Time passes. I have barely gotten used to living “in town” when the corona virus makes its appearance. We all go into lockdown. Orders are to stay inside unless you have to walk your dog. Shopping? My two sons, duly masked, see to that and leave my groceries on a table in the entrance. Everything is then properly disinfected.
March 2020. Yesterday: Wednesday, Thursday? One loses track of days and dates. All Italy is under quarantine. Doesn’t seem real. On those short walks with my dog, no more than 200 meters from my doorstep, I see only shuttered doors with signs saying they will, hopefully, open later in March. If we, if Italy, can pull through this, life will never be the same. Communication, exchange of ideas, is limited to the computer, but it’s not the same.
The piazza outside my window is practically empty. An occasional car goes through, perhaps parks briefly. The kindergarten at San Lodovico is closed and the convent door is propped open by a rock. Symbolic somehow of the energetic warm-hearted mother superior now elsewhere, both physically and mentally, being taken care of by her sister nuns for she has Alzheimer’s and probably wouldn’t even recognize me. Now and then a person walks through the empty piazza, perhaps wearing a mask. But even if I were outside, we would do no more than nod at each other. This emptiness somehow also filters into me – no specific stimulus, for the study of Orvieto/Velzna I’ve been working on is finished, read over and over again, changing a word here and there. At night, I’ll read a few pages of Under Milk Wood, but that too is made up of people with whom I cannot converse. So I could haul out my papers from years ago, could try and organize things, but somehow it all ends up with my asking myself: “What for?” TV, sometimes, watching a tourist’s eye view of Santorini, wolves in Lazio and the young woman who walked a trail alone for 12 days, and someone making pastries. On a corner of the screen, if no one wears a mask, we are told that it was recorded before the corona virus epidemic. Or if I go to other stations, it is either updates on the epidemic and my heart goes out to the doctors and nurses who are on the verge of exhaustion, or crime stories. And I wonder too, if I get through these two weeks of quarantine, then what? Couldn’t I get the virus afterwards? One can’t help but worrying about oneself, about one’s children and friends. Some of the seasonal “swallows” will be returning later this year. It all depends. Will the time come when it is all over, when it is only a memory? The daffodils I picked – was it last Sunday? – are beginning to droop and wither. No, says my son. You can’t go to the villa. What would you tell the carabinieri if they stopped you? That you were going to pick some daffodils? So I can’t go to the villa to get more – whatever blossoms there now and for the next few weeks will go unseen, at least by me. Makes me think of the quandary that if a tree falls in a forest but there’s no one there to see or hear it, how do we know it’s fallen? A couple of years ago, I had a daffodil party. Will I ever have one again? Will I be around to have one? So at least I do my best to adhere to the rules the government has posted, not knowing. This is just that, a period of not knowing. Raffaele wrote a story where the virus, rapidly changing its DNA, was a way God (or whatever you want to call the powers that be) had of saving the planet, by eliminating those who were threatening it. Meaning us.
Saturday, March 14, 2020
I look out my window. The piazza is empty. There’s a bus stop down below. No one is waiting for the bus. The cyclamens cradled in the cement bowls are drooping, wishing someone would give them some water. The restaurant across the way is closed. Windows are empty eyes looking out, although they seem more to be shut against the outer world. Except for one, where a small banner has been hung out with a rainbow on it. Someone is hoping, hasn’t given up. It’s like a set for a silent movie. An occasional passerby moves silently across the empty space. Alone. And if they meet someone, they pass each other like ships in the night, communicating only with signals, a nod, a lifting of one hand. A few cars are in the parking places, waiting who knows for whom. Mostly the piazza is there for the pigeons perching in the blind windows. Only one door is open – that of the convent. But no one goes in or out. The piazza is waiting for its usual actors to give it life – and perhaps tomorrow or the day after they will.
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Teah barked at six o’clock. OK. Would have been better if it were already seven. But up and out. Sky starting to get light with a quarter moon up over the hills. And one star. Quiet. No cars coming in or out. A few lights on in municipal offices. One in a cave right on the small park by Porta Romana, which is generally empty, has a car in it. As I end my turn around the park, keeping my eye out for things that might seem appetizing to Teah, but are not ideal as a diet, someone is closing up the big double doors. He is dressed in orange – a sanitary worker. After closing the doors he stands to one side, his back to me, for about a minute. Obviously peeing and hasn’t noticed me. Then on our way. Not even the black or piebald cats generally lurking behind a tree stump or crouching in the grass are out. Teah pays no attention to them anyway as they keep their eyes on us. Up to Via Garibaldi, down to the arch and here too a lighted storage office, door open, bikes in sight. The piazza empty, but then that orange suited worker shows up with a broom, followed by a truck, sweeping the streets as they move left and right and around. The police office is open and a rather formidable woman, masked, cloaked in what could be a heavy raincoat, comes out and looks at me as she passes but doesn’t even nod. We start up a street but Teah decides that’s not what she wants so we turn up under the arch again to go home. Only other traffic consists of the garbage collectors – today it’s glass. Amazing how many bottles some families empty. Mostly beer seems to me. I don’t put anything out – have only one bottle anyway from a couple of weeks ago. A wine bottle. I move up Via Garibaldi. Every so often a glass door eerily slides open as I pass. Bank, insurance, restaurant. Teah stops to pee, but doesn’t do anything else. We’re back home. Was going to disinfect her leash but I kept her short and it didn’t touch anything. Fumble for the keys and I’m in, after picking up the two packages of pasta Lamberto had left for me, to start another day of quarantine.
