Update from Italy: Herculaneum and Other Tragedies

One of many caves filled with preserved skeletons, victims of the Vesuvian eruption. (c) Monica Sharp 2020

How many people died in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD? I asked Jason Saturday evening over dinner. These are typical questions in our home.

Don’t know, he said, raising his wine glass to his mouth.

I looked it up. Sixteen thousand, about. Two thousand in Pompeii, and fourteen thousand elsewhere. Those in Herculaneum were the wealthiest.

Our last trip before the pandemic was to Napoli in this century, on a fast train with the children, staying in an apartment on Via Chiaia close to the quartiere of Santa Lucia, festooned with wet laundry off every balcony lining its narrow alleys.

We took a trip inside the trip to Herculaneum, 1,921 years into the past. A few friends in Florence had advised us that it was a better site for children than Pompeii. We traveled to Pompeii in 2013, traipsing around all morning with toddler Victor in a backpack on Jason’s back, watching the sun behind Vesuvius cast long shadows across the agora. It is hard to describe the size and scale of Pompeii to those who are unfamiliar. It is enormous and goes on and on and on. Even if you had a whole day, you could only see a tiny corner of it. In any case, all the treasures have been long since spirited away to the climate-controlled internal rooms of famous museums. The next time we go, we’ll take an archaeologist friend with us. I am not sure which one, but we can surely find someone.

For these reasons, we had Herculaneum in mind. Plus, as a devoted reader and fan of Elena Ferrante, I have had Naples on the brain for a few years now. I longed to breathe the salty air, to close my eyes and inhale the sad remnant of the Spanish empire as it hides itself in the shadows of formerly grand courtyards and street-side façades of peeling stucco.

We stayed in Naples for two full days; on the first, we rode both routes of the city’s sightseeing buses. On the second day, we navigated the Neapolitan metro and the light rail, the circonvesuviale, to arrive at Ercolano – the Italian name for Herculaneum.

“Herculaneum was destroyed and buried under volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption. Although smaller than Pompeii, it was a wealthier town. Unlike Pompeii, the mainly pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum carbonized and preserved more wood in objects such as roofs, beds, and doors, as well as other organic-based materials such as food and papyrus. While roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling debris, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum, causing little damage but nonetheless prompting most inhabitants to attempt to flee.” Very few survived. It is said that a cloud of noxious gas swept down the western slope of the volcano, rolling through the streets of Herculaneum.

I had read that some people in the town had made haste for the beach, where they hoped to outrun the eruption, but how? We picked out way down ramps of honeycombed steel, down, down, down to what used to be the beach, now under four stories of lava and ash, a murky lagoon in front. The current beach is over the forty-foot wall, on the other side. The air grew more and more humid as we descended, the scent of blooming algae strong in the breezeless air. Turning right on a roughly paved sidewalk we walked slowly along the open-air dioramas of terror and death. Bones piled on bones, broken apart but more or less in the shapes of people. Maybe a dozen of these caves lined the lagoon, open to the air and the people, a wooden rail separating us from them.

They had no idea when they arose that morning what that day would bring. When events began to unfold, they panicked; they hastily packed their valuables, and went to the safest place they knew, running with jelly knees under a darkening sky. But those safe places became their tombs. Very safe.

How ironic, how parallel that this trip to Herculaneum was to be our last trip pre-pandemic. Bodies are not piling up in caves on the beach under four stories of ash and lava, but in some way we have all bid a hurried farewell to a version of ourselves that predates March 2020. Frozen in time, those petrified versions of ourselves who inhaled anxiety and unknowing. Victor and Eleanor loved the place, hopping from numbered site to numbered site, exclaiming at mosaic floors, public baths, a fresco. We ate a snack at the temple ruins. They scampered and shrieked over tragedy and history, as we were just weeks away from an eruption of a different sort, a silent eruption in whose wake many perished.

I understand that some do not wish to respect today’s ephemeral remains – the ghosts of ourselves mere months ago, along with a great many who are actually now dead. People wish yet to gather the bones, raise them up, make them dance, as though there were no disaster. Quarantine freedom fests are being planned now for early June in Oklahoma, mere miles away from where we lived. If we could ask those much older bones, the ones we stare at in disbelief, they’d have a good guess as to where these freedom fests might end. Lean in and listen.

I was a Classics and Letters major in university. That education has served me well in Italy, if nothing more than to continue to fuel my curiosity about history, ruins, the human condition. I have always loved stones and bones, as I call them, and carefully incline my ear to hear their whispered tales. They tell me forgotten truths.

Update from Italy: The Cloud of Unknowing

Photo by Michael Voroshnin on Unsplash

“I don’t know.”

“I just don’t know.”

“We don’t know.”

How many times have you said this since February?

There are so many things that we don’t know. Past, present, future. What does it mean to not know? How often have you said, I don’t know? What is your excessive not-knowing quotient, compared to the same time period in 2019?

Are you comfortable not knowing? Is the time and space to not know something a privilege? If you have time and space to not know, you have fewer exigencies pressing down on you to know something immediately. Like Jeanette Winterson, a writer whose work I adore, I find that couching abstractions in metaphor grounds them to better illuminate their signified concepts.

