Week 8, Quarantine in Città della Pieve

I’ve fallen into a black hole.

I think that at least half the world’s population has also fallen into a black hole.

The quiet is deafening.

All my resolutions that I made at the outset of quarantine two months ago, I abandoned.  With determination and a courageous resolve, I decided back then to write a daily blog that would track my quarantine antics and those of my friends as well.  It would include the most important news tidbits and coronavirus statistics.  This seemed essential, my mission.  At first, I was ardent.  I felt that if I didn’t report statistics and news, and write an original piece, something terrible would happen.  And it did, gradually, eventually, at first, imperceptibly, drip-drip-drip pace – at a microcosmic scale.  Then, looking back, I realized, I had stopped existing because I had lost purpose.

I am now incapable of doing anything, except to binge watch series and eat.  Usually, I do both in a reclined position.  Reading is proving challenging.  I am only capable of reading social media posts that are 30 words or less.  I’m not planning on tackling any Dostoyevsky or any other Russian authors.  Crime and Punishment will have to wait.  So, too, will most of the plans I made to catch up on all the things I had to do before quarantine started, when I was a perennially busy person who never caught up on anything.  Nothing begets nothing.  Writing is proving impossible.  I can’t even write comments on social media anymore.  Luckily, Facebook has a “thumbs up” symbol that you can simply click on, that way, I can communicate without ever having to write anything.

I’ve given up on practicing Italian, or even trying to improve my Italian.  My only Italian language effort is toggling between news programs on Rai Uno and Rai Tre (watching Rai Due is akin to having one’s nails removed with pliers, slowly, one by one).  RAI 1 is national, and RAI 3 covers regional news.  I understand less than I understood at the beginning of confinement.  I do use my Italian textbooks these days – stacked neatly to prop up my computer to the best eyelevel for comfortable reclined viewing to binge watch Netflix.  As for languages, I’ve decided to learn a different language: emoticons.  Emoticons prove to be much more conducive to learning for someone who no longer uses speech or the written word to communicate.  Emoticons are perfect for a gal who is starting to resemble the Unabomber and who spends her life in a reclined position with severely reduced gray matter in her head.

This morning, while still in bed, I read a post on Facebook from a girl I barely knew in college.  I can’t really put a face to her, but I do remember she was skinny.  She is on a health and diet exploit.  Since the beginning of the US coronavirus quarantine, she has not eaten a morsel of meat, had a taste of sugar or anything sweet, tasted flour or anything with wheat, sublimed chocolate or anything not green, or had a drop of alcohol. I go over the list of things that she’s eliminated from her life and realize it – minus the alcohol – is the exactly the list of things that is getting me through the dreariness of day-to-day sameness of solitary confinement.  Comfort food has never been so front and center in my life – or so essential to my survival.  When I divert from the duality of my daily actions – binge watching Netflix and eating – I cook.  Usually, I bake, because, baking, let’s face it, is so good for the soul.  I’ve been making lots and lots of soup, variations on vegetable soup, tureens of it, plied with spice to help alleviate boredom: curry, ginger, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, anything exotic will do to spice it up. If it emits an odor of the orient, I breathe in its whiff of adventure and dream of travelling again.  Even a car trip will do.  I look forward to filling up my Fiat Cinquecento L with gas.  I hear it’s ridiculously cheap now.  I’m like a dog these days. Just thinking about it, I wag my tail and get ready to stick my head out the car window with my tongue lolling in the breeze.  Oh, for a road trip, any trip, please, bring it on!

Back to reality, I imagine my healthy college acquaintance hopping up and down energetically, bouncing off the walls and ceiling, so copiously healthy from her vegan month, bean sprouts shooting from her fingertips and toes.  It’s exhausting!  Too healthy, she!  Shame!  Since it’s morning and I’m in bed, but not asleep, the vision is not a dream, it’s just one more of my many colorful daytime musings.  My mind has become a fertile experiment for Freud.  My dreams have gotten positively bizarre and technicolor.  Is it the inert mass of my body combined with spice consumption, chocolate, baked goods, and the absolute zero sum of my daily activities that has flared up my subconscious, I wonder?

