Buona Pasqua

Hearing Handel’s masterpiece with new ears this morning.

Every mountain shall be exalted… and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain.

The trumpet shall sound… and we shall be changed.

May it be so 🙏

The Gulf of Castellammare facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, Balestrate, Sicily

Sacrifice. Addiction. Resurrection.

Quarantine measures have been extended in Italy. In L.A. In many parts of the world. And for this, I am glad. We’re not ready for life to “return to normal.” We’re still in denial. Still making excuses. Still raging. We haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Haven’t allowed sorrow to penetrate us. We need time to grieve. We need time to break our addictions.

Here in Italy, I started eating croissants because I could. Because they are everywhere, so plentiful, so fresh, and I have truly missed this pleasure. Eleven years now of a gluten-free diet. I’ve succumbed to the temptation several times over the years. Usually on vacation, when I felt I *deserved* a treat. And always, I’ve paid the price. The painful consequences of intestinal distress and more. Enough to make my indulgences few and far-between. But here in Italy, especially in quarantine, the temptation has been great and the consequences small. The cramping not as severe and the prevailing thought: so what if my tummy hurts a bit? What else am I doing? Being lethargic and in pain seems par for the course during this pandemic. And if I’m honest, freshly baked pastries are only one of my many injurious obsessions.

We’re all nursing our monkeys right now. The prevalent thought is that we’re sacrificing so much. Social distancing. Isolation. Locked in our homes. Rationing toilet paper. Maybe eating more than we should. Or eating our cravings, which inevitably make us feel bad. More than one friend has suggested porn. Drinking at noon. Shopping online. Googling updates, fact-checking, and political arguments. Anyway we can get a hit, an instant fix. We’re doing it.

It’s a full-on wrestling match and most of us don’t even realize we’re on the mat. We’re in withdrawal. Experiencing night sweats. Fever. Anxiety. The furious and fervent waves of emotions: rage, sorrow, regret. Promises to do better, to live better, once this is all over. We’ll live more simply, appreciate the small things, care for our neighbors. Sweet Jesus and Mother Mary, just get us through this.

But every January turns to February and our resolutions dissolve like snow melting into soil. We spend a month or two disgusted by the dirty residue, cursing the newly exposed trash and the mud, but then the weather changes, the flowers bloom, summer is on the horizon. Too late to lose those pounds before donning our shorts. We resign ourselves and move on.

When this is all over, will our resolutions hold? Or will we return to our addictions, justifying them as sacrifices necessary for the economy? Gaslight ourselves into believing they are actually good, that we must embrace our old unhealthy ways if we truly want to support others and our country? Will we indignantly claim them as treats we deserve for having survived such a horrible time?

How long will it take for us to become accustomed to living in a new way – in harmony with the planet, in solidarity with all living things – and truly embrace this way of living? Certainly more than the conventional 28 days. More than breaking old patterns, when will we love this new way of being? Love it enough to have no desire for the old. To feel so strong and healthy that our old ways make us sick? How long until our new routines bring us joy and comfort and we refuse anything that does otherwise?

Collectively, in the U.S. and around the world, we’ve fiercely proclaimed our addictions as our rights. We celebrate our ability to have anything we want, whenever we want it. We might smash the curve of infection and overcome this virus, but will our time in quarantine be enough to change our behaviors in the long term?

My prayer this Easter, this spring, is for universal solidarity. As we celebrate the promise of resurrection, may we resolve to let the old ways die. May we joyfully embrace a new life that is truly sustaining. In body. In spirit. In love. For all.

If it isn’t, and if we don’t, then tell me, was there really any sacrifice? All our discomfort, and even all the death, will have been for nothing. Nothing more than a story. And not a very good one at that.

Cross at the Colosseum in Rome. Photo taken 7 March 2020.

Video Update from Italy: March 31, 2020

This video is from one week ago, March 31. It is a response to my post “More than Statistics,” which was a vulnerable reveal of the myriad of emotions I had been feeling, and am still feeling. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the video to load. So here it is, edited down into 3 sections with a whole bunch cut out. As someone lacking in tech skills and working from a phone & tablet, this is the best I can do – lol!

