Vicenza, July 2020
Peeing on the Roadside
It’s New Year’s Eve, Sydney, Australia. I’m not a reveller anymore, but still manage to catch the wrong bus home. The country is under assault by vicious bushfires. Every night my mother tunes in to watch walls of flames, an orange territory of death that marches over bushland and properties, into towns, with a macabre jumping – one house intact, the next a stack of black beams. We see hot-footed koalas over ash, or facing weary death in the arms of rangers. Scorched firemen’s faces, people on beaches with bags of clothes, sky lightless. It has been the eeriest Christmas. Even the city air catches in your throat, ash floating down as though a far-off land is burning – and it is – with burnt heavy skies. So on New Year’s Eve we turn our backs on the glitzy harbour fireworks in Sydney – watching a $10million bag of tricks sparking up the sky seems insolent, an unblessed way to start 2020.
The bus driver tells me to get out and walk. Go that way, you’ll hit the main road. Go right. He is tired of dumb people, his shift is over. So I’m on the footpath, walking into the first night of the year. Not drunk, but beerful, wearing a beloved dress and a pair of glam flip-flops which I take off and walk barefoot. And, like the good Catholic high school girl I used to be, when I feel a surge of beer wanting release, I take a leak on the roadside of the cloaked suburb with its patios and trippy manicured gardens. I don’t know why this act is so liberating and primal, but it is. I have started the year off laughing at myself – a good thing. I tell myself it will be a decent year. I have a book coming out, a trip to Morocco ahead, an award ceremony in London; and I’m at the end of a daunting book project; my kids are all reasonably settled. It’s coming together, isn’t it?
I have a love-hate thing with the area in north-eastern Italy where I’ve been living for almost twenty years. I first came here with my Venetian boyfriend when I was living in Paris, a skinny Australian who thought she had acquired some chic, when the country was run by Berlusconi. Then I saw Italy as a crass, Versace-themed arena of palpable checking-out: getting eyed-up was part of crossing the street. I had a handle on the Italian spoken in this area, but it was a long time before I would understand the nuances and historical undertones. But I digress.
We went to Mogadishu in the beginning, my economist-now-husband being a committed Europhile who wanted to work in Africa. Just before we left for three years in Somalia we bought this cut-price country abode, which became our dusty summer refuge whenever we came back shell-shocked from pre-war Mogadishu to the western world. It became home when I came back divorced from Ghana, trailing four kids and a knocked-about heart.
The poet Petrarch decided to spend his last years in the sharp hills I now know intimately that stand close by. You can visit his house with steep buttresses, frescoed interiors and recessed windows, where there is a sense of the mysteries of those distant centuries, and the wafting peacefulness Petrarch might have felt in 1370, upon arrival with his clan on a string of horses and mules. Wooded, hilly, very green, silent; with Padova and the grey byzantine cupolas of ‘il Santo’ to the east, housing the chin, jaw and vocal cords of Saint Anthony and, further on, the lagoon that weaves through the red rooves and domes of mournful Venice.
Within the embrace of these hills sits the village of Vo’ Euganeo, which in February registered Italy’s first Covid 19 fatality, a retired TV-antenna repairman who frequented the local bar. No ties to China. In February this village was shut off from the outside world, joining a cluster of municipalities in Lombardy, outside the industrious Bergamo area, where hospitals were filling with victims unable to draw breath. I went for my last hike in the hills on a trail high above Vo’ Euganeo, with a sickly feeling that the virus was already among us and the same restrictions would soon spread to my village. They did.
In Black Death and plague times people had the same pervasive fear concerning the origins of the illness, and with no understanding of bacteria or contagion it felt similarly intangible, lethal. In Venice the ruling Doge installed the first plague hospital in 1423 on the island that became Lazaretto Vecchio, where people were shipped to recover or die. At the height of the 1630 plague 500 people were dying a day, three and four victims to a bed, with mass graves recently uncovered where bodies were layered like lasagna. Bejewelled noble and forsaken foreigner alike were tossed together in death. Venice would experience 22 outbreaks of the plague from 1361 to 1528 and doctors there wore the first face masks – long bird-like beaks infused with cloves, myrrh, amber, thyme and lavender soaked in vinegar to protect against infection and foul smells. Two major plagues swept across the peninsula’s north in 1575 and 1630, decimating cites. In 1797 Napoleon marched through the weakened, disunited city states and took Venice, extinguishing the diminished glory of the Serenissima Republic (697-1797).
Interesting fact: after the military surrendered the island of Lazaretto Vecchio in 1965, it was used as a dog pound for thirty years.
Publication of my flash fiction book Love Stories for Hectic People is postponed. Morocco is off. The London award ceremony has become a Zoom event. Writers coming to my summer retreats have cancelled. My daughter is shut down in another region in Italy; my son is in Sydney – no chance of seeing him for a year; another son is stuck in the nearby city of Vicenza; my eldest made it back from ski-teaching in St Moritz without catching the virus from rich Milanese kids.
