Piazza Purgatorio: A Love Letter to Italy During the Pandemic

T’avia sarbàtu du aranci. Mah…” says Zia Carmela. I saved you the last of the oranges. But… She sighs.

I am talking with my aunt on the phone in Sicilian, our mother tongue. “Cu è? A nuòstra Francuzza?” I hear Zio Luigi in the background.

I am in Montreal and they are in Joppolo Giancaxio, the small village where I grew up in the province of Agrigento. I was all set to leave for a nine-week visit at the end of February, dollars converted to euros, electronics synched, suitcases tagged, airport taxi booked, when…

Read in Italian
translated by Alessandra Osti

I imagine Zia Carmela and Zio Luigi in the kitchen, sitting on the small orange couch, a couch that is part of the iconography of my paternal home, a couch the colour of 1970s orange even though it was procured decades later.

Zio Luigi’s voice reverberates: “Cu è? A nuòstra Francuzza.” The specificity of the phrase in Sicilian can’t possibly be evoked by “Who’s that? Our little Francesca?” Lost in translation is the inconsolability of the moment, of this moment; lost in translation is Zio Luigi’s dulcet timbre; lost in translation is a sense of belonging and of being loved beyond the unconditional when two simple words and a diminutive – A nuòstra Francuzza – are spoken in a disappearing language by a beloved 82-year-old uncle who is exhibiting early symptoms of dementia. Those words express that he still remembers me, those words are spoken from a southern Italian village struggling against its own extinction, those words are said in the early days of a creeping pandemic that may prevent us from seeing each other for several seasons, possibly not before the orange trees outside my beloved aunt and uncle’s window bear fruit again. I couldn’t have known in late February that Zio Luigi’s words were already weighted with so much loss.

Montreal is exactly where I should be at this moment. Not leaving for Sicily was the right choice. On February 27, my departure date, the advisory against non-essential travel was limited to a few regions in Northern Italy. I didn’t cancel my trip. I postponed it by a few weeks believing the situation would stabilize and I could safely travel without worrying my family. How many of us took similar gambles not realizing that we were all hurtling towards this moment?

In early March, when I thought I would still…could still…might still leave, I obsessed over the details of my itinerary: Montreal/Trudeau-Rome/Fiumicino-Catania/Fontanarossa. I imagined the plane landing in the shadow of Mount Etna and opening its doors onto springtime in the Mediterranean. All around me a singsong of the guttural and the mellifluous in Italian, Sicilian-inflected Italian, Italian-inflected Sicilian and the Sicilian of my nonni … and the fact that I can make these distinctions confirms that I am of this place. I snack on an arancino with a cappuccino, and I smile thinking about the utter disgust Sicilians have for this foreign custom of drinking cappuccino after breakfast: “Blech! Ti duna acitu.” You’ll get indigestion. I am both of this place and Other.

My reverie expands like a rainbow arcing across the Atlantic. I am on the bus from Catania to Agrigento, a meditative three-hour journey. As always, I am mesmerized by Etna, by her immensity, by the audacity of her temperament. Typhon, the fire-breathing serpent who lives underneath, is tranquil today. That Etna’s summit is blanketed by snow delights me: packed in my suitcase are snow globes for my Sicilian friends, moose, beavers and polar bears enclosed within wintry orbs. The circuitous route winds its way through valleys of greening pastures and almond blossoms and mimosa, past villages huddled atop lofty peaks. In Agrigento, Gino, a paisan who farms my family’s small parcel of land – Gino is a garrulous, giant teddy of a man – booms out, “Francè!” before smothering me with a hug. And then Gino takes me to Joppolo, to my zii.

***

During the COVID-19 pandemic I am exactly where I should be, in Montreal, with my mom and my brother and sister-in-law and beloved nieces, the rest of my family and my friends. More precisely, we are “sheltering-in-place” in our respective homes but because we are all in Montreal we are “with” each other. I have to say to myself, slowly and deliberately, reminding myself to breathe: “I am safe in Montreal and Montreal is home and Montreal is where I should be and Montreal is where I am.” But no amount of repetition can lessen the longing to be in Joppolo with my zii, the zii to whom I am a nuòstra Francuzza. Many of us, separated by the pandemic from people we love, are experiencing some version of this anguished longing. And it is unbearable.

