Two weeks ago, I reached out to my relatives and friends in Italy to find out how they’ve been dealing with the national lockdown to control the spread of Covid-19 from the coronavirus. They seemed to be handling it all with grit and patience, making jokes about how clean their houses are and lamenting not being able to get adequate exercise.
Now it’s been a month and the number of new cases has finally started to slow, at least in the north, which has been hardest hit. But the death toll is now at more than 13,000 with more than 100,000 infections.
The photo of the military caravan in Bergamo carrying coffins of people, most of whom died alone because loved ones couldn’t be with them in the hospital, sent shockwaves throughout Italy. Because of that image of the coffins, “no one wants to sing from balconies anymore, out of respect,” my friend Elettra said. She lives in Siena. “Morale is low.”
One thing they’ve all been saying for the past month, even before the virus hit the U.S., was to take it seriously and not underestimate how bad things will get. They were right. The curve in the U.S. is still climbing. Hospitals are near (some past) their breaking points and now we’ve been told that maybe it’s a good idea to wear face masks. Good thing I have a stash of bandannas, which are usually used to pull back my hair at the gym.
So here is an update, from Milan to Sicily, with some photos of their dinners because, come on, we need to lift our spirits and Italian cuisine certainly lifts mine.
In Milan, my cousin Elena said the days go by equally. “We have to stop for a moment to remember what day of the week it is,” she said. “And we try to organize the day in a way to be more or less busy.”
She said she passes the time doing things in the house, cooking, hearing from family and friends on the telephone, watching the news, reading and doing crosswords. And probably that’s how the majority of people are spending their days. Her husband Umberto stays in contact with the people from his office.
The fact that everything is closed and deserted, to be able to go out just for shopping and having to avoid any contact is tough. “We miss very much not seeing our friends, family. We miss the air.”
But they were able to celebrate the birthdays of Umberto and their son Alessandro this week. They did what everyone around the world is doing: about 20 friends and family members got online and they held a virtual birthday party. “We did a toast and everything,” she said, adding that at least, through all this, they were able to celebrate this way. After the call, she and Umberto went into the kitchen and enjoyed a small cake, after Umberto blew out the candle.
Also in Milan, my friend Rachael’s company has decided to shut down its operations temporarily.
“I’ve been cooking a lot and doing home workouts,” she said. “I’ve been ordering things from Amazon and trying to limit the number of times I go to the grocery. I used to go every day or every other day Now I’m going once a week.”
She explained that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the Italian Parliament there’s nothing else they can do to be more strict than the lockdown in place now. The government put a higher fine on going outside for anything deemed unnecessary.
Also, if you go out, you have to write exactly where you’re going and where you came from. It’s also become difficult to return home if you went away for awhile. Before the lockdown was in place, people traveled to other houses and regions. “For a while they could return. But now they can’t.”
“I feel like I’m being pretty good in respect to all the rules, even if it seems to me impossible to not be able to go out,” my friend Paola said.
As if the lockdown and the restrictions weren’t enough, it snowed recently. “Today, in particular, I feel like I’m on another planet,” she said. “It’s March 26, it’s snowing and it’s really cold, after a winter that seemed like an extended spring. The gray sky gets me down, especially when I think (and I am convinced) that all of this will not end on April 2, as they speculated. But it will continue until who knows when.” (Update, the lockdown has continued)
The mood of the Italians, in general, is not very good, as you can imagine, she said. “Most try to follow the Premier’s rules, quietly, without much protest. Others protest everything. Others are worried about their health, others think only of the economic repercussions.”
She spends a lot of time with her mother, who lives in the apartment one floor below. (and who gave me a pasta lesson five years ago. Watch it here – https://wordpress.com/post/1cannolo2cannoli.org/634).
“I listen to her stories of her life as a young girl in the countryside and during the war,” Paola said.
Paola is an avid world traveler and has loads of photos around the apartment. “I’ve started to re-organize the photos from so many trips, ones that I’ve looked at just once and then put them away in any order,” she said. “I like this job because it makes me relive wonderful moments of my life and it takes me back to these places I cannot get to now.”
And then there are her books. I’ve known Paola since 1995, when I was in Bologna on a Rotary International Scholarship. She offered to rent the extra room in her apartment to a scholar, which was me. Back then, I thought the place was loaded with books. The quantity seems to have doubled. “I have the get rid of some of them. But I can’t do it. I’ll put some in a box to take them out and then I’ll pick them up again and put them back where they were. I can’t do it.”
She likened it to tearing out a piece of her heart. “Every book is attached to a particular situation from my past, every one is a piece of my life.”
The only new thing was the snow and the cold, said my friend Sabrina. “I don’t think it will be over before spring. We hope to have the first good news by Easter.”
Elettra, an Italian-language teacher at the Saena Iulia language school, said now they really are just at home. She had been able to go out and run a bit. Not anymore. “The streets are deserted and the fine, for anyone who violates the regulations can be as much as 4000 Euro,” she said.
And, as mentioned above, after seeing the images of the coffins in Bergamo, “no one wants to sing from the balconies anymore, out of respect. Morale is low, very low. Not for me, but many friends and relatives are sad. A lot don’t know if they will be able to continue their jobs. Everything’s in silence. Every now and then you hear an ambulance or helicopter or a drone that they control.”
Her two sons do their schoolwork online and she teaches as many as six Italian lessons a day online. “I like that a lot. I’m lucky.” (Full disclosure. She’s also teaching me)
My friend Antonio was pretty frank: “The prison continues and in Campania it was extended until April 15.”
People are home, and unfortunately the numbers (of infected) are climbing and there are still shortages of masks and respirators. “In the hospitals, they are living through dramatic situations. But in spite of everything, we are confident.”
He praised the actions and the leadership of the president of Campania, Vincent De Luca. “The measures of De Luca are often copied by the central government,” he said. “If we are to beat the virus, it will be a battle to relaunch the economy. The mood for now is good but the fatigue is behind closed doors.”
He said he thinks of people who have their own businesses and others in the service sector and how worried and stressed they are because of the virus but also because of their jobs. “We need to act as soon as possible, perhaps invent new forms of support for ourselves” and show courage to avoid the tragedy within the tragedy.
Dinner at Antonio’s house:
My cousins in the town of Grotte, where my mother was born, are doing what they need to do but it’s not been that easy. “We are slowly suffering because to be permanently at home without being able to take in the air from the sea or to take a walk is truly difficult,” said cousin Claudia. “But we are starting to get used to it, to live our daily lives without too many demands.”
She’s exercising daily, studying, following the online lessons, reading, writing and “I try to not eat out of boredom.” Her mother, my cousin Venera and her brother work out with her in the home. Claudia was to portray Mother Mary in the town’s Easter recital. But she believes it will all be canceled. “I’m very sorry also for all of you,” she said. “I hope it will all end soon.”