How to survive a coronavirus lockdown like an Italian

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Greetings from lockdown.

Before I tell you about my life under house arrest, let me explain to you what life was like before the apocalypse descended down upon us. For the past year-and-a-half, my human and canine companions (i.e. husband and dog) would begin each morning with a leisurely walk to the neighborhood café, where the barista would prepare our morning espresso without us even needing to ask. Sometimes we’d down our drinks at the bar while the barista told us the latest gossip on the street. Other times I would sit down with a fresh brioche (the thought of which now brings tears to my eyes). Taking this soft, spongey piece of heaven and dipping into my small hot espresso was basically a socially acceptable sex act. We would enjoy our breakfast with care, sometimes reading the newspaper, during all of which – not unlike actual sex – our dog would sit and growl at us until we finished.

Life before the coronavirus pandemic

From there I would head back home, sometimes stopping at the bakery for some fresh focaccia or the local organic co-op for some seasonal veggies. Then it was off to the university for class, or to a corporation to teach. At the end of a long, exhausting-but-fulfilling day, I’d stop in another café for my afternoon coffee and a bit of reading.

Usually the evenings were spent at yoga or the gym, but weekends were reserved for an aperitivo with my friends, the infamous Italian pre-dinner cocktail hour.

Clearly, I didn’t have much to complain about. I’m not saying that my life was this fantasy postcard. Work can get frustrating no matter where you live, and I promise you that 1920’s plumbing installed into 16th-century buildings as an afterthought leads to horrific smells. I still fought with Andrea over stupid nothings, our dog still had to go to the vet, and I still procrastinated when I knew better. We never buzzed down winding Tuscan roads in red vespas or frolicked in Trevi fountain. (Though Andrea is an avid frolicker, so we did manage to squeeze in a monthly session in the countryside.) Point is, our life was not a never-ending vacation, like many of my American friends paint it to be, but it was undoubtedly charmed.

And, don’t get me wrong, it still is. I still make fresh pasta by hand and our cabinets have enough reserves of chocolate to get us through to 2030. I’ve managed to get in surprisingly engaging workouts in the small space between my couch and the TV. We still have everything that matters: water, food, shelter, Branca’s curated edition of Decameron. Most of all, we still have each other. The only thing we don’t have is freedom of movement.

It started slowly, with the schools. On February 24th, the city of Bologna announced that schools would be “temporarily suspended,” which had an unsurprisingly brutal trickledown effect. Coffee shops didn’t have high schoolers passing by for their liquid energy. Parents had to find ways to skip work, or work from home, in order to watch their otherwise unsupervised progeny. Teachers, including private instructors like me, were suddenly waking up without anywhere to be.

Then they shut down any big gatherings: soccer games, concerts, dance clubs. Fair enough. Then the gyms, swimming pools and yoga studios. Then the full closure of the libraries and bookstores. Then a curfew at 6 pm for all establishments of any nature. Then, finally, they decided to shut down everything “non-essential.” Restaurants, bars, cafès, hair salons, clothing stores, flower shops . . . basically all establishments except supermarkets and pharmacies. The last closure was the public parks, on Friday morning (March 13th).

The official nationwide “red zone” was announced on Sunday evening, March 8th. As of Saturday, March 14th, we are still under virus-induced house arrest and will probably remain under lockdown until April, if not longer. No movement outside the house is permitted without an authorization certificate.

[Police monitor the streets for unauthorized pedestrians]

We can still buy groceries, though we each have to line up individually outside the store, exactly one meter apart, often making us look like we’re in some Merce Cunningham-John Cage contemporary dance company.

We can also still take our dogs out to relieve themselves, though it’s discouraged to extend these strolls beyond the absolute minimum necessary. You can go seek medical treatment if you are in dire need. (That is, if your life is in peril. Otherwise, non-emergency care – knee replacements, chemotherapy, anything that can be delayed a few weeks without you dying – is “temporarily suspended.”) Ironically, even though leisurely strolls are out of the question, exercise such as jogging is permitted as long as you go alone and keep a safe distance from anyone else who might be out, which is more than easy to do, because no one is out.

At first, it’s kind of cool to wake up whenever you want and never feel the pressure to put on a bra. And at first you think, “This is a great opportunity! I’m going to be so productive! This is the perfect time to read all those books I never got to, or write that great novel I’ve never had time for, or master the infamous Julia Child recipe for gâteau à l'Orange!” But weirdly enough, even though I have all day to myself with zero interruptions, it’s almost impossible to concentrate. With nothing to compete for my time, I’ve lost the rush to conserve the precious hours I have left before ... before what, exactly? It’s not even procrastination, because procrastination requires delay, and delay implies the existence of a time interval between the present – when a task has not been completed – and a future event by which the task should be completed. Procrastination already entails some form of temporal structure: the existence of a “before” and an “after.” As in, I’ll watch this Youtube video before I call back my mother. I’ll respond to those emails after a walk in the park. This week I’m struggling to give myself the scaffolding of before and after. Well, other than “before the apocalyptic shutdown of the entire nation” and “after the apocalyptic shutdown of the entire nation.”

