Excerpts of a diary
Bettona, 2 VIII 2020
Let us assume this is still the Virus Journal, that started on 13 III 2020.
Yet I am now in Italy, more than 1000 km away from where I kept a log of the virus entering my life.
Is there any difference in context between Leiden and Umbria?
There certainly exists a difference in the writer.
Never in my life have I felt so physically challenged, as the Yankee would put it. Travel I no longer take in my stride.
The day before departure I made a bicycle ride of two times an hour to swim at the Vlietland Lake, in the vain hope to feel refreshed and rested. Afterwards I packed my luggage, rushing up and down two staircases. I slept, not badly but not long enough. In the morning I was phoned by the taxi company, to make sure that I would at 10:00 a.m. sharp be completely ready on the doorstep. They could or would not stop near the house. I obediently acquiesced, but the driver also had orders too not to touch the luggage. So I had to heave two big bags into his car. I looked out of the window morosely: was all civilized behavior towards aging passengers gone? I paid the driver my usual tip, which surprised him. “You are tipping me for nothing.” I answered that at least I would maintain my standards.
At the airport of Rotterdam I was given a form in which yes or no to coughing or a runny nose would decide the continuation of my trip. Like all others I filled in that I was in perfect health. Later my temperature was separately tested and found OK. I was given other forms, one in English, the other Italian, with similar questions. One form was taken in and marked in green by a girl. She finally waved me on to the gate.
By now I had become uncertain. Was I sure about the whereabouts of my pin-card, or of my driving-license? I did not find them in their usual places. I began a frantic search, inwardly reciting Jacob Cats’ dictum: ‘Man suffers most from imagined fears’. On the brink of despair and on the way back to customs control, where the search had been extremely distracting, I found both items back in different places from before. I remembered J. M. saying that nowadays he feels fearful while travelling. Like he had never felt in his youth.
When ushered into the cabin, my stratagem of choosing the unpopular seat 25A seemed to have worked Not only was I protected from contacts by the window, but on my other side no passengers appeared. Most people were in families, and moreover Dutch, which made for a lot of fussy rearranging between places, parents and offspring. This happened especially when three seats in a row were available. Which I had blocked effectively. Tricks of an old customer. I started reading a book. Only now and then distracted by the excited commentaries of youngsters sitting in front or behind me, for whom the world was still a discovery.
I had a cappuccino that I paid for. Most passengers were saving the expense. Suddenly I was woken up by a landscape. Behind the Alpine ridge the lakes along the Tiber valley appeared and finally the shape of Lago di Trasimeno. I recognized the small harbor of Tuoro and the surrounding roads. I had managed them by car so many times. Then the machine landed noisily on the long and narrow strip near Perugia, to the general excitement of the children, already talking about the plunge they would take in the swimming pool of a hotel.
When I got up I discovered my legs were stiff and my hands cramped. I walked down the staircase onto the tarmac somewhat unsteadily.
All of a sudden we were more or less free, while I had been expecting another over the top control on the Italian side. My bag came forward soon. I heaved it on a cart and first ran into a gentleman telling me that I was not allowed to reenter the airport. I was already outside, where Ivan was waiting with his car, that was now mine, a Fiat Panda. He was athletically sun-burnt and in a yellow singlet. I felt too exhausted to drive from the newly arranged Airport by the maze of local roads in the valley. I asked him to take me to his office from where I would know the tracks towards the top of the mountain. I did not inspect my car and signed my contract blindly. Once in the rented car I discovered that most of the roads had been redone (as Ivan told me) by order of the newly elected mayor of Bettona.
I arrived in front of my gate and started arranging the house. Oiling the locks, etc. I had not eaten the whole day and fell on the bed tired. Next morning I discovered that the front of the car was slightly damaged. Probably by a heap of trunks and branches left along the road by workers.
Bettona 4 VIII 2020
Yesterday I took the wise decision to stay home and recover. Between arrival and that moment, it had been all too busy exploring the neighborhood and shopping.
