In March 2020, embarking for Amsterdam to jump-start the next chapter of my life, I had no idea that my adventure would be directed by a bully playing a starring role: COVID-19.
Now, more than a year later, I am continually astonished by the twists and turns of my unforeseen journey. The virus is a harsh taskmaster, throwing up roadblocks and causing mayhem while also being a provocateur of change.
On my path of transformation, emerging from the grief of widowhood and the realities of being 71 years old, COVID has provided much-needed ballast. Decisions are frequently dictated by the virus’ insatiable desire to mutate, thrive and conquer human’s sense of safety.
I am currently residing in my 400-year-old farmhouse, within walking distance of Cortona, Italy. I purchased it as a second home in September 2020. I moved to Amsterdam in March 2020 and was able, in May 2020, to move into my renovated apartment.
A month later, Europe eased restrictions for EU residents and I began traveling to view great works of art and explore cities devoid of crowds. It was nostalgia that took me to Cortona in July, while visiting Florence.
Years before, my deceased husband Robert and I had spent a lovely day there when he played the piano at the Teatro Signorelli, Cortona’s neoclassic theater dating back to 1854, with a group of fellow Bohemian Club musicians.
I fell head-over-heels in love with Cortona because, more than anything, I felt I was finally home.
Amsterdam is marvelous, and my living situation ideal, but Italy is warmth enfolded; it’s like everlasting life itself. I returned to Cortona within two weeks of my initial visit and came upon this quaint, small house nestled within forests and terraced olive groves on a secluded hillside overlooking the vast Val di Chiana, one of Tuscany’s most fertile valleys. My view is ageless, protected by strict zoning laws, with the embrace of the Etruscans still lingering in the stone walls lining my daily walks.
The sellers, Rob and Sheryl, needed to remain in the house until November 2020, which I agreed to, with the proviso that I return for a few weeks in October for the olive harvest.
I arrived with a small suitcase and my dog Boo, occupying the guest room of the house I now owned.
Rob, Sheryl and I fell into a sweet routine, feeling as if we had known each other for decades, enjoying so many friends in common that we joked we’d soon discover we were related.
It was easy for all of us to agree that I needed to remain in Cortona when, in mid-October, COVID abruptly erupted into a second killing wave, washing over Europe and bringing strict government restrictions.
Restaurants, shops, schools and borders closed. Curfews were again the norm. Amsterdam went into strict lockdown.
I am now seven months into what was meant to be a two-week trip, and I wonder when Europe will once again reopen. Vaccinations in Europe have been a bureaucratic disaster and, while the continent is hoping to salvage some of the 2021 Summer tourist business, that looks more like a dream than a probability.
COVID does not entirely dictate the pacing and routines of my days. Much has to do with Italy itself and the generous, loving, spirited people. Over centuries, the Italians have shown respect in working with the land; they acknowledge Mother Nature’s vagaries; they center themselves around their family, ignore politics, welcome opposing opinions and have made living well an art form.
They view many tasks as art, not labor. For instance, I am constructing a vegetable and flower garden on a hillside that requires stone walls for terracing. For more than a month, four to six stonemasons arrive precisely at 7:45 a.m. and gather on a step to drink coffee while chatting about their upcoming day.
By 8 a.m., they are mixing concrete, hauling rocks, chipping away. These men have known each other their entire lives. They attended the same schools since childhood and their parents are lifelong friends. Many are second-, third- or fourth-generation stonemasons.
Work is an excuse to gather, to talk non-stop, to debate how best to do the job at hand and which team will win the next soccer match. Lunch is sacrosanct. They depart at noon for their homes, where their extended family will gather for a two-hour repast. Back at work, the conversation turns to what they enjoyed for lunch. They serenade me with operas, along with hearty thanks, when I present them warm cookies from the oven.
Italy updates its COVID restrictions weekly, with each of its 20 regions color-coded. Tuscany, however, has remained relatively consistent Orange. This means restaurants can do takeout, but not dine-in. Only essential shops are open, masks are a must, and we observe a 10 p.m. curfew. We are not supposed to venture into other Italian regions or have more than four non-family members in our house.
Cortona is home to several ex-pats, and we have happily banded together, calling ourselves “The Valley Bubble.” We are linked with WhatsApp, arranging hikes through the Tuscan hills, excursions to locate terra-cotta pots for our yards and antiques for our homes, and frequent lunches and dinners at our homes.
Meals are leisurely, stress-free, always beginning with a glass of prosecco or Champagne. Most months, we gather at long wooden tables set under covered patios, the views unchanged for centuries. We dine in courses, antipasto and simple pasta, unless we are at Phil and Chrissy’s and she’s serving one of her Malaysian homeland curries. The wine flows, as does the conversation.
We all feel lucky to be sheltered from the hostilities and anger experienced in other places. There has been rioting in Amsterdam.
I spend hours alone with dog Boo traipsing through near-deserted Cortona, discovering alleys, churches, quaint pocket neighborhoods. The streets narrow and become mysterious as the ancient stone walls rise, church bells announce the noon hour and, even now, I get lost in the labyrinth. The aroma of bread and Italian deliciousness cloak the air.
A woman leans out her window and calls to me, bewildered when I respond that I do not understand Italian. My local grocery, run by a sprawling family who all live above the store, is a natural place to congregate. Italians view waiting lines as opportunities to engage in conversation, with everyone offering their opinion, insight or off-color joke.
Bantering is a non-stop game of delight as long as you are not under a time constraint. I stand smiling and, after all these months, the Italians include me with gestures. The butcher, Claudio, frequently hands me thin slices of his house-cured prosciutto as he fills an order and waits for me to nod my approval.
It is known I published a cookbook and write food blogs, so they ask my opinion about their homemade deli offerings. Weekly, I present them with baked goods, as baking cakes, breads and cookies for just one is nearly impossible. I’ve become part of their family.
I have recently discovered the serenity of Mother Mary. She calls to me from small shrines and statues set in niches in the walls. I am not religious per se, but I acknowledge her as the Italian equivalent of Buddha, sinless and forgiving, all-loving, absorbing sorrows with acceptance.
Alone with Boo, days on end, bathed in Tuscan light and timelessness, I have grown to acknowledge my powerlessness to control the world while embracing my strength to mold my attitudes. I am just one small person occupying a place where countless others have gone. They’ve left their marks in stone walls and paths, 500-year-old olive orchards, churches and chapels, and stone farmhouses such as mine. They speak to me with their relics and works left behind, and their songs carry in the rustling of olive leaves.
I sense them smiling, lifting their wine glasses, celebrating that life continues even as COVID looms in the background.
–Sally Uhlmann (all photos courtesy of Sally Uhlmann)