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.

Update from Italy: Literary Meanderings

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

Since the spring quarantine I am walking three to five miles or more each day in Florence. The relative freedom is exhilarating. My usual routes take me south to Porta Romana, west to the U.S. consulate, north to Campo di Marte Train station, east to San Niccolò. I used to walk in silence but got bored. Then I started listening to music, which is fine when I am jogging, but walking? Very boring. I started pining for a narrative to sink my teeth into. But how? Where? Are such things even possible?

I only learned about Bluetooth headphones two years ago. Game changer. It’s not that I’ve been specifically avoiding anything. We’ve just been neck deep in pregnancy, infancy, and parenthood, then that big move overseas in 2016. Three years ago Eleanor was still in daily diapers at home and at school. There wasn’t a lot of time to keep up on nonessential tech topics.

I hadn’t boarded the podcast train (late traveller due to the fact that I have not car commuted since 2004, which was peak NPR for me), but I once learned that podcasts are included with our family Spotify subscription, I realized I could be listening to creative content. I have been basically nonstop listening to podcasts for one to two hours a day since last May. An Italian history podcast. Hardcore History, out of Eugene, OR, which covered a bunch of Roman stuff, then Japan. Bookclubs by The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Spectator. NPR Politics. Le Monde in French. TedX talks in Italian. A peninsular Spanish history review for kids in colegio, which was touching. Code Switch. (If you have any good nonfiction podcast recommendations, please mention in comments below! I prefer to read my fiction on paper, but lately love a good author interview.)

Last week, on the NYT podcast, David Sedaris popped up. I almost skipped it. I used to like his writing, twenty years ago and more. when friends and I would read him aloud to one another at home or on road trips, the tears streaming down our faces. Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked were comic gold. But them David, like many other privileged writers past and present, moved to Paris, and then bought a farmhouse in Normandy. His writing got edgier and meaner. I’d never seen him read in person, and I confess that I don’t even know very well the oeuvre of his even funnier sister Amy, aside from the occasional YouTube video clip with Craig Ferguson, or incongruous advertisement for Microsoft Windows. I’ve subscribed to The New Yorker for at least a quarter century and, at some point, his pieces in the magazine started to seem so mean and catty to me, especially toward his partner Hugh. I went off David, my affection for him seeming of a piece with the decadent young adulthood of my late twenties in Seattle. He was just so … ponderous.

I even recently gave his latest book to a writer friend for a birthday gift, telling her – I actually told her this – “I don’t even like David Sedaris, but I know everyone else does, so figured you do too.” She told me she actually truly did love David Sedaris, and asked me why I didn’t like him, but my reasons crumbled under her logical and kindly cross-examination. I felt like a non-congenial faux writer monstress.

But here was David on a podcast with The New York Times host. He didn’t seem like a monster at all. Why had I decided he was so mean? He was sympathetic and self-effacing. And weirdly, listening to him felt like he was inside my head. He too walked miles a day listening to podcasts (and audio fiction!) He too wrote aimless fiction that he described as plotless character studies until he realized he could just write about his days! He too wrote every piece to be read aloud as a sort of performance piece. He had audiences of up to 10,000, though, and now everyone knows about his private life, but Sedaris don’t care. He hadn’t even ever been published before until he started appearing on NPR, talking about things that happened to him. His writing ideas seemed insanely basic to me. Dig out old journals and pillage them? Wish you could just write like Tobias Wolff? Walk for miles listening to your own little audio world? Extrapolate one minor incident that occurred in the course of one ordinary day to create a thematic humorous piece?

Fortunately Mr. Sedaris has been very prolific in his output since I stopped reading him, so I have a great backlist to work through. I hope this doesn’t mean I have to extend a similar aesthetic largesse to Malcolm Gladwell. I have seen him speak in person, and I also used to read his writing with great vigilance, but his schtick seems to age poorly as our news grows more complicated.

