Plus ca Change

As I have posted previously, we listen to a lot of Pepys in this house, especially on lengthy car rides (though it has been a while since one of those). A quote from the diaries seems a propos in 2020:

On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings by Her Majesty’s men, I looked upon the street to see a gaggle of striplings making fair merry, and no doubt spreading the plague well about. Not a care had these rogues for the health of their elders!

Audiobooks

Until last autumn, I was never much of an audiobook fan. Now, I most definitely am. I started listening to audiobooks during my commutes to and from work in the fall – prior to that I had always read either paper or ebooks while in transit, or occasionally listened to music. Not sure what made me switch, but it has been a great discovery, all the more so because of the coronavirus situation. Each day, I try to get out and walk my 10,000 steps (yes, I know there is nothing magical about that number) and it helps to have something interesting to listen to during my trek.

One of those interesting books was this story of a French Resistance network led by a woman. The person reading the book (and who does the reading makes a big difference) was terrific in so many ways – clear, well-paced, with a voice that responded/changed appropriately with what was being read – but for one. A big one, in my view: this reader had a terrible French accent. She pronounced so many French words and names incorrectly.

Now, I certainly don’t expect the pronunciation to be perfect – I speak fluent French and mine isn’t perfect – as one is well aware while listening to audiobooks that the reader has a mother tongue that will, of course, dominate. But hell, pronouncing “Saint” as “Son” and “Lazare” as “Laz[long a]are,” for example, is unacceptable. And don’t get me started on so many of the proper names and how they were mangled. The woman reading would have been better off just using English pronunciations and not trying to sound French.

Since I don’t want to end on a negative note, having Alfred Molina read this biography of Leonardo was pure genius.

Virus Despondency

My friend John Palmer has written a post about “Covid19 Despondency.” It is well worth a read and he outlines many of the concerns I have.

I worry about and for everyone. I see no way out of this for at least a few months, and meanwhile so many people will have been pushed to the edge. I try to control my despondency by thought-blocking and thinking about positive things, but every once it awhile it hits.

Same here. I am in my 50s and Significant Other is older (he would kill me if I wrote his age), so we don’t feel immortal or immune, by any stretch. John writes that he and his wife have become borderline paranoid, and I fear I have, as well. I do go out – to walk and shop (though I keep the latter to a minimum) – and I have noticed that I hold my breath if people are walking within, say, three metres of me. Like everyone else, I wash my hands like a fiend, carry sanitizer and disposable gloves, attempt to not touch my face (not so easy, folks, especially given my seasonal allergies) and try to cover my mouth and nose with a scarf if I am in a store.

I do my best to get my 10,000 steps in each day – not so easy – but thanks to my many years of tending feral cat colonies in this city I do know a lot of laneways and backstreets that are unpopulated by humans (but for the odd drug dealer or purchaser). So that has come in handy. I am also attempting to finish writing projects that are long overdue, but I find it difficult to focus and really have to fight to not lapse into procrastination. A commenter on John’s post said she found it hard to get motivated and I feel the same way.

Since I am extremely introverted, I don’t really miss other humans that much, with the exception of some friends and family (it would have been nice to have been able to visit Significant Other’s family for Easter). It is a delight to not take the TTC and, above all, to not spend. It reminds me a bit of when I went to Italy for three months and only brought a carry-on bag. I discovered just how little one needs. Fittingly, I am MarieKondoing the heck out of my clothes. When this is over (will it ever truly be over?) and places like the Salvation Army are accepting donations again, they will be thrilled with my haul.

What I do miss: my students and colleagues at my day job; the possibility of travel (I had two trips cancelled in March/April – one for pleasure, one for business); my gym; not crossing the street or walking in the middle of the road when I see another human approaching; going to a park and taking photos of birds, squirrels and such (in theory, one can still do that, but parks tend to be busy these days); sitting in a nice coffee shop with a latte and a vegan treat, either by myself or with a friend or my honeybunch. Oh yes, this can be done at home, but going out to a nice spot can provide uplift. Plus, then you don’t have to do dishes.

Looking at the reasons to be grateful: I have a roof over my head; I am with someone I love and not just love but with whom I get along and with whom I feel safe. I can’t help but thinking not only about adults in violent homes who now cannot get out, but about children in a similar spot. When I was a kid, school was my respite. I had a terrible homelife. What of the kids right now who can’t escape, even for a few hours?

More reasons to be grateful: we live in a time/place where delivery is possible; I am baking a lot; we have wine; the wonderful Italian series “My Brilliant Friend/L’Amica Geniale” is on HBO into May; the new season of “Fauda” starts this week.

I hope you, dear readers, are all (relatively) well and finding positives in this odd new world.

