“Did you know an anagram of ‘coronavirus’ is ‘carnivorous’?” my friend Marina wrote to me yesterday.
She is obsessed with anagrams. For my 35th birthday, she drew seven versions of me, each bearing an anagram of my name: Boriz Zaricomiz sporting short hair and a camo T-shirt, Ramiro Scibizzo with a handlebar mustache, and so on.
This time though, her wordplay is particularly accurate. This virus is indeed carnivorous. The animal, in this case, is us. Here in Italy, we are so terrified by this tiny predator that we have resorted to locking ourselves inside.
Marina and I have always enjoyed words and logic games. When we were colleagues in Treviso, a city in northern Italy, we spent long nights playing Scrabble. For a while we indulged in making Sudokus, before she told me she had given up because they’re “so easy, a computer could solve them.”
But mostly we are crossword puzzle fanatics. She has a mathematical approach: Quick at calculating the number of free cells and all potential intersections, she immediately has a full view of the puzzle. I’m the encyclopedic type: For years I’ve been hoarding a decent amount of random knowledge, allowing me to answer definitions ranging from “ancient Hungarian knights” to “Torino soccer club’s center forward in the early 1990s.”
I solve crosswords because they give me the fleeting illusion of being in control. Even these days, when my life has been turned upside down by a microorganism shaped like a spiked ball. Each time I start a new puzzle, the constant stream of scary news and contagion diagrams finally shuts off, leaving me inside my bubble, so neatly composed of black and white squares.
Before coronavirus, crosswords were a solitary activity for me, a peaceful moment of alienation from the outside world. Now that we are all locked inside, they’ve become a thing to share, an excuse to get in touch with the people I love.
At this writing, the Italian government issued a universal lockdown more than four weeks ago. I occasionally take short walks, accessorizing with my protective mask.
The first week was kind of exciting. With my girlfriend, Giulia, barred from going to work, it felt a bit like a romantic “staycation”: We cooked, read books, watched movies, cuddled on the sofa and started a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Le Nozze di Cana, a Renaissance painting by Paolo Veronese.
Then the reality of the routine began to settle around us, like a sofa so soft you struggle to stand up. I found myself increasingly trapped, in need of stretching my legs, getting a haircut (barbers are closed), even brushing my teeth (dentists are also closed).
Suddenly, the flat felt too small for two people. We ran into each other everywhere. Giulia’s Skype calls with her friends seemed too loud, her habit of leaving spare socks on the floor unbearable.
When this happened, I paced along my apartment’s corridor. Then I stared at my ukulele, hanging from a nail on the wall. I had no interest in playing.
Finally, I turned to crosswords. Crossword puzzles are pristine, and space abounds yet is already compartmentalized, with no risk of a letter spilling into the next cell.
After a few minutes spent filling them in, I felt my muscles relaxing, my breath slowing down, my brain zooming into a focused dot so small that it could not be split further. Psychologists call this a state of “flow.” Some get it by playing music, others by meditating. I get it by putting words inside a grid.
“I went to the news kiosk on Friday,” my dad told me on the phone two days ago. “They had already run out of copies.” I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
When I was a kid, La Settimana Enigmistica — the weekly magazine that is a national institution in Italy for crosswords, quizzes, curiosities and logic games — entered my house every June together with Chinotto, a bitter-tasting Italian version of Fanta soda. Both mysteriously disappeared in September. I grew up believing La Settimana Enigmisticawas published only in summer, although these were simply the months in which my parents were free from their teaching jobs.
Now that they are retired, they indulge in this time-consuming pleasure daily, usually after lunch, while comfortably reclining on the sofa. They work with factory-like efficiency: My dad reads aloud the clues, my mom replies, he fills in the puzzle. Not having their weekly copy is a threat to the delicate balance of their life as a couple. My mom will grow impatient. My dad will stop talking. An argument may ensue anytime.
Editors at La Settimana Enigmistica — which has published more than 4,500 issues with no interruptions in 89 years, except for two issues that were delayed during World War II — know their job is of paramount importance for people like my parents.
“We are working harder than ever to offer a moment of fun, self-esteem, lightness and distraction to all those in need of it,” the editor, Alessandro Bartezzaghi, wrote a few weeks ago in a Facebook post. “In these times, we feel strongly the need of being close to you.” Another post featured a rebus puzzle whose solution was: “Let’s all say ‘Stop!’ to coronavirus.”
Right now in Italy, a country where governments change frequently, citizens are in desperate need of someone to trust. With its long history, immutable layout and fixed set of contents, La Settimana Enigmisticais looked upon by many as one thing they can depend on to reassure them.
After all, no matter how challenging the current puzzle might be, the solution will always be there, at Page 46.
Sharing the cross, spreading the love
I called Marina today, to compliment her for the “carnivorous” anagram and ask how she is doing. We live in different cities and don’t see much of each other, but these days I miss her even more than usual.
We talked about a crossword puzzle she is working on. She confessed that now that she’s constantly at home she must practice self-control, or she would spend the entire day on La Settimana Enigmistica.
A bit later, my dad messaged me, asking for help with a clue he had been struggling with for an entire day. I sent him the solution and smiled, imagining him and my mom having an “Eureka!” moment on the sofa.
After putting down the phone, I took my pen and a sheet of grid paper, then began to write down words in vertical and horizontal columns. Making puzzles from scratch is something I used to do a few years ago. This feels like a good time to start again.
When I’m done with the theme and clues, I’ll make two copies of the puzzle, put them in envelopes and send them out into the world, to Marina and my parents. After all, the national mail hasn’t stopped working yet, and this quarantine could last for much longer.
If we cannot see each other right now, we can at least be crossword pals.
Originally published at https://www.nytimes.com on April 6, 2020.