As I arrived in front of my bakery in Signoria I saw the ample form of Giuliana, wife of the barkeeper of the neighboring town Bettona, sitting in a car. I had heard already by rumor that Giuseppe had died and said how sorry I was. Behind her mask, her face wrinkled and her eyes filled with tears. She summarized the intestinal fate of her husband that had culminated in a tumor. Inside the bakery the two ladies welcomed me, but as my Italian was still suffering from disuse and other visitors being important, I simply bought my panini and cakes without more ado.
Once arrived in Torgiano I was struck by a lack of activity. The usual animation by tourism had vanished. Outside the small restaurant of Tempi Antichi I spotted no sign of change. I entered and found Maurizio slumped behind his counter. When he saw me, he rose and came forward to embrace me. At eleven, his wife ( and also cook) was still not there but he promised to phone her. I went out and used the next hour to provide the home on the hill with a survival base. For this I had to wake up the butcher and his help and interrupt a lengthy conversation in the supermarket.
After the vital stuff, I wanted a newspaper. To my surprise all news vendors had disappeared. I went back to M. and he told me that at the far end of the main street sometimes a flower-shop sold newspapers still.
It must have been the hottest day on the Italian calendar. I felt dizzy, unsteady and had a dramatic vision of ending my diary life on the streets of Torgiano – which had already an aunt of Plinius among its deceased. But I struggled on in the hot air, swinging from shadow to shadow, telling myself that this quest for news could be fatal. The flower-shop was closed.
Back in T.A. I refused to be thrown out again and settled for a glass of sparkling water. M. told me to wait for half an hour as his wife was still caring for their first grandchild. I was vague in my wishes and sat alone in the well known eatery among the chairs and tables. M., his moody self, now and then came to look how I was faring but had little conversation except that with the disaster everything was in the hands of God the Father, at which he would look upwards to the ceiling. Finally Annunziata appeared, his wife. I ordered a strozzapreti and a tacchino in balsamico. The wine had already arrived with some bread, and life began to look up.
The most memorable sight of the day however was in the morning. I came from the house to test the lock of the gate, which the evening before had proven untrustworthy. As I walked up the path to the gate, I saw two silhouettes approaching me over dead leaves. Both were bent and with walking sticks. They were my trusted Giuliana and Franco who had remembered that I told them sometimes ago that I would be there on the second of August.
An aspect of the roadside village Passagio at the foot of our hill, I found slightly sinister. Everything was well kept but lacked animation, reminding one of a graveyard.
There, this morning, the beginning of the fourth day over here, I went to the barbershop. As soon as I entered, one of the two barbers exclaimed ‘Giulio Cesare’. Which is the cut he always gives me. My short hairs combed forward.
When I tried to open a conversation about the pandemic with this barber, I did not get far or rather too far. Fingers were pointed to Chinese pig-raising, which produced dangerous infections. My general remark that the meat industry everywhere seemed a problem, did not take hold.
Then the memory of an old village priest was evoked. Who would take back a cheese called Pontino from Trento that was pure and delicious, and especially appreciated as a gift. The contrast between Chinese pigs and Italian cows was evident. I would not be surprised if my barber would vote in a nationalist populist leader, if the occasion rose.
But he gave me extra care and my head was decent again, and he refused my tip. This is perhaps a sign (with other examples) that I have become part of the household. I did not ask him (others being present) about his son, who is a cross-dresser.
This day was not marked by further obvious changes, yet on the other side in the Tiber valley at Deruta, the ceramic center, I was flabbergasted to find Asso di Coppe shut down. I had always assumed that this part of Italy could live from tourism, like the barber from hair. But now the tourists had disappeared and the closing of Asso di Coppe showed how much the total organism (hotel, bar, restaurant) depended on them. I peered through the barred doors into the interior and saw the old arrangement had been altered. As if in a last effort to survive, they had had to change themselves.
While I was meditating what to do, I saw another car confidently drive up in front of the old entrance, only to be rebuffed. The driver went to the kitchen, which was dead, tried the new entrance and looked in to the old bar. After a while he gave up and returned to his passengers.
