Part #1

Sarnano in late spring

Saturday November 26th, 2016

Today is the four-week anniversary of the two terrible seismic attacks that hit my little town, Sarnano, here in Central Italy, along with countless other communities across the region, on Wednesday October 26th. The next massive earthquake came at 7.41am four days later, on a sparkling autumn morning when we were still barely able to comprehend what had happened just a few days earlier.

I have been living with daily earthquakes now for 3 months. The very first earthquake came in the night August 24th. I will talk about that night a bit later on. It was an important night.

Some days the tremors never seem to stop and on others there is a lull in the endless movement of the ground beneath our feet and the buildings above our heads. There was another magnitude 3.8 near us last night and now the bathroom door won’t close properly because the house where I am temporarily staying has shifted perhaps another few millimeters. I am exhausted, my nerves are shot to pieces and the word ‘future’ is not one I am very comfortable using. My home is badly damaged and uninhabitable, I’m homeless, my life turned inside out and my community is in shreds.

Sarnano lies in the foothills of the Sibillini Mountains. They are home to wolves, wild boar, rare species of orchids, wild horses and so much more. Magnificent, usually snow-capped, I used to think they looked like great big shoulders that I could ‘lean’ on, that somehow supported me spiritually … now they hold inside them these terrible cauldrons of energy that get released in a biblical roaring fury of shaking and noise. We call them earthquakes. They do terrible things.

Near Colmurano, about 20 minutes drive from my house

Italy is divided into regions - many of which you’ll have heard of or visited … Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria. Sarnano is in Le Marche. In my region alone there are 122 municipalities damaged. We have 283 areas labeled as Zona Rossa which means they are at risk of further collapse. All together 63 of the municipalities are uninhabitable. A terrible word. 36 of them are in my region, Le Marche. One of them is my town.

I want to tell you about my part of the world - what we were like before the earthquakes, what happens when earthquakes come to your house uninvited and more importantly I want to tell you - regularly - about how this hugely important part of Europe is managing in the aftermath. There are consequences to such enormous events, many of which we cannot even begin to grapple with. We are not defeated, but we are close.

Sarnano is bustling. We are not a community of charming little peasants who smile for tourists with cameras. But we do smile. Well, we did. We are a warm, loving and close community even with some of the (inevitable) Italian feuds that persist across so many generations no one can actually remember why they started. Sarnanese are great travelers and respecters of other cultures. We are known for our artigiani - our artists and craftsmen. Beautiful iron-work, pottery, marble work and impossibly delicious honey. I have coffee some mornings with Giorgio Bonelli, the head of radiology at our nearest hospital, in Amandola (well the hospital fell down pretty much and is now a M.A.S.H tent on the outskirts of Amandola). A world-class brain surgeon was born here but he works in a big hospital in Canada now. We have opera singers, musicians, theatre directors, pool cleaners, teachers and gardeners. We are a rich huddle of people.

We don’t watch telly to relax. Well, to be honest we don’t relax. We watch the l’Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia’s (INGV) app on an almost hourly basis.

It tells us how many dozens of earthquakes there have been each day. Actually, most of the time we don’t need to be told. We feel them. If I told you that in the last few weeks we have had tens of thousands of earthquakes you wouldn’t believe me. And I wouldn’t blame you. But the INVG don’t lie … so believe them.

And I am one of the lucky ones. The people in Amatrice, way back when this dreadful story started - at 3.36am on August 24th - died. Three hundred of them. You probably remember all those pictures of streets full of flattened homes, smashed furniture and aerial images of a town annihilated.

That awful morning was the beginning of this story.

None of us who live in this achingly beautiful part of Italy have any real idea when - or even how - this tale will end. But it will become a part of Italian history that will be taught in schools and talked about for generations to come.

The Red Cross base camp, set up at the bottom of town

And most of you know nothing about the great scourge of damage and pain that has swept across our peaceful, safe and proud piece of the planet. That’s because no-one tells you. This is the ‘cradle’ of the Renaissance. Now we have a Croce Rossa Italiana Base Camp at the bottom of the village. Something is very, very wrong here now.

‘L1’ means ‘Letto Uno’ - bed number one

400 people were sleeping in here a few days ago. Slowly, slowly they have been found places in local hotels, hostels and campsites.

This woman was eating apples she had managed to take from her home

It has been especially bad for the elderly. Some had heart attacks from the fear. During the day Base Camp mostly had the very old and the very young there - others were still trying to work and get out and about to the main piazza where they could at least sit and have a coffee and be with friendly faces.

The little tent inside base camp where the smaller children can play

We are not called residenti anymore, we are called sfollati -‘The Displaced’. It’s really hard to grapple with. The red uniforms of the Red Cross, the blue and black of the fire brigade and the carabinieri (our military police) as well the Protezione Civile with hi-viz stripey outfits are everywhere - in the squares, the bars, the shops and right now it seems normal.

A group of Red Cross workers having a coffee

It shouldn’t, not really. It means we have an emergency. More than that, really - we are on a ‘war-footing’ with a very fluid enemy who gives no advance warning of where or when it will strike again, nor what it will leave in its wake.

I’m going to tell you the story so far and then - once I’ve caught up with myself - we can travel together over the coming months to see what happens to my little world and the people here in foothills of the majestic Sibillini mountains. People who welcomed me into their lives six years ago and allowed me to call my town, Sarnano, ‘home’. I have 7 months and 3 weeks to go until I can get my Italian passport. I’m not leaving this extraordinary, exasperating country nor the people who built it. I’m staying. I have built a life here.