My Italia is still not entirely herself this evening. Of course she is still beautiful even after all these months, even with her slightly tattered mascherina half-covering her face or strung beneath her chin; at turns dangling imperturbably from a suntanned ear. She is beautiful even with a little extra worry on her face. But she’s still quieter than I know her to be, and there are so many gaps around the tables on the sidewalk, empty of the more cautious who stay at home most nights; empty of her American cousins who should have already come to tell her all the stories she’d almost forgotten over a prosecco or campari soda, making her laugh with their old-fashioned words from great-grandmother’s dialect.
When we meet under the trees in the half-empty piazza, she is unexpectedly self-conscious: should I lean in? Should I step away? She laughs nervously and I laugh nervously. In the end we each extend an elbow, touching them together, lingering for a moment, as if it were a kiss.
Zona Rossa. Red Zone. Italy is divided. Here in the region of Campania we were green and then yellow and, as of today, jumping to red and returning to lockdown.
I last left off in June as we left our houses and as summer got warily underway.
It was different this year: no processions, no tourists, no fireworks; no festivals.
We are an adaptable species though and we live this summer as always, sweetened by the nostalgia for every other summer ever lived. We all come out after dinner-- rarely before 10pm, often later—and, with light sweaters over our shoulders, we walk slowly through the meandering streets. The four ladies who usually sit pressed side by side, legs dangling, on the bench on Via Roma, sit farther apart now, but are delighted anyway when we pass. Buonasera!
There are other groups like this, gathered here and there on carefully spaced kitchen chairs, half in the street, half on the sidewalk. Those of us walking cross paths and chat (but don’t embrace) at the corner near the yellow church or at the corner near the other yellow church, finding each other all in the piazza near midnight with gelatos or drinks, children on bicycles, men playing cards, babies asleep in arms or in carriages.
Later we’ll try and sleep while everyone between 12 and 25 is still roaming in small packs, running from (squealing) or chasing (laughing), stealing a smoke or a glance. With all the windows open it will be almost morning before there is silence.
At dawn the day begins again, as some work is best done while the air is cool. Mixed with our late coffees there is the smell of sauce bubbling or peppers roasting in a pan. It’s better to cook early in this heat. By the time the morning busy-ness is done and the shops pull their shutters down, those of us late to lunch walk quickly to the open-window sounds of cutlery and glasses clinking, of televisions and conversations. All noise fades into the long afternoon silence, when the sun is at its hottest. We rest in darkened rooms until the light turns more golden and the day begins again.
In the fields, bushels of zucchini give way to tomatoes, green peppers; then eggplant, red peppers and pumpkins. And soon we find ourselves in apple trees and pears; picking blackberries from thorny bushes, collecting hazelnuts, winged and fallen. My neighbors behind the studio shout up: Meliiii!!! Meliii!!
And from over the fence there are plates of figs. Then half our gardens are plowed under to make way for all manner of broccoli and cabbages and chicories and salads.
We lucky ones and are floating in a still clear warm sea, fish below and gulls above: the last late swim of the season. And then we are in a meadow dotted by tall, yellowing trees, gathering walnuts. And then we are on an open hillside arms aching, hands stained with grape juice, watching the truck drive off with the harvest. Maestro Mimmì is well past 80 and isn’t in charge of the vineyard anymore but is here anyway, with his clippers in a pouch on his belt and a bucket full of fruit to take home to his wife. He tells a story that makes us laugh, so he tells us several more. The sky above the mountains turns crimson.
Later the chilly morning fog returns to the valley. We are kicking leaves in the damp fading forest, fingers pricked by chestnut urchins. It’s the day of San Martino and fires return to the hearths with wine and roasted chestnuts.
Then we are high on a windy hill pulling olives from trees, pouring them by nets-full into crates. There are easier ways now to remove whatever leaves have fallen in but Ferdinando shows us how it used to be done. We are laughing, tossing handfuls of olives over a net on the ground, the leaves falling to the ground closer here, and the olives, perfect and clean, farther there.
Today perhaps we are okay being inside again. There is a chill and the sky is grey. We are nearing the shortest day.
(First published June 25, 2020)
In the piazza Felice is the one who tells me that there will be no processions this year. I already know this but I let him tell me anyway because without that news there is little else to say. I know from our last meeting that he cannot go back to work yet. Who will give a haircut and shave to the patients in the hospital who are there for longer stays? They tell him things are still too risky for him to return. Maybe next year, or when there’s a vaccine. Felice’s crisp shirt is tucked in tightly to his belted pleated trousers and he smells like aftershave. Ever ready, just in case.
