Covid, Quarantine, Italy

My last name ends in yogurt. 

Tizi is on the phone with a health-care professional up the hill, at the hospital in San Marino. It’s the day before our departure. Both of us have just tested positive for Covid. Over here they call it a tampone–the skewers that go up your nose and into your sinus cavities, swabbing around for evidence of the plague. We get our test at the pharmacy in Grotta Rossa, a little drive-through village between San Marino and Rimini. The pharmacist takes us, one at a time, outside onto the drive, turns us in the direction of the sunlight, and in go the tampone and out they come, and we walk, blinking back the tears, back inside to pay the 15 euros each. The pharmacist says she’ll have results in 15 minutes.  

Where to wait? Sit in the car on the driveway or go somewhere? 

We do what we do: go looking for a place to enjoy the sun and have one more gelato before we leave Italy. I’m rounding a roundabout near Arco di Augusto in Rimini when the phone rings. 

Both of us. Really?

Back at the pharmacy we get the two slips of paper we’ll need, our report cards. Positive. In Covid terms, we flunked.  

Soon after we get back to the apartment, the phone rings. It’s the Italian health department, verifying our data. Then the phone rings again. It’s the San Marino health department, finding out just who we are. “We were supposed to fly home tomorrow,” Tizi tells them. We look at each other. This can’t be happening. Both shaking our heads.

She’s the RSM citizen, with a recognizable name, Canducci Tiziana. The conversation proceeds. It takes her a while to designate for them exactly who I am. Bailey, Tizi says. Bailey. It’s a name an Italian speaker has difficulty hearing, recognizing, visualizing. And Tizi has not learned to say, as I have, “BUY-lay,“ the way the Italians pronounce it, adding “it’s like the Irish liquor.” 

When asked, she spells it. B Bologna, A Ancona, I Imola, L Livorno, E Erbe, Y…” Here she stops. There’s no Y in the Italian alphabet. They call it E lungo, long E. To them the Y is an I with a tail. Not a lot of Y words in Italian There are no cities Tizi can think of that start with Y. 

But there is a Y in the refrigerator. “Y Yogurt,” she says. 

Bologna Ancona Imola Livorno Erbe Yogurt. My last name ends in yogurt.

We take turns on the phone, answering questions. Fever? Little bit. Headache? Sorta. Diarrhea, no. Congestion? Yes. Sore throat? Sorta. And so the questionnaire goes.

There’s an Italian expression for things going poorly. Siamo nella merda. We’re in the shit. We were supposed to fly home tomorrow. Now we face seven to ten days of isolation. This is definitely the shit.

So we get ready not to go home.

It takes me days, months even, to organize one of these trips. We have a few hours to deorganize it. I call the airline, sit on hold for an hour. I call Goldcar, the rental company. Select English? Don’t mind if I do. I send a picture of my Covid test result, and yes, we can keep the car, which is great, except we can’t leave the apartment to go anywhere. I call our bank back home about continued credit card use over here; contact the Italian cell phone service about adding minutes, hours, days; contact my brother the accountant to tell him we won’t be home to pay our taxes. Email the post office to hold our mail longer. Tizi calls San Marino protezione servizi, not because I beat her but because they have a list of shops and individuals that provide home delivery of food.  It’s called consegna al domicilio.

We call everyone we’ve come into contact with in the last 48 hours. 

Merda.

Years back I took a group to Rome and Florence. A few days before we were to leave, a transportation workers strike was announced. Or threatened. In Italy there are lots of strikes.  A strike is Italian workers’ way of saying hello, we exist, we matter, we make things work. In the paper it said within two days there would be a strike, or there might be a strike. The guy at the hotel told me, “Don’t worry. It might last one day, possibly two, or it might not happen at all.”  

Don’t worry? I had twelve people who needed to go home. 

We were going to Lucca that day, on a train. At the station in Florence I ran into Ralph Williams, a professor I knew at University of Michigan. He said he spent part of every summer in Fiesole. That day he was boarding a train that would take him to Genoa so he could see a Caravaggio painting. 

“What about that strike?” I said. 

He smiled. “You never can tell.”

“It might not happen?”

“You never can tell.”

I told him I was nervous. I needed to get people home.

“There are worse places you could be stranded,” he said, “than in Florence.”  

That was true. But there were urgencies. I needed to get people home. I needed to get myself home.

