Monday, October 26, 2020

Some rare acts of compassion allowed some to survive the Eccidio

Part 5 in a series on the Slaughter in the Swamp of Fucecchio

Among the grim and gruesome stories told in the aftermath of the massacre of civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio, a few encouraging instances of compassion did occur.

Silvano Cipollini, who was 10 years old during the slaughter, was fortunate to be living in a house with his grandfather, aunts and uncles and a handful of other displaced persons. A bomb had struck his own house, forcing the family to move into a neighbor’s home, Casa Simoni. In early August, two German officers appeared and asked to be hosted in the house as well.

“My nonno, who was the head of our family, could not refuse—and that was our salvation,” Cipollini related in an interview in Orizzonti di Lamporecchio, published in 2013. “I remember these two officials were always looking out the window with their binoculars, and they would give orders to the soldiers to scour the area to the left or to the right, searching for partisans that were not there.”

After 20 days of this, the German officers warned the Italian inhabitants of the house on the evening of August 22 to hide themselves well the next morning. “I remember these words,” Cipollini said, “They said, ‘Tomorrow everyone in the house. If not, KAPUT!’ ”

Using a boat and a huge pile of hay, the Italians fashioned a tunnel to hide in and then closed up the entrance.

“At dawn, we heard the first shots,” Cipollini said. “The Germans shot two people on the street, and we heard the victims cry out and ask for help, but none of us had the courage to leave the hiding place for fear of being killed. After about a half an hour, the shouts stopped, but the shots continued.”

During the seven or more hours that the Italians remained in hiding, Germans soldiers were often both outside and inside the house, but the two officers did not give them away.

“Fear and anguish reigned during those interminable minutes,” Cipollini said. “We worried that the bullets shot into surrounding houses would penetrate our hiding place.”

They also had to listen to soldiers reporting on the execution of civilians at other houses, places where they knew that other family members were living. At one such report, Cipollini’s grandfather became so enraged that he grabbed his hunting rifle and tried to force his way out to seek revenge on the Germans. He was restrained by the others, who reminded him that the two officers who were protecting them were among those outside.

Shortly after noon, noting that the shooting has ceased several hours before, Cipollini and the others exited and witnessed the aftermath of the massacre. Dead bodies were in and around every other house. The German officers, whose names he does not know, left around 6 p.m. “Those were the last Germans I saw,” he said, because Allied soldiers soon advanced into the area and the Germans retreated.

Alberto Pratolini

In another part of the Padule, inhabitants at Casa Silvestri had been slaughtered indiscriminately. Soldiers entered and ordered the inhabitants outside and told them to stand in a line. Those who ran were shot before they could escape. Alberto Pratolini was just over a year and a half old, and his mother Bruna clutched him tightly and followed the soldiers’ orders. By chance, Bruna and Alberto lined up on the left side of the door, while the others lined up on the right. The soldiers opened fire, but Bruna and Alberto were miraculously spared, perhaps because they were covered by a German who had unknowingly planted himself in front of them. Among those killed was Alberto's two-year-old friend, Antonio, who survived the gunshots but crawled out from under his dead mother and cried loudly. A soldier dispatched him with a hard blow to the head with a rifle butt. 

When the soldiers left, Bruna went in the house and rendered aid to those inside who were wounded but still alive. In an account published by the ProLoco Carmignano, author Barbara Prosperi relates that the survivors made their way to a home occupied by German soldiers and, remarkably, Bruna charged in and hurled herself at them, shouting, “Assassins!” She demanded to know why they had so ferociously attacked defenseless civilians. One of them coldly replied: “Partisans kaput Germans, German kaput partisans.” Bruna, out of her mind with anguish, pointed at the children and women who had survived with her and shouted, “Are these the partisans?” In the heat of the moment, she grabbed the man and began to shake him, tearing his shirt.

Bruna Fagni

Prospero writes: “Faced with that reaction, the soldier hesitated, and the woman promptly seized that moment to beg for mercy for the people who had remained alive: ‘Save us, please, save us!’ she begged him, continuing to hold Alberto against her chest. The military man said, ‘I am good ... I Austrian. But if my officer orders me to kill you, I must do it; otherwise he will kill me.’ However, the Austrian soldier conferred with three other men and led the desperate survivors to a rear exit. He pointed them to a path that led to the farmhouse of Baroness Banchieri, considered a safe zone because the German command was based there.

“In the midst of so much cruelty, that soldier stood out for a compassionate gesture that saved the life not only of Bruna and her loved ones but of several other people who, following the young woman’s lead, were rescued, transferred to the farm and thus made definitively safe.”

Earlier that morning, the kindness of another soldier had saved Bruna’s 13-year-old brother Bruno, who had been sent into the Padule on horseback to carry food to Bruna’s husband and other men who were hiding deeper in the swamp. Unaware that a slaughter was taking place, Bruno encountered a German patrol. By a stroke of good fortune, the commander knew Bruno and his family, and he warned the boy to turn around. When Bruno hesitated, the officer raced up to the horse and, looking at Bruno with haunted eyes, shouted at him to go home and not be seen again, kicking the beast to cause it to run.

In 1947, Bruna offered her testimony at the trials of German soldiers in Padova and Firenze. She died in 2015 at age 101. Alberto became a bank manager and was 74 years old when he told his story to Prosperi in 2017.

Despite his tender age during the slaughter, Alberto still has haunting memories. “I remember exactly the point at which we met with my brother Alfredo. I still see him running towards us along the road that led from the Silvestri farmhouse to the Banchieri farm. As soon as we were reunited, I told him: ‘Tato Edo ... anto 'anghe ... tutti 'otti,’ (brother Alfredo, Antonio bloody, everyone broken) a sign that despite my 20 months, I had understood very well what had happened.