Bottom line: Honor your emotions, whatever they are. Know that they will pass and other emotions will come. Take care of yourself, in whatever way you need: bake, pray, dance, write, draw, nap, watch funny videos… Even cry and scream, if that’s what you need. Feel your emotions deeply and in doing so, know that you release them and allow new ones to emerge.  We are, truly, all in this together.

Stay present. Stay positive. Stay well.

Coronavirus in Italy, Part 3: Police, Shopping, and the Italian Response

I was stopped by the police a few days ago. Well, not stopped. Checked. As I was waiting to enter a grocery store.

It was early, only twenty minutes since the store had opened, and already there was a small crowd of shoppers clinging to paper numbers. Ten, maybe fifteen? Hard to tell. Certainly more than I expected on a chilly, windy, and overcast day. But, okay, I took my number and leaned up against the wall, at least 6 feet between me and the next person. A store that size allows two, maybe three people in a time. Even with these folks ahead of me, how long could this take?

And then the police arrived. I had easily been waiting maybe thirty minutes by that time but upon seeing the police, I considered leaving. Just turning and walking down the street in the opposite direction. But hey, I had my paperwork with me, I had already invested a good chunk of time, and I really hoped the store would have oatmeal.

(In case you missed this detail: any time you leave your home, you must have a completed form with you indicating the reason you are out. Italy is now on a fifth version of this form. You are only allowed to leave your house for work, a doctor’s appointment, an emergency, or to buy food and essential needs. If found violating the quarantine rules, you can be fined a minimum of 400 euros and as much as 3,000! Police have charged over 52,000 people with quarantine violations – and that’s a number reported sixteen days ago! Did you see the videos of Italian mayors yelling at citizens to stay home? Funny but true. Italy is taking this very seriously.)

The female officer approached me. When she realized I couldn’t understand her Italian, she summoned the male officer. I took a deep breath. Reminded myself I had no reason to worry. He looked at my form and watched as I pulled out a copy of my passport.

“You live in America? Or you live here?” I tried to explain that I was here when the country went on lockdown.

“But why are you here now?

That’s the question I was dreading. It’s a good question. Why am I?

“I think it is safer to stay in quarantine than to travel.” That’s the truth. He looked at me. He didn’t smile. But he seemed to say okay. And, I suppose, upon reflection, it’s probably nice to hear that a foreigner thinks your country is handling the crisis better than your home country. Did I say that? No. But it’s easy to imagine that’s what he thought. That, or at least he was pleased I had my paperwork.

Then the female officer pointed out my shopping list on the back of my form. He nodded and walked me over to a car where he proceeded to write out a new form for me, with all my information, so I could have my list back for shopping. Well that was pretty darn nice! After I assured him I was only waiting to enter that store and then pick up some produce on the corner, we both signed the form and that was that. The store called out the next number, the officer looked at the ticket in my hand, shrugged and smiled.

It was another 30 minutes or so before I realized the store was calling out for #39 to enter. My number was 54. I had been there well over an hour. Waiting with a constantly shifting crowd in the street and lined up against buildings. Chances are they didn’t carry the oatmeal I so desperately wanted. The wait would likely be at least another hour. My head was aching. It was raining lightly. And honestly, I was still a bit unnerved by the police interaction, as pleasant as it was. I can get eggs anywhere, I thought. So I left.

The next time I left the house, I experienced the same wait at a different grocery store. Easily an hour. This time instead of just getting eggs, I planned ahead: I now have two bottles of wine. Ah, the necessities!

Alright, that’s my story but here’s what I really want to tell you:

Italy now has over 21,815 people who have recovered from the coronavirus. That’s a quarter more than the 15,887 mortalities. Their daily infections and deaths have been on a downward trend for over a week and those in intensive care has finally dropped. The reproductive number is now-finally- at 1 (from 3) and the target is to get it even lower. On the other hand, on April 3, it was reported that the real number of Covid-19 cases in Italy could be 5 million. Five million!! In a country with a population of only sixty million. Meanwhile, the stay-at-home order has been extended until April 13. Perhaps most importantly, it’s estimated that 30,000 lives have been saved by adhering to the lockdown measures.

