While conducting dissertation research in Italy during the 2019-20 academic year, Maryam Patton, PhD candidate in History and Middle East Studies, has had the unusual fortune to experience both severe flooding in Venice and quarantine in Florence. Here is her account.
Time flies when you’re having fun, as the saying goes. So too, apparently, when you are under national lockdown and lose all sense of daily rhythm and order. Since October, I’ve been living in Italy for the second leg of my dissertation research. I first found myself in Venice, then in January I moved to Florence. I remember feeling aware that the growing crisis in Northern Italy was lurking ever nearer in late February, and I wondered whether to stay or go. I chose to stay. A few weeks later, on March 13, all of Italy came under national lockdown and it was here in Florence that I spent the next two months under strict quarantine, only venturing into the empty city center once a week for groceries. And to this day, in late June, I wonder where exactly that time went, and how could I not feel its passing.
I know that every one of you reading these words felt something like what I am describing, this sense that the days we spent, and are still spending, under quarantine passed by imperceptibly, and that time itself felt very different. Suddenly stripped of most of the trappings of campus life and the daily rituals and activities which gave structure and a semblance of order, I had more time than ever to fill with whatever I wanted to do, undistracted by administrative tasks that filled my days previously. But I was not one of those noble, virtuous souls who took this opportunity to explore new hobbies, catch up on reading, or formulate a new domestic routine to stand in place of the social one. Instead, I wanted to participate in this new experiment and try to understand this experience through the lens of my research.
I am a historian of time and I study the ways in which past cultures grappled with time, organized their lives, and understood time in both real and philosophical senses. My dissertation addresses these questions through an integrated history that links fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Istanbul and Venice. The average early modern Venetian or Istanbulite would not have had a portable timepiece that kept moderately accurate time. Astrolabes were expensive, luxury devices. At best, the average individual could rely on fixed clock towers or sundials in the city center or on prominent buildings, which they would likely not be able to see from their homes. The geographical extent of their temporal awareness might be extended by listening for the calls to prayer, or the chiming of the bell towers. And barring all that, they could approximate based on the position of the sun in the sky. And that was enough.
During the first few weeks of quarantine, before everything really sank in back on campus, I felt profoundly alone. I did not have zoom meetings with colleagues, and none of the virtual events like lectures and conferences which we have now, were a thing then. Except for my calls to family, time zones didn’t matter because my world was contained in my apartment. For a few weeks, I had no need to keep the time. What was the point? My weekly grocery shop wasn’t weekly because I had decided that was a reasonable rate. It was all I could fit in my fridge. In the absence of external pressures, I reverted to Maryam time. It turned out to be a very relaxed, unstructured way of seeing the world. I spent a lot of time thinking, thinking about things like how the expression ‘spending time’ didn’t really capture what I was doing because my time was no longer a finite commodity that I had to ration. I thought about whether my experience of time was fundamentally different from what the protagonists I study would have felt. The answer is undoubtedly yes, but not because of the actual personal experience of this strange force which rules our lives, but because of the inescapable social and cultural structures around us that shape what we believe makes for a valuable use of time. These are the structures that I study for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and for a few weeks, I felt free of my own culture’s structures.
This was not the first time that I experienced a major disruption to my research. I was in Venice for the record breaking acqua alta that hit November 12, 2019. I was blissfully unaware this could happen, and I’ll never forget that night when the librarians of the Bibliotheca Marciana called me over to the windows, and we listened to the sirens that warned of the impending waters. Still unaware of what was in store, I returned to my residence on the small island of San Giorgio just a short ferry ride away, where luckily, I was staying on the second floor. I never did get back in to the Marciana. The rare book room was still shut when I left three weeks later. After the initial flooding, I was stranded at my residence until I could get hold of a pair of the highly unfashionable knee-high plastic shoe covers. Eventually, I learned to follow tide charts and how to safely navigate to and from home while avoiding most of the water, and realized that all that separated my experience of the tides from the sixteenth-century Venetians was that I could pull these charts up on my smart phone. It led to an unexpected angle in my research about the ways Venetians relied on lunar cycles, and the experiences of cities situated on water.
A little disruption can be a good thing. I still feel unable to truly plan out what I should do in the next few months, and that discomfort has made me question my assumptions about many things. I know that, all told, I have been very fortunate, that I and my family have been safe during these difficult times. I hope that has also been the case for anyone reading this. As we cautiously emerge from lockdown and begin the return to the temporal regime of synchronicity, I hope to hold on to some of those lessons from when I came unstuck in time.