Update from Italy: Red versus Blue

Mesticcheria Tucci, Via dei Servi, Florence.

This weekend marks that last weekend last year we were somewhat free to move around. The Italian government had begun to cajole, urging people to make good decisions, but without a clearly drawn bright line between a Good and Bad Decision, the “this sounds like a good decision” of many people quickly proved to be a Very Bad decision indeed. The freedom and caprice of early spring got the better of many who did not possess a clear understanding of where the pandemic was headed – would the virus spread everywhere? were Italy and China somehow cursed by the ghost of Marco Polo? Jason and I were starting to hunker down. The writing was on the wall. His Gonzaga students had flown home, all 200 of them. We had a strong hunch were all this was going, and the slide into national decrees, restrictions, and emergencies bore our our fears the following week.

We were still not fully aware, though. Obviously. Reality had some surprises in store for us. We had no idea how long these changes would last. We were on a train headed into a very dark, long tunnel. We thought it would be over by Easter, certainly by summer. Surely the students would be back for summer programs, and by fall for the academic year. We had seen all the other new maladies come and go, and their spread was always managed and limited. Surely this shadow would not cross the whole globe. It would be done soon. We just had to be careful for now.

We had no idea how much our life and lifestyle and timeline would be changing in the coming weeks. How much we’d be hunkered down at home like it was the London Blitz, chewing our cheeks every night in our sleep. Surely it couldn’t last.

But in the meantime I started keeping Farm Wife and Miss Anxiety busy. Making sourdough starter like everyone else on the planet, befriending the good microbes. Jason managed the increasingly stressful grocery runs. He finally found us a restaurant wholesale who delivered boxes of delicious Italian food to our palazzo for no extra charge. With almost every business closed, the restaurants weren’t going to use it. We were on a trip to the moon, to remain in orbit for almost eight weeks, and we didn’t even know it. We’d be in our apartment for 56 days, every meal together at the same table with the same plates and napkins as Jason and I turned hot dishes out from our modest kitchen.

We quickly grew weary of both our plates and staying inside. The Roman troll lived in the palazzo then, in the ground floor apartment, so we didn’t really feel free to frequent our one available patch of green space. He tended to pop out and shout at us an inopportune times, ruining the hour a day we had of outdoor sunshine. So by May 4, when we could go outside, I started my new habit of amateur Florentine flâneuse, strolling from our piazza to the further points of the city. I have kept this habit to today. I try to walk 100 miles a month in the city. I have found that this habit is particularly well-suited to earnest window shopping as I am usually out and about before businesses open at 9 or 10 in the morning.

My regular route takes me down Via dei Servi, the straight shot from Santissima Annunziata to the Duomo. It’s the parade route for every religious festival, robed penitents or holy orders or just fervent worshippers following statues of saints balanced on palanques shouldered by eight or more men. Weekday mornings, though, the street is clammy and cool, the shop windows unlit. I walk by this mesticcheria (hardware shop) every day and pause to review the items for sale there. (Eleanor has always admired its espresso cups.) I had begun to look with interest at the serving sets in the window. I am tired of ours, plus we broke one. Plus they belong to the apartment, not to us. I snapped a picture to share with Jason and the kids, to poll for color preference: red or blue? The kids and I voted red, of course. It’s our favorite color. Jason threw up his hands. This always happens when color factions vote in our family republic.

Mesticcheria Tucci is a full-service shop, staffed by the lone owner-proprietor, an Italian man about seventy. I assume he is Signore Tucci. I stopped in on Thursday morning, having window-shopped his wares now at least eighty times. I told him I’d like the red set, and a new set of 35 cL wineglasses. Sig. Tucci nodded, appreciating a housewife who’s mind was well made up. He came back with the boxes. He took every single plate, bowl, and wineglass out to inspect for damage. His massive hands carefully tucked each piece back in its proper place. Having confirmed that each piece was immaculate, I handed him my Italian debit card.

I like the red so much, I said. My kids do too. I showed them the picture, and they all voted red.

Smart! Sig. Tucci said. Red is for home. Blue is more formal. Blue for restaurants, or a cardinal or the queen of England. He tapped the box. Proper English china, imported. See? He showed me the stamp.

Red is more familial, I nodded, pleased I’d made the right choice.

Sì! Brava. Red is for families. You did well to get the red. People love these sets. Go home, eat a hot dinner off these plates with your family, make you so happy. Nothing better than that.