A friend wanted to know what Italians think of how the U.S. is responding to the pandemic. So I asked the few that I know here in Italy. Their overwhelming response? Americans are not taking this seriously.  

“Americans are not taking this seriously enough. Don’t panic and don’t go out. Eat, cook, relax, read a book. It is important to stay happy and healthy. The quarantine won’t last forever. Meanwhile, Stay Home!!”

Please, friends, I hope you’ll listen to the Italians. And encourage others to shelter-in-place too. Because the truth is, I do want to come home.

Yesterday in Balestrate

In my (unsuccessful) search for oatmeal yesterday, I walked to the other side of town. Maybe a mile away. Not exactly a hike but, remember, we’re instructed to stay as close to home as possible. Just like in Rome, it’s wonderful to take in the beauty without the obstruction of so many people around. Hard to take photos though and not look like the tourist. Still, I managed to get a few.

Some things are the same

I’ve had a headache for 2 days. Maybe three. Time is a bit of a blur, marked only by the light outside.

I can’t tell if it’s tension or sinus. Probably both. Ibuprofen doesn’t touch it. Yoga feels great but doesn’t bring relief. Nor does acupressure. No doubt too much sugar and not enough magnesium. I’ve been rationing my magnesium. It wasn’t really enough to get me through six full weeks and now it needs to last… (how long??)

I tried buying vitamins from the farmacia (local drug store). Yeah, okay, so this is how that went: Fiber is vanilla flavored psyllium. The kind you mix with water and try to chug before it reaches the consistency of sand sludge. Yuck yuck yuck. (My 3-year old screams, “YUUUCK!!!”) But I’m an adult, so I bought it. Then I asked for Vit D, which came in a single dose liquid of 50,000 IU. For 8 euros. I bought that too. Finally, Vitamin A. Only comes in suppositories. I declined.

So… I got online and ordered from VitaCost. An extra $29 for FedEx shipping seemed like a small price to pay. It was. Then came the phone call from customs in Italy, and the emails. Eight pages of completed forms were required, along with another 40 euros. At least the customs man was very nice. Even when I only paid .40 euros – whoops!! Was pretty sure as of yesterday that my package would be with me today. Nope. This morning FedEx texted me. I need to pay another 29 euros. I haven’t responded. I will. Just need a moment.

I made a video two days ago to assure you that I am fine, still positive, still smiling. Only I can’t get it to load to Facebook or to my blog. I still can’t get my blog to look right. My federal tax return, received electronically by the Feds on 2/14, is still being processed. AT&T failed to provide me international service (causing me to purchase a TIM card instead), but still charged me and won’t stop charging me until I’m back in the States. I’m accustomed to using chemical-free products, sans artificial scents (dish soap, hand soap, detergent…), which I can’t find here. And yes, despite loving solitude, I’m going a bit stir-crazy. So yeah, just like you, I’ve got frustrations.

I wish I had oatmeal. Funny, because I’ve never liked oatmeal. But I found a bag in one of the empty apartments (a bit like Goldilocks) and I’ve eaten it every day. The perfect comfort food. I figured out how to make it without it becoming gummy and gooey. Topped with banana and strawberries, a dollop of honey, and a milk floater on top. SO good! It became the perfect way to start my day. Only, now, I’m out. And the stores don’t carry it. I’ve been to five. Also wish I had mint tea, kale (yes, kale), my zoodle maker, and my hand blender for making pureed soup. And turmeric and ginger. Ah, the luxuries of my life in the States!