A month from now?
The cyclamens in the cement bowls are smudges of magenta and nettles now thrive in their place. The wind has curled the rainbow banner on the window up high around the iron bars. that’s to one side of the restaurant around the iron bars. It’s no longer legible. The sign on the door below, an insurance company, is cockeyed and no one has thought to straighten it out. But then what for? The empty tables and empty chairs in the outdoor area of the restaurant over to the left are still empty. As is the piazza. A few pieces of paper flutter in the wind. Even the convent door is no longer open. One wonders if there are still any people around to leave a few crumbs for the pigeon that flies down from the niche on the church. Nothing moves, until a car silently slides across the cobblestones and turns into the street by the hotel with its locked doors.
March 22, 2020
Yesterday was the first day of spring. Had forgotten all about it. There’s a wind. A chill wind. Sun is on the dishcloth I’ve put out the window to dry. Teah has given up on the idea of a walk. There are still sounds out there. I lie on the couch and hear an intermittent tapping. Must be the wind playing with the pull for the mosquito screen. And sometimes it’s the wind alone, or is it a car. Or the blinds, the scuri, which I close at night to keep the lamplight out. Teah next to me whines for her dinner or because she’s bored. Birds? Maybe in a month or two? Who knows? That too I had in the country. Voices? Only if I turn on the TV. Yet there is all day and night the muffled roar of the world. Perhaps of my blood rushing through my veins. There is no absolute silence.
March 27th already
Thought for the day. Margaret is doing online yoga. Annie teaches her courses via Zoom. Claudio too I guess. And there are those who have concerts online with musicians from all over the world. How much of our future world will be virtual? Our experiences will change. We will see new places, visit new landscapes, but won’t have the wind, the perfumes, the sounds or feel the heat or the chill. True virtual visits can give you something you can’t get if you see things in person. Take the virtual visit to the Museo dell’Opera in Florence. You can get up closer to Donatello or to the models for the Duomo from different angles – all things you couldn’t do if you were actually there. You can visit fields of flowers, roam over them, but you won’t smell them, or have the thrill of watching a butterfly settle on a blossom or see and hear the bees. Although that I suppose you could.
I suppose it is also one way of saving the planet – people won’t have to travel to see the monkeys in the Hindu temples, or the penguins in the Antarctic. But they won’t be wandering moonlit lanes of a village in Scotland, hand in hand with their love.
March 28, 2020
So today what do I do? Have been in quarantine since the 14th, I think.
Emails. From David M.
I am continuing to lecture online – both at the Arab college up north and for my American students who had returned from our year abroad program but are receiving university credits from several experts all over the world.
We had a wonderful online lecture last evening from one of our instructors, Geshe Damchoe, a Tibetan monk about how Covid 19 (or any epidemic) is perceived in Tibetan philosophy.
Damchoe observed that when we are subjected to a social trauma such as a pandemic – we all suffer. Rather than succumbing to our individual sense of anxiety, fear and panic, he advised that we focus on the understanding that a pandemic affects our fellow humans as much as it affects oneself. We are all vulnerable.
This realization that people all around us are feeling fear and anxiety and are in pain, fosters feelings of compassion, sympathy and empathy that lessens the sense of isolation.”
March 29, 2020
Oblongs of light on dark grey tiles. I suppose you can call them tiles even if they are stone. Sun – white squares, blue sky, everything crisp and clear. Reading Camilleri or De Mauro. What else can one do?
So we go on. A bit of rain again. Don’t know how, in his blogs for Facebook, David Z. can people his observations with such wonderful images. I could once upon a time.
Orvieto as it is – and was – and will never be again.
Will Orvieto become a ghost town? It won’t be humming with Japanese and Korean tourists, sent here for just a few hours, as they rush up and down the Corso taking pictures, generally with one of their party included, it seems to me, in practically everything. The bars may still be there, most restaurants not. Ghosts don’t stop to have a leisurely meal of tagliatelle al tartufo. Perhaps a panino con porchetta. Perhaps. Who will buy those lacy bits of lingerie? Who will still be around to make a riskè comment on a girl wandering down the street, one shoulder bare, her shorts, just that, short, that would have landed her in what would have been called a whorehouse a couple of centuries ago.
On the other hand.
No cars! Or very few. One can hear oneself think. The breeze that whips down the Corso is filled with the fragrance, not of exhaust, but of linden blossoms. We are all walking, happily, down the street. No rush to get anywhere. Bicycles, children. A pause. A touch. The world is what it was, but better.
