When we moved into our apartment it was fully furnished with furniture and rugs, pots and pans, bath mats and bed linens, cutlery and china, tea towels and linen napkins. Drying racks and heaters, lamps and mirrors, fine art and a coat rack. A wood and glass hutch stuffed with stemware and espresso cups, saucers and egg cups, tea mugs and capacious bowls for café au lait in the morning. Maybe some French people lived here before us. Café au lait is not a thing in Tuscany.
The apartment furniture is all family cast-offs from the signora’s grander homes possibly in the countryside. A new Natuzzi sofa and armchair set in white, stuffed with goose feathers, is now worn to a dirty grayish color, but no matter. They are true comfort. I have slept sick in them many a night since we moved here, with a stomach bug, a sinus infection, bronchitis. The massive dinner table weighs at least a couple hundred pounds and fills half of our common room. An old terra cotta urn meant for olive oil or perhaps brining olives is our umbrella repository. The floors are tiled in terra cotta, burnished with beeswax for a century and a half. They are deceptively warm-looking in the winter, for given their depth of polish, the eye believes they retain and radiate heat. But they are as cold as a pizza stone in storage. All the signora’s spotless and ironed linens are neatly stacked in a tall cabinet built into the wall, no longer filling some bygone bride’s handsome wooden dowry chest that now holds fleece and merino throw blankets and spare goose-down comforters.
It is a genteel life. Had I only known into what well-heeled Italian dream we would wheel our suitcases, late of Oklahoma City via Spokane, I would have shipped nothing. As it was, we slipped quite easily into the life that awaited us here. I missed nothing. I let it go easily and without regret, all of it. It wasn’t the first time I’d efficiently dismantled my life – I’d done it in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004. 2006, 2007, 2010. I don’t know what that string of years proves. My rootlessness. My inherited ability to feel at home after three nights anywhere. I am a human hermit crab, a tiny house upon my back, scenery changing, regretting little.
The kitchen is ordered to a galley plan, long and narrow, windows facing north and looking up into the signora’s rooftop rose garden and her husband’s art studio, tucked up into the lofty loggia on the top floor where her great-great grandmother shouted at the housemaid to hang the laundry properly and early enough in the day to catch the breezes that wafted down from Fiesole so the sheets wouldn’t smell of must. The entrance is under a plaster arch, down the smooth lip of a step laid with pietra serena. It is definitely a kitchen for one chef. If a second person should attempt to squeeze by the cook or maid during a meal service, shouting will occur. There simply isn’t enough room. The dishwasher with the door down creates a sort of drawbridge barrier that prevents passage to the icebox or the slab of a marble sink that reminds me of a baptismal font or a Yorkshire tombstone.
Over the weak microwave that couldn’t power a string of Christmas tree lights is a dual portrait of some bacon-rich sows, their black spots slung across their hides, one facing east, the other west. It is not old art. Someone bought it in a shop, acrylic on wood, but I like it. The sow facing west stares pointedly at a glossy ceramic rooster in bright primary colors. The cock is an idiot. All plumage and no point, his black eyes flat, avoiding the microwave’s single-minded stare.
On the other side of the galley’s narrow corridor, from the knob of a bottom drawer on the spice rack, hangs a styrofoam ball. It started out white. Our son made it as a holiday ornament four or five years ago. It was covered back then with bits of glued-on tinfoil, a finger’s length of yarn attached to suggest a mouth. At first it smiled, but over the years the humidity and heat and cold in the tiny kitchen ironed the grin into a dash. The poor ornament now looks with stern judgment indeed on the sows, the rooster, the microwave. The ornament is in such a state that we cherish it for its whimsy, scowling at us as we step down from the dining room into the bitty kitchen. Get rid of those two sows, and that ridiculous rooster wile you’re at it, I can hear it grumble. Cannot cope with the crowd you’ve put me with here. Please recycle me.
In my mid-twenties I decided that I needed more older friends in my life. Living in western Washington in the nineties as a young, single woman, I cultivated a warm friendship with my mother’s cousin Carl and his wife Polly, who were old enough to be my grandparents. Our families were connected in a hundred ways, more closely than a family tree might betray. Carl had grown up in Detroit with my grandfather, his uncle. Carl and I were especially well-suited for trips long and far, meandering conversations, a good sauna, a better book, wild ideas, and nature appreciation. Carl and Polly enriched my life immeasurably for fifteen years. When Death knocked for them, he came first for Polly, then returned for Carl just three months later. On the night that the call came from Carl’s daughter to let me know he died, I sat on our couch at home and sobbed into a tea towel. My husband had come to know Carl and Polly well through me. He sat next to me, infant Victor in his left arm, and hugged me with his right.
Friends come and go in this life. Connections wax and wane. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can direct and drive their paths. You can’t. But you can be open to their appearance on the stage where you direct the theater piece of your life. Siblings disappear. Friends recede into the waves. Someone you dated decades ago might reappear in a calmer, friendlier format, revealing the core traits that informed a meaningful connection. Older relatives come back into your life as friends. Older friends are sometimes found. I treasure older friends for their perspective and calm. People who have made it into their seventies and eighties with their minds intact have seen all of life’s rich pageant. Nothing surprises them. I remember Carl’s consistent “Hmmm!” when I presented him with some new fact about a person or job or event that astonished me. “Hmmm!” Usually followed by “mmm-hmm!” and a nod. Yep. No surprise there. Check the footnotes. It all aligns.
I met Elisabeth at St. James Episcopal here in Florence. It must have been the autumn of 2018, September. I heard a confident voice hold forth from the end of a table. Who could it be? Was it really emanating from this diminutive, cheerful woman with the short light hair? I introduced myself. “Call me Liz,” she demanded. I told her she reminded me of my grandmother Esther. She was not at all offended. Later I shared with her an incredible picture of my grandmother sometime in the thirties on the north end of Gun Lake in Middleville, Michigan. Liz blinked and said I’d paid her too grand a compliment.