Do I have any reason to complain about any of this? Absolutely not. It is what it is, and I’ll get through it. As will you. The bulk of my frustrations? Same as always. The same things for which I am grateful and typically take for granted: technology, bureaucracy, having what I want when I want it. First world problems. (Not that I’m grateful for bureaucracy, but I do appreciate government and providers of services – when they work properly. And can we really call this first world problems? These are the frustrations of the privileged, wherever you live.)

I can’t imagine that you’re interested in any of this, but you’ve been asking, so I’m sharing. Maybe it helps to know I’m going through the same things you are. We’re all in this together.

The sun is still shining up in the sky, behind the clouds. A man just drove by with gloves on, texting on his phone. Oranges are still sweet and satisfying.

Some things, my friends, are still the same. Wherever you are.

More than Statistics

I don’t know how to write this post. I’ve been sad all weekend. My heart is heavy.

It’s a bit surreal to be in Italy when the numbers of infection are rising in the States. The numbers have now surpassed Italy. Significantly. Exponentially. Over 142,000 cases in America; over 98,000 in Italy.

Three weeks ago, you were all so very worried about me. Ten days ago, I decided to stay in the heart of the epidemic, rather than risk returning home. I still believe staying was the right thing to do. It is safer for me to stay put. I knew this virus was coming to the States. And it has. The first wave has arrived. You’re in the thick of it now. Everyone I know is in quarantine. Some of you still have the ability to take a ride in your car or on your bike or stroll on the streets. Seriously – I’m not kidding – my chest contracts every time I hear this or see your photos. I’m glad you’re able to still enjoy these privileges. At the same time …  at the same time… I really want you to stay home. It’s like watching a Halloween horror film when you know Jason is waiting but the other characters have no clue. Only this isn’t a movie and you aren’t actors. This is real. And it’s about to get worse.

You know how you know something intellectually and so you think you know it? Goodness, that has happened so many times in my life. And then something happens, and suddenly you know that thing viscerally. It’s no longer a knowing in your head. Now you know it in your body. Now it’s a physical knowing. Very different. Very, very, different. If this has ever happened to you, you know what I mean. If it hasn’t, I can’t explain it.

I knew the virus would hit the States and it was going to be awful. But honestly, it didn’t occur to me that people I know would die. It all seemed, somehow, very analytical. Matter of fact. Devoid of any emotion except concern. Statistical.

No longer. My former home, where I lived for 14 years, a place I love dearly, filled with people who are so special to me, is now a hot spot.

People I love are going to die.

Friends of mine are already mourning friends.

I think maybe I’m in a premature mourning. Premature, yes, that’s what I’ve been thinking. Yes, I’ve read the articles about grief at this time in history. Yes, I’ve been looking at my emotions analytically, through my dreams, and more. That’s why I finally decided to post these thoughts to the blog: it’s one way for me to own these feelings. To sit with them, uncomfortable and messy as they are. Even if they are socially unfavorable. Let’s face it: no one wants to talk about death.

Again, there are so many things I could say. How death isn’t a stranger to me. Actually, I know it pretty damn well. And I honestly believe nothing – no one, no living thing – ever dies. We merely change form. But you know what? It never gets easier. You think it will, but it doesn’t. Not if every death is personal, not if you allow yourself to connect. If it’s statistical, sure, that’s a bit better. It’s still a sucker punch, particularly in larger numbers. But when it’s personal…                 My heart is bleeding for every medical worker on the front lines right now. Every nurse, every doctor, every EMT – every single person who is dealing with this face to face every single day. Man, I was there during HIV/AIDS. That was brutal. But this – I never thought I’d say this, could never imagine having a reason to say this – this is worse.

And I won’t be there. I won’t be in my country.

And if I were in the states, what good could I do? I would still be at a distance. Unable to be with the people I love. Sadly, that’s the truth of it. For the first time, I truly feel so very far away. More than that, I feel like a traitor. Like I traded my own safety to be here alone instead of being there with you. It didn’t matter to me when it was just about me. Of course I’m fine alone. Yes, I’m riding waves of emotions, but that’s not new to me. Only, now I am no longer an observer. I am no longer an American trying to understand what is happening in Italy. I am an American separated from my friends. Now it’s about us. Am I in this with you or not?

