Update from Italy: Hope

“Hope is the thing with feathers….” Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Our household, like every home with one or more Americans in it, and plenty of other homes besides, had been subdued and glum in the days before and after the November 3 election. Anticipation and uncertainty, followed by more anticipation and uncertainty. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Is this going to court? What are the margins? Every time I looked at my phone the NYT app indicated about 128 updates. What states are still up for grabs? Why can’t Nevada count? Looks like Arizona was called prematurely. And so on.

Yesterday we planned to go to a friend’s house in the countryside to help collect chestnuts. I happen to love chestnuts and rue the unfortunate demise of our chestnuts in America, lost a century ago to disease. Chestnuts seem to me to be well-packaged gifts from Nature of abundance and sustenance. Their miniature leathern purses; the light monk’s tonsure atop each one, where the forest urchin was affixed before it split and fell away, releasing the nut. Alas, it was not to be, as Eleanor pitched a rare fit, threw all the books everywhere, and cried herself into a top-bunk nap. Victor and I opted for a sunny two-mile stroll through town, getting some shopping done for Jason’s birthday at the end of this week. At first Victor was quiet, stricken by Eleanor’s dramatic scene, but eventually calmed down and turned chatty with me. For his pains he was rewarded with a €4,50 mega ice cream cone, in the very European Kinder Egg flavor, which he said made him feel like he was floating through time and space. He polished it off in Piazza Santissima Annunziata and threw the cone away, while I spied a glowing chapel at the corner which I’d never seen before, and so of course I went in to be nosy and take a couple of pictures.

At home Eleanor was still slumbering in the top bunk, bangs plastered to her face by stress and sweat. I refreshed my news again. No news. Jason and I talked about when late numbers might come in. An update on my scroll said a pile of votes had just come in from Pennsylvania, putting the election outside of their margin for a mandatory recount (<0.5%). I looked at my screen again. “What!” I exclaimed. “How can Biden be up to 270 electoral votes but the election not yet be called.”

“Maybe refresh your screen,” Jason calmly recommended.

I did so. The 50-point font immediately flipped, BIDEN BEATS TRUMP. I too now felt as though I were floating through time and space, stress released, my inner cortisol drip of the stress hormone extinguished. We had a celebratory dinner of steak frites and a glass of Bolgheri. A moment of hope. Phones went off as excited messages began to fly. Hope is the thing with feathers! Relieved Italians sent well wishes and thank you notes. The world thanks America for this result. I am not kidding. The world. Everyone was rooting for the American People in this one.

But, in many ways, this is just the start of the hard work. As a country we cannot just keep grabbing the ball more and more violently from one another every two years. Can we work on Electoral College reform?Are there two Americas, and can they live under the same roof? Can a privileged class see and understand the damage done in their name to an underclass? Can we right historic wrongs, while educating one another on what those were and how they impacted people and populations? Democrats lost seats in the US House; key state legislatures that were hoped, expected to flip didn’t flip at all. Texas and Florida more entrenched. Michigan and Wisconsin living up to their swing state monikers.

It’s a rowdy mix, and yet let’s not forget, it is not a game. People’s lives are impacted. Real harms are ongoing to POC, the poor, to the middle class. Healthcare access continues to be a huge problem. Americans can’t save money not because they’re lazy, but because the rent is too damn high in America. Everyone is always out to earn more, seeking a sense of security, chased by bills in a country where food, childcare, healthcare, and retirement are inestimable costs, impossible to predict and wildly vacillating. And no one loves to change jobs because all your private benefits change, but oh, it is worth it to be on track for a little more money each year … America, this is exhausting. It’s no way to live.

This election feels a lot like childbirth: a tenth-month marathon of pregnancy followed by the two-year toddler marathon. I think we’re all still in the hospital, giddy with a newborn, but reality will soon sink in. And hope. A baby presents much hope, along with much work. We’ve done it before. We’re strong. We’re each a parent of this Republic, so buy some coffee and figure out how you’re going to get through this.

Update from Italy: Thoughts on Race

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

I have been thinking a lot about race and structural racism this year. Burdened by old knee-jerk ideas that I was ready to discard, I wished to see my world and the greater world for what they were, not for how I assumed them to be. My discursive game was not strong when I found myself in conversations that assumed a shared pleasure in this aspect of our shared world.