Liz and I found we had so much in common. The old-fashioned midwestern upbringing. Our travel bugs. Her books clubs and general resilience. Liz was the glue that held many friendships and groups together. She first arrived in Florence in 1958, on a steamship with the junior year abroad program at Smith College. She stayed. She saw and remembered everything. She was a reader and a writer and loved literature. At our weekly coffees in her frescoed library a stone’s throw from San Lorenzo, she regaled me with tales of Muriel Spark and other bright literary stars who’d passed through Florence. I borrowed books and brought them back. Her bookshelves alone were a story unto themselves, packed and layered, the collection of a woman who’d been reading her whole life. We talked about TV, trips we’d taken and wanted to take, parenting and children. She was especially taken by my children and asked about them often. I saw Liz regularly at church, but our weekly espresso dates were highlights of my week. Although she was game to receive offerings of my fresh-baked goods, she confided in me one afternoon, “Always eat fruit with your afternoon espresso, never pastry, and you’ll live to be a hundred.” Her phone never stopped ringing. I kept bringing her pastries, birthday gifts, tales from my life. She seemed to like my stories.
Liz knew everyone. It was rumored she was a founding member of Democrats Abroad of Italy. She’d been widowed years before, her Italian husband having preceded her in death. They had no children. This was always a surprise to me. Liz was hands-down great with children in a genuine way. I saw how she was with kids at church, and with my own kids. Patient, kind, direct, respectful.
The pandemic was hard for Liz. Her old friends struggled to come into town to visit her, what with lock-downs and quarantines and old-fashioned caution. She had a live-in helper who made sure she was independent to the end – as independent as she could be. Even as her body failed her, her mind was unfailingly sharp and inquisitive. I kept our weekly dates, but my quarantine last month before the holidays and then the Omicron wave in Tuscany kept me away since early December. Liz and I continued to email and text as always, just checking in. How are the kids? What are you baking? When are we catching up next? And so on.
And so when I received the message that Liz was in hospital on Monday evening I immediately messaged her. I am worried – are you okay? She didn’t respond. I was in the park chasing Eleanor on her bike. Dinner was prepping. The apartment was warm. I saw our priest called me and I’d missed the call in the chaos. A pit yawned in my gut. I knew what the call was about. It’s usually not good news when your priest calls you during dinner. I responded and said I’d call him back. But part of me just wanted to suspend the moment between not-knowing and knowing. He finally called me back a little bit later and said that Liz had died suddenly. I checked my phone and saw that she’d received my worried message, but had not responded. I realized I had sent it just before she’d died, most likely. A flurry of messages and emails flitted through my phone. It couldn’t seem real. How can a force of nature just wink out like a light? For crying out loud, she’s a woman who’s lived in Italy for sixty years – she should by rights have another two decades to go!
There was visitation beginning at 9:30 this morning at a chapel. I had to take the tram to get there, and then walk around an area I don’t know at all to locate it. I knew I was in the right place though when a Maserati hearse pulled out of the Ofisa garage. In Italy, you go out in style. I didn’t even know a Maserati hearse was a thing. I stopped in the tenth-century pieve (parish church) of Santo Stefano in Pane to light a candle and pray. I haven’t been to a funeral in ages.
After I sat in the church a good long while, I walked back out on Via delle Panche to the Ofisa. The address was in a very strange place, behind a collection of mechanic garages and (ironically) storage units. A collection of clean chapels were numbered in a semicircle around a graveled garden. The names of the deceased were on a marquee. Elisabeth Cole Robbins, Cappella III. A garden attendant in a starter jacket and a mask didn’t even look at me. Wrought-iron chairs and tables were arranged on each patio outside of each chapel, with clean ashtrays. The door was open. The room was beautiful. All new and neat as a pin, with everything a mourner might need: a box of tissues, hard candies, a registry, and most importantly, the body in a chilled closet behind glass double doors. No attendants, no sign-in, no weirdness. The fragrance of synthetic lilies was overwhelming. I wondered it it came from Liz or from the bamboo fragrance sticks in the bottle on the white wooden desk.
I sat with Liz for almost an hour. She looked very, very small, but good, like she was just napping on a satin pillow. I cried. We chatted in the way we hadn’t been able to, thanks to Covid and the rest of it. I wrote in my journal for a while. I thought she would appreciate the moment of quiet her repose occasioned for me. After we got all caught up, I put my gloves back on, slipped my journal and pen back into my bag, and excused myself back into the stream of life.
Thank you, Liz, for opening your heart and your home to this much younger, very effusive woman in the last three and a half years of your life. You blessed me, and I know you know, wherever you are, that your memory will be a blessing. May you rest in peace – you’ve earned it. May you please also continue to shake things up, wherever you are.
When I set out to tell this story, the events of December had not yet occurred. My ring still sparkled on my right ring finger. I had not yet begun the run-up to the holidays brimming with optimism only to find my good cheer curtailed by events beyond my control. While I spent that week in quarantine, testing daily and watching my family’s life continue without from the window across the courtyard, I felt a helpless human remorse for the confidence I had felt – had yearned to feel – that evening on the terrazza of the bar, showing my Green pass and sipping my Aperol spritz, talking and laughing and nibbling on pizzette and crostini. I felt silly that I had been so happy to replace the ring when heavier themes quickly replaced my middling concerns.
Had the apero been worth it? An hour and a half of what was simple leisure in the Before Times had now come to be, minute by minute, scrutinized in a cost-benefit analysis on our guest bed next to a portable heater, in the line at the pharmacies to be tested, online as I waded through available openings in private labs across the region in attempts to obtain a PCR test? The weary expressions on the faces of the pharmacists and lab techs and doctors and administrators let me know we were all having something close to the same feeling. Was this all worth it, and for heaven’s sake, can we turn a corner on the pandemic?
It was hard to judge that it had been worth it, to come down cleanly on the side of “it was bound to happen, and defendant need not accept full culpability for her actions.” I’m no Chicken Little, although compared to many in the past two years I have possibly seemed to veer into paranoid territory. I am more Chicken Prudent. Why do it if I don’t need to? If I am not required to? Can I not mitigate my wants, and simply postpone for later that which seems risky today, in the hope that tomorrow the market on risk will have ticked down at least a bit. I bridle at exhortations by the well-meaning to “cheer up,” “try to be positive.” Facts are what they are. Realism won’t make them worse, and optimism won’t change this kind of reality.
In quarantine I started feeling depressed and jittery once more. Like the hard lockdown that we experienced in Italy in the spring of 2020 was happening once more, and very likely had been bound to happen. If we worked so hard to gain a little ground, the fact that individually we could each slip back into pods of quarantine – and for good reason – then maybe this meant that any confidence in both our collective and individual liberty I had felt in normal weeks or days was an illusion, and was not guaranteed to persist and increase. The days of worry created an emotional lacuna in my holidays that seems to still hover in the air around me.