This time there are no real urgencies. There is just frustration and the inconvenience of sheltering in place (what the Italians call isolamento). Lying in bed on the second night of isolamento, I say to Tizi, “At least we’re not in a hotel room.”

“It’s home,” she says. “It’s not bad.”

It’s not bad, a sitting room, a kitchen, a bath and bedroom; in an armadio and dresser some clothes we’ve chosen not to pack; in the other bedroom, three heavily packed suitcases on top of the beds; in the apartment 120 square meters of space, roughly 1200 square feet, two small balconies that look out upon the green zone behind the apartment, and the mountain behind that. 

Through protective services we find a woman, Consuelo of Acquaviva, who delivers groceries. We get eggs, cheese, milk, four beautiful golden apples, four pears that bruise and turn brown in transit, a package of prosciutto, a bag of crostini. That should take care of lunch for a few days. The first night, from the bar up the street called L’Insolito Posto (the Usual Place), we have two pizzas brought in. It’s both festive and sad. We’re still in shock. The second night, one pizza, a veggie burger, salad, and grilled vegetables. We eat less, but well. It’s okay. We’ve done plenty of heroic eating this trip. 

“We might lose weight this week,” I say to Tizi.

She points at an unopened bottle of wine sitting on the counter, gives her chin an interrogative lift.

I shake my head no, I’ve done plenty of heroic drinking this trip. It might be wise to detox.

There’s a grocer, Antonella, up the street. Maybe also Antonella will deliver. And a butcher, Alan, up the street. Maybe we’ll get some chicken breast, some sausage from Alan. 

Reading keeps us busy. In the morning we sit on beach chairs on one of the balconies, the one with the best view. Tizi reads Artemisia, by Anna Banti, a historical novel about sixteenth century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. She reads it in Italian. In her 2003 introduction, Susan Sontag describes the book as “a tribute to bitterness and tenacity.”  Gentileschi is perhaps most famous for her Judith Beheading Holofernes, a painting described as “an icon of female rage.” Six versions of that painting exist. Judging from what Tizi tells me, Artemisia had many reasons to be enraged. 

I have some Faulkner in the apartment, Intruder in the Dust and Go Down, Moses. The good thing about reading Faulkner is also the bad thing, the difficulty. He requires a lot of re-reading. The writing is dense, usually in a good way; sometimes not. There’s a complex genealogy that I actually have to look up on the Internet. Who is Lucas Beauchamp? How is he related to the McCaslins? Where do Cass (Chick) Stevens and Uncle Gavin fit in? Faulkner has the family tree all worked out, going back all the way to 1741, to Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin and “wife,” whom, a 21st century man can’t help but notice, Faulkner doesn’t bother to name, and all the rest of the family that comes after.

“I’ve decided,” I tell Tizi one morning, “that I can talk to only a dozen people in Italian.”

She looks up from Artemisia.  “What?”

“Only a dozen people understand what I say. And I understand only, like, a dozen people. The longer we’re here, the worse I get.”

Part of the problem is the phone. Right now it’s our only contact with the outside world. It helps to see people talk, to be there. I understand more, I talk better. When I call Luca uptown to ask him to send us a couple sandwiches, I understand only half of what he says. When I call Consuelo of Acquaviva, when she starts talking I just hand the phone to Tizi. “Does she have an accent?” I ask her later. “Well, maybe a little bit. But…” And part of the problem is the echo in the apartment. The echo is a multiplier, an amplifier. And my hearing loss. My hearing aids simply amplify the echo.

Merda.

“Sono Americano,” I say, “vecchio, sordo, e deficiente.” I’m an American, old, deaf, and deficient.” (Though “deficiente” actually means “a moron,” which frequently seems an apt warning to my interlocutor.) It’s my standard, self-effacing way of apologizing, in advance, for asking someone to speak slowly, to speak up, to use small words. Anything requiring a degree of precision, I probably won’t be able to say it, hear it, or understand it. 

I feel bad for the guys at TIM, the cell phone store down the road.There are three of them. I’ve been going there for years. They know me now. Whenever they see me coming, I think they may pass me around. Here he comes.  It’s your turn, Carlo.  

Faulkner, by coincidence, has an interesting take on this language limitation in Intruder in the Dust, when his main character Cass observes, “He remembered his uncle saying once how little of vocabulary man really needed to get comfortably and even efficiently through his life, how not only in the individual but within his whole type and race and kind a few simple cliches served his few simple passions and needs and lusts.”