Early this morning someone very dear to me wrote and told me how she is unbelievably fatigued. So inexplicably tired. From the news, she thinks. Yes, I think she is right. And then suddenly I remember.

The last time I felt this way was when Princess Diana died. And then, a few days later, Mother Teresa. It was an odd thing, this collective grief. A vibrational wailing, echoing across oceans. Different from anything else, different even from AIDS. The grief from AIDS was staggering. The grief from the passing of two great women was penetrating. Like a light had been blown out. And still, it was not this.

Now all the grief in Italy catches up to me. The photos of caskets filling churches. Obituaries filling page after page. The fear. Like an unexpected wind, fiercely pushing against my body, I am struggling to stay erect as I straddle between two countries. My eyes are wet and facing west.

What I thought was premature is, in fact, here. We are all mourning. Each of us. In various stages. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Some even still in denial. What will acceptance feel like, I wonder?

A new world. A new beginning.

But I’m not there yet. And I suspect, neither are you.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Who’s in Charge in This Crisis?

In the wee hours of the morning, I had a dream that something had happened and the President was no longer in charge. I was in the middle of learning something – trying to learn something – when it was announced on TV that __?___ was taking the presidential oath of office. Who? I didn’t catch the name. It wasn’t the Vice President or Nancy Pelosi, no, in fact it was someone like 6 levels down on the chain. I woke up, scribbled down this much that I could remember, and then wrote, “What the hell is going on? Who’s in charge?”

There’s a lot of us asking that question these days. We’re having trouble sleeping. Anxiety is running high.

This isn’t about supplies. Last week when there was a nationwide run on toilet paper, I noted what seemed like an obvious metaphor: our panic could be an indicator that collectively and individually we are afraid that everything is going to shit. Sure, that may sound funny. Only, it’s not. The fear is real. Buying tp was our only form of control, our way of doing the one thing we could do to be prepared.

Now that most of our normal activities have stopped and we are sheltering in place, many of us alone, the anxiety is only increasing. The term “social distancing” isn’t helping. It amplifies our isolation, both real and perceived.

Those who are doubling down on “everything is ok, people are over-reacting” are possibly the most afraid. Their response is just another way of trying to control something so clearly out of control. This is human nature. We all do it, in some form or another. Some of us are baking bread, a metaphor for nourishment, providing that which can sustain us. Others are praying, believing in something greater than ourselves to intervene.

We’re looking for answers. For trust-worthy information. For assurances we’re going to be okay. All the while a voice inside is screaming, “What the hell is going on? Who’s in charge?”

The Jungian approach to dream analysis is to consider every character in the dream as an aspect of our self. So, who is the 6th line of succession to the president? The Secretary of Defense. Now that’s kinda interesting, don’t you think? At least in relation to my dream. Who’s in charge? Who’s taking the presidential oath to lead me and the country during this pandemic? The one who’s job it is to protect our nation from harm. If that’s an aspect of myself, then I am calling on my own innate ability as a defense leader to protect myself and others; to protect and lead our country.

In my dream, this news flash occurred as I was trying to learn something. What? It wasn’t clear, I couldn’t remember when I awoke. Maybe it was this: the lesson was learning to be a leader.

Here’s the final bit that I find so very interesting: in numerology, the number 6 is associated with home. Not only the dwelling and all corresponding aesthetics, but also family. Family is always another aspect of home. Six is home and family wrapped up together in harmony, beauty, and interdependence. The person being called to lead in my dream is the one in charge of protecting the most important place to me, the place where I reside, where love resides. (Now for any militia pro-gun enthusiasts, I can only say this: home is the dwelling place of the soul. It’s more than the place or people or things. Soul cannot be protected with guns. And a virus can’t be killed with a bullet.)

Here we are, quarantined in our homes. Safe in our homes. Our homes are presently the best line of defense against this epidemic.

So, who’s in charge? We are. Each of us.