The cut roses I put on the nightstand are still in the guest room, which has reverted to its modest temperature since none of us, thankfully, have had to repair there since I left on December 21. In spite of the walk-in florist fridge conditions of the room, they are wilting and dying. They were bound to. Yesterday Eleanor was helping me clear out the storage underneath the guest beds. She wrinkled her nose and said, it smells like cat in here. What is that smell? I looked around, brushing the dust from a disused umbrella stroller. The flowers are almost dead, I said. Ew, she replied. In a strange way I was relieved to see that the flowers they had not been hexed and frozen in time to remind of a place where time stood still, of a string of days in a single place. Time had moved on.
Weeks ago, when I first read the news about the new variant, the string of letters looked like one of those LDAP or IMAP codes you need in order to successfully configure email accounts. B.1.1.529. They had not yet named it Omicron. It was November 26, Thanksgiving weekend, and I was reading The New York Times in bed on my phone. I felt a hollow pit in my stomach. Here we go again, I said to myself. I tend to keep these thoughts to myself because
a. They’re not popular.
b. People have been casting the pandemic response in terms of optimism versus pessimism, a dichotomy to which I refuse to subscribe.
c. I am not by nature a pessimist, by any stretch, but consider myself a realistic optimist.
Business continued as usual in Italy at the end of November and into the first week of December. It’s been the law here that we must wear masks indoors, and are urged to put them on outside if we cannot maintain safe social distancing. The kids went to school. Jason and I continued to go to work and watch the news. On December 6, I got a massage, my first one since before pandemic times, at Sala Thai in the Oltrarno. It was bliss. Normal times hello! On December 14, I joined a couple of colleagues for a farewell and happy holidays aperitivo in centro. I walked through the winter drizzle and bought gifts, writing cards out in the store for the quick turnaround. The Christmas lights twinkled through the rain on Via Tornabuoni. We showed our green passes; we were all fully vaccinated. The bar had a terrazza, one of these very enclosed, very heated terrazze. We had a couple of rounds of drinks, took pictures, laughed and talked. The terrazza was full of other people, eating, drinking, chatting. It felt very normal. I went home and went to sleep.
The following morning I was getting ready to take the kids to school when I received a notification from one of the two colleagues that he had been in recent close contact with a Covid-positive person. Messages flew back and forth.
I took the kids in and went to my regular pharmacy on the Corso to get tested. I stood in line with a small collection of disgruntled Italians and stressed travelers. The result was negative. Back at home another message arrived – the other colleague had tested positive twice, then negative. Further information came in. I was concerned for my family, so readied our guest room and relocated myself there. The room was a mess, used mostly for storage and for staging items to give away. I put a few new towels in the guest bathroom. I made the twin beds, put some plants on the sill, moved my laptop to the desk, and settled in. Where would these days bring me? I had absolutely no idea.
It felt many ways like being back in the hard lockdown again. I wasn’t going outside except for absolute needs, like picking the kids up from school. Our regular help asked us if she could have days off until I tested negative. Jason took over 95% of parenting. It was strange to hear their voices down the hall and up the stairs. My twin bed with its five blankets felt like a flashback to study abroad in Spain or France, but this time with a dystopian pandemic flair. My children waved at me from the living room window across the cortile. It was hard to believe how quickly I found myself once more in a situation of limited freedom. The news from my colleagues caused further concern. The old anxiety nibbled away at the edge of my mind, morning, noon, and night.
Thursday I went to Jason’s office and slipped into a free test line with his staff. Negative. Friday at the pharmacy, negative. By this time I was on a first-name basis with everyone at the pharmacy and had made and cancelled two PCR test appointments. Saturday I returned to the pharmacy that had tested me on Friday, but they said they would not test me again because my Green Pass was valid for 48 hours, and I was still in that window. I was irritated and bought a bottle of multivitamins. The drama at the pharmacy was pretty rich and excellent fodder for a fiction writer. All sorts of people were frustrated and confused and in a hurry and annoyed. So later on that Saturday Jason did a home test on me that he nicked from his work. Negative. I had my booster on Monday morning and hoped I would make the appointment. I finally managed to make a PCR appointment for Tuesday morning at a lab I felt I could find on my bike.
Amidst all these little milestones I struggled with the false sense of security I’d felt that night at the bar terrazza. I was fully vaccinated and on the threshold of my third dose. Why had I done it? Out of a genuine bonhomie, but was it worth it? I felt horrible I had risked my family’s health, and the health of those with whom I came into intermittent contact. I took all my meals in my room, bringing a tray back to the little bed, leaving it outside the door when I was done, like hotel room service. I kept my time in the apartment at large down to an absolute minimum and wore double masks the whole time every time. One day I stepped into the guest shower double-masked: I laughed at myself. So it’s come to this. How quickly we find ourselves back on Square one. The bottles and jars of cosmetics collected on the desk. Every morning I folded every blanket and piece of clothing in that room in an attempt to maintain external order and internal calm. The seedling on my sill that remained alive in stunted format for months finally curled its leaves and died. The space heater worked wonders in that small space but it probably killed the seedling. I remembered once more how much I loved the view from the tall casement windows, straight up the wall onto the rooftop rose garden of the palazzo owners. There was a world carrying on outside my walls, but I had pressed pause.
I binged The Great on Hulu and messaged people to check in. I had a long chat with my parents on the weekend before my booster. I lost sense of time. It all started to feel sneakily much like spring 2020. I wrote in my journal like I was 22 again. I was glad that a trip planned for the first week of January to Strasbourg was cancelled.
On Sunday, December 19 I went back to the pharmacy on the Corso. Oh, hey, Monica, get in line. They smiled at me. Negative. This was good news – I figured if I was negative after five days, I was a good bet to stay negative. Jason and I talked about the new strain, and how, based on the timing of my exposure, the positive tests were almost certainly delta and not omicron, hence less likely to form a breakthrough infection after vaccination.
Monday, December 20, my booster shot was still on, since I’d tested negative five days in a row after the fateful apero. Jason and I got stuck in traffic before he finally dropped me off at the hospital vaccination hub. All I had was my confirmation number on my phone. It wasn’t clear where to go and I walked three times past the same homeless man before I wriggled my way to some signage pointing the way. I arrived at the line, which easily numbered one hundred people. I stepped into line in the back and noted with some anxiety that everyone seemed to have a sheaf of documents. I stood there stupidly in the cold with my phone. After I turned the corner in the line, I struck up a conversation with the woman behind me. You didn’t see the PRINT THIS button after you made your reservation? No, I replied. Don’t worry – it looks like half the people here didn’t either. She smiled at me. After about an hour of waiting I finally reached the hall and was directed to a desk to complete my paperwork.
