‘The ability to enjoy the small things was extremely useful during the pandemic period’
It was only a year and a half ago that the whole world saw them: the images of army trucks driving back and forth to recover bodies in Lombardy. Italy was hit especially hard at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that time, that country has shown a surprising side of itself, according to Andrea Vreede (59), a Vatican watcher for the NOS (Dutch national broadcasting service) and an Italy correspondent for the Belgian VRT network. Vreede studied Classical Languages and Mediterranean Archaeology, and has been living in Rome since 1994.
Text Dorien Vrieling; Photo Heleen D’Haens
‘I had expected it to be a big mess, but the opposite occurred. The government chose to acknowledge the full severity of the situation. The prevailing thought was that the pandemic was such a large and unknown monster that it could not be left to the citizens. For their part, the citizens adopted a compliant attitude. A special form of social solidarity emerged in reaction to the blows dealt by the virus. This was not surprising. So many grandparents had died from the coronavirus or were at great risk. That was not forgotten.’
The Roman Catholic faith played a major role in the emergence of this solidarity, says Vreede, who worked with Wilfred Kemp this spring to create a series of podcasts for KRO-NCRV: the ‘Pauscast’ [Pope-cast]. Vreede recalled how Pope Francis said a prayer in the pouring rain on St Peter’s Square in late March 2020. ‘Almost every Italian feels this way. It was a balm for the nation. The Netherlands is so secularized that Dutch people sometimes have a tendency to ridicule such things, but Italy is a thoroughly Catholic country, where religion makes a major contribution to a sense of togetherness. The Church plays a major role in rites of passage, like birth, marriage, and death.’
Another element that cannot be forgotten at such events is food. According to Vreede, few things are more important in the life of an Italian. ‘And, particularly, eating together. They even have a word for it: convivialità.’
While in hospital for an operation, the conversation in the operating theatre was at least as calming to Vreede as the anaesthesia that she had received. ‘I heard the anaesthetist and the surgeon come in; they washed their hands. A conversation then ensued about what they had eaten that Sunday with their families, how to make those dishes, and even how they had digested the food—a detail that is also not without importance. It was wonderful to listen to. I was suddenly completely confident about the operation.’
The love for dining together is an expression of the Italian trait that is perhaps the greatest inspiration to Vreede: the ability to enjoy the small things. ‘This was extremely useful during the period of the pandemic. Italians are well aware when they need to hold back. The Italian language does not have a word for slowing down.’ Even after nearly 28 years, Vreede is still Dutch to the core: critical, analytic, and with a preference for clarity, whereas Italians tend to be more concerned with saving face. On one point, however, she has become completely Italian: ‘The longer I live here, the fewer demands I place on myself.’
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