Last night, I dreamed that my dead mother was in a tree outside my window, visiting to give me a lesson in making her pot de cream au chocolat.  She was smiling radiantly, perched daintily on a tree branch, holding up a white ceramic ramekin with a rosebud tipped top, inching further and further out to the limb’s edge to reach these giant, luscious cacao pods.  I was at a window, calling to her to be careful, not wanting her to go further.  I was trying to access a branch to fetch her from out there on the tree.  She was wearing one of her most beautiful dresses that I loved, the one that is a light gray-blue raw silk, the one I slipped into a plastic sleeve 12 years ago and packed in a carton garment box in one of my five storage units. She was holding her recipe book in the other hand, the small one that was not much larger than the size of her palm.  She had elegant hands with perennially-manicured, close-cropped nails that never chipped.  The recipe book is covered in a green and aqua floral 70’s fabric and is frayed at the edges.  All the recipes she ever made on a regular basis are in that tiny scroll binder recipe book, all written in her distinctive cursive, taught to her by nuns in France as a child.  Pot de crème was always waiting for me when I returned home from long absences, college terms or years abroad.  Mumy always had the very dark chocolate delicacy apportioned in lovely white ramekins, closed with delicate lids, distributed equidistant on a tray from Market Square positioned eyelevel on the middle rack of the refrigerator for my arrival.  She knew I’d investigate the contents of the fridge within the first fifteen minutes of arriving home.

The tree limb she was climbing out on had not only giant pods at the ends of the branches but beautiful enormous flowers that looked like hibiscuses, but were the colors of the recipe book, giant aqua and green flowers, budding abundantly on an almost transparent, monochrome, hibernal tree, ethereal and ephemeral against a bright white cloudy sky. Chianti woke me then, so luckily, my mother never lost her balance.  When I awoke, I had one foot in my actual bed and one foot draped over the side of the bed (the tree limb in the dream?), but everything, except that nearly invisible tree, was very vivid and colorful.  I would love to have somebody’s opinion on what this dream means, since I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  I’d welcome its interpretation. I need therapy.

I’m having such vivid dreams lately; I think because I’ve been eating an inordinate amount of chocolate – a tablet a night.  I’ve really felt the need.  Like I said, I have been in desperate need of comfort food and, unfortunately, my thighs are showing it.  Usually, I would be beating myself up about this, but I figure I need chocolate and I need comfort food right now, so I’m giving myself chocolate, and I’m giving myself comfort food.  Quarantine is positively a pain-in-the-ass and if comfort food softens the blow, so be it, I shall be fat.

I stopped calling people about three weeks ago.  I have managed to make a few calls, but I usually make those when I have some specific task that I need to carry out.  Either I feel crappy and don’t want to talk about feeling crappy or I don’t have anything to say which is 99.9% of the time. Nothing happens, so, I have nothing to report.  I’m boring now.

At the beginning of quarantine, I told myself that I would reconnect with people by calling and chatting with old friends.  I had really wanted to take the time to reconnect with friends to reminisce about funny stories from the past, how we’d met, and how and why we had lost touch over the years.  This really was the perfect time to do that.  I wanted to reconstruct the past.  I was on a mission to reassemble a diary of sorts, mining people’s memories since mine is so faulty.  But as the days stretched into weeks, and weeks have now stretched into more than a month, I have been unable to reach out to even the closest of my friends.  I don’t hear from them either.  Most people have just stopped communicating.  I guess the entire population of the world has gotten boring.  

