Update from Italy: Red Hill Town

Not my image, but a very close facsimile. Photo by Martin Brechtl on Unsplash

Yesterday we took the kids to San Silvestro, an old mine turned local tourist attraction set in the hills a few kilometers in from the coast. Jason has been working on Victor to get him out and about more when we are away from Florence; Vic has aged into mini field trips. They trekked around Populonia on Tuesday and the Roman ruins on Wednesday. At the Roman ruins, Jason learned about San Silvestro, and booked a visit for us.

The area has been mined since the Etruscans were here digging around; the Romans extracted all sorts of valuable minerals from its shafts and quarries, and in the sixteenth century assorted other enterprises were working there. We parked in the shade and walked under the thick oak canopy to the biglietteria. Locusts buzzed in the deserted parking lot. After donning our masks to get the instructions, we set off for the mine shaft, walking up steep gravel hills in broad sunlight with scant shade. Jason carried Eleanor on his shoulders. I was pouring sweat. Vic noted that he, too, was “getting wet under the arms.”

We reached our destination at the top of a hill, after passing a grated mine entrance that spilled forth cool air like a phantom. A metal structure repurposed as a museum told the story of the mine; how it changed hands; English ownership. The strikes and union protests that preceded its eventual permanent closure in 1978. We peered down a narrow black tunnel hung with lanterns. We wondered if we would contract the dreaded cervicale if we went from sweating in the full sun to shivering in a mine shaft with a constant internal temperature of 14 degree Celsius. We concluded that yes, cervicale was very likely inevitable.

Soon a shaft train creaked up and disgorged its two families. Two women, each dressed for the serious outdoors in brown canvas pants and work boots, set to disinfecting the train. We boarded; one woman drove the train, and one sat in the last car to chatter over the constant noise and squeaking about the history of the mine. She also noted somberly that there was an emergency button that we should press if there were some sort or issue or distress; they would stop the train and attend to the passenger to see “cosà è successo” – what happened. Jason and I looked at the amusingly large red button and pointed at it for the children. An emergency button seemed a little over the top. The ride was only ten minutes long.

The searing heat quickly gave way to damp cool, and the endless shrieks of the metal train wheels. We were sitting in a tiny metal car originally made for ore, but refitted with small wooden benches and a crude chain to hold us in place. Fortunately the track was level the whole way. Gallery offshoots opened from the wall of the tunnel every hundred feet or so. The announcer said the train would now stop in the dark to listen to some poetry. She would read the poetry. The poem was written by a miner who started working in the shaft when he was fourteen.

It was very dark and cold. The poetry was lost on Eleanor, who began to cry that it was too dark. Jason and I both got our phones out to turn the flashlights on. I wondered if the announcer lady would chastise us for ruining the poetic moment. From what I could understand of the poetry, it was evocative and spare, but even I began to feel somewhat claustrophobic there in the dark in the ore car, close enough to the rough blasted walls to reach out and touch them with my hands. My five-foot wingspan might have been able to touch both sides at once. I closed my eyes and concentrated on deep breaths. Eleanor hiccuped in my armpit. There was no way we could easily find that emergency button in the dark here. At the triumphant conclusion of the miner’s poem, the lights came on in the enormous cave where the train had stopped. It glittered like Ali Baba’s hideaway everywhere the eye rested. The train lurched back to life. Eleanor cried until we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and finished the passage to our stopping place.

The brightly lit view immediately brought U2 to mind. Deep valleys carved into tumbling hillsides, gravel and boulders and scrubby trees. It could have been anywhere. So many places. I felt like I was in Mendoza again. The blue sky and beating sun, and a lone raptor riding a thermal. A building that was used for miners when the company was English has since been turned into a youth hostel. (I was, of course, instantly curious.) Hikers dressed for heat passed us with walking sticks. To the south of the youth hostel stood the fantastic ruins of the miner’s quarters from the cinquecento, the sixteenth century, looking for all the world like a Templar castle on the Levantine coast. The kids moped on a bench. Eleanor said she was not getting back on the train. Vic voluntarily returned to the bench in our newly assigned car (the assigned seats were cracking me up – we were the only family riding the ten-car train). We eventually coaxed her back on, a cell phone in each hand.