Technically, I can’t go to my supermarket because it is out of my municipality; I need a printed auto-certificato to leave the house. I can walk 200m into the vineyards in one direction with my dog, and 200m in the other. There are no planes overhead, more birds than ever, no cars; sometimes a slow-moving car from the council broadcasts that we should stay in the house. This is happening. But these are small nothings compared to the picture to the west, in Lombardy, and in our city hospitals where people are dying alone, with plastic contraptions over their heads, lungs filling, eyes entrapped. I’ve had pneumonia and raging bronchitis and it’s terrifying. The sitting up in the middle of the night, breathing ragged, bedclothes wet, the pain in your lungs like a giant hand squeezing and not letting go.
My kids’ grandmother takes to her bed. Says to me, What is this thing? At least in the War we knew what the enemy was, when they were coming. We could hide. What is this? For the first time in her life I hear this powerhouse of a woman say, Sono depressa/I am depressed. International friends say, Poor Italy, be careful! as our death figures top 900 a day for weeks. Each evening you check the emergency bulletin, given with sober hope and reason, praying that figures are going down. But they are not. And I can’t help replying to friends, Beware of enclosed spaces! Be careful! It’s coming! Because I know that it is.
The last concert of my soprano daughter is held in February in a red-bricked colonnaded convent in the hill-top town in Le Marche where she studies. I am sitting between two elderly ladies who greet each other across me. The singing is extraordinary. Then I go home and the country is driven off course, into these four unearthly months of fear and death. Four months of silence. Four months that we could never have imagined. Venice empty. The Pope walking freely through the streets of Rome to pray. You see drone videos of empty Milano, Verona, Bologna and you cry because our lives have collectively come to an end. This end. This is the unknown and inside I think we all knew something had to give, something would jar, some payback for the way we have mined and ravaged and held this planet hostage for centuries.
Four months later I see my daughter sing again. The audience is outdoors, distanced, masked. It is an emotional evening. The introductory speeches are less long-winded. There is an unsettled relief, and a wish to allow the performers to perform. Which they do with exuberant voices. These beautiful sounds swim up into the blue with the summer swifts, immortal music, but we mortals are wounded, mistrusting.
Plague Lessons from Boccaccio
Quarantine comes from quarantena, the forty-day period that Hippocrates advised was the span of a highly contagious disease. Community health systems were first established in Italian city states with the outbreak of the Black plague in 1327, and reinforced through repeated returns that lasted until the 1700s. Some cities such as Ferrara escaped by effectively going into lockdown, with controls at the city gates and a plague hospital beyond the city walls. But in other sprawling cities – Milan, Verona – the population was annihilated. In the 1629-31 plague half of the population died. Death was fast, putrid. In Milano if you had the plague your house was simply walled up.
I can’t help wonder: how did people cope with this culture of mass death – with carts being wheeled down lanes full of the open-mouthed, festering dead? Did it permeate their psyches? Were they rendered afraid, or did they find a human resource to cope with this communal fear that endured for centuries?
Boccaccio’s spellbinding Decameron was created against the backdrop of plague-infected Florence in 1348. Seven young women and three men spend two weeks in the bucolic countryside telling stories, ten stories in ten days, a multitude of voices. Intended less as an antidote to plague fears than a building of humanist tenets in an era that struggled to emerge from medieval thinking, the stories and inferences were plucked from everywhere – from the ancient Greeks, from The Thousand and One Nights, from the 1500-year-old Panchatantra written in Sanskrit, from French fables, from Dante Alighieri before him, from vernacular tales. The stories are witty, involved, innumerable, filthy: principally addressed to the mercantile Florentine community and refuting the hypocrisy of the Church, they are a socially enlightened unravelling of story paths, a fundamental uptick in the move towards the Renaissance, where men and women are absolved and ennobled by the course of their actions. In this way the drama of the plague falls away: this is a work that carries ahead European civilisation.
Is this a lesson that we must relearn? Is this rite of storytelling a way of purging ourselves and evolving our species? Boccaccio’s work marked the great pivot from the medieval world to the open vistas of humanism and the Renaissance. Is it time for us to weave together vital stories in a rethinking of our age?
On the first day we are permitted to venture beyond the vicinity of our homes for outdoor exercise, I return to Petrarch’s hills. It’s not that I need green, as I have a garden, but it is the idea of free movement, of hiking atop the peak I’ve seen from my window for months. Ferns, bird calls, serenity. It is my writer’s haven.
That day I hear the loud cracking of a tree crashing down up above. I have to climb around it over steep ground when I am near the top. And when I reach the gentler terrain after, I feel a prickling wariness – Is someone there? Is someone following me? Some primal instinct makes me alert. I am relieved to see a black snake lacing down over leaves to my left. She disappears. I know she is not dangerous. These two elements confirm to me that my presence is slight, that I have not been missed as much as I have missed these hills. I take these sentiments within me – discomfort, the grace of nature, my irrelevance – and walk on.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Praised by Hilary Mantel, her short story collection The Cartography of Others was a People’s Book Prize (UK) finalist and winner of the Eyelands International Book Award (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and a Hudson Prize semi-finalist. Love Stories for Hectic People is out in February 2021. Catherine is a writing coach and runs summer writing residencies in Italy where she lives. www.catherinemcnamarawriter.com