The wise one knows that she does not know. She possesses some idea of the vast uncharted expanse of her un-knowledge. We cannot label it ignorance, because she is aware of it; it sails around at the corners of her dreams, rounding the cape, from time to time anchoring tantalizingly in some dark, deep harbor. Merchants have been known to row up to land in their dinghies with wares to trade and sell, knowledge from near and far: an enameled fact, the amber and bitter gall of past disasters, the tightly wound silk of precious dreams, waiting for the right day to unfurl and flutter in the wind.

Every morning she rises, knowing that she doesn’t know. Sometimes she reviews the handful of things she has learned, perhaps long ago. Or they might be facts or bits she picked up as recently as yesterday. This I know. That I know. Always on Square One, every day Square One, in a world in which she wakes every day and which she must decipher anew, untangling the past and its messages to make sense of nonsense. 

This she knows: every day is a new Square One. This is not a bad thing. Square One is a precious gift. And yet. And yet. As a merchant of knowledge, she yearns to fill her warehouse, stuff it with goods and imports and local harvests, even as she knows there is no warehouse that can possibly hold it all. Still, she sorts her stock; she values, she sells, she barters what she can for other knowledge that she lacks.

Knowing that she does not know is her greatest treasure of knowledge. It keeps her curious, questioning, confirming, asking, watching, observing. Not knowing is a gift; coming into knowledge is a literal revelation, an epiphany so grand that she would never forego it, the sheer pleasure of coming into knowledge that illuminates, even were the ship to sail back out from the harbor again to crest the high seas. She keeps her warehouse modest; you can find it on Square One.

Where is Square One?

“I don’t know.”


Update from Italy: Street Views

Photo by Josè Maria Sava on Unsplash

I have been getting out on a more or less regular basis for walks that consist of thousands of steps. I am very happy about this. Jason has only accompanied me the one time; every other time I have loaded up a literary podcast and tied my laces, still garnished with a sprig of flowering weed that attached itself on the San Domenico stroll, and which I have left in place as a reminder/protest.

I have a few urban circuits. The narrow streets in centro are too confined and claustrophobic for me at this time, and indeed, many of them seem to challenge the idea of social distancing even when pedestrian frequency is low. My main route right now goes up the viale toward the Arno, turn right at Crazy Bar, right again on the way to Piazza Savonarola, walk down to Mazzini, up to Campo di Marte train station, and back home. If I make the whole walk, it’s about eight thousand steps, and I feel great. A perfect walk. The antidote to quarantine-exacerbated lower back pain.

One thing I noticed recently coming back on the home stretch. It was shocking as I realized it. A pair of university-aged women walked toward me, long straight hair, generous hips. As they drew near I realized they were Italian. But they looked American. I was shocked. They were speaking Italian. As I looked around, it occurred to me that everyone around me was speaking Italian. The tourists were gone. Many other expats, not tourists, have packed up and gone home. I was the lone non-Italian for blocks and blocks. Piazza D’Azeglio, where we live, increased in diversity; the non-Italians there were clearly not European.

I asked Jason, when was the last time Florence was so … Italian? I ticked backward through decades. Perhaps pre-Unification (1860)? Or in the decades just after? How about after Florence lost its status as a national capital, and was relegated to cultural treasure-keeper (post-1870)? In any case, in those years I am quite sure that the Grand Tour was in full flux, and the English abounded, with their trunks and their money. Maybe sometimes trunks of money. Just kidding, the trunks were full of paint supplies for their portraitists.

Seeing the Italian-not-Italian students made me realize how the city has changed in the weeks since we hunkered down. Florentines and long-timers common complain, and very vocally so, about the tourists, the daytrippers, the students. But they’re gone now. No more students, no more daytrippers, no more people squinting at maps in the piazza and asking me where they might find the synagogue (it is right next to our building but you can’t see it. Sometimes people think our building is the synagogue.) Being quarantined at home, away from the whole of Italian society, speaking English all day with Jason and the kids, I forgot a bit where we were.

And reading the endless scrolling WhatsApp threads of the other moms (to a one, almost all Italian) moms from the kids’ school, all in Italian, with many emojis and much punctuation, was like visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, watching the fish and manatees and manta rays swim by. No one does friendship like Italian moms with kids. Man, they are tight. My sense of isolated sharpened to an acute condition. Every now and then one of two moms would message me to ask me how we were, in March, in April. Finally one morning I broke down, typing in tears, to a mom I trust. She’s very international; we have bonded before over a shared love of Spain, drinking prosecco from cracked plastic goblets. Daniela? I began tentatively, tapping out buon dì. My language does not arrive to my feelings about all of this, I tapped. But really what I wanted to say was, You are all somehow finding so much comfort in one another and in your friendships and shared culture, and I don’t have that. I’m out here on Expat Island, speaking English, feeling desperate and alone. The Italian moms were desperate too, but they had a lot of inside jokes. On the other hand, many of them had isolated, elderly parents whom they were very worried about. Don’t worry about it! Daniela reassured me. Your Italian is fine! I lived in Madrid with six Japanese girls; I have a high water mark for confusion!