I had to pass an in-depth doctor interview before they would administer the shot. This was the case for everyone. In brief: Barbados?! Recent steroids!? Amoxycillin and penicillin allergy?! Recent close contact with covid positive person? Testing negative yesterday?? Go on and get your shot, lady. I also received a somewhat scolding lecture about always disclosing my known medical allergies. I tried to make the point that was why I clearly listed them on the disclosure sheet. I got my shot and took the tram back into town floating on a short-lived cloud of relief. An older Italian woman was talking loudly on her cellphone inside the tram with her mask under her chin. I felt like screaming. I had become unsocialized. Maybe more easily frustrated. But who wouldn’t be, after Wednesday through Monday in the guest room, hearing life continue on the other side of the door?
Tuesday was the winter solstice, a morning full of glittering sunshine. After I dropped Eleanor off at school, I continued on my bike to find the lab, slightly beyond my known zone in town but not too far afield. A twisted street sign led me down to a dead-end where a man was loading questionable items into a large van. I pedalled faster. Focus, focus. The fresh air was a revelation. The lab was the picture of speed and efficacy after the scene at the hospital vaccination hub the day before. I was in and out of there in under twenty minutes, wait time included. And even though I’d paid for a PCR test with guaranteed results in 36 hours, they emailed them to me less than eight hours later. Negative. This was good news indeed, notwithstanding the fact that my booster shot had flattened me like a raccoon on a straight stretch of I-40 in Tennessee. I called Jason as soon as I saw the email from the lab. Take your masks off and get back out there with the kids, he said. I teared up. I’m ok, kids! Eleanor came and gave me a big bear hug. We missed you so much! They danced around and bounced in the living room, mommy mommy mommy!
The guidance has changed in the past two weeks in Italy. Now, if you are fully vaccinated and boosted (which I was not two weeks ago, and my booster will be in full force after January 4), you need not isolate unless you are symptomatic. (That was not the case two weeks ago.) Also, I saw to my contact tracing myself and took steps, knowing that I was not going to get a call from ASL (the national healthcare system.) I am glad we have the resources and life setup where I could isolate for those seven days, even if NO OF COURSE I DID NOT ENJOY IT.
Well, I had one day of good health on Wednesday before I succumbed to the family cold on Thursday that Victor came home with on Monday. It wasn’t the worst cold, but it was far from pleasant, lasting four days for each of us. Christmas came and went in a haze. I have lost all track of time (writing this has helped me order events) and hope that this holiday week goes more smoothly. In any event, I am happy to be safe and at home with my family. Everyone in line at the pharmacies for a Covid test and who is travelling stirred in me scant jealousy. I have no desire to travel these days, in spite of my genetic travel bug. I have seen a lot out there in the world. Maybe these Covid years are a time to turn the gaze inward, for those who can. I’ve gotten some great writing done. The lens refocused.
I bought the HP DeskJet 1050 printer four years ago. The seller was leaving Florence for good and sold the printer at the bargain price of just twenty euros. (This was before I understood that home printers are basically vehicles for very expensive ink cartridge purchases that continue indefinitely, and which seem to run out well in advance of the number of pages printed on the boxes they come in.) I was happy to set up the grey plastic box, install the correct drivers, and buy the right ink cartridges. Zoom! It was perfect. While the printer never has found a dedicated home, it lives under my desk in our common area, which is unfortunate as our historic apartment is plagued by drifts of lint and dust. It is lovely to live in a palazzo d’epoca except for these recurrent (and tolerable) nuisances related to light, heat, air conditioning, heating, dust and lint. (We also have tons of space, terra cotta floors, a frescoed ceiling, exposed beams, and the best neighbors in town.)
In any case, the printer has been churning out pages for us as we need them, here at home, since 2017. Permission slips, receipts, forms to sign, and the like. I’ll be honest – it’s been a trooper. The scanner works great for copies. One of the hinges is broken, and a melted crater atop the lip betrays a brief turn as an ashtray. But I’m thrifty, and it fit the bill: print stuff occasionally from home.
I like devices to be as transparent as possible in my life. They should work without much fuss from me. Cars, printers, cellphones, washers, dishwashers. Luggage. I’m the first to admit I have a bit of an obsessive-compulsive streak, half due to nature, nalf nurture. If a picture hangs crooked on a wall, I must straighten it. Sloppy clothes drive me nuts. Clutter on a desk will be tidied, and soon. Paper is recycled; the fridge is ordered. I’m not like this 100% of the time. Sometimes it seems seasonal. But when the bug bites me, it bites hard, and in few scenarios is this more apparent than when a small item needs repair. Socks are mended, screws tightened. I won’t do tasks always right away, but when they arise, they tend to be tackled in quick succession.
The printer had been working fine. It seemed a little neglected down there in its hovel, but chin up, HP DeskJet 1050, you get to print from laptops with USB ports and occasionally make interesting copies. Somewhere along the line, though, I decided I was frustrated with the ruse of the very expensive ink cartridges, and purchased a set of refurbished ones from Amazon’s Italian site. The cartridges arrived and looked legit. I read the amusing insert that came with them, written in charming international English that reminded me of the approximately nine zillion work emails I received and wrote back in the day from international employees and students. (Excerpt: “If the cartridge is not recognized by printer, you can use attached rubber eraser to clean the flex tape till it appear bright as new.”) Ridiculars! as an outraged Chinese student once emailed me to complain about a store’s return policy.
One Saturday morning, everything looked good, so I popped in the new black ink cartridge while our kids bounced around me and Jason watched me from his usual chair. I tried to print a test page. The printer emitted a terrible sound and did something unusual with the paper, chewing it down faster on the right side than the left.
Hmm! I fiddled with it. I didn’t see anything obstructing the paper pathway. Jason got down and looked at it with me. He saw nothing. I groaned and looked up the user manual online and started their troubleshooting steps. I had gotten through most of them, testing a print page each time, with no luck. After I finished step 10 of page 8, in which I was running Q-tips dipped in first rubbing alcohol, then water, I gave up, feeling some remorse about the substandard, and extremely linty, housing situation.
