(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.
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.