LESLIE MCBRIDE WILE
It’s snowing again, a lazy tumble hiding not a thing, dropping a delicate web over tree and field, garden and wall. My husband says he’s done with winter, and this half-hearted effort seems to show it’s nearly done with us as well. Still, this morning it is cold out there, as cold as it’s been all season, ample excuse for a morning fire in the bedroom fireplace and a big, leisurely breakfast—we’re not going anywhere.
My husband has made a big, tough decision: he is ready to part with Dora, our 1999 Ford Explorer, the vehicle that brought us safely from Tbilisi to Mondovì in August of 2012. We love this car, its cushy seats and high clearance, and because she performed so brilliantly, crossing mountains and fording streams, eating up 5000 km of pitted two-lane roads and superhighways. But after nearly a year at home my husband realizes how little we actually need a big gas-guzzler; most things he does in Dora are as easily done in the little farm truck he bought last spring. So his idea is to offer the Ford at a nominal price of one euro plus the cost of transferring the title. He’d like someone to use the car, maybe someone who might not be able to afford to buy one otherwise. It could be odd to see Dora around town with someone else at the wheel, but at least she’d still be useful.
In honor of St Valentine’s Day we’ve declared February a month for movies about romantic love and placed a near-moratorium on television newscasts. From “Roman Holiday” to “The Princess Bride,” “Random Harvest” to “An Affair to Remember,” we’re watching most every night, popcorn and Kleenex at hand. Call us middle-brow lightweights, but we sleep easier after one of these films than following reports of COVID variants, sluggish vaccination efforts, climate-driven disasters, the misery of refugees, and government upheavals everywhere.
And for today’s celebratory meal I cooked a thoroughly American menu: barbecued spareribs and sweet potato “fries,” all prepared in the oven. Pork ribs are not unknown here, but real baby back ribs are something else again. Lucky for us our young macellaio lived awhile in the United States as an exchange student, so he knows something about American-style cuts of meat.
The much-anticipated opening of Italian ski areas, scheduled for 15-17 February, has been pushed back to 5 March. Concern over three COVID-19 variants recently confirmed in Italy led health ministry officials to rescind permission to open ski runs in Piemonte and other regions classified “yellow zone” (moderate risk) and to place the region of Trentino-Alto Adige, home to Bolzano, into the high-risk orange zone. This is terrible news for all those businesses that depend on skiers and a blow to hopes that we might soon return to more normal activities. It’s also one of the new government’s first actions under prime minister Mario Draghi, who was sworn in last Saturday.
I’m worried about the variants myself. I feel we’re in the dark again, battling an elusive and shape-shifting enemy. Of course we know more than we did last February; we know to wear masks and keep our distance in public, wash our hands, avoid crowds and indoor spaces. Most new variants are even more transmissible, possibly more deadly; certainly the virus continues to mutate while we circulate freely between towns, shopping, meeting for coffee or a meal, behaving in ways we remember as safe and ordinary. Constant vigilance is exhausting; we’re all longing to let down our guard, drop our masks, hug a friend. But virologists and immunologists here are warning the new government that current measures aren’t enough to stay ahead of the variants, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find Italy once more under a strict lockdown before the month is over.
Mondovì in the sixteenth century was a powerful and important city, the largest in Piemonte, seat of the region’s first university, and home to wealthy, influential families. This noble history can still be read in the architecture of Piazza Maggiore, its palazzi and churches, the bishop’s grand residence and the Duomo.
Today it’s more a farming town, surrounded by cornfields, orchards, pastures full of cattle. Our mercato contadino is one of the largest around, drawing crowds of shoppers and vendors on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Farmers being acutely attuned to the weather, much of the conversation one hears in the market and around town often concerns the forecast or some recent atmospheric event. This can evoke fond memories of McBride family reunions, where talk inevitably turned to annual rainfall, bushels-per-acre, moisture content, and a perennial favorite–corn versus soybeans. I had to laugh the other day when, waiting for my change from a purchase in the erboristeria I casually inquired whether the padrona thought winter might be finished. There were four of us in the shop, three other women and I, and what a passionate debate that offhand comment produced! We stood exchanging opinions and recollections of winters past, of early springs and deceptive warm spells that only lead to heartbreak when a cold snap follows. In the end we agreed the only sensible attitude toward weather is patience, and wished each other a buona giornata. It was a small thing, but it’s often the smallest things that remind me how much I love living here. The sense of community I find in a moment like that makes me feel Mondovì is home, despite my shallow roots here.
Yesterday a rare variant of the COVID-19 virus was confirmed in Naples, bringing to four the number of variants known to be circulating in Italy. Public health officials continue urgent calls for stricter controls on movement within the country to “contain and slow” transmission of variants and discourage further mutations.
All the snow is gone now except for some dirty little glaciers lingering in north-facing shade or spots where a snow plow left a great heap. It’s hard to say whether winter is over, but we have lunch outdoors on the warmest days and are starting work in the gardens, cutting bramble and trimming winter-killed rosemary. I see tulips pushing up in the sunny bed above our terrace, and the evergreens we planted in early December seem ready to put on some new growth. We could get snow again any day but for now it seems spring is on her way.