Some people are extremely busy – busier than usual.  Most of my friends who work in some educational role, either as a teacher or an administrator, are terribly busy because the coronavirus has compounded their workload.  Some other people have continued with their jobs from home and the technical practicalities have compounded their work.  Other people have continued with the same workload, but just can’t take the time to talk to someone who spends her life reclined on a sofa.  Then there are others who look down on sofa-dwellers.  I don’t really blame them. I’m rather useless these days.

So, that’s kind of where I am at this point.  No purpose.  My apartment renovation in Città della Pieve stopped – all non-essential worksites are outlawed in Italy.  My property management business is in question since cancellations are on the rise, my design business is on an undetermined hiatus, idem, for my renovation work, and my nomad alternative occupation, writing, well, that’s not working either because my brain was quarantined when Italy shut down. Nothing is happening in my life right now.  Who wants to read about nothing? No one.

I can’t write anymore anyhow; my brain has been overcooked by too many hours of binge-watching.  My brain is as useful as an appendix.  It’s just in my body taking up space.  So, I think of things I could do with no brain besides eating and watching television.  I can’t travel anywhere because all the planes are at a standstill and I can’t get back to America because I’m quarantined so I can’t prepare my houses for the rental season which probably isn’t going to happen now anyway, because no one’s going to go on vacation this summer because they’re all going to be too scared to leave their houses which basically  means that all my work has dried up and I might as well binge watch Netflix and eat chocolate. Ok, well that’s settled now.

As for calling others, close friends included, I don’t have the will or the courage to do so.  I feel embarrassed to talk to the people who still have purpose in their life.  They get up, they take a shower, they have a quick breakfast and they rush to their dining room offices to start their workday.

So much of my effort is taken to just get out of bed and walk to the bathroom, then I must remember to take whatever medication I’m supposed to take.  I get that wrong about half the time since I’m on one dosage of thyroid medicine certain days of the week and another dosage for other days of the week.  I then travel to the coffee maker 10 paces away to make the cappuccino.  That is an undertaking.  I must get the frothing thingamajig out of the fridge and attach it to the machine.  Sometimes, I even top it off with fresh milk, hoping it is, indeed, fresh.  Sigh.  I try hard not to use milk that has gone bad.  I’ve had three incidents of taking a mouthful of sour cappuccino foam.  It’s a smelly mess to clean sour froth off the walls once you’ve spit it out.  Often, getting dressed is optional.  I throw my coat over my pajamas to walk Chianti.  Nobody’s in the street, so it doesn’t matter.  I have dark pajamas.  No one sees me anyway.

I went 10 days without washing my hair.  I justified this two ways: one, if you don’t wash your hair often, you don’t need to color it as much, hence, lack of hairdresser is not a problem, and, two, less than squeaky clean hair just looks sleek to my eyes, like Carol Bouquet – or so I tell myself – so why does it matter if I’m the only one observing? No one’s going to notice my hair because no one sees me or my hair, ever. I am getting weary of seeing only my face though.  I’ve started saying to the mirror in the morning, “Oh no, not you again!” I am a sloth.

I went an entire week without even taking a shower.  That was a first in my life.  Even camping in the past, I managed more showers.  I do have an excuse.  I broke a glass.  When I swept up the glass, I used a towel to collect the last bits of shards.  When I deposited the shards into the garbage, I rinsed the towel in the shower, shaking it beforehand.  At that point, I hadn’t taken a shower in several days.  I wasn’t completely dirty because I have been using the bidet.  My bathroom is a decent size and there is a nice modern bidet.  I never liked bidets before, but I’m attached to this one and I use it sometimes twice a day.  It’s a lot more hygienic to use a bidet than to just use a toilet. So now I’m a bidet convert. It took 60 years.