But maybe it was more that my Italian does not connect to my feelings. In March and April, I needed language tools close at hand, as those of you know who have been following along with me on this journey. I needed tools, and I did not have those language tools, because I no longer have time to return to a younger version of myself to building up that memory bank of feelings+words. I have those in Spanish, in French even. But I fear that that ship has sailed. I am just being realistic.

I watched the two Italian women continue down the sidewalk to the crosswalk, their masks down over their chins, chattering away. I felt ashamed and sorry for myself as I walked that last block to our portone.

Update from Italy: The Simple Stroll

Photo by Monica Sharp (c) 2020

A brief update from the desk of Normal Life. Jason and I took a stroll yesterday together, our first time away from the home without the kids since February 25.

That particular day was our wedding anniversary and we had reserved one of the tiny four tables at Cibléo on Piazza Sant’Ambrogio for an elegant prix fixe cena. Alas, the occasion was somewhat marred by the fact that Jason was outside on the sidewalk taking a series of solemn, nerve-wracking conference calls. Later that night, Gonzaga University decided to bring home their students in Italy. What was meant to be a relaxing spring break for students and university faculty and staff turned on a dime. Oh how the wheel of fortune turns! I sipped the rosé on my own and ate Jason’s dessert.

Last week as Italy began to slowly, slowly open up again, our regular sitter returned. She is on a contract with us and has been paid for each week of the lockdown as well, but we missed her and she was ready to come back too. So she started last week on a twice-weekly schedule, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just a few hours in the afternoon. Yesterday Jason and I realized we could take a walk! I advocated initially for my urban circuit. No, Jason said. Let’s ride our bikes to Le Cure, and walk up to San Domenico. So we donned our masks and found our bike keys.

The viale was well-trafficked. People seemed safe. We wheeled up to Le Cure and locked our bikes on a pole at a major intersection, close to our old apartment from 2005, next to the stairs where we saw a young man shooting up heroin one night under the streetlamp. Past the caffè where we sat dumbfounded the morning that the London bombs happened, balancing our cornette alla crema and cappuccini on the metal table outside. The stairs are all cleaned up now and paved with fresh concrete. The latticed rail around the caffè is overgrown with vines like a displaced ruin. That corner building has been branded Il Giardino, long since smoothed over with stucco, developed into oblivion, and sold off in small parcels. Elderly Italians continue to pick their way carefully along the sidewalks close to the walls.

We began the climb up and out of Le Cure. A couple in front of us was unmasked, the man gabbing away on his cell phone. I kept my mask on. The trick to exercising (or walking briskly) with a mask on? Do not open your mouth, ever. Even if you think you have fresh breath, it is not sufficiently fresh to breathe through your nose in an enclosed space. The sunlight filtered through the trees; the wet leaves on the ground were perfumed from that morning’s rain. Walls of white star jasmine tumbled over the stones just on the cusp of first bloom. We passed a few dog walkers, and stopped here and there to read plaques and names of villas along the road up in that secluded part of Florence. Villa Stella. Villa Forbici (don’t run on the grounds!). Villa Corbezzolo. A university campus. Olive groves. Low forests of scrub oaks. The meandering song of birds in the afternoon.

We decided to not go all the way to San Domenico, and did a U-turn onto Via Forbici (Scissors Way). The views spread out over the city, the Signoria, the Duomo, Piazzale Michelangelo, all visible from the point opposite. We passed more villas; many seemed vacant, their gravel drives sprung with straggling weeds. Some had no name at all, even though they seemed very grand and surrounded by fine property. Others stared blankly out from broken windows, their silent stables walled off from the street.

It was only two miles, but gave us bliss for just a bit. On the plus side, Jason did not have to take any stressful work calls. When we arrived at the intersection where we’d locked our bikes, a trio of Italians was struggling to speak loudly from behind their masks, next to the overgrown caffè. I plan to make a walk like this for as many days as it is possible.

The seven weeks of quarantine would have certainly been mitigated by daily walks like this, had they been allowed. I bear no grudge that they were not. But our quarantine was very different, much more severe, than any quarantine in most other countries, with the exceptions of Spain, France, and China. I keep wondering how the rest of 2020 will unfold. I might guess.

Update from Italy: The Mayonnaise is Insane

Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

I adore fresh mayonnaise, its velvet texture, a pinch of salt, a whisper of garlic, made with good French red wine vinegar. Fresh eggs a must. It has always been my favorite condiment, even when I was a child and only knew about Miracle Whip. A ramekin of fresh garlic with your steak et frites or oeufs à la mayonnaise with a glass of red wine, and you are suddenly the patron of a reliable Parisian bistro with a solid reputation. Homemade mayonnaise makes frozen French fries forget their humble proletarian identity. Let the kids eat store-bought ketchup. I will pass on the red stuff every time. There is something so simple, so basic, about the care involved in making a fresh condiment that it makes everything taste better, and full of love.