I also returned uphill. I was still thinking about the harshness of reality when I noticed my Panda, in second gear, could not manage the climb back to my dwelling. I had several times to stop and restart, with great whirling of tires and throwing up of gravel. When I arrived in front of my home, thunder exploded and a freak hailstorm started to cover the road with ice. I had no other option than to stop, sit for twenty minutes in my car and see its panes cover up with ice, while the slamming of ice balls on the hood made a deafening noise. I remembered two of my guests had once survived an electric storm, which brought down a tree on top of their car there.
The country is going through hard times, also with its nature. Spring had beauty I was told, but till now the summer drought had been relentless, Indeed my roses did hardly blossom. After summer I see no fruits in my trees. Only crickets chirp, but the normal bird sounds are lacking. I have seen no lizards, or other animals, like squirrels or wild pigs or birds of prey circling above the house. Maybe all animals, insects excepted, have trekked north, sought shelter in the valley, or prematurely left the country for Africa. In Holland I had noticed recently how early the geese were assembling for their yearly migrations.
All this belongs to climate change. What the virus epidemic ultimately teaches us again, is the fragility of human life and its pampered civilizations.
Bettona 5 VIII 2020
I am half an hour away from driving back into the valley, where I have promised the owners of Asse di Coppe to have an evening meal in the changed setting. Before I had gone to the lottery and gambling shop of Andrea, the son, to inquire. Coming from bright sunlight into the dark den I first did not see Andrea. But then I saw behind a glass separation somebody jumping up and down excitedly with a telephone at his ear. He told his mother to come forward and receive me. The old lady was wizened but sympathy lit up her face. Then Andrea stormed forward with a gift of his office, a blue ballpoint in a blue case. With no embraces, kisses, nearness allowed the whole thing ebbed away. I promised to come back tonight.
There is something in the Italian character which makes them combine dramatic effusive happiness with a fundamental sad realism, that is always there. Both theatre and opportunism are their child. One could call this wisdom.
I have just come back from this dinner at my old road-side restaurant. It was too silly to do this, but I felt near to weeping while waiting for my food, or for my order, or for just sitting there waiting. The restaurant had been more or less the last resort of local taste. Now, suddenly, it had become American. The main fare had become pizza and more specific: pizza to go. Three out of four orders were for pizza and constantly a stream of customers came in to fetch these external orders. In this mayhem local food had become an afterthought. I was constantly passed by people rushing in to pay and go.
A thoughtful waiter had given me my usual place behind a display of wine bottles. But now I was a solitary island in a sea of nothing. The walls, always a showcase of local ceramic skills, depicting colorfully all the major churches and towns, were now bare, except for big portraits in black and white of international celebrities. Any kind of star: a film idol, a coureur, a singer of pop. Among these faces a non-negligible TV-screen.
Small changes were significant. The waiter asked me if I wanted ‘olio’ with my bread. I should have said no. The old glass olive oil and vinegar set was now replaced by a handful of metallic sachets. In the past the waiter would make a great act of heaving the pasta from a pan onto your plate. Now it was already efficiently served on the plate from the kitchen. The whole idea of service had disappeared and with it, I felt, the self-esteem of the waiter. To my surprise the boiled spinach was as before, but why then add extra salads to the meat? It was thoughtless. And the selected meat itself, pork sausages, was overcooked and hardly chewable.
At a certain moment I felt like giving up and retching. I had suddenly discovered that the model was no longer the simple pasta at home, but had become the anonymous overdressed pizza from the corner.
Next to me in the wasteland a couple had settled and ordered beer and pizza. They could not finish their pizza, hard-baked and too greasy. They paid half of my price and still were not happy.
This is culture change: the puppets remain the same but the game has changed.
Bettona 6 VIII 2020
Several years ago a journalist wrote about my interior in Holland, that it was all hand-made. I had not paid attention to this so much, till in this Corona revolution of techno-living I looked at the my house in Umbria, Casa Giano, with new eyes.
