Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
It happened overnight. Literally. Like a curtain descending on a theatrical performance, summer was over without an encore. Gray, drizzly skies brought suddenly-cooler temperatures, making the formerly heat-radiating stones of the piazzas slick and drab. Yes, summer is over, and my friends are lamenting the loss of their tans, the closed-up beachside venues and the need for jackets. Good riddance, I say.
This was the summer that wasn’t. We experienced only the heat and discomfort without any of the usual, accompanying fun to compensate for it. We returned from our June voyage to the US emotional from the bittersweet journey and feeling a little sapped. The heat blazed and we were forced into a form of hibernation, slamming the shutters closed for the entire day to keep the infernal rays of the July sun at bay. The daytime interior twilight just fueled my sense of melancholy and made me feel isolated. We would emerge after dark to catch any shred of cooling breeze and to be among other forced cave-dwellers seeking face-time and human interaction.
We began plotting how to survive the ghost-like month of August when everyone we know flees town for greener pastures or plots of sand. Maybe we should turn tail and run, too? Maybe go to the mountains for a few weeks, transfer ourselves where we have at least some shred of a chance of not sweating through the night.
And just as we decided to go south to higher elevations, we received a call. One of those dreaded, dreadful announcements no one wants to receive. Someone I loved was dying and I’d need to hurry home. The distinct and distressing downside of living in a foreign country is the distance at times like these. I booked flights and we departed from Roma the next day, our hearts bursting with concern and worry.
My uncle was in a hospital bed, beaten down by pneumonia and no longer able to fight the tumors that were suffocating his liver and colon. To call him my uncle is accurate but not apt. He was so much more – a big brother, a father figure when my own father deserted us, a friend, a confidante. He flew half-way around the world to celebrate my Sweet Sixteen and walked me down the aisle when I got married. He was one of those special, select people who are a part of your life no matter what, and now suddenly he was in the hospital, still smiling and joking like always, but looking so frail.
Funny how the clock stops and days run together the minute you enter a hospital room. Everything seemed skewed, like I'd entered a parallel universe. All around me Washington, DC went on as normal while life as we knew it seemed to brake and warp. Time became measured in three-hour increments as we took shifts tending to Dean. We didn't want him to be alone, and someone needed to be there at all times to oversee the medical care.
Nights were marked by numb fatigue. Early mornings brought clammy awakenings to the sudden remembrance of where I was, and why. Days were measured in hugs and prayers and clasped hands. In countless cups of coffee from the hospital cafeteria. In pounding heartbeats, in hopes held tightly while dismay crowded into the recesses. In the number of well-wishes extended, in meals given, in smiles bestowed.
We lost count of the days and the number of tears, which were broken by jokes to dispel the tension and funny remembrances to chase away the fears. We made it through not by taking it one day at a time, but by forgetting what day it was and operating on a different time zone altogether. By leaning on each other, picking up the pieces when one of us fell apart and then getting enough rest to start it all over again.
My uncle Dean passed away on August 6, two months after my grandmother died. To quote my fifteen-year old niece, “This summer totally sucked.” Indeed.
After more than three weeks of stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, restlessness, and overwhelming emotion I was more than ready to return to Italy, to get back to my familiar routine and the pile of work I left scattered on my desk. Most of August had passed me by and I suddenly wanted to reclaim a snatch of summer while it lasted.
I returned home to the wonderful discovery that my upstairs neighbor had found himself a girlfriend who had taken up residence, and who was apparently in rigorous training for a clog-dancing championship. She clumped around to and fro all day and half the night in heavy heels. Clomp, clomp. Clompety, clompety, clomp clomp clomp. It became somewhat akin to Chinese water torture and I’d sit in the front of my computer unable to concentrate and seething. She would cease and shed her clogs right about the time the concerts in the piazza cranked up, so there was no rest for the weary. I was getting cranky and homicidal. Fortunately (for her own life as well as my sanity), the clog dancer departed shortly after the August holiday season ended.