I never went to the Cordon Bleu, nor fancied myself an aspirant chef. Lately though I have taken to wearing a canvas apron most of the day, because in quarantine and quasi-quarantine I am often in the kitchen, or thinking about going there, or coming from cleaning there. Mayonnaise is like a small party amid all the pedestrian tasks. And yet my efforts to make mayonnaise are pretty hit or miss. The internet had some tips for me that work occasionally, but not always. This results in frustration. In the garden the other day I was chatting with Maria about my mayonnaise tribulations.

“My mother is very careful with her mayonnaise,” she said. “She whips it slowly, by hand, in a specific pattern. Otherwise the mayonnaise, as we say, si impazzisce.” The mayonnaise becomes insane. The mayonnaise will throw a tantrum.

You cannot change direction of the whisk. You must whisk as though you were a liveried butler at a diplomatic dinner. Phlegmatically, calmly, with a refusal to budge or register frustration. Whisk, whisk, whisk, or it will stubbornly remain separate. The lipids refuse to cohere. You will end up with a runny mess. Do you try another tip or trick to save your mayonnaise? Two teaspoons of boiling water, perhaps, or sacrifice a yolk of yet another egg in this hopeless quest for homemade condiment? The dirty dishes pile up. Multiple runny messes are tipped into the organic refuse bin in the kitchen. It’s just not worth it to waste perfectly good eggs on a condiment that won’t set. I could have made, for crying out loud, a delicious coffee crumb cake with two eggs. No hit or miss about it! But I fear the manual whisk! It seems so iffy. So very Brillat-Savarin, minus the gin lemonade and buttered toast points. The mayonnaise preparation works a small fraction of the time with an immersion blender. Maybe I should keep wasting eggs and taking my chances with the electric appliance?

I think you are way too upset about mayonnaise, Jason said. He sipped his glass of box wine. Try to think less about it.

Box wine is very good in Italy, excellent in Tuscany, necessary as our movement is restricted while flowers bloom, glass and wild oats grow, the leaves on the plane trees spread their veins until they are as wide as a child’s face.

We have had some gorgeous sunny days here recently, surely a prelude to a sultry summer. Italy continues to take tentative steps with maximum precaution. Unlike the rest of the EU member states, public schools in Italy (and Spain, for that matter) will not even attempt to reopen until the fall term. Italy is slowly opening bars and restaurants for takeaway only. We can go on walks outside. Meanwhile countries up north – Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland – are reopening schools with safety distance measures, weekly test swabs, reduced class size, and rotating schedules.

Whisk, whisk, whisk. Whisk slowly so that your condiment coheres. Do not enrage the mayonnaise. Who can keep buying fresh eggs like that, only to tip them away into the bin?

Update from Italy: Cocoa-Night Sonno Sereno

Poor koalas never get a percentage. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The box is flat and compact. A sleepy koala curls into a tree, where the sunlight illuminates the fur on the back of his neck. The contents slide smoothly, shifting a little.

The flight attendant (“Dana,” her metal nametag read) said she’d gotten them from a friend who worked on Qantas and who had recently survived a very bumpy transpacific haul. “Just keep them with you,” the Qantas attendant smiled, with a knowing nod. “Picked ’em up in Melbourne. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, no hangover, no fussy head next day. I promise, you’ll like them. I’m never flying these ultra-long-haul flights again without my koala squares.”

“You might not have tried it before,” the Quarantine Air flight attendant said in a low voice, leaning very slightly into my row of two seats. I was curled against the window, pale and wiping my forehead with the back of my hand. I tried to lean back a little further, but just made myself smaller and flatter against the plastic window. “It’s so mild. Who doesn’t love a bit of chocolate. Here you go.” I sighed and muttered a quick thanks.

I unwrapped the paper band, then the foil, an image of the koala floating in my mind, since Dana had returned to the aft galley to get another box. Great marketing, I thought, popping it in. The chocolate (“GF” was advertised on a miniscule font inside the paper band) was not too sweet, with a sort of sandy texture. I leaned back and let it slowly dissolve in my mouth.

We found Cocoa-Night Sonno Sereno (“Serene Sleep”) about a year and a half ago, when Eleanor had to do her mandatory EKG prior to beginning her gymnastics course. A small closet housed the medical clinic of the Farmacia Sant’Ambrogio. As Eleanor was stuck with jellied nodes and wired to the machine, Victor and I perused the shelves of merchandise in the “restricted diet” product area.

“Mamma, a koala!” Victor shouted.

“Hmm, what’s this,” I murmured, picking up the box. An integratore. A supplement. Passiflower, griffonia, melatonin. I don’t normally go in for supplements disguised as food, much less chocolate, which I tend to crave about once every five years.

“Eight euros! It’d better work.” I squinted at the back of the box. “Ages twelve and up. It’s not candy, Vic – you can’t take it.”

“It’s okay,” he shrugged. Again, marketing. So we bought the Cocoa-Night and kind of forgot about it. Sometime last summer, we tried it, and agreed it did taste nice, and seemed to make us extra sleepy. But we kept misplacing the box, because all in all, we were sleeping pretty well. The kids were eight and four, everyone dreaming the night away in their respective nests.

