Duck and Cover
from Il Gazzettino
Two years ago I received a text message on my cell phone from the Protezione Civile, the Italian equivalent of the National Guard. They wanted me to reconsider coming to an already overcrowded Rome to pay respects to the recently deceased Pope. But, they added, should I decide to come, to be prepared for long lines, cool nights and hot days. I showed the message to Luciano.
“Oh, yes. They are sending them to everyone.”
“To everyone in Italy?”
“How do they do that? And have you gotten a message yet?”
“Not yet. Maybe they were more concerned about you.”
This is very likely and Luciano did indeed get his avviso a few hours later. I guess they needed to prioritize. Yet I thought this was so considerate that I have kept it in my phone memory and it is still there as a reminder of the kindness of the Italian National Guard and their motherly suggestion to wear a sweater.
This comes in direct contrast to the normal attitude towards the general safety of the population which is based on a use-common-sense-or-you-are-on-your-own way of thinking. For the most part it works quite nicely.
A few years ago we stood on the roof of the Milan Cathedral along with dozens of tourists hundreds of feet above the teeming piazza below. I noticed the lack of guards and, for that matter, any kind of railing; there were just relaxed people strolling, sunbathing, and observing the ant-sized people below. This is a structure dating from the year 1386 and people are just loose on the roof. I asked Luciano about it. Aside from the possibility of vandalism, how many suicides were there each year? It is a place just begging for a jumper. The Golden Gate Bridge, in just over 50 years, has racked up over 900 suicides. What gives?
“You Americans are so dramatic,” he said. “We come, we look at the view and then we take the stairs down.”
In a country riddled with potential lawsuits that will never happen, you in fact need to watch your step to avoid, more than anything, embarrassment. So you tripped into a poorly marked hole in the street? Perhaps you should watch where you are going. That hole has been there since Caesar. Don’t you think you could figure it out?
In many ways, the fact that Americans are so protected has resulted in a population that no longer knows how to take care of itself. I know that beverage is hot (I just ordered it that way) and it is dangerous to drink hot liquids from a paper cup, but might I forget if not warned with a little message on the top? And then, is it no longer my fault?
This is not to say that there is no civil responsibility here. If my dog runs out in the street to attack a rider on a scooter, causing him to fall over, I can be sure I will hear from a lawyer. But if this same man hits a hole in the city street and falls off the same scooter, he will hope to God that no one saw him do such a silly thing.
Nevertheless, in some cases the people are given suggestions on how to cope. Maria Vittoria, one of my students, matter-of- factly told me a story. Not long ago it was discovered that someone had injected poison, by way of a hypodermic needle, into bottles of water in random supermarkets across northern Italy. The population was advised to take care and before purchasing water, the bottle should be tipped upside down to see if there are any holes in the cap.
By contrast, in the US last year, all spinach disappeared from stores because of the discovered presence of E.coli. Despite the fact that by cooking spinach for 15 seconds all traces of the bacteria could be removed, not one leaf of the vegetable could be found in stores as the government worked to protect the population from itself. Meanwhile in Italy, consumers stood in stores stoically turning bottles of water upside to be sure they will not be poisoned. If water dribbles out onto the floor, don’t buy it. It’s just common sense.
Here in Treviso on Wednesday afternoon a De Longhi stove factory blew up, producing a black mushroom cloud that towered over the red-tiled roofs. It was just outside the road around the city, close enough to feel the boom as the building blasted into the air. Fortunately, as it was during the lunch break, there were no injuries. There was some added excitement, however, when the word went out (passed along by a guy with a megaphone in a slow moving Protezione Civile jeep or the one serving coffee at the bar down the street) that the cloud was toxic and that everyone should get inside and close the windows.
All children disappeared from the streets instantly. Workers dug in the gardens, dogs played in the yard, runners jogged along the river. No children. I got a text message from the mother of one of my students canceling classes for the next day saying, "No lessons for tomorrow on account of the toxic cloud." I felt that she was overreacting, but how often do you get a chance to write “because of the toxic cloud”? Not often, fortunately.
On Thursday, with clear skies overhead, officials declared that the cloud was not toxic, no one was injured, and the biggest concern here was that 800 people now have no job. Everyone else went back to work. Still no babies in the streets as the Trevigiane mothers take the common sense credo seriously. I, on the other hand, slogged from lesson to lesson, dutifully showing up through the smoke to squeeze in just a little more English before everyone starts thinking about the August holiday. Which, let's face it, is a lot more interesting than a cloud of smoke...or English for that matter.
