Wednesday, 27 May 2020

I Give Up

   Did you ever watch someone just keep going and not understand where they got the stubbornness? Did you ever wonder what they thought they were doing? I mean, why? What is the point? Especially if it seemed like there was no hope. A long time ago I was impressed by some no-name Italian cyclist who woke up one miserable day in the mountains and just gave it all up on the road and won a stage in the Tour of Italy. Against them all. I wonder how that felt, what was that like. Not winning, not the glory; but the gut-spilling obsession of the endless moment. Blind obsession. I'm not sure I know what that takes. I'm not clear on what would make me get out of my chair and go that far. Take that problem to the limit of my capacity and then just bust through and keep going into some new, strange land. I remember trying to apply calculus to the physics of a chemical reaction and thinking, "I'm beyond the comfortable limit here. I don't know how to keep going." I remember a missed step on an icy wall on Mt Baker and tumbling down, off rope. I think back on that moment and I realize I've got limits. I get shaky, scared, uncomfortable to keep going sometimes. And other times I get bored: Finnegan's Wake. I don't think I can read that. I've got my limits.
   A while ago I got handed a book of Greek verb declensions. Alex had had it. Fed up. Isolde had to learn this stuff and she didn't. Two years in and she just hadn't learned it. Now it was crunch time and all that Greek had to be applied to translating passages of Homer or something. I thought, "Why?!" But in order to pass the third year of classics, Isolde had to get past this as well as a similar hurdle in Latin (translating Dante, I think, or is that just old Italian?). Isolde loves all things mythological, especially Greek. She knew the differences and similarities between the Roman gods and the Greek ones. She knew the family trees and all the mischief. She taught herself all that stuff when she just started reading. And she wanted to go to the Liceo Classico because in third year the class went on a voyage across the Aegean Sea to the Greek peninsula and toured the important archaeological sites.
   So I got handed a book of Greek verb declensions. Isolde had to memorize this stuff. She had to memorize this stuff last year and this was the last stand. Failure was staring us all in the face. Alex and Isolde together couldn't do it because of too much tension, too many frustrated sessions, too much nagging, too many temper tantrums. So the time came when the hands went up, the book thrown down, the kid went to bed, and the executioner was called in. Of course, I couldn't do it either. We had our evening drills and I tried to keep it upbeat. Isolde could memorize anything and she was remarkable; but it was too little, too late. She failed the year and faced a repeat of third year Classico. 
   Thomasina had already made the jump to IB, escaping the Italian high school force field. One year of Scientifico and she broke out to Dane Court International Baccalaureate diploma program in Kent, UK. No picnic, but so much more encouraging than the eroding torture of Italian secondary, not to mention the misogynist, cliqueish fast lane of teenage Italy. Thomasina paved the way, establishing a secure place to live during the year and work in the summer. She achieved a great record at school. She even earned an interview at Oxford!
   It was obvious Isolde had an escape route. A runaway truck ramp for those with no brakes. A soft landing in UK. Somewhere to put that failure under the covers and wake up the next morning. But first we held a meeting with her favourite teacher, the one who led the Greek archaeology trip. He eloquently argued that the Classico instruction was unique in the world, but finished with an admission that if she decided to go, then she must take his son with her. Which she didn't.
   Now, both girls are away from home. Our house with seven bedrooms is empty. The empty house with no heating is that much colder in winter. The evenings are quiet. The long phone calls are too short. The girls have a life. The supper table is seldom laid. The leftover, retired ex-pats ask polite questions; but that doesn't replace the life that has left the house. Sorta sad, but we found some abstract justification in the fact that our girls had moved on into adulthood. 
  And then! And Then! Isolde got her invitation to interview at Oxford. Wow! Two in a row. When Thomasina interviewed, Alex lost it, bought a ticket to UK, drove her up to Oxford and promptly got a speeding ticket. Embarrassingly. I'm sure she jinxed it because Thomasina didn't get in despite enjoying every minute of the whole procedure and loving her interview mates (the guy who did get accepted came down to Italy where he was judged totally inadequate). 
   This time Alex let Isolde get on with it alone, and at first it seemed that was a big mistake. In her application Isolde did not flinch. She shot for the moon. She scanned the joint and selected the finest architecture, the most beautiful deer park, and the most prestigious. Magdalen. Wow! Really? Yes, and the invitation came back. And on the first day she slept through her interview, got a call, arrived an hour or so late, sweated through the episode. Then, in the interview they found they both shared the same favorite author and in fact Isolde could quote the guy. Later, she received a cryptic note saying she could go home. In time she received a letter of acceptance, conditioned on her passing grades from Dane Court.
    The condition was that she achieve a minimum final grade in her IB program at Dane Court. Based on her work, that seemed doable; but suddenly things got serious. Alex kicked in long days of research on History papers. I don't think Isolde was sleeping too well. This was a sprint to the finish and I began to think that this girl didn't share the same sense of limits that I did. She was going to flunk out of classics in an Italian high school and work her way into Oxford.
    Then, a little reproductive molecule morphed its way into a rich, new environment; and within a few months, Isolde's school shut its doors. And the global IB program suspended final exams. And I remembered that feeling of catching my trouser leg with a crampon on Mount Baker and heading out into free space. This is unanticipated. I don't know if I can do this.

