Just a random list of things I have noticed in Italy.
The wisteria is out of this world. I have never seen wisteria in the New World look anything like the wisteria here that’s been climbing and blooming since the Roman Empire.
Beds are small compared to the U.S. Yet somehow none of the U.S. sheets can even be remotely provisioned for use. This is a conundrum. Actually I think maybe the beds are shorter but wider.
Wallets are large. Those big euro notes need a nice big pocket. American dollars are small. Ergo small fat wallets. Maybe American wallets are baby Italian beds.
They never put salt in their baked sweets and so the sweets taste pasty. Please, Italian pastry chefs, for the love of all torta di Spagna, throw a pinch of salt in the mix.
I can’t get used to millefoglie. the standard Italian festive dessert, which I have not tasted in forever because no one has had anything resembling a party since Carnevale 2020, last year in February. A million flakes and cream should be delicious, right? Like a French Napoléon, a silver fork tine dragged through the wet chocolate forming waves on the vanilla cream top. But … eh. I really just want what I have learned is properly called a sponge cake, which I called a layer cake when I was stateside.
I love the flower vendor in Piazza della Repubblica. Rain or shine, Katia is there with gorgeous bouquets for less than ten euros. She’ll even wrap them for you in bright plastic and raffia. I am telling you, that is service, and I am turning into Clarissa Dalloway.
Italy has been in a declared state of national emergency for fourteen, going on fifteen months. There are very few Covid vaccines in Italy. Finger crossed for German mRNA vaccine approval next month.
Italians are super mask compliant but struggle more with social distancing.
Italian lawyers wear an incredible kit. Lawyers: cravat is one color, judges: cravat of some other color. Everyone gets shoulder braid. I spied this in a shop window today and promptly took it to the studio legale to verify accuracy.
In social situations, who gets to avoid embarrassment, and who bears the burden of embarrassment? I suppose this applies to many different types of circumstances, but I am here specifically considering language learning and the stress of immersion acquisition.
I will explain the rabbit hole.
I don’t want to speak English, say some Italians. Il mio acento è bruttissimo. My accent is very, very ugly.
This always makes me laugh, then cry. I, who bear an accent in Italian that must sound something like a Valley Girl ca. 1984. My main evidence for this is the mockery of the polizotti at the questura in January 2017. I don’t mean for this accent to happen, and it was never an issue for me in Spanish, where my immersion acquisition foray into Spain in 1993 spit me out with a near-perfect accent (in my mind) at the end of six months. Why can’t my Italian sound more like my Spanish? ¿Por qué no?¿Por qué?¿Por qué?¿Por qué?
Then I panic. How ugly is my accent in Italian really? Do my vowels make native speakers cringe, the way I fumble for consonants? Are they all thinking, she seems quick enough, but oh my god that accent is like nails on a chalkboard. I fear this in my more anxious moments.
Then I think, wait, if they think MY accent is annoying, why do they let me keep talking? That’s it. I’m not speaking Italian again.
Then I think, they must think people are so mean. This makes me sad. I explained the other day to an Italian friend that it is almost impossible to speak English with an accent that a native speaker would pretend to absolutely not understand. English offers a marketplace of global accents, all comprehensible. Maybe Italian doesn’t exist in enough accents.
I am thinking of Italians who won’t speak English because they are quite certain that native English speakers are quietly mocking them, which is not happening. Instead they would rather their interlocutor speak an accented Italian.
Immersion acquisition is the sink-or-swim model of language learning. You go to the place, no one speaks to you in anything other than Language X, which is not the language you were raised speaking. This was a honorable way to learn language in horsey times before the interwebs and dumbphones existed. Eventually, over time, and frankly over a lot less time than sitting in a classroom, you remember words and phrases and pronunciations, verbs and tenses and the rules around the subjunctive and formal usage. These lessons are engraved on your brain, the synapses knitted closely together in a tight dance of emotion and language. I’m no neurologist, but as a lifelong language learner, I can say that without feeling there is no language. Perhaps language can exist without feeling, but it sounds a lot like that weird male voice that reads PDFs out loud for me sometimes on accident and I still don’t know how to make that happen on purpose.