Fast forward eight months. No one is sleeping well, especially not in phase 1 of isolation psychology, nor in phase 2 of depression, nor phase 3 of failing emotional containment. We found the Cocoa-Night on the spice shelf and started burning through those chocolate squares as though they were X and we were at the Oregon Country Fair. Every night a chocolate square.

One day Jason asked me, “What’s in those squares? It’s nice to not watch the clock between one and five in the morning.”

“Mm I’m not sure,” I replied. “Melatonin and something else? St. John’s Wort? Valerian? Dunno really.” I too appreciated how the nights that I took the baby koala to bed with me I stayed asleep until the sun was up the next day, and now the kids are getting dressed and their own breakfast, which is as close to parenting bliss as I have been for years.

Turbulent flights and interrupted meals require some sort of mitigation. I am grateful that we discovered this parapharmaceutical well ahead of time so that we know where to find it in our time of need. We continue our bumpy descent through the cloud layer, and I wonder if we won’t stay in the clouds, like some sort of Jungian landspeeder. I think Obi Wan and Yoda would both approve of Cocoa-Night. In fact, I can see the dwarf roshi melting some now over a bain marie in his hut in that swamp. Importantly always to sleep well it is.

Update from Italy: Turbulence Frays Nerves

Quarantine Airlines’ wide-body jet, passenger capacity: 60 million. Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

The turbulence on Quarantine Airlines’s descent has indeed been heavy coming down out of our most severe restrictions. We all snickered nervously when the captain said it was going to be rough. We hoped it would not be, but then food flew off tray tables, wet plates of noodles slopped onto cabin walls, even the flight attendants turned pale and hastened to their flip-down seats to buckle in up by the mid-ship galley. Passengers fumbled for the laminated instructions in the seat pocket in front of them, but needed the airsickness bag more urgently and so grabbed that instead.

The days here have been mild and sunny. While we were all inside for those two months, the plane trees exploded with foliage. The grass and wild oats grew unabated in the open spaces of the park in front of our building. Spring slipped through the bars while we were locked down. This week marked a return to some semblance of normal life for us, as Jason returned to a daily office routine, and my remote work picked up. Yesterday he returned to work after lunch at home with us. “I’ll take the kids outside for a bit,” I said.

Lately the kids have been toting around beach pails, their faces long, sad eyes. They have been upset that all their squirt-guns are broken. A couple of times in the past week, they have taken the buckets to the garden behind the palazzo to have water fights. A balloon was involved at one point, and a straw; Eleanor was soaked from behind when Victor unloaded the balloon’s liquid contents onto her without warning. I had to explain (again) one of the cardinal rules of “playing a game”: “everyone must be aware that a game is being played and they have consented to be a part of the game; otherwise, this is actually pretty close to bullying, which Mommy is not at all cool with.” I took Eleanor upstairs to change her into dry clothes and returned with her to the garden and a sulking Victor.

So yesterday I told them I would take them out into the park with their pails for this faux-medieval launching of buckets of water. They put on their shorts and t-shirts, picked up their identical green plastic buckets. Vic and I put on our mascherine; Eleanor, being 5, is not required by the rules to wear one, since they are required for children six and older. Plus when I tried to fit one of the masks onto her last week, I pinch the metal band over the nose too hard and made her cry. “No mask needed for Eleanor,” I said. We went downstairs.

I threw away a bag of indifferenziata, and we walked to the fountain. The one closest to the football pitch was dry. Boys were playing ball in the cage, no masks. High school kids, no masks. Older women sitting on benches talking to one another, about two feet apart – masked, but boy, that’s close. We walked across the park to the second fountain, which was running. The two homeless men who sleep on the benches were there as usual. They were gone during the lockdown weeks, the few times I saw those benches when I took out the trash. Victor and Eleanor filled their pails. “Guys, let’s go in here,” I said, shepherding them into a deserted and minute meadow of daisies, protected by a laurel hedge. They filled their buckets and ran around a few laps, whooping and hollering. “Joy! joy! joy!” Eleanor started to shout. Victor flung his water into the air, scattering a herd of purple pigeons. Eleanor accidentally emptied hers onto herself. “Just a few more minutes,” I said, leaning against the back of a park bench. “Eleanor got wet.” “If we get wet, the game ends?”they asked. “Yes, of course,” I said. “It is not that warm out here.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw an older Italian woman, on her second lap of the pavement on the other side of the hedge. She wore a shiny beige jacket, sunglasses, a visor, a mask. Sensible tennis shoes. I did not have sunglasses on. She must have seen my glance dart her way. “Your daughter is not wearing a mask!” she shouted. “Look at her!” I looked at the woman. “She’s six,” I said stupidly. I meant to say, she is not yet six, but my Italian is not great under stress. “E! appunto!” “Exactly,” she retorted. “So, put a mask on her!” Victor and Eleanor continue to whoop and holler with their pails of water. I panicked. “Cinque!” She’s five, lady! The rules don’t apply to her, and this is the first time we are out together since early March, and as you can see I have corralled them in an empty space to play for fifteen minutes. I felt like saying all this, but didn’t have the language at hand, so I just yelled “Cinque!” again. The woman gave me a withering look of disgust that was palpable even with her visor, sunglasses, and mask. A cold pit slimed in my stomach. Italy’s culture of public scolding is very hard for me, for a variety of reasons, even when a pandemic is not happening. It actually does make me feel really bad. I can’t yell back, first due to temperament, second due to language. And I carry around that weird shame hangover for hours, after it happens. Even if it is pointless.

