Life in the Italian Lockdown: where there is adversity there is hope

Kamin Mohammadi, author of Bella Figura – How to live, love and eat the Italian way, has written, for our readers, the most enlightening post about current life in the Italian lockdown during this COVID-19 pandemic. It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, showing how the Italians have come together to fight this virus. For once we will not add photos to this post as Kamin’s words paint a thousand pictures.

KAMIN MOHAMMADI

LIFE IN THE ITALIAN LOCKDOWN

Two and a half weeks ago, as I packed my bags to return to Italy, one thing that my husband said to me gave me pause. ‘Consider that with the coronavirus situation here, you may not be able to leave again for some time.’

As a writer and editor, I divide my time between London and Italy. And at the end of February, after two months of working in London, I was getting ready to go back home to my Italian husband and our house in the Tuscan countryside. With book events and workshops lined up in London throughout the spring and summer, I considered his words. But the lure of home was strong and I got on the plane on the last day of February, armed with a hand sanitizer, trying hard not to touch my face.

At that point, it was just the north of Italy that was experiencing the outbreak. Here in Tuscany there had been just two cases. Nevertheless, Florence airport was very quiet and papered with notices in every language about the coronavirus. There were hand sanitizers everywhere and people were told to stand far from each other in the passport queue, at the top of which a man in full protective gear took our temperatures with a device that hovered in front of, but did not touch, our foreheads.

At the UK airport I had flown out of there had been no such precautions, and not a sign let alone hand sanitizer in sight.

We live in a very rural part of Tuscany, just 25km away from Florence but far away from the tourist hotspots of Chianti: all you can see from our windows is thickly wooded hills, vineyards, orchards of olive trees, the Sieve river (a tributary of the Arno that flows through Florence) and the purple peaks and emerald green valleys that rise to become the Apennine mountains that run down the spine of Italy. Our nearest hamlet is a 15-minute drive away and we have no close neighbours. We are used to isolation and to making sure that everything we might need for a while is already in the house. Over the years we have carved out our own working spaces – I have a room for my writing and yoga teaching, my husband has his photographic studio and even a little dark room squeezed under the stairs. It is not unusual for me to spend a week or two here without popping into Florence, and if I am working on a book, I can go to ground here for a few weeks.

So in that first week of March, when I came home, deciding to self isolate for a week or two was not a hardship. I decided not to go to Florence for a haircut, for acupuncture for my sore shoulders, or to attend choir practice that first week. What I could not have predicted is how, within eight days, we would all be under quarantine, the church would be closed, the choir which was made up of foreign students would have dispersed, and that I would be squinting into the mirror regretting not having made it to hairdresser while it was still open.

Probably like you, the first thing we do in the morning is catch up on the latest coronavirus news. To be honest, it’s what we do all day. Italy’s cases mushroomed everyday, hitting the thousands, and then the ten thousand mark. Schools and universities were closed – in every town and city bored teenagers roamed the streets. We sat in the Tuscan countryside and watched the northern regions struggle, the medics weep, nurses pass out at their stations from exhaustion. We saw the coffins piling up and we frantically rang everyone we knew in Venice, Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, the places that were hardest hit. The dead were no longer named – there were just too many. And still I spoke to friends in Rome, Naples and Sicily and wondered whether we should visit each other next week as planned.

And then, a week into my self-isolation, the news was leaked that the Italian state was about to issue a decree ‘locking down’ the affected regions in the north. Until then, while movement was severely restricted within those regions, it was still possible. From Monday morning, no one could enter or leave those regions any more.

As the news leaked out, people panicked. They rushed to leave northern Italy – videos of people running through Milan’s Centrale train station to catch the last train south went viral. It soon became clear that the attempt to contain the virus in the epicentres in the north had failed. It was now probable that clusters of cases would spring up in the much poorer south of the country, where hospitals are not as efficient and equipped to cope. The government reacted unequivocally – on Monday 9th, they announced that as of Tuesday 10th, there were no longer ‘red zones’ in Italy but that the whole of Italy was now a ‘protected zone’; that is, the lockdown was to be extended to the whole country. We were now required by law to stay home unless we had to shop for food, go to work, exercise or had medial emergencies. Friends sent pictures of notices on shop doors stating that only two people at a time could enter, images of lines drawn on the floors to designate the distance people should keep from each other. Airlines cancelled flights to Italy and people struggled to find flights out.

There was collective shock across the country. And confusion about what the decree actually meant. Bars and restaurants were still open until 6pm, as long as they could assure enough distance between their customers. I started to plan a lone trip to Florence to do some shopping and have a coffee in my favourite café. I would keep my distance, wear gloves, I even had a mask – the lure to see Florence without its usual mass of visitors was strong even while my husband advised me against it… We were in a state of confusion about what this social distancing meant.

In response to this mass confusion, another decree said that the following day Wednesday 11th all businesses and shops – apart from those supplying food and essentials – were to be closed.

Suddenly it was very clear. There were no choices any more. I no longer had to wonder if I should get a haircut or buy some new jeans. For the next two weeks, none of this was possible. We all had to stay home as much as possible. The Italian PM Giuseppe Conti was on TV every night, sober, measured, focused. He urged his countrymen to stay at home. Celebrities appeared on television and social media, filmed at home in their tracksuits, begging people not to go out, for the good of the country. Everything stopped. Everyone was at home. Even with the growing horror of the coronavirus pandemic which has dominated this year, this was unimaginable.

