Monday, April 06, 2009

Italy stops

There are several phenomena that tumble without effort into the category of "reality checks". From a purely individual experience point of view, heart attack, near-drowning, brain seizure, for example, would all typically qualify. From a shared experience perspective, one thinks naturally of tidal waves, war, ... and earthquakes. We just had one of the last-named here in central Italy, and - like all its brethren phenomena - it has left me checking my reality.

The first impetus to do so came in the middle of dreamtime just over a week ago, when a shaking bed bothered me awake. After looking to see if our new family acquisition, Zack the "well-built" ginger tabby, was the cause - he was nowhere to be found - Maria and I exchanged thoughts: "Was that an earth tremor?" I agreed without fully believing it.

After feeling five of the countless aftershocks - including one last night (April 14th) - I'm now believing. The ruins of L'Aquila and its neighbouring towns ... the 294 dead ... the 1000-plus injured ... the 40,000 homeless ... all make it dreadfully,
thought-provokingly real.

In planetary terms, it was a mere shudder, a shiver up the backbone - in this case the spine of the Apennines, which run down the middle of central Italy. In geological terms, it was caused by friction between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates - Africa is supposedly marching north towards Europe at the rate of 2 cm a year (invoking all sorts of symbolic thoughts). In human terms, it makes us realize how powerless and unmighty we are when measured against the sheer raw dominance of the earth as it flexes itself (for us ignorants) in apparently random jerks.

So much for economic crises, so much for border disputes, so much for nuclear arms races ... if we felt every one of the 6-plus-magnitude earthquakes that occur somewhere in the world every three days - we miss most because they occur out at sea - these other human-instigated things might seem less worthy to expend valuable energy on. I, for one, found Easter Sunday's exhilarating breezes on the Apennines a little more invigorating than normal as they blew over the proliferating crocuses sticking their heads out of the recently snow-free soil to check out what spring's all about.

Naturally Abruzzo's earthquake conjured memories in our area of the similar-strength 1997 earthquake that destroyed the Basilica of Assisi in Umbria just over the mountains, causing significant damage here in Le Marche as well. In fact, back in 2006 for the first 3 months of Julius's school life in Colmurano just 4 km away, he went to classes in a prefabricated building while the reparations of the main school's damages from the quake were being completed. While much of this lengthy restoration period can be ascribed to the lethargic leviathan that is Italian bureaucracy, it does give a sense of how long it will take before the poor people of L'Aquila can return to their homes.

One upshot of the 1997 quake was the increased stringency of building regulations on earthquake damage containment. Our house, for example, had to be fitted with a steel collar before it could pass structural muster. And maybe that's why it just felt like the bed was shaking the other night and not the whole house.

However, after all's said and done and we're finished with our existential reflections and spiritual confirmations, it really is quite something to live through, an earthquake. I've experienced a few, including a fairly major one in Los Angeles some 20 years ago, and on each occasion I've never failed to be in awe of what's happening in the moment when the whole building starts shaking. Everything stops. If someone's nearby, you look them more directly in the eye than at virtually any other time, and make a connection in that instant that few other experiences can match. Emotions, thoughts, physical sensations collide in an instant to provide an experience that can never quite be adequately described in words. And you're left with the deepest of memories, the most profound of reflections which arise from those singular glances - sometimes between strangers - when you look directly into each other's soul ...