At any rate, without having a feeling about whatever linguistic point I was learning – really any feeling at all, so long as it was a good strong one – there was virtually no chance that the lesson would stick. The word would be lost, the verb forgotten, the tense misused yet again. Someday I will catalog a list of language learning highlights that stay with me today, particularly ones about oranges, lollipops, and the subjunctive tense that expresses a set of circumstances that will never, ever happen in this lifetime. Some combination of joy, fear, elation, shame, wonder, even a warm-natured pedantry can work; for example, I will never forget how to say “sunset” in Spanish after a kind older Gallego sitting on a long stone bench with me in Santiago de Compostela admired the sunset with me, and seeing that I fumbled for the word, intoned la puesta del sol. In that moment, the magenta-streaked sky, the cool air, the kindly man in his cloth cap, the hard stone of the bench, all converged to make sure I never forgot this term.
You really have to be willing to put aside your fears and never stand on ceremony. A language tiger must wade in, chin up, ears open and pricked up for clues, eyes scanning the near and far horizon, her language whiskers attuned to usage and intonation. It’s not easy. It is, in fact, exhausting.
One summer in Finland, my cousins looked at me pityingly and said, You must be so tired, listening to us, in spite of our mother’s warm cinnamon buns and hot coffee. Go take a nap. And they were right. It could have also been the marathon of Formula 1 they were watching in the living room with Finnish commentary. I trundled off to a guest room, lay down on a twin bed with a cotton coverlet, and had the best nap of my life. Listening in that state of high alert with your toolkit of feelings at the ready to be deployed in the service of effortless remembering – because memory is the better part of this enterprise – is exhausting, like the beginning stages of any relationship.
All this to say, feel free to be embarrassed. It will lock in some language, if you’re trying to learn one. I am sure of it. Then, after a long day of navigating one or more languages, go take a nap, if you can.
It was going to happen sooner or later. I’m neither neurotic nor avoidant. I just hadn’t had a reason to date to get my brain swabbed yet for Covid.
No, I have not been vaccinated yet. Yes, I am on a list to get a shot as soon as it is possible to do so. No, Italy is not lazy, or poor. There are no vaccines right now. It is a supply and demand issue, and the supply is not to be found in the EU at the moment. I feel if I have to explain this any more my head might pop off. Millions of people in Italy would get the vaccine tomorrow were it readily available. It’s not. So, in the meantime, we are in a zona rossa (a red zone), with businesses shuttered and faces drawn as the local economy contracts even more severely. I sincerely hope that the world is flooded with various effective and updated Covid vaccine. But until it is, this is the boat we’re in. Masks. Social distancing. Closed schools. Cases climbing. Mortality, not great. Case positive reports.
And so, around March 23, Eleanor had had a cold for a week, then Victor, then Jason, then me. Since I had babies any cold immediately turns into a sinus infection. I think the smushy bones of pregnancy rearranged my sinuses. I battled the crud for a weekend, then reached for an unopened box of Zithromax (three tablets) that we had in the cabinet. My face stopped hurting, but I still had a headache for a week, and then a little cough crept in. It is the kind of cough that sounds like the mmmf a dog makes when he’s taking a nap and hears the first crunch of a distant mail truck as it makes the turn onto a gravel road. Calmly sitting, Mmmf mmmf. Reading for an hour. Mmmf mmmf.
Shouldn’t you get a tampone? Jason asked me late last week, his brow furrowed, as my canine vocalizations had gone on more than a week. I still cringe because the Italian for test swab (tampone) calls to mind Tampax.
I am fine! I protested. This is a cough that signals the tail end of a sinus infection. This happens. It could go for nine weeks.
It is also a symptom …. he said.
I know that, I responded, growing snappish. We all know that a cough is a symptom. Victor has a cough too.
Maybe you should both go get a tampone.
