Life under quarantine in Citta Della Pieve, Italy

Monday, March 16, 2020

Day 7, Quarantine.

Sofia is coming today so I adopt the military schedule that I promised myself I would. Up at six, I head to the bathroom and decide that there will be no more potty talk today, thank you very much! Today, I will talk and write about only serious matters. I take my Levothyroxine and remember what the endocrinologist prescribed as my treatment regimen to regulate my wildly out of control TSH levels. I realize that I haven’t been quite following her advice to the letter and vow to do so this week. Ahhh, a new week, a chance for renewed health resolutions. I’m also going to lose a kilo this week. It’s a promise. I weigh myself. Up one. Shoot!

My apartment is a petri dish of germs. I’ve been a sloth, not cleaning as regularly as I should. Since I’ve been on a cooking extravaganza, the stove top is greasy. Chianti has been eating far too many leftovers, so the floor, too, is a bit scuzzy. I feel pangs of guilt radiating from heaven. My mother is fluttering above me, a vision of a fused archangel Gabriel and Mr. Clean, shaming me. “Ok, Mummy,” I say aloud when I exit the shower and notice tissue paper confetti in the corner behind the bidet, “I’ll be a better daughter from now on; I’ll get back to being Aliette Lechaux’s daughter, compulsively clean and neat! But, just give me a day or so. I need to catch up on that backlogged work piled on my makeshift desk.”

Chianti barks as Sofia enters. She’s wearing a mask, one that she’s had for years. I ask if she has a spare one. She does not. I can’t find one now. It’s too late. I tried last week. No luck. Yesterday, I think I caught a cold going out with wet hair to walk Chianti. On the green, by La Rocca, where the now-chiuso, Officina di Turismo is located, I started sneezing, then coughing while Chianti ran maniacal figure-eights within the small green space abutting the towering wall. I have no fever, I feel fine, but I think I’ve got the start of a cold, or maybe it’s the pollen that’s got me sneezing and coughing. Early spring has arrived here in Città della Pieve . It was windy yesterday, and the air was filled with the invisible dust that tortures me every spring and autumn. With the Coronavirus, I’m so conscious about touching my face, yet there is nothing that makes me so itchy as pollen. I rub my nose incessantly, sempre, in the allergic salute as my father, the pediatrician, always referred to it. It’s stronger than me and completely unintentional. I don’t even know that I am doing it. The pollen meanders into my nasal passages and down my esophagus, first tickling, then enraging my throat. I start coughing and can’t stop. These days, anyone within a ten-meter range looks terribly alarmed. I am the leper. The Red Sea parts. I am alone. Correction: I am more alone than before. The unfortunate term, “social distancing” comes to mind. I find it offensively depressing. So goes life during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy.

Fabio, the butcher must be wondering what has happened to me. I ordered three kilos of beef last week intending to make a big Boeuf Bourguignon for my friends Matt, Jeff and Jamie. I’d invited them for dinner. Finally, I’d gotten motivated to cook in my little apartment! Then came the quarantine and all social activities were cancelled. VERBOTEN! Since then, cooking has become one of my favorite activities. Along with writing, walking the dog and food shopping, it’s a highlight of my day. I usually select my Best of Ever playlist on Spotify and shake my booty while gathering ingredients from the cupboards and fridge, then start to experiment. I don’t like rules, so I largely eschew recipes. I’ll glance at a recipe for inspiration then do it my way, just like Frank Sinatra.  Winter requires Boeuf Bourguignon. I simply must make it whenever the temperature drops below freezing. Of course, in Umbria, the window of opportunity is closing. I’ve been talking about it for a while. I need to get on it. It’s already spring here. So…last week, I went to the best butcher in town, Sonia and Fabio’s butcher shop, the one on Via Verri, perpendicular to Fibonacci, the town’s one trendy wine bar that one could argue was the hot bed of Coronavirus here in Città della Pieve  (more on that tomorrow). Fabio is predictably red-cheeked and jovial, as a butcher should be. He lets me enter with Chianti and always comes from behind the counter to give him a treat or two. Chianti pulls towards the butcher shop on Sundays when we walk near there, and it’s closed. He loves Fabio for purely gluttonous reasons. I explain to Fabio that my dinner party has been cancelled. He understands, and says he figured as much. Pretty much everything has been cancelled. He offers to give me a smaller portion of beef. He asks what cut I’d like, and I point. I pull up a chair, and while Fabio carves with the biggest and sharpest knife I’ve ever seen, we chat. He wraps the cubed morsels of ruby-red meat in waxed paper and asks if I need anything else. “I’ll take a bit of chopped steak for Chianti,” I tell him, “and some brodo.” “Oh, you can do that yourself,” he replies. “Really?” I reply “How? I’ve never done it.” He explains that all I have to do  to make beef broth is drop a chunk of a lesser cut of meat in a saucepan of water with a carrot, some celery, parsley, and one potato, then boil it down until I have a nice rich-looking broth. I’m amazed that it’s that easy. “How long does it take?” I ask. “Just 40 minutes or so,” He replies. He wraps a chunk of meat for me to use for the brodo. He then comes from behind the counter and gives Chianti some of the fat that he’s cut from the chunk to use for the broth. Chianti offers his paw in thanks. I vow to never buy another Maggi bouillon cube.