We are protecting not only ourselves but each other and our country when we stay home. We are being called into service, asked to take the highest oath in this land, one of leadership and defense, to ensure we all get through this crisis safely.

Some of us won’t. There are going to be casualties. There are already and the numbers are growing.

I implore you. Embrace the wise and calm leader within. Do the right thing. Take the oath and stay home. You’re in charge. What kind of leader are you going to be?

The Eye of Providence at Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

Now That We’re All Home and Cooking

I ate an entire box of cookies today. To my credit, it wasn’t all in one sitting. It took me a good 7 hours to go through that box. That’s reasonable, right? Ok, so I also had three Ferrero Rocher chocolates and two glasses of wine during the same 7 hours. And dinner. I did make dinner. From scratch. Not that that’s saying a lot. (Or maybe it is.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about food these days. Probably most of us are. Once you got past the panic of whether you had enough toilet paper to last you through quarantine, you probably started wondering if you had enough food. I’ve seen some fun posts about clearing out your pantries and trying to figure out what you can make with an excess of beans. I laughed at a friend who binge-shopped frozen entrees (filling his entire freezer) just before I left the states. He was way ahead of the curve on this apocalypse and I’m definitely not laughing at him now. And then there’s another friend who has finally used his stove after living in his home for… two years. He’s making hard boiled eggs, which is always a good place to start after learning how to boil water. 😉 All jokes aside, I think we’re ALL in a completely new relationship with food these days.

Ah, but in Italy, food is practically a religion. Some of you know I was once married to an Italian. And my mother-in-law (or more accurately, mother-in-love) was a typical (meaning, great) Italian cook. Only, I couldn’t fully appreciate her cooking because I was a vegetarian then. Twelve years of being a vegetarian and family dinners were rough. I suffered through a LOT of ribbing. But there were two recipes that have always stayed with me and if anyone in the Nania family is reading this blog, I want to say thank you.

The first is spaghetti noodles tossed with ample (and equal) amounts of butter and olive oil. Then sautéed mushrooms, garlic, and broccolini. Season with black pepper and freshly grated parmesan. So simple. And so yummy.

Simpler still: pancake eggs. I was told all those years ago that this was a Depression-era recipe, but I’ve learned since being here that all Italians once ate much more simply. Pasta with ragu (what Americans now consider typical spaghetti) wasn’t common, it was too time consuming and called for too many ingredients. It was saved for special occasions. Noodles and butter and salt, now that was a staple. It was also pretty cheap. As are pancake eggs.

Crack an egg, add some water and whisk well. Then add some flour. Hard to say how much. About a tablespoon, maybe a bit more, but just a little at a time. Keep whisking to get out the clumps. Pour into a pan with melted butter. Cook until the sides curl and it resembles a pancake, then flip it over and sprinkle salt on top. Just like a pancake, you can pretty much tell when it’s done. Flip it again as you transfer it to your plate and add more salt. Prego! Pancake egg. So simple. Surprisingly tasty. And a good way to stretch valuable eggs.

I have a dozen brown eggs in my fridge right now. Gluten-free pasta on the counter with several bulbs of garlic. Plus oatmeal and honey in my cupboard. This all means I’m probably good for two weeks, or at least until this rain subsides, which is forecasted for the next 8 days. As for cookies, at the rate that I’m going, I’m out of luck in less than two. Then it’s back to sticking my finger in the Nutella jar.

So tell me, what are you eating?

sorry I don’t have a photo of the pancake egg!
Pancake egg!!
My friend Dayle followed my instructions and sent this photo. Said it’s her new favorite thing! 🙂

Blustery Winds, Wet Floors, and a Very Fine Breakfast

My landlord told me high winds were coming. He told me to close and latch the shutters. I didn’t. Not until it was too late.

This morning, out of eggs and running very low on cheese and produce, I made a quick run to the stores. Laden down with bags while trying to maneuver a fragile umbrella, my lower legs wet from cars splashing as they drove by, and my eye glasses foggy from breathing through a rather damp face mask, it occurred to me that shopping in a small Italian town is far more gratifying when the weather is warm and the sun is shining.