Must have something to do with the new cartridges, Jason pronounced. It wasn’t doing that before, was it?
I shook my head sadly. No, it was not. It was not doing that.
It’s not my nature to give up on these things (being cheap, Finnish, slightly OCD as described above). But the score was HP DeskJet 1050 – 1, Monica – 0, and it wasn’t going to budge. Penalty kicks, while tempting, didn’t seem like a good idea either. (Once, when I lived in Seattle, I owned a bubble jet that so enraged me for its capricious output that it was the first thing I tossed into the pit on a trip to the transfer station of Bellevue. I still remember the feeling of relief when its light grey plastic shattered atop the debris in the steel container.) I have a deeper appreciation now now for the adage “there is no away to throw away.” Careless discards haunt my dreams, swirling in the Sargasso Sea with all the floating shreds of plastic bags, KinderEgg toys that may have amused a child for a hot minute, and nurdles. I felt defeated at the hands of the HP Deskjet 1050, but it had already ruined the better part of a sunny Saturday and my mood, so I stowed it back in its hovel and prayed for patience and acceptance.
The next Monday we ordered a new HP for sixty euros from Amazon that can print wirelessly! It arrived quickly in a shiny new box; however, it came with no ink cartridges. When I had just spent 40 euros on ink for the ol’ HP workhorse! And of course these ink cartridges were a different size and style. Once more I felt defeated. A note with the new printer said that after we set up we could register with some entity called “Quink” for two months of free printer ink. (Small print: subscription automatically renews.) I put the new printer box next to the decommissioning printer to work through my feelings about the old printer, throwing plastic into the Sargasso Sea, and an expensive annual subscription with Quink. The two printers sat under my desk for a few weeks. The path forward was not clear. I hoped it would become clear soon.
Yesterday I found myself at home all day due to circumstances beyond my control. Buoyed by my recent good luck with the Velveteen Laptop (whose recovery is now near complete), the new printer and the dusty old printer caught my eye. I’ll give it one last go, I told myself, before I declare it dead weight and toss it overboard. I tried printing some test pages again, but the rollers continued to scream and munch down on the right side, as though the printer were trying to grasp the margin with its jaws. I sighed and poked around a little more. Finally I took it all the way out into the light and, out of curiosity, turned it upside down.
Hmm what are these two small tabs? I pressed them gently and a rectangular door opened. There, tucked tightly into a slot, twinkled a euro twenty cent coin. Astonishing. A coin had dropped into the paper tray and made its way, pachinko-style, down to the bottom of the printer, where it wedged and obstructed paper from smoothly rolling. I carefully removed the coin. I closed every little door. The printer page printed perfectly.
I placed the new printer, still in its box, safely in our upper storage. I wondered what Jung might have made of the twenty-cent coin – what message, if any, was it meant to convey or augur? And when in the world had the coin rolled down there? I thought about the concomitant ink cartridges and our Western assumption that their refurbished cheapness was the cause of the suddenly protesting rollers. I got motivated and found another half-dozen things to fix with glue (a stool, a magnet), needle and thread (Jason pajamas, Victor pants), and a twist-tie (an annoying rattle on my bike).
I’m tickled it’s been recovered for another year or two of service. HP DeskJet 1050 – 1, Monica – 2.
My hangnail was throbbing. I’d been kicked off my desk once more by two children who needed to play the Wii U, either Super Mario or Just Dance. I don’t remember. I am basically a wandering member of the lost tribe in the desert of our apartment, seeking a thoughtful oasis where I might set my computer and my thoughts. Impossible. A room of one’s own? Will settle for desk. It’s a miracle I get any writing done.
So I balanced the laptop on my thighs at the kitchen table to write an assignment for the creative course I follow online. I might have been trying to adjust the weight of the machine. I don’t remember what was happening with my hardware, but damn, that hangnail. Pulsing like a galactic phenomenon. Had I tried to trim my own cuticle left-handed? Is that what happened?
Somehow, I still don’t understand how, the laptop slipped from my grasp while I was typing. Cold hands, throbbing fingers, odd angles, poor support. My husband was at the end of the galley kitchen. He saw everything happen. We both watched it travel in slow-motion to the terra cotta floor. Bonk.
Yowch! he yelled.
It bounced and took another hop down the stone step. Ponk.
Ooooh! he called like a cinema voiceover.
We both stared at the laptop. Shit, I muttered. But this stuff happened all the time, right? It would be fine. My phones, for example, had taken more than one hard spill, and once a brand-new phone skated all the way down the C concourse in Sea-Tac, no worse for the wear. I was blessed with good tech luck. It would be fine. I gently lifted the laptop up by its base.
A greenish-gray butterfly with yellow wings bloomed in the top left corner and continued to spread downward like a weeping Etch-a-Sketch.
It’s done, I pronounced sadly. Just a tad over two years with me and that’s it. I wanted to cry.
Looks like it’s time someone got a new laptop! he crowed from his corner beyond the dishwasher.
Just let me grieve! I yelled. You never let me just be sad about stuff! It’s broken.
He pulled a serious face. Maybe you can get it fixed. He thought for a moment. We bought the kid a new laptop and it’s still under our bed. It’s just like yours. Unbox it.
He was right. Our son had fried his pandemic laptop with excessive gaming on a deep sofa covered in a mound of blankets. What IS he doing in that techgloo? We both wondered. Some game. But his obsession got the better of him and that laptop had the last laugh, frying down entirely.
I don’t want that laptop, I said. Anyway, it’s his laptop. I want mine to be not broken.
Logic! he accused joyfully.
I put on my pajamas. A sick pit yawned in my stomach. I had deleted my laptop. I had been careless and plagued by a throbbing hangnail and somehow had failed to hold onto my lifeline, letting it fall slackly onto the waxed bricks. I dreamed all night that the LCD crystals drained to black and then a swarm of green and yellow butterflies flew up and out of the case, leaving the hollow hive for a new home.
The next day I took it to a repair shop. Shaking heads, husband and wife together, and their six-year-old daughter to boot as she chewed lazily on a croissant. Too hard, they said. Touch screen. Carbon ThinkPad. Need expert. Supply chain expensive. Delay. We’ll message you. Or not. It will cost a lot. Maybe no good news. We’ll let you know.