“We won’t be stopping and they won’t turn out all the lights,” Jason reassured her.

“How will that help me!” the logic of a five-year-old retorted.

“Well, it is going to be more light and much faster. The other option is to walk.” We all looked at a sweaty family walking down the path with their sticks. That looked like a lot less fun to everyone. What were they, German? Eleanor began to enumerate all the Ali Baba treasures she’d seen in the gift shop. “Yes, you can have a gem tree made of twisted wire and shiny stones and a red ring and a small chunk of copper sulfate that looks like Elsa’s magic powers.” She whimpered all the way back but stared at the cellphone’s flashlight and held it together with her dreams of shiny new gems until we were back on the other side. The recorded protests of the miners fifty years before echoed in the metal hut.

We selected and paid for her purchases and walked back to the car. Eleanor swung the bag and bragged about her new acquisitions.

“You can show them to your friends and make them jealous,” Vic suggested helpfully.

“I am never going on that train again,” she repeated, turning the ring with the red stone on her finger all the way home, watching it glint in the sunlight.

Update from Italy: Beach Vignette

Monday morning I rose early, before 7, and got dressed for a run. The beach was cool; the sand dark with dew. Waves roared in one after the other. I noted by the footprints that Asics were the clear runner of choice on the firm sand. My direction: south toward Populonia, that pre-Roman Etruscan dig chock-full of their beehive homes. I passed from our beach to a public beach, then an off-leash beach, population: one huffing collie I’d already seen around before, with its owner in tow. A red and orange tent was questionably pitched on the sand, and two hippie heads bobbed out from the unzipped flap, curly blonde and standard Italian. I picked up my pace but it wasn’t easy staying on the harder sand while simultaneously avoiding all waves. A tall man in red shorts passed me easily, barely breathing hard. I noted his shoes. Not wet.

I passed a fisherman in hip waders, tying a lure and casting into the surf, a net and a string bag trailing behind him, latched to his belt by carabiners, a cloth cap shielding his eyes. The rod was long. I wondered what silver booty he would pull out from the waves. The sun came up higher over the hills on the east.

A big waves surprised me coming up at least a meter further on shore than any other wave yet. My right shoe and sock were soaked. Squelch, squelch, squelch. I gave up on the job and tried walking, but even the slope of the shore made that a challenge. I quickly began disabusing myself of my prior fantasies of a serene beach jog. I turned around and headed north again, toward San Vincenzo and Livorno, wondering if the sea looked this way on the day Shelley drowned, when they brought his sodden body up from the water and burned it on the beach. (Debunked! But like all great Romantic epics, it is a superb yarn!)

The wind started to pick up. The waves were thrashing, boiling and churning, each crest topped with a head of foam. But what’s this? A gleam on the sand. I bent down to inspect it and saw it was a generously-sized jellyfish, clear with the faintest tint of lavender, its four chambers still pulsing through the transparence. I backed up, squelch, and continued back to our villetta – our cabin. I hadn’t reached anything like a cardio zone but I did feel very serene. Not for the jog, but for the brine in the air, the clear light, the thundering waves.

Waves are huge, I told Jason while changing. I’ve never seen it like that here. I told him about the beached jellyfish I’d seen. We’ve been coming to this same spot every summer for a week since 2017. The surf really was magnificent, felt like the Oaxacan coast or Torrey Pines or Waldport in Oregon.

Eleanor’s been trotting off to kid’s club for three hours once or twice per day. That afternoon, Jason and I took Vic into the surf to jump in the waves. A lot of people were in the water. The lifeguards all on high alert, looking out over the water like pointers on the hunt, red safety missile in hand, white nylon cord wrapped around their wrists. The one watching our segment of the beach repeatedly shouted at people to move away from the rough rocks, his eyebrows lifted up in supplication like one of the Madonnas tucked into a harbor shrine in Venice or Livorno. The outbound current grabbed our ankles with a whoosh of sand headed back out to sea. The receding waves colliding with inbound waves making massive new peaks. The water was full of debris – bits of sea grass, suspended sand, those funny little weeds that look like the love child from a tennis ball and a ping pong ball, dressed in neutral brown and ideal for pitching into the water. I started to feel jumpy. The water was angry, out of control. Too many little kids who obviously were not strong swimmers, my own included. Adults like me who can barely crawl or breast stroke, much less escape a riptide. Temporary signs explained with pictographs and arrows how to get out of a riptide current.

