Quarantine in Tuscany—like quarantine in the countryside elsewhere, I imagine—is not that bad, especially given the fine weather that March 2020 is giving us. My yard has never looked better: the roses are pruned and tied and sprayed with copper; the vegetable garden is sprouting fava beans, peas and Swiss chard; my older daughter, home from university in Milan, is keeping the lawn mowed short. The same is true for the house. A few days of cold weather last week gave me ample time for the chores that get postponed during the high-speed train ride that is the usual winter school-work-socialising rhythm. The girls are relaxed: the middle-schooler and the college junior follow on-line lessons: the former stays in her pjs and nibbles on Nutella cookies while participating in class chats led by her teachers; the latter sits in the sun in her bikini with her laptop watching lectures conducted by her professors from their homes up north. They both miss their friends, and I miss my parents and sister: online socialising quickly wears thin. But my daughters are here, a situation that became instantly twice as precious the day the older one left for college two years ago. So I confess, over the basso continuo of a Puritan sense of guilt at not striving for more, I love these days.
And yet. “M, 66, Pistoia; M, 89, Barberino; F, 100, Chiusi; M, 58, Livorno…” and so on through yesterday’s 16 Tuscan victims read La Nazione Siena this morning. I thought of all the grandparents that gather outside my daughter’s school at pick-up time, of how they arrive early and wait proudly, of how their grandchildren slip comfortably into their care. I thought of the old men talking on Piazza della Posta near the tractor or two displayed at the Wednesday morning market, giving opinions and recommendations regarding the growing season, the-all-important topic in a community that is still tied to agriculture. I thought of childless Sig. Barnetti who has lived and worked on a friend’s estate for 67 years, who speaks of my friend as of a son, though more indulgently, I suspect, and who often claims, teasingly, that the estate without him will fail. I thought of our local hairdresser, who recently celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the opening of her salon, and of her mostly-older customers on their weekly visits for a wash and set, of their combined knowledge of our town and of its inhabitants—whole family histories, witnessed in decades of bits of small talk. I thought of Sig.ra Panini, who taught me to make migliacci the first winter I lived in Tuscany, of Zia Gina, who showed me how to use the old foot-pump sewing machine to mend horse blankets and saddle pads, of my daughter’s grandmother singing “Ninna nanna ninna oh, questa bimba a chi la do?” while she rocked my baby to sleep. I thought of all the people, sick or dying alone, of their terrified and grief-stricken families, and finally of Italy itself—poor Italy—what did she do to deserve this, other than open her arms and let the whole world in?
A recording of a Sienese man singing his city’s anthem, Mentre Siena Dorme, went viral last week, even making it into a CNN report on Italians’ response to the crisis. As I listened, the sole male voice intoning the notes of the anthem, confined to three of four different, close pitches, reminded me of Medieval plainchant, and the acoustics of the empty stone street pictured in the video echoed those of the province’s churches. I was humbled by what I seemed to hear in that voice: a deep awareness of the tragedy around us, combined with a cruelly ironic consciousness that the world can dole out much worse, and therefore, a stoicism, a resistance to being too moved by events of the present day.