The beauty of it was not designed but hand-made; that is made by workmen with an eye for beauty. The walls had been laid by hand, stone by stone, brick to brick, till a wall made a beautiful repository for light. The doors and shutters had been all the carpenter’s work. The linked five arches – and their companion at the front door- had been erected without supporting frames, laid with ability and eyesight. The terrace outside had been put together by Franco in long weeks with steadily recycled classical bricks. The floors inside were of red-baked tiles and supported hand-made chairs and tables. Even the black ironwork in the windows and the hanging lamps came literally out of a smithy. The same smith had hammered the utensils for the open hearth, that itself presented a work of both man and nature, as it is arched by the traditional trunk of a tree.
If electricity were absent, overlooking a few details, the house could have been built by Romans,.
Why does this strike me now, because of the virus times? The pure necessity to survive has made the careful crafts into a luxury and industrial technology the winner. When I came back dejected last night from my restaurant that had been transformed into a pizzeria, it was not for purely sentimental reasons. It was not the quaint past I regretted, but a present lack of quality. This is paramount. It begins in the kitchen where the skills of the cook have been reduced. He can prepare pizza, the most simple form of food, but the minestrone has flown out of his window. The skills of the cameriere were no longer needed. The in-between between cook and eater had been streamlined. The forks and knives and table papers were pre-packed. The food was arranged (if that is the word) by the cook, no longer by his diplomat, the waiter. As said, oil and vinegar were now pre-packed. The wishes of the regular guest were no longer specially remembered, but slotted into a phone. For the first time my old waiter brought me red wine by mistake and when he corrected it to my habitual white, forgot that I always prefer the young local wine frizzante.
A whole world of skills and forms had disappeared in the wish to survive. Survival had been identified as American, degrading the personal and preferring the impersonal. Dismissing the artisan’s skills and introducing techniques. Discarding time-consuming dishes and replacing them with quick fries. No longer the personal touch handed down within the family, but a machine-produced inedible fodder.
Menig foto valt te nemen
van het gouden zonlicht op de tafel
schalen tillend van hun bodem
vruchten drijvend in hun voet.
Bij het simpel samenstellen
van het Huis van Janus was de leer
uit Rome van Vitruvius gekomen
dat een huis de zon begeert.
Nu na jaren in de avond
in het westen de zon zinkt
denk ik hoe de leer van Aton
oplicht en een moment klinkt.
Bettona 8 VIII 2020
My mood has shifted. It started with tiredness, physical as well as mental. This was mitigated by the monastic restfulness of the house of Janus. Then the damage to the context sank in. The death of my barkeeper and the closure of his bar on the piazza. No longer a point of encounter for the town. Then there was the Americanization of the road-side restaurant where I had followed family life for nearly half a century. Then there was Tempi Antichi, warmly welcoming me, yet half dead.
But over the last few days customers have come, not from America (I read somewhere that last year this month 140,000 USA people would have visited Italy; today only 40.) but from Italy, where traditional holidays have begun and people this time are not venturing outside the country. A well-known hotel in Torgiano (Tre Vaselle) had some twenty Italian cars parked in front and only one foreign vehicle, from Belgium.
So when today I entered my local restaurant, it seemed fully employed and Maurizio said, “Go to ‘your’ table”, pointing to a small table with two chairs at the corner, where one has a good view of most of the other tables, this time none empty. There were some twenty or more parents and children. The parents in their forties, the children from five to fifteen years, growing up inside the families.
I became fascinated by these children. If there exists an Italian character, these children were proof. They were lively, not presenting themselves, but constantly interacting with others. The only moment they fell silent and looked unengaged was when there was no interaction. The parents were sitting as guards over them, but did little to interfere. The children knew how to amuse themselves. They played all kinds of games, many involving their fingers, for instance sticking them behind their neighbor’s heads and asking them to guess the right number. Or forming birds with their hands as flapping wings. They had a repertory of tricks to show and teach each other. But were not unaware of the big TV-screen above their heads. Sometimes they stopped playing and were intrigued by something new, but quickly returned to their games.
