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?