So I started reading. A book that resonated deeply for me was White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me (I started reading this book about a year ago) is that the term racist is not an insult. It is a fact of life the way our world is organized.

How strange to watch the events this year in America unfold from Europe, an ocean away. To breathe cool air under the oaks whose acorns of racism were carried to the U.S. in ships and documents that designed a system by and for the profit of Europeans. Europeans are concerned about America, but seem less concerned about institutional racism at home. This a topic for a different post.

For thirty years in Oklahoma, I navigated that culture in a leaky blue lifeboat, adrift in a sea of red rage. Oklahoma, a cradle of white fragility. Surrounded by people who felt, on some significant level, culturally cheated they didn’t belong to the Deep South – and had accrued none of the residual elegance, none of the courtly manners, the plantations, the fine breeding exported from the United Kingdom. All they got was a Texas twang and the Dust Bowl.

Thinking back to my thirty years in Oklahoma, white people often repeated that they did not see race, they were not racist, “he don’t care if you’re black or white, or green or yellow or purple.” How childish to refuse to see. How persistently transparent this system is for the white majority. If you don’t see it, then you’ve always benefited from it. Always. Full stop. Black and brown people did not create this system. Women did not create this system. Don’t even get me started on “Lean In.” Just work harder, as hard as we do, and you can beat us at our own game. Um, actually, no we can’t, because this game was created and rigged centuries ago. We all know by whom.

As a white woman growing up in Oklahoma, there were plenty of assumptions that I agreed with the institutions all around me. I had experienced a healthy dose of violence as a woman: Oklahoma culture does not take kindly to an outspoken woman. Especially if she be small. Something about the inability to subvert her spirit enrages people. I can’t even count the number of times that a man laughed or profited at my expense. Some scars minor, a few very deep. I learned to keep my mouth shut lest they come back for more, the way playground bullies will gang up on a weakling who hasn’t yet learned to stop squawking or looking cowed. It was exhausting to battle it day after day, in elementary school, middle school, high school, especially through the many years that I spent at the state’s flagship campus, first as a student, then as a grad student, then as a TA and a GA, then as a staff professional. Yet I know there were many who had it far worse than I did, treated as tokens at best; as nuisances, less good; as less than human, worst-case.

White women – all women – have it tough in Oklahoma. The dominant male culture is suffocating. Sexual assault and gender-based violence are rampant, woven so deep into the fabric of society that no one even bats an eye. They had an event for BLM this summer at the state capital with a bunch of white guys. No women, no POC in sight.

Yet white women on campus who complained the loudest about their plight were also often the most shining examples of institutional racism. Women who grabbed the nearest POC for a photo op when they got airtime to air their grievances. Somehow the injustice of this did not occur to them: what it meant to grab a brown human shield from a seated audience, to make them stand up while the white woman aggressively embraced them, thus snuffing further debate. Now hugging a brown person; you cannot call me to account. POC caught in the middle between privileged white men and women, arguing about the gender divide when the issue of race was invisible to them. Because we don’t see race, they said. Because it doesn’t impact you, our brown and black brothers and sisters rejoined.

Some in my circle on this side of the ocean have approached an unbearable note of tsking, tsk tsk, America, acting so badly. There’s no recognition of the English seeds, the European seeds, that started much of this in the 14th-18th centuries. Europe is doing pretty well now, overall, because they had centuries of a bullish global market built on the decimation of native cultures, in Africa, in the Americas, in Australia. We can acknowledge that history, while also saying that we need to do better, we must do better, to change our course.

I’ll keep reading and examining my own received opinions and ideas. I like DiAngelo’s suggestions and examples in her book for rectifying systemic racism with our own individual actions. I know there have to be ways I can put my values into action from where I live, in this liminal expat space, neither here nor there. Are you working on this? What are your ideas for cultural progressive change?

Come back tomorrow for my post about hate. People do not love to hate. Why do we think they do? Let’s examine hatred and perceived polarity together.

Update from Italy: Quando lo saprete?

Soon, with a little luck, both the world and Melania will be getting in a little boat and speeding far, far away from Yamland. Pictured, Ljubljana, Slovenia, a city that captured my heart in 2016. I bet the Yam’s never even been. Photo by Bram van Geerenstein on Unsplash

When will you know? Quando lo saprete?