So, back to the shower: after shaking out the towel in the shower stall, a couple days later, sitting on the toilet, I noticed flickers of light coming from the surface of the stone at the base of the shower.  Upon closer examination, I realized that there were still shards of glass left in the shower stall.  I decided that I really didn’t want to cut my foot or get a piece of glass stuck in there.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get it out.  I really didn’t want to have to go to any medical facility during the coronavirus pandemic.  I’m terrified about going anywhere near a hospital right now, convinced the grim reaper is standing at the door like a New York City doorman, but unlike said doorman, he wields his scythe in the direction of my neck as I cross the threshold. My imagination went into overdrive regarding the glass getting in my foot and I imagined all sorts of things.  The skin closed around the cut in my foot, the cut got infected, I got impetigo, then I went septic, then, well, who knows?  I tried every remedy I had in my well-stocked private pharmacy and nothing cured the initial infection, including my three tubes of Cortisone and Neosporin, hence the escalation of the drama in my head.  I had to hobble down to the hospital that is not really a hospital anymore, but I’m still convinced whoever might be there is infected with COVID-19.  I am now an irrational hypochondriac.

So, after that sequence of dramatic fantasizing, I decide that I will not take a shower until every molecule of glass is removed from the shower stall.  This entails cleaning.  Another activity that I have been remiss at doing regularly or with the vigor required in these dangerous times.  So, with the knowledge that I would have to do a major cleaning before taking a shower, I procrastinate, a day, then another day, and another, and another.  I continue, unwashed, to produce the Caroline COVID-19 Quarantine Film Festival, in my temporary flat’s living room. 

I have now watched six entire series or seasons and am in the process of watching weekly installments of two others.  I’ve broken my record.  All six series were watched in one seating, usually late into the night, drastically disrupting my sleep for weeks.  Usually I take at least a week or two to through an entire series.  I have been on a destructive marathon.  However, it has allowed me to assemble a Hit Parade of shows to recommend, so, here goes….

RANKED IN ORDER OF PREFERENCE WITH STARS (Mine, not critics):

*****Better Call Saul is a five-season American television crime drama series on Netflix, created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and a prequel and spin-off of Gilligan’s prior series Breaking Bad. Set in the early to mid-2000s, the series follows the story of con-man turned small-time lawyer, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), beginning six years before the events of Breaking Bad and showing his transformation into the persona of criminal for hire Saul Goodman. McGill becomes the lawyer for former police officer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), whose skills allow him to enter the criminal underworld of drug trafficking in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Better Call Saul has received critical acclaim, with particular praise for its acting, characters, and cinematography; many critics have called it a worthy successor to Breaking Bad and one of the best prequels ever made, with some deeming it superior to its predecessor. It has garnered many nominations, including a Peabody Award, 23 Primetime Emmy Awards, 11 Writers Guild of America Awards, five Critics’ Choice Television Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and two Golden Globe Awards.  The series premiere held the record for the highest-rated scripted series premiere in basic cable history at the time of its airing.

MY COMMENTS:  Gold Standard TV.  Original, dark, intelligent, funny, understated, quirky – the best.  Odenkirk is genius.

*****Ozark is an American crime drama web television series created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams for Netflix and produced by Media Rights Capital. 

The series stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as a married couple who are forced to relocate their family to the Ozarks following a money laundering scheme gone wrong.  Bateman also serves as a director and executive producer for the series.

Ozark has received positive reviews from critics, with particular praise for its tone, directing, and acting. Critics favorably compared the show to Breaking Bad, since both involve a seemingly normal protagonist suddenly immersed in a world of crime.  Nick Hanover wrote in Film Daily, “Once you get past the surface similarities, Ozark shines as something special and inventive, an intense crime opera where the scenery is as much the star as anyone in the cast.”

The series has received 14 Primetime Emmy Award nominations including Outstanding Drama Series, with Bateman winning for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series and Julia Garner for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, both in 2019.  In addition, Bateman has received two Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actor – Television Series Drama.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the third season had an approval rating of 97% based on 30 reviews, with an average rating of 7.98/10.  The website’s critics consensus read: “Ozark finally finds its footing in a third season that ramps up the tension and shines a brighter spotlight on Laura Linney’s exceptional performance.” On Metacritic, it had a weighted average score of 77 out of 100, based on 11 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.