Finally home, stripped of my shopping clothes and all my purchases washed by hand (Covid-19 guidelines), freshly showered and my hair carefully dried, I set to the task of breakfast.

Fresh strawberries, ripe bananas, and a bottle of honey in hand, I made myself oatmeal. And then the added delight, the perfect Italian compliment: I made myself espresso. My first espresso in an Italian Moka pot. Now, I must tell you, I don’t drink coffee. Well, rarely, and not much when I do. Decaf mostly, maybe a dollop of caffeine. Here in Italy, however, I’ve imbibed. How can one visit this country and not? And asking for decaf seems a sacrilege. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s even available. So, when I kept bumping into the Moka pot in my cupboard, I almost moved it to a hidden spot. I wouldn’t need it. Ah, but there in the grocery store, with five others waiting in the rain for me to finish my shopping, the coffee called out to me and I couldn’t resist.

Sitting down to this delightful breakfast, all cozy and content, I suddenly realized: there was a puddle the length of my living room. My landlord was right. This building is lovely. And, like most buildings in Italy, it is old. Time to close the shutters. In 43mph winds. Amused at myself, I managed. But not before my hair and my clothes took a beating. Towel-dried and sporting a fresh shirt, I sat down to finish my now cold breakfast. And then I saw it. Another large puddle in the kitchen. Same routine: me hanging out the window, battling the wind to unhook the shutters and pull them tightly closed. Another change of shirt. As for the hair: forget it.

Lesson learned. Always listen to the landlord.

Now it’s dinner time. The wind is relentless. I have a large beach towel propped along the doors of the balcony and another in the kitchen. It’s time for a glass of wine. Tomorrow morning I’ll try again. And maybe, regardless of the weather, I’ll feel a bit more like Goldlilocks with warm porridge in my belly, ready for noonday nap. Because after all, when in Italy, under quarantine…

Coronavirus in Italy, Part 2: Death, Age, and Identity

“These are our great elderly who are dying. That they should go like this, it’s deeply unjust.” [1]

According to statista.com, as of last night there are now almost 60,000 reported cases of Covid-19 in Italy.  74% of those infected are over the age of 50. Read that again. Let that sink in. Almost three-fourths are age 51 or older. 36% are over the age of 70.

“These are our great elderly who are dying.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, there’s a new coronavirus hashtag trending: #BoomerRemover. Young people are making light of people 55 and over dying. Another post I read said, “Well at least this will help our Social Security!”

I can only hang my head.

In the States, we hide our elderly. We are embarrassed by them. We’re embarrassed for them. That they should have the great misfortune of growing old, and before that, looking old, well, that’s… so sad. We are a nation of Dorian Grays. We don’t want to be reminded of aging. We equate aging with death. We avoid it. We run the other way. We put the aged in homes. Others, in better shape, are encouraged to enjoy retirement communities. Keep them together, the thinking goes, and they’re better off, among their peers. With professionals to care for them, in case something should happen, call us only in an emergency.

Age has everything to do with our national identity, both in Italy and in the United States. Americans are young. Our concept of beauty is the innocent child, the pubescent girl, stripped of hips and pubic hair, with pouty lips and an unbrushed mane. But in Italy, a nation of adults, children are pretty and woman are beautiful. It is the adult woman that is idealized: her beautiful curves, full breasts, thick legs, a little paunch in her belly. Bikinis are not just for “perfect” bodies, they are for every body, thick and thin, large and small, young and old. Age is beautiful. The best things in Italy are old. The art, the music, the literature. The churches, the buildings, the ruins. Life is built upon the long lives of others. The beauty of the past is the beauty of the present. Age connects us to the future; it is the reward of more to come.

In the States, we tear down buildings regularly. In Italy, they repurpose. They embrace their past with pride. Structures stand empty and crumbling between others housing families and shops. Layers exposed underneath modern facades are part of their charm. The colors come from the weathering of time: shades of brown, shades of the sun. The streets are still cobbled from centuries past. Greek temples are now churches. The Coliseum and the ancient city still stand in the very center of Rome.