...to be continued. When the bits and pieces of our world reorganize and the girls can resume their story. 


To Thee, Tom

    There is something about riding the racing bike that refuses to leave my fondest sentiments of a life I lived many years ago in the pursuit of ... well, I,m not sure suddenly. Happiness I was going to say, but I don't think that was what it was. Fulfillment, purpose, physical reward, primitive motion, stress avoidance, irresponsibility? I'm not sure, looking back. But looking back I do place a lot of satisfaction in the experience of riding as fast as I could to the point of exhaustion, and beyond, as one of life's sensations I miss the most.
    
    Among the most vivid memories I have of riding the roads of rural California is that of confidently following the wheel of the gorgeous silver Eisentraut of Tom McGuire. I had no fear in putting my front wheel directly behind the steady pace of Tom's powerful bike. After a gentle rise and fall along Putah Creek we entered the foothills of Napa county and turned downwind onto Pleasant's Valley.
    In the spring, the cherries of Pleasant's Valley would ripen, and beckon. A hungry cyclist who knew the land and the seasons would put aside the sensations of speed and settle down to a gorge of ripe cherries from a roadside orchard. Any powerful fantasies of the yellow jersey would be put aside for the pleasures of ripe cherries, one tart, the next so sweet! Along Putah Creek road, a few miles outside of Winters, Pleasant's Valley Ranch put out a hand written sign when the cherries were ready. When I rode there with Tom, we stopped. He understood the priorities. He would drive out later and buy a flat or two. And we'd all get sick. More than once.
    Farther along, on the downwind section of Pleasant's Valley road, Tom would wind up the Eisentraut and I could barely hang on. Banking through a fast right hander and barreling through a few trees of a local farm, the chickens would flutter and squawk from our whooshing wheels. "It's just like the French countryside!" Tom yelled back. And from that moment, I have wanted to do nothing but return. It's just one of those moments for me. I don't think Tom even remembers. But I do.
     I'm old now. I'm in Italy. I haven't ridden a proper bike in many years. I haven't felt the road fly past, the hills morph, the chickens flap, the tires sing their hollow song. Today a young Italian ran up the drive with a yellow post card from California. It was from Pleasant's Ranch. It said the Cherries are Ready. It said "From Tree to Thee."  On the front side I recognized my address written in the hand of Tom McGuire. 
Wait for me!

