Life under Quarantine in Citta Della Pieve, Italy
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
Day 8, Quarantine in Citta Della Pieve, Italy
Preface: December 2019
I’m talking on the phone via WhatsApp to Alceo, my main contact at Sacco Studio, the Geometra in Citta Della Pieve. Alceo is 24 years old, about 6 feet tall with a mop of coarse, jet black hair, bright intelligent eyes and a mischievous grin. He is one of the most dedicated workers I’ve ever met. He’s precise and efficient and he’s always in a good mood, even when he’s stressed. He’s always impressing me. It’s Christmas time, I’m in America; he’s in Citta Della Pieve in his quarters in his Palazzo on the Via Vanucci. It’s late due to the time difference. We are chatting on WhatsApp, the Italians’ favorite communication app. He’s holding the phone at an angle, upwards towards his chin and the ceiling beyond his chin. Above him, the entire ceiling is a painted fresco, grotesque style flowers and animals, not quite the Sistine Chapel, but then again……”Where are you, I ask?” “My apartment,” he replies. Dumfounded, I persist, amazed about his own personal Sistine Chapel but he changes the subject. The conversation turns back to plumbing. We are, at this point, in rough-in, far, far from decorating phase. We usually finish every conversation with some gossip. Alceo is my friend despite the almost 40-year age difference.
A “geometra” is de-facto required when you buy a home or if you plan to renovate a property in Italy. The geometra coordinates with the local town hall (comune) and Land Registry office (catasto) to collect all documentation related to the property. He/she will perform the structural survey on the property and ensure other technical aspects of the purchase. If, after the survey, the geometra informs you about any relevant negative legal or structural issues, you have the right to withdraw from the purchase. The geometra also serves a role not unlike that of an architectural firm in Anglo-Saxon countries, drafting architectural plans (many have in- house architects) and accompanying new homeowners with renovation projects. He/she liaises with, and submits projects to the local, regional and state authorities and asks for building permits.
My decision to learn Italian preceded my decision to live in Italy. I was mulling over what big action I needed to take to mark my 60th birthday just after I celebrated my 59th. I had decided on a cruise down the Nile with all the most fabulous women I’d ever known throughout my life. I tried organizing it. I even started reaching out to remote acquaintances like girls I’d been best friends in grade school. I even included literary glitterati I’d grown fond of, like Joyce Maynard, who had hosted me at her writer’s retreat at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala just before my mother died. I wanted to gather friends from the past together with other women who’d influenced me in remarkable ways. The Epic Women Nile Cruise would benefit the Clean Ocean Project or maybe Matt Damon’s clean water initiative. I tried, but somehow, the logistics just didn’t work out. I couldn’t get a tour operator to organize it and the forecast was simply too expensive for many of my closest friends. Finally, I gave up, telling myself I’d have to risk waiting for my seventieth birthday!
For about six months prior, I’d been singing Perfect along with Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli in the shower, daily. When I was sure Jim was out of range, I’d really belt it out. Chianti and Cabot (the other dog who lives in America) would come into the bathroom and cock their heads seeming to like the tune, then leave when I hit a false note. I had developed a desperate, middle-aged, auditory crush on Andrea Bocelli. I gazed at his image on the tiny photo on Spotify. This came on the heels of my literary crush on Pulitzer prize winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose works I couldn’t gobble up fast enough. I’d read everything she’d written except the duo lingue, In Other Words, because the title sounded weird. The author wrote it when she lived in Rome. It is a work written in English and Italian; One page is in Italian; the opposite page is in English. Lahiri wrote the Italian. She did not translate it into English. This was intentional. It is about her love affair with the Italian language and her total immersion into all things Italian. I decided, I must do the same, or at least try. In 2017, I found it at Barnes and Noble in Boston on Commonwealth Avenue, when I was visiting for the weekend. I was waiting to see Alain, my godson. He speaks Italian, so I gifted it to him before brunch. A year later, bored at a soulless mini mall near my apartment in Alexandria, VA., I decided to wander into Barnes and Noble for some soul salve after buying pet food at PetSmart next door. I go there sometimes to smell books, yes, smell them. Often, I leave with three to four books, even though I, like most people, have migrated to a Kindle. Known as In Altre Parole, in Italian, Jhumpa Lahiri is pictured on the cover looking school girlish dwarfed as she is in an Ivy League leather throne, as she rests her head in her hand, eyes cast askance, staring leftward into nothingness, with two tomes positioned before her on a massive desk. I pick it up, leaf through it, smell it, and decide to buy it again, for me this time. Today, my copy of In Other Words has fallen apart. The glue dissolved from the spine since I left if by the shower one too many times. It no longer smells like a book. There are more dog-eared pages than non-dog-eared pages and food stains mark my favorite passages, those pages I was reading when I was cooking, but had to stop to check the corresponding page in English for the translation. I learned to speak Italian because of Jhumpa Lahiri, and probably also because of Andrea Bocelli. Ed Sheeran helped – and so did La Scuola Leonardo Da Vinci in Rome, but mostly I credit Jhumpa Lahiri. It started with her.