I walked for two miles up and down the river this morning to clear my cobwebs. Mood is much better than yesterday morning as bits and pieces of hope floated in on the U.S. election news yesterday. I stopped in the caffè next to our office palazzo, lingered over a cappuccino, gave in and got the delicious fresh Italian cornetto. Why not? Perché no? Life is short; some days are harder than others. Italy ensures that everyone has access to a very affordable pick-me-up, no matter the city or day. Thus fortified, I headed upstairs and let myself in the heavy front door.

Pinuccia the office cleaner was hard at work this morning in our reception area. “Monica! BUONGIORNO!” She is a reliably cheery morning greeter. “Quando lo saprete?” When will you all know?

“Una bella domanda,” I yelled back even though she was about a foot from me.

These types of discussions in Italy require minor shouting. Sometimes, when the windows in our palazzo are open and seemingly shouting voices float up or down inside the courtyard from other apartments, I have to ask Eleanor, “Are they angry or just being Italian?” My little Italian culture expert will cock her head, listen for a second, and usually say, “Mommy, they are just being Italian. It is how they talk.” I have asked her this enough that sometimes now this ebullient Finn will now edge into Italian volume when culturally appropriate. I feel Pinuccia is a safe space in which to try out my discursive volume.

And it is a beautiful question. When will we know?

Pinuccia continued, “I saw everything that Tramp was saying! How he’d already won! Lying! And then I remembered what you told me, Monica! That he’s mentally ill! Malato di mente! So I paid a lot less attention. It makes sense what you said! He’s matto, pazzo.” She swirled an invisible corkscrew by her ear. I was glad that I had been able to give her useful information to refine her reception of Tramp’s rants now making international news.

“But you know, Monica,” she scrunched up the left side of her face in consideration, “I think the even BIGGER question right now is, when is Melania going to file for the divorzio?” Pinuccia cackled and made an internationally recognized non-verbal gesture for feck off. “Oddio, I hope she gets to file her divorzio papers soon!” She trotted off down the hallway to the architect’s studio to work on their end of the office. I am pretty sure she cleans that side too. Or maybe she was just headed down there to get their news.

I have plenty more on my mind, but must go refresh a few websites for return updates. But, America, this: I can’t stress enough how the eyes of the world are on you. This is an election of global importance. It really is. This election matters. Your votes matter. All of them.

Update from Italy: Civility the Day After

Take the belleza wherever you may find it. Photo by Max Nayman on Unsplash

Everyone in our house slept fine last night, except Jason, who claimed he got “half an hour” of sleep,” and his wife, who occupies the other half of the bed. Up and down, checking polls, ballot counts, Electoral College tallies. On the plus side, it wasn’t the route of 2016, when he roused me at 6 AM to tell me that He Who Shall Not Be Named had cakewalked off with the highest elected office in the land.

I sniffled and cried that week, on the circuit among home, the kids’ school, my office, home again. Watching the leaves turn on Via della Colonna, the blue sky sparkle, dreams crumble.

This year is different. No rousing, not news of a rout. But plenty of nail biting. The day was dark. I didn’t feel like smiling, which is unusual. I felt sick. My low expectations were being confirmed, and I didn’t like it. How? How can this be happening? People asked me. Hm, live 30 years in Oklahoma, and you might understand why. Once again I felt myself falling into the familiar role of cultural explainer. When cultures collided historically on the Italian peninsula, the Italian process of incivilimento (civilizing) was initiated by figures—temosfori—who acted as the cultural mediators between different human groups.

Florence was empty, rainy, wet. Disintegrating dog poo all over the sidewalks, of course. The ongoing pandemic underscores just how much the Florentine economy depends on mass tourism and global mobility. I’d read that 70% of the residences in the centro are tourist rentals, and these days, I believe it. The city is about 30% full. One in six jobs in Florence is gone for good. Stores permanently shuttering. I grumbled to myself as I locked up my bike and prepared to go into the very quiet office on the very quiet street. A new 28-page decree of restrictions, all aimed at preventing the spread of Covid, was released yesterday. There is no hustle and bustle in Florence these days. The baristas are bored.

Our of the corner of my eye I saw a woman falter on the sidewalk. She was too well dressed to be homeless or drunk, a bit older than I. “Signora,” she said softly, “can I walk with you?” I saw she was blind, or partially blind, and not walking well. I said of course.

“Where to?”

“Those plants.” The plants were about twenty feet away. She was very unsteady.