Suddenly Victor began shaking his hand.

What happened? I asked him.

A rock or something scratched me, he said. I squinted into the sunny horizon. It was possible that a shell or a small stone borne by a wave had struck his hand. He continued to shake it.

I want to get out of the water, he said.

On our chairs Jason and I peered at his left index finger, which now had a small dark hole that looked like someone had injected a miniature black pebble into it.

I’ll take him over to the Reception desk, Jason said, and off they trotted. Twenty minutes later they loped back and went straight back to our villetta. I gathered all our things and met them at the terrace. Victor was sitting down trying not to cry.

Jellyfish, they said, Jason told me. But a small one.

It didn’t feel small to me! Vic bit his lower lip. His hand was now puffy and red on the side of the pebble hole. Jason skated around consulting Dr. Google (no cortisone, no ice, yes ammonia, yes neosporin), and I went into rummage out our generously provisioned medical bag. Vic got a good-sized smear of neosporin with painkiller (yay kids’ version from the US). You can cry if you need to cry, Jason told him.

I don’t want to cry! Victor said angrily, trying not to cry. My philosophical comforts failed to find their mark. There was no sympathy for jellyfish on the terrace.

We swam in nature, it wasn’t a pool, I said. We love the ocean and share it with other creatures. That jellyfish was probably so lost and confused, getting bounced far away from his normal spot.

I don’t care! Vic shouted, glowering at me.

Eventually the swelling went down. Vic railed about off-leash jellyfish for the next two days and felt jumpy about getting in the water. Today we dove back in, with his new boogie board and the enormous inflatable unicorn that belongs to Eleanor. They’re still talking about jellyfish, but with a now-reduced frequency.

Update from Italy: Florence, Forlorn and True

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Italian_Garden_at_Duke_Gardens.jpg

Florence without the tourists resembles a Renaissance courtesan without a royal patron. She is majestic; her public squares are grand, yet empty. Streets normally choked with taxis and coach buses and throngs of tourists in day-tripping groups are now safe to cross on foot, to jaywalk at any point. Even the beggars wear face masks.

Her gardens are festooned with early summer blooms, their iron gates inexplicably closed: who would dare to enter? The oft-touted low rate of full-times residents in centro now needs no further evidence. Seventy percent, is what people say; 70% of the centro storico are short-term rentals to tourists. In the past decade small alimentari and purveyors of fine furniture have quietly gone out of business, closed their books, and gone homes, to be replaced by scores of bars and restaurants, almost all offering the same staid menus of crostini, prosciutto, bistecca, spritz, and plum-colored Chianti. The few Florentines left in centro seem bemused but worried. The courtesan’s duke was a tyrant, but he kept her in jewels and furs.

Florence, like her sister Venice to the north, is far more delicate than many realize. The crowds seize upon her and consume her. The stays on her corset were strung so tight she could barely breathe, although she looked stunning. The banquets became unmanageable. Her medieval blocks could barely manage the throbbing pulse of pedestrian traffic. How uncanny to sit now in the Loggia dei Lanzi, to walk down Via dei Neri, in near silence. True, she was beautiful at court. To look at her you could barely breathe. But it was not sustainable. The duke clasped her too tightly, demanded she focus on him, dance with him, laugh at all his poor jokes – for you see, the man was, in the end, ill-bred. All purse and scant education. How vulgar! Florence became frantic; she knew she must please him, she must dance, she must laugh, she must stay up til early dawn, but expectations took their toll.

Now the duke’s gone away, on some business or other, high markets, they say. Only a handful of courtiers remain in the drawing rooms, somber and speculating as to his return, will the dinners and dances resume? Florence pulls up her skirts to sit at her inlaid walnut writing-desk, pulls out a pen to make a few notes, finally that she has some time to herself to collect her thoughts in silence. The birds trill in the garden. She gazes out the casement windows, caresses the bauble on her necklace, and dips her quill into the ink. She has things to relate.

