As tour guides, we are used to having a solid chunk of the year where work completely disappears, there are no tourists, no tours and we have to sit down and face ourselves. At first it’s disorienting, then exciting, then a little boring and before we know it, tour season is back on and we are swept away again.
Last year during this off season I wrote half of a novel about a woman preparing for the apocalypse and then getting stuck in her own underground doomsday bunker. Oh, the irony. The main problem was I didn’t know how to end the story. How does she get out of the bunker? Was the apocalypse real or did she imagine the whole thing?
This year we all got to experience a bunker-type lock down first hand and around the world people are still being blocked by this virus, prevented both from travel and from returning to “life as we knew it.” The apocalypse was definitely real. In the story I wrote, the woman had maintained calm for a period before losing her mind but that’s definitely not the lockdown experience I had.
I felt like I was both calm and losing my mind on a daily basis, often within the same few minutes. Watching everything we’ve been working on to develop our tour business “Unlock Italy” just disappear was crushing. But then I’d remind myself it will come back. Moment of calm. Then the dreaded: When? Life in Livorno was meant to be a stepping stone from living in Rome to living in Florence but as work dried up we realized we would have to let the beautiful Florence apartment go and stay here for the year. When I expected to meet new people every day, I saw only two: Luca and (three days a week) his daughter Alessia. When I expected to take trains back and forth from Livorno to Florence to Rome, I only left the house to run circles around the block (we weren’t allowed to go further than 200 meters from our homes). We watched the lockdown date get pushed back again and again.
I swung between stressed out, calm and hopeful, panicked, and excited to work on new projects. But one of the primary emotions I had was anger. It seemed to be directed at random things (the words “side plank” for example – damn you yoga instructor) but I knew it was the anger of watching life as I’d planned it simply evaporate leaving behind a cloudy and financially unstable future.
The world got smaller … which leads me to Umberto and his miniature world.
The apartment we live in belonged to Luca’s grandfather, Umberto. The building was constructed in the 1950s for the railway workers and the apartments were assigned at random. Umberto really wanted a top floor apartment and his colleague Signore Disgraziati (literally, “Mr Disgraced” – boy, would I like to know what his ancestors did) wanted a ground floor on account of his bad leg. They made a deal to swap if they didn’t get what they wanted and that’s how Umberto ended up on the top floor with the view and the Disgraziati’s ended up on the ground floor without the stairs.
Umberto spent his free time making miniatures that to this day seem to pop out of every cupboard and storage area. He made ships with tiny oars and sails. Train tracks with tiny shrubs and benches and cars. Tiny furniture with little shelves that you need to pinch with your fingernails to slide open. They were all copies of real things out there in the bigger people-sized world. The dollhouse furniture was an exact replica of the furniture that used to be in the apartment. The ships are models of historic vessels. There is a panel in the wall that swings open to reveal an entire train track and electrical system he built (that still works!) in the same room from which you can see the real train tracks leading to and from Livorno Central station.
It’s like he was shrinking the world around him to a manageable, holdable size, which is exactly what we all had to do during this lockdown. When I look at the scale of the affect this virus has had on my life, my plans, my future, and then the country, and then the world… the enormity of how out of control it all is, becomes overwhelming.
So let’s shrink the picture. From “what should have been”, let’s look at what is, now, in this moment. What do you see?
One side of the apartment looks over the train tracks where the “shooka shook shook” of the passing trains lap over us like waves. Rails one and three are pleasant white noise. Rail two is a screeching son of a bitch.
Across from us is a terrace where we can spot my favourite member of the neighbourhood: a big-headed tawny pit bull with a splash of white across his neck. He looks scary but he’s a sweetheart. If he’s inside looking out the window, little triangle ears pricked, his profile is exactly the same as Batman. We imagine that at night he goes out to fight dog crime which would explain why he never comes out in the morning – he’s sleeping in. We call him Polpetta (Meatball) though apparently his real name is (inexplicably) Dakota.
Meatball’s owner has only one arm, the other having been lost many years ago in mysterious circumstances but which local gossip has attributed to “something to do with drugs” – this hasn’t been confirmed, nor does it make any sense. It sounds kind of like something adults used to tell you to scare you. From the terrace we once overheard him telling another neighbour a story about Meatball. A man on the street was apparently yelling abuse at the mellow (yet scary looking) dog and the owner’s response was “Come over here and hold his leash for a second.” “Why?” Asked the man. “So I can punch you in the face with my good arm.”