“Signora, would you like to take my elbow?”

“Yes, please, that’s so nice of you.” Her gnarled right hand clapped my left elbow. “Where are you from? Your Italian is very good. So clear.”

I guffawed. I never believe the compliment. “I’m American.”

“Oh, ugly day! These elections.”

“I know,” I said. I asked her where she was from. She said the Casentino, the mountainous part of Tuscany to the east which we know fairly well from numerous day trips and time spent out at Simone’s spread in Castelfranco di Sopra. I told her we loved her region, that we’d spent a delightful two weekends in Stia in the past year.

“Stia!” she crowed. “That’s my hometown.” I mentioned our friend Martha, who lives just outside of Stia in Porciano in a renovated tenth-century tower. The signora was amazed and delighted that we had a mutual acquaintance, and such a distinguished on.

We continued walking. “Where are you walking to?” she asked me.

“Oh, Piazza del Duomo,” I said. “Where do you need to go?”

“The Uffizi,” she replied. “I work there.” She may have said she worked in the archives or as an art historian. I was focused on the uneven sidewalk and my increasingly tingly left arm. My mind whirled. That was a true jaunt! I saw how tentatively she stepped on the sidewalk, faltering on the uneven pavers. “Signora, do you normally make this walk to work?”

“Every day,” she said, “but today is really bad.”

I could believe it. I patted her hand and walked slowly with the chatty Italian caboose latched onto me, walking down Via Cavour toward the river. We talked about my kids, the schools, language, her studies in Greek philosophy, my general fetish for Classics, the Roman empire, and all topics Romance of any era. We reached Piazza del Duomo and she stopped. “Well, you can leave me here,” she announced.

“Oh, no, Signora, if you need me to, I can walk to your office.”

“Oh no! I won’t let you!”

“I think I must!”

“That would be so helpful – thank you. I’m indebted. Also,” she added again, “because I can’t see, I use my ears more, and I love your clear voice. It’s very easy to understand! Oddio, I wish my English were as good as your Italian!” I blushed, but she couldn’t see that. She was walking very slowly, her feet in black flats, a mask on her face, extremely fogged thick glasses. I judged that she and I were about the same height. The signora and I continued down Via Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria. By now we were talking about San Francesco and La Verna and Camaldoli monks and all the religious devotion to be found in the Casentino. Then the Conti Guidi and all their castles. No one gave us a second look. A younger person calmly and gently leading an older person in public is a frequent sight and a badge of honor in Italy.

We crossed the Piazza and turned left on Via Ninna. I led her to her office, and down the stairs (“Signora, forgive me – I am sure you know these gradini!” “Oh, your beautiful Italian!”) to the Uffizi security.

I continued on my walk with my headphones on, listening to a “Reply All” podcast about quantifying happiness. In that moment I felt very blessed that this opportunity had presented itself in the form of a small, blind Italian woman, unsteady on her feet, for whom I might do a small service in the name of civil society. On a day when my low expectations were being met abroad, it was a balm to be able to step into this circle of basic kindness.

So, if you are struggling today with everything in the world, that’s the best I have for you. If an opportunity presents itself for you to show basic kindness and civility, please take it, even if it brings you a half hour out of your way and slightly off course. It lifted me, a temosfora, borne up by kindness and acceptance, usefulness and assimilation.

U.S. Election Watch: Update from Italy

Popes of the past perch atop St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Photo by Simone Savoldi on Unsplash

“Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro.” Literally, one pope dies, eh, they’ll make another. An Italian idiom for “life goes on.” No? It marches along.

To the Italian sensibility, the seasons change, grapes and olives and chestnuts are harvested. Politics are but a background wallpaper to scenes throughout the year, throughout a life. And Italians know from some stressful politics. They still have Berlusconi kicking around, for heaven’s sake (his physician said he will live to be 140!), and now a new standard bearer of populist mania, Salvini. It’s no bed of roses in Italian politics. But the peninsula has been ruled more or less in an organized fashion (not to say in perfect hegemony) since Romulus knifed his twin brother Remus and founded Rome in 753 BCE.

