The Decameron

Lessons on Life in Italian Quarantine

Last week, I flew to Italy for an artist residency in Florence. At the time of my arrival, the travel conditions surrounding Covid-19 remained alert but relatively controlled. But as the days progressed, the cases in Italy accelerated in unprecedented ways. While the streets of Florence remained calm, the mood of the country spiraled. Borders began to close, and peace of mind turned into bouts of panic. In a country that has always celebrated life, a theme of death ran rampant.

Stripped of routine and forward momentum, it seems that the motions of modern-day life doesn’t feel so modern anymore. For the first time in our collective history, the world is on pause. For those of us fortunate enough to be in good health, this time is reserved for reflection and rest, under one foreign condition: social-distancing. Helping each other means forging distance between family, friends, and neighbors.

Last Sunday, our group of friends gathered for lunch on a hilltop outside of Florence. Unbeknownst to us, it would be our last social engagement for the foreseeable future. Newly confronted by circumstances bigger than ourselves, naturally, big-picture questions came to the surface. What makes life worth living? 

The answers arrived easily on a sun-drenched afternoon that felt like the first day of spring. Stretched out on grassy knoll in the Italian countryside, the feelings of hysteria faded in the presence of natural beauty. Laura, an American ex-pat living in Italy, observed that the lyrical environment had reminded her of a lived-out Decameron playIn Decameron, seven women and three men decide to escape the Black Plague that ravaged the city of Florence. They stay in a villa in the countryside, passing the time by sharing tales that embody the rhythms of life: stories of love, laughter, and tragedy. From the highlights to the lowlights, these moments represent the economy of being. Our late afternoon lunch turned into dinner, dinner turned into the next day’s breakfast. Time dissolved, marked by meals and fast, fleeting moments.

Italians have an expression, “la dolce vita,” which is not just a pleasure of the senses, but a mindset for taking each moment of the day and savoring it. That life is a celebration and meant to live slowly and mindfully. 

The present moment is precious. And I hope you find some sweetness in times of slowness, and solitude. Stay safe, friends.