A father walked by, unmasked, with his son on his shoulders, about Eleanor’s age, also unmasked. About fifteen more comments came to mind dans l’ésprit de l’éscalier, none of them translatable into quick Italian. I stood around for awhile long watching Vic and El. They were the only ones using the fountain at first, but then a family came by on their bikes (all unmasked) to drink from it. “Okay, guys, were are done here,” I called, thinking about the nineteenth-century London cholera epidemic and wondering if the culprit pump looked like anything like that. The kids whined but noted that my energy had changed. The shiny beige nonna came around again on another lap and gave me more side-eye.

We started across the park while Victor whined about how he never got to play “water fight.” They tried the dry fountain again. The ten or so sweaty boys were still playing football inside the cage. “That pump doesn’t work,” a small boy shouted at us. “I know!” I called. “Da non toccare!” the mother shouted. Don’t touch it! “I knoooooow!” I said. “Grazie!” But of course we had just touched the other fountain on the other side of the park about fifty times. Victor was not going to give up on his constitutional right to have a water fight. I finally stopped on the corner before we crossed the street and gave him a talking-to about what is possible and what is impossible. He got very serious. “Ok, ok, ok!” he protested, annoyed. “I get it!” Eleanor looked close to tears.

We went back up to our apartment and washed our hands. I sat down at my desk to get some work done, my heart fluttering, my hands shaking. “Mom, can we have a snack?” Victor asked. “You’ll have to make it yourself,” I said. “Gotta get some stuff done here.” He stole into the kitchen to make ham and cheese sandwiches.

I pressed my nose to the glass but saw nothing. I focused on deep breaths to stave off the nausea. We were still flying through a heavy cloud layer. The food mess would have to be cleaned up when we got down, that much was clear. People would have to pick over the slop and spilled noodles. Condensation streaked diagonally across the oval window as I picked at a hangnail on my right thumb. I decided to wait to put my shoes back on after we landed. This flight has been rougher than any of us could have imagined, back when we boarded in March.

Update from Italy: Professional Transitions

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash

Since 1997, my professional focus has been global mobility, international education, and immigration. (Actually, much of that is true since … maybe birth!)

I’ve been an active member of the premier professional association for international educators, NAFSA, since 2006, and recently completed a three-year volunteer leadership term as the co-chair of the NAFSA Global Nomads/Third-Culture Kids Member Interest Group. I am grateful for both the professional continuity and professional transition that this opportunity offered me – a way to continue to integrate my passions, professional pursuits, and daily work. I penned a modest farewell message that I share here as well.

Dear friends and far-flung TCKs (Third Culture Kids), my three-year term as co-chair of the NAFSA Global Nomads/TCK MIG concluded at the end of March. As many of you know, I live and work in Italy, which is slowly beginning to emerge from a very strict nationwide lockdown due to the pandemic, and as a result, I was not in a mental space to send along my thank you and farewell note. I am relieved to report that everything in Florence seems to be fine for the moment, and that my family and I are healthy.

I identify as a TCK/CCK (third-culture kid/cross-culture kid) on many points of language and culture, along with a certain “externally unrooted/internally rooted” quality that has been a hallmark of my life arc. My husband and I moved back to Italy four years ago, with both our jobs and two small children in tow. I have been very involved in NAFSA leadership since 2007, rotating through a number of regional and national service committees, trainer corps, and more. NAFSA formed a huge part of my stateside professional life, and I was keen to stay as connected as possible even from afar. Imagine my feeling that a sign had been given to me when a message went out through that the MIG was in need of leadership, else would find itself in danger of being archived. I signaled my interest, as did Meg, and we were both quickly onboarded as co-chairs.

The last three years working with Meg as co-chairs to support this MIG provided a perfect confluence of personal and professional interests. My commitment to international education and cross-cultural communication found an outlet here, in this very venue. I activated my friend and colleague network for our recurring Spotlights, helping nourish conversations which I imagine slipping quietly into email inboxes in offices around the world. And I benefited from reading the links and resources for professionals in the field, and immeasurably so from the wisdom and patience of Meg. How fortunate we were to meet for the first time in Portland, Oregon, at a coffee shop in 2017 – both of us passing through the city for different reasons, but finding time to meet for cold-brewed coffee and chat in Sellwood. I knew the moment we met that I had found a professional comrade whom I could trust, and who shared my commitment and devotion to TCKs and their attendant interests.