Monday, 20 April 2020

Back in the Bubble

   Yes! We are all back in the bubble! While we read of woefully inadequate virus testing around the world, Italy sent a three person team to our girls. Both had their throats swabbed, and a day later we were told the tests were negative for SarsCov-2. The relief, it's difficult to describe. I don't think any of us really believed that we were infected, but when you don't know, you just start making stuff up. The relief comes from knowing.
swabbing Isolde

  Last night we laid the table for a homecoming supper and at the last moment, Alex began to feel ill. As I was getting into the car to bring the girls home, Alex walked downstairs to say she felt sick and then walked right back upstairs and was sick. When we arrived, Alex received them in her bedroom.
She had tested some old hummus at lunchtime before throwing it out and that must have been the culprit, because by 11pm, she joined us for chocolate and wine.
------<<<O>>>------

   If you want to make your parents nervous, just tell them you're going to quit working, have a baby or two, and move into a derelict in rural Italy. With no water, power, windows, or job. The clever strategy, which I didn't realize at the time, is that every subsequent message home short of death by starvation is good news. "We stapled some plastic in the window." "Oh my gosh! That's wonderful!"
   You can find the rest of the good news somewhere else in this diary, but the good news today is just a consideration of our dumb luck.
   Consider the dumb luck of being in Italy and watching the inconclusive general election of September 2018 result in the appointment of a little know law professor to be prime minister. Giuseppe Conte has no prior political position. And consider that at the same time Matteo Salvini was effectively silenced by the public. That was six months ago. I don't pretend to know anything about Italian politics, but I am aware that Conte has proved to be the real thing against Salvini's utter "populist" fakery. Luckily, Conte sat in the PM's chair when the virus clobbered Italy. He clobbered back fearlessly, locking up the entire country, threatening our economic future and has barely managed to keep Italy from being completely overwhelmed. His approval is polling over 80%.
  Lucky for us, we are living here and not in the UK or the US where virus testing remains a fraction of that required to justify the "liberation of Michigan". 

Friday, 3 April 2020

New life at Santa Maria Vecchia



   It's now 17th April and the girls are still quarantined and we expect mobile testing to arrive to test Thomasina who suffers with a persistent cough although no fever. 



   It's going to be Easter at Santa Maria Vecchia, the lovely house on top of the hill on the LeCoste estate. Isolde and Thomasina are locked down there under state quarantine until 15 April when they will likely move down to their own rooms here with us in Borgo Petroio. 
Social distance picnic
   
suffering in isolation



Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Travel Day

Wednesday, April 1
   Today Isolde and Thomasina travel from UK to Italy. From Ramsgate, a remote little city at the mouth of the Thames, to Moiano, a tiny country village in Umbria. Normally this is a routine day's journey rehearsed many times, usually via cut-rate airline RyanAir from Stansted airport to Perugia/Assisi where we pick them up. Not this time.
    This time a virus is killing people in the thousands and everybody is locked down hard in their homes, if they have them. There's no cure. There's barely care. If you get the virus you ride it out. Or not. Keep warm, drink plenty of liquids and, yeah. That's it. No one with any authority listened to the science so now we get to hide under the covers. It's sort of a gruesome prelude to climate crisis, or the nuclear arms crisis, or the fresh water crisis, or the plastic crisis, or the teflon crisis, or the inequality crisis, or the balance of payments crisis, or the toilet roll crisis. Maybe a powerful automatic weapon, some ammo and a little range time is a good idea. 
     But I'm wandering off topic. We still live in a civilized country. It's deep in debt, I know, and the government replaces itself so fast there's little consistency; but there's still enough oxygen in the air to keep the trains running. But not the airlines. Ours went bust while we were in Egypt. Since then Alitalia has gone. And RyanAir has parked it's entire fleet. Boeing is on a Trump ventilator. And if you're still holding airline stock, it's probably too late. But no! Alitalia has re-emerged! It's now a wing of the Italian government and the taxpayers (roughly half the population) have ponied up for a few "repatriation" flights for those Italian residents who, sensibly up till now, reside elsewhere. That's what Alex spotted and that's what we purchased for Isolde and Thomasina to escape the collapsing UK to their already collapsed home of Italy.
      These airline tickets were purchased a month ago when things were getting pretty grim. Italy imposed lockdown on all citizens and we had to carry an autodichiarazione describing why, exactly, we had to visit the grocery store. That was pretty serious because groceries and drugs were all that anyone could buy. Forget the flower shop. Need a pane of glass for that broken window? A bit of tar for that leaky roof? A cork for that broken pipe? Not today. Call the landlord? He's not answering. He's not allowed to answer. And if you need a cup of coffee, you've got to make it yourself. As the days went by, the bodies piled up, the people started taking it seriously and began to sing from the balconies. As it became clear that nobody was going to solve this crisis, the lockdown became more and more severe. And it was good. We began to consume less. The air cleared, the water cleared, the traffic cleared, the sun rose, the spring bloomed, the birds returned, and money stopped flowing. But so did people. Flying from one country to another got harder and harder. You had to prove stuff. Who were you? Where, really, do you live? What are you doing? Are you ill? Do you really need to travel? And if you do, how are you going to get there? Suppose you are allowed to land and enter Italy, how are you going to go anywhere if you are quarantined for 14 days? At one moment it was decided that no one could cross from Umbria to Lazio just to pick up someone from the airport. They would have to reside at the airport until public transportation could be arranged. Then, a few days later, that didn't sound so smart. Yes, you could pick up someone from the airport in your own car as long as you sat as far apart as you could in your Cinquecento. But only two people per car. Phone calls to the various authorities usually ended up in infinite wait times or simply timeouts. Nobody had any authority and nobody wanted it.
    Now, at the very last minute, we have the assurance that if one driver travels with a vegetable crate full of docuements printed off the internet, one may drive from Umbria to Lazio and thus to Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci to receive gloved, masked, repatriated, close relatives providing they carry sufficient documentation and have managed to survive the rigors of biological screening and security controls. With this elevated level of confidence, Alex set off about an hour ago for the rome airport. We are, of course, breaking the law in a variety of ways, but we are used to that. There will be three in a car. The girls will travel on UK passports. And it's doubtful anyone will believe our promise of a suitable quarantine location or time period, especially with an english accent. But this is Italy and not UK, (or, can you imagine? US). The Italian authorities are still people, unlike their contemporaries in either the UK or US. If you have a perfectly logical, normal, human explanation for why a family might have two female children in school in another country at the same time and that they might be wanting to come home on the same flight and travel in the same car as their mother to a safe, empty house for the required quarantine period; those excuses will fly here in Italy.
     And that's why we live here.  