Casa Silvestri still stands, but it is now abandoned.

“Then I was left with a fear of uniforms. Alfredo at the age of eighteen made his entrance to the Military Academy of Modena. Every time he came home with his outfit, it was a torment to me. Even today it is enough for me to see a simple traffic policeman to feel a feeling of unease.”

Another act of both compassion and wisdom came from the unlikely source of Silvano Cipollini’s grandfather—the same man who in his rage had wanted to rush out and kill the German soldiers with his hunting rifle. Cipollini explained that some of the local Italians had collaborated with the Nazis, and Cipollini’s uncles and friends wanted to avenge themselves on the traitors once the Germans had left.

“Fortunately, my grandfather confronted his sons and the others with wisdom and resolutely convinced them to desist,” Cipollini said. “He told them, ‘Now that we are free, we must not respond with violence to violence. The death of our dear ones weighs heavily on my heart as well, but I don’t want you to stain your consciences as have those barbarians.’ ”

Go back to the beginning of the series

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Will our grandchildren have any idea what it means to be Italian-American?

Those of us who grew up in strong Italian American families and communities soon came to appreciate the special strengths of our ethnic identity. Mostly, it was the closeness of our nuclear and extended families, but our uniqueness also encompassed fantastic food, a strong work ethic and a host of other admirable traits. We had good reason to exhibit pride in our Italian origins—and we still do!

But do our children understand this? Well, how about our grandchildren and great grandchildren, who may only have a small percentage of Italian blood and have no chance of meeting their ancestors who actually lived in Italy? That’s the topic that writer Jim Pantaleo recently discussed on his Facebook page, and he has given me permission to reprint his insightful observations here.


There’s an old Country song called “Don’t Get Above Your Raising.” It means no matter how successful you are, never forget where and who you came from.

Jim (center) and his sons.
For Italian-Americans, with each passing generation, that gets harder. My children are lucky enough to have known their grandparents, but not their great grandparents…the first in our family to come from Italy. Their memory will be even further removed from my grandchildren. Each new generation will know less about those who came from the old country and the traditions they brought with them, many of which we struggle to keep alive even today.

It’s so ironic that the greatest wish of those first immigrants was that their children would assimilate, become Americanized, so that their chances for a better life here might be improved. Many never spoke Italian at home in an effort to speed up that transition. The good news is that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. That is also the bad news because of the price that had to be paid. Pretty soon, Italian-American became American-Italian, with the Italian part losing ground fast.

I am encouraged by my kids’ interest in their ancestry and country of origin. Internet research has made family tree tracing easier. We need to support this curiosity. Tell them about their roots, the towns and villages our ancestors came from. Take better care of old family photos. Write down what you can remember about that immigrant generation and what their lives were like. I am proud to be an American, but the first time I stepped off a plane in Rome, I felt the tug of my Italian ancestry too.

Maybe we can’t stop the fading of our Italian culture in America, but we can slow it down. We need to honor that immigrant generation by keeping alive the traditions they left behind.


Jim Pantaleo is the author of SPALDEEN DREAMS: A Boy Comes of Age in 1950's Brooklyn, available on Amazon.

Friday, October 9, 2020

What is the magical allure and enchantment of Italian hilltop cities?

When Lucy and I considered where we’d like to live if or when we decided to move to Italy, one criterion always ended up in our list of priorities. It had to be a hilltop village.

Of course, there were also practical considerations: It had to be near a train station. It should not be too remote, requiring hours of driving on narrow roads. It should not be too touristy but should be near some attractive large cities that our guests would want to visit. But practicalities aside, we wanted to live in a small to medium sized hilltop village, something Italy has in abundance.

Montecarlo, our personal favorite! Our house is between the trees inside the city walls on the right.

Numerous books, photo essays and web pages have been dedicated to the best Italian hilltop cities. Some travel groups offer special tours that only go to hilltop villages. Lists of the top 10, 20 or 50 cities are published. What is about these locations that is so appealing, so mesmerizing?

Tour guru Rick Steves believes it has to do with a healthy and joyful lifestyle: “Built on hilltops for defensive purposes in ancient and medieval times, the lofty perches of Tuscany’s hill towns today seem to protect them only from the modern world. After the hustle and bustle of urban Italy, it can be a joy to downshift to a more peaceful pace. With a surprising diversity of scenic lanes, abbeys, and wineries, the Tuscan countryside is a fine place to abandon your itinerary and just slow down.”

Lucchio, which has great views from a crumbling castle just above the old town.

While I must say that hilltop villages in other regions are just as attractive as those in Tuscany, we did select a Tuscan hill town, Montecarlo, which is less than an hour from Lucca, Montecatini, Pisa, Firenze and the coastal city of Viareggio. It has been everything we hoped for and more.

I’m currently reading Stumbling Through Italy, by Niall Allsop, in which he describes his travels to various regions in bell’Italia over a period of years. He wrote a paragraph about arriving in the Sicilian village of Caltabellotta that struck a chord with me and is worthy of sharing:


“(The city) was a spectacular view in itself, but from the top there were amazing panoramas in every direction. And I suppose that’s why we visit these lofty towns, many of which, when you get there are basically the same—a castle, a cathedral, a few churches, small squares, big squares, blind alleyways, stepped alleyways, bars, a few shops. It’s for the view. Not just the view from the top but the many vistas that are part of the climb. And when you get there, the reward is not just looking down on the lesser hills or the distant sea—it’s recognizing where you’ve been, it’s marveling at the stilted road that brought you here, it’s catching a glimpse of where you’re staying, its wondering what’s in that field or beside that house, it’s pointing to where you’re going next, it’s knowing that, soon, you’ll be that speck down there.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

"Only Our Destiny" provides valuable insights into wartime Italy

For those interested in life in Italy before and during World War II, Only Our Destiny, by A.G. Russo, is an entertaining and informative choice.