Here we are, a week into the lockdown. It’s likely to last at least another two weeks but everyone thinks it’s likely to be extended. We are all in limbo – some people are working from home but many have lost work, being as we are a community of creatives. Courses, retreats, workshops, exhibitions, festivals and teaching have been cancelled. Tourists have cancelled their Italian holidays for the whole year, the losses to so many are unimaginable. The state promises to devote whatever is needed to this epidemic and that includes aid for economic recovery for as long as it takes.

But this is not what is dominating our thoughts here. The focus is on the hospitals, the doctors and nurses who are on the frontline, the brilliant Italian health system which is, they say, a step away from complete collapse. There are not enough intensive care bed, patients are lined up in corridors and being treated in vast tents in hospital car parks. Warehouses are beginning to be considered while private clinics are giving up their spare beds. The latest decree says that the state has the right to requisition buildings that might serve it. There are not enough ventilators and other European states won’t share theirs. There are no masks left – there are medics working without proper protective gear including surgical masks. Italy does not produce its own and many other European countries have stopped exporting the ones they make. Italy’s appeal to Europe for medical assistance and equipment was met by a deafening silence from other member states, so China stepped in, sending medical equipment, supplies, 2million masks and nine medical experts.

The hope is that, with the population confined to quarters, the spread will plateau. With the epidemic likely to engulf many more regions of Italy in the way it has Lombardy and the Veneto, the only possible hope is that the rate of contagion will slow enough to give the health system the chance to treat everyone. Already in Vo’, a small town that was the epicentre of one of the first outbreaks, a combination of quarantining and aggressive testing have managed to stop contagion altogether.

A lot of emphasis on protecting others has brought out the best in the Italians, who are usually an anarchic, rule-breaking bunch. This week, we are told, is ‘crunch week’ in Tuscany, that is beginning to see cases rise. So Italians, contrary to their sociable nature, are staying in and when out shopping or walking, are staying far way from each other. In my one foray to the supermarket since the nationwide lockdown began, I have been charmed by the new-found politeness and reserve of Italians who now quietly ask, from at least one metre away, if you would mind moving your trolley so they can pass, whereas once they would merely have just walked over you, running their trolley over your toes, while talking loudly on the phone.

Queues outside supermarkets and food shops have become normal, sometimes they are hours-long in the city, everyone kept far from each other by cordons and tape. Limited numbers are allowed into even the giant supermarkets, and the correct distance between people in the queue for the cashier is delineated by lines on the floor. Cashiers are protected by Perspex walls, hastily erected overnight some time last week, and they fiercely defend their designated space.

In this past week, I have fallen in love with Italy all over again, and harder than ever. It feels as if the country has matured. The leadership has been strong and clear, with no sense of political spin. Italy’s cultural institutions have launched online initiatives to keep people entertained. You can now take virtual tours of the museums, concerts are played in empty auditoriums so they can be live streamed and transmitted. Film institutions have made their archives available to the public for free online, RAI the state broadcaster has put 400 movies online too. Technology has saved us – yoga teachers are conducting classes through conference calling apps, Italy’s children are being educated by their schools and universities online, and online aperitivos and dinner parties have become ubiquitous. Rainbows drawn by children trapped at home and inscribed with the hashtag #andratuttobene (everything will be ok), hang out of windows everywhere, even in our quiet country streets and out of every town hall window. They give us hope and courage.

Early last week, the singing started. People trapped in their apartments in the cities started to take to their balconies and windows at 6pm every day to sing the national anthem together, to bang pots and pans, to shake tambourines and to sing popular songs. A video of a street in Siena ringing out with a local song went viral, as did the video of a tenor singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ over the rooftops of an empty Florence. A saxophonist playing Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ from a balcony in Sicily’s Trapani brought tears to thousands of eyes.

Most of all, the spirit of this great country has pervaded all the bad news and fear. The sense of solidarity, of unity and community, is extraordinary and surprising given the death of social life. But something curious has happened that has helped bring this about too. We all feel closer. With everyone at home, suddenly we all have time. That most precious commodity of our post-modern lives is now abundant, and we are in closer contact with each other than ever. Every day I video with friends all over the country, and all over the world. I give classes and workshops, I make groups and collectives with others who want to collaborate on projects. I foresee a great burst of creativity emerging from this difficult time.

We are all the same now. The virus has been a great leveller as well as a great unifier. When, in my limited forays out, I see other people, as our eyes meet and we smile, there is an understanding. Something that unites us more fundamentally than anything that might divide us – we all want to live. We all want to be healthy and alive and for this virus to not spread. And that means taking care of each other. Even if that takes the form of distance and isolation, of not visiting people you love, of not hugging those dear to you. For the sake of others, we are all staying in and this mass sacrifice, this act of mass caring for each other, has brought out a burst of love for our fellow humans that has been as welcome as it has been unexpected.

Thank you, Kamin, from all of us, and may you and your loved ones stay well.

For Kamin Mohammadi’s website click HERE. To read our review of her book Bella Figura click HERE.