Tuesday November 29, 2016
A couple of nights ago we had four – virtually consecutive – quakes arriving after about 9pm. None lasted more than a second or two. My mobile started ringing after the second one, as friends started checking on each other. It had followed a couple of days of relative calm.
A view from our front door – in happier times
The wood-burning stove had gone out – yet again – and I was cold and fed up. I already had my mobile phone in one of my trackie bottom pockets and the car keys in the other and was thinking about getting into bed just to get warm. This wearing clothes in bed is totally normal behaviour for a lot of us now. I have a new friend I met in a coffee bar the other day, called Michelle, and she made me feel a great deal better by saying she actually sleeps with her glasses in her hand. So she can see the way to her door, to get out.
Judging by our various phone calls, we all felt pretty much that these tremors were to be taken seriously. To which end I got up, put on some more warm clothing and thick socks, my (hideous but divine) Ugg boots and my Amundsen-of-the-Antarctic coat. With everything transferred to the pockets of the coat I was actually more comfortable. No more pointy keys sticking into my hips. I got back under the covers on the sofa and watched the clock, waiting for something or nothing to happen. Thankfully it was the latter.
The next morning my friend Davide told me he had done virtually the same thing. His wife pointed out with irony that she too had spent the night fully clothed but then, come the dawn, she got up and put on her pyjamas. In which she stayed all day.
When the first of the four tremors came I had been on Skype with Steve and he saw me go stock-still. He thought the screen had ‘frozen’. It hadn’t. I had. In the end I asked him to stay on Skype with me, although by now (Qatar being two hours ahead of us in Italy) he was tired and ready for bed. It must have been thrilling for him to watch me just sit, mute with tension, gulping from a bottle of Verdicchio. Why use a glass? Just likely to smash into little pieces when ‘it’ comes. So thrilling, in fact, that I could hear him off in the distance, brushing his teeth.
The next morning he phoned to check that I was still alive and I told him about the night. He advised me – from thousands of safe miles away, I might add – that wearing boots in bed is ‘over-kill’ and that I would be better to put them in a plastic bag and leave them outside. No use at all, as a plan, I told him. Running for your life leaves little, if any, time for scrabbling around in the freezing dark thinking about grabbing a bag that has now moved (earthquakes move things) from wherever it was left.
Because I’m now homeless – as our house was declared ‘inagibile’, meaning it’s not safe to be in – I’m staying in my friend Damiano’s place. He has a huge villa, called Villa San Rafaello, a stone’s throw from Sarnano, and I’m in one of the apartments, on the ground floor (a prerequisite for anywhere I ever go) that he rents out to holiday makers in the summer. It is a big two-bedroom apartment but I live only in the sitting room. I am too afraid to be far away from the main escape route, the front door. I sleep on the sofa and do all my living (and this writing) in a fairly small space sharing all of the aforementioned with my small Patterdale terrier, Tinker. When Steve comes back from Qatar, where he is working at the moment, I can’t think how we’ll manage. Row a lot, most probably.
A lot of people will not sleep in their bedrooms. The absolutely essential thing is to be on the ground floor. Stairs are not an option. You will fall down when you run. Makeshift beds set up right by French windows or the house’s main door is a perfectly ordinary sight among the people I know, these days.
I don’t know if they are still doing it but for those first few weeks after this all started many people slept in chairs. All night, every night. A good many others slept in their cars. I did that for two nights but it was freezing cold and no earthly way of getting comfortable.
I am virtually always tired.
I looked in the bathroom mirror this morning, which was a huge mistake. I don’t look gorgeous. I look like I’ve just been released after being held captive for several years by an elderly Austrian. In a dingy basement. Stress has scrawled all over my face with its scratchy pen. All that stuff about ‘it takes more muscles to frown than to smile’? Rubbish.
I’m told that the fatigue is because of endless, endless surges of adrenalin into my system. It leaves me feeling rather flat. We are all very tense all the time. Everyone has half an ear out for that low-level growl that sometimes precedes a huge shake. Conversations in the bars are sometimes interrupted when one of us puts our coffee cup back down on the table and says in a quiet voice “Shut up, shut up… was that one? Did you hear that?”. Any sudden, unexpected noise causes a reaction. A log falling in my little wood-burning stove (more of that beast later), the refrigerator catching its breath, a tractor’s engine – all of these make me stand stock still with all my energy going into getting ready to run. Someone slams a car door in Milan and my heart misses a beat.
About a week ago I noticed that my car was running low on gas. Most cars round here use metano, methane, so I set off to Lucrezio’s fill-up station on the edge of the town. I mention this only because these days you tend to make sure your car is pretty much on a full tank at all times because another big quake could easily knock out the fuel stations and then you wouldn’t be able to drive to safety. Forward planning, honestly, not neurosis. As I sat in the car while Lucrezio attached the pump-line to fill up my bombola I saw my friend Iolanda there, too.
She’s a teacher in Elementary School, and even for a Sunday (Passeggiata Day) she looked quite dolled up. Turned out she was going to the opening of the new school for the kids she teaches over in Gualdo (a village of about 1,000 people that you could see across the valley from my bedroom window at home. When I had a bedroom window and a home). The school building had sustained damage in the earthquakes of the last few months so the local merchants collected a load of money and the Army went ahead and built them a new, temporary wooden school. I wanted to go with her to lend support and see the new structure.
Celebrating outside the new school in Gualdo
It was this little trip that made me decide to write a blog.
I love writing. In fact I have recently finished a book about the homeless living in central London – a sort of photo-journalistic book where 30 homeless people gave me their life stories and let me take all sorts of intimate, wonderful photographs of them, their pets, their drugs and possessions. I’m not really digressing here, because it is a great irony that I left for the UK to put that book together on October 26th 2015.
One year to the day later, I too was homeless.
So, yes I love writing but here’s the thing. I know nothing about social media, didn’t have a Facebook page (until I started this blog), or a Twitter account and my mobile phone looks like it belongs in a museum of 80s memorabilia. So when I said I was going to ‘do a blog’ everyone who knows me pulled a variety of strange faces.
But it was those children in Gualdo, so beautiful they were – who made me overcome my resistance to social media. Iolanda was telling me that the kids had been terrorized by the two huge quakes of Wednesday October 26th (at 7pm and then again just after 9pm) and then that colossal one on the following Sunday 30th. The teachers have been using games and role-playing to help them deal with it but they still suffer stress, lack of sleep and alarm and are much too easily startled. She said they cling onto each other physically and it seems even teeny little children have great wells of courage and support for each other.
Small people holding on very tight to each other
The kids I saw looked edgy but OK. I understood at that moment, that they are the future – whatever that may be. The world will be theirs and children like these ought to have something worth believing in. I don’t want them to be the start of the ‘Great Sibillini Diaspora’. We are all under threat now – and not just from this terrible swarm of seismic hits – a way of life is threatened. A good and decent way of life. Not perfect. But good. The ramifications of one earthquake (let alone thousands of them) are huge. I had had no idea. The aftershocks go on underground, shaking the foundations of the earth but believe me, they have their equivalent, above ground, in the minds and bodies of those of us who were lucky enough to survive. They affect how you live on a day-to-day basis, how you think about your future, how you eat and sleep. The list would stretch the length of the mountains here.