Bifurcated identity is endemic to being Italian-Canadian. The extent to which any one of us is connected to Italy is highly individual. But in March, as the distress signals about “the situation in Italy” grew more and more alarming, the Italian diaspora contracted with a collective holding-of-our-breath, a shared breaking-of-the-heart. One heart. News of the unfathomable tragedy over there ricocheted around the millions of people with Italian heritage scattered all over the planet, blowing up notions of a hyphenated identity. To be only part Italian – because we are also Canadian/American/Argentinian/Australian/Libyan/German – is a meaningless distinction in the face of devastation. We grieve with one heart.

“I’ve been struggling being so far from loved ones. I spoke to my grandmother in Milan, [using] Skype to call her landline, and it hit me that much harder,” says a friend, Valerie Curro Khayat. “One week before all of this escalated, we had an unexpected death in my family in Milan (not related to the virus) and, of course, no funeral.” Valerie is a Montreal-based singer-songwriter who performs in Italian, English and French. The April launch of her poetry collection at the Montreal Istituto Italiano di Cultura had to be postponed. “It’s something very peculiar and very deep that we’re going through, especially those of us who have family in Italy, because the intensity of the situation for us started before it did here, and it’s a whole other layer.”

I, too, have family in Milan: my cousin, Giuseppe, and his small children, Greta, a bookworm, and Leonardo, a mischievous cucciolo. “I don’t know… I don’t know…” Giuseppe texts me on WhatsApp in late February. These were the early days of trying to make sense of what was happening. “I believe Italians live in a sort of theatrical… in Milan the situation is absurd, [like] a George Romero movie.” I read these words on my cellphone and I hear Giuseppe’s lovely Italian-accented English, and I imagine his children playing a board game in the living room. A few weeks later, an eternity in pandemic time, quarantine has become their new normal: “Thanks to Greta and Leonardo, my day is very well organized, their e-learning in the morning and my work in the afternoon. It is not easy to… have no contact with people!!! I love you, my dear!” I reply: “🇮🇪🇨🇦”

I find myself irrationally searching for Giuseppe in MILAN CITTÀ CHIUSA, a video posted on the New Yorker website. Franco Pagetti’s camera surveils a cosmopolitan Milan reduced to an eerie ghost town. The film parenthetically memorializes a larger idea of “Italy,” the beloved culture of Western civilization that produced Verdi and the Vespa, the Sistine Chapel and Armani, Machiavelli and Vito Andolini (aka Vito Corleone), the Colosseum and espresso, the Mona Lisa and Fellini, Venice and “O sole mio,” the leaning Tower of Pisa, pizza and the piazza… the beloved country of our diaspora’s collective memory. The beloved country that produced our elders. The beloved country that is being decimated by a deadly virus.

Andrà tutto bene,” we write to each other, “Everything will be OK.” Social media is flooded with indelible images, instant icons of the pandemic. A winged, masked nurse lovingly cradles boot-shaped Italy in her arms in a mural on the wall of a hospital in Bergamo, the epicentre of the outbreak in Lombardy. Quarantined Italians participate in what they call “flash mobs” (charmingly pronounced “flesh mobs”): At the appointed hour of 18:00 they croon “Volare” or “Nessun dorma” from balconies and windows and rooftops, from Treviso to Florence to Naples to Palermo, in a countrywide concerto. (Montreal’s own Martha Wainwright leads a local “quarantine balcony singalong.”) Angry Italian officials scream at their constituents to stay home: “I am getting news that some of you would like to throw graduation parties. We will send the police over. With flamethrowers.” Their sublime Italianità comforts the world.