This historical novel, published in 2020, focuses on an impoverished family from the fictional town of Punto Roccioso, a small seaside town south of Napoli. 
Along the way, the story covers many important aspects of those troubled times, including the ravages of the Spanish Flu, the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and his black shirt thugs, the unfortunate lives of men drafted into a woefully unprepared and inadequately supplied military, living in a British prisoner of war camp, food shortages, persecution of Jewish Italians, the struggle for control between Fascists and the Camorra, discrimination against Southern Italians and the rise of the partigiani—the underground resistance fighters who harassed the occupying German army.

Raffaela struggles to survive and feed her ten children without help from her estranged and abusive husband Giuseppe, who abandons her for another woman and embraces Fascism. When Mussolini brings Italy into the war on Hitler’s side, the suffering Southern Italians are further devastated—harassed by Fascists and the occupying German army. Raffaela’s oldest children, Geno and Luisa, help her hold the family together and find enough food to survive. They befriend the family of a wealthy Jewish doctor who has been unfairly exiled to Southern Italy, and this leads to both trouble and romance for Geno and Luisa.

The saga also touches on the struggles of Italian Americans, as Raffaela’s young uncle Corrado moves to New York’s Little Italy to seek the American dream. Facing hardship and prejudice, he and friends manage to build a business, only to have it ripped from them when Corrado is confined to an internment camp for Italians. Their courage and the ability to rebuild are a testament to the resilience of the many immigrants who left their homeland with little else but a dream and established and molded America in the process.

The character development and evolution of relationships between central figures is strong enough to keep interest high, especially for readers with an interest in Italian society and the realities of wartimes. The book could have been helped by stronger editing, though, which would have improved sentence structure and punctuation and eliminated some repetition and needless sentences. The book also suffers from some typographical and factual errors and some mistranslations into Italian. Salerno is often misspelled as Solerno. The Italian word che is several times misspelled as que and the word for yes () is consistently missing the accent over the i. The Gothic Line is incorrectly referred to as being located south of Rome.

Overall, these minor shortcomings are more than recompensed by the entertaining storyline and valuable historical insights. Don’t expect this to be an entirely uplifting and cheerful tale, though. These were dark times that brought hardships, misery and death—but inspiration can be found in the courage of Raffaela and her family, who sacrifice and work together persistently in an attempt to survive and hopefully thrive.

Update: I was recently contacted by A.G. Russo, who wrote:

Thank you for the review. I just made changes to the errors you pointed out. All four of my grandparents and my mother were Italian immigrants. My father, also of course, was Italian, and born in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. I spoke Italian as a child when we lived with my grandparents but have since lost most of it, except for the swear words. (The last thing to go.) We spent almost three months in Italy last year and I made contact with family on both sides. I still communicate with two of my Italian cousins and I’m tracing my genealogy. We also went to England on a previous trip because my granduncle went there instead of America and we met that family.

Some incidents in the book were told to me by my uncles, but I have no way of knowing if they’re true or exaggerated family lore, so I had to consider them fiction for the sake of the book. But I will say both my grandfathers and grandmothers were very much ‘of their time.’ I have Italian American friends who were stunned reading the book and had no idea what it took for their families to come to America and thrive. Judging from the reviews, most people, even those who are not Italian Americans, are surprised as well. 


Author’s note: I have also reviewed several other worthwhile books that provide nonfictional accounts of wartime Italy, including:

Monday, September 21, 2020

Italy still suffering from COVID-19, but rates are much improved

 How is Italy doing these days with Covid-19 cases? This is a question I’m frequently asked by friends. Even though I did not and will not go to Italy in 2020, I still keep up with the news, and the general answer is “Quite well.” While numbers have been surging in France, Spain and other European countries, new cases in Italy remain relatively low and stable.

Clare Speak, reporter for the Italian newsletter The Local, notes: “While everyone in Italy is no doubt thankful that the feared “second wave”  of contagion has not yet materialised, many are wondering why the country has been less affected while neighbouring France and Spain suffer higher numbers of infections, hospitalisations, and deaths. Italy is now seeing around 1,500 new cases daily, while France and Spain have each reported up to 10,000 cases in a day.”


In terms of the percentage of the population affected, Spain has recorded 292.2 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the last 14 days, while the figure was 172.1 in France, according to data analysis from the European Centre for Disease Protection and Control.  In Italy, the number of new cases as a percentage using this measure is just 33. 

Speak writes that the explanation is likely to be a combination of good testing and tracing systems, strictly-enforced safety rules, and the fact that Italy closed everything earlier and reopened later than in nearby countries. She cites Dr Nino Cartabellotta, a leading Italian public health expert, professor and president of the Gruppo Italiano per la Medicina Basata sulle Evidenza.

“There is no evidence that individual and social behaviors like the use of masks, social distancing, or no gatherings, have been better in Italy than elsewhere,” he told Speak. “The timely, rigorous and prolonged lockdown has worked better here in Italy than in other countries that have hesitated to close, closed less, and reopened earlier.”

He credited Italy’s closure with “reducing mortality, hospital admissions, and the number of new cases to a greater extent than in other European countries.”

