For 15 weeks over the past three-plus years, I lived in a southern Italian town named Guardia Sanframondi. It’s roughly between Rome and Naples, with about 5,000 residents, only slightly more than in our apartment complex in Forest Hills, Queens.
There, in Guardia, as it’s known for short, my wife and I bought a house. We were going to live there for however many years we have left. We would be less than half a mile from our daughter, who bought her own house, where she lived with her husband and our granddaughter.
Last month, the new coronavirus struck Guardia. The virus that only weeks ago seemed so distant, a concern only in China, took up occupancy in a farming community with a single traffic light. Seldom has a pandemic sent a clearer message: If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
We fell in love with that little town
I visited Guardia for three-week vacations five times starting in December 2016. The town is ancient, topped by a medieval castle. Our house, built about 500 years ago, is about twice as old as the United States. From our windows, you look out over a sloping landscape checkered with vineyards and olive groves and mountains beyond.
Without doubt, Guardia had me at "buon giorno." Our house was located in its historic center, a crazy quilt of cobblestone streets often too narrow for cars to pass through. Certain families lived here for generations going back centuries. At night, with the black wrought-iron street lamps casting an amber glow, you felt you had stepped into an enchanted fairy tale.
Here most passersby, even strangers, bid you good morning, good afternoon and good evening. Drivers recognizing pedestrians often beep greetings. Once, at a local café, as my wife and I savored our morning cornetto and cappuccino, a farmer stationed at the bar sipping espresso with friends waved me over. He held out his hand, opened his palm and invited me to sample a mushroom grown from his own land.
“Mangia!” he said with a smile.
So I tried it. “Bravo!” I said.
Italian Red Cross chief:Every day is heartbreaking. Too many still aren't taking COVID-19 seriously
The town redefined close-knit for me, a New Yorker for the past 45 years. Shopkeepers might smile on your arrival. A waiter in a restaurant might bring you, unbidden, a complimentary flute of prosecco as a prelude to dinner. A butcher named Gabriele, knowing you as a newcomer, might hand you a slice of the most delicious prosciutto you’ve ever tasted.
As I immediately discovered, this town where my wife and I planned to grow old together and watch our granddaughter blossom had no shortage of charms. Nobody ever appears to be in a hurry. The food you eat and the wine you drink (a bottle might set you back all of two or three bucks) grows from the soil just miles away. The worst crime committed might be littering.
The most beautiful places were not immune
Beauty is everywhere. Around the corner from us, along a promenade high over the valley below, a local painter would prop up his easel in the morning sun and dab away at his canvas. One Christmas Eve, out of the blue, a military band in uniform, trombones blaring and drums rumbling, marched through our streets playing mostly American holiday classics.
Then, two weeks ago, a young male soldier traveling from another town arrived in Guardia and tested positive for the coronavirus. He quarantined himself and posted a video apologizing. “I feel sorry for the people who have been in contact with me,” he said. “I certainly didn’t want this.” It was as if the town had finally — and abruptly — entered the rude modern civilization it had so long resisted.
The mayor immediately issued an alarm warning residents and urging precautions. Guardia has gone quiet. Schools and restaurants are closed. Natives and expatriates alike are staying at home. Some grapes and olives, ripening in the sun, may go untended. No place on the planet seems immune.
I saw Guardia, most likely for the last time, in July 2019. By then, all of us had decided to move anyway. Our granddaughter had changed the equation for our family. We decided Lucia should grow up close to our son-in-law’s family in Puglia, nearly 200 miles away. We also wished for her to live in a house surrounded by land so she could safely play outside.
A change must be made:We will have a devastating recession economy until there's widespread coronavirus testing
My family now lives in the town of Martina Franca, locked down and quarantined along with all of Italy today. They’re following all the rules, staying home, venturing out only for food and other essential supplies. We talk via video every day, updating each other on our doings, doling out doses of reassurance.
Eventually, as we each dream our dreams — and make no mistake: Guardia had me under its spell — we may have to wake up. Our family is taking it on faith, in this frightening moment facing us all, that the same is equally true for nightmares.
Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist in New York City, is author of the memoir "Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age." Follow him on Twitter: @BobLBrody