MY COMMENTS:  Dark, twisted, full of surprises, and rife with stereo-type reversals, I love Ozark.  It is positively addictive.  The third seasons comes as close as any I’ve seen recently to one of my two all-time greats, Breaking Bad (…and The Wire) in tone and surprise factor without any plagiarism.  Laura Linney shines and Jason Bateman is brilliant as he fades into the background as, ahem! the goody-two-shoes foil to his wife, in Season Three, by far, the best of the lot.

****My Brilliant Friend (Italian: L’amica geniale) is an Italian and Neapolitan language coming-of-age drama television series created by Saverio Costanzo for HBO, RAI and TIMvision.  Named after the first of four novels in the Neapolitan Novels series by Elena Ferrante, it is set to adapt the entire literary work over four seasons of eight episodes.  The series is a co-production between Italian production companies Wildside, Fandango, The Apartment, Mowe and international film group Umedia.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the first season has a 93% “certified fresh” rating with an average score of 8.41 out of 10 based on 54 reviews.  The site’s critical consensus is, “My Brilliant Friend is an expansive epic that gleans rapturous beauty from the most desolate of circumstances, but it is the intimacy between the central duo – and the remarkable performances that bring them to life – that audiences will remember most vividly”.

MY COMMENTS:  I love this adaptation of the memoirs by Elena Ferrante (central character, “Lenu”) that I am trying to read in Italian.  I started to watch it to practice my Italian, but quickly realized that they were not speaking Italian, but a dialect of Naples during most of the scenes.  It is an understated and poignant tribute to an exquisite friendship between two young girls set against a subtly depicted post-war Naples.

****The Spy is an Israeli espionage web television miniseries, written and directed by Israeli director Gideon Raff and Max Perry, based on the life of Israel’s top Mossad spy Eli Cohen, who is portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Plot: The six-part miniseries follows the exploits of Eli Cohen, a Mossad spy.  The story takes place during the years leading to the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Syria.  It follows Cohen’s past in Egypt as an army reject, to his infiltration of the Syrian Ministry of Defense.  He assumes the identity of Kamel Amin Thaabet and establishes himself in Syrian high society.  After having befriended people who would eventually take over Syria, Cohen is appointed as the country’s Deputy Defense Minister and becomes a close confidant to the future president Amin al-Hafiz.

The series is a production by French company Légende Entreprises for Canal+ and Netflix. OCS is airing the show in France and Netflix is streaming the show internationally outside France.  The six-episode miniseries, released on September 6, 2019, on Netflix, was said to have been inspired by real-life events.  It is based on the book L’espion qui venait d’Israël (English: The Spy Who Came from Israel), written by Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat.

The series has received “generally favorable reviews” according to Metacritic, with Baron Cohen’s performance being praised.  However, the series has been criticized for lapses in historical accuracy.  There is no independent verification about whom Cohen met with in the Syrian elite while working undercover in Buenos Aires or Damascus.  At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, Baron Cohen received a nomination for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film.

MY COMMENTS:  Sacha Baron Cohen is the best reason to binge watch the entire miniseries in one sitting – and I couldn’t stand him until The Spy.  His performance is electric and 100% convincing in both roles he plays, Mossad spy Eli Cohen and his assumed identity as Syrian high roller, Kamel Amin Thaabet.  Fascinating story, albeit unverifiable details that window-dress the actual events preceding the Six-Day War that the real Eli Cohen affected significantly through his espionage initiatives.

****Unorthodox is a German American drama miniseries that debuted on Netflix on March 26, 2020. The series is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.  It is the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish.

Plot:  A 19-year-old Jewish woman named Esty runs away from her arranged marriage and Ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City.  She moves to Berlin, where her estranged mother lives, and tries to navigate a secular life and take classes at a music conservatory.  Her husband, who learns that she is pregnant, travels to Berlin with his cousin, by order of their Rabbi, to try to find her. 