As illogical as it sounds, my two obsessions – Lahiri and Bocelli – combined with a chance encounter in Goa, India with a lovely British lady named Catherine to bring me to where I am today. But that is a story for another day. Fast forward to me being here in Citta Della Pieve, me buying a perfectly good apartment from another lovely Italian lady named Paola, me hiring a kind and gentle man named Enrico as my contractor to dismantle said apartment, me then hiring a Geometra’s office called Studio Sacco to pave the way for the dismantling and reconstruction, and that brings me back to Alceo, my now very good friend. Alceo, who worked with me to transform the said apartment into what it will shortly be: my vision of home in Italy. Alceo, who is one of the very few in Citta Della Pieve to have come dangerously close to catching the COVID-19 virus.
At the beginning of February, a man who owns a computer store here left for a town in Lombardy about an hour from Milan to buy supplies for his store. He returned to Citta Della Pieve and resumed working at his store where his son works for him. At the end of February, Alceo decided to meet up with a group of his best friends at Fibonacci wine bar, next door to the Duomo, on the main square, Piazza Gramsci. They ordered at the bar and exited onto the Piazza, lingering a moment at the entrance from where one has a striking view of a period – some say shocking – poster of Josephine Baker showing off allot of leg.
Directly across from the bar is a small alcove that serves as the entry to an apartment building. In the warmer months, a group of Grande Dames of Citta Della Pieve gather there every night at twilight to cool down and chiaciarrare or chat. Sometimes they share an Aperitivo, but mostly, they share stories and recap the day together. They are there every night, religiously. In the winter months, more hardy, younger types like Alceo and his group of friends sit there to smoke, or just chat, so that they can have some privacy. Most often in the much colder months, the plastic lawn chairs sit empty.
Alceo and his friends finished their beers and wine, then took off to have dinner, leaving Citta Della Pieve behind.
Days later, at the end of February when the north of Italy had already been quarantined and people in the other provinces had started referring to Lombardy as the “Red Zone,” his childhood friend’s father, the computer store owner, came down with a very high temperature. He was someone who suffered from a respiratory condition and he had a stressful job. Immediately, Alceo’s life became a nightmare. He learned within a 24-hour period that his friend’s father had been diagnosed with the deadly Coronavirus. Later in the week, Alceo learned that the son, too, had tested positive, but that he did not have symptoms. Alceo’s friend’s girlfriend had tested positive as well. She, too, had no symptoms. Those that had been living under one roof all got the virus, but not the symptoms; they did not all get ill. Only the father, who had a pre-existing condition, got ill. And the others, the group of friends who’d simply had drinks together, it was determined, just needed monitoring.
He and his group of friends were told that they were to be quarantined in solitary confinement in their apartments for a full 14 days, without any contact with other humans. This is the time it takes the virus to manifest itself. They needed to let the incubation period pass and then they would be reassessed. The Italian Health Authorities in the Provinceof Perugia took control of the situation. Every morning, Alceo received a call from a special COVID-19 force health worker who asked him a series of questions regarding his symptoms. Did he have a fever? Had he coughed during the night, if so, how was the cough, dry, or with phlegm? (COVID-19 coughs are dry with little mucus). Did he have stomach issues in which case they could establish that his illness was the flu and not a Coronavirus. Twice a day, someone from the special Coronavirus Unit in Perugia called him to ask the same set of questions. When Alceo continued to answer consistently the same answers, the calls grew less frequent; they only called once a day to monitor. At the end, the screening was more thorough, but since he had ostensibly not contracted the Coronavirus, had not been in any countries or in contact with anyone who had travelled to Asia, had no temperature and had none of the symptoms of COVID-19, it was determined that his quarantine period could be concluded. Finally, Sunday, after the 14 days, Alceo was set free. He wears a mask still, but can take walks, run around the city walls and appreciates being able to eat dinner with his family. Last night, he came over and sat two meters from me while I interviewed him. After I turned off the recorder, we chatted about travel, sailing, movies, sports, my apartment building project, his job, his boss, Paris, skiing, and this summer and how the tourist trade is likely to be off, even when Palio rolls around in August. He tells me that what he missed most was human interaction. He’s perfectly fine working from home, but he missed meals with family and his friends. I tell him I am sorely missing cafes and restaurants, more each day that quarantine persists. He explains that during his incarceration, his parents, the town grocers, would pass him food through a swinging trap door, just like in prison. He had a tiny square of green space off his office where he could see the sun and breathe fresh air, but mostly he worked on his computer, in solitary confinement, trying to keep up to date with his work projects from Studio Sacco, and caught up with films he’d missed last year.
We wrap up our conversation and he asks me if there is anything I need. Anything at all, he can help. He and his family are always available to help. Am I ok? How am I doing with no interaction with friends? After 14 days of solitary confinement, Alceo is most concerned about my well-being. I know I have a great friend in Alceo.
ITALY, March 17, 2020