Well, maybe. I know I am increasingly uncomfortable and inefficient, glimpsing what it’s like to live on the margins, how it feels to be powerless. 

I hand the phone to Tizi.  “You talk.” 

It’s just the two of us. And Rex.

A bit of good luck for Tizi this morning. When I spoon some of the green pepper preserves, a gift from our friend Cecilia at Le Calastre, onto a piece of toast, the bread slips out of my hand and lands face down on the tablecloth. Awkwardly square on a rectangular table, the tablecloth is an ugly red-yellow-and-green thing, which my mother-in-law probably made out of cloth she happened to have lying around (I can’t imagine her buying such a garish thing). The preserves make a green smear. When I try to undo the harm and scoop up the mess with my spoon, managing only to enlarge the smear worse, Tizi says don’t worry, she’ll wash it.

Rex is the old washing machine in the apartment. It must be going on 60. It washes, rinses, and spins in eternal cycles, groaning and squeaking and clunking. When it had a loose belt a few years ago, the spin cycles sounded like shrieking brakes and a fender bender in the bathroom, an attenuated car crash. Tizi loves doing laundry, and she loves Rex. When he came to replace the belt, when she asked him if we should get a new machine, Simone the washing machine repair man told us by all means keep it. Compared to the junk made today, it is a colossus, a Mercedes, a king among counterfeits and imposters.

Rex is its name. First name Rex, last name Personal.

In an Atlantic article I read Monday morning, catching my breath before engaging Faulkner, the writer, Kathryn Hymes, a computational linguist, reflected on the curious practice of naming things in our lives. With a name we humanize an inanimate object or a place, we make an intimate connection to it, it’s encoded in our brains differently. She writes, “Naming promotes a sense of control and psychological ownership, which is a form of bonding.” 

The first time we brought our daughter to Italy,  by accident she left a bear here when we went home. It wasn’t just a bear. It was Bobby. We’ve named the navigator on our car back home, Delphine. How do we find the Bradford Hotel in Oklahoma City? Let’s ask Delphine. One of my earliest memories of a named object is a 1955 Mercury sedan, black, with two rusty doors that seemed to each weigh a ton and with a stick shift on the column. It was a second car my dad called Lucille. My mother drove it one summer while we were up north. She hated it, I think. Or rather love-hated it the way one might gripe about a crusty, disagreeable old neighbor. Lucille made it a funny car, not a crumby one. We all felt that bond. 

I’m thinking now that we should name the balcony where we sit on beach chairs in the morning, soaking up sun before it gets too hot. 

“Shall we?” one of us says. And we step outside, fold the chairs open, and enjoy the sun, the view, the air. Neither of us is much of a beach person, Tizi less than me. On our honeymoon, which occurred a month after our November wedding, we went to Bonaire, one of the Netherlands Antilles. In 45 years of marriage, it’s one of the few seaside vacations we’ve taken. She loved Bonaire. I made her go to Florida once. She hated it. I made her go to Mexico once.  She hated it. 

“Too humid,” she said about those two places.  But, she adds, she would gladly go back to Bonaire. 

The balcony needs a name. It’s a haven, a relief, a brief forgetting. Hey, let’s go to the beach. Bonaire?

The phone rings.

For a few years now my ringtone has been a clip from The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” It’s the part near the end of the song, when the music mostly stops and an artificial whistle whistles the song’s recurring motif. I sliced that bit from the song, copied and pasted it twice and uploaded a 24 second ringtone to my phone. I thought it was edgy. It is edgy. And as far as I know, I’m the only person in the world with that ringtone.

But in this apartment, with its echo in every room, every time my phone rings, I jump. 

It’s startling. Also, it’s unnerving. Who’s calling? Is it one of the twelve people I can talk to? Will I be able to understand what they’re saying? I’ve started checking caller ID and just handing the phone to Tizi. But still, there’s the racket, the intrusive whistle.

I check for alternatives.  This is how one passes his time in isolamento. I check my iPhone for alternatives to Walk Like an Egyptian. So many ringtones to choose from. How about Apex, Beacon, Bulletin? How about By the Seaside? We are, after all, spending time outside, on the beach. I listen. By the Seaside is too cheesy. Chimes, Cosmic, Circuit, Constellation, Crystals, Hillside.  Maybe Hillside? That sort of rhymes with our beach time. I test it. Not something I can live with. Finally I settle on Night Owl. It rhymes. We don’t go to the beach at night, but we wake up every morning to doves and pigeons. Close enough. Night owl softly announces a call.  