I couldn’t agree more. I looked at the plates through the cutout on the side of the dish box and imagined a plate of pasta al pomodoro garnished with fresh mozzarella and basil. My stomach started growling. It was almost the lunch hour.

Careful with these! Sig. Tucci urged. No rush now! Get them home safely.

I think I can do it, I assured him, and picked my way out of the shop. But halfway up Via dei Servi my shoulders and hands were already sore, so I just brought them all to Jason’s office. We’re taking them out and putting them to use today.

Red for family. Blue for formal.

I hope we get to welcome visitors again to our red family table in Florence.

Pandemic Update: The Viral Fire

Photo by raquel raclette on Unsplash

Viruses are a force of nature and in a pandemic collectively become an invisible storm, or blizzard, or a forest fire.

Timing is everything. Be attentive. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, the plywood Smokey the Bear reminds every visitor to every national park in America. Fire danger today: the needle goes from white to green to yellow to red. A forest ranger must move the needle each morning to match conditions. Wind. Drought. Heat. Storms and strikes.

Fire in itself is not dangerous, if properly controlled and managed. A virus, one virus, one patient even, is like a match. It is possible to isolate and snuff it out. But what happens when a match is tossed still glowing into the bed of pine needles at a campground, when a cigarette is flicked from an open window in a moving car, when lightning strikes? The spark finds just the right conditions to kindle. Flames erupt. Perhaps the fire is located in a remote locale that people struggle to imagine, and so it seems ephemeral. Unimportant. Unreal. But the fire spreads and grows, roars and burns, and the fire line marches to houses and towns, turning everything in its path to char and ash, cinders and dust. If only the fire had been stamped out at the start, there wouldn’t be more than four million acres fought and lost and burned as happened in California last year.

Covid sparked. The flames fanned. No one wanted to stop moving, doing, living their lives. Many people could not stop moving, doing, living their lives, because their survival depended on it.

We’d seen the news from China, but in my lifetime alone we’d also seen Legionnaire’s Disease, AIDS, mad cow, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu. Surely this fire wasn’t faster moving? Surely the actions the Chinese government was taking would manage this problem for the world? Those Chinese citizens being welded into their apartments to prevent their free movement in Wuhan, that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Wet markets. Population density. Could it really spread?

Last year in Italy the spark caught in Lodi, in Codogno, small towns in the wealthy north of Italy. The regions of Lombardy and Piedmont suffered tremendously. Bergamo and Brescia. Lines of hearses and army vehicles deep into the night, every night, into every next morning, for weeks. The crematoria couldn’t handle the onslaught. The forest fire had taken hold. It burned so deeply, so stubbornly. The fire was tucked into every old tree and thicket of underbrush, and it took out the older wood, the driest wood, the kindling, with a vengeance. The fire didn’t care. The fire was hungry.

Could it really spread? This was a naive question. Of course a fire can spread. We were just starting to understand a year ago how virulent the spark was. How once it took root, community spread was a fire impossible to put out. It was everywhere. It was invisible. Do people doubt that fire exists, how it burns fuel that disappears almost without a trace? I found it hard to understand the collective global doubt about the impending crisis when the signs, the evidence, were everywhere. How could people doubt an unfolding event whose evidence was everywhere?

I still don’t understand it. Yet ignorance, either willful or congenital, was marked to bring us into some very dark days indeed in 2020.

Update from Italy: Pandemic + 1Y

When the ocean rushes out, you have to assume it is going to return.

It was a year ago today that things began to grind to a halt in Italy. Today was the day that Gonzaga pulled the plug on their program, sending home their two hundred American students. Yesterday was our anniversary dinner, which I ate more or less alone as Jason took call after call outside on the sidewalk as the campus administrators in Spoken struggled with the next best step. I moved his pot stickers around on the raku plate with my chopsticks, and when I saw he wasn’t coming back into the restaurant anytime soon, and looked pretty pale, I ate them cold anyway.

Today was the day of my first posts titled Update from Italy. I tied a knot on the end of the tether that connected me to dry land, to sanity, and I held on. And I wrote. And wrote. Many of you know I write every day, bearing eyewitness to the world’s certain destiny. I felt like a Hokusai figure on a beach, watching the ocean race away and knowing with what force the fierce tide would roll back in over all the land, the houses, the people. Hokusai doesn’t do a lot of “After” woodcuts. Their appeal was less. But people lived through the tsunami, or not, and it merits recognition.