Virtual exchanges offer a lifeline. They transport us to a virtual piazza that transcends geographic and linguistic borders and offers a balm against an unforgiving reality. But when I click on the viral video of Sicilian twin violinists Mirko and Valerio playing Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida, something in me breaks and I weep. The teens are from Agrigento and I have just been on the phone with my mother who contextualizes that day’s COVID-19 fatalities in Northern Italy in a way that tears my heart apart: “That’s almost the population of Joppolo.” I turn to an image circulating on Facebook of Joppolo’s venerated Madonna, enlarged and superimposed over the entirety of the village. “La Madonnina del S.S. Soccorso veglia su Joppolo Giancaxio” is blazoned over it. I am not one to seek solace in faith but I fervently latch on to the prayer: May the Madonnina del S.S. Soccorso watch over my zii.

***

I would have left for Joppolo on February 27 were it not for Zio Carmelo, Giuseppe’s father and Greta and Leonardo’s beloved nonno. A highly regarded kidney specialist and the director of several dialysis centres in Agrigento, Zio Carmelo lives in Joppolo with Carmela, his sister, and Luigi. He is 74 years old.

My family feared that I would end up in some Kafkaesque quarantine nightmare or that I would get stuck in Italy indefinitely. I was willing to take my chances… until Zio Carmelo called me. In his calm manner, what Giuseppe describes as his father’s “rationality,” Zio Carmelo laid out the facts about what was happening in the North, at the airports. “Pensaci…” Think on it…, he said, and his voice trailed off. There is no higher authority in my family than Carmelo, u dutturi, the doctor, my beloved zio, my zio who looks just like my father, my beloved papà who died unexpectedly in his 50s, after working night and day like so many immigrants. After talking to Zio Carmelo, I couldn’t leave, but I thought I would still… could still… might still be able to a few weeks later. It wasn’t denial: February 27 is a long time ago in pandemic time.

So, I am physically in Montreal, but in every other sense I am in Sicily. I had emptied out fridge and pantry in anticipation of leaving and I lived off of snacks. I read Lampedusa, Steven Price’s novel about Giuseppe Tomasi. I listened to Sicilian music, to Rosa Balistreri and Dioscuri, an Agrigentino band. I went to see The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, an animated movie of Dino Buzzati’s children’s book. I bought one more snow globe, the illustrated ABC of Canada for Greta and Leonardo, travel accessories I didn’t need, and Purell. I went to see Il traditore, a film about Tommaso Buscetta, the Sicilian pentito who testified in the 1986 Maxi Trial. A paisana, Giovanna Carrubba, came with me. She had planned to go to Joppolo in September… The film left us melancholy. We didn’t need to see another movie about the Mafia, that other contagion. But the details: the characters spoke Sicilian, they had our fathers’ mannerisms, their hair, their faces, they dressed like them. “Oh my God!” said Giovanna. “That’s my childhood.” Our eyes hungrily devoured the screen searching for a tiny bit of ourselves.

It is terrible, this limbo. I obsessively pore over the photographs and itineraries a friend, Marco Falzone, is posting online. Marco is a tour guide in Agrigento specializing in “archeotrekking,” historical and cultural walking tours through the region’s hinterland, and I am there, trekking through derelict ruins, an ancient Greek temple, an Arab-Norman castle, an abandoned sulphur mine, a World War II bunker.

Marco, meanwhile, is apart from his wife and small son. They are in Parma, in the so-called Red Zone, the northern regions hit first and hardest in Italy. While thousands of people fled south, possibly bringing the coronavirus with them, Marco and his family made the civically responsible choice to honour quarantine measures. They stayed where they were. Longing cuts deeply and in every direction in this pandemic. “Deserted cities, the dead, unemployment, anxiety, endless sadness,” Marco texts me.

