A letter from rural south-western Connecticut, USA 27 April 2020

Emilia Sereva

Greetings from the Connecticut woods! Lately, I have been preoccupied by logistical topics to do with supply chain management. I never thought I’d experience supply chain disruptions in a grocery store here, because, well, this is America and we’re #1 (note my sarcasm, please), but of course I now stand corrected. This has been a problem for would-be grocery shoppers the world over, who can hopefully relate the predicament I find myself in when trying to sort out a week’s worth of meals for my family. I have been endeavouring to only grocery shop once a week at most, and although it’s true that we all try to visit grocery stores as infrequently as is possible out of consideration for the health of ourselves and others, that becomes difficult if we cannot find enough food in one trip. It’s alarming to see stripped shelves at the local grocery store, although it’s understandable why shoppers would buy in larger quantities than they otherwise would when scarcity is a concern. Before the lockdowns and the supply chain issues, I would normally buy in bulk wherever possible to avoid unnecessary trips, but now I buy only what I need with other shoppers in mind. I’m surprised to learn I care about other people? I wonder what that’s about. My ‘new normal’ now includes trolling eBay for a decently-priced economy size pack of freezer storage bags, or else spending hours looking for an online distributor who sells flour that I’m not allergic to.

Here is my side of food-related conversation from earlier today, which would have seemed odd on several levels out of the present context: ‘I would suggest we pick up some Aubergine Parmesan for dinner, but the butcher who makes the cook-and-serve kind we like is only accepting curb-side pickup orders now, and orders must be placed the night before, so that’s out. I also thought of making scrambled eggs on toast, but we don’t have enough of them and I’d rather not go to the grocery store just to buy some eggs’ (which, by the way, are now 4x their pre-pandemic price). These sorts of conversations between household members point up the ‘new normal’ we keep hearing about. Thinking sociologically, what is ‘normal’ anyway? In this situation that we are all faced with, the best thing to do is to adapt rather than compare or pine.

Presented with limited options, I find myself concocting comforting dinner ideas on the fly based on what ingredients I can amass. I think the present problem of never knowing what will be on offer at the grocery store has definitely made us all a bit more grateful for what we do have, and has also provided many opportunities for ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking.

‘What’s for dinner tonight? I’m making what we once called breakfast (because who cares anymore what things are called?): Blueberry pancakes and bacon!

Here’s the pancake batter recipe I use, just in case you’d like to make some too.

Impatient Griselda

Liz Stanley

It is the late 1340s and a pandemic – the Black Death, the bubonic plague – is raging. Increased numbers of people are dying day on day, no one knows how to stop it, friends and family shun each other, the ordinary sense of time and space and social connectedness is dislocated. A group of acquaintances, seven women and three men, come together, deciding to isolate themselves from the city for a two-week quarantine period and to do so in a thoughtful and mindful way. They gather together for the lockdown period. And they tell each other stories, the stories of their times ­­– 10 days, 10 people, 100 stories. This is the setting for Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

Even people who don’t know anything much about The Decameron [the hundred stories] beyond its title have often heard of ‘patient Griselda’, a folklore figure, as well as appearing in this book. Griselda is a woman who bears no anger or resentment, no matter how ill-treated she is by the pig of a man she is married to; and she appears in the last of its stories, the tenth story told on the tenth day. However, from the (symbolic) names of its ten storytelling characters, through to the time and place of the stories they tell, there is little about the contents of The Decameron that can be taken straightforwardly at face value.

Patient Griselda

The final story is that of patient Griselda, but it is impossible to think that the book’s seven feisty women storytellers would have been anything other than impatient and annoyed with such a misogynistic idea of what a perfect woman would be like – thought of on the surface Griselda is a bully’s wet dream, and in her case the bully-husband is the Marquis of Saluzzo while she was a peasant by birth. In our present pandemic times, the figural ‘she’ here has a particular resonance, given the vast increase in domestic violence that is being recorded in current lockdown circumstances in many different parts of the world. So why does the book close with this, at the point where the assembled ten storytellers are about to return to Florence and the plague? What point are readers are expected to take from it?

All the ten last stories in The Decameron are about good and bad behaviour in sexual, marital and other relationships, so it is possible to read it as the swinish husband being a way of heaping praise on the more than perfect conduct of Griselda, a goody two-shoes if ever there was one, indeed so perfectly forgiving as to be quite impossible. But while it is preceded by nine other good conduct stories, it is immediately followed by an epilogue which provides another way of understanding it. In the ‘Author’s conclusion’, Boccaccio steps forth and directly addresses the reader, which the authorial ‘he’ does earlier in the book too. He says that these are stories of the times, they deal with things that happen although they may infringe how things are spoken and written about in more ordinary circumstances (with this directed most to the bawdy sexual content of a number of them), that ‘the ladies’ who he is addressing should take from them the lessons they want, and that his intentions as an author are signalled in the ‘sign on its brow’ over each of the stories. This is the summary or abstract that proceeds each of the hundred stories. In the case of patient Griselda, the ‘sign on its brow’ is in effect entirely about the husband and his ill-conduct. His misogyny is defeated in the end by her perfections, she is celebrated as the heroine of hour, she enters glory in the city of Saluzzo.

But what of now? A Griselda for our time is not a textual device for pointing up and ‘rescuing’ the ill-behaviour of men. A Griselda for our time is a very, very impatient woman. She views the upturn in domestic violence towards women as appalling. She notes that the vast majority of frontline care work in the present pandemic is being done by badly paid women. For impatient Griselda there is no return to the city, she probably heads for a domestic violence refuge somewhere – or perhaps she becomes a care worker.

Thursday clap

Liz Stanley

As in many places, the small village of Warton turns out on Thursday nights at 8 PM, to clap the NHS and care workers. I recorded the 23 April great clap – it’s a two minute MP3 recording of a quite extraordinary thing, because almost everybody in the village turns out and the sound echoes all round. It’s the only time we see anyone not from our own households now, the only time we talk. And the age range is phenomenal, from three months old to a month short of 90. Two minutes of togetherness apart.

Thursday 23 April clap in Warton
30 April clap in Warton