26 days in.
We are approaching the end of our fourth week in strict lockdown.
It has unquestionably been the hardest. The honeymoon period is definitely over!
While the kids continue to be heroic in the face of this unimaginable disturbance to their daily lives, the demands of home-schooling are beginning to take their toll on dad!
Our middle school teachers have finally swung into action, getting to grips with the technology and bombarding us with a mountain of material, deadlines and ‘virtual’ lessons on a bewildering array of untested technical platforms which scarcely seem fit for purpose.
It’s a full-time job keeping on top of the daily updates, assignments and schedules from the school. Add to that the perennial problem of trying to motivate an eleven-year-old on subjects as engaging as gothic architecture, fractional equations and indicative conjugations (or should that be fractional conjugations and indicative equations?), and you have some sense of the difficulties we are currently facing!
I have lived a charmed life here in Verona these past 8-years, but the absence of gainful employment these past 4-weeks is beginning to take its toll on me! I’ve started to read again, but not as much or as frequently as I’d like. I can't write (except about the crisis and how it is affecting our family), and that too is a source of mounting frustration.
Inevitably these frustrations spill over. My 11-year-old bears the brunt of my festering discontent (usually at the end of a particularly bruising encounter with an aforementioned fractional equation).
To add to the strain, the funeral of my grandmother took place in Birmingham this week. Aged 101, she died on 27 February, before the crisis hit. Because of the travel restrictions in place, only her most immediate family were able to attend her funeral. So, to a congregation of three, the organist played Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga, while my uncle read Luke 10: 25-37, in deference to my grandma’s years of service as director of the Wolverhampton branch of the Samaritans.
In these troubled times, it is comforting to know that my grandma had loved ones, and in particular her devoted daughter, at her side and that her passing was marked with the music, ceremony and spirit that she would have appreciated.
Against this backdrop of familial trials and tribulations, the grim death toll in Italy has continued to mount. Inevitably, the mood in Italy has shifted. Quarantine has been extended until 13 April. Flash mobs and balcony singing now seem a distant memory, a futile act of defiance in the face of an indifferent foe. The brutal economic reality of an economy in lockdown is beginning to take its toll. But Italians remain steadfast. Their sacrifice is considered a costly but necessary one.
Meanwhile, we watch on with trepidation as the UK, which seems woefully ill-equipped to deal with the escalating crisis, looks set to switch places with Italy, a bleak epicentre of crisis. I can barely bring myself to watch what is happening in America.
Amongst it all, there are some faint glimmers of hope.
In Italy, the growth in the total number of COVID-19 cases continues to slow. Today saw 1,109 new recoveries. The number of deaths is still high (727 in the last 24 hours) and the total number of COVID related deaths is an eye-watering 13,155, but intensive care admissions have begun to fall (just 12 new cases in the past 24 hours). ICU staff are still under unimaginable pressure, but the lockdown is working.
Prime Minister Conte this evening reassured an anxious nation that, when the curve subsides, we would enter phase two of the crisis - coexisting with the virus. Then there would be a third phase - returning to normality and rebuilding the country.
I for one am ready to do my part.
Next week I will deliver food parcels to those unable to get out for themselves. I hope it will give me a renewed sense of purpose and vigour. I hope.
We’re now on day 19 of the strict lockdown. Although it’s still far too early in the crisis to begin planning for the future, my mind does occasionally wander beyond the next trip to the supermarket (since 9 March, when the strict restrictions of movement came into place, I’ve only left our compound three times, on each occasion to go to the supermarket).
Living day by day, time passes quickly and productively enough. Having some structure and daily routine certainly helps.
An hour or two of ‘lessons’ with the kids in the morning.
My wife joins us for lunch.
An episode or two of Tintin (the complete works of Herge is proving one of our most prized possessions).
In the afternoon the kids play or read. We spend an hour in the garden and then do a final 30-minute lesson before teatime.
I usually go to our garage at around 6 o’clock and do a light weights session while listening to the early evening news (a habit I've recently abandoned - the news, not the exercise).
We have dinner together and watch an episode of the Wonder Years.
The family then gathers on the sofa for some light entertainment, while I look on from the dining table. It’s in these idle moments that my mind begins to wander.
The crisis has not yet peaked in Italy. We know there are more hard days and weeks to come. But how much longer will be spent in isolation?
How will it affect the kids? It’s such a formative stage in their lives. My eldest is just finishing his first year at Scuola Media. With another two years to go, he’ll have plenty of time to catch up with his studies and, more importantly, with his friends.
For my youngest (who turns six on Sunday), it seems increasingly likely that he’ll miss out on what would have been his final few months at nursery school. After three years, we hope he’ll have the chance to say goodbye to his teachers, staff and friends, but we quietly mourn the loss of those glorious final days that he would have spent with his little friends before they go their separate ways.
More immediately, it’s his birthday on Sunday and we’re still not sure if his presents will arrive in time.