In between them stood a table with a small family of four. They kept to themselves and a non-staging boy played with his cell-phone. The cell-phone intrigued the children of the next table. They were all five fascinated to find out what the boy (who did not interact with them) was doing. They became a group of five, like in a genre-painting, leaning on each other’s shoulders and climbing on seats to get a better view. Their faces displayed concentration and envy. They were an audience to the boy at the next table, who ignored them, or seemed to. Then suddenly they had had enough, or understood, and returned to the business of eating.
All at once after more than an hour the parents decided to go. Within half an hour the eatery was empty. The places where the grownups had sat were marked by coffee cups. Except for mine, one table was still at work: a local family with a near adult son that I had seen before. The father seemed eternally dissatisfied and suspicious; the mother was a witch with bare legs under the table. At a certain moment I wondered whether she were a transvestite. The son was bored, with his head leaning on his outstretched arm.
The result of all this was that I believed in Italy again and its vital readiness to get involved in some theatre. I went home in a non-Covid, non-USA mood.
Bettona, 9 VIII 2020
Except for a visit to a neighbour, I stayed home. Sundays here are family business and sitting alone in a restaurant rubs that in.
A neighbouring family is Dutch and I had promised to visit them when there. They were very helpful, promising me a drive to the Airport if necessary. Moreover giving away some of the paprikas and tomatoes left to them by a local farmer
I observe the Casa Giano with fresh eyes and wrote a poem in Dutch about it. I rediscover its spiritual content. It is as much a dwelling as a chapel. It is Franciscan in its simplicity but a bit Asiatic in its open relation to nature. It is axed on the sun. One series of windows on the east catches the morning light, a series of five great arched doors waits all day for its disappearance in the west. Following Vitruvius I gave the bathroom a place on the south and the kitchen a place on the north. The study upstairs turns away from the main house and looks east, north and west. When I built it, I saw the house as a permanent threshold, for light. Now, at the end of my life, I see the house as a temple for the sun’s course, that is, Aton.
Bettona, 11 VIII 2020
I spoke to Geometra Piselli who made a little file of administrative papers and found nothing amiss for a later sale or gift of the house.
Spoke a moment with Uccelini, the former town clerk, about the death of economic and social life in ancient Bettona.
I found the extension of an old underground restaurant at the piazza interesting. I decided to eat there tomorrow. The chef has fish, not only on Friday, he told me.
Went to the butcher in Torgiano, the Officina del gusto. The workshop of taste. They handle their cold cuts with care.
Made an appointment with Rafaela, middleman of the car. to show her father Centro San Antonio. He thinks the “Dutch village” has a central place and a church.
Talked a bit with the Albanian waitress at Tempi Antichi. She speaks good Italian after two years and has style. Gave her a bonus.
Marco di Gaspari?
What about a key for the garbage bin?
Bettona, 13 VIII 2020
It is late in the days of my life, but I think about “opportunistic” in favourable terms. Calvinist grandparents or socialist parents did not applaud opportunistic behaviour. One should stick to one’s principles.
Yet, this visit to Italy has made me rethink the matter. If the general situation is bad, is it wrong to seize the lucky moment, the opportunity to live well? There exists in Italy undoubtedly a pessimistic view of life, or society, or the future. One seldom hears an upbeat message. The most optimistic view is that the situation is not as bad as it could be.
But in their daily behaviour my contacts smile and laugh easily when encountering some positive aspect. This morning I spoke at length with Giuliana about the diverse illnesses of her husband, the Alzheimer of her parents, the death of her son thirty years ago. We sank more and more into a pervasive melancholy.
I remembered Giuliana and her husband had once made a trip to Tunisia and had enjoyed it. When I mentioned the subject, Giuliana brightened up at once. Though saying in general she had not liked the ways of the country, she radiated joy remembering a visit to Roman excavations. Happy moments returned to mind and we said goodbye in a less downcast mood.