After leaving, I decide to go to the Pharmacy. I’m desperate for a mask. If I cough again in public, I will be excommunicated. The pharmacy is located on the Piazza Gramsci, across from the now chiuso (closed), magnificent Cattedrale Santi Gervasio e Protasio. Five people are dispersed in the street at distances of more than three meters from one another. Only two are allowed in the pharmacy at one time. One person per pharmacist. We wait patiently; most people are wearing masks, some even have the N95 particle-filtering masks, most wear simple surgical masks – the masks we are told by the professionals on TV that do nothing more than shield others from germs of the already contaminated. I tie Chianti to a street sign and wander to the steps of St. Gervasio to wait, and wait, and wait. Thirty minutes go by. I stay calm. Patience, not usually my strongest suit, seems to have found me. I daydream in the sun on the stairs of St. Gervasio. I think back to last summer when I took a guided tour of the Duomo as its also known. It was during the very crowded Palio dei Terzieri, Città della Pieve ’s biggest event of the year, the annual mid-August festival spawned from its parent festival the Palio of Siena. One has the option to have guided visits of most of the region’s cultural jewels during Palio.

From afar, the cathedral’s campanile is visible in all directions. It serves as a beacon leading home to Città della Pieve  from Chiusi where the closest train station is located, just ten minutes away. Città della Pieve is situated on a hill at 508 meters above the sea level, on the border between Umbria and Tuscany. It crowns the Chiana Valley and the area of lake Trasimeno. From the rooftop terrace of my future home, I can see as far as Mount Cimino on the southern side, the Mount Peglia on the South-East, the Sibillini mountains and the Montarale in the east, and to the north, the Nestore Valley and Mount Subasio. The Trasimeno hills dot the north and on a clear day, you can see Lake Transimeno and clear to Arezzo. Westward, Mount Cetona and the Mount Amiata are usually shrouded in clouds; beyond them, and to the north, is the out-of-sight, but magnificent Val d’Orcia. At its eastern extremity lies Montepulciano where, last October, I went with my Santa Fe, chef friend, Susannah, for a wine-soaked luncheon that extended into an Aperitivo evening.

Besides providing a hefty dose of culture in the Province of Perugia where Città della Pieve  sits, the area is a haven for hikers; hiking trails criss-cross the forests and hills of the Umbrian region. The area surrounding Città della Pieve belonged to Chiusi in Etruscan and Roman times; Chiusi was one of the most important cities in the Etruria region. Its archaeological findings were discovered during the XIX century. Chuisi has a very interesting Etruscan museum and is dotted with Etruscan ruins throughout. Of course, at present, we are not allowed to travel the ten minutes to Chuisi, nor visit Montepulciano, nor would we be inclined; nothing is open, and we don’t want to take the risk. Most ex-pats who live here are close to retirement, if not already retired, and therefore in the danger age zone. In any case, there is no wine bar open for an aperitivo and fear of encounters with the police or worse serve as a deterrent to even taking a walk with a friend or venturing beyond the small borders of the commune.

Finally, I am admitted to the Pharmacy. There are no masks to be had. All the pharmacies in the region are sold out. Although it took thirty minutes to enter, it takes just a minute to learn that I cannot buy a mask. I exit the pharmacy and sneeze, then cough into my elbow, everyone in the queue perks up, heads jerk up, they look alarmed, shuffle back a few steps, and then they turn back, eyes cast downward in a studied fashion of concentrated boredom, the immobility of inactivity, the inertia of waiting one’s turn to be admitted. Waiting, Waiting. 

Coronavirus Situation ITALY: 16 March 2020, 18h

Cases: 23073

Deaths: 2158

Recovered: 2749

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