So Meatball isn’t the only Legend living across the way.
A few terraces below Meatball lives “Dust Mop” – an impossibly scruffy Yorkshire terrier who is so old he can only totter a little bit in a circle, leaning occasionally against the wall. A Dust Mop sighting is rare and is the harbinger of good tidings. You’ll never guess what his real name is … Attila (!).
On the floor below us lives a blond buxom Russian who smiles at Luca and scowls at me (the Cold War goes on). She cuts hair and dates a local magistrate and once told us that she was going to become a concert violinist until her hand was irreparably damaged as a young woman. “By what?” Asked Luca.
“A nail,” she said. “Like Christ.”
No further explanation was forthcoming.
Below her on the first floor lives Aurora, the good witch/fairy tale door keeper of the palazzo. If a package comes for you, she’ll take it, thus saving it from returning to the vortex of the post system. You say goodbye to her from the window every time you leave and hello every time you come back. Her apartment is shadowed and probably full of secrets. She has one tooth in the center of her smile and two cats who roam the territory (one black, one missing an eye) and about 300 turtles nosing about the garden on the street side where kids drag their parents by the hand to watch them. We hear their shells clacking occasionally, a sign that they are either going at it or they are using their shells to ram each other out of the way, drawing their heads in and smashing the front of the shell against the others. Who knew turtles were so bitchy?
I have learned a few new Livornese words from the frustrated mother across the street whose irritation seemed to rise with every additional day of lockdown, culminating in this word gem: “Sciagattato.” Possible word origin coming from the image of a cat (gatto) being completely flattened on the side of the road, creamed by some oncoming vehicle – something that would certainly happen soon to this woman’s son if he refused to follow her orders. I guess you could say it means: Shredded or seriously messed up. We discuss these things over dinner on our terrace as we perform our own nightly rendition of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
Two buildings down, there’s a palazzo with the shadow of “A XIX” above the door, a white imprint showing where the plaques were taken down leaving the cleaner stone beneath. A XIX: Anno 19 : year 19. Typical of the Mussolini era when time was measured from when Il Duce came into power. (Year 19 would be 1940 for the rest of humanity.) I like that they took down the plaque but the shadow where it was still remains. During lockdown a teenage boy who had just gotten his license but nowhere to go rode his red motorino in circles around the building. Sometimes two little jack russels would follow him, their collars clinking.
The week lockdown began I started writing a new book. Not about a potential apocalypse, but the one we’re living through now. I couldn’t leave my house, I missed my friends. I missed Rome. I missed my job. I missed the financial security I had finally achieved after years in Italy and held onto for less than two years. But I started writing and it all came out in this new story. Everyone I knew, every story I’d ever heard, every news article about coronavirus ravaging Italy and the world became material for a story that was becoming a fictional retelling of my life and experiences prismed through these characters. This book was my survival tactic. I finished it in two and a half months, right before travel was permitted between Italian regions again.
Now I’m editing it and trying not to think about how it’s impossible to find an agent, how nobody reads anymore anyway, how maybe it’s shit, how maybe everyone I know will read it and decide that I’m shit too … all the sirens of fears surrounding a creative project ring strong but I know they are all in my head. I have to narrow my focus, take it one page at a time and trust that it will be ok. I have to miniaturize.
One day during the lockdown, real sirens came screaming down the road, faces appearing in windows all down the street to see where it was going. When the ambulance pulled into the driveway of the palazzo right next door, we came out on their terraces to watch the hazmat suits disappear inside the building. We looked at each other for answers. We shrugged shoulders. There was no pretence that we weren’t all hovering and sending out our collective anxiety at that siren: What will happen? Did someone have the virus? Were they being taken away? Would anyone die? None of us had anywhere to go or be except to wait and watch.
Finally they emerged with a woman on a stretcher… young… pregnant. It’s a baby, people started whispering. She was going to the hospital to have a baby. Something that would be neighbourhood news anywhere but in Italy with a birth rate in shocking decline is even more of a big deal. Everyone started to smile. The silence was replaced by neighbours chatting about all the gossipy details they knew about the mother, the family. The siren wasn’t a sign of death but of new life.
Then we all went back into our apartments, Meatball to prepare for his next crime fighting endeavor, Dust Mop to his ancient circles, the turtles and the cats under the watchful eyes of Aurora, and me to continue writing one page at a time.