Italy and Spain were initially among the worst-affected countries when the coronavirus struck Europe. Both countries put strict lockdowns into place, but infections in Spain have surged since the lockdown measures were fully removed at the end of June. Italy’s currently far lower rate of infections may be partly explained by the fact it simply reopened many things later.

Speak reports that schools in Italy only began reopening on Sept. 14, and in many regions, they’re still closed. Spain reopened schools at the beginning of September, and in France classes gradually restarted from May. Meanwhile the Italian government only relaxed a total ban on spectators at sporting events last week Friday, allowing up to 1,000 fans per game. France allows far larger crowds, with 11,500 per day attending the French Open in Paris.

Italy having a longer and stricter lockdown than other countries gave it an advantage upon reopening, Cartabellotta said. However, he added that Italy “lost some of its advantage” to some “non-virtuous” behavior in the country over summer.

Italy started gradually easing lockdown rules from May, but many restrictions still remain in place, while other rules were added or reinstated over summer amid concerns that holidaymakers were fuelling the spread of the virus. Italy recently announced that rules will not be eased until at least Oct. 31. Italian politicians have attributed the lower infection rate to successful testing and tracing and a reinforced national health system.

“Italy’s national health service has become much stronger,” health minister Roberto Speranza said in August, maintaining that outbreaks are “under control” at current levels, as their origins can be traced.

Those who fear they may have symptoms can get prescription from their doctor for a rapid (and free) test with only a short wait. For those who test positive, their contacts can be traced and tested within days, preventing further spread, partly thanks to adequate coverage of the country’s contact-tracing app.

It is still not possible for Americans to travel to Italy for vacations, and it is unknown when that ban will be lifted. While Lucy and I could return because we have residency, and we usually do go to Montecarlo for a month in the fall, we would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine period. It hardly seems worthwhile to go there for a month and spend half the time in quarantine. We also don’t feel it’s a good idea to spend 15 hours on an airplane and transit through several airports—so for now we will stay put in the United States and follow our own safety procedures. Italy will still be there, and absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Our sealing crew, keeping safe from COVID-19 (and the recent smoke from wildfires).

Thursday, April 23, 2020

More evidence that’s formula for Italian ethnicity is skewed

It’s official.’s formula for determining Tuscan ethnicity is seriously fouled up—and I now have DNA ethnicity tests and genealogical data I needed to prove it.

I’ve written about this before in Are new Ancestry algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians? But even as I criticized the company, I wondered what would happen if one of my Italian cousins from Tuscany took the test. I and all of my first cousins in America can be considered tainted because each of us has one parent who came from somewhere other than Tuscany. All of our parents who were born to Tuscans Michele Spadoni and Anita Seghieri have passed away, so we can’t test them.

Most of my Italian American cousins come out more French than Italian, which is confusing, since I’ve researched most of Michele’s and Anita’s family lines back to Tuscany from at least the 17th century, and many lines much further—some even to the 1200s. I have found birth records for every Italian ancestor on the Italian side of the family going back to all 16 of my third great grandparents. Each one was born in the same valley in Italy, the Valdinievole (roughly between Lucca and Montecatini), or just a few miles away. All of the surnames are common to our little region of Tuscany. All of my first cousins should be approximately half Italian, but none test more than 11%. One tested 0 percent Italian and 45% French.

Anna Giuntoli Hughes
However, I recently made contact with Annamaria Giuntoli, a second cousin of my dad. She was born in Italy, and her parents were also from families rooted in Tuscany. Names in her family history fill up the Valdinievole regional archives: Giuntoli, Magrini, Grassi, Capocchi, Montanelli, Pinelli, Pieretti, Bellandi, Pucci. Six of those names are also in our direct line of ancestry.

So what does say about Anna’s ethnicity, which should be close to 100% Tuscan Italian. It says she is 49% Italian and 51% French. The ethnicity estimate becomes even more inaccurate with her son Marco’s test. Anna married a British man, so one would think that Marco would test around 25% Italian and 25% French, right? Nope, his test says he is 54% British, only 2% Italian and 35% French—indicating that the genes he inherited from Anna were actually much more French than Italian.

Another cousin who should be close to pure Tuscan is Joan (Seghieri) Reiling, born to Dante Marcucci Seghieri and Maria Luisa Togneri. Both surnames have long roots in Tuscany. Joan tests 50% Italian, 44% French and 6% from Greece and Balkans. Her grandson Michael tests as 0% Italian and 10% French.

Still another cousin Vilma Ferranti Mott, now deceased, was born to Gabriella Montanelli of Montecarlo and Giuseppe Ferranti of Villa Basilica, both small towns in the province of Lucca. Her results: 44% French, 54% Italian.

This explains a lot about why the ethnicity results for me and my cousins are so skewed toward French. Somehow,’s algorithms find Tuscans to be roughly a half-and-half mixture of French and Italian. History does not support this odd admixture. Except for the invasion of the Gauls in the years 200 to 400 BC, inland Tuscany has never received an influx of French immigrants. If anything, the opposite is true, as social scientist Robin Cohen reports: “About 5 million French nationals are of Italian origin, if their parentage is retraced over three generations.” And according to official Eurostat data for 2012, the number of Italian citizens residing in France was 174,000. Wikipedia says of Marseille, France, that “in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin.”

Why is this discrepancy important? I find it disturbing that so many Italian Americans with Tuscan roots, most of whom speak proudly of their heritage, are disappointed and shocked to be told they are more French than Italian. No offense meant to our French neighbors, who also have good reason to be proud, but isn’t it better to know the truth of our origins and have our pride placed in the right country?