Thursday, April 2

     Yes. The answer is yes. They did make it to Italy and they did make it to LeCoste and it all went well. So well, in fact, that I don't have a good story to tell. 
    I haven't seen them yet and it could all be a communist plot, but Alex swears it all went extremely well. Like clockwork. Like, yeah, I'm sure. Come on. What about the fake masks and the fudged documents? If Isolde and Thomasina are really sleeping in a cold, empty house ten minutes up the hill, there's got to be a story.
    I returned with the car facing a frantic Alex saying that they are about to take off! What? Well, they got to Heathrow early and hitched a ride on an earlier flight. I had been making up the beds with electric blankets and splitting wood into kindling to try and encourage the kind of warmth they had become used to in their virus infected hotel in Ramsgate. Actually, that's not fair at all. The Ramsgate hotel was infested with hypochondriacs, not Covid 19s. Everyone suffered with every symptom of the virus but none actually required any immediate ventilation. Except for their opinions. The Ramsgate hotel, compared to the nation of Italy, remains one of the world's safe havens.

    Airport taxi scrambled! Document package stuffed. Sandwiches washed with soap and water. WhatsApp messages encrypted. Gas station gloves? Check! Painter's mask? Check! Seatbelt? Check! Mirrors? Check. Social distancing seating plan? Check! Go! GO!
    And in the next moment, I stood there, quiet, alone, wondering what just happened? The sun is out, birds, the cat, bugs, weeds, hunger, silence. What do I do now? I should have been the driver. I know the way. I'm the man. But my one-year-old driver's license doesn't, technically, allow me to drive our car. It's too powerful for me. So Alex is the driver. And I'm left standing here, wondering. What if? I mean, What if no one returns. What if they are all carted off to quarantine somewhere? That would happen in Uk or US. That is my mindset. I'm not counting on the government officials to "bend" in case there is a problem.

   But, of course, they do; and our girls are waved through much more easily than their grilling at Heathrow. They are believed. Unlike UK where their stories are suspected, their stories jibe, they are believed.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Cellar Check

hard work this isolation
solar powered Tesla lawnmower

making sure we'll make it till tomorrow