Another Sicilian friend, Sonia Muro Castillo, who introduced me to Marco, teases me with a photo of Agrigento’s Piazza Purgatorio: “Look at that sky!! Here, a magnificent spring! Ti voglio tanto bene!” Originally from Spain, Sonia made her home in Sicily decades ago. Her siblings are in Spain, which has overtaken Italy as the epicentre of the coronavirus in Europe. Her shop, Souvenirs Agrigento, looks over Piazza Purgatorio, which is just off Via Atenea, the cobblestoned main street in the city’s historic centre. By her storefront, a colourful carretto filled with cactus pear pads, a striped patio umbrella and a thatched-seat chair welcome tourists and locals, artists and the intelligentsia, friends and foes. The piazza is small, a piazzetta, but it has a pulsating vibrancy. At Bar Gambrinus, next to Souvenirs Agrigento, regulars feud, seek vengeance and make up in the time it takes them to down an espresso or a Birra Messina or a freshly-squeezed aranciata. In one corner of the piazzetta, lovers cuddle by a scooter; at another, a stone lion curled in sleep lies over the barred entrance to an ipogeo, one in a vast labyrinth of underground chambers beneath Agrigento dating back millennia. Old graffiti is scrawled on one wall: “art dies on social media… as do I.” And across from Sonia’s shop is the Chiesa del Purgatorio, its baroque facade made of local tufo, warm and golden in the Sicilian sun.

With Italy in lockdown, Piazza Purgatorio is pulseless: “#iorestoacasa,” says the sign Sonia posted on the door of Souvenirs Agrigento, “#iamhome.” I spoke with Sonia on WhatsApp after she’d had to shutter the shop and retire to her home out in the country where she has olive and fruit trees and a garden. She talked of adding a chicken coop: “With eggs and verdure, I will survive.”

Purgatory is also the second part of the Divine Comedy. A few years ago I gathered with other curious dilettantes in Montreal for a Dante reading group. No homework was our only rule. Food was involved: “Have pasta and meat sauce and cheesecake,” was a typical text on the evenings we met to read two cantos out loud from various English translations. I can’t pretend to know Dante’s masterwork beyond that, but “purgatory” is perhaps the most apt description for this moment. The world is spinning, shifting tectonically. When will it stop? And the ultimate perversity of this moment: In order to survive we must work collectively by being alone.

Allow me some poetic license in borrowing from Dante. His Purgatory is about sin and love. In this moment, human proximity, touch, our very breath, the expression of our love is the sin through which this contagion thrives and destroys. In pandemic purgatory, the sin is love itself.

***

As of this writing, there are 26,163 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada and 823 deaths. In Montreal, we have been sheltering-in-place for almost four weeks.

Before we experienced it here we experienced it there, in our beloved Italy, where, as of this writing, there have been 159,516 confirmed cases and 20,465 deaths. Although there is still fear of a major outbreak in the south, the curve is flattening in Italy. The headlines turn to lessons the rest of the world can learn. In The New York Times: “This is what a country a month into lockdown looks like: desperate, hungry and scared.”

The horrors of this moment are death, the loss of safety, hunger, economic collapse. We can’t fight this enemy with guns. Our only weapon, the only thing we can do, what’s being asked of us, is simple. Self-quarantine. Shelter-in-place. Stay home. Stay the fuck home! But at home we are in purgatory longing for those we love and this longing is no less tangible.

So, let’s form a “flesh mob.” Come. Join me. I am in the piazza, in the virtual quarantine piazza, Piazza Purgatorio. There is no appointed hour. Just come.

In Piazza Purgatorio, Zio Luigi raises a glass of wine, the wine he makes every autumn. “Toglie i peccati del mondo,” he proclaims, it takes away the sins of the world. Salute!

“Come over to the window, my little darling,” sings Martha Wainwright in Piazza Purgatorio, because, of course, Leonard Cohen, Montreal’s patron saint of longing, is here with us.

Tra di noi, c’è un filo di luce nell’universo,sings Valerie in Piazza Purgatorio. Between us, there’s a string of light in the universe.

“We will raise our heads, we’ll start again, with our imaginations and creativity, with will, work and passion!” exclaims Marco in Piazza Purgatorio.

Ti voglio bene,” says Sonia.

“I love you,” says Giuseppe.

One heart.

Francesca M. LoDico is a writer and editor in Montreal. Her work has appeared in PEN International, National Geographic, enRoute and Maisonneuve. She won the Accenti Magazine Award and has been shortlisted for the Bressani Prize and the PRISM International Short Fiction Prize. She is working on a novel about her childhood in Agrigento.

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