I wrote a piece in early January about experiencing the earthquakes in central Italy last autumn. I rather forgot about it — until now, that is. With a new wave of aftershocks and quakes taking place in central Italy (see post below regarding the avalanche in the Gran Sasso region), I thought I’d publish the column.
Shaken and Stirred
My decision to spend the autumn of 2016 studying Italian at the Universita per Stranieri di Perugia, in Umbria, Italy, meant that my time there coincided earth-shatteringly well with a smattering of quakes and aftershocks in the area.
The earthquakes in central Italy were not the first I had experienced. Years ago, I lived in Japan, where I taught English in a car-part factory located in a tiny town nestled under Mount Fuji, in range of volcanic eruptions. But Fuji-san remained calm during my stay. What didn’t stay calm was the earth, which quaked and lurched at moments it chose without asking my permission or warning me.
I don’t remember being frightened. On one occasion, I was mid-lesson with an “office lady” student, when our desk began to move and the cups of green tea in front of us began to swish. It lasted a few seconds and when it stopped, we both burst out laughing. Nervous laughter, no doubt, but laughter. Another time, I was woken up by a quake and in the time that it took me to figure out what was happening, it was over. I simply rolled over on my futon and went back to sleep.
This was not the case in Italy. I felt quite nervous, despite assurances from locals that nothing other than some rocking and rolling would happen in Perugia: a few cracks might appear, a few bricks and plates might fall, but nothing more, I was told; we are 65 kilometres from the epicentre (as though that were a comfort) and not on a fault, my Perugini friends and professors kept insisting.
Niente paura, they said. Don’t be afraid. There have been no deaths this time, they said, unlike the high death toll of the August earthquake in Amitrice.
I suspect that most of the difference is my age. I am 20 years older and gone is the insouciance of youth, the feelings of immortality and strength. I know that bad things can happen to me, to anyone, and randomly, at that. A Ukrainian classmate suggested I must have had more confidence in Japanese building codes than I do in Italian ones, but I doubt I thought about such things when I lived in Japan. I certainly thought about those things in Perugia, and it is true that it was hard to know, in that beautiful medieval city, what may or may not have crumbled, and just how and where those enormous, heavy Etruscan stones might have fallen.
That same classmate confessed that she was frightened, too, but that going home was more frightening, as she lived in the Donbass region, close to the war zone. She reasoned that at least the earthquakes didn’t want to kill her.
During the terremoto (earthquake) of October 26th, I was in my little apartment studying the imperfect subjunctive tense when it suddenly felt as though a giant had grabbed hold of my building and was shaking it around. I reacted entirely on instinct — running down the stairs and out into the pouring rain till I reached the nearby piazza, thinking at least it was a relatively wide, open space. I learned afterwards that I had done everything wrong. What I should have done, I found out, was stand under a doorway and avoid the stairs altogether. Lesson learned, and the following Sunday, when I was jolted out of bed by the return of the giant in the form of a scossa, or aftershock (which felt more powerful and lasted far longer than the terremoto) I dutifully stood under a doorway until he put my building back down. To use one of my favourite Italian verbs, mi sono spaventata. I got very scared. And to use one of my favourite Italian superlatives, that aftershock was lungissimo, very, very long.
Another thing I discovered I should not have done was follow Italian media. Italian news is not that different from news in North America: startling headlines and 24-hour coverage designed not so much to inform as to heighten emotions. Constant reminders of how many aftershocks there were and how there would likely be no end to them anytime soon were not helpful. Nor were headlines with attention-grabbing words like incubo (nightmare), apocalisse (apocalypse) and calvario (Calvary). Nor were the re-played images of strapping, handsome, dust-covered firemen leading nuns from a church – though at least those were touching (and very Italian), and provided some hope. Nor was following the Twitter feed of the national seismological centre, which, in the weeks after the initial quake, tweeted news of over 1000 aftershocks, many of which were felt and at least one of which caused us all to be evacuated from the university’s main building halfway through an important lesson on the cultural importance of the Spaghetti Western.
Nor were panel after panel of “experts” and pundits talking and arguing – Italians are better at this than anyone. Even the most introverted – everything is relative — Italian comes to life when given a microphone. Under other circumstances I would have very much enjoyed listening to the beauty of the language and the passion of the political discussion, much of which involved the December 4th referendum on constitutional reform, Italy’s lumbering, enormous bureaucracy and its layers of checks and balances. (Italians voted a sizable “no” on the referendum and Matteo Renzi resigned as prime minister the next day.)
When I arrived in Italy in early October, I mentioned to an acquaintance that not seeing 24-hour U.S. election coverage was a delight. And yet with the outcome of the American election and the attention turned – however briefly — away from the shaking earth and the scosse, I experienced some relief. Watching Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a bit like watching an old sitcom I didn’t much like but that at least provided distraction from the non-stop seismic parsing, not to mention the habit I had developed of staring at whatever glass of water or wine happened to be on my kitchen table. A la Jurassic Park, the liquid would, at times, start to tremble, and I knew that T-Rex in earthquake form was in the vicinity.
The parsing was logorante, to use a word I learned thanks to those events. Logorante, meaning draining, wearing, exhausting. Dealing with the aftershocks and the resulting lack of sleep is also logorante. But I was in Italy to improve my Italian, so at least I picked up new vocabulary, including a play on words involving the verb scuotere (to shake). The past participle of scuotere is scossa, as in aftershock, so a standard joke my Italian friends were making, when anyone asked how they were, was to reply “Sono scossa.” (This only works if a woman is talking, though, as it would be “Sono scosso” for a man.)
I also learned that the Perugini aren’t as chiusi (closed) as other Italians assert. During my stay, I did a lot of grocery shopping at a small family-run store. The owners were a friendly couple and I could practice my Italian on them. In doing so, I believe that the word spaventata passed my lips on more than a few occasions. One morning, during the period when we were all feeling aftershocks every day, I didn’t have enough money to pay for my purchases and the husband told me not to worry, to take my groceries and come back later that day. As I turned to leave he called me back. “No,” he said. “Don’t come back today. Come back tomorrow or even next week or even in mid-December. Because we’ll all be here.”