My other brilliant idea for the wintry pandemic months is to work my way through a checklist of Shakespeare plays adapted for cinema. Last year’s forays will count for credit this year, but nothing before 2020. Meta-Shakespeare screenplays are also a possibility. And yes, I have recently rewatched Shakespeare in Love, and no, it didn’t really age well either (the nineties feel like a century ago: Gwyneth, Weinstein, #metoo). So I won’t be rewatching Gwyneth in a pixie running around like Romeo. I halfheartedly start this project every year, but this year, 2021, I am going to make that checklist and do it.

Update from Italy: American Cultural Analysis

I seriously want to talk, among other things, about why Americans consume so much damn ice cream per capita.
Photo by Emile Mbunzama on Unsplash

I lost track some time ago of the countries I’ve traveled in. Countries I have lived in, 5. I peg languages learned just under 20. I am an inveterate lay anthropologist and armchair psychologist. I love going deep cover, trying on a new life, a new language, a new town or people. I don’t like to stand out. No limelight or attention for me. I specialize in observation and integration of information about people and cultures. I seek to understand. I want insight. Surprise me with evidence. This one characteristic alone is probably my most American trait. I am nosy as hell, and I love to be surprised and proven wrong. I also like to establish information via experiential knowledge. I think about culture a lot. I always have.

I’ll tell you now, one thing that America excels at, is being antsy. Impatient. Fraught. Intense. We think as a people that we can do anything, change anything. There’s fair little recognition of the current and tides of life that bear all people from their mother through a thousand-act play then to that dark night. Americans scarcely know the upturned hands of the mensch, the no hay remedio (what are you gonna do?) of Latin America. Original bands of Americans fled the calcified class system of England, and from the overcast pessimism of their forefathers vowed to revolt in a flurry of can-do activity.

Those are our roots – the original idea, I suppose, that girded those initial forays from western Europe to what they ignorantly called the New World. New to them. Not new at all to the thousands of locals. The arrival of Anglos to American shores upended the order of things and sowed grief on both sides. On the side of the indigenous people, the grief of invasion and loss – of life, of culture, of trust. Folkways vanished and families sundered. Tribal remnants placed on reservations. We did that. Grief begets grief.

Additional groups of people elected to move to America – in almost every case, pushed by factors in their homeland to seek a new, safer home. As is happening now, as has ever happened. Disease, famine, civil unrest, political disenfranchisement. In every decade, a group has turned to America and seen hope – maybe not a perfect life compared to where they came from, but a safer one. They left so much behind to come to a land where their presence also caused great grief to tribes. The grief of the immigrant, they call it. Grief causing grief. That cell memory, the epigenetic reminder of past trauma or pain, never processed, never aired, haunts every American. And if any American thinks they’ve escaped that burden of silent grief, the joke’s on them. If you’re American, you haven’t escaped it.

Here is where my armchair psychology comes into play. Can we consider American culture to be specifically marked by an unprocessed grief? Might our collective compulsions and anxieties originate at a dimly remembered empty table, fleeing from home under cover of night, the memory of persecution? When we look at consumer culture, the literal and figurative appetites always gnawing at America, can we look with care and empathy to those generational wounds and try to heal them, rather than repeatedly engaging in the futile attempt to sate them? There won’t be enough petroleum, or ice cream, electricity or electronics, or guns, or military action to satisfy the American appetite. It’s rooted in a far deeper compulsion and hunger, fear and starvation. Those memories that murmur in base tones deep in the soul of every American are the ghosts recounting their stories, asking to be heard.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The most famous quote of Santayana, a Spanish immigrant to the U.S. who returned to Europe late in life, is getting new traction. Unfortunately, the human lifespan caps around eighty years, so it’s more an issue of learning than remembering. Those who do not learn the past are destined to stay on that painful treadmill of samsara, exhausted and endless. It’s not accident that America and Europe are repeating the tumultuous events of the 1930s and 1940s as we are losing the last wise old ones of that generation. The memory of the Second World War was our best safeguard to global peace in many ways, but now hardly anyone remembers those events personally, much less why people established the UN and NATO and UNESCO and the rest of it. Who needs peaceful bodies when you have social media? What could possibly go wrong?

