Dispatch 3: Escape from the Plague If You’re in Milan During a Coronavirus Outbreak…

Tales from the Decameron, by John Williams Waterhouse

If you’re in Milan during a Coronavirus outbreak, imagine your escape to the country, preferably to a villa outside Florence. You don’t have one, but you could rent one online, perhaps.

Decide you won’t take the train to your rental villa. You won’t take the bus. Too many people. Instead, meet up with your homies–your brigade–at Milan’s Duomo. There, plan to hire a car and drive yourselves.

You’ll pack your lute and your striped leggings. You’ll forget about the masks and the gels. You couldn’t find any, anyway. Hoarders have snapped them all up.

Plan to stay holed up in the countryside for fourteen days, or, if necessary, longer.

Throw a copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron into your pack. You’ve been reading this fourteenth-century literary masterpiece about ten friends who escaped the Black Death by retiring to a villa outside Florence. On Boccaccio’s trail, following his example, you’ll read his stories to your friends at night in your rental villa outside Florence.

Along your way on the autostrada, don’t stop at the Autogrill for lunch. Eat the salami sandwiches you wisely packed before quitting town. Don’t share bites with your friends, even if you’d like to because, well, it’s not sanitary. And don’t sip each other’s beers, or San Pellegrinos, or Cokes, either. Also: douse hands first with rubbing alcohol since you don’t have any gels. Wonder if you should all be wearing masks. Decide that probably you should. Wrap a scarf around your neck. Suggest your friends do the same.

You can sing songs under your scarves to pass the time–break out the lute–99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, Old MacDonald, This Land is Your Land, O Sole Mio. You decide.

When you’re tired of singing, read your friends passages out loud from The Decameron:

“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.”

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Think, quietly, for a while.

Three hours and four hundred kilometers later, check into the rented villa. Do a thorough cleaning inside. Outside, admire the pines, and the statues, and the clear blue skies.

Make a shopping list. Decide to buy foods that keep, like boxes of pasta. Lots of boxes of pasta.

Go to COOP supermarket. Discover that shelves are empty. There’s no boxed pasta. No jars of tomato sauce. No dried Borlotti beans in bags. And no reconstituted milk either. Here, too, everyone’s had the same idea and has stocked up to weather this thing.

In the refrigerated section though, you’ll find fresh milk, whole milk. And good Pienza pecorino cheese. And in the produce section: artichokes, those small, sweet, tender kind. Also, some early fava beans. They’re bright green and straight from a local farmer’s vegetable patch. Behind the deli counter, there’s some freshly made tagliatelle. And entire prosciutti, salt and pepper cured, waiting to be sliced.

You won’t forget the olive oil (it’s stocked from the frantoio down the road). You’ll get some of that, too.

Sigh with relief. You’re not going to starve.

Retire to the villa. Prepare a feast.

But run back to the store. You forgot the Chianti. Ask yourself: how could you forget the Chianti?

Stack wood in the old brick fireplace. Light some candles. Now read a few more tales–lusty tales–from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

“The young woman … easily bent to the abbot’s pleasures.” 

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Laugh, or not.

And if you don’t have a villa or a place in the country to hole up in, stay indoors, in your apartment in the city. Don’t wish you have what you don’t. Read, cook, eat, laugh.

You, Milanese by adoption, and your friends, Milanese by birth, may be the world’s newest outcasts, but you’re going to live, no matter what, in spite of being in the middle of a Coronavirus outbreak.

“You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark.”

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

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