Part 1 of a quasi-diary in multiple parts …

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

I didn’t start writing this right away. Who knew?

The first couple of weeks I watched … like many people … in a state of disbelief and dread. I started this “journal” in Marc, then wrote every few days. Or periodically.

Those of us in Italy, as in China before us, are now in strict lockdown. Quarantena is when one is sick or possibly sick, otherwise Italians use the English word. Lockdown. The novel Coronavirus first appeared in several small towns in the regions of Lombardy and the Veneto. Those towns were locked down, with armed military blocking roads. Then the lockdown expanded to all of Lombardy and 16 province (counties) … within days, to all of Italy.

As the virus grew and spread, we watched its acceleration from my hometown of Los Angeles.

Rewind to January.

The Chinese city of Wuhan was in the news. A virus was spreading and the first patients had shopped at the city’s live animal market. China’s penchant for eating exotic and endangered animals was in the spotlight. I remembered “Contagion,” as Gwyneth Paltrow shook the raw pork-covered hand of the chef who had prepared some local delicacy … which we saw as a pig in its pen while a bat flew overhead and pooped, bullseye, in the food trough.

American citizens in China were being flown back to the USA … young people studying overseas were brought home, too. China was building “pop-up hospitals” that would be ready within a week, and the news showed large tractors starting the work.

Culturally, the Chinese travel a lot during the Lunar New Year and celebrations were extended … postponed … cancelled.

South Korea. Taiwan. Japan. Singapore.

Italy.

On February 7th, David & I flew … without worrying … to Los Angeles where he would have knee surgery. In Frankfurt, they asked if we had been to China in the last 14 days. No. Later in the terminal was a separate checkpoint, a new checkpoint, where an official flipped through our passports. We knew they were looking for Visa stamps from China … just to be sure. At LAX, all inspectors and agents wore masks … in addition to the gloves that they’ve had for years. Our luggage was delivered on Carousel 7, as we mingled in the large area with other international travelers. Without worrying (beyond the normal being-in-a-crowd stuff).

As we went outside to meet our ride, I wrote to my friend Mark … the nervousness of a big crowd made me, as always, want to jump into a 33-gallon drum of Purell. He had coined that phrase. Little did I know how much I’d want that drum for the next [insert period of time].

We picked up our rental car. Without worrying.

Then a patient in Seattle was diagnosed, a person who made no trip to China, had no contact with a person who had made a trip to China. Community spread entered our lexicon.

David had several pre-surgery doctors’ visits. At one office, there were 2 boxes of masks at the check-in desk … I stared at one, then the other, thought (How many should I take? How many would I really need? And shouldn’t I leave some for others, those who are frail or sick.) … I decided against it. Everyone used Purell … not just those of us who say “there’s a little Monk in all of us, there’s a lot of Monk in some of us.”

We stayed, happy and relaxed, with my dear friend Agat for several days … then moved into Peter and Barbara’s lovely executive apartment. I’ve known them since elementary school, Barbara and I were great friends living across the alley from one another back in the day.

We mostly ate at our home-away-from-home, dining out only sometimes. Without worrying. As always, I used wipes from the bamboo dispenser at Trader Joe’s.

The night before David’s surgery, we stayed at the modern Gateway Hotel. WIthout worrying. David spent one night at Providence/St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, and I was permitted to stay on the couch in his room. Without worrying.

My return ticket was March 4th, arriving in Bologna on the 5th. We have feline obligations at home, and staying 4 weeks was the maximum I felt I could or should be away. I promised David I’d start the vegetable garden, and neighbor Piero … il re degli ortolani, the king of gardeners assured him that he’d help me.

David’s ticket was for May 20th … his original idea being he could have both knees done sequentially. The doctor recommended against it, so David had the idea to re-book his flight, and come home after his March 30th follow-up appointment. He started physical therapy … and the therapist came to the apartment. Without worrying.

It was late February. American friends were getting nervous about my return home. They worried and wondered if it might be better if I stayed.

I wrote to Sarah, an American friend in Milan. I wanted her perspective, living near the hot zones, the zona rosso. It was before the earthquake word “epicenter” was borrowed. She said it was surreal … and was understandably cautious about steering my decision. She and I agreed that there was no right answer.

I wrote to George, a friend who reads scientific journals, among many other things. He said he knew about the inadequate American response, but too little about how the Italian government was handling the crisis … so said he declined to opine.

I wrote to Mark (sopra.), whose daughter has a Doctorate in Public Health. Her counsel was not to panic, realize that the virus had already spread, and take common sense precautions like washing your hands.

I read two articles in the New York Times. One praised Italy’s response, saying that while it was not perfect, the government was responding to what was getting more critical by the day. The other criticized America’s denial and inaction, and feared the country would not be prepared for what was clearly on the verge of reaching critical mass.

There were also stories about Italians using back roads to avoid the police to get to a favorite bar … a daughter meeting her mom at the checkpoint to bring a piece of her favorite focaccia. They called it furbizia … slyness.

It all helped me decide. David & I agreed that I should go home.

… and so it goes …

PENNE WITH FENNEL, SAUSAGE, AND MOZZARELLA

2 cloves of garlic, diced
Olive oil
2 fennels, sliced … fennel fronds, minced
3 to 4 sausage, grilled and cut into pieces … or raw, casings removed
1 oz. (2 Tbl.) white wine
1 lb. penne (or other short pasta)
6 oz. mozzarella, cut into cubes

- In a frying pan that is large enough to hold the pasta, saute the garlic in olive oil until just starting to brown.
- If using raw sausage, cook until the pink is gone.
- Add the fennel slices, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Sauté until the fennel starts to brown. If using grilled sausage, add them now.
- When the fennel is browned, add the wine. Reduce heat.
- Cook the penne in boiling salted water until barely al dente.
- Reserve some of the pasta cooking water. Drain the penne.
- Add the penne to the frying pan. Toss well, and if necessary, add some of the reserved pasta cooking water to keep the pasta/sauce moist.
- Add the mozzarella and fennel fronds, toss.
- Serve.
Enjoy!

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.