Location: Milan, Italy
Stage of Crisis: Day 43 of lockdown, week 8 of school closures
By Lorraine Coleman
It's Milan, but not as we know it. Parks host nothing but still swings, empty benches and whispering grass. Shopfront shutters gather dust and streets usually lined with scooters and triple-parked cars yawn vacant.
On the Sunday evening that we heard schools in Milan were closing the very next day, almost without exception, we thought it was an overreaction. We’d heard of three deaths in the whole country, and few cases, mostly concentrated in Codogno, a sleepy suburb 30 miles from Milan. At that time, despite Wuhan, we had no conception of the virus’ high infectivity, or the devastating strain of pneumonia it could so easily cause.
I admit, I raised my eyebrows and privately chalked it up to an acute example of Italians’ reverent deference to all things medical. My school was on a half-term holiday that week, and I fully expected to return to work as normal on 2 March. 8 weeks on, I hardly believe my naivety.
In the first fortnight, we held nightly reviews. How many today? My flight’s been rescheduled. There’s a new form to carry. Eurovision’s cancelled. And the almost unspeakable How long..?
My husband’s stopped talking about it now.
Initially, Italy tried the soft lockdown of the kind currently in place in the UK, but quickly found that mere suggestion wouldn’t be enough to curb sociable Mediterranean habits. Dogs were walked rigorously and often. “Jogging” became suddenly endemic. Several coffees a day at the crowded bar were robustly claimed as health benefits, and Sunday lunches with family two regions away, deemed essential.
A week in, we decided to chance a walk to the local park: 5 minutes away, Parco Lambro is a 200-acre expanse of untamed grass, soft hills and meandering paths. We wouldn’t meet anyone we knew, our kids would be strapped into the buggy, so there would be no problem adhering to social distancing.
When we arrived, it seemed the whole 'northern quarter' had had the same idea: hordes of cyclists, kids cascading round the skate ramps, dogs who hadn’t seen their pals all week dragging their owners within coughing distance. Lawless!
So further decrees ensured: no exercise except within the immediate vicinity of your home. Private communal gardens are closed. You may only leave your house to go for groceries, to the chemist, for essential work or a medical emergency. Masks and proof of reason for travel are mandatory.
Queueing Covid-19 style for the grocery store
The only places where people gather (at safe distance) are supermarkets: online shopping hasn’t really become the norm here among people over 40, and the perambulatory Milanese are in the habit of buying fresh, little and often. Luckily, our lockdown happened so quickly that no-one had time to panic-buy even if they were inclined, so we didn’t suffer the supermarket shortages reported elsewhere – toilet roll aplenty!
So what are Italians buying instead? Masks and hand sanitizer, like the rest of the world. Hair dye. Tinned tomatoes and vanilla essence – proof, if it were needed, that for Italians the way through all crises is through the stomach.
In the second week of lockdown, we placed a grocery order for delivery (I was still working, we have two children under 3, and no supermarket trolley has two child seats.) Usually, you wait maybe three days. Our order was delivered 22 days later.
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Although the lockdown roll-out was fast here, it wasn’t without hitch. Milan was not effectively quarantined until 8 March, 10 days after Codogno and a few other smaller towns. On the eve of the announcement of stricter emergency measures in Milan, an opposition party member leaked the draft. In the following 48 hours, as many as 15,000 people fled south to be with their families, sadly facilitating the spread of the virus across the country. Southern mayors were aghast, and pleaded with travellers to reconsider. Nationwide lockdown was announced the next day.
Since then however, the public response has been overwhelmingly positive. Italians generally treat rules with a good-humoured if not healthy contempt, but the devastating reports from our hospitals were rapidly sobering. The viral messages from Italian mayors berating their wayward constituents via video were overtly snorted at, but privately absorbed.
Our numbers, as everyone calls them, are staggeringly high. As I write, COVID-19 has claimed over 23,000 lives in Italy, yet we know that is a gross underestimation. By the end of March, symptomatic people were choosing to remain at home rather than go to hospitals from which they had scant hope of emerging; their deaths are not included in our statistics; nor are the heartbreaking figures emerging from care homes, a worrying phenomenon that appears to be mirrored in the UK.
Beyond their painfully human stories, the toll of these statistics cannot and should not be underestimated. In Bergamo, at the height of its emergency, ambulances stopped using sirens; the roads lay empty anyway, but it was also felt that the collective psyche needed a reprieve from their portentous wailing.
