Italy has been in a national lockdown for almost two weeks because of the spread of the coronavirus and Covid-19. There are still two weeks to go. As I write this, the death toll in the country is at 2,503 and there are 31,506 positive cases. “We have not hit the peak, we are not stabilizing and going down yet, and every damn day is scarier,” wrote my friend and journalist Barbie Latza on her social media feeds. She lives in Rome.
When I saw the videos of the Italians singing and playing music from their balconies and at their windows, I was overwhelmed with emotion, taken aback by their ability to do those things in the face of such tragedy and madness. I reached out to my relatives and friends to find out how they’re doing and how they spend their days. If I may lighten the mood a bit, it seems that the country will have the cleanest houses on the planet.
“We’re going to have clean houses and we’ll be fat!” said my cousin Elena with a chuckle, alluding to the fact that they can’t go out and about.
Personally, I don’t want to think about being stuck inside in Italy. I think my daily menu would be parmigiano reggiano, bread, pasta with parmigiano, bread. Did I mention parmigiano?
So below are dispatches from Milan, Bologna, Siena, Naples and Grotte, Sicily, my mother’s hometown. The overriding message from everyone: take it seriously and wash your hands!
Elena said she feels as if they’re “living in a suspended bubble.” She described her neighborhood as being deserted and still, as if it were “crystallized in a black and white photograph, and there is an unreal silence.”
The rules of the lockdown say you can go out only for necessary and urgent reasons, such as the pharmacy to pick up medicine or to the grocery store or take care of someone else. You have to get a certificate from the government that permits you to do so. (This is what it looks like: https://www.interno.gov.it/sites/default/files/allegati/modulo-autodichiarazione-17.3.2020.pdf)
And in the stores, they’re only letting in a few people at a time because you have to keep a distance of at least a meter from each other. So the lines to get into the store are long. “But there isn’t a grocery (food) emergency because the stores have everything,” she said. “They’re not out of anything. It’s all very orderly and calm.”
The time passes slowly and she and her friends say their houses have never been so clean, “windows so clean and transparent that if you’re not careful, you’ll walk right into them.” Their closets and drawers are incredibly organized. And, of course, they’re eating at home (see comment above about their weight).
As for how their government’s been handling the emergency, she praised it for their actions, how they give updates every day on television and describe the situation in a real manner “without creating a panic. I’d say that at the beginning, no one knew exactly what to do, then after time, they figured it out and found the right way to communicate to the people. Our healthcare system is working even in this situazione, which, if you call it an emergency, is an understatement.
“I don’t know how we were viewed from abroad. At the beginning, there were the usual prejudices. But now is not the time to make funny jokes. The virus is spreading all over the world and we are all ‘leaves on the same tree’.”
She said the hospital workers are becoming for them what the firefighters were for us after September 11: heroes.
My friend Rachael who lives in Milan has been working from home for four weeks now. She said for the first week, it was life as usual. “I was just working from home and I think even one night went out to a restaurant with my boyfriend to get out of the house. At that point, only a handful of places were closed and going to the grocery store was open and free in terms of timing and people inside,” she wrote in an email.
Then the announcements came in waves, about quarantines and lockdowns. And the train stations in the north were bombarded with people fleeing to the south. Fast forward three weeks and they’ve been asked to stay at home at least until April 3.
“It is a ghost town that you don’t even see in August when we all flee for holiday,” she said. “The grocery stores are very well stocked from what I have seen and there is not a mad rush to stock up to the brim on things like toilet paper as we are seeing in the U.S.”
Rachael was on her way to a grocery store when she took the video of the Piazza del Duomo, one of the biggest tourist draws in Milan.
So how does she get through the day? “The key really is to trick time, doing things you never had time to do before. I have cleaned my apartment top to bottom, learned and cooked new recipes with my boyfriend, binged-watched Netflix, studied Italian, organized my entire closet, called, texted and facetimed so many of my friends and family.”
And this: “I have had virtual aperitivo with friends and co-workers here!” which is your stay-at-home happy hour with your friends online. Her advice for us now is to not panic, use common sense in hygiene, stay home and don’t bombard the grocery stores. “Take it from us in Italy: STAY HOME & WASH YOUR HANDS!”
My friend Silvia works at the Bologna Airport, which has basically shut down.
“I must insist,” she wrote me. “This is something very serious. Take care and try to avoid the mistakes we made in underestimating Covid-19! Please! Italians have handled it with our usual humanity. I hope by the time it’s all over, others can say the same.”
