Lomba Das Barracas, Furnas, São Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal
This morning, from our bed, Luke and I listened again for the ice-cream truck melody of the Portuguese bread truck. Not that we needed bread, because we’d bought a week’s worth the day before at our tiny grocery store that is also a bar and is also a café, but because it came through yesterday and we wanted to see the operation in action—did people run out after the truck, and buy loaves off the back? Or was it a pre-pay or on-tab on-order delivery? Apparently, in the tiny Azorean village of Furnas, the fresh food comes to you. Just last night, a fruit truck rumbled through the neighborhood, broadcasting a tuneless tune from its loudspeaker to alert neighbors of the fresh produce for sale—heads of cauliflower, potatoes, peaches, leeks, and tomatoes—right off the truck. The bread truck, we reasoned, might do the same.
Nine hours to Białystok from Berlin, to a city teetering on the Polish border. The train noses through fields of yellow flowers, which to me are eternal reminders of Europe in spring, but which are actually new additions, planted in recent decades for the rapeseed harvest. On the way to Warsaw, we sit in a car with a classical musician, our age, with a confident nose and sculpted, striking eyebrows. “She looks like Anna Karenina,” we whisper. She tells us about witches in Podlachia, because we are going to Podlachia. Past Warsaw, on a hotter train, portly men in cheap suits flank the compartment, carrying the odor of polyester, sweat, spirits.
I’ve brought us east to find traces of that universal language, Esperanto, created by a man from Bialystok named L.L. Zamenhof, a Jewish man, born here when this land was Russian Empire. Legend says he went to the city market as a child, eavesdropped on Yiddish, Russian, German, concluded that division by language was the great tragedy of mankind. What if we all spoke the same tongue? Wouldn’t pogrom and war fall away? He gathered 28 Latin letters, prefixes and suffixes, and he tried to share this with the world, and they called him Dr. Hope.
Here in Ann Arbor, unable to travel, I am missing the Greek balcony, a private and public space: it’s neither in nor out but something in between. Poet Alicia E. Stallings, who lives in Athens, notes on Twitter: “Very Athenian neighbor quarrel tonight: we fired up the grill in the yard to pretend like it was a Friday, but it turns out lady upstairs had just done her laundry. Words were had.” (It was indeed Friday, but what is Friday anymore, anyway?) When I write her about this, laughing, she adds that the woman also menacingly suggests she might water her plants while Alicia’s husband works on his laptop below.
In the early weeks of quarantine, from balconies in Athens, friends filmed videos of their neighbors clapping for health care workers. On Easter, when Athens is often eerily quiet, as many Athenians return to their home villages, say, or travel to an island, the quarantined city’s balconies shone bright with candles.
At the second hospital in as many days, my father starts seeing crows. He points at the nurses’ station with his chin, speaks in perfect Polish, the kind I haven’t heard him speak in decades. His brain lights up momentarily with the speed and language of the young man he was when he first came to America, before Multiple Sclerosis and age started robbing his body. My father tells me to look, look, look. Tells me the roof is so thin, that the small one is looking for its nest. I can tell by his eyes he really sees it. He’s hallucinating, I say. I’m startled, then startled a second time when the nurse and doctor don’t think much of it. They tell me it’s ICU psychosis, the lack of sleep and all the beeping.
I grew up on an island called Broad Channel in southern Queens that was at or below sea level, depending on the tide. My dad’s house was one that was high and dry. We lived on Cross Bay Boulevard, the main street which ran down the spine of our croissant-shaped island. The boulevard only flooded during hurricanes or nor’easters that came on the full or the new moon. In some of the lower streets in the town, kids would show up late to school because they had to wait for the tide to go out before they could step out of their homes. Often, the high tide water flooded their blocks.
By the time you read this, more of my neighbors will be dead.
And yet, on this sunny spring day that belies the grim headlines, I need to go for a walk, that most mundane of human activities. I need to pretend that life is normal. To forget that just a short distance from my apartment stands Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of the coronavirus within New York City, itself America’s epicenter.