Yesterday morning, however, it was announced that there had been toxic levels of dioxin gases released into the air. In the confusion after such a catastrophic event in this small town, the guy in the jeep was right after all. And you should always trust your barista. The Trevigiani are fuming. Not because there was a factory so close to the town with the potential to produce toxic gases or, as it turns out, the presence of asbestos materials in the blown-off roof. The people of Treviso are outraged because they were not told how to properly take care of themselves.
Luciano kissed me good bye and gave me bit of advice before I left this morning to go into town.
“Don’t breathe too much.”
More common sense.
For reassurance I sneak a peek from time to time at that message from the Protezione Civile. It helps me to get that coddled feeling so abundant in America. “Code molto lunghe. Caldo di giorno a fresco di notte.”
Long lines, hot days, cool nights.
The Blank Page
A friend of mine, an esteemed writer, sent me an email a week ago telling me that he was impressed with the professional level of my writing and encouraged me to keep up the good work. The very next day I received an email from a very kind agent who turned down my book, but lavished me with praise. Now, of course, I am paralyzed with fear; fear of the fact that anything I write now, in comparison to previously posted work, will be crap. My writing muse seems to be a delicate thing and must respond better to negative reinforcement. No amount of inspiration that whizzes past my window here in Mareno di Piave can shake me of this fear and I sit petrified at the computer.
A man peddled slowly past with a fishing pole in his basket, a rag fluttering on the end of the pole sticking out behind him like a wide load on the freeway. The sun glowed on his shoulders.
Nope. Nuthin’. I am doomed. The blank page watched me closely, waiting.
When I got tired of doing that, I got up to do whatever possible to postpone the inevitable: Whatever I wrote, it was going to be crap.
After a year of discussion and about fifteen minutes of actual effort, a ladder magically appeared and the wren house is now up, swaying in the Italian breezes. Birds have come and gone, checking out the real estate, but nothing yet small enough to fit in the hole has taken up residence. Anna Maria squinted up at it.
“It sways a little.”
“That is a small hole.”
Luciano now wakes up every morning and asks, “Has someone moved in yet?” This from a man who couldn’t find a ladder for over a year. A friend of ours had put up a house so Luciano asked him what he did to attract a resident. He explained that he put food in the house…and waited two years. I can see it from my window, expectant and ready. I am not sure we can maintain this level of anticipation for two years. Perhaps Luciano can…
Having killed fifteen minutes, I then shifted my winter clothes to the attic, re-potted some plants, cleaned out the laundry room, and closely examined the supermarket flyer left in our mail box by a black man on a red bicycle.
Still the looming, empty page.
I walked down the street to settle a bet.
While on a run a week or so ago I had noticed baby goats tottering around the neighbor’s yard, with remnants of umbilical cords still dangling from their bellies, looking a little shocked in the morning sun. I had told Luciano about them.
“Oh, yes. It’s Easter.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“Easter dinner. You know, beeehh, tuk!” He made a chopping movement with his hand.
In fact, I had noticed the hand drawn signs at the supermarket: Whole agnello (lamb) and whole capretto (baby goat) on sale this week! I have even eaten capretto, in a restaurant, in the hills, far away from my next door neighbor or the tiny beasts trotting on their toes, ready to play.
This afternoon, almost a week after Easter, I wandered down the lane towards the neighbor’s miniature farm. Did those babies end up on a platter? I came to the edge of the fence…and there they were, dancing about like deer on tip-toe on every imaginable surface. The owner was searching outside the fence for something in the tall grass and said hello.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“A chicken is out here…I just know it, but she is hiding. Aren’t those babies beautiful?”
“Yes. How many are there?”
“Ten! We have never had so many. Two sets of twins and two triplets. Can you imagine? The trick is to not watch them when the mothers give birth. They don’t like it. One kid died at the farm up the street because they were watching.”
I had no idea goats were so bashful.
We watched the babies for a moment in admiring silence. Two of them were engaged in a head butting fight. Having no horns, it was soundless, like two sock puppets punching each other. Others dropped to their knees to butt at the udders of the puritanical mothers, who stood calmly for a moment and then just stepped over the babies to move across the yard.
“They have only two tits you know” the neighbor informed me with a laugh. “The triplets take turns.”
“Are you keeping them?” I knew now that they had survived Easter, but I wondered if they were still destined for the table.
“No, no. I have already sold them. They have to stay here a few more weeks before they leave the mothers. I can’t keep ten!”
No one around here eats an adult goat. Assured that they had a future, I offered to help find the missing chicken.
“No, she is waiting for me. But thank you.”
Kicking stones and shuffling back down the street, I returned to tell Luciano that he owed me one euro; the goats did not end up as dinner. He smiled and asked, “Still killing time, eh? Come on. Just start writing”.
“I could find something else to do.”
“I could clean the oven.”
“That would be nice, but I think you should just write.”
So I did.