MY COMMENTS:  The miniseries was an unfettered success amongst critics on both sides of the Atlantic.  I found it incredible in its depiction of the confines of Hasidic culture and the breadth and scope of acting by, in particular, Shira Haas (Shtisel”), who plays Esty, a 19-year-old bride in an unhappy arranged marriage. She enjoins your fierce indignation for her plight and tears your heart out, so moving is her performance.  I venture one criticism.  I think it could have been improved by tighter editing in the second and third episodes of the four-part series.

***Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (titled onscreen as simply Tiger King) is a 2020 American true crime documentary miniseries about the life of zookeeper Joe Exotic.  It was released on Netflix on March 20, 2020.  The series focuses on the small but deeply interconnected society of big cat conservationists such as Carole Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue, and collectors such as Exotic, whom Baskin accuses of abusing and exploiting wild animals

The series received acclaim from critics, and according to Nielsen ratings, was watched by 34.3 million people over its first ten days of release, ranking as one of Netflix’s most successful releases to date.

MY COMMENTS:  Overnight, it became the quarantine binge watch favorite par excellence in the USA, then whipped through the entire English-speaking world.  I was scratching my head a bit in the beginning, trying to understand the appeal, but then I got hooked.  It is wackily engaging and there is something strangely endearing about the Tiger King himself that keeps viewers rooting for him no matter how despicable his antics might be.

***The Sinner is an American anthology crime drama mystery television series.  In the first season, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) delves into the past of a troubled woman (Jessica Biel) to determine why she stabbed a man to death.  In the second season, Ambrose returns to his hometown after a young boy (Elisha Henig) confesses to poisoning a couple and learns secrets that the inhabitants are determined to keep buried.

The first season received critical acclaim, with Biel’s performance being praised.  On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the season has an approval rating of 94% based on 35 reviews, with an average rating of 6.9/10.  The site’s critical consensus reads, “Smartly unpredictable and led by powerful performances from a talented cast, the darkly compelling The Sinner sinks its hooks in fast and doesn’t let go.” Season Two received a 97% approval rating by Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7.54/10 based on 33 reviews, and a critical consensus reading, “In its second season, The Sinner establishes itself as an engrossing why-dunnit thriller series with staying power.”

The first season of The Sinner received two nominations at the 75th Golden Globe Awards: Best Miniseries or Television Film and Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film for Jessica Biel.  Biel was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie.

MY COMMENTS:  I wasn’t predisposed to like The Sinner.  I thought Jessica Biel was just another pretty face.  I was pleasantly surprised, again and again.  There are so many twists and turns in this original and dark crime anthology that I was hooked from the first episode.  I sunk my teeth in and didn’t let go.

**The Outsider is an American horror crime drama miniseries based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King.  It was ordered to series on December 3, 2018, after being optioned as a miniseries by Media Rights Capital in June 2018.  It premiered on HBO on January 12, 2020. The Outsider begins with a straightforward investigation into the gruesome murder of a young boy.  But when an insidious supernatural force edges its way into the case, it leads a seasoned cop and an unorthodox investigator to question everything they believe in.  Jason Bateman executive produces and stars in the series. Mare Winningham stars as his wife, grieving for their lost son.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the series has an 82% rating with an average score of 7.39 out of 10 based on 65 reviews.  The site’s critical consensus is, “Though The Outsider‘s slow burn isn’t always satisfying, it remains watchable thanks to its excellent performances – especially series stand out Cynthia Erivo.”

MY COMMENTS:  The Outsider starts off red hot with a great storyline and strong performances by Ben Mendelsohn (of Bloodline fame), Jason Bateman and Mare Winningham.  It goes flat for a few episodes, then picks up and steams ahead with the arrival of Cynthia Erivo in the role of Holly Gibney, the dogged, but unconventional, P.I. who is engaged to help solve the inscrutable crime.

Oh, and by the way, I took a shower, yesterday.