(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.
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....
We wake on Monday to the sound of jackhammers and shouting. It’s early. Annamaria’s botteca isn’t even open yet. I get up and go to the large windows in the living room. The small piazza is full of trucks.
We’re in the beginning of our return to “normalcy” and the fiber optic cables must be laid. While I have frequently lamented the internet service here and have longed for a more stable connection, I think I will miss the vintage two-tin-cans-and-a-string feel of my current communications. I also will miss the very quiet mornings we’ve had for the past two months.
Spring is ripening, warming. Green has reached the top of all the nearest mountains. We are almost ...
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.