A 20th Century Guide to a 21st Century Pandemic

Tue, 04/28/2020 - 04:07
market in Palermo

I fill my tall shaker with cubes of ice for my morning caffè shakerato – A heady jolt of caffeine, melted ice and luscious foam. Now inhabiting my great-aunt’s Roman apartment, I can still hear my Zia’s voice over my shoulder: “Ice is bad for you. Ice water makes you fat. How could you drink that potion...first thing in the morning?”

Funnily enough, turns out she had a point. Ice in Italy, up until the late 1990s, was something *very* hard to come by. Italians still reject - even when the thermometer breaks the hundred degree mark (40º C) – to down a tall glass of ice cold water. As the beads of sweat drip down the back of your t-shirt, restaurant staff will take pains to ask if you prefer ‘room temperature’ water. And there’s a reason for that: It’s because, grandmas (and aunties) and their ancestors before them, would pass her precious pearls of wisdom down, generation to generation.

beach restaurant in Sorrento

It’s said that Caesar invented the Italian ice. I call BS: There is no way an Italian - and probably a Mamma’s boy at that – had anything to do with that stuff. No way. Their organs would have frozen up on impact – he would never have made it across the Med to meet Cleopatra.

Although, I must say, our Sicilian paesani do, indeed, stuff a glorious brioche with lemon sorbet – and serve it in coffee bars – for breakfast. But for the rest of us mere mortals, the bambini of Italy must wait a full two hours after eating - anything- before taking a dip into a (lukewarm) sea. It’s probably double that after an ice cold Coca-Cola. I dedicate an entire chapter in my book, Burnt by the Tuscan Sun, to these maladies and wives’ tales – but the longer I live in Italy, the more I know in my heart they actually purport to have some sort of semblance of scientific basis. It’s not the Stockholm Syndrome, I call it Sorrento Syndrome.

After looking up how to boost my metabolism, ice cold water was right up there in things to avoid – It slows down your system, and fast. So was my Zia right? Ice water really was making me fat?

But then came the coronavirus. And tips on how to keep your lungs in tip-top shape: WebMD suggested avoiding ice cold drinks – ice jolts your internal organs, leaving them more susceptible to some enemy bacteria or virus to glom onto. Could it be why my persistent (dry, nerve wracking) cough I’ve had since January, has yet to subside?

My Zia, like those 104 year old Signore we’ve all seen march straight out of ICU, would have put Covid-19 to shame. After all, these are the hearty women who lived through world wars, blithely making fresh bread and pasta for their families, neighbors, even passing soldiers – as they headed for the hills, babies on their hips – not stopping to worry about sharing the results of their labors on Instagram once they reached their refuge.

Elderly woman in Italy

This virus took hold in a decidedly different Italy than the one in which my Zia grew up. Certainly, Italy had suffered its fair share of pandemics. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and long after, the bubonic plague would ravage the populace in regular intervals. The 1918-20 Spanish Flu killed 466,000 Italians by the time my Zia was 4 years old. So, how would she have handled it today? Here’s your historic guide to avoid contracting a virus for our modern times:

1. Avoid close contact with others – Zia was too busy making house to hobnob for very long on park benches with her lady friends. Sure, she would see them in church on Sunday, stopping in the piazza for a quick chat after mass. But soon as they would congregate, off they would scurry to finish their meal preparation and serve Sunday supper. Being sure to change over the tablecloths from daytime to mealtime, lest any vicious invisible beasts (and floating air would qualify) contaminate the bread she would set down in front of her dish. These old ladies were pros at social distancing. Never ones to share confidences, even after 80 years of “friendship”. If the doorbell rang, off she’d go to the balcony to first see who was there, with absolutely no intention to let an unexpected caller in, opting instead for a quick chat to the person on the front stoop below.

old person balcony italy

2. Supermarkets? Spare me. She would make almost daily forays to the farmers’ market. Too many people in front of the cheese vendor? Off to another table just beyond. Molecular biologists studying cell movements would be duly impressed. She would then x-ray scan her picks of the produce, before dropping them into an awaiting cloth bag. Plastic was frowned upon as ‘unnatural’. If she had been a new mother today, her kids would be wrapped in swaddling, of this I’m certain. After all, she saw the practice on a fresco in her favorite church. As for toilet paper hoarding, what Italian would do that? Not out of concern for another, mind you, but out of the mindset to just buy what you needed. These were people who lived through bombs and earthquakes – if you can’t take it with you, there was no need to stockpile it. This, and of course, refrigerators were designed for Lilliputians. We’ve seen those heart warming videos of Italians devising some pulley mechanism to hoist their groceries up to the balcony. That’s nothing remarkable. For my Zia it was a way of life. For all of us apartment dwellers, it’s a rather fine system, really.