Sleep. Routine. Rest. Good. That lasted one week. Then a virulent strain of something icky struck me down. There is something weird about European viruses and bacteria. They are much stronger and aggressive than their wimpy North American counterparts. They knock you down harder and hold on longer. Of course, they have had millennia to adapt and mutate and grow evil. My New World-bred immune system is no match for the cruel critters.
The thing is, most among my acquaintance here do not believe that colds and flu are transmitted by germs, and being a sociable bunch, they go out in the piazzas and bars and hack away, leaving their bugs behind. If I say that I have a sore throat, it’s blamed on the wind. Stuffy head or headache? Change of weather, it went from hot to cold too quickly. Fever? I must have gone outside without a jacket. When I say, “No, it’s a virus,” it is countered once again with the cambia del tempo reasoning.
Not that I’m unfamiliar with some of these arguments; I have long experience with them from my childhood. My grandmother lectured me endlessly on the need to wear a hat lest I catch a cold, because “one-third of your body heat escapes from your head.” That may be, but I wasn’t about to mess up my nicely-teased 80s ‘do by plonking a hat on it. Besides, one doesn’t catch a cold by being cold, I’d say, to my grandmother’s great consternation. Going outside with wet hair, regardless of the season, was a reckless invitation for pneumonia. Going barefoot around the house in the winter, well that was just insanity that Grams didn’t want to ponder.
My grandfather had such a strong constitution and immune system that he very rarely became sick. On the extremely unusual instance when he did succumb to something, he swore it was not due to germs but must be some form of divine judgement. Given his almost angelic patience, his soft-spoken nature, and the fact that he never said a cross word to anyone (never, I swear!), it was highly unlikely that he was being smited down for penance.
While my grandpa had no mean genes in his system, he could be a little furbo, as they say here. When my cousin came for a month-long annual visit, my sister transferred herself to our grandparents’ house and the two were inseparable. They were also incessant in their chatter, which probably drove my quiet Gramps a little batty. So seizing onto a clever little way to get himself some peace, whenever they were in the car he’d say, “You know, you have to be careful what you say out here, because the corn has ears!” A little game commenced where the gullible kids would hold their breath whenever they drove past cornfields. Northern Ohio, if you don’t already know, is carpeted with cornfields. While they turned blue, Gramps whistled contentedly. But I don’t really think he would be stricken with influenza for that, do you?
Regardless of the affliction’s origins, my mother's orders for a quick recovery are always the same: she is a firm believer in the medicinal properties of a hot toddy. Cold and flu? Hot toddy will fix you right up. Got a headache? Hot toddy! Arm has been severed? Hot toddy! Trouble is, with the long-lasting, hard-hitting Euro bugs, I’d be hammered for a good two weeks if I followed my mom’s advice.
Many of my Italian friends do take her advice, or a semblance thereof, as they frequently recommend grappa. Which, as you already know, is just a tad too much like moonshine for me. (read my previous Internal Affairs article here). Propolis is the other favored cure-all, which offers a little help for the sore throat but not much assistance in the blocked-up nose department. That’s where the fumes of the hot toddy come into play. (Yes, Mom, I inhaled!)
My cold (or whatever it was) went on the wane just as autumn fully settled upon us. The grape harvests have been nearly completed and they are being pressed and turned into regionally-specific vintages. Several friends are already lining up helpers for the olive harvest (we’ve committed to helping with two). The sagre have turned over from grilled fare and fish to heavier, fall specialties like polenta and funghi. Nights are spent bundled up in sweatshirts since the air becomes chilly, but the heat hasn’t been turned on yet.
The seasonal rhythm brings comfort and the cooler weather brings a sense of coziness that I welcome. My friends are mourning the loss of their suntans and summer fun, but I’m glad for autumn. This summer was memorable, but is not one that I’ll remember fondly or care to repeat. The falling leaves and the olive harvest will bring a timeless cadence; they are sure things in an unsure world. The change of seasons is strangely soothing. So arrivederci estate … I won’t miss you a bit.
© Valerie Schneider, 2008
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