My friend Paola described it as if they’re living in a bad movie.
“When you open your eyes in the morning and you hear absolute silence, you think it’s Sunday. Then you really wake up and you realize that it’s any working day. Then you remember the tragedy that is sweeping the country and that, in order to stem it, you have to stay home.”
She wrote that in the beginning, they received mixed signals from the government’s leaders, hearing both alarming news and panic one side and calm and indifference on the other. In the end, everything was at a standstill.
“All of a sudden Italy, the land of chatterboxes, was silent. Uncertainty, rather than fear, convinced people to observe the Decree from the Premier which says to not go out if it’s not a necessity.”
She said the atmosphere is unreal. “Outside of the pharmacies and small grocery stores, (the few that are still open) you find long lines of people with half-covered faces. It makes you want to laugh – one is protecting herself with a multi-colored scarf, another with a turtleneck sweater and most with homemade masks made of paper and fabrics of every kind. And they’re wearing gloves, multi-colored, latex, canvas, garden.
“But the urge to laugh passes quickly because you know that you can’t find the official masks and then you see a sign on the door of the store that says they’re out of disinfectant. And you doubt that the distance of one meter from the people who follow you or are in front of you is safe and you see the same doubts in their faces.”
While the measures imposed, for now, have not yet yielded results, “you have to wait and hope. There’s no cure, antidote nor vaccine and so, we have to accept the attempts that the State makes to protect us or at least avoid all of us getting sick together and clogging the hospitals.”
She said while they are an inventive and creative population, they’re also pragmatic and they’re all getting things done in their homes. But she also praised the retired doctors and nurses who are going back to work, despite the danger of the contagion and ordinary citizens who are helping the elderly and disabled neighbors.
Paola’s apartment is about a 20-minute bus ride from the center of Bologna, with its famous food shops, wine bars and restaurants. It’s always bustling, filled with locals and tourists alike.
“Obviously, these are strange days when I don’t go into the city center, but I see in the media what’s out there, or rather, what’s not there. The streets are empty. Markets and parks closed. The shutters for the stores, restaurants and bars are down. The Street – Vie delle Pescherie Vecchie — is without the usual packs of tourists and Bolognesi for aperitivi. Via Zamboni (a main street at the University of Bologna) is silent without the students.”
She said she sees a few buses out and plenty of police checking if passers-by and drivers have the proper certificate to be out. “It’s tough. I never would have thought at 70 years old I could go out only with justification.”
“The only cheerful note is every night at 7 p.m., the bells of the cathedrals ring in the deserted city, as if to say, ‘Everything will be fine. We will make it and this moment will pass’.”
My friends Sabrina and Nicola, who own a tabacchi shop, were allowed to keep the shop open until this week. There is a silence in the city that is almost spooky, Sabrina said.
Daily life in Siena circulates around the main piazza, the Piazza del Campo. It’s also where the storied horse race, the Palio, happens in July and August. At some point during the day, you find yourself walking through the piazza and up or down the city’s steep narrow streets. There was a video that went viral of a Senese singing one of the fight songs from the goose contrada (neighborhood). It was haunting and beautiful.
“They’re telling us that if we follow all the rules, by mid-May the virus will be gone. But the real problem is afterward,” Sabrina said. “There will be a big economic crisis and it will take years to pick itself up.
“What do I do in the house all day? I read a lot. I try to clean everything you normally neglect because of other things to do. I’m with my dogs. I’ve picked up crocheting again.”
Sabrina has to take medicine that is only available at the hospital pharmacy and she has to take it at the hospital. “I have to say they were very organized. Before you enter, they stop you at the checkpoint, they take your temperature and make you use sanitizer on your hands.”
My friend Elettra, an instructor at the Saena Iulia Italian language school, fills her days with online instruction at the school and then teaches three, sometimes four, online lessons at home. “I take my dogs out and I go for a walk with them,” she said.
She goes running once a day, which is permitted outside if you’re alone, not in groups. And for the rest of the day, she doesn’t meet with friends, she doesn’t take her sons out. They have their lessons and do their homework. “Sometimes I put on loud music and I sing and dance to let off steam. I write and I exercise.”
My friend Antonio said he never would have thought he’d live in such a time, in a situation like this. “It goes beyond the imagination. It seems like a film.”
Then, “We are a strong people and we will manage to overcome this bad time.”