3. Covering your face? My aunt would never leave home without a scarf around her neck for the dreaded ‘draught’ that was surely life threatening, or a scarf tucked in her pocketbook, just for good measure. If she had been told she needed a face mask, I’m fairly certain I would have caught her sitting in a window fashioning one from the hem she had just cut off a skirt. This is a woman who, when her panty hose started to run, would simply cut off the leg entirely, and then match it up with another half-legged pair and consider the waist band an inexpensive pair of Spanks. Too bad she wasn’t a marketeer – she would’ve made millions. Me? I don’t don a face mask because I can’t find one for sale.

loggia dei lanzi

4. Zia would spend her days in lockdown devouring daytime medical shows – not waiting for politicians to tell her when she could go out and about. She would have stocked up on flour, rice and potatoes, grown her own herbs, and made gnocchi when dictated by tradition, Thursdays. Once, her (leftover) coffee in the fridge spilled onto a plate of rice. She added an egg, milk and sugar and turned it into a pudding. Her home, like millions of them across the Peninsula was absolutely bacteria-free, by virtue of sheer elbow grease, will and vinegar. Her plants needed fertilizer? Out she would head into the garden with coffee grounds or egg shells, lauding their soil benefits. With women like her, it’s a wonder retailers in Italy ever got their businesses off the ground. She always kept a half a lemon on the sink – using her fingers to hollow out a lemon to clean her hands, citing matter-of-factly, “They make your fingernails shine”. Making sure her hands were washed was not even a ‘thing’ – and in the land of germ-free environments – it still isn’t.

5. Every visitor to Italy scratches their proverbial head at the sight of Italians holding their babies in their lap on car trips, but making sure windows - in homes and vehicles - are closed so tight that cars never needed the anti-child window locks. The slightest breeze might waft in the Grim Reaper, himself. An (American) journalist writing for the International Herald Tribune attempted to get to the bottom of this, finding that it may be a remnant from a fear of the plague (also coronaviruses). So shutters go shuttered even in the summer heat, and even in buses or cars – still the case in post-air-conditioned Italy as well. An added bonus, the heat doesn’t come inside and your sofas don’t fade. While Americans install hi-tech air conditioners, positioning them just so the air rains down upon us like a fabulous cold shower, Italians won’t run them for very long just in case and usually on the opposite side of the room. Thought to bring all variety of maladies with them, flag a taxi with a driver over 50, and you’ll soon discover they won’t run their A/C. Or, if they do, they crack their window (ever so slightly), just to be on the safe side. In Italy, on any given sunny day, you’ll be sequestered - in the dark - like it was Easter 2020 in the throws of a global pandemic.

6. Being in crowded places, like on public transportation, was *never* her thing. Although Zia loved to be in new places, traveling the world, she always harbored an innate suspicion of the vehicle in whose clutches she was constrained to ride. Every so often, she would take a bus to visit her sister at her convent in the Alban hills, carefully planning her trip to avoid rush hours. Her preferred mode of transport, though, was a distant cousin she would pay as a sort of über driver before there was über – he would usher her back and forth each summer to her beloved birthplace in the Abruzzi mountains. Pots and pans, and maybe a piece of fresh fish rolled up in a towel to cook for the both of them when they arrived. She would never fail to ring me up to regale me with how wondrous the experience was, as if she had set sail for the new world.

7. And finally, the usual law-aversive Italians were so comfortable with Prime Minister Conte’s decree to ‘shelter in place’, that as far as I could tell, across my entire neighborhood, nothing changed. Italians stick to the family unit – and that means, multi-generations cohabiting as well. And while that proved to be a death knell for the poor souls across Lombardy, it has proven to be the saving grace in the rest of the country. Why do you need anyone, when you’re at home, with your family? As one young man remarked to me on my dog walk, “If I can’t hug my grandma in all this, I don’t even want to go over there until it’s passed completely.”

My childless aunt couldn’t wait for me or my siblings to come and visit. She would prepare ricotta fritters for our arrival and departure, and make sure to pick up an extra loaf of fresh bread and a large jar of Nutella and hope we would stay for months on end. By the time we would wake up for breakfast, she had already returned from the market stalls, and we would be busied prepping the table for lunch. No sooner had we finished, she would “Tsk tsk” any effort to venture out and away from the four walls, as if it were a personal affront. You were left with two options: take a nap, or start preparing for dinner.

For my Zia, lockdown was a way of life.

And so, she would simply turn to you, and cracking her sly victorious smile having successfully prevented your venturing out to the great unknown, and offer up a perfect cup of espresso, instead – piping hot, just like it was always meant to be.