All around the edges stand the ones looking for something to walk behind. In the absence of the processions I wonder how they’ll find their way through these streets this summer without rose petals and a band to guide them. Without the yellow flags and white sheets and lattices of colored lights hanging over the cobblestones it could be anyone’s day, nothing to gather for, sing for; nowhere in particular to walk to.
On my own procession, up the hillside behind a hawk with a snake in its claws, I discover a patch of lilies, planted near a pomegranate where there may once have been the refuge of a shepherd or a shrine to someone's goddess, now just rubble and flowers. It’s the smell that draws me off the path, up the rocks, between asparagus ferns and shrubs, under the branch of a low-growing fig tree. Perfectly white and glowing, on stems taller than my waist, the flowers turn to greet me. I chose three to take back to the studio where my architect tells me they’re Sant’Antonio’s lilies. My grandfather’s lilies. The first of June it begins. As if it were a cathedral, the studio smells of them for the whole 13 days of the veneration of Antonio di Padova.
In the news there are fireworks everywhere in the night, but here, where there should be explosions in the sky for every saint’s day and wedding this time of year, there is still darkness in the spaces between the stars, and it’s quiet enough to hear the murmurs and laughing of all the young people caught here in this village for a longer summer than there ever was, who wake at sunset to start their roamings. The only flashes of bright light in the night come from the fireflies, flickering beneath the fig tree in the neighbor’s garden after the sun goes down. I lean over the back balcony to see them better. Instead of gunpowder, there is the smell of honey from the linden trees blowing in clouds from the edge of town. Late, near midnight, we can’t stand it any longer-- we go and collect bags full of the blossoms to dry for what troubles may ail us come winter.
(First published June 12, 2020)
I am breathless when I reach the top of the cobblestone stepped street and before I can turn to look behind me at the view from the small piazza, there is a “buongiorno”. There are two men who work for the town. One is sitting in the shade with a weed-whacker while the other sweeps up the poppies and malva and Queen Anne’s Lace from the edges where the stone street meets the stone walls.
We know each other by sight, though this is the first opportunity we’ve had to chat.
“But you’re not from here” says one. It’s both my accent and the fact that he would know if I belonged here. It’s a small town.
Where are you from?
Why are you here?
Are you alone here?
How long have you been here?
I am used to the questions. They come whenever curiosity gets the better of someone. Of course, I do my best to encourage curiosity, noting quite early on that people would just stare suspiciously at me until I smiled and nodded and said “buongiorno”, thereby signaling that I am a fellow human being (however oddly misplaced in this closed landscape) and that, while I am a stranger, I am not necessarily a threat.
Let the interview commence.
I explain who I am and what I do and where I live and who my companion is and where I was born and where I lived before and the inevitable question follows: What is going on over there? It a mess!
Yes, it’s a mess.
The conversation takes a familiar course. I am being asked to rationalize and defend.
“You have to look at the history,” I say. Americans are an invasive population living on stolen land, with people who they stole from their homes on another continent and turned into slaves. It’s a difficult situation to reconcile.
“True”, says the man in the shade. “It’s not like that here.”
I know I am speaking as one cultural descendant of the principle invaders, descendant of terrorizers and colonists, to another. I don’t think he makes the connection.
“You’re a soup of different cultures. It was bound to get out of hand.” He says.
Not necessarily… many of us have learned to adapt to different cultures, it’s not a bad thing.
He’s not convinced.
He’s nervous: “That’s going to happen here before long—the riots and violence.... Look around at who’s coming over here.” He gestures as if we’re surrounded by a mob of those of whom he speaks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think we have an opportunity to do things differently here. We don’t have a long history of slavery on this soil, for one thing. Or segregation. We haven’t yet set a precedent of broad prejudice.”
“That’s true, everyone has rights here.” He says, nodding.
I don’t mention that these rights are relatively new; that this democracy is new. I don’t say that in certain respects, Italy is lagging behind in terms of the actual practice of those rights and of equality, particularly for women.
“Those rights are important, “ I say. “People from all over, not just from Africa, have been coming here relatively recently and are relatively few. I think a lot can be done starting now to create understanding going forward so that there’s no reason for chaos.”