March 31, 2020
The city is on hold. Like Sleeping Beauty’s palace. Nothing moves, a rare few, exempt from the spell, wander the streets. Or some who have that magic talisman called dog can also move around with relative impunity. Behind shuttered windows, barred doors, life does go on. The body of the city has come to a standstill. Inside the blood continues to flow, the heart to beat.
At number 20 of Piazza Ranieri an open door leads into an entryway that leads into a courtyard. Children once played here but now the slides and swings wait, are on hold.
At number 3, Via Ripa Serancia, the Mezza Luna, you can look in through the lace-curtained window at rows of tables set for Averino’s carbonara, but nothing moves. Along the cliff, white painted doors seem rather incongruous, so pristine surrounded by their tufa facades, stone Etruscan tomb markers used as seats. Old photographs show the inhabitants sitting there on either side, as centuries ago they reclined on their tombs.
Along Via Garibaldi doors silently, mysteriously, slide open and close. At number 20, Bistro Malandrino, memories of fried fritters and artichokes hopefully try to metamorphasize into the real thing. Next door, at number 10, a melody winds its way out from Miranda’s cocktail bar, coming and going as footsteps approach and retreat. Next door, a ramp meant for horses winds up to the entrance to the Comune, the city hall. One wonders where the mayor and the councilors are now, what they are doing, are they also asleep subject to this enchantment?
Under the arch, across the piazza, a light glows. The newspaper stand. There must be someone there, but whoever it may be, they are invisible. A glow in the early morning, a Hopper painting. Over to the right, the doors of Sant’Andrea never seem to close but one wonders where the priest is.
Further up the Corso, Montanucci’s bar has its awning out but the doors seem locked in place, waiting to be pushed and opened out into the street. Today there’s not even a dog with its owner in sight. The city is on hold. One waits for that click, that spark, when suddenly people will appear and the still photo will become a moving picture.
Yes, Orvieto is its stones, contains the memory of all that has taken place throughout the ages. It is the people who have lived here and who are both its now and its past. Tomorrow it will once more become alive.
I love what my friend Margaret has written:
“Places we love are imbued with people we love and some of those shaped the places too. It is a gift to see the ghosts, who are the spirits, of those places. The genii. The sacred infuses them because cities are continually inhabited during their lives, they absorb as well as reflect the lives lived in them. One aspect of this, which I have seen referred to as ghost or palimpsest cities, is that a city exists in multiples at any moment, most markedly in the fourth dimension, including what may be observed by a camera now. It is what each person sees now, what each person who knows it remembers of the city or its parts, and of its current and former inhabitants. So Orvieto, being old and rich in its history, is made up not only of its stones but of the lives lived in it, the minds imagining it. And the ones summoned here are certainly a part of the genius of the city we love.”
September 4, 2020 Aftermath (to be a bit more optimistic)
Orvieto unlocked. It’s like a cage that has been opened, not to let the inhabitants escape, but to let them in. Suddenly the streets and piazzas are humming with life. Early mornings it’s still the orange-robed sanitary workers (don’t the Tibetan monks also wear orange?), an occasional jogger, a dog on a leash leading his owner along the walls with their interesting smells. Down in the valley it’s as if someone had dipped a brush in sunlight, spreading a wash of light on the fields as the shadows shrink back closer and closer to their source. There’s a moon today in the sky as it takes on color, a white globe over to the right. A short turn along the cliff, then up into an alley where one can see into the basement of the hotel where croissants are being piled on plates for the guests who have begun to return. The cyclamens in the bowls across from the convent have been replaced by succulents, hen and chicks, possibly spiky aloe.
Cars seem to multiply as the work day begins. Mostly leaving the city. By ten though the tide has reversed and the elevator and the escalator come to life, disgorging a motley crowd of visitors for the day, who stop to consult their iPhones, or look in vain for the indications for the Duomo, which are just as likely to send them in the wrong direction. Or if they were lucky enough to find an empty space in the piazza, they may be trying to figure out how the parking meter works. Couples, hand in hand. Families with children of all ages. Some with suitcases bouncing over the cobblestones, waiting to be picked up or on their way to an overnight B&B. By noon or one some will be sitting at the outdoor tables ordering lunch. Masks seem to be optional and here and there have been abandoned, or just lost, as they lie, forgotten and forlorn, on the cobblestones. When not worn, they hang from one ear, serving as arm ornaments, to be pulled up only when one enters a shop. The city seems to throb with life, making up for those months of forced hibernation. Yet for most of these visitors, what will they remember, what will Orvieto be to them when they pull up photos to show friends? An escape from lockdown more than anything else. “There we are, in front of Sant Andrea, no, that’s not the Cathedral although some people thought it was, here we go along the Corso licking a Montanucci ice cream cone, and the kids of course wanted to ride the wooden Michelangeli horse. Sure, we did get to the Cathedral – can’t imagine a better backdrop! Come on time to go home before the traffic gets too heavy.”
Yet that invisible enemy has not been defeated. Caution must become the rule, for life can never return to what it was.