Mostly I’ve been cooking, making long and complex meals that distract me and keep me on my feet. I try to keep up engaging conversation with Andrea, but it’s hard to come up with new sophisticated topics with the same person that you’ve been sharing a single room with for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without being able to visit or invite any other humans without risking arrest.

Of the many hilarious memes circling the Italian social media universe, I found this one woefully on the nose:


So, yeah, there’s definitely a social and psychological toll to living in a country under house arrest. And I won’t even get into the economic toll we’re going to have to deal with when the dust germs settle.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been silver linings. Though understandably underpublicized, there are small but significant moments of beauty in house arrest. First of all, I have never breathed better. Bologna is well known in Italy for its poor air quality, a combination of the surrounding industrial sector and our geographical misfortune of being the basin of the hills, where smog descends down and blankets the entire city in a horrid gray soup of particulate matter. Since the virus, during my (albeit limited) outings to relieve the dog, I feel incredible, like my lungs have been doped with Lance Armstrong-level oxygen. Our apartment gets less dusty, even when we mistakenly leave a window open. I can see the hills of the Apennine mountains from the main piazza of the city, and they’re so clear they look like these HD 4K screensavers on our television (you know, the one with the spa music where you’re soaring over peaks and flying above the flocks of flamingos? We play these in the background all day now to provide a sense of movement.)

The other advantage is that I’m learning where my priorities lie. I’m discovering that I can live without the gym, but still need to sweat once a day, even if it’s on our living room rug. I can live without gelato, but chocolate is still a must. There are things I thought I would miss that I don’t, and things I miss that I never thought I would. And I’m creating new routines that I’m finding wonderfully fulfilling. I’m watching less television and reading more, I think because I’m not tired at the end of the day, so I can do something more valuable than just melt my brain. I’ve created a great coronavirus lockdown playlist (Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself, Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now, The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, and, of course, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive) which I’ve been dancing to nightly in my kitchen.

When I do go out, alone, in the empty streets, I notice the small yet extraordinary details of the city I’ve never noticed before. The intricate ironwork of the doorknobs. The XVI century terracotta heads laughing along the balustrade of the porticos. With so much liveliness and bustle along the streets, you often fail to notice the remarkable art just out of your daily line of vision.

I also realized that, despite the entire nation being subjected to an emergency lockdown, I’d still rather be in Italy than anywhere else. Sure, when it’s all fun and games Italians try to one-up each other and navigate around the rules, but when shit goes down Italians rally. Despite being physically distant from one another, there’s still a love and solidarity that reverberates through the deserted streets, as people sing to each other from their balconies or open their windows to applaud the emergency service vehicles as they drive past. Seriously, where else would people sing ballads out their windows in order to inspire and comfort their neighbors? No one I know has tried to skirt around the rules or create fake reasons to write a movement permit. People genuinely want to protect each other and help each other survive these extreme circumstances.

I’m also relieved to be in Italy instead of the USA because I don’t think my home country is remotely prepared for a pandemic. America has less hospital beds per capita than Italy. As of March 9, Italy has done 60,761 tests with a population of 60.5 million people, while the USA has done 8,554 tests with a population of 331 million. Italy has done literally 38.6 times more tests than the USA per capita. That’s horrifying. Italy also has more doctors per capita, which makes them better prepared to handle a mass influx of patients. And if you do get sick in Italy, you can call medical services and get a test without even having to consider the financial cost, which means that people are less likely to hide the virus if they get infected and, most importantly, no one has to decide between receiving medical care and having a roof over one’s head. I’m not worried that Italy’s poorest and most vulnerable will be literally left for dead, but the thought keeps me up at night when I think about this pandemic hitting the United States.

Crazy enough, this pandemic has left me feeling even more grateful to be in Italy. The government has already promised to forgive taxes and mortgages, and all financial deadlines (school fees, banking fees, etc) are extended. Parents who depend upon the school system for support will receive childcare vouchers and paid leave. And when the anxiety does come rushing in, I just stop and listen to the people sing from their balconies.

For now, stay safe and stay sane. I have a feeling America will wake up one morning to the surreal reality of a nationwide lockdown. I just hope that we can put aside our individualist culture and be there for one another, even if from far away. Here the children paint rainbows that they hang from their windows with the message TUTTO ANDRÀ BENE. IT WILL ALL BE OKAY. So that is my rainbow-colored sign to you all. The flood will pass. The skies will clear. It will all be okay.

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