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Just over three weeks ago I was in Venice on a truly dazzling day. A cold wind from the Dolomites left every building shimmering with light, the Canal Grande was radiant. Venice bustled with her bars and marine traffic with the type of beauty that shocks, makes you stop and waver. I’d caught a train into town for my nephew’s graduation in scultura at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, and was on Aunty duty with a good portion of the family. As I wandered down to the Zattere through Dorsoduro, the place pulsed with beauty. We celebrated, drank, hit another bar, drank. Days after that, universities and schools were closed. It was the last time I think any of us felt reckless and exuberant about the season ahead.
All month the news from Wuhan had been upsetting but still so far away. I spoke with a Chinese friend who was trying to send face masks to family members and we agreed to meet up in Padua. It never happened. Somehow, I knew deep down that it would come to this. I’d caught a plane from Thessaloniki to Bologna on 7th February and felt a jolt when our temperatures were taken off the flight. An intra-Schengen-state flight, not a long-haul trip from central China. The guy next to me on the flight was Asian and wearing a mask. Precautionary, I thought. Am I paranoid? No. But I had bought my first hand sanitiser a week earlier.
The first deep shudder I feel is when a town five minutes from my village is quarantined days after my Venice visit, and Italy’s first patient dies: a 78-year-old pensioner who inexplicably contracted the virus at a local bar. At this stage it is still personal. His daughter speaks of her old-school Communist father at the kitchen table. This was when the deceased were still named.
Weird fact: all along the finger has been pointed at China but where was the outbreak in Prato, near Florence, one of the biggest centres of Chinese factory production in Europe? This attitude resulted in some bungling. Paziente Uno, a fit cyclist from the blighted Codogno community with no contact with China at all, was misdiagnosed because of this, and sent home to spread a virus that has now infected over 9 000 in the Lombardy region. But how is this even possible? Voices say that a resistant influenza cropped up in northern Italy as early as December 2019. I have my suspicions that strains of this virus have been moving amongst us for months. To date, there are over 17 000 cases in the country.
After various phases of lockdown the PM, Giuseppe Conte, shuts down the entire peninsula. He implores Italians to stay at home, to protect the elderly from infection, to see this thing to its end. Insieme. Together. Supermarkets and pharmacies remain open. There is no panic-buying. Post-its and banners appear in cities: #andràtuttobene #everythingwillbeok. Fines are given to those who are without the downloadable certificate where you must state your purpose of movement. A few villages away an old guy is caught out away from home: he protests he was going to pray. Fined. People sing from balconies all over the country. The end of each day brings a table of new cases, new deaths and – this brings hope – recoveries. The infected are broken down into those in quarantine at home, and those in hospital, those in intensive care. Each day every region, province, city, town, village shows up its victims. The transparency is reassuring. But it is not.
I spend much of my time writing fiction or tutoring online, so long hours at home do not weigh heavily on me. City life is not outside my front door. But socialising in town has ceased. There are no healthy, regenerative distractions. The good vodka has all gone. My dreams are getting stranger. I dream that a long-standing couple, old friends I haven’t seen for weeks, announce they are splitting up. Just when they seemed to be in the clear. I take it as a sign that everything I considered normal is unsettled. The carpenters working at the house turn up in masks, one with a cold. They offer to abandon work until it’s over. They say they want to protect me from any bugs they might have or pick up. I read that the virus resists on surfaces for hours perhaps days so I wash my hands at length after retrieving their coffee cups, then feel silly for doing so. Then wash my hands again anyway.
I have had pneumonia and I know what it feels like not to be able to breathe. To call for air into lungs and feel the constriction there, the failure to receive oxygen; the gasping and the fear. They call it the old man’s friend. This weekend they said that hospitals in Lombardy are at breaking point. A tenor sings an aria from Nessun Dorma to an empty street. In Milan, at midday, people stand on balconies and at windows to applaud health workers along the front line.
There is an island in the Venetian lagoon called Lazzaretto Vecchio which between 1423 and 1630 housed a hospital for the infected and dying. Victims of the Italian Plague (1629-31) died there at a rate of 500 hundred a day; their skeletons have been unearthed in pits that show no distinction between status or race. In her cosmopolitan thousand-year-history as a republic Venice was swept by 22 waves of epidemics. Like Covid-19, the Black Death of 1347-51 travelled into Europe from the Italian peninsula, coming up from Sicily via fleas on the rats from Genoese trading ships, carrying wares from along the Silk Route. At the time, Italy was the most urbanised society in Europe. More than a third of the population was slashed. The epidemic came in a pneumonic or bubonic form, the latter causing putrid pustules and agonising death. In Milan, all occupants of infected houses were boarded up and left to rot.
Last weekend before the nationwide shutdown, I went hiking in the Colli Euganei, where the poet Petrarch decided to end his days in the late 1300s. His frescoed, buttressed house is still there in the peaceful hills. The trail I took climbed above the quarantined town of Vo’ and I heard the town bells ring out. Last week the road barriers went down as there have been no new cases, ‘just’ one further death. Only the whole country is shut now. I imagine how these hills were in the time of epidemics.
Every so often you do a round of check-ups. You call offspring, friends, in-laws. My daughter the soprano tells me I can make a face mask by using half a bra and dares me to wear it to the supermercato. She lives in Le Marche in central Italy, where she says everyone wears a mask. At least we have a laugh. I work erratically, skipping over to the news, walking about the house, calling friends, reassuring family abroad that we are all okay, even though some days it feels as though something must be planted in me.
I keep thinking ahead to when this will be a memory. The worst spring. The spring when the blossoms and the birds were oblivious to our cries. I wonder if we will be changed. If the sense of community I feel that is being shouted from balcony to balcony in the cities and their outskirts, will be something that carries on with us. If we will be as caring and respectful and united as we are now. I see that there are Chinese specialist doctors who have arrived to help. Online I see Chinese kids saying the equivalent of Forza Italia. I wonder if it might lessen our fear of the ‘other’ and make us realise that we are fragile creatures of this universe, who do not own this planet or control the destiny of our species.