This is where the discussion remained all weekend, until I learned at church on Sunday that a parishioner had tested positive a few days before, along with their family. I had seen this person at Good Friday service. I spoke with this person face to face, with masks on and in front of an open door, but still. I talked to an increasingly annoyed Jason about it at lunch. He begged me to stop talking and to just take care of it. So, by late that evening, after some proactive messages to savvy locals, I had found and made an appointment online at a private clinic for 7:05 AM. I paid the 40 euros online. I printed my receipt and confirmed where the lab was located. Fortunately my daily walks in town have contributed to a finely tuned urban orientation in Florence. I’d ride my bike there and be home in time to get the kids to school. Right? Of course.
The morning was dark and soaked. Rain pounded our skylights all night long. I was up at 11 PM, 3 AM (whimpering Eleanor), 5:15 AM (overnight tooth loss, Victor). I made my tea and suited up for a spin in the rain. I got to the lab easily enough, greeted immediately by two smiling (!) receptionists, who took my tessera sanitaria from me and confirmed I’d paid online. (I don’t know why they needed that since it was a private lab, but whatever.) They ushered me into a small room when a murse in a bunny suit awaited me with a foot-long Q-tip. He was efficient even as he counted to five while the cotton swab brushed my frontal lobe. I suddenly understood how knights and knaves who took a sword in the nose ended up with strange injuries and prodigious recoveries.
Fatto, the murse smiled behind all his PPE, all done.
A few minutes later he called me back to show me the negative result on the stick that looked a lot like a pregnancy test. Just one line, he observed cheerfully. Not positive! Moments later the reception desk had my receipt and results for me. I rode my bike home, a drowned rat, but not infected with Covid. My heart lighter. I changed clothes and took the kids to school.
Now that I know how easy it is to do, I am telling everyone. No one can believe how fast it was. Instant results!
When I got home I had an email from my new medico di base (PCP) with a prescription for a public tampone. I responded with my negative result and a thank you. Also good to know my medico di base is fast on the email. The idea of a “public tampon” still makes me giggle. I suppose I feel like I can giggle since I did not pick up Covid at a voluntary event.
Mmmf mmmf. Still waiting for that mail truck though.
Frances Mayes would probably never write about mammograms. Tuscan sun always sells, but Tuscan breast cancer-screening? I value all aspects of cultural foray and I’m a huge fan of universal healthcare so stay with me here.
This time last year in Florence we were halfway through a hard lockdown, and we didn’t know it would start to open up again on May 4. As far as we knew we were on that spaceship from Wall*E and navigating our new forever normal. Streets were empty. Ambulance sirens blared night and day. Cops yelled at us through megaphones to get back home if it looked like we were doing anything close to lingering or loitering. No one was accessing healthcare for routine reasons, and the hospital crisis was heavy upon us. At least one person in our wider community died from cancer diagnosed too late, which her surviving family attributes to her fear of seeing a doctor in those months.
But somehow we did make it through all that intact, touch wood. Jason went back to his office in early May, and I resumed my routine in early June. The school year started and our kids got trained in distancing and hand sanitizing. The school has a policy: any Covid symptoms in a kid must result in the kid staying home and returning to school only with a Covid-negative test result. One tiny wrinkle: we were not in the Italian public healthcare system for complicated reasons due to immigration status and tax status. Of course the kids got sniffles and colds. The hoops we had to jump through and the fees we paid to get them Covid tests miles outside of town were insane. Four hundred euros later one memorable week last fall, we agreed that we had to look into it. Then, after Christmas, when Eleanor famously got carsick and threw up into her face mask, Jason redoubled his efforts to not only buy us a new vehicle that would make everyone barf less, but also get us enrolled in Italian healthcare so that we could get a Covid test less than 10 miles from home.
Jason’s visa expressly prohibits him from accessing Italian healthcare. My immigration status is dependent on his, and the kids are with me, but I don’t have the public healthcare proscription. However, until last year, I had no Italian income, ergo paid no Italian taxes. And then when I did accrue Italian income, I did not pay IRPEF – the employer contribution to universal healthcare. These various bureaucratic conundrums went on for years until we worked out the paid enrollment option. We wired something like a thousand euros to the region and were issued healthcare cards the next day. I quickly located primary care physicians in town for the kids and me in the same practice a short walk from our palazzo. More importantly for our immediate needs, we can now obtain Covid tests in the normal, free, km0 way that everyone else in the Italian healthcare system can.