Reader, I prayed for the suffering body of that laptop to cease, for its sclerotic eye, as I trudged across town with its dark slim self tucked into a backpack. Maybe I shook the Etch-a-Sketch? Perhaps the walk was good for it? Maybe it could tell I did not want the it to die. I hissed through clenched teeth in the cold, YOU WILL NOT DIE ON MY TODAY CARBON THINKPAD! YOU ARE MY LIFELINE.
Once home I opened it up and carefully placed it on the contested desk space. I turned it on. Reader, I am not kidding, that laptop screen was healing itself. The Etch-a-Sketch grains were now flowing up and to the left like landfill, like that island in Dubai or a Richard Serra sculpture, until the vacant corner was a fraction of the original injury.
I didn’t need to open that spare laptop after all, depreciating in its factory box under my bed! I had faith-healed my Carbon ThinkPad. I didn’t even mind the subtle Doppler shadow that remained, looking like a severe storm system on the Doppler 5000. Yes, it’s missing the equivalent of a button eye now, and its fur is coming untufted a bit. But I have the Velveteen Laptop, proving again that love makes you real. Can make even a laptop heal.
We went back and forth with the insurance company a few times about the popped diamond. We insisted we had no access to anything like a receipt of sale or an appraiser’s report. Well, the claims adjuster replied, can you write us an account of the circumstances under which you lost the diamond?
Yes, I can, I assured her with confidence. You have asked this policy holder the right question. I wrote a few paragraphs and sent them to her.
She came back with a few market comps. Do any of these look like what you lost?
I began to feel sheepish for having doubted their level of service earlier, when she was just checking her boxes and going through her process as she was trained to do.
Yes, all of those are quite nice, I responded.
Indeed, the value of the new rings she selected to show were almost 50% more than our original ring. The rings were all very, very nice. Perhaps they are also trained to adjust for inflation, I wondered.
Great! she answered. We’ll deposit it to your account.
And just like that, the money appeared. Diamond, poof out! Payout, poof in!
(No Italian to whom I have related this story can believe this detail. There is absolutely no way any Italian insurance company would have ever paid out based on a story you wrote them, they all laughed. Well done you and your American policy.)
To be fair I had carried the policy for the better part of two decades, and even at the relatively modest premium, the passage of time had made it more like an escrow account.
I’d never had reason to make a claim against the policy before. This was my one piece of jewelry that was not shared with Eleanor, or purchased from H&M accessories or Fiori del Tempo here locally on Via Ginori, the last one owned by an Italian family whom I adore, but even they would characterize their jewelry as no more than tasteful sparkly bits. I have other pendants carefully wrapped with their own strings, alpine edelweiss on black rubber chokers, an actual knotted string of pearls that Jason bought me one Christmas years ago. But nothing worth more, in the end, than fifty dollars or so. I remember when I was a child how my mom bought Avon accessories like they going to shut down the Avon jewelry factory and lay off all the Avon workers next week. I gazed at her Avon jewelery boxes in faux Delft atop her bureau, brimming with long chains and plastic cameos, and the jewelry chests seemed as fantastic as the hidden trove of Aladdin himself. I am a magpie with a sense of economy.
So I was a bit nonplussed about how to go about locating the new ring that I would imbue with sentimental heft. I knew the ring would become a story of its own. Well kids, that summer day in the bathroom of the rest stop in Liguria, Victor and I were washing our hands, and it must have happened then, but I heard nothing, not a plink….
Jason found my diffuse wondering very amusing. Trying to buy a piece of fine jewelry in Florence is like wondering in Anchorage why they don’t put more ice in your drink. Just ask! So I started asking around. I also began casually perusing the windows of the dozens of fine jewelry shops I come across every day in my routine perambulations around the city. But I have rarely been one for new baubles. It’s surprising really that we bought a new engagement ring in 2004 from the caveman internet.
I was shocked by the price tags on new solitaires. I don’t love new gems anyway. I don’t love the industry, I don’t love the idea of their unfree trade. I was set on a vintage ring. I put out a few feelers here and there, to the older members of the parish of St. James Episcopal Church, as well as lighting up the switchboard to our Italian friends, in particular our family friend Flavia, whose family we know well. They all seem to work in fine jewelry or high fashion in some capacity throughout the cities and towns of Tuscany and beyond.
Flavia responded quickly. You need to talk to my great-aunt Grazia, she said. I remembered Grazia from Christmas of 2016, which we four spent at the house of Flavia’s parents, how Grazie handed around parcels of vintage jewelry to all the women in Flavia’s family. I am pretty sure this magpie’s beak was agape, thinking hook me up! How do I get grandauntied in to an auntie like that?
I wasted no time contacting Zia Grazia. She said she’d sadly had to close up her shop full of vintage jewels on Via della Condotta thanks to the wreckage of the lockdown and the pandemic, but that she’d be pleased to receive me in her pied-à-terre in centro, and would I please let her know what I was looking for, and my general budget? Certo, I said. A vintage solitaire of any century, ideally in white gold. I told her an amount that more or less matched the insurance payout.
She promised to carefully review her collection and to select a few pieces for us to look at. I kept looking in jewelry store windows out of habit.
Next: admiring the jewels of minor Medici with Zia Grazia.
The morning of July 31 was our third day of a family vacation. Chased out of Florence by the midsummer heat, we were staying at a small albergo in Pescia, Tuscany, an unlikely waystation on our way to the French Alps for our annual sojourn at high elevation. Indeed our local friends raised their eyebrows at the thought. It is a bit like getting a head start on your drive from Seattle to San Francisco by staying in Olympia. But this albergo boasted a magnificent pool. That morning I was wearing my diamond solitaire, as was my custom. I rarely removed it. I swam in the pool. I applied sunblock to both myself and my children. I sketched, and wrote in my journal. I read a book.
We left in the mid-morning in our car – my husband driving, and our two children in the back seat. I was wearing cutoffs and a knit t-shirt. Our destination was just across the French border, in the province of Savoie. It was a sunny day with heavy traffic on the autostrada, so we planned to minimize our stops. However, it was not possible to drive stright through from Tuscany to France with young children. Around midday we stopped at a gas station in Liguria. I took Victor into the gas station to use the restroom.