Beyond the next few days and weeks, our thoughts turn to summer. We would normally spend some time at the beach, with family in Tuscany and at home in the UK. At the moment, none of those options seems possible. But lockdown in the city during the sweltering summer months would be difficult to bear. We hope for some respite and the chance to escape somewhere.
And what of the first few days of freedom? Street parties and celebrations, embracing our friends and family and returning to normality?
I imagine many of us will have developed some form of agoraphobia!
Will things ever be the same again?
Bustling bars and restaurants, affectionate greetings, sending your kids to school and doing a normal days work (it's been a while!). Unrestricted travel. Weekends away.
Readjusting to the new normality may prove just as traumatic as adjusting to the crisis.
Some kind of phased process of re-entry may be required. Perhaps parks and public spaces will reopen first. Bars, shops and restaurants will be open at certain times of the day, but with strict health and safety measures.
Longer-term I imagine the impact will be something like 9/11. Some kind of normality will be restored, but things will never quite be the same again.
Anyway, it's time to return to the present. It’s Friday evening. It’s time for some music and a spritz.
Some things, at least, will never change.
From inside locked-down Italy, reflections on family life in Verona
While Italy remains at the epicentre of the crisis (793 deaths in the last 24 hours alone), amongst the expat community, there is an overwhelming sense of concern for our homelands.
That’s natural, I suppose, given that we’re far away from friends and loved ones, locked in, with too much time to think and not enough to do.
Watching events unfold in the UK and America is a bit like re-watching a bad disaster movie in slow motion.
From the eye of the storm, we suppress our frustration that it has taken so long for others to grasp the enormity of the crisis.
We hoped that you would learn from our mistakes. But we’ve watched in disbelief as measures are delayed or introduced in a reluctant, half-hearted and piecemeal way.
Italians can’t believe that kids in the UK have been at school, that pubs, bars and restaurants have been open until now. That life outside of Italy has been continuing more or less as normal for so long.
While we hope that our fears are misplaced and that the crisis doesn’t impact our homelands with the same force that it is now hitting Italy, we can’t avoid the devastating conclusion that it will.
Despite the grim news coming out of Italy, we are safe and well. We remain strong. We remain united. Make sure you do too.
From inside locked-down Italy, reflections on family life in Verona
Wake up bright and alert. No problem getting out of bed these days. I'm sleeping less than normal but hop out of bed anxious to know what's going on.
The house is still and quiet. I open the shutters. It's already bright outside.
I spend half an hour catching up on the news and social media. Confirmation that yesterday Italy recorded it's slowest rate of new coronavirus infections since the outbreak began last month, hopefully a sign that the isolation measures are working? A tiny glimmer of hope for a nation that has sacrificed so much in the last week or two. On the other hand, notification that the army is to be deployed on the streets of Verona to enforce the lockdown is a sobering indication of just how seriously the authorities are taking the issue here in Verona.
In better news, MOTD have announced the launch of a new podcast. My appetite for football has perhaps understandably waned of late but perhaps this is just what I need?
Sebo (5) wakes. Introverted and self-contained, I get the feeling that he quite likes the lockdown! Mrs H. goes for her morning workout. We're up and running!
First task of the day is some emergency repairs on his Panini sticker book which has seen better days. Must remember to add sellotape to the shopping list!
My eldest (Leo, 11) has got an online maths lesson at 14.30, so I wrestle with the passwords for the platform that we'll need to access the lesson. His school were completely unprepared for a crisis of this nature.
Coffee and cake on the balcony. We're lucky - it's east facing and we get some glorious sunshine in the morning.
Ten minutes behind schedule, School of Dad is up and running. History of Art for Leo to kick things off. Sebo is happy browsing our Tintin collection, so we leave him to his own devices, while we familiar ourselves with the key features of Gothic design and architecture.
Sebo joins us for a short video that summarises the Odyssey. Leo then reads him a synopsis of La Maga Circe, a fleeting moment of harmony, coherence and endeavour that teachers must live for!
We take a thirty minute break for coffee and snacks. I try unsuccessfully to entice the boys onto the balcony for some sunshine, but they're quite happy with the Tintin library on the sofa. I reflect on a missed trip to Berlin (I should have been taking the train tomorrow). We've provisionally rescheduled for October, but that seems like a very long way away.
Maths (never my strong suit) and the multiplication of fractions. I'm a bit rusty, but with some prompting it comes back to me. Leo's maths teacher is the most proactive of his teachers and the only one who has scheduled video lessons with his class.
Technology - the history and properties of paper (!). Sebo is quite happy doing his own thing (and who can blame him?).
With lessons finished for the morning I enjoy the last few minutes of sun on the balcony before it passes over to the other side of our building.
Mrs H. prepares lunch. All culinary tastes and dietary requirements are catered for, with a choice of vegetable risotto, pasta in bianco and tortellini in brodo. To satisfy the current appetite for the plucky Belgian reporter, we watch Tintin in America as our lunch hour draws to a close.