Another sad result of the problem is that some people now wrongfully suspect their grandparents of infidelity. One of my cousins commented, “My mom and several of her siblings have had their results come back as French, with no trace of Italian. It has us all flummoxed. We we were thinking my grandfather must have had a different father (out of wedlock).

I’ve experienced a lot of pleasure from my hobby of genealogy, and I give credit and high ratings to for its researching tools. It has been a kick connecting with new relatives that I’ve found through DNA matching. But I sincerely hope the company irons out the problems in its methods of determining Italian heritage.
Update (Sept. 17, 2020): In the summer of 2020, Ancestry revised its formula again. Big improvements! They now recognize the ethnic group of Northern Italy. They still have too much France in there, but Anna Giuntoli is now listed as 69% Northern Italy and 5% Southern Italy, a total of 74% Italian. The French is still in there at 21%, but this is a major step in the right direction! In addition, her son Marco is now listed as 18% Northern Italy and 10% France.
Even more encouraging is that Vilma Ferranti was changed from 44% French and 54% Italian to 84% Northern Italian and 14% Southern Italian. Keep it the good work, Ancestry.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lucca under lockdown is compared to a desert, or life in a monastery

What would we be doing every day if Lucy had not slipped on the stairs just a few days before we were set to fly to Italy? We think about that most every day, while we enjoy the slow life in our Gig Harbor country home. Had we gone to our Montecarlo apartment, we’d be confined inside, restricted to weekly shopping trips. We’d be paying a daily fee for a rental car (essential for trips to the supermarket) that sat mostly unused.

Instead, we can shop online at Safeway and Home Depot and pick up supplies in the parking lot for our food and home improvement projects. We have an abundance of private streets to walk, as well as trails in the forest, and our five-acre lot has plenty of room for vegetable, fruit and flower gardening. My sister, brother, daughter, cousins and several long-time neighbors live next door, and we can visit on porches or on the streets and trails.

But life in the province of Lucca is another story, and something I think about often. I periodically check the page of Facebook friend Jonell Galloway to see how she is doing, and to imagine my own life had we been there instead. She recently wrote a long and informative post on life in Lucca that is well worth sharing:

Jonell enjoys caffè alla nocciola, made with
hazelnut liqueur, in earlier times, when
she could go out to a nice coffee bar.
I have spent some 40 days and nights in the Italian desert. That’s what 40 days of lockdown in an ancient city surrounded by stone walls feels like. The only green is the inside bank of the Renaissance city walls around the corner, but looking at it through the window gives me a crick in the neck after a few minutes.

If I walk 50 meters down the street, I can listen to the birds tweeting in the prison yard and experience spring a bit. We hear the nuns singing vespers every night in the convent next to the clinic. I count minutes and hours and days and heads these days. That’s how I pass my time on this velvet sofa, reading how many new cases and deaths there have been due to coronavirus. I live the enclosed life of a nun without the habit and the vows and with the addition of a few sensual pleasures. I take delight in architectural details, cooking, eating, and simply slipping under the sheets at night, and in getting to know my husband better than I thought possible.

The first declared cases of coronavirus in Italy were on January 31, when a state of emergency was immediately declared, and then on February 20, when 16 new cases were found in Lombardy. The north was put in quarantine on March 8 and declared a red zone, meaning that it was on danger alert and its borders were closed. The next day, the entire Italian population of 60 million was locked down; two days later, all businesses except pharmacies and food shops were closed. On the 21st, all non-essential businesses and industries were closed. Twenty-four thousand six hundred forty people have died, there are now fewer new cases, and ICUs have had some relief, and though the numbers are going down, there is still far to go. Lombardy is still suffering badly.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte confers with Minister of
Heath Roberto Speranza. Gotta love those Italian surnames.
Speranza means "hope."
Prime Minister Conte gave a long speech in front of the Senate today. I didn’t hear it all, but he seemed to be preparing us for a very long road. The total lockdown we’ve been living under will gradually be lifted as of May 4, he said, but things will be far from the old normal. He was somber and weary and it was the first time I’ve heard him falter when speaking. He looked tired, as if he hadn’t slept; the poor guy is overworked. It’s gray and rainy and not the day to hear this. Italy has suffered too much for too long. Even though the numbers are going down, we’re nowhere near the end. Lombardy has to get beyond this. Conte refers to the next phase as cohabitation, that is to say living with the virus in our presence. That will be our new way of functioning and it will be full of restrictions. European governments are already talking about a second wave of coronavirus as if it’s a given.

Since Monday, we’ve been able to pick up free masks at the pharmacies. We are now required to wear them in public. Truth is, most people already were and many food shops required them. There was a shortage of hand sanitizer and masks the first week or so, but that was quickly managed. Most shops provide free gloves and sanitizer. The supermarket outside town offers free sanitizer, gloves and masks and takes your temperature before you enter. In the hygiene department, Italy is doing very well.

The rate of Covid is higher in cities such as Turin and Milan with historically poor air quality because their inhabitants often have impaired respiratory function, but now there is less pollution from automobiles thanks to the lockdown. They say that you can now actually see the Alps clearly from the top of Milan cathedral, and air quality has improved all over the country. Milan is already planning to create large pedestrian and bike zones in its downtown, closing them to car traffic. Cities are in the process of rethinking urban planning. The future will be different, and I suspect many of the shops will remain closed, leaving lots of empty buildings.