Easter

This is magnificent. I have been lucky enough to see it in person – in the Magdalena Chapel of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Detail from Giotto’s Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene: Mary Magdalene sees the risen Christ.
giotto (2)

Italy

I have been so sad for my beloved Italy. My first extended stay there was in 2012 (I had been there on short trips prior to that date). On one particularly beautiful autumn day in Perugia, I was walking to my Italian class and I heard a voice from above. I looked up and saw a woman leaning from her balcony, like a modern-day Juliet. But she was not in love. She was gesticulating madly at my bare ankles. It took me a while to realize it, but she was telling me to go back in and put on socks. She kept insisting that it was “un freddino, oggi.” A cold one, today. I explained that I was from Canada and that it didn’t feel cold to me.

I thought of that moment when I watched the many touching online videos of Italians singing from balconies and windows these past few weeks, connecting in the only ways they can find. These images are particularly bittersweet because I suspect that in Toronto, we’d be filing noise complaints against each other in the same situation.

Since 2012, I’ve gone back annually, but that year was my first exposure to what I call the “large extended family” aspect of life in Italy. Italians up and down the boot will insist that their town and dialect and local pastry is vastly different and infinitely better than the one 20 miles over. And while my Italian is fluent enough that I can decipher some of those differences, to Canadian or American eyes there is still relative homogeneity in Italian culture.

There are more immigrants now, there are the culturally globalizing forces of television and the internet, but compared to life in even small-town Ontario, there’s always a feeling in Italy of being part of the same dysfunctional – and at times joyful and warm – family. There is a lack of privacy that can take some getting used to. It is telling that Italians don’t have their own word for privacy – they use ours. “La privacy.” (I do like that it’s feminine.)

It can be amusing, like when I was on a bus trip and Italians from the front of the bus got into a conversation with Italians at the back. They didn’t get up to talk to their new acquaintances. They just shouted back and forth. Eventually, people in the middle seats added their two euros.

I believe it is one of the reasons the screen window has not become a hit in a country where the lengthy mosquito-season, scary spiders and lack of effective air-conditioning ought to make it one. With a screen window you can’t lean out and tell a woman you’ve never met that she should put on socks. If you read or watch ‘My Brilliant Friend’ – the exceptional HBO series which began its second season this month — you will recall the numerous scenes in which people are leaning out their windows or off of their balconies talking to, or about, someone. (And if you aren’t watching the series, you are a fool.)

I am generalizing, and the balcony scenes of quarantined Italians likely appeal to us because they reflect a comforting stereotype in a frightening time: Italians emoting from balconies; Italians with accordions and mandolins; singing Italians; shouting Italians. And yes, it’s possible that in another month they will be throwing more than their voices from windows and terraces.

But I have lived on three continents and traveled extensively and can’t think of a people with more of a compulsion to communicate. Fittingly, Italians are addicted to their telefonini (cellphones) but that isn’t enough. This is a country where, apart from the famous baci and abbracci (kisses and hugs), it is commonplace to see people of all ages walking with arms linked – men, women, men and women. As the British journalist John Hooper writes in his book, The Italians, “No people on earth express themselves as visually as the Italians.” The need for the face-to-face is strong.

So much so that when I first heard of Italy’s nation-wide quarantine, I thought, “yeah, this will go well. A nation of pathological extroverts with limited respect for the law asked to obey the law and behave like introverts.” But they are, with few exceptions, doing what they can to make it work.

In 2016 my time in Italy coincided with a spate of powerful earthquakes; I was living 30 kilometres from the epicentre and one morning woke up feeling rather like the little girl in The Exorcist, as my bed shook and rattled. When I gave away my anxiety, Italians – friends, acquaintances and strangers – would try to reassure me, saying, Niente paura. No fear. Don’t worry. Of course, Italians have painful and extensive experience with earthquakes. Not so Covid-19. I don’t think a mere niente paura can provide much comfort against the current death and illness toll. That is where the interfering extended family and those magical musical moments come in handy.

In the News…

…there is nothing but Covid-19. I won’t offer a bunch of links on which approach is best (i.e., what much of the world is doing versus the current approach in Sweden). I will instead send you to this podcast of a debate between two scientists, John Ioannidis and Sten Vermund. It is the kind of debate I like – serious talk, respectful, listening to hear, not to correct. Yes, I have a (one degree of separation) connection to the Munk Debates, but this really is worth your time if you’d like to better understand the options.

I will also link to this article about Dr. Fauci, someone who impresses more each day and to this website, the blog of my friend Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist who is also funny and nice and handsome. (When he used to comment on my old blog my mother would always say, “that good-looking friend of yours left a comment.”)