I make the case for common ground. For well over a century there has been a mass exodus from the Meridonale (southern Italy). People leave and leave and rarely return, looking for a “better life”, like many of the folks who leave their homes to come here.
“Ah, but theirs is a whole other culture,” he says.
I understand the coded language: They are different. (We don’t want them.)
I understand the fear. “Different” can be terrifying.
In the context of dying villages, of dying micro-cultures and dying dialects, Different or Other can be perceived as a further threat. At the very least it’s startling, in the context of this village specifically, to see any unfamiliar face. A face as dark as the color of the skin of an eggplant would be even more startling. I make the case for wonder and beauty, that we should not all look alike.
He is skeptical of my hopefulness, but in the end we tentatively agree that what’s happening across the US won’t likely happen here.
“After all, Italians are a peaceful people,” he says, by way of reasoning.
Of this I am dubious, but still… one has to start somewhere.
(First published June 1, 2020)
The month of Mary ends in a riot of bells in the evening while we’re eating dinner— a call to her mass at 9;30pm. I open the kitchen window to the song and prayers and the cool night air.
The month of Mary ends in a riot of bells, a herd of cattle up on the mountaintop, a flock of sheep in the valley. It's a language poor in spirit that has only one word for "bells" I say but no one hears above the ringing.
The month of Mary ends in riots.
I think of him telling me: “When you are a kid in Ghana you learn that white people are so good, so perfect and good. Watch, if you were in Ghana right now you would be walking down the street and all the kids would be around you, treating you like a god, wanting to say hello and be near you. This is just how we’re taught. Before I first came here I thought it would be like that for me, that black people here in Europe would be like gods like white people are in Ghana.
I didn’t know”, he says.
He laughs a little at himself; his naïveté.
“We are all just human you know,” he says.
The month of Mary ends in a phone call: two dual citizens, expatriated, home but not home, watching from different parts of this continent over here, “How are you?” we say, as usual. We are adrift. Where the heart is is broken, breaking, broken. We’ve known for a long time it was like this. We didn’t leave for any of these these reasons but now? “I always thought I would go back", she says, "but I don’t think I can live like that again.” Useless with our buckets, an ocean from the fire.
The month of Mary ends in protest, closer by. Limits have been reached and there is hunger.
We are allowed just two to a table in the morning, masked. We discuss an aborted potential. Have you decided? I can’t hear myself answer the question. The cafe pop music and the tinny bells of a poor rural church and the birds and boy shouting “papà!” and the loudspeaker intoning mass from up the hill in keeping with the current regulations and, inexplicably, three Harley Davidsons, and all the past months of quiet is over, but everything that isn’t roses is so very green.
The month of Mary ends in the kitchen again, past midnight and it’s raining.
(A series of personal observations recorded in the countryside in the province of Salerno as Italy takes action against the spread of Covid-19, first published May 24, 2020, Third week of Fase 2)
It is Sunday the 24th of May, celebration day of the Ascension, when the larger of the thirteen village chapels and churches, the one in the piazza where I live, finally opens it’s doors again. I hear the bells from up in the woods, by that moment having climbed well past the crumbling Cappella di San Leonardo (Santo Linardo to the locals) that perches among low-growing olive trees at the edge of a rock cliff above what used to be a seasonal torrent but is, since the earthquake of 1980, a dry gulley that runs down from the mountains between two steep hills. I am out from under the bright sun and bottomless blue sky, clutching six of the very last knitting-needle-thin stalks of wild asparagus, and breathing in the cool perfumed greenness of the air beneath the chestnut trees.
There are different ways that the bells ring here and in these that morning there is joy. It’s come in forties, the quarantine. Forty days of Quaresima before Easter and now, forty days since, a going-home.
I arrive down in the piazza just before mass ends as prayer and song precede the faithful through three sets of tall doors, all open to the darkness inside. They are almost never all open like this, but it’s the first day and the air is warm, and people feel safer together in open spaces. Inside they are one or two to a pew, standing. They will let out and fill the piazza with chatter, and spill down the streets waving “ciao” and “buon pranzo”, and push open doors to whatever Sunday sauces and roasts are cooking in the kitchens.
This morning, all the tall doors closed again, the bells ring anyway at 6:30: the call to the 7am mass. I am watering the plants outside when I see him. Too early even for the early mass, he’s masked and standing, slightly stooped, very still on the corner, looking towards the bell tower through thick glasses. I look too, a reflex, but there is just the tower and a partly cloudy sky. When I finish one pitcher of water and come out again, having filled another, he is still there, motionless. I don’t say good morning. He doesn’t either. After a little while he finally moves: slowly makes the sign of the cross, kisses his thumb, and turns away, disappearing down the side street.