Update from Italy: Of Private Banks and Rosaries, and L’appel du Vide

My daily walks around Florence after May 4 ended the month at 120 kilometers total, all around my three main circuits: river, piazze, and hill. How strange to be outside again, to notice not only what is new, but to see with new eyes was before was invisible – what I took for granted.

Italians are wearing the face masks without complaint. Weeks cooped up inside will do that. Whatever it takes to go outside, it will be done. Of course because it is Italy, many masks are fashionable and downright flattering. The fit is tailored; dark colors are favored. A popular version is the Italian flag mask, the fabric blocked out in bright red and green, with the white block covering the mouth. I passed a fit Italian man with his girlfriend and wondered if his patriotism compensated for the insult to his vanity, both trounced by the sheer pleasure of being outdoors, holding his girlfriend’s hand. I wondered how many neatly trimmed Italian beards and insouciant whiskers were hidden by the masks.

In the early weeks of my freer walks, I kept seeing lost rosaries. Perhaps, literally a sign from God, or the evidence of anxiety on a walk, rubbing the beads, muttering Our Fathers and Glory Be. An opal rosary rested on the base of a lamp post in the park. Many people looked at it, but no one touched it, no one took it, their magpie curiosity chastened by the spectre of possible cooties. Does a virus live on the smooth surface of opal rosary beads for 72 hours? On our block I almost stepped on a wooden rosary knotted with waxed black twine, surely the comfort of a Franciscan. It looked professional, yet lonely, and well-loved. I picked it up without thinking, charmed by its lack of pretense. It now hangs from my vanity mirror in our bedroom.

The private gardens of private banks explode with blooms behind their iron grilles. Nothing is more Florentine than a private bank. A bank where you must know the secret knock, the secret handshake, before you are even permitted to ask to store your euros among their original art and frescos, their marble floors. I walk by private banks now, all the time, and barely notice, but when we first moved here, my inner Communist was outraged. Private capital, deposited in a private bank, make luxurious and comfortable for private people with loads of private money to enjoy counting their money, putting it in, taking it out, of their hushed account, surrounded by bronze statues of Hermes and Augustus. Somewhere in Mugello, Bicci’s father is laughing in his grave.

No private bank with private garden? No problem. A quick call to a local florist and a bouquet can be delivered, anywhere, in a large box, or a huge paper cone. They wheel up in those glorified mini tractors, an Ape with a clever logo painted on each side, ring the doorbell, pause. Sì? a voice calls out. I’ll leave it here, the deliveryman replies, and sits in the Ape, calmly, until the door opens, an arm extends, and the bouquet is retracted into the building as though by Inspector Gadget.

The lungarno along the Arno after dinner has been transformed from a tourist melee to the equivalent of some Slovenian or Lithuanian outpost. Just locals stroll along, so far apart that the river is always visible, winking and glinting in the slanting light. I am glad the Arno and I are getting to know one another in this way. I love water: I always have. Drawn to it like a moth to flame. Or like a mosquito to the Arno, which is less flattering but equally true. How astonishing to realize we live mere blocks from the majestic Arno, even as it floats flatly brown after rains, the white man-made cascades foaming and churning as the water rushes over.

How odd this feeling at the bottom of my stomach, crossing the Ponte Vecchio or the Ponte di San Niccolò. What is this impulse, this desire to jump in to the river? Was it exacerbated by weeks of quarantine, in our rooms with no views, our secular cloister? L’appel du vide. The French have a phrase for it, the call of the void, of emptiness. I look around. No one sees me; no one follows me. The Arno swirls and churns her way under each bridge, carrying along twigs and sticks and dirty plastic bottles. What would it mean to hop over the rail, to look down, to jump in, feet first? How deep is the Arno, anyway? On a normal day, I mean, of course; not on a tossing and angry day after rains. The little man continued to jitter deep in my gut. I took a breath and quickly strode to the other side, to land.

Update from Italy: Lemons, Etc.