So, friends. Ask. Learn. Try to meet these events with compassion. Just anger can be a part of that, but interrogate why we act the way we do, and how we all got to this place. Imagine reasons and premises that you have not seen before. This is all part of a much bigger picture.

Update from Italy: Thinking Freely

Photo by Bianca Sbircea-Constantin on Unsplash

American exceptionalism. I discussed this in a post that hit a nerve yesterday. Yowch. I want to clarify a few points of opinion here.

I think America can be a city on a hill, if we allow that other countries also shine in exceptional ways from their own hills. Yes, America is special in some ways – as is every other country on this planet. Yes, America shares much in human nature, if perhaps somewhat less in culture, with all these other countries.

America is not the only nation of immigrants. Include Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, to start. America is not the only multicultural game on the planet. The foregoing come to mind, along with Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Peru, the U.K., Ireland, and more. If America were the only city on the single hill in this cherished extended metaphor, why would people ever have emigrated anywhere else?

American exceptionalism paves a slippery slope to personal exceptionalism. If I live in a special country, then I too am special. I mean – yes and no. I remember years ago realizing with a shock that I was simultaneously the most important thing and the least important thing in my life. The individuals who comprised the mob last Wednesday certainly invoked a personal exceptionalism. They stormed Congress while our elected representatives were in active session to validate the Electoral College tallies and expected impunity.

Much has been made in the past decade of the echo chamber of social media. I want to highlight its close cousin, the cultural echo chamber – when Americans talk to Americans about America. Yes, this is a fine and useful thing, but suffers from a lack of interrogation and analysis without outside perspectives. I think we can and should learn from other countries, as well as asking them how they see America. Every country, to some extent, struggles with class, income inequality, equal rights, sexism, food poverty, healthcare access, civil strife, political volatility. Why reinvent the wheel on every possible pain point? Why go it alone? Why not connect with people in all places to get some insight? I am reminded of one fractious meeting in my time as admin staff on campus, when I suggested that my university employer benchmark international enrollment strategies with peer institutions. The then-powerful dean of the College of Arts and Sciences snapped, Those are the last people I would want to talk to! He didn’t say why. End of discussion.

America, if we know who we are, then we know who we are not yet, and we can chart that path forward. But we need to be honest about who we are now, and who we want to be. Yes, there are flaws, but a lot of it wants to work. This discussion is going to be painful, because people are going to disagree. But I think we can do it. There are many, many people of good faith in America who want to support the cause, this ongoing experiment in democracy.

Extremism on either end of the spectrum is not the way forward. I love America. I’m a product of the country that raised and educated me, employed and challenged me, and yes, at times disregarded me and caused needless suffering. I want to help heal it and help make it a better place – more fair, more just. I’m doing that by writing about the positives in our culture and government while calling out issues that require the attention of fair-minded people of good faith. I’m exercising free listening with my free speech.

I’ll close with an anecdote. A few years ago, after we’d been living in Italy for a year, I flew into LAX for a professional conference. I waited in line with my blue passport, holding onto my suitcase in one hand, documents in the other. This was some months after the Muslim Travel Ban was enacted as an executive order. When it was my turn to be stamped in, an African-American man in a nylon cap waved me toward him. His name tag said Muhammad. Welcome back home, Monica, he said with a big grin. We’ve missed you. I almost started crying. No better welcome could have been imagined for me. This reality did not match the news. It didn’t matter what the White House said, or tried to do; here was proof of my America, different and warm and welcoming and defiant.

