Locked down but not out in Italy


Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity!

“Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6.

My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system.

Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart

In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygiene standards in its public services (hand sanitizer and hand washing should not be a new thing here - Public transport in Rome is repulsive!), it isn’t totally shocking that the only way to contain this is to lock everyone down.

Things closed slowly, like the pace of most things in Italy. First cancelling large events or sport competitions, then closing gyms, museums and cultural centers, then asking businesses to be flexible with teleworking (meaning our agencies complied), then stopping travel between provinces (and really the outside world), and then shutting the bars and restaurants (the real sign that things were getting bad!).


First time I have ever seen this corner bar closed

Ciampino airport closed down too, and finally yesterday, at least in Rome, the parks were locked up because people weren’t respecting the mandated meter distance between each person. This to me felt like a child stealing another kid's toy at kindergarten and the school board banning toys in all kindergartens city-wide… but the mayor wanted to make a point.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and tabacchi (for the cigarettes?) are the only places left open and though there are lines down the streets to get into them, the shelves are practically better stocked now than they would be in August or even some Sundays. There is plenty of toilet paper… unlike most countries it seems (perhaps that is owing to the bidet culture?).

At this point though, to access any of these remaining locations, we have to carry an autodichiarazione (self-declaration) to state our purpose for being outside (work, returning home, situations of necessity or of health). Some people have been very uneasy with this, reminders of wartime or fascist eras. For me, as long as someone is not blockading my door, I am quite willing to carry around whatever piece of paper they want to see.

Masks on retailers and costumers alike and duct tape to delineate where to stand

On Thursday, when the bars and restaurants closed and the real lockdown began, I panicked that we couldn’t even go outside for runs or walks. The Civil Protection site stated we could, but the messages on some news stations and even from my workplace seemed to state you couldn’t. This made me really edgy, nervous and claustrophobic. Runs are the one thing that can keep me calm and make me feel like I have had contact with the outside world. So I couldn’t help it; I had to try.

Thursday night, armed with my self-declaration, my foreign ID card, my work ID and of course my phone with the Civil Protection FAQs page open, I went outside, practicing my argument/pardon in case I was stopped by the police. As I crossed the street, the first thing I see is a police car stopped outside the only Bar that doubles as a Tabacchi left open on our normally busy shopping street. The police didn’t even look at me.

"Masks and Hand sanitizers sold out... and we don't know when they will be back in!"

I continuted down to my normal path along the Tevere and encountered a decent amount of runners, in fact a pleasant amount, far less than the recent mobs that have overrun this rediscovered path, and everyone, bikes, walkers and runners were staying in their proper lanes, respecting distance and space… I kind of loved it. It was soothing to have people pay attention to rules and to others as opposed to the normal zig-zag walker on the phone with her dog’s leash spread out across all lanes who won’t let you by even when you shout “Permesso!” because she simply doesn’t acknowledge your existence.

After that run, and the further clarifications the next day that we are indeed allowed to practice Attivita motoria (motor activities?) I calmed down. This would be my one release. I could make it these next 3 weeks… Except that Italian spring is taunting us.

The gorgeous time of year with the warm sun and the cool breeze. The clear air, clearer now with the reduced cars on the road. The memories of the beach and the small hilltop towns, the outdoor fish lunches and the white wine chilling in its silver pool. I can see the hills of the Castelli from my windows and the beige and yellow buildings of some distant places…

The lakes are just beyond: Nemi, Albano, Bracciano – my places of refuge outside of the city after a busy week of work. For us, expats and permanent tourists, people who have renewed our vows to take advantage of Italy’s offerings and to see the bounty of places and culture that are at our fingertips in Europe, it is hard not to focus on what we are missing in these weeks- all the places we could have gone and had been going on a weekly basis until now.

One of our most recent day trips: Lake and hilltop town... alas, it cannot be a memory I frequent too often.

But I am trying to reign in those thoughts, those admissibly selfish thoughts. The country is in a crisis and being one of the lucky ones not sick and not worried about my own family contracting the disease, it is only right that I do my small part: to stop living like a tourist, and stop even thinking like a tourist.

I won’t complain. I am in Italy. I still have the weather, the wine, the mozzarella and the solidarity of Italians who are in the same situation. Despite living here for almost 15 years, I don’t often feel Italian. But I do right now, stuck inside an apartment building, one in a row on a busy artery of this capital, like everyone else- missing the normal way of life with meals al fresco and the perfect caffe or cappuccino available at every street corner’s bar.

I know some expats and foreigners panicked, wanting to get out of the country before it was too late, to go home. But not me. Italy is my home. If I am to be in lockdown, this is where I want to be. And I want to be here to standby her and protect her. They aren’t my nonni (grandparents) but I am worried about them. They aren’t doctors from my country and it isn’t my healthcare system, but they are the ones that have taken care of me for most of my adult life and I hope for their safety.

Guess it does take a crisis to force you to search your feelings. Though I have known for some time that my criticisms come from a place of love and that I try to balance it with compliments… maybe I need to tip the scales more the one way than the other. Because when this is all over, I am so grateful to have the fortune of being here on Italy’s doorstep waiting to discover or rediscover every inch. There is no better country in which to live like a tourist. Viva Italia!


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