The lemons in the garden of the palazzo where we live hang in mythical perfection among the palms and under the hulking cedar of Lebanon: dimpled globes of sunshine, speckled with green, dappled in the sun. The lemon trees winter over in the limonaia, or serra, a simple greenhouse built against the main wall of the garden, its frame painted green. The day that the lemon trees emerge from the limonaia is one of great joy, shouting and pushing and pulling of their enormous terra cotta pots. Family members who are recruited to the project maneuver them each into a suitable position in the garden.

Eleanor admires the lemons, their firm shape, the way they catch the light.

“Let’s grow one,” she suggested one day, and so I saved a few seeds from a store-bought lemon, and dug out some brown paper starter pots, as miniscule as a Beatrix Potter illustration, and spooned some dirt from the garden into each, poking a seed into the dirt with a pencil. Two transparent plastic clamshells that had previously contained rather soggy oily egg rolls from a delivered dinner during quarantine were handily repurposed into individual greenhouses for the little pots. I snapped the lids closed and we placed them on the windowsill where they might be monitored for light and water as we awaited their sprouting.

Before long, one seed had sprouted, its shoot waxy and bright. It quickly stretched up, up, up, then sprouted a second set of leaves. Eleanor and I squealed together to admire the tiny leaves, “it is growing!” she crowed. We watered it diligently. The second sprout showed some green, but seemed stunted, even as its companion thrived on the same windowsill.  

One day the sun shone too brightly on the sill and fried the first sprout. It wrinkled and wilted, and its proud stem bent double. Eleanor and I discovered this in great dismay. I felt a genuine grief in equal measure to the joy we had felt together when we saw the first shoot. The sprout was then accidentally overwatered in an attempt to revive it, and drooped even further as its damaged single root struggled in the thimble of muck. No amount of care could revive it. Mold crept up its stem. I finally swallowed the lump in my throat, pinched the root out of the dirt, and recycled it into our organic waste bin in the kitchen. The root came out easily, partly because it had never branched, partly because the mud was so wet. I spread the wet dirt out on a piece of plastic on the same windowsill in hope that the strong sun would dry it. 

“What is this!” Jason exclaimed. 

“Dirt. I am airing out dirt.” 

“You’re airing out dirt?” 

“Yes, the lemon shoot died,” I answered impatiently. “I will try again as soon as that dirt dries out.”

Meanwhile the second shoot had been quietly growing. No early starter, but rather a dogged dot of green, doubled over into a U-shape atop the dirt. Had it hit a pebble? Why did it not rise? It did not reach upward like its friend, whose early energy was no match for the challenges to its survival. I wondered why it had not straightened up. So a day after I recycled the expired shoot into the organic trash, I took a toothpick and carefully poked holes all around it until I could gently lift it up out of the thimble of dirt. The single root dangled. The suspected pebble was, in fact, its own seed germ, the hull a tiny helmet for the shoot, too heavy to lift. I gently removed the dirt with a toothpick, and placed it root-down again into the dirt, the hull atop its leaves, hoping that the leaves would stretch toward the light, that the hull would be gently discarded through the natural course of nature. That new leaves would emerge and unfurl their tiny cones. The slow starter came to my attention days after its companion expired.

Gardening and activity with seeds of any kind always remind me of the days before Victor’s arrival, when I would scatter whole packets of seeds onto raked dirt in our garden plot, and marvel at how few seemed to sprout, much less thrive. Basic botany and the literal metaphor science of seeds provided me with no small measure of comfort in those fraught years. What are the odds, I asked myself over and over in tears. The odds are infinitesimal.

The seed is essential, yet the hull is pushed up first with the shoot into the air. The remains of the seed do not remain in the ground; the root, nourished by the contents of the seed, pushes downward. And yet, what if the seed is too ponderous, too heavy, too awkward, and prevents the shoot from thriving? The vital information contained in the seed is in fact impeded by the information of the container itself. 

We cling to our origins in ways that prevents our shoots from straightening tall and reaching up toward the light. How often a quick start full of promise leads to unforeseen circumstances that threaten survival. The remains our own seeds prevent its growth, and thus our growth. 

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.