Some things here closed down at first, but not everything. This coming weekend was the weekend that seemingly half of Italy took an impromptu ski trip thanks to the cessation of work and business. By next week, the government was dropping the hammer on our national emergency here. The last day of school was a week from today.

Last spring the virus nipped at our heels and chewed on some communities until their fibrous threads hung loose in the news for all to gawk at.

I have to stop and think about that. Last year this time our kids had one more week of normal school before it all closed down. This was our last week of normal life until May 4. We were staring down the barrel of a seven-week, Chinese-style hard lockdown, and we didn’t even know it.

If we had known, we wouldn’t be able to bear it. Maybe it is better that normal life was decapitated in one fell swoop, as though someone had paid the executioner to catch us off guard, like in a Tudor period piece.

The last day the kids were in school was the day I had the unexplained incident that I thought was a cardiac event. There’s only so much stress a body can take. I’ve never considered myself fragile, but day after day of clenched teeth and missed hours of sleep took their toll. Maybe it’s better we had no idea what was coming. We wouldn’t have been able to bear it.

In the coming days I will inventory here what we’ve lost to the pandemic, what we’ve gained from it, what stayed the same in spite of everything. I am a big fan of marking milestones and taking stock. It’s the coin of my realm. That, and list-making.

Thanks to everyone who read my pieces in this space in the last year. Your company meant more to me than you know. I’d like to time travel to this time last year and tell that Monica, on the cusp of global shock, Elizabeth Barrett Browning survived years of being a shut-in; I will tell her, you can cope with a couple of months, you and everyone in the whole sad extroverted Italian culture.

The Bloomfires: Late Pandemic Fiction

Photo by Hadley Jin on Unsplash

They gave so many reasons for the disappearance of the blooms. First they said it was because of the sheer loss of life. That so many had died that all the flowers were used up. Bouquets and wreaths were popular in the Time Before for funerals and memorial services. But the memorials stopped since we could not gather, and a corpse doesn’t really care if the flowers are fresh, or even present. The WHO declared that we had hit Peak Mortality globally and were now in danger ourselves of species collapse. So they destroyed the rest of the flowers. Said there was nothing to celebrate. That it would be better to forget. 

They investigated the supply side and found every cultivator and everything capable of blooming. They burned all the tulip bulbs, fed even the smallest poppy and tomato seeds to hospital incinerators and crematoria, threw the contents of greenhouses, down to the last potted plants, into swamps and oceans, crevasses and the mouths of volcanoes. It wasn’t the time to remember joy when everything had gone from grey to brown, then black. 

But that wasn’t enough. The very idea of flowers was deemed subversive. During the Bloomfires they told us to bring all pictures of flowers, any children’s book that had flowers in its illustrations, any sheets or toys that bore their colorful faces. Clothing with floral prints, granny square afghans, family pictures with even one bud in the frame were brought down to the monthly Bloomfires so that we’d all forget. They really wanted us to forget, to erase it from memory, like we’d never had flowers, like we didn’t know they’d once existed. 

One month they announced that pine cones counted as flowers and burned them too, wresting them from Christmas wreaths and plucking them from bathroom potpourri bowls, building a towering pyramid in every town that filled the air with pitch and blue smoke everywhere. You fools, I muttered, a pine cone by definition is not a flower. It’s a gymnosperm. 

What they hadn’t counted on – and this always happens – is the ripple effect. What happens when the New Morale outlaws flowers? What does that do to your food chain, to bees and butterflies and birds? The fools hadn’t even stopped to consider three or four steps ahead. They judged flowers on their aesthetic value alone, didn’t even think about the functionality of flowers. With a doctorate in botany I know I was overqualified to predict this problem – a competent fourth-grader would have seen it. Soon, a few months later, fruits and vegetables became wrinkled, then scarce, then gone. We fought over dried papaya slices in the grocery store as though they were a bouquet of rich red roses. We shouted and traded punches over peanuts and filberts. Basil and rosemary, extinct. Lavender no longer growing in robust rows the length of France. I’m telling you, this was a global problem. 

They said it was for our own good. That no good could come of remembering flowers. But they failed to calculate all the bad that would come from their absence. 

I was ahead of them though. I lifted the floorboards in my study and gently tucked the reference materials, the textbooks, below the subfloor, on the drywalled bricks. I put the kilim rug carefully over the slats. I would keep those books there as long as they needed to be there, and if the Guarda stopped by to ask me if I had any items for this month’s Bloomfire, I would solemnly tell them no.