Paris has stopped hosing down the streets every day because they found there were microparticles of Covid in the water. Apparently, this could work for or against us in that it could possibly help build up our immunity over time, or it could make us sick. Until they know, many streets that are normally disinfected every day remain full of dog doo, at least in Lucca, the only place I’ve known these last 40+ days.

If I were prime minister, tiramisù would
definitely be on my list of essential services. 
Although Lucca is far from a food desert, there are luxuries I miss. The only tiramisù is the one in the freezer, which dates from 44 days ago. There’s no dark chocolate in the house because all the chocolate shops are still closed. I truly thought chocolate was essential, but the government obviously doesn’t agree. All the pastry shops are closed, as are the restaurants. There’s not a cannoli to be had in all of Lucca. On the television news, I saw a pizzeria spacing out tables for a potential reopening. In these old European cities, restaurants are small, so the 2-meter distancing leaves them with few tables; it is dystopic.

My quarantine project has been to research the traditional food of Lucca. Those local ingredients are plentiful and easy to get. I might end up becoming a specialist, although I doubt many outside Lucca and Tuscany would be interested. We eat well, we eat locally — lots of polenta, pici, artichokes, and meat. Fava beans, white asparagus, agretti (saltwort), and peas are delicious this year. Dried beans of all types are a staple food in Tuscany, most often seasoned with garlic, sage and olive oil and sometimes with a bit of tomato paste. They are often used in soups along with stale bread or farro.

I am among the lucky ones. I never forget that. I have plenty to eat and live in a spacious, comfortable house. It’s a strange feeling to watch the world through your own barred windows (that’s part of the architecture here), not experiencing social contact, and looking at pictures of long lines for food banks in your native country. It’s strange to know the world only through news sites. It’s strange to be confined to four walls that are themselves surrounded by more walls.

I see the world before me quickly becoming comfortable for only the rich. Poverty sits around every corner. The middle class is quickly disappearing, even though most Italians have savings to get through hard times. There’s a long tradition of "spesa sospesa," which allows you to leave some groceries at checkout so they can be donated to needy shoppers. Hunger might seem hidden, but many posters around town are requesting food donations. Unlike in the U.S., the Italian media aren’t showing us the vivid images. Unemployment, well, we can’t even put numbers on that for the moment. Even when restaurants open, due to social distancing, they will have fewer customers, so prices will inevitably go up. The same will apply to shops, cinemas, theatres, and flights. The main budget airlines in Europe stopped all flights weeks ago. Going to a movie or out to eat, travel, will become a luxury. The rich will get all the tiramisù and we’ll be eating dry bread.

The door has been opened to new kinds of crime. A local pizzeria that does home delivery — the only one in town that I know of — delivered a pizza last week and the customer refused to pay. The "customer" took out a butcher knife and tried to rob the delivery man, who fled. When the police arrived on the scene and entered the guy’s lodgings, they discovered that he was illegally renting out bed space to 15 people and advertising it online. He has now taken up residence in the prison across the street from us. Several European countries have received faulty test kits and masks from China. One hospital received fake N95 masks. I have heard that the mafia is hard at work and finding new ways of extorting money, such as offering money to small businesses that don’t qualify for emergency government subsidies.

This week the government started a new program of testing for antibodies. They began with health workers, policemen, and other essential workers. The plan is that everybody will eventually be tested for either the virus or antibodies. Chile is already issuing Covid passports, and that was initially an Italian plan, but you don’t hear much about it these days. It would make sense that those who have antibodies or who test negative should be the first to go back to work and to school. I will follow that with great interest. We’ll all certainly have to install a tracking app on our phones so that our exposure to the virus can be traced if necessary. The government said this would not be forced upon us, but we know it must be generalized if it is to work. It makes sense as long as they don’t use it for nefarious purposes.

In the beginning, the situation felt surreal. Little by little, it all sank in and everybody seemed to agree that strict lockdown was the only rational solution. Now it’s the new norm; we know we’re going to be living in some similar way for a very long time. Some people disobeyed the rules as the numbers kept going up, and as a result, restrictions were tightened. Our lockdown has not been light in any way. From almost the outset, gatherings of any kind have been forbidden. We have to stay near our house — no drives into the countryside or hills — and only one of us can go out at a time. Peter and I can’t even walk down the street together. We have to fill out a form each time we go out stating our purpose. We’ve gotten used to it. There’s a sort of consensual agreement among most Italians that this is for the good of all. Even though the police are constantly patrolling the streets and can ask to check our forms, it in no way feels like martial law. They feel more like our allies rather than our enemy.

This “prison” makes me understand how much I value freedom, yet oddly enough, I don’t resent this confinement. It is, I think, the only logical way to fight the virus, and I want more than anything to do what’s right. I read a Harvard study that said it’s likely we’ll be in and out of lockdown for the next two years. I can deal with that. I’m experienced now. The worst part is the monotony, the repetitiveness of the days that all run into each other, since there is nothing to mark one from the other. I sometimes find myself sighing under my breath like my mother did. When Peter asks me what’s wrong, I say the same thing as her: “life.” It is a momentary sense of despair that passes as quickly as it comes.

If I have one word of advice, it’s that this is no time to be separated from your own ones. I say that with my entire family scattered around the globe. Videoconferencing has become our normal way of communicating. Sometimes the kids even call us from bed or while cooking so it’s almost like being together and sharing day-to-day life again. We say, “I love you” more often. We send virtual kisses and hugs. Reach out to the ones you love now, not later. Learn to say, “I love you” out loud. You just don’t know what tomorrow might bring, even if it’s just more of the same. After this long writing, I am starting my 44th day. There will be no leaving this “desert” anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Italians subject to checkpoints, fines for leaving home, crossing boundaries

The COVID-19 lockdown in Washington state is inconvenient for most of us and devasting for those who are out of work or own businesses that have been shut down or restricted. But the lockdown in Italy is much, much more severe.