The cousins call every day to check on us. Our friend Adele, the same. They’re on the list of twelve. I chat with them for a minute or two, using up the Covid, quarantine, and consegna al domicilio vocabulary I know, basically having the same conversation (comfortably and efficiently) with everyone who calls. Then I pass the phone to Tizi.  

Nicole, our niece who lives down the coast in Pesaro, calls us twice a day. She teaches English down there, mostly to Italian high school kids preparing for vocational work. She cycles through a variety of subjects and their vocabularies. Last week it was continental drift and plate tectonics. Now she’s teaching them to talk, in English, about radioactive decay, which, she reports, is continuous and arbitrary. Why they need this language, I don’t know.

“It’s in the curriculum,” she says. “So I teach it.”

“How about half life? Carbon dating?”

“Oh yeah,” she says. “We’ll cover that too.”

“Physicists?” 

“No,” she says. “More likely they’ll cut hair, work in auto repair and food service work. There’s also some design and art students.”

I suspect this vocabulary will have a half life. I know from experience.  

So we wait. We hunker down (accovacciarci).  We sit tight (siedici stretto). A few more days need to go by. I wonder if Covid will have a half life or if it will eventually kill us all. We’re going home to another surge.

Tizi finishes Artemisia and moves on to La Dama della Laguna. On the cover I see: “Anno Domini 807, foce del fiume Padus. In seguito a una violenta tempesta, le lagune di Comaclum restituiscono un antico sarcofago di piombo che custodisce, al suo interno, il corpo incorrotto di una fanciulla.” 

Tizi is going back to Middle Ages, the time of Charlemagne. At the mouth of a river near Comacchio (where we have been!) the body of a girl in a lead sarcaophagus has been swept ashore. Perhaps this too will be a tale of bitterness and tenacity, of female rage. 

I stay with Faulkner, enjoying the lush passages that take me back to the US, into the South, which I do not know. His descriptions of nature, of small towns, of the mannerisms of country people, both high- and low-born, are vivid and memorable. But also, it hurts to read Faulkner. It hurts to revisit America’s original sin, which has a still-too-long half life, which he portrays in all its complexity. In Intruder in the Dust, Chick’s Uncle Gavin tells him:

“It will be finished; the shame will still be there of course but then the whole chronicle of man’s immortality is in the suffering he has endured, his struggle toward the stars in the stepping-stones of his expiations.  Someday Lucas Beauchamp [will be able] to shoot a white man in the back with the same impunity to lynch-rope and gasoline as a white man. In time he will vote anywhen and anywhere a white man can vote and send his children to the same school anywhere the white man’s children go and travel anywhere the white man travels as the white man does it.  But it won’t be next Tuesday.”

What day is this? Intruder was published in 1948.  What day is this?

On Easter, our fifth day of isolamento, we go to the beach twice. The door to the balcony immediately below ours is open. In the late afternoon I hear the voices of Mr. Riccardi and his wife and family, finished with dinner. He’s one of the twelve, a man with a quick laugh and an old dachshund named Otto he walks along the shoulder of the road below our apartment. I listen to the familiar rise and fall of the language. They’re laughing. The smell of coffee drifts upward. They’ve made a day of it.

Behind the apartment, on the hills above the green zone, fields of grain are being ruffled by the wind. The breeze sweeps across them, creating gentle waves. The phone rings. Marisa, a cousin’s wife, describes their dinner. She is always voluble, always speaking at a pace that strains my understanding. But I hang in there before passing the phone, listening, catching most of it. I tell her about Luca’s generosity, about the caciotta that Consueolo of Acquaviva brought us, about our afternoon at the beach. 

We’re waiting. Just a few more days and we’ll go home.  

3 Comments

  1. I’m so sorry… how wonderful that you can turn COVID quarantine into such a delightful essay. I read parts of it aloud to my husband. A good laugh at your expense? I know you won’t mind.

    Again, I’m sorry.

  2. Sherrie English says:

    Oh no! I have to say I’m sorry you two have covid, but there’s probably not a better place to be. I’m hoping one of your food deliveries is gelato! Take care, feel well soon, excited to see you! xx

  3. Colleen says:

    How disappointing that you both get the “Covid” right before leaving to come home. Such good writing. Thank you.

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