These essential online dialogues, while comprising day jobs for very few of us, inform and support a part of life for many people that is unseen, delicate, and to many in the majority, unknown. How to describe a TCK or global nomad? How to recognize and respect them – and most importantly, respond to them? A particular moment in time stands out for me, talking to Emily Nencioni, who was featured in a Spotlight last year. She confessed, “I did not know there was research around who I am and a name for me until you talked to me about this.” What a pleasure it has been for me to talk with TCKs and their parents about these very topics in my many small solar systems! In many ways, our greatest gift and mission is raising awareness of TCKs – awareness of both their identity and their needs.

My wish for this group as it grows, and grows stronger, is that the communication be robust, frequent, and open. That our members raise the issues important to them and to their advisees, not just to create and provide resources, but to know that TCKs are not alone in this. There are people like you, with skills and questions, experiences and problems similar to yours.

Thank you to Meg for so energetically and sensitively looking after this MIG with me these past three years. I am grateful to Brian White, not just for always showing to every in-person NAFSA meeting of this MIG, but also for deciding to to fill the co-chair position of this MIG, with Meg continuing. May the community continue to meet and support one another in the best ways possible in the coming three years.

Update from Italy: First Forays Out

I finally got out this morning for my first walk since before March 4. In the past two months, my walks, when I managed to grab them, consisted of a quick step to the trash and recycling bins, or a brief turn around our piazza.

Before I describe this weekend, however, a few words. To all you persons who have been broadcasting and enjoying all your fresh air and time in nature while in social isolation – that has not at all been our experience. Our address is central Florence, ZTL. Yes, we love where we live. No, we did not know when choosing it that we would enter into a pandemic while living here. Would we have liked to have been in a large villa with its own massive orchards and gardens? Well, yes; who wouldn’t? But what you trade off for fresh air is social company, and our palazzo is very accogliente – meaning welcoming. We’re here with two other families, both with young children (seven kids total in the building), and two couples without children. We have shared space in the garden; toasted an anniversary and enjoyed impromptu aperos together while our children inspected turtles, poked things with sticks, or made art. So that has been priceless. I want to say also here that sedentary quarantine is terrible for lower back health. Both Jason and I feel it.

The city made its own allowance for outside time before the nation modestly reopens tomorrow – our rules relaxed on May 1, but there was a lot of confusion about it. We went nowhere on Friday. Saturday dawned warm and bright. We promised the kids we would go out on two bikes, each parent toting a child on a seat behind. We would ride on the bike path along the Arno! or go to the Viale! We’d ride through empty piazze, hooting and hollering like released POWs. This was gonna be so great, guys! Jason went outside to pump up the tires. We located out helmets, donned our mascherine. Jason and Vic rode up behind Eleanor and me. My bike was faltering and could not really advance forward without sounding like a steam piston. “Mommy, your bike is breathing!” called Eleanor from her little buckled seat behind me. And indeed, the wheel turned about 75% of the time, but in the last quarter of the turn heaved a sigh and a rasp. “Wheel’s out of true,” Jason quickly diagnosed, leaning down from his bike, Victor still behind, to try to adjust the spokes and fender with his hands. No luck. Zoooom sigh rasp. Zoooom sigh rasp. “Mommy! we’re going fast and then slow!” yelled Eleanor. I gritted my teeth. “You go ahead,” I said. “Yeah, wouldn’t trust that wheel, sorry.” Jason winced. “Someone must have backed into it, it is whacked. We’ll be back in a bit.” Jason and Vic pedaled ahead down Via della Colonna. Eleanor and I U-turned in the street to head back. For a moment the steel wheel seemed to be straightening itself. But that was clearly just my imagination as we were pedaling on the Earth’s surface and not the Sun. Eleanor helped me chain my bike to a rack in the sight-line of the carabiniere who patrol the synagogue. No bike shops open until Monday morning. We settled for a walk around the piazza. Vic and Jason caught up to us on the corner, Jason trotted behind Eleanor on her bike, and I walked a fussy Vic around the piazza one more time with me.

Verdict: Not super restful. My internal sigh and rasp matched my bike’s for the rest of the evening.

This morning Jason said, “You go.” It was his regular morning appointment with the kids to sweep and mop our linty apartment. The day was sunny again, so after breakfast, I charged my phone and hands-free, tied on my orange tennis shoes, and headed out to Spanish hits of the nineties. Between the mask, headphones, and sunglasses, I looked ready to rob a bank or worse. I briefly felt like a tourist, forgetting where to go, but then cell memory kicked in, and I paced up to the viale, along the bike path, over the Ponte San Niccolò, and found the tower. Up the ramps. People were everywhere. Most were masked and looking safe, but a good quarter of the relative crowd was not masked, in spite of close passings. I was appalled, but determined to breathe the fresh air for as long as I felt like. I kept to a selection of oblique left turns with views over the olive groves of the Villa Bardini, past couples sitting in the grass talking, families on bikes, grandparents walking, and soon enough found myself on the top of Piazzale Michelangelo with about a hundred other locals, mostly masked but many not, all of us admiring the view of Firenze centro from that high vantage point. I walked around the piazza, then slowly headed back down the way I came. That same couple was still having a maskless picnic amongst the daisies. Good for them. I thought of languorous garden picnics I’ve had in my life, thankful for those memories.