Independence is intrinsic to the American identity. It’s the heart of our origin story and a rite of passage for the young. Autonomy. Freedom! We crossed an ocean to be on our own and waged two long wars in our new home to fight being told what we could or could not do. 400 years later and we’re still distancing from our parental figureheads as quickly as we can. We start our own lives, we move out, we move away. Until rather recently, for over 100 years, the average age for leaving our parent’s home was twenty.[2] Some of us see our folks regularly, but whether that’s once a week or a few times a year, varies.

But in Italy, children live with their parents, on average, into their thirties.[3] And when they move out, they still live close by, maybe even in the same building. Parents are consulted in everything, Mamma is always present and Nonna is a matriarch: the head of the family, the center of Italian life.

Mom. I have an entire chapter in my book focused on Mom. She is, quite literally, our very first home. Her influence on our young lives forever shapes our experience of home as adults. Both the good and the bad. In the States, Mom isn’t always the center of the family, the nurturer, the keeper of the hearth. That ideal was popularized in Leave it to Beaver and even on Rosanne, but the truth is more complicated. As a nation of adolescents, we don’t always embrace the mother archetype. We focus on ourselves over our kids. Our careers over our family. The love is still there, only the focus is different. Think Cher in Mermaids. Or Harry Chapin’s classic song, Cat’s in the Cradle. We care, but… Let’s face it: we don’t value our teachers or our childcare workers. We pay them next to nothing, barely livable salaries, and we don’t fund our schools. Our children die in mass shootings and guns are the second leading cause of death among American kids[4] but we don’t change gun laws because the rights of an adult to own firearms is a higher priority than children’s lives.

But in Italy, family always comes first. The children, the parents, the grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. Family is the center of Italian life. Last week in New Jersey, coronavirus struck an Italian American family, killing four, including 73-year-old Grace Fusco, mother of 11, grandmother of 27. The New York Times reporter writes, “The virus’s devastating toll on a single family is considered as rare as it is perplexing.”[5] Not perplexing at all. Not to an Italian. This nonna’s large family joined her every Sunday for dinner. I can see it all now. So many hugs and kisses, hugs and more kisses, hands held, and hands patted on cheeks. The passing of platters, up and down the table and round and round again, all while talking, loud conversations and laughter, hands meeting hands, hands touching everything, bellies being filled, and hearts expanding. I can hear them, their voices still ringing. (Italians, as you know, can be loud.) But now, everything is silent. There is only mourning.

This is the great fear in Italy. Quarantining alone is antithetical to the Italian way of life. There is no alone. People my age and younger worry. “If I get it, okay, but what about my parents? Mia famiglia, miei genitori…

In Italia, i genitori are revered. They are the keepers of tradition. The wise ones. The soul of the country. The heart and hearth of every family. Nothing comes above family, except God. The family is synonymous with Italian identity. What is home? I ask Italians. And always the same response, always: it’s Mamma. Madre. Home is wherever Mom is. And what if Mamma dies? Then home is where the rest of the family is, rooted in the soil like the olive trees. There will always be more elders, more aunts, more uncles, to ground a person to place. But they are meant to pass only after we ourselves have aged. And if they die too soon, prematurely, what is this nation to do?

With the elders at risk in Italy, all are at risk. I nonni are Italy’s past, present, and future. With each one that dies, a part of Italy dies. A piece of the Italian soul goes with them.

Italians are staying home. For themselves, their families, their country.

Please, America, do the same.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/coronavirus-obituaries-bergamo-italy/2020/03/16/6c342f02-66c7-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html

[2] https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/prc/_files/pdf/workingpapers/00-01-01.pdf

[3] https://www.boredpanda.com/young-adults-moving-from-parents-age-data/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

[4] https://www.thetrace.org/2019/08/children-teens-gun-deaths-data/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/nyregion/new-jersey-family-coronavirus.html

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