We used the family restroom and washed and dried our hands. Once back outside, we ate our sandwiches next to the car because the area was so busy. When we finished, we brushed the crumbs from our clothes and got back in the car to continue our journey on the autostrada. Not long after we left, I looked down at my hand and saw that the solitaire from my engagement ring was missing. I panicked. I started searching the car, in my seat, on the floorboard. My heart sank as I realized it may have popped out in the rest stop bathroom. That evening, after we arrived at our hotel in France, I checked carefully in every bag that had been behind the seat, especially the snack bag we had prepared for the children. Perhaps the diamond popped out when I was getting a snack for the kids. But we did not find the diamond anywhere.
As soon as we got settled in the new hotel in La Rosière I reported the loss to my insurance. I continued to look for the lost diamond in the car without luck. It was not in a pocket of my cutoff shorts either. The insurance company requested proof of its purchase and an appraiser’s report. But since our move to Italy in 2016, almost all of our documents from the Time Before have been located in secure storage in a unit in Spokane, WA. It was about 0.4 carat, highly graded for quality, in an Asscher cut. We paid retail a little less than one thousand dollars for it when it was purchased online. It was a big deal for us then.
The solitaire was my one piece of fine jewelry, purchased for me by Jason, then my fiancé, in 2004. We shopped online in the caveman days of the internet, and narrowed it down to three choices. Jason said he’d pick the one he liked best.
It’s just a symbol, Jason cooed. Try to calm down. Looks like it’s time for you to find a new ring. But I was devastated. I am a very sentimental person, and even small items that carry no real value mean the world to me for the memories and energy that attaches to them. I am far better than I used to be (reforming packrat) but still. The engagement ring. It felt like a huge loss to me. I was sad for days in France. Even when the insurance representative urged me to not worry about it, to not let it ruin my holiday. I sat on the balcony and read Stendhal. I put the empty ring in a safe place. I thought about everything that ring had seen, every work desk, ever hospital bed, every baby diaper and meal I prepared.
In 2004, Jason kept the ring hidden from me on a very long road trip, from Norman to Philadelphia to Folly Beach, South Carolina, where we were engaged on the evening of Epiphany, 2005 – just a little over a year after we met. When he pulled out the box at sunset we both dissolved in nervous giggles. He placed the ring on my finger, and there it remained, through thick and thin, until July 31, 2021.
In retrospect I might have taken it off more frequently, perhaps been more careful with it when bathing, swimming, or showering, or slathering children with sunblock or my legs with lotion. But I didn’t, and with the passing of time one or more of the prongs weakened and broke, making the ring look like a crone’s toothless gap. I suspect no one even realized it was a diamond at that gas station in Liguria, if it was ever even noticed, which I also very much doubt. A clear bit like that may have seemed as inconsequential as a tiny block of broken tempered glass.
What happened next? There is more to this story. Post to follow.
This article, Considering the Mental Health of Students on Campus, caught my eye a few weeks ago. Then my mouth hung open and stayed that way for a couple of weeks. I ranted to a few friends about it. I fumed. It just felt so myopic to me. The problem is in the system, not in individuals. I worked on large campus for ten years, eight of them as the director of an International Student Services – an office that saw perhaps more than its fair share of students struggling with stress and mental health. I know what a student in distress looks and sounds like. I remember how we were coached and trained as university staff to respond to such students – either to counseling, where appointments were available months out into the future, or as a threat to be referred to a committee whose acronym escapes me, but whose focus was largely law and order, less resources and assistance.
What is “mental health”? What is “a campus”?
There are very American answers to these questions that the author of this article did not seem interested in examining through a cross-cultural lens. But in the years since I moved from America, and off campus, my perspective has shifted in interesting ways. Concepts have become clear to me in ways they were not before.
There is American mental health. (This means: coping well with an inherently stressful system as though it were normal and justifiable.)
There is the trope of an American campus. (This means: a sort of educational terrarium where you pay to play, or learn, as the case may be)
The American campus wants its students to enjoy good mental health. (This means: the residents of the educational terrarium are best kept in a status where they can keep paying tuition and fees and other bills to move forward to complete their degree.)
But what is American cultural messaging around mental health?
In America, we are urged to pursue an ever-increasing independence, through school, sport, leadership activities, and the like. No one really talked about community or community-building. The community exists to promote independence and the American idea of “leadership” in its individuals.
The idea of independence, particularly as it relates to the “university experience,” is unique to America. Children leave home at seventeen or eighteen to attend campuses far from home. They are housed at no modest fee in dormitories reminiscent of a cultural boot camp, with resident assistants and an elected student housing government that discusses things like seasonal parties and dining hall hours. There is a a dining hall for meals, and small restaurants and cafes where the university ID can be used to purchase food when needed, provided the account has been credited by a parent or some source of funding. Other buildings are provided where classes were held. Students go home for holidays. I know this is not a universal experience, but it is a typical experience in America.
I think back on it, and it is astonishing to me that this has become a normative expectation in America. WHY should we be so independent, leaving our families and the communities where we grew up (such as they were) to join communities whose cost of admission was an expensive tuition and housing bill? What purpose did this serve? Apart from education, which of course is important, but why all the cultural collateral?
Be independent, be independent, be adult. I try to imagine when it happened that this expectation, for this young adult age, became normal. Is it rooted in American exceptionalism? Pioneer times? Settlers and their descendants who strived for a higher order of pioneering and settling? It’s not like students settle in their college towns. “College town” tends to be American cultural shorthand for “small and no one sticks around really. Also many cheap bars.”
We have an English friend whose grandmother was born in (what was then) the British Raj. She boarded a ship at four to sail to England to enroll in boarding school, to be educated far from a place her parents felt was not home. England was very much a home base for those colonial families.
In distant centuries, education was a commodity for wealthy families who employed tutors and governesses in the home. With colonization and the rise in economic strength among “governing” nations, a formal education came to be seen as a way in wealthier families to distinguish oneself and one’s family, to advance one’s career and family fortune. Think of Oxbridge in the UK, and the Ivies in the U.S. The Sorbonne, Bologna, Salamanca. Trinity College in Dublin, and Heidelberg in Germany. Universities became gathering places for academics and their pupils, a learning destination that shaped the arc and tenor of cultures.