I made my way down the Arno (again, insane pedestrian and bike traffic) and across the Ponte alle Grazie, back up the other lungarno, turning left into one of my favorite tiny streets: Via delle Casine. In my parallel life as a set scout, I am choosing this iron-grilled and green-gardened quartiere for a period film set in 1885 Florence, with many bustles and teams of horses harnessed to phaetons. The bells of Santa Croce began to toll the noon hour. A young man in front of me, no mask, sneezed and wiped his nose on his arm. I crossed the street, coming back through Le Carcere’s corridors, across the back alley of Piazza Annigoni where benches were populated by local ne’er-do-wells (bottled Heineken) and laughing undergraduate students tossing their long locks (prosecco). I stepped back in to our palazzo and undid my mask, pushing my sunglasses to the top of my head. A hundred minutes, about 90 seconds for every day we’ve been penned up in the quarantine purdah.

Verdict: A lovely walk, minus breathing through the mask (which I never took off), and the apocalypse feel of everyone masked in the sparkling sunshine. I am pleased to report that Florence has lost none of her charm, and in fact, might be even greener, lovelier, more flowered than before. However, if I were a bookie making numbers, I would say phase this will last about two to three weeks, because the rate of infection will surely go up after days like this. Still, I will go out as much as I can as much as it is possible, like this until circumstances change. And we will work on getting my lamed bike repaired subito.

Update from Italy: Passengers May Experience Turbulence

Photo by Johan Van Wambeke on Unsplash

The 58 days since March 5 have been a long and bumpy flight for all passengers of Air Quarantine. We passed through tons of security and numerous checkpoints prior to boarding. That heavy turbulence as we gained altitude was like nothing we’d ever experienced before. No light chop about it. We lost track of things; oxygen masks descended. We flew at cruising speed for weeks, struggling to breathe, buckled in and eating at regular intervals, devouring all the snacks and coffee, wondering if it was weird to ask for more red wine after the coffee to help relax. Bingeing every movie and program we could stomach on the in-flight entertainment system. Doing homework and workwork. Tired of breathing that stale Quarantine air that the poor reviews always mention. Looking out windows at fantastic cloudscapes, rays of sun slicing through the thin atmosphere. Sunrises and sunsets that seemed to be spaced far too close, traveling at supersonic speeds. A sunrise, a sunset. Impossible! Mere hours apart? What sorcery was this?

It’s May Day, the first of May, the Labor Day of almost everywhere in the world. In Florence, it’s the kind of overcast day when the glare from the clouds is brighter than a flat blue sky. Italy is trying to make its first tentative steps to return to our new normal. Alas, confusion reigns to cast a shadow on collective joy. Getting out of this quarantine might be as frustrating and traumatic as getting into it was, back in early March. Fifty-eight days, or 83,520 minutes ago.

The national decree states that the new relaxed rules will come into effect on Monday, May 4. The President of the region of Tuscany wanted people to have freedom a bit earlier, and said we could go outside for walks starting today. The mayor of Florence said, you know, please think about it. Let’s not backslide. There is disagreement about the wearing of masks when engaging in sport. There are disagreements galore. My WhatsApp group chats fill with frustrated emojis.

The pandemic operates on global, state, and local levels; the virus is all at once these things, everywhere at all times. The many layers of government do little to clarify how we should respond. It seems the best response should coordinate on all levels – a global recommendation, a national decree of support for measures taken by regional and local government. The virus is operating on all levels. Humans should too.

I am responding by staying put. I hope to get outside for a short walk today, but you know, it just might not happen. These last two months have completed my gradual, lifelong conversion process to shameless realist. It really does not matter what I want, or what I believe, in this situation. The facts exist. Here I am, an unapologetic pragmatist. I can stay put. What’s the sense in yearning? Wanting? Planning? I’m just a passenger in all this. There is minimal customer care on Quarantine Air. (We are grateful, however, for the meal upgrades and generous in-cabin cocktails).

Funny thing is, from a distance of 83,520 minutes since March 5, the planet looked at once smaller, but also more unified. Our cabin was small, yet everyone else has been in that same small cabin, whether in an apartment or penned in by the invisible structure built by fear, brick by brick. When will we have a chance again to view things from this perspective? (Spoiler alert: don’t answer that too quickly, because I think we’ll all be frequent flyers before the end of the year, if we’re lucky. Others may be boarding a… … different flight.)

The Air Quarantine flight now begins its descent, with a number of co-pilots and an amply staffed cabin crew. They’re slowly packing up cups and bottles, recycling dinner trays and plasticware. Collecting headphones. Blankets and pillows under your chairs, please. Fill out all your forms; you’ll need to show them upon arrival. If you have any questions, a brief video is looping on the cabin monitor. We’re trying to collect all our personal belongings and keep track of our small children. We’ll exercise caution as we proceed down the jetway to Arrivals. Baggage and oversize items may arrive later. I hope that I don’t fly this carrier again soon, but I suspect we will be on and off their flights at least a few times between now and 2021.