Even as the immediate terror recedes, new smaller alarms are cast up. Last Friday as I waited at the supermarket, the mercury crept up to 27 degrees, and I was struck by the fragility of our determined calm: how will people stand in queues for an hour in the 30-degree heat that will be upon us by June? As we entered the store, a security guard flashed an infrared thermometer on our necks.
The view from the kitchen window
Mercifully, Italy’s peak is seemingly behind us, and the government prepares for Phase Two: living with the virus. A few small businesses were permitted to open from last Monday, though many elected to remain closed; contagion anxiety persists. Free movement within regions is projected to begin on 4 May, with cafés and restaurants opening two weeks later. Schools, it is whispered, will remain closed until September.
After initial popular support for lockdown measures, agitations emerge for their relaxation. Italy, champion of the small business, now risks an alarming number of commercial failures, and its already stretched government simply cannot afford compensation in the case of large-scale collapse; there is tacit acknowledgement that the mafia waits in the wings, an alternative ready.
That said, our previously ignored Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti has become an unlikely Papà-in-Chief, esteemed for taking unpopular but necessary decisions, calmly reassuring the public, and calling out opportunistic populists. However, this is unlikely to translate to long-term electoral reward: Italian politics is notoriously fractious and fragmented, and the country has seen 61 governments in 75 years.
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As the weeks pass, displays of solidary and strength are deeply heartening. In the early days, balconies blossomed with childishly-rendered rainbow banners bearing the legend “Andrà tutto bene (Everything will be all right)”. Every day for the last week, someone in our block has played and sung Italian folk classics from the car park beneath the building, the reverberating melodies drawing us together in appreciation. Going to the shop this morning, a neighbour recorded a karate lesson on her balcony. All this reminds us that we continue to exist and be bound together in a community.
Like everyone, we encounter frequent, relatively minor heartaches: my father-in-law’s 70th birthday passed without kisses from our daughter, his favourite little familiar. Weddings have been postponed, reunions between old friends, cancelled in the shadow of an unknowable future.
My “good” kitchen knife, after growing gradually duller for months, has capitulated in the face of twice-daily meals for four, and now every chopped onion risks being joined by one of my fingertips. Sadly, knife sharpeners are not deemed “essential” (see also Tupperware and baking trays), so I’ll have to take extra care in the next few months.
I long to feel out of breath outdoors, to walk somewhere just a little too far, to see something beyond the horizon of the supermarket. I am aggrieved by the insensitive but predictable arrival of hayfever, when I can’t get to marvel at the new greenery that provokes it; Milan is at its very best in spring, when the air is clear and still and thrumming, and every growing thing stretches for the sky.
I, like everyone, miss my family. I’ve lived away from Lewis since I was 17, but have returned at least three times every year and the uncertainty about when I’ll be able to hug my mother, sister, aunt again, is wearing. Lockdown hit in February, just as I was beginning to yearn for the aroma of Stag bread, toasted and slathered in butter – first on the menu when we return!
In compensation, new or neglected joys emerge: there are more Skypes, Zooms, FaceTimes, Houseparties than ever before. Last week I spoke to a dear friend in Orkney who wondered when last we’d chatted; we realised it was when she’d Skyped to tell me she was pregnant with her now 6-year-old son. My husband, a nerd of the highest order, is able to have almost nightly virtual games with friends usually too fatigued from work or occupied by the Outside to engage in hours-long strategizing. I finally gutted my kitchen cupboards, culled my music stores, and backed up my hard drive (it’s 2020, I know), then spent two whole evenings grinning like a fool at photos long forgotten.
And in these times of socially-mandated self-improvement, what have I achieved? Well, I’ve learned to make a passable home cappuccino, and invested in an orange squeezer. I’ve hastily skilled up to deliver online lessons and seminars. I made my first ever batch of edible scones, and this week, I’ll attempt chocolate croissants made from Nigella-sanctioned ready-rolled puff pastry and a Lindt bar.
Some life goes on as it would have anyway. Last week, my son took his first steps. My daughter, ever determined, is teaching herself to jump off and over things (with varying success). My students continue to receive offers of university places, striving ahead to normality and their rich futures.
How societies recover from this crisis will prove a real and searching test to our solidarity and commitment behind the sentiment of singing and clapping for health workers.
In Italy, as everywhere, we must try to look out, and up, to count our good fortunes, and to emerge defiant.