“It’s wonderful to not hear the sound of the ambulance sirens.”
That’s what my cousin Elena in Milan wrote when I asked her about life in Italy now, as the country continues to re-open after a two-month lockdown. Her building is on a thoroughfare that leads to three different hospitals.
People are starting to go for walks. You can go to a bar and get your espresso or cappuccino and stay and drink it, instead of take-out. Stores are opening. But getting back to routine hasn’t been so easy.
“We have the sensation of having passed a period in a world in slow motion,” Elena said. “We feel like maybe how Sleeping Beauty felt when she woke up. It’s a terrible fatigue to do anything.” She said her legs tire easily and it’s a chore just to do the things they haven’t been doing, like getting back to driving. And walking out and about, anxiety hangs in the air, always wondering if they’re sick or if someone near them is sick. “These past two months at home, passing the majority of the time sitting down reading or watching television, has weakened us a lot.”
Italy’s lockdown was severe. When I asked my friends and relatives about what life was like there, not being able to go outside except to go to the grocery store or pharmacy, they made some jokes about eating too much and doing a lot of cleaning. But there was also an air of despair. I applaud the whole country for getting through it.
Elena and my friend Rachael, also in Milan, were both able to get out of the city in these past two weeks. They both told me that everyone seems to be following the rules and wearing masks. Sometimes people get too close in a grocery store or at the park.
Rachael got together with her boyfriend’s family and have a big outdoor lunch. They set up several tables for the six of them so everyone could keep their distance. “We stayed outside all day, took a walk around the Adda River region. It was so nice to be outside of Milan and with other people!”
I love walking around Milan. I’ve been there several times, visiting my cousins. I can’t imagine how things are going to get back on track after this. In cities like Milan, there is not a lot of room on sidewalks and streets to keep the required social distance. The joy of seeing Milan and every other city in Italy is to walk around, take side streets, come upon a church and a small piazza or walk down an alley and find artisanal shops. I can’t imagine doing that now, with the specter of Covid-19 everywhere.
In Bologna, my friend Paola went for a walk in the park and while she saw most people with masks on, not everybody was respecting the safe distance rule. What’s funny is Paola was there by herself and she was the one stopped by the police who asked for her certificate to be out!
“I’m worried when I go out because not everyone respects the rules,” she said. “I have to admit that in the period of maximum restriction, until May 3, I felt safer because all the controls forced people to stay inside. Now with the opening of work and the opportunity to take a walk, many don’t understand that the danger did not pass. And they don’t use masks and they bump you on the street. I wasn’t happy about being closed in for two months but I have never been bored and I tried to move my legs as well as I could.” She stopped using the elevator in her building. “One day, for a workout, I went up and down the stairs ten times.” (Brava Paola!)
In conversations with people on the street, Paola said the topic is always the same: Covid-19. When will it end, what will be done, who’s following the rules.
My friend Silvia, also in Bologna, said she too, worries a lot when she goes out. “I like to talk and smile with people,” she said. She’s been able to take walks in the countryside out of the city limits.
For my friend Sabrina in Siena, an instructor at the Saena Iulia Italian language school, it was something as simple as getting a coffee to go that brought smiles to everyone. She said she went to the Caffe Fiorella, where she’s gone many times with students, including me, and the barista recognized her, even with a mask. “ ‘Sabrina’! he said, almost screaming. I stood in line three times – for a coffee, another coffee and a cappuccino for carry out. The barista gave me a big thank you. I gave him a big thank you. I think you can also see smiles with the mask.” She wrote that it was “emotional” even a thrill to get an espresso at a bar after two months.
Elettra, also an instructor at the school, said there are lots of people walking around, some stores are open, many are not. “The impression is this is the new normal,” she said. “I went out to walk the dogs,. And two other times. Thati’s it.”
My other friend Sabrina from Siena, said they finally opened up their tabaccheria. “I was worried at the beginning, but right now, a little less,” she said. “I don’t want to say I’m less careful. I always take the right precaution.”
Speaking of Siena, the Palio, the historic horse race held in July and August has been canceled for 2020. Thousands of people fill the piazza for the race, both on the ground and in bleachers and on balconies. Social distancing? No way.
“Unfortunately, it was a painful decision,” said Stefano Marini, the Vice-Rettore for the Magistrato delle Contrade, a group that manages various activities for the contradas. “But it was inevitable and unanimous.” A contrada is a district or a neighborhood in Siena. Each has its own leaders and they met with the city officials to decide the fate of the 800-year-old historic race. While they won’t have their beloved race to celebrate this year, the contrada members have been doing their part to help Siena. They have volunteered and distributed masks to every city resident. Marini said they’re now distributing plastic bags for recycling so residents won’t gather at city offices.
My friend Antonio sent me some photos of Naples coming back to life. For anyone who has been to Naples, you are well aware of the culture of coffee there. It may not seem like a big thing but the fact that you can now walk into a bar and order an espresso is a big deal in Naples. The baristas soak the cups in hot water before they pour the espresso in it, just to make sure it stays hot. One time, I had to wait for the cup to cool off before I could pick it up!
Antonio put me in contact with a professor who, despite being hospitalized with Covid 19, continued to teach his classes. Professor Ambrogio Iacono, who teaches integrated sciences, taught two hours a day from his hospital bed on the island of Ischia and tried to emphasize the human side of the disease. Sometimes he involved the doctors and nurses in his lessons. His classes were almost always full. “Once a pupil held me for twenty minutes after the lesson, which would never happen in the classroom,” he said in a message. How great is that?
(Update – he was released from the hospital and was in quarantine for two more weeks before heading home to Naples last week. Way to go professor!)
And now for a completely different story about being locked down in Italy during a pandemic. Silvia Donati is a journalist, blogger, hiking and tour guide in Bologna. She left Bologna on March 1 to temporarily relocate to Trentino, to live closer to the mountains. Then the lockdown happened, right after she arrived.
“It wasn’t great, first because I was here by myself, my family and friends couldn’t come visit and the few friends I have here, we couldn’t see each other, of course. Plus, I came to enjoy nature and the outdoors and couldn’t even go out to talk. Very frustrating,” she wrote me in an email.
But with the country opening up, she’s now able to go on a hike, “the first real hike since I moved here!”
The story is a great read. If you’re going to be stranded somewhere in Italy, I guess there are worse places and she acknowledges the beauty of the area. Truly a case of bad timing!
Here’s the link to her story: https://bit.ly/3egWNXB
Here is her blog about Bologna: https://bolognauncovered.com/
While an empty Piazza San Marco was nice way to really see the beauty of Venice, I also know it’s important for the city, for Italy, to open up again. I’m sorry the Palio isn’t running. I’m also sorry the opera in Verona at that fabulous outdoor arena isn’t happening, as well as the countless smaller festivals around the country. Tourism is so important to Italy’s economy. I know I’m not planning on going this year and am even tentative about 2021. But when I go back, it’s going to be big! Maybe I’ll go on a bicycle tour or hike in the Dolomites, or discover a new region, visit family and friends all while enjoying the best cuisine on the planet.
Forza Italia! Ci vediamo presto!