Police cars patrol the streets, even in pedestrian areas, and the army has also been called on to help. Checkpoints ensure that people who are out have good reason. If you get stopped, you must show where you’re going on a form printed from the government website. Whatever you declare is subject to verification, and if it’s found to be false, you could end up with a jail term of three months or a fine of up to 3,000 euros. Anyone out in a group will be fined on the spot.
Claudio Del Terra, poliziotto for the Tuscan city of Altopascio, signals for a car to pull over for a document check.
Newspaper accounts say that police stopped and checked 700,000 citizens between 11 and 17 March, 43,000 of whom were found to have violated the stay-at-home decree. Many of those accused of violating the lockdown have justified their behavior based on ambiguities in the decree, claiming they did not understand the restrictions. Police have also been testing the people they stop for the COVID-19 virus, so imagine the double-whammy of getting a fine and discovering you have the virus at the same time.

My cousin Claudio Del Terra in Altopascio is one of those officers on the front lines, stopping people who are out to make sure they have valid reasons. It is not permitted to cross from one municipality to another except for “cases of absolute urgency,” Claudio wrote me. Because he is in a position where he could be exposed to the virus, he does not visit his elderly mother, who lives nearby and is undergoing chemotherapy, to avoid the risk of accidentally contaminating her (his brother Marco is able to check in on her).

Hats off to the brave Italian police officers who must enforce the regulations despite resistance and confusion from some citizens. And let us hope and pray that we don’t have to take such extreme measures in Washington.

Monday, March 30, 2020

"Days and nights run into more days and nights": Life under Italy lockdown

Because we are living in historic times, I am again posting an updated account of a friend about life under lockdown in Lucca. It is well written and will help people understand the emotional aspects of living under a strict quarantine. Note: This was written before the hopeful figures from today came out. More from Jonell:

I could call these missives Love in the Time of Coronavirus. Living in total lockdown in Italy for three weeks is not all negative. Lockdown has become a way of life and we find ways other than museums and concerts and sports to amuse ourselves. Some are newfound; others are simply enhanced.

My husband and I were already madly in love, and confinement has reinforced it. The only argument we’ve had was about placement of a comma in a sentence I wrote, and we argue about commas even in normal times, so I’m not worried. We were already in the habit of cuddling every morning before getting out of bed. Now we spend more time at it. We have longer, more serious conversations, ones we probably should have had before. We’ve rediscovered what an incredible complicity we have. Liking your spouse or partner helps in these hard times, as do tolerance and adaptability.

Food is as always an important part of our lives. Takeout was never our thing and we don’t have that option anymore, and anyway, we feel it’s safer to cook from scratch at home. We eat more carbs than ever — pasta, bread, polenta — and find it comforting. I’ve been researching food from Lucca for a couple years. The food here is meat-based, often slow-cooked, so we’ve been delighting in what is essentially peasant food. It’s a switch from my favorite food, duck à l’orange. Since there are no restaurants open, and no place else to go as we’re restricted to our neighborhood, we also save money. After dinner, we dance a few slows and relish in our good fortune at not yet having contracted the virus (I just knocked on wood). It’s not at all a bad situation.

In this mostly pedestrian city, I can’t shop for food for the entire week because I can only buy as much as I can carry home. I go out 2 or 3 times a week, juggling the times according to the shorter opening hours of the food shops. Since our wine merchant is closed, my husband goes to the supermarket outside the city walls once a week to stock up on wine and a few other essentials. Today, he found all non-food departments except for cleaning supplies cordoned off with red tape by order of the government.

We call those we love more often and have longer conversations. We need to hear their voices. Short, choppy text messages are no longer satisfactory. The subject is almost always about our experiences of coronavirus around the world, but someone actually called me about kale risotto the other day. That was refreshing. There is a new tradition of aperitivo and family gatherings by videoconference or using the Houseparty app. Restrictions spark our creativity and force us to find ways of recreating old traditions.

The odd person I pass in the street makes more eye contact than before and often smiles, even though we’re strangers. It’s a smile that says, “yes, we’re doing this for the good of everyone. No, none of us likes it, but it has to be done.”

One woman opens her windows in the morning and sings opera arias. Another neighbor plays jazz sax with his windows open. Little things count more than in the past. We all become like family even if we don’t know each other’s names or faces.

An emergency fund of 6 billion Euros is being allocated to unemployment, even for part-time and temporary employees. The government is also injecting 50 billion into the economy and is now pleading for aid from the EU. This will be a test of the solidarity and solidity of the European Union.

But all is not well. There is the harsh reality that 10,779 people have died as of this writing and the daily number of new cases, slightly down for a few days, went up again yesterday after 3 weeks of total lockdown of the country, and even longer in Lombardy where it started. Today there was a decrease. The town of Codogno, where this all began, has been in lockdown since February 21. They had two days with zero cases and thought there was hope, then on Friday, there were six new cases. Several doctors yesterday said that the epidemic might peak in a week or 10 days, but it doesn’t end there. Living in lockdown has become a routine and just as well since an epidemiologist on TV last night said we might need another six weeks to get the virus fully under control. The government is already talking about an extension of our total confinement and rightly so.

