LESLIE MCBRIDE WILE
Today is Pasquetta, “little Easter.” In Italy, the day after the holiest day of the Christian calendar is also a national holiday, traditionally a day to relax after the emotional rigors of solemn church vigils followed by sincere rejoicing and hours of eating, in famiglia, of course. Pasquetta is a day for a drive in the country or a walk in the mountains, or a small fiera di primavera (spring fair) where one might buy local crafts, food and wine or dance to a little orchestra playing traditional music. Piazza Maggiore is normally the scene of just such a celebration on this day every year: vendors’ tents line the center of the piazza, volunteers serve a midday meal of polenta with two sauces, and a band plays the old songs while couples dance, spectators chat, and children play running games until everyone realizes it’s time for a gelato. It’s a lovely day, made even sweeter by its intimate, neighborhood vibe—most everyone either lives at Piazza or is related to someone who does.
This year there is no crowd, no music, no lunch; there are no tents stocked with herbal liqueurs, local cheeses, bunches of field greens, handmade hats. This year we are all at home with only those of our immediate household—no aunts, grandparents, in-laws, cousins—and Piazza is deserted, or at least I assume it is, not having been up there myself since mid-March even though it is a ten-minute walk from home. Empty streets, empty churches at Easter, empty chairs at the holiday table. Emptiness is the rule, but it is not natural. Pope Francesco preached his Easter sermon to an empty St Peter’s Basilica; Andrea Bocelli sang “music for hope” to an empty Duomo di Milano. The Italian president, speaking from his own enforced solitude, encourages us to cultivate patience and hope.
As Italy sees fewer new cases of the virus, as the death toll slows, there are fewer headlines about the pandemic and more about the economy. Prime Minister Conte says the lockdown will continue through 3 May, with just a few businesses allowed to re-open tomorrow. What comes next? How will the government re-start the economy? While the Church and other charities are distributing food and sheltering the homeless, the government has passed a series of measures to help individuals and businesses, including food stamps for the poor. All tax payments are suspended. Employees of businesses closed by the shutdown are receiving benefits equal to three weeks of paid leave. Even sole proprietors of very small businesses receive a cash payment to tide them over. Here in Mondovì we can make a donation to a dedicated fund so the Comune (city government) can give direct assistance to people who can’t afford to buy groceries.
While many are struggling with boredom and worse under the stay-at-home regulations, my husband and I have the luxuries of open space and plenty of work to keep us busy right here on our own property. It’s time to plant much of our vegetable garden, now that a kind neighbor plowed the soil and we replaced the scrap wood terracing that holds the earth from washing away down the sloping site. The other gardens need attention too: there are roses to feed, tulips to dead-head, and there is weeding, always weeding.
Our frutteto is in flower; a light fragrance scents the green corridor between rows of apple trees where bees come and go incessantly. My husband’s allergies are in full bloom as well, trees and grasses filling the air with pollen and tiny flowers. He soldiers on pumped up with antihistamines and a low dose of cortisone. Actually he’s loving every minute, happy to be home. This morning he’s in the frutteto, washing fungus off the trees and sneezing occasionally.
Two demijohns of wine ordered and delivered from a nearby cooperative are safely decanted to bottles and corked, put away on shelves in the cantina for a time when we’ll once again be able to invite friends and neighbors to join us for a meal. This week we’ll cut the first stalks from our asparagus bed and harvest the first rhubarb, and when we eat those we’ll know for certain it’s spring, the season of hope.