Antonio works for the region of Campania and has permission to drive to his office in Naples, about 20 minutes from his home in Pomigliano d’Arco. He’s there a few hours a day. “Life goes on and we will find the strength to overcome everything.”
Unfortunately, he’s got some friends who are infected with the virus and are in the hospital, but told me they’re doing OK. “You live with the nightmare. The peak is expected by mid-April. Elections were scheduled for June but will be postponed to September and October. The central government is doing everything possible. I don’t feel like attacking him now. Fortunately, the governor of Campania is a determined man and is making tougher decisions than the national ones. All will be fine.”
This video, courtesy of Antonio, is of Via Partenope in Naples. Trust me when I say this is usually choked with traffic and people.
I have cousins who live in Grotte Sicily, the town where my mother was born. It’s in the province of Agrigento, home to the Valley of the Greek Temples, a 20-minute train ride away.
Cousin Venera and her daughter Claudia wrote to me about what life is like for them now. Claudia is 23 and is a student at the University of Palermo. “As you know, Covid-19, declared a pandemic, has entered our homes,” she wrote me. “ Suddenly we had to deal with a frightening reality. The Covid-19 completely knocked us to the ground.
“We had to change our habits, stop our daily rush to work and the university, pause our lives, forget the hugs between people and avoid the kisses.”
She said she’s learning a lot, and starting to appreciate little things that have turned into big things, like cooking with her mother, making a cake and tea with her brother or “listening to good music under the Sicilian sun and writing a message to someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time.”
Despite the suffering now, they must resist and hope because behind every storm there is always the sun, she said. “We have strong hearts. Italy has a strong heart. I have a strong heart.”
Venera praised her children for diligently getting their schoolwork done online, even though it’s in the morning and she can’t get much done. “I think I am in jail!” she said. “I can’t speak. I can’t do housework at all. But that’s OK. For half a day they’re busy doing something.”
She struck a more serious tone when talking about the bigger picture. “It really affects me. I’m worried. I try to go out and do shopping, only food, and when I need to. And only in town. We’ve been off school for ten days. That’s a very long time. I didn’t know how it was to be forced to stay in the house all day. I mean, before, I didn’t want to go out because I was lazy but now I realize it’s a (privilege) when you go out. You can do whatever you want at that moment. We cannot do whatever we want at the moment. We have to respect the rules.”
Plus, Venera’s parents are older. They live on the first floor of the three-level home. “We’re worried for the old people, like my mother and father.”
She also noted that the lockdown is a bit tougher for the younger crowd, like her children. “Claudia and Gabriele were used to going out, seeing their friends. Gabriele now has been online and he’s linked to his friends on the computer. They’re doing homework together. That’s better than before.”
She praised Claudia for getting some workouts done in the house, something she should do too. “We eat and we don’t move a lot or as much as we could.”
Her message for us? Don’t underestimate this virus. Be careful.
FROM CINCINNATI –
Michele Alonzo, the director of “School Amici” Italian language school in Cincinnati praised his fellow Italians for how they’ve handled the situation and the circumstances. “I think the Italians finally have come together now to fight this battle against such an invisible aggressive enemy,” he said. “We, as a country, have been through major catastrophe in our history. We don’t give up.”
He agreed with the government’s decision in declaring the whole country a red zone. “However, based on the experience from China, they should have acted a little earlier and been more proactive in stopping people coming from other countries.”
He explained: “Every year Italy is visited by millions of tourists who pack our cities. Venice is full of Chinese, both workers and visitors. We don’t know how many of these people were already infected weeks ago and carried the virus in the country. This is obviously a fertile soil for a virus for which we are not protected by antibodies. So people infected other people even without knowing. And that probably why Italy has been hit much more than other European countries.”
Michele is originally from Naples. He said his friends there, as well as in Milan and Rome, are all amazed at how people have adapted so quickly to the new lifestyle. “What before was abnormal, now it has become normal: bars and restaurants closed, deserted streets, only ambulances rushing up and down, people wearing masks everywhere, lines in front of grocery stores with people distanced six feet from each other. All this is now the normal life of Italians and they have adjusted well. In only two weeks, the abnormal has become the new normal.”
I am Italian, my roots are Italian, I go to Italy often to visit family and friends and go on new adventures. I’m hurting for Italy now. Obviously I won’t be there this year but if permitted, I will be there in 2021 in force. Andra’ tutto bene. Forza Italia!