A few anxious moments waiting to be sent the meeting information for Leo's online lesson with his maths class scheduled for 14.30. It's only the second time he's had contact with his classmates and a teacher since the school holidays on 20 February (nearly a month ago), so we're all anxious that he is able to participate.
While Leo's doing his maths lesson, Sebo and I sneak off to watch another episode of Tintin.
As Leo's lesson is winding up, we have a tidy-up and prepare to head outside for the first and only time today.
It's shorts and t-shirt weather today as we catch the last of the afternoon sunshine in our communal garden. We've come to an arrangement with the other families in our block to ensure that the kids aren't in the garden at the same time, in order to comply with the prohibition of children congregating in public spaces.
Perhaps it's my imagination, but I notice an occasional expression of sadness on Leo's face - and who can blame him? He'd much rather be playing with his friends than with his old dad and five-year-old brother. I remember how important my friends were at that age and feel really sorry for him. Despite everything, he's behaving with admirable good humour and grace (most of the time anyway).
Our match is interrupted with an inevitable tantrum (another marginal offside decision), perhaps a necessary release of pressure, but we leave the garden in good spirits.
I prepare for a quick trip to our local supermarket to pick up a few provisions. Leo settles into an online game with a friend who has contacted him out of the blue. It's something I would have normally frowned upon, but in these circumstances, I'm just grateful that he has the opportunity to play with someone!
The short cycle to our local supermarket is a surreal experience. The cycle path that passes between playing fields and vineyards and connects our street with the neighbouring village is deserted. At the supermarket there are few customers. The shelves are incredibly well-stocked. Even the meat counter is full of freshly prepared produce and I exchange a few pleasantries with our butcher who is curious about how the UK is dealing with the crisis. It's a small family run supermarket. They are tired, bewildered even, but stoically provide a crucial lifeline service.
Back home and it's time to start thinking about dinner. I wait anxiously for news of the official casualty figures for the day. The news isn't good. Today's death toll is high (475), the largest daily coronavirus death toll anywhere in the world, bringing Italy's grim tally to 2978. Sad news also from Parma, where there have been 34 deaths in 24 hours. A sliver of hope is that the daily upturn in cases is just 13.4%, compared to 25% a week ago.
Chips and cotoletta for dinner. Sebo's not a big fan of chips so he gnaws on a massive carrot with a remarkable gusto. For our daily dose of adolescent nostalgia, we watch an episode of The Wonder Years.
The kids adjourn to the sofa for Guess my Age (another family favourite).
With barely a whimper the kids go off to bed. It's time for a glass of wine.
From inside locked-down Italy, reflections on family life in Verona
It is a peculiarity of the current crisis that mundane chores, things like putting the bins out or going to the supermarket, take on a massively disproportionate significance. One friend who lives nearby captured the mood thus:
“when you take the rubbish down to the bin there is a little bit of excitement and when you go to the supermarket you feel like a British spy in East Germany who's about to go over the wall!”
Putting the rubbish out has become a rare opportunity to escape the confines of the compound, to pass through the courtyard and out onto the street beyond. A task that I would normally put off until our recycling bins were full to overflowing, I’d then struggle down with all three bins simultaneously to avoid having to make two journeys. Now I relish the trip, not waiting until the bins are full, taking my time as I pass through our open courtyard, pausing to stop and listen, to take in the complete silence of our familiar neighbourhood in these unfamiliar circumstances.
But the silence is not absolute. While we have been confined in close quarters for the best part of a week, the first days of spring have taken us almost completely by surprise.
Tobias Jones this week observed that the natural world seems brighter or emboldened and I know many others have made similar observations. As ridiculous as it sounds, my trips to the bins have been accompanied by a heightened state of sensory awareness. The birds sing louder than before, the sky seems bluer, the heat of the early spring sunshine that little bit warmer. Perhaps there is a rational explanation for this phenomenon, as emissions data shows that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere has plummeted above northern Italy in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
For now, northern Italy remains at the epicentre of the global crisis, but here there is also a growing sense of foreboding for what lies ahead elsewhere, in particular in the United Kingdom and America, with whom we have such strong links.
While the numbers coming from our neighbouring region Lombardy are truly horrifying, the situation in Verona is less grave. As of 14 March, there have been eight deaths in city, with 19 people in intensive care. But we know that worse is to come. The city is bracing itself for more fatalities. High-profile figures including Giampaolo Pazzini are imploring people to stay indoors, while crowd funding pleas are circulating to bolster the city’s intensive care facilities.
Under the Italian social isolation measures (introduced nine days ago), you can only leave your house: (i) to go to work (if have to), (ii) for health reasons (for example to go to hospital) or (iii) for other essential reasons, which include food shopping. As all shops, markets and retail outlets except supermarkets and pharmacies are closed, a trip to the supermarket is one of the few permissible reasons for leaving your house (running and cycling is also permitted, as long as the 1 metre rule is respected).
Of course, in normal times, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but these days even a simple trip to the shops requires a degree of forethought and planning hitherto unimaginable. Aside from a shopping list, compiled with more care than usual, there is the added need to complete the autodichