West Coast writer Becky Manawatu and her family lived in Italy from 2006 to 2010, while her husband Tim played rugby for Roma Capitolina and then L’Aquila Rugby. As the coronavirus has torn through Italy over the past several weeks, she’s been reflecting on that time.
The woman living above us warned me there were snakes in the grass, and I should stop taking my small children on to the property with the fruit trees and oaks and wild cyclamens.
I didn’t trust her, though, because she kept her house too clean.
Also, my boy loved to pick the fat pomegranate from the trees. And my girl, walking through the grass, loved picking the flowers, a wide sunhat on her head, giggling, smiling.
Anyway, snakes were more scared of us than we were of them, weren’t they?
It was our neighbour’s property, and from my barred kitchen window, I used to look over the fence and lust after it.
Even in the tranquil Italian countryside, the houses were built with bars on the windows. It was strange, especially on Via Colli di Baccanello. Such a contrast to the fields and donkeys and olive and fig trees.
One day, I went to see the neighbours and, in bad Italian, asked if I might be able to bring my children over to play in the grass. To explore the small forest.
They said: “Si, si si, certamente.” They didn’t warn me to watch out for snakes, and I trusted them for it.
Visits to the neighbour’s property became part of our daily routine.
Tim would leave in the morning for rugby training. I’d stay at the house with the kids without a car because I had no driver’s licence for Italy.
We’d eat breakfast, I’d clean the house — and I’d clean it well.
In Italy, you kept house, and you kept it clean enough for the pope to visit any day of the week.
After I’d cleaned, we’d go to the neighbour’s house.
I badly wanted to see a snake. Once, we saw the skin of one, discarded up near the pomegranate tree. It was like thin, thin patterned wax paper.
The woman who lived above us was also our landlord and when she saw our ritual of going into the property, she’d tell me the grass was too long. Serpente! Viper! She watched us as she smoked out her window, on her breaks from keeping her house.
Once she taught me to make gnocchi, soft pillows of gnocchi, so I could make them for my family, my husband — but I never ended up making them from scratch. Bought boxes of it, almost as good, from the supermerkato.
There were many wonderful things about living in Italy. The truffles, white ones, found in Piedmont. I liked them on pizza. There were newspaper stands, the vendor, freshly shaved, wearing a flat cap, rows of hardcore porn behind him, daily papers in front of him. There were playgrounds where you could buy a wine or beer from the kiosk to drink while your children played.
I loved the cobblestone streets. They made me feel like a ghost.
There were fig trees lining Via Colli Di Baccanello. In summer, they ripened to black sacks of sweet, syrupy seedy fruit.
I only started to like figs after we moved back home and became nostalgic for them.
Walking up Via Colli Di Bacanello made me feel sepia-toned. The lovely little Italian country houses, the fertility. People kept donkeys and men dipped their caps and wheeled barrows.
I’d often put my daughter in the pram and walk up to the top of the street, as far as my son could go on his tiny legs, until we reached a small unfenced paddock and, from there, we could look out to see the lights of Rome.
The Roman Empire, in all its glory. The hum of it, if you closed your eyes, pulsing up through your feet, into your knees, your pubic bone, your spine, to the crown of your head, searching for the fontanel to exit, but finding it closed. Going back out the way it came.
One evening I went alone. I decided to walk further than usual, realising I didn’t know where the road led to. More fields? More olive trees? A forest? A snake’s lair?
Via Colli di Baccanello was a quiet street, narrow, just over one lane.
Very rarely did a car come by, and if it did, someone I recognised but didn’t know was usually driving it.
As I was walking, I heard a rumbling sound, deep and distant, like an ommm. I kept walking the dirt road. The sound became louder and louder and soon I knew what it was. A highway, a busy, busy highway, leading people somewhere, possibly into the city, with its statues and cobbled streets and beautiful stores and well-dressed people. Its poverty, too. People sleeping on benches, pigeons pecking the ground around them, their empty two-euro cartons of vino rosso, tossed aside.
I kept walking, and suddenly the country road opened out, and I felt cold at my back, and on my neck, like the trees and fields had crumbled away behind me leaving a bite mark in the world. I found myself on a concrete island, and there was rubbish. Lots of rubbish: empty cans and bottles and junk food packets. Used condoms and their torn wrappers everywhere.
All I could hear was the roar of cars on the highway, then one came close and pulled in, and I turned quickly, ashamed to be standing there among the used condoms. Worried I might be mistaken for a prostitute, I started to run back toward the figs and the donkeys and the olives and the snakeless fields to my husband and children.
When friends visited from New Zealand, we usually made a trip to the city with them and often ended up visiting the Vatican so it could be ticked off people’s lists.
Tim hated the Vatican, though he was raised Catholic.
I told the visitors I loved it, despite feeling desperately lethargic every time we walked inside. The pressure to be awed (but failing) crushed me.
Once I stood in front of a picture of Christ suffering and thought about how Rome seemed to want its people to screw around on each other to give them a reason to go to church. If thoughts can be reckless, I admit, this was a reckless one.
Our second child, our daughter, was born in that almighty city, at a hospital called Santa Famaglia.
I went into labour with her on the night of November 12, 2008.
It was a stormy and bitter evening and Tim drove us into Rome.
We crossed the River Tiber on a bridge adorned with stone statues. I knew I would look back on the drive, crossing the bridge in the storm, a contraction squeezing hot and good, as a moment in my life that was completely perfect.
At the hospital, the nurse seemed to doubt I was really in labour.
Contractions made me fold into myself, made me refuse to acknowledge the world.
The pain made me get very, very quiet.
The nurse took us to a dimly lit, almost musty room. She strapped things to me, connected me to a machine, then left us alone.
I pulled out a picture of my son and put on headphones.
When a contraction rose inside, I’d squeeze my eyes shut and dig my fingers into Tim’s arm while he watched the machine. He was fascinated by the needle showing the rise and fall of my uterus, beating like a heart.
Eventually, one contraction made me cry out a little. By then Tim was more reliant on the machine than my face, my fingernails in his arm, any noise I made.
He said, almost curiously, that according to the machine, the contraction hadn’t seemed that bad.
I wanted to punch him in his Adam’s apple.
A few weeks before Siena was born, a doctor had had Tim tested for salmonella. If he was salmonella-free he could be present at the birth of his child.
I wondered about the science behind the test.
Like, even if it came back clear, how could they be sure he wouldn’t get salmonella between then and bubba’s B-day?
And if he had salmonella, wouldn’t he have obvious symptoms?
Then, the real worry: What if he tested positive for salmonella? Would I have had to do it all alone?
Fortunately, the swab came back all clear.
To be honest, I was surprised that they’d been so salmonella-wary and then put me in this room to have my baby.
When I felt the urge to push, I told Tim: “Get the nurse.”
He popped his head out the door and waved to her.
She came into the room.
“Come stai?” she asked me. How are you?
“Pronto,” I told her. Ready.
She looked worried, and she said: “No, no, no — mamma mia,” and shook her head.
“Not in here!”
I ignored her, grimaced, grunted, and bared down. I pushed. “Can you see her?” I asked Tim. He smiled meekly at me, like I’d lost my mind.
It had taken me two hours to push out our boy — did I actually think I was gonna have the next out in just one or two fat pushes?
“Look!” I said.
And he looked and the nurse looked and they both gasped, probably because they saw my second Ngāi Tahu pēpi’s thick black hair crowning. And I pushed again, then once more and maybe once more, and my girl was born.
She was born after just three or four pushes and not a single puff on some gas.
I’d wanted to ask the nurse whether she’d even thought to ask if I’d like a cheeky puff on some gas, and then the doctor rushed in who spoke better English than her and said that this was not the place to have the baby, this was the place to monitor progress and contraction strength and dilation of the cervix, but not for the actual having of the baby.
And he said these things, but my pēpi was already on my chest, making sounds that made my breasts and belly tingle in an excruciatingly good way.
Did he want me to stuff her back in?
The actual having of the baby was to be in a separate room, we then learned. A room with stainless steel surfaces and the doctor would have been wearing white and maybe slippers he could bin afterwards and I might have been given an epidural I might not have needed.
And had Tim tested positive for salmonella he would have been refused entry.
How glad I am the nurse spoke no English and when she said “No, no, no,” I just pushed and pushed and pushed my baby out to start her life in the shabby room with the soft, soft light.
I wonder what that the hospital looks like now. I’ve been tempted to google it, but can’t quite bring myself to.
Five months after that night, we went camping at the Amalfi Coast at a ground called Il Campanile Salvatore Aceto.
The ground was in a lemon grove and the hosts made their own limoncello.
The coast road had sheer drops to the Tyrrhenian Sea. When we pulled up at the campsite in the town of Minori, we discovered we couldn’t drive directly to the campsite, but had to climb a billion steps. As we were climbing the steps, a black snake slithered in front of us, apparently, then disappeared into the grove.
My son gasped: “Mum that was a big snake!”, and I asked him to describe it to me, ‘cause I’d missed it.
Later, we went to town to buy food for dinner: potatoes, carrots, and chicken pieces from a little grocery store. The woman serving us wrapped the corn-fed chicken in waxed paper.
It felt very utopian to be leaving a quaint store with free-range chicken wrapped in wax-paper.
Tim and I bought a bottle of lemon liquor from our host at the campsite.
It was homemade, the man said. He waved his arms about him and laughed. “What else should I do with all of these beautiful lemons?”
Tim roasted the chicken, carrots and potatoes in the outdoor brick oven. We set a wooden table nearby. High above the sea, we ate our smoky dinner as the sun set in a show-offy Mediterranean way.
The next day, we went to the beach. Our baby girl touched sand with her feet for the first time.
Her little toes pulled the grains against the soles of her feet. She gave an exhilarated smile, which made my stomach flip. My boy and I went swimming in the sea. The water was very salty and our skin itched, stung, but we floated like pool ware.
The next morning, I was in the ramshackle shower at the campsite, and a lime-green lizard suddenly scurried up the wall and stopped, level with my eyes.
It blinked. I blinked.
“Good morning,” I whispered, trying not to scare it away, wanting it to stay there with me in the shower.
. . .
I remember little things like that. The insignificant images and sounds that underpin stories of what it really means to be alive.
When I think of Italy now, I recoil at its horrifying statistics. Unlike my husband, who wakes me every morning with Italy’s toll under the coronavirus, I am avoiding the facts.
When I think of Italy, I see the man in the flat cap selling magazines, and the woman who taught me to make gnocchi. I think of the nurse who was horrified I was heaving out my baby, in that room, there and then.
I think of cobblestone streets I walked believing I was just a ghost, and how phenomenally eerie those streets must feel now. I think of the people who would kiss me, not once, not twice, but usually three times, unable to kiss their loved ones — their amici, their nonnas and nonnos.
I think of their many, many homeless. I think of the Eritrean immigrant woman I made friends with in a free language class taught by a nun in an old church.
I think of the barred-up windows, powerless against a virus.
I think of the doctor, handsome and smelling of expensive aftershave, who came into my room the day after my daughter was born and found me making my bed. My window was open and through it came the thrilling sound of Rome.
He smiled kindly and praised me for being up and about.
I wonder about him.
The homes I went to, the tables I ate at, the people who brought us panettone for Christmas.
I think of fields lined with olive trees and forest floors covered in wild cyclamens. In a few months, pomegranates and figs will be bursting open under the heat of the sun.
I think of lizards scurrying about and snakes shedding their skin, slithering away, their fresh bright skin I never got to see, gleaming.
I can hear the ommm I heard that day in that concrete clearing with the used condoms scattered about.
Then the heartbreaking silence which has replaced it.
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