Meanwhile in America something different was afoot: the idea of universal education. The nineteenth century and the westward expansion of American and immigrant settlers saw the rise of the schoolhouse. Perhaps one room, yes, perhaps just one young, unmarried teacher, yes. Deeply aligned to the agricultural calendar, yes – school in the winter months, but helping on the farm in the temperate months of planting and harvesting. But an expectation that even the children of farmers, and townfolk whose life work found shape in engaging in the commerce, business, and activity of those American towns and cities – even the children of shopkeepers and farmers, in many cases the working class, and in some cases people close to impoverished, those children came into a socially contracted right to education. What was the purpose of education? The Founding Fathers of our mythology had a thing to say here and there about it – those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Jefferson and his library full of the books of the Enlightenment. Education came to be seen as a good thing – an important pursuit for children of varied languages, cultures of origin, economic status.
My own grandfather, Harold, whose parents spoke Norwegian and Finnish in their home of the northern coast of Upper Michigan, was the eleventh of twenty-one children born on that farm, and the first in his family to finish high school, together with his two sisters. A huge accomplishment. Prior to 1800, or even 1850 or 1900, this would not have even been possible. They were subsistence farmers in a fairly hostile climate, making their way in a nascent American culture, code switching as needed to navigate as circumstances dictated. He did not return to the farm to live. He relocated to Detroit to seek work, where my grandmother Lempi had also moved to seek work as a young adult. They met there, and married, and returned to Upper Michigan to live in the bustling urban center of Hancock-Houghton, twin cities on hills that rise on each side of the Portage Canal. The farm receded from his daily life , but remained an important anchor and destination for him until his death in 1984. He did not attend university, but four of his seven children did, each of them also completing graduate degrees in medicine, math, communications, and education. Even when I consider this as a family anecdote it astonishes me. My mother and father also met on a campus, my father far from home but my mother mere walking distance. They each completed university degrees, my mother doing on to complete graduate work. And my brothers and I all completed graduate degrees in our respective fields of chemical engineering, Spanish literature, and computer science, on multiple and far-flung campuses.
Ironically, I stayed closest to home, having perhaps over-bonded with my subscription-based community at seventeen, just a few miles down the road from where I was mostly raised, and indeed returned to that campus almost ten years later for my graduate work. But that is a story for a different day, because the campus community is also how I met my husband and fell in love, marrying him and holding our wedding reception in the student union on a freezing February afternoon.
I suppose my family is Exhibit A when I consider higher education as a force for class mobility. To go from subsistence farming in 1930 to professionals with graduate degrees in one or two generations is an accomplishment, and one not available to everyone, given how the cost of higher education has increased since the 1960s and especially since the 1990s. American culture has shifted, too – more more more, faster always more, grade inflation and the college to hedge fund manager pipeline. I worry about the model, and its sustainability. We talk about this often in our house. Is American higher education sustainable, with its 4,400 institutions? Is education as a market commodity really the best way to manage education? Do Americans really need to be so independent – what purpose does it serve? Maybe we could work on community a little more? Can any university students in America maintain mental health while paying those bills (later loans) and maintaining that schedule – and how to calibrate expectations for what comes after?
As a matter of fact, yes, I would like us to very seriously consider the mental health of students on campus, and to examine it from an international perspective of sustainability and a cost-benefits analysis. Sometimes I wonder if what I gained in education, I lost in community. Maybe I found new communities. Maybe those communities simply tolerated my presence. Maybe my mental health on campus was a direct result of paying only about a thousand dollars a semester in tuition for a really good program in the early nineties, and frankly also being away on long study abroad programs twice, and in Washington D.C. one summer. I can’t help but think that the culture is setting up young adults to fail, with high bills, impossible expectations, and a sense of being unmoored in a pop-up community.
I wonder what our kids will do for college. Vic is the class of 2029, and Eleanor 2032. Eleanor (age 7) is already insistent that she will go to university in America. She’s not old enough yet to read her mother’s essays …..
A few things are certain around this time of year at our house: we’re planning Eleanor’s birthday (October 31). There’s chatter about candy and costumes. And one or more of us are sick. Like, appreciably ill.
Since we moved to Florence, we also find ourselves navigating the liminal space between the twin concepts of “Italy” and “Halloween.” There’s an uneasy rapport between the two. I suspect that there’s more Halloweening per capita in Florence than in any other Italian city, simply due to the presence of thousands of American residents. A strange form of trick-or-treating has taken root in a few business centers in town. Many Italian children dress up in costumes around this time of year – costumes that are strictly reserved for Carnival everywhere else in the country – just to frolic in the park. I covered Halloween in Italy in depth five years ago in this piece, fresh in our first year and full of observations, together with this follow-up piece, which details what happened to me on Ognissanti 2016 (November 1) health-wise, and what wisdom I took from that day.
October has been a tale of medical woe at our house. (Thank goodness that attendant health insurance claim shenanigans did not form any portion of this burden.) We al had a crap cold at the start of the month. Then Eleanor suffered a diffuse and indeterminate sport injury, most likely when she fell on her back in the park while learning to rollerskate, which caused missed school and x-rays, and resulted in much crying. Then Vic and I came down with a second chest cold, which turned into bronchitis for Vic and a sinus infection and bronchitis for me, as is my body’s custom. My aunt the OBGYN swears that there is no way on God’s green earth that post-partum health includes shifting and infected sinuses, but I got nothing else to go on here, and I get them almost annually since I had Victor in 2011. Jason has powered through this past week that Victor and I were home, but it seems now, on the very eve of her seventh birthday, we’re losing Eleanor to the Crud and the party so meticulously planned for tomorrow to “festage” (festaggiare) her in the twilit garden, now has an approximately 50% chance of happening. To an old hand, or bored child, this might not be such a big deal, but for Eleanor, who lives for this stuff, it is an appalling conclusion indeed to two months of literally X-ing off the days on the calendar until her birthday and talking about it nonstop. She is trying very hard to rally. I am trying to be realistic. We’ll make the call tomorrow morning and let everyone know if the party is to be postponed to some less festive weekend. She asked me to bake the birthday cupcakes anyway, so I did. Our neighbors in the building will all be receiving a cupcake care package if the party is postponed for a week.
As for my part, I’m on the mend, and Vic is too, and in some strange way it was actually really nice to hang out with him this past week in the apartment, sharing the nebulizer, comparing symptoms, taking lots of medicine in various ways, and sleeping in the apartment’s designated sick bay together.
Anyway, if any of you have any direct lines to the Goddess of Birthdays and Festages, please send up a petition on behalf of one Eleanor Houston, age 6, that she might be well to host her seventh birthday party tomorrow afternoon in the garden of Gonzaga-in-Florence.