Italians really rolled out their moral support for Americans in 2016 after the election debacle. Don’t worry, they told us. We lived through Berlusconi. You will survive this too. We weren’t so sure, but then, we come from an earnest culture that really wants to be good, that wants to right wrongs. The Italian response is more often a shrug, hands outstretched, palms up, saying whatcha gonna do? Change human nature? Pick another fool’s errand; there’s quality espresso, and a fresh pastry, at the nearby marble-topped bar. Seek the micro-addressing of microaggressions. Be a good person in your day to day. As far as what happens in the clicking halls of Rome, well, not much we can do about that from here, but also, the minestra’s done, and it’s almost the ora di cena. Italy’s reliable rituals comfort and sustain a culture and its people.

Jason and I voted weeks ago, in Spokane County. We vote every election we can from here, and Spokane County’s management of absentee and overseas ballots is superb. We’ve both been following the news this election very closely. It’s amusing when stateside friends update us as though we lived on the moon without internet. But, it is sweet, and nice to be remembered by people who wish us to stay updated.

Today I went to work in a quiet office. Ah, peace. I switched on the lights and took out the file I’d been working on yesterday to finish the task in total serenity. The attorneys in the office come and go, are often in court, and frequently absent, which means my corner spot with the natural light is the perfect place to research and draft.

“MONICA! Buongiorno!” The voice of Pinuccia, the woman who cleans the office, echoed down the hall. A certain type of Italian woman finds me in these situations and talks my head off. This was also the case four years ago with the office manager Silvia in my rented space at the Sprachcaffè.

“The elections are today!” she told me brightly.

“Yes! They are,” I smiled, and put down a sheaf of vital records.

“My God! Trump! Let’s hope he leaves!”

“You’re telling me,” I replied. “I don’t even want to hear his name. There are many Troomps behind this Troomp. His presidency has been a failure of our system. It shouldn’t have happened.” I wasn’t really in the mood to go into checks and balances, the three branches of government, and the treachery in our co-opted legislative and judicial branches in Italian.

She regarded me closely. “How did you say his name? How are you supposed to say his name,” she asked. “What’s the proper pronunciation.”

“Oh, I just say Troomp. But Italians seem to call him Tramp. His name in English is pronounced Truhmp, with that beautiful English ‘uh’ that is so hard to say.”

Pinuccia laughed. “You know, I really like Melania! She’s so pretty and European.”

“She is,” I agreed. “She also looks like she could be Carla Bruni’s sister.”

“You are so right! She does!” She looked at me with newfound respect and opened a window to let in the fresh air. A pause. “Why did she marry him?”

“A pact with the Devil. She was meant to to divorce him. He expected to lose in 2016.”

“Ah, poor Melania, to be insulted by her own marriage! day after day! Can you imagine going to bed with Trump?”

Now, this image so early in the morning was far too much for me. I smiled weakly. “No, I can’t.”

“And his two ex-wives! How much was Melania paid to marry him! Well, it’s not her fault really, a beauty like her, from a small European country where almost no one lives.”

“I like Slovenia,” I offered. We went for a week at the holidays in 2016, enjoyed a farm trampoline, and sampled their emergency medical care with a wheezing toddler and a medical staff who spoke perfect English.

“Of course! But it would be hard to be from there!” Pinuccia’s wisdom and insights are always very earthy. She often relates long tales of her family’s struggles in an accent I honestly find difficult to parse. Her drive-by monologues, like those of Silvia four years ago on Piazza della Repubblica, are best received as local color and language immersion.

“I’ll have a glass of wine tonight,” I said lamely. “Get through this day.”

“Oh, do you think we’ll know something tonight?” She looked surprised.

“No, I don’t think we’ll know anything before December, most likely.”

“Caspita!” Wow! She moved off down the hall on her cleaning circuit.

I thought about how the hardest part of the past four years for Americans – and American – culture is our essential earnestness. Like, why would someone be bad on purpose? Why wouldn’t someone try to do a good job? This makes Italians shake their heads in pity. Of course people are base. Why would you torture yourself hoping or expecting otherwise?

And finally, after living four years out of the U.S. and looking at it with distance, and perhaps kinder eyes that see more and understand better, the astonishing ongoing experiment that is America continues to impress. That a country could be attempted (with all due respect to indigenous tribes, and what they lost in this attempt wasn’t right then and isn’t right now) where people might migrate and somehow become a new kind of person, an American, who, after just one generation, might speak English without an accent. Maybe attained a level of education unknown to their parents. Maybe, until recently, found a level of safety and security they hadn’t known before, where they came from (with all due respect to Black and Brown people and POC, and GLBTQI who suffered then and suffer now). Maybe had opportunities impossible for those who came before them in their families. I’m living proof of that, and if you’re reading this, you probably are too.