We have started week three of Fase 2 of the gradual re-opening of Italy and I am a bit behind. Last week, “week two”, began coincidentally with the arrival of the hot and dusty scirocco-- winds that start in the heat and sand of the Sahara, travel across the Mediterranean sea, picking up humidity on the way, arriving here to give us a week of heavy glaringly bright white-grey skies, unseasonably hot hazy days, and too- warm nights.
As if it were summer, the early mornings were busy with women making the rounds: butcher, forno (oven), salumeria (deli), caseficio (for cheese or milk), grocery store and, now that we can, to the merceria for a needle and thread and to exchange the gossip gathered on the way. The men who have no chores out in the countryside make different rounds, walking from one end of the main piazza to the other and back again, maybe taking a caffé (standing outside) now that we can, gathering here and there in small clusters to discuss whatever matters seemed most important. As if it were any normal week, everyone disappears by 1pm. Shops are locked and shutters are dropped down across the entrance; the streets go quiet. The lockdown was this all day, but now there is again a suggestion of rhythm....
(first published May 13, 2020)
The wind is warm today and carries the scent of smoke, a sense of Africa, the feeling that maybe I am nearer the sea than I think. I am feeling distracted by all the hundreds of shades of green on the mountainside and the hundreds more out in the fields.
I am feeling unsettled by small and large disappointments. I gave up cynicism one winter when a large chunk of it chipped off and fell into pieces along with my heart. It seemed like too much to add to the work of reconstruction, so I mostly let it go. That’s not to say that my idealism always rides out proudly in front of the parade. I can see things for what they are. It just means that I’m bound to feel my failures and the failures of my fellow humans a bit more forcefully than is comfortable. Failures, mostly, to act lovingly.
Yesterday the flower moon was in full bloom, embodying all the sensuousness that May overflows with here in this valley and across the peninsula.
In 1885, as Naples was recovering from an epidemic of cholera, a song emerged, part of a collection of poetry, written by Salvatore di Giacomo and set to music by Mario Costa.
There quite possibly has not been a better love song written in the 135 years since (some romantics are incurable). Today it speaks to a longing I have, still somewhat sheltered/quarantined, still unsure—will I see you again? It speaks to my origins, a feeling that maybe my great-grandfather made a promise when he left here that I’ve come back to keep.
The song begins as the memory of one of the two lovers who meet in the month of May, when the air was cool and the smell of roses overflowed from the garden and into your bosom fell clusters of cherries… we sang together. I will never forget it, no, the memory grows even stronger the more time passes.
He, of course, must go.
She says, oh my heart-- you will leave me and go far away from here. I’ll count the hours, but who knows when you’ll return?
He promises to come back, right here to this spot by the fountain, when it is again May and the roses again bloom. If the roses come back, then I will come back.
And they meet again, of course, in May, of course, because the wound of love never heals. My heart, I have returned… do with me what you will.
This just might be my favorite version of this song, filmed in the midst of the magnificent decay of the city of Napoli, from the film Passione, a 2016 documentary on napoletano music with John Turturro (the subtitles are in Italian, since the song is sung in napoletano):
It’s the month of Mary here. You wouldn’t know it. Her chapels aren’t open. No one sings. On my walk through the streets I look for signs that maybe in these unusual times, the old ways have come back. I look for sidewalk shrines, for flowers and a statuette tucked in a niche somewhere; a candle lit in a crack in the wall. So far I find nothing. It can’t be that there’s really nothing though. A goddess doesn’t just disappear like that. Not one like this who’s hidden in plain sight for centuries.
May is the month of Mary maybe because it is the most glorious month of the year in this country. It starts with wisteria, irises, buttercups, columbine, calla lilies, white and yellow asphodel; it unfolds into elderflower, wild orchids, red valerian, and jasmine; it ruptures into roses (the roses!), peonies, and poppies....
I added this blog as a way to share some thoughts and experiences around the impact of Covid-19 on my life here in Southern Italy. These posts have been a near-daily practice during this time and are largely unedited, most having been first posted on Facebook. They are of course in order with the most recent entry on the first page. I invite you to explore previous posts or even start from the beginning.