I was thrilled to finally get my card. We are happy to pay the annual premium even though Italians do not pay this fee. I tucked the card into my wallet and focused on feeling relieved.
The very next week an official envelope arrived at our address from a healthcare entity called ISPRO. Hmm what’s this? I thought. I opened it and read through it. I was being called for a mammogram! I read through the pages and understood I had been automatically scheduled due to my age and sex. No cost to me. Proactively contacted. Tuscan region, etc. etc. Jason met me at home for lunch that day and I told him the Tuscan region had contacted me. Now that I was 100% official in the healthcare system, naturally they want to check out my boobies. I never had a screen for breast cancer in the US, probably because they scheduled me when I was 40 and I promptly got pregnant with Eleanor, then was breastfeeding until we moved to Italy. For reasons that became very clear to me today, even though any reasonable woman might suspect them, no woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding should ever have a mammogram.
The Florentine hospital complex is a bit out of town. Jason first suggested I might ride my bike there, but the weather did not really cooperate. the day was socked in with leaden skies. Our angel of a neighbor Chiara took the kids for lunch while we drove out to my Tuscan mammogram appointment.
The Villa delle Rose is set back from the hospital, with an old strada bianca parking lot of white gravel. It was almost empty when we pulled up. I walked into the practically deserted villa clutching my raft of papers and was promptly greeted by a young woman in a very smart pair of glasses. I handed her my paperwork. She processed me in no time and sent me on my way down to the waiting room. A particular hallmark of Italian healthcare is the absolutely skeleton crew of admin staff compared to the US. There was literally one receptionist and one page of paperwork for me to complete, and the receptionist didn’t even want it. “You’ll give this directly to your screener,” she told me with a solemn face, handing me a thin paper slip with a number.
Of course, being me, and having a tendency toward inappropriate humor when faced with anxiety-inducing situation, all I could think of was Mardi Gras and wondered if I would get a string of beads. I sat down in the waiting area where two other women were also waiting. The waiting area seemed clean but a bit neglected. Posterboards with empty flyer pockets. They both nodded and greeted me cordially, looking up with buongiorno buongiorno. The digital numbers lit up scarlet on the board. It was like being at the meat market in the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. I checked my number. F0013. I settled in and started to read my phone, but the numbers moved fast. In no time I was in the screening room. The kindly tech told me to disrobe from the waist. She kept up a patter I followed decently, no, no family history, not pregnant, never had a ‘gram before.
I stepped out of the tiny waiting room with my boobs out, relieved that the tech was a capable sixty-year-old woman in a lab coat with a halo of curly hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. No cape, no cover, which was surprising in a country where Alitalia flight attendants look like Diego della Palma runway models. I was surprised a local luxe brand missed this opportunity, but you know, how American of me to even think that. (“Gucci should really brand some cute mammogram capes! People would love that.”) She opened up the ultra high tech rocket ship of a machine and maneuvered my boobs, one at a time, onto the platen glass, apologizing profusely multiple times for how annoying this was going to be. Her demeanor reminded me of the Sant’Ambrogio butcher handling fresh chicken roasts. The machine flattened (ow – really flattened) and scanned each boob at two angles. Capable tech lady thanked me, told me to get dressed, and sent me on my way after giving a quick patter of instructions for exam result and callbacks for an echogram if needed.
And so, less than thirty minutes after I arrived, and having seen at least five other women getting screened, my appointment was complete. Proactive. No-nonsense. Every time I have an interaction with healthcare in Italy I am so relieved for the level of attention and care given. With a minimum of fuss, and a few humane comments about how this is no one’s favorite activity. I suppose my inner Finn thinks this is the way things should just be. Practical. Manageable. Especially after my healthcare-heavy years in the US from 2009-2011, then 2014-2015.
So, thank you, Italy, for looking after me. I am grateful. And thank you Jason for driving me out there on those crazy donkey cart roads that were paved in the hills around Careggi sometime around 1900.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.