In many ways America continues to be a global experiment. The whole world has skin in this game. Even though the past four years have been a moral mudslide, we can reverse course and shore up and build again. We can! Despite what Americans might believe in the more insulated pockets of the country, the events and politics in the U.S. impact the globe. Despite what Americans believe on the more urbane coasts, the U.S. is still a global leader for whom every other country in the world is rooting. Our experiment is their experiment is a global experiment.

I hope you voted today. I’ll be sure to report back with Pinuccia’s post-election analysis. You know she’ll find me and have plenty to say about it.

All Saints (Ognissanti): Update from Italy

Going to the frantoio (press) on Tuesday!

The November chill wraps gently around us, as though to say, remember me? Cold weather? I am back.

Our summer months gave us something close to normal for weeks on end. The majority of Florentines kept their masks on. We took careful vacations. Jason and I worked in offices. The kids started attending school on September 7. We’ve been very impressed with in-school safety measures.

Now that we are headed into a winter season of uncertain circumstances thanks to the pandemic, I decided to start posting here again. (Plus I renewed all my WordPess fees and domain name, so…) I find myself unmotivated to blog when life feels normal, but as soon as time fractures and splits, freedoms are limited, and hopes run high, I find myself back here wanting to tell you the story.

Italy is now taking measures to close down for the second time this year. The authorities have said that they will keep it a priority to maintain the normal activity of schools, at least for the youngest children. I really hope this is possible, but circumstances may dictate otherwise. Victor has a fine new laptop that he has been using for robust nonstop gaming, and very little homework. He has been repeatedly warned not to break it as he will need it for didattica a distanza (DAD) if his class goes remote again. Something already happened to his charger which we seemed to have fixed for now. Plus the in-house IT support team (me) fixed his internet issue.

Many times people have told me that they look forward to the vaccine. I hardly know how to respond to this, so usually say something anodyne like, me too.

Eleanor turned six yesterday. By a happy twist of fate our friend Antonella who lives on an estate in the countryside harvested her olives this weekend, and who should also be helping gather olives but a classmate Matteo from school. We all gathered our courage and raked, picked, and beat the olives from the silvery trees. “Can’t hurt the trees,” the lone blue jumpsuited professional on the team told us, with a knowing smile. A few of the dads climbed ladders to rake and pick, and from time to time a branch heavy with fruit flew down from the sky to be stripped clean by flying fingers on the grass. Twigs and branches were cast over a small bluff to join a growing pile that will be burnt when dry, perfuming the air with that particular and acrid olive wood smoke that characterizes the Tuscan autumn. Eleanor and Matteo followed Antonella’s two German shepherds, killing them with clumsy kindness and endless juvenile embraces. Victor pouted for the middle innings but then rallied and helped.

After some hours of labor, Antonella called it a day and we all repaired to a side garden for a casual lunch. The dogs called in their chips of patience with the kids and ate their fair share of prosciutto and schiaciatta. Antonella brought out two dolci, and we all sang happy birthday. Eleanor opened some present we’d brought. We had hoped that the fresh air and sunshine would speed their respective recoveries from a tenacious cold that has kept them both down for most of the past two weeks. Their pink cheeks and smiles told the true story.

Mamma: Gimme dat pumpkin, we don’t need a trip to the ER because the birthday girl slices off her pinkie at her own party.

Eleanor fell asleep in the backseat on the way home, and we had to rouse her for her twilight garden birthday party. All the kids associated with the extended family in our palazzo came to carve pumpkins with us, rewarded by a sugary, buttercream American cupcake from the localest of ovens. I roasted the seeds from six pumpkins after the party and before dinner, which quickly felt like an unrecorded test of Hercules. But they were delicious. I love pumpkin seeds. I sent some small bags of them upstairs to the family dinner. I didn’t get feedback so I hope they liked them! Either that, or I only confirmed the strange customs and habits of Americans, tucked into the New World for three centuries and emerging with glibness and treats.

Spooky jack o’lanterns in the garden at night. Carved by Italians and Americans.

Update from Italy: Red Hill Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update from Italy: Beach Vignette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly Victor began shaking his hand.

What happened? I asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update from Italy: Florence, Forlorn and True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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