July 3rd, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
(photo: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast)
Italy died today.
This year, Nora and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary – obviously we were married when we were in elementary school. I gave her a big trip to Italy to mark this seminal milestone in style. Rome, some time in Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, a visit to Pompei and Capri, and a week exploring Sicily.
In late September, we would see Caravaggio up close again, and drink limoncello above olive groves and the Bay of Naples again. We would spend another morning in the excavated homes of the eerily preserved citizens of Pompei, and spend another day atop Capri, seeing the impossibly blue Mediterranean just as Tiberius saw it. And in early October, we would see Sicily and its ancient cities and churches for the first time, and I would see another birthday on that storied island.
All of that time would be spent among the warmest and most open people we’ve seen in our travels, wearing the widest of smiles in genuine welcome.
All of that is officially a victim of Covid-19. We cancelled today.
International travel was already scary enough. Customs lines and hassles. Stacking hours over water in a metal tube with strangers, some very strange. Now add a global pandemic, our age, and an impressive list of maladies, aka underlying conditions, and the mix is just too toxic.
But instead of feeling sorry for myself and my first world problem, I looked at this through the lens of coronavirus, the only way to see things lately.
Italy is alive today.
Just a few months ago, Italy was the poster child for both the threat and reality of Covid-19, the country’s hospitals overrun, businesses closed, the economy in shambles, the population shut in and shut off. At their lowest moment, when new cases were rising like floodwater in Venice and death like medieval plague, what did the besieged, isolated and locked down Italian people do?
They went out on their balconies and applauded. They went out on their balconies and sang.
I was reminded today of a piece I saw and posted from the New York Times in mid-March:
“At precisely noon on Saturday, millions of Italians, from Piedmont to Sicily, leaned out of windows or stood on their balconies to applaud the health care workers in hospitals and other front-line medical staff who have been working round the clock to care for coronavirus patients.”
On another evening at precisely six – no one’s sure who called these meetings online or however – they came out on those balconies and in those windows and sang or played their national anthem. If they couldn’t sing or play an instrument, they banged on pots and pans. At precisely six the following evening, they sang, played and banged Italian hit songs – “Azzurro” by Adriano Celentano from 1968, and “Ma il cielo è sempre più blu” by Nino Gaetano from 1975.
They didn’t deny Covid-19 and science itself. They didn’t lie about the number of cases, the number of tests, the number of deaths. They didn’t point fingers at each other. They didn’t promote false cures. They didn’t stigmatize and demonize care and caution.
Then, they stood and faced the problem. Together.
Today, they are past the worst and coming back because of it. Today, they are open to visitors from Europe, and closed to America. Today, we are the problem. Today, with 4% of the world’s population we have about 20% of the world’s deaths from Covid-19, more than any other country. And rising.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the birth of our nation. Out of respect, dress appropriately.
Wear a mask.
I’m a Memphian, and America could take a lesson in Italian.
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