful now of what seems to be my increasing intolerance for glutinous grain. I may have to start baking gluten-free. I have a recipe in mind already for coconut orange carrot squares.

Knowing that this day would soon be upon us, I have been taking very long walks each day, up and down the Arno, crossing each bridge multiple times, typically in the morning before I went to the office. Watching the egrets gracefully fish, oblivious to the currents. The morning smells, the deserted streets and piazze, the bored baristi, all arranged themselves into a visual poem that I read as I walked. Tonight I took my last long walk for some weeks or months to come, and it did not disappoint. I was concerned by the number of people out, but 98% of them were carefully masked. I was clearly not alone in my wish to briefly access urban freedom before we get down to it here at home again. On my way back to our house, the sun overflowed with golden light spilling over the surface of the Arno, and a double rainbow appeared to the east, spanning the distance from San Miniato to Le Cure. I was not the only one to stop and take a picture of it.

Rainbow over Piazza Beccaria, arching toward Porta Croce Rossa. Can you spot it?

I’ll be going into the law office as I can, to work in the mornings. The kids will still be going to school. I’ve got stacks of books to read, and a book I am writing. The ogre who previously lived in the ground-floor apartment of our palazzo decamped at the end of May, so I’ll get my watercolors (acquarelle) out here shortly and plan on spending some time in the garden. Watch my Instagram feed for art output.

We’re just moving into this as prepared as we can be. I’ll be writing here more, so check back, and follow me. Parting note: I never thought I’d be a routine apron wearer at home. Is this Italianness? Is it practicality? I eschewed it before because I thought, I don’t need to protect my clothes. But now I think, it’s a kitchen towel with strings for hand wiping. Such is the practicality with which I am moving into the third phase of our pandemic experience. My 98-year-old Finnish muumuu would be proud.

Update from Italy: On Not Zoomin’ with Toobin

Fellow human as idols? It never ends well. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

When I first saw the news I was like, what? But he’s so smart. Why would he do that?

Exposed himself? In a Zoom meeting with his fly employer, The New Yorker, and WYNC, which is cooler than The New Yorker? Who does that?

A quick note: I feel qualified to weigh in as a layperson on this topic. I’ve been reading The New Yorker since 1993 or before, and have been a subscriber for 25 years. Why, just last week I was chatting with their customer service people (“Please stop sending us paper copies to Italy, for real, and now.”) I feel about Jeffrey Toobin as I feel about Malcolm Gladwell, one of his colleagues. They’re those smart boys in AP English who talked too fast and were quick to outpace one another’s amateur stand-up routine for the back row of class. But nervous, nervous as hell. Afraid they wouldn’t meet the expectations of their élite parents. Probably exhausting in person, like dating a Stairmaster, to borrow a bon mot from Sorkin. I read everything those two wrote, Toobin and Gladwell, religiously and for years. Insightful! Different! Clarifying.

For a brief period, Jason and I were friendly with a man through Jason’s Oregon connections. This professor had been a staff writer for The New Yorker for some years in the past, and regaled us and my lit fangurl with tales of the hallway gossip, how insufferable Adam Gopnik was in person. I felt less to blame for the standard rejection letters they’d sent me from time to time our of the slush pile in the submissions office, back in the nineties. Place was an office like any other. Good days and bad days.

Well, for some people, some really bad days.

Important disclosure: I am one of the few people in a room who will immediately quash mean jokes about lawyers. I like lawyers; I always have. I have frequently worked with them in jobs I found fulfilling. I have many lawyer friends. I appreciate their intensity and wit. I am not attracted to smarmy people when seeking potential new friendships, so this may be a contributing factor to why my lawyer friends are upstanding people who do good work.

I read up on Toobin. I hadn’t realized how élite and privileged his background was. Harvard undergrad, HLS (ok, so he actually has a law degree), hanging out with Kagan back in the day, staffing in the U.S. Senate, parents beyond successful (son of Marlene Sanders, former ABC News and CBS News correspondent, and Jerome Toobin, a news broadcasting producer). Ok, so probably, as we say in Italian, molto pesante. All that.

I Toobined a little in his footsteps, keeping my fly securely fastened and the video OFF. I rolled up my shirtsleeves and set out to analyze The Incident. I called a friend in the UK who tracks this type of news closely, in the name of #metoo and general feminism. “They’re all sex maniacs!” she laughed. “It’s a huge thing for them to flop it out in public.” Me: “You have got to be kidding. A work meeting? at 2 PM? Why?” She said it was a power thing, to see if they could get away with it. The more powerful they are, the more exhilarating the risk. Related: Having sex in public.

For me, the most disturbing part is how the news reported that he “exposed himself,” rather that “actively participated in Zoom sex on another video call and screen while his work meeting’s video was active.” I also have a real issue with the term “exposed himself” when in reality he was having a wank in a very public way in a work meeting during office hours. This is a willfully misleading synecdoche. He was not exposing his deepest self. Nor was he exposing a knee, or an ankle, or armpit. It was not intimate. It was exhibitionist. This act might be more accurately termed “exhibited his penis while pleasuring himself.” I think Toobin would appreciate the accuracy in wordsmithing here.

Sorry, élite writer, but your longtime employer did the right thing ending your employment. When I think of how hard a woman has to work to even be considered for any one of the multiple jobs that Toobin seems to have held concurrently, and how I have never known or read about any woman who had a quick wank in a work meeting, it is clear that Toobin became rather too accustomed to earning in the highest echelon of thought leadership. I am struggling to understand, Q: who risks that? A: Someone who’s accustomed to receiving everything, and expects to never have anything taken away.

I am so glad I was not on that Zoom call. Zoom is one of the last redoubts of connection and socializing and normal work in 2020. I am sure he’ll be rehabilitated soon. Someone will probably give him a softball book contract soon to talk about What He Learned From This.

Semi-related: I was listening to a Reply All podcast with Jia Tolentino, another staff writer for The New Yorker, about her bitcoin and online drug purchases and trying to track down her missing $264,000 USD, only to find she’d spent it all on the weed from Mali that she bought on The Silk Road. Jia writes really well, but demonstrates a greater-than-average dumbness on a variety of counts in this story. My idols are crashing down faster than I discover new ones. (If you think you might qualify for Idol Status here at my desk, there’s a Contact Form on my site.)