This, in a more general way, became the development of a party yesterday. From drudgery to a feast. I had been worrying all day about my keys no longer fitting the garbage containers which are the pride but also the obsession of the area. Had everything been irresponsibly renewed again and had keys been changed? I decided to ask a neighbours living five hundred meters away and walked there. Everyone looked busy doing their own thing around the house. The neighbour, and his brother, bare-breasted, a North African girl, his designer wife, their daughter. But as somebody noticed me, they all dropped their business and ran forward to shake hands, completely disregarding the virus. A message was sent into the innards of the house and soon the Mama came forward in a wheelchair. Everybody began recounting how in the past I used to walk by with my chow-chows and that I sometimes talked with the patriarch, now long dead. La mama even thought he fed cookies to the dogs. Which is not true.
In a short while the scene had changed and we were all sitting at a long wooden table under an awning, appraising the quality of a limoncello cake and the quickly made brew of sorbet and amaro. Tasting pieces of dried tomato and discussing what it meant that these tomatoes were called confit. The brother spoke in a broad Roman dialect, the sister spoke in French, the daughter in some English and I in a bit of an all-European mixture. We reviewed people of the past that had not so much gone away (why should they?) as gone.
The mention of the dentist S. made me roll out the panorama of Maria S’s life. At the end the brother exclaimed that her life had been like a film.
A child with a German soldier, two children with a Neapolitan playboy, a catholic marriage. And then the sudden love for a dentist in Holland during a visit of reconciliation with her family. With the double consequence of the dentist’s dropping his Dutch marriage and she her own in Naples. Both settled in Umbria, where I first met her. We talked about her afterlife and her cremation. Her husband’s suicide. The fact that she took care with flowers every week of the altar in a church of Castelleone where only a military priest came to preach.
Somewhere later on somebody remembered that we had among ourselves a Muslim, a Jew, Catholics and Agnostics. It is true that many of the events we remembered had not a real fixed, firm and moral or political point of view, or lesson. But had been mainly a matter of chance.
So what is opportunistic?
Bettona, 14 VIII 2020
It is hardly conceivable that tomorrow at this time (7 p.m.) I will probably be watching the sunset in Leiden. I will be looking in the opposite direction . Here on the terrace I followthe rays of the sun; in the garden room at home they will blind me.
But the inconceivable is more to be found in the context: nature here, urban life there. The sun falls honey-wise on the mixed stone wall, its forms are shaped by the tops of the trees that the rays have been managing, so that on the walls one sees fuzzy images and shadows. The light is broken.
Also the sounds are mixed. On the basis of a stillness, a silence, that has taken over now that the thunderstorm has retreated, the crickets are active at their scrapings again. An insistent, serious scratching of limbs against wings. A cuckoo calls softly and a dog barks. A dove croons. A fly whizzes by. All on the basis of peace, though in the background some predator bird is screaming and answered by its companion.
What I try to say is, that this house in this place is part of nature and open to it in a way that is closed to beloved Hooigracht, and is irreplaceable.
Tomorrow this time this house will be blinded. The blinds will have gone down. And soon I will be blinded too and forget.
In the air, 15 VIII 2020
This could easily have gone wrong. Because of the very Italian gift of a ferragostal lunch, with goose, I was late at the airport. But not too late. The customs officer said that within forty minutes from departure I was formally out, but he quickly helped me to rush in. While passing this test, I was given a paper one for which I needed my pen. But halfway my ballpoint went dry, just above the all-consuming signature. I ran over to the customs officer and swapped my dead pen for a live one. So far, so good. But when queuing at the gate I realised that in the imbroglio I had lost my boarding pass. I had the paper and my passport, but not the card. I turned to one of the two ladies checking passes and admitted my problem. To my surprise she produced my card that someone had brought in. I was waved through as if nothing had happened to the health declaration and the boarding pass. Only on the plane I started to recover.
Ivan had driven me to the airport, he will not take a holiday at this corona time. But when I told him that Italians seem to know how to invent small ‘happinesses’, he agreed, saying that in inviting me for lunch, I became a happiness that would not have occurred in normal times.