The View from Italy: Flash Bang America

Photo by Tingey on Unsplash

This is Day 5 since the Capitol Mob stuck while Congress was in session. Five dead, a sixth related death over the weekend. Italian questions have tapered off a bit – for now – until the next violent demonstration flares up, and I suspect it will. The U.S. is starting on a long path toward a new destination. It’s going to get darker before it lightens up.

In the year we have all just experienced, and survived, if you’re reading this now, there was so much happening in the U.S. that required our careful attention. The pandemic. How it impacted everyone’s work and income, childcare and school. Healthcare and hospitals, families and spaces. Insurance and savings. Where people lived, and where they wanted to live. Key elections. And yet here we are, dissecting human nature, and focused on a certain narcissist who’s bored of his job.

After the election of 2016 was called (on Wednesday, you’ll recall), Italians in town regarded my sniffling with no small amount of sympathy. We survived Berlusconi, they told me. We felt just this way when he was elected, and elected again. It will be hard, but you’ll be fine. You’ll come out of it wiser and more resilient. These words from my very international Florentine friends. I believe them when they say they know how graft and corruption work. You want to see some political gridlock? Come to Italy in most any year; they’ve had 61 governments since 1945. (Americans tend to say this as though astonished, when our biannual election schedule does something similar to Congress, as we anticipate now in the upcoming rearrangement of Senate leadership within its 20 permanent and 4 joint committees.) But Italians have seen centuries of political intrigue in their territory, well before statehood. They have a certain wise weariness about it all. They live their history routinely through their decisions and perceptions. Rome, the Church, the Great Schism, duchies and papal states, Spanish and French incursions, all live in the collective memory. Little surprises them. Humans are humans. Some people are bad actors, other people are goodhearted. This portion is idealistic; that section is pragmatic. Italian culture excels at this kind of emotional wisdom. They understand things on a cultural level. This is my perception as a global American. It seems to stand in contrast to much of what I lived and experienced in the U.S.

I feel Italy is shaking its head kindly, some days, tsk. Poor America. What took you so long? Welcome to the rest of us, here on the planet, struggling with culture and communication and competing priorities and prejudice and good (and bad) governance. Why did you think you were different?

America and Americans really want to be different. I get that. Americans want to feel they are different. This is very important to American culture. What a shock to realize that American society is destined, like all peoples, to struggle with culture and communication and competing priorities and prejudice and good (and bad) governance. I remember the “city on a hill” metaphor about American exceptionalism recounted by a political science professor with shining eyes (by the way, I cannot believe that passed for collegiate coursework – why weren’t we urged to more deeply interrogate the trope?). American exceptionalism is harmful, and it harms America most of all. It harms us. It harms Americans to think we are different and special because it cuts us off from the collective psychological support and wisdom offered by example in the other 194 countries in the world.

I urge all Americans to read more widely in the news. Repeating that you can’t believe this could happen in the U.S., and no one can believe it – you know, the rest of the world believes it. They wonder what’s taking us so long to believe it. Have Americans somehow discovered a way to escape human nature? The miracle of America, insofar as one can be said to exist, is the idea that people in America are different than people elsewhere. That we too do not fight bitterly, resort to violence, cheat one another, lie, sell out. The miracle of America works only as long as everyone is aware of human nature, and prizes key values more than human nature (cue freedom, liberty, open debate, inclusion, tolerance, respect). It is possible for a country to act broadly with an executive function (in the psychological sense), but this can only happen if everyone – everyone – every last person – is aware of and admits to the pitfalls of human nature. Everyone.

If you’re glued to your laptop, to MSNBC, the barrage of memes and TikToks and American news about the violence, consider visiting other news sources to help balance your reading and understanding. (Although the NYT has been doing a grat job, and I appreciated that they ran this essay by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. Aside from the BBC and the Guardian, I’ve been following a Sri Lankan journalist, Indi Samarajiva, who writes with truth and insight about recent events in the US. This piece ran in November, and its clarity brought tears to my eyes. He published an equally honest and stunning follow-up piece in PRI on Friday. I happen to crave the truth, even when it hurts, even when it’s bitter and unpleasant. I’ll spit out that sweet lie any day of the week. I also like cutting satire to help me understand the world around me, and this piece about Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara does not disappoint. These journalists seem like fortune tellers, but they’re just honest and observant, and good writers. Read news from sources that go beyond privileged anglo outlets. Their insight is priceless. It can help us out of this mess, and understanding is the first step to healing.