In the past two days, ten more doctors have lost their lives to coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 51 nationwide, 10 in the virus-ravaged city of Bergamo (Lombardy) alone. The total number of health workers who have tested positive for CV as of this writing is 6,414, approximately 8% of total cases; no data is available on overall fatalities among hospital and nursing home staff, but in all, the virus has infected more than 5,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, ambulance staff, and other health employees. Doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to help.

And this is on top of the personal suffering we as humans have to bear in the course of our day-to-day lives. Someone in my family in the States is in extremis and I can’t go visit. Our children and their cousins have had CV for two weeks and they’re still not over it, though it’s not getting worse. In Florence, the father of a friend died, and his family was not allowed to have a funeral because funerals have been banned for weeks. Only graveside prayers with the priest and a single family member are allowed. Grandparents haven’t been able to see their grandchildren for over a month. Many older people have been shut in alone for ages in order to avoid catching the virus. Those who are hospitalized are not allowed visitors, so for many there has been no chance to say goodbye to loved ones. I suffer with the Italians and I suffer for my relatives in other countries. I don’t worry much about myself because I take all the required precautions, still aware that that might not be enough.

Meanwhile, a gentle spring has come. We look out at it from behind the barred windows of this 17-century house. Days and nights run into more days and nights. This is the new normal, at least for now. If I were to give advice, I’d say concentrate on those you love. Remember why you fell in love with your partner. Read all the books you haven’t had time to read. Think of funny things your kids did or said when they were young. Savor every bite and every sip and forget the other material stuff. Get to the essence. Life has changed and so have we.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The new normal: Living with the Coronavirus boogeyman in Lucca

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Italy rose Thursday, and the figures for today are virtually the same as yesterday. In addition, the daily death total increased to 919, the highest yet. This, despite the fact that restrictions in Italy are much more severe than in the United States. To keep us informed of what life there is like, I have another report from Jonell Galloway in Lucca.

Here in Italy, we’re walking, but we’re not going anywhere. We’ve not lost our way; we’re just charting new territory. Today in the region of Lombardy alone, where the coronavirus outbreak started, there were 3,594 new cases — 900 more than yesterday — and 6,153 new ones in all of Italy. Following four days of gradually improving numbers, the rate of infection has risen. After two and half weeks of total shutdown and even longer self-isolation, we’re feeling more and more like prisoners, yet it’s not like prison because we’re confident that we are doing this for the good of all.
A tent outside the hospital in Lucca. Serchioindiretta photo.
The national decrees regarding free movement are revised and made tighter every couple of days. The national government posts these rules online and newspapers try to translate them into a language everyone can understand. Local officials have a right to make additional decrees. Every time we go out, we’re supposed to print out a form called an “autocertificazione,” or “self-certification,” stating the time and purpose of our outing. These forms also change every couple of days, so you can’t keep up with them. The rules of the game keep changing, making it difficult to know what you can and can’t do on any given day, which keeps us reading from morning to night.

Giacomo Puccini reflects on calmer times
outside his home in Lucca.
The Chinese have sent a medical team of 14 to Tuscany to help train locals in coronavirus intervention. They also send masks and other medical supplies on a regular basis. Today, the Russians airlifted 104 military doctors, medics, and virologists along with 100,000 masks, 85,000 protective suits, and 30 ventilators to Bergamo, the hardest hit town. It was impressive to see images of them driving into town in military vehicles. In Lucca, a local shoe factory has converted its operations to manufacture masks. Prisoners all over the country have been rioting because, like everyone else, their visiting rights have been removed. The local prison happens to be across the street from us and is one of the only ones that hasn’t. As of this writing, Italy has lost 37 doctors and 2 dentists to the virus. Sadly, there are no official figures on the number of other medical personnel who have died of coronavirus in Italy.

The streets are surreally empty. The only humans we encounter are the occasional dog-walkers or odd shopper and policemen in their patrol cars. Unusually, everyone seems to follow the rules now, wanting to do what’s right (and knowing that if they don’t, they face stiff fines), but people interpret the decrees differently. For example, the decrees state that we are allowed to go outdoors alone for exercise (but not for group sports), as long as we stay near home. Yesterday I went Nordic walking in my neighborhood and ventured about 300 meters from my house. The police stopped me and asked for my address, then told me to go straight home, saying they didn’t want to see me in the streets again. In their view, we’re only allowed to go 200 meters from home. Okay, right, but that’s not what’s stated in the local newspapers. A lot of information is left open to interpretation and I can only assume it was the police who arbitrarily decided on this distance. So today, I simply walked around the block about a dozen times and the cops drove by without a word.

The churches, which are normally open until 6 p.m., are sometimes open and sometimes closed. The food shops keep shortening their hours and the main supermarket outside town said it was no longer taking online orders, so I assume home delivery is no longer possible.

I make all our meals from scratch, as I have always done, and viewing the circumstances, we think it’s safer that way. In any case, there aren’t really any options since all the restaurants including takeout have been closed for weeks. I find myself cooking a lot of comfort food like pasta and polenta and, being in Tuscany, a lot of meat. Last night, it was bistecca alla fiorentina with Tuscan country-style roast potatoes made with olive oil, rosemary, sage and bay leaves. Since most food is produced locally — kilometer zero, as the Italians like to say — the shelves are still full. And most surprisingly of all, perhaps not, I crave foie gras and quiche. Before this, I swore I was off French food.

There is no more “normal.” Life changes by the day, sometimes by the hour, but it’s a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We are consumed by news of COVID-19. In my fervent imagination, there is a boogeyman lurking around every corner, waiting to jump out at me whenever I emerge. Coronavirus is a stealthy, invisible enemy. It feels like the walls of this ancient city are crumbling around us and we have only ourselves to fall back on.