There’s a whole world out here that cares what happens in America, but which is not surprised. We’re not alone. America was never alone. Please realize this, and put down shock and claims of specialness. There’s work to be done, and there’s some for everyone.

Update from Italy: Que sais-je?

Bourdeaux, France. Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash

Que sais-je? What do I know? The famous refrain of Montaigne, who five hundred years ago always wondered what he knew. What do I know? The shrug of a mensch.

I have this issue where I pinch books from hotels and caffès, semi public places sometimes with hand-lettered signs that exhort Take One? Leave One! The motley collections betray their unloved status. Very often they are in English, Swedish, Dutch, German. The languages of those stricken by wanderlust. I very rarely leave one. I almost always take one, sometimes more. During the pandemic my natural bookworm inclination was given free rein to worm through any and all books at hand. I finished reading my first book in Italian last year. It felt great – La lingua geniale. I tried reading La vita bugiarda degli adulti in the original Italian also, just before La lingua geniale, but was dismayed to find I could not do it. The deceptively simple English of Ferrante in translation presented itself to me in the original as an impossibly opaque, stream-of-consciousness Italian. Reading in Spanish, French, and Italian is much more cerebral for me than reading in English, but the rewards are greater for their relative rarity. I must slow down, take my time, think. I am a deeply emotional reader in English. I feel the words and hard. I read fast, inhaling the painted scene. When I’m far from English, a different mind is reading.

Last summer at the auberge in La Rosière the shelf was full of slim tomes, many of them the Livres de Poche imprint I know so well from my time as a student in Strasbourg. A couple of them caught my eye, and I slipped them into my backpack. I’ll bring them back next year, I told myself. I put the books on my nightstand, enjoying their slim Gallic silence. Montaigne by Zweig and something by Montaigne himself. I picked up the Zweig over Christmas and was floored by its simplicity and literary transparence, and read it in a week or two. Zweig felt he’d met his match in Montaigne. So much in common. To be fair, I read the Zweig introduction twice, picking my way through for clues and setting the stage to imagine Stefan writing the book as a political refugee in 1941 Brazil. Many students know him today for having studied his Essais. I was not in this lucky tribe of adolescent essayists, but was charmed by Montaigne’s story in a way I did not expect, and glad to address this hole in my liberal education.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is a case study in nature versus nurture, human relations and the arc of life. The child of class-mobile arrivistes, conversos from Spain fleeing the Inquisition, unlanded gentry with high hopes to jump a rung or two on the ladder of sixteenth-century France, his grandfather bought land, then his father a title. Only his maternal grandmother was Catholic; the others were Jewish or Protestant. The last name changed from Eyquem and Villanueva-Lopez to Montaigne.

His father Pierre, the mayor of Bordeaux, was so excited to welcome petit Michel that he placed him with a local family of farmers so that the child would learn how the other half lived. This part of his education only lasted until he was three, when his father took him back into the velvety bosom of the Montaigne estate. Here, however, still no business as usual. No one was allowed to speak French to Michel, ever. Latin only! Latin immersion. He would learn to speak Latin, the tongue of erudition, as his first language, Pierre decreed! And so the boy did, and the Latin efforts rippled throughout the household and town as bits of Latin vernacular filtered from the family into their surroundings. A Latin-speaking staff was hired to mind the boy, and his tutor, a fellow from Germany amusingly named Horstanus, didn’t even speak French, thus removing the possibility of slipping back in French.

Michel was also a fitful sleeper, so Pierre hired some musicians to play music for him upon his awakening each day. He was probably freaked out about everyone switching from French to Latin each time he entered a room. But by the time he was seven or eight, it was clear that the boy spoke Latin as his first language. Pierre was pleased. Michel attended an élite boarding school nearby, then hobnobbed in the French court, dallied at a battle at Rouen, and picked up a medal he’d been coveting since boyhood (in Latin). He went on to be a counselor for various governmental entities. He was smart and in demand.

But by thirty-eight, Michel had had enough. He didn’t even really like his wife too much, and advised her to seek a lover. He said he was sick of working, and the daily grind. Also, five of his six children died in infancy, so that might have had something to do with it. What grief will make a person do. Especially a person of generous independent means! So Michel did what was logical: he trotted up into his literal ivory tower on one side of his property (his wife kept the other tower as her space). He made a public proclamation of his fatigue of court life and work, and said he wasn’t going to be around anymore. He sat in his tower and etched Latin aphorisms on the oak beams overhead. He read and write and rearranged his thousand-book library. He hired a secretary to take his dictation. Apparently his written Latin was fantastic. He investigates and interrogates and dissects himself, his opinions and believes. Que sais-je?

But then! How much of the self can one person take?! By forty-eight, Michel is bored out of his mind, tired of the hearth and the reading and the dictation. He’s probably been eating soup every day for a decade. He comes down from the the tower and tells his wife his is going on a journey.

Oh really, where to? she calls down from her tower.

Don’t know, really. I’ll take a friend. Michel sets out and heads straight to France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. All this in a carriage! He complains about the tyranny of the road (because roads have a beginning and an end point), which leads to a destination. He wished to have no known destination! (Man after my own heart here in terms of travel.) He charms the pope, no doubt with his excellent Latin, over dinner. The pope suggest a few edits (maybe faith over fortune?). In 1581, he finds himself in Lucca taking the waters for his chronic kidney stones. Did I mention that Michel is very, very short (150cm) and never in great health after he exits his towers. The stones, man – those damn stones. While in Lucca sipping the sulphuric elixir he receives a letter that says, Felicitations! you have been elected mayor of Bordeaux! Please come back and manage things for the people of Bordeaux! So he packs everything up and cuts his trip short, which pains him.

He goes back to Bordeaux, he runs the city as his father did before him. He thinks he is safe back at home, until the night of the St. Bartholomew massacres arrives at his house and head are literally rolling down the hill off his property. His last political gift was brokering a succession agreement for France, by convincing Henri de Navarre (the leader himself of the Protestant Huguenots) to become Catholic. (It took months.) Then Montaigne died of quinzy, or tonsillitis. His mother, Antoinette, was almost ninety, still tottering around that castle.

So, book report aside, here is my takeaway: if you retreat from the world, the world will come to find you, and it may alarm you. Do what you can. Que sais-je?

Combien de choses nous servoyent hier d’articles de foy, qui nous sont fables aujourd’huy? How many things served us yesterday for articles of faith, which today are fables for us? – Montaigne

Update from Italy: Watching America

U.S. Capitol. Photo by Cameron Smith on Unsplash

I have so many thoughts on the latest developments in America. It’s been overwhelming, even from here, and I am trying to compile my thoughts. I’ll start on the micro responses, then pan out to macro.

I’m no Forrest Gump. I’ve never even seen the movie, only its highlights. But anytime calamity strikes, I can’t help but think, I was there, I know that place. OKC bombing, check. 9/11, check, all locations. Madrid’s Atocha station, check. There might be more, but those are the ones that stand out. Add now to this list, U.S. Capitol, check.

I know those stairs and halls well. I interned in the U.S. Senate in the summer of 1994, a year after everyone cool did it. I was on a fellowship and stayed for all twelve weeks – interning is so popular that offices offer it in two shifts of six weeks each. I stayed with my aunt in Arlington, rode the bus to the Pentagon where I boarded the Metro to Union Station and walked out to the Russell Building. The east entrance, the west entrance, the north wall. I can close my eyes and walk it.

The interns were a pretty homogeneous group. Almost all white, university undergraduates, children of privilege, whose families were politically well-connected or major donors. I was the one scholarship student. The glimpse into this level of privilege was eye-opening for me. The things they expected. The days they passed, the worries and frustrations they expressed. We spent the day in a capacious conference room reading Roll Call, running out as needed for errands or to give a Capitol tour to a constituent family. I really loved giving tours of the Capitol. Here the Rotunda, there the crypt, this the original stairwell, here is where the Supreme Court originally heard cases. Once or twice I gave it in Spanish – a highwater linguistic mark for me. The luckier interns got picked up into the “press pod” or scheduling. To ensure everyone stayed busy, we all had to work on a research paper using the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service. (This must have changed so much with the internet.) I wrote mine on mineral rights. It was a boring paper. I turned it in at the end of my twelve weeks.

There were other scheduled activities to keep us busy. Bless those senate staffers who tolerated us with as much good cheer as they could while trying to get their jobs done. Many of them were witty. They were also barely older than we were and often hungover. We played intern baseball against other teams from the House and Senate. I soon deciphered the rabbit warren of the Capitol complex and became an expert tour-giver and errand-runner. (This, too, must have changed so much with the internet.) The basement corridors, the hanging wires since the buildings are all code-exempt. The security checks to enter the Russell Building. A month or so into my time there, I was astonished by how normal the staff seemed. No debate champs. No Merit Scholars. Two young women seemed to do about 95% of the actual work. Routinely running into senators in the hallways and being surprised at how old most of them seemed. I remember heels clicking on marble floors. I remember wearing clothes that didn’t feel like they belonged to me.

Watching midweek events unfolding in the Capitol, wrinkled in my memory in the quarter century between then and now, I could smell those hallways, see those marble washrooms again. Knowing how hard it was to enter as a badge-toting college intern, I could imagine what pressure and force and numbers it must have taken for the the rabble to overwhelm the Capitol Police. What a shock it was to see the defamation of those spaces where, for heaven’s sake, I was not even allowed to wear pants in (skirts required) in 1994. The feet up on the desk. The blood and feces on the marble statues. The pieces of wood paneling with letters NCY PEL SI tossed around by Americans in hoodies. I could hardly believe my eyes, and yet, felt almost no surprise. I couldn’t sleep Wednesday night, checking my phone again, and again, for news. At one point my NYT app had 72 updates. I couldn’t keep up. Who can keep up with this?

The news from America about the global response to these events seems to insist that everyone is surprised. The people in Italy are not surprised. They are disappointed and sad. Everyone saw it coming. Violent rhetoric begets violence. We’ve had years of violent rhetoric, and now reap a harvest of hate.

I remember my earnest civics teachers and American History teachers in school, how carefully they taught us about the three branches, the reasons why, the federalist papers. Checks and balances. It’s clear from here that the checks and balances on the executive branch since 2016 have been insufficient. The legislative branch is complicit. The founders knew this. The U.S. was born as a repudiation of governmental tyranny. I wonder what Mrs. Bocock, Mr. Boyd and Mrs. Berryhill would say. That no one thought it would come to this. That this is not how things should happen. That this should not have been allowed to happen.

Blood on hands and in the halls. I don’t like it one bit. It’s indefensible. Large segments of my extended family believe that it is.

I do know what one lucid writer says:

The making of the treaty is the treaty. It doesn’t matter what the terms are, just that there are terms. It’s the goodwill that matters. When that runs out, the treaty is broken, whatever the terms say. – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

This probably doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’ll try again tomorrow. In the meantime, I feel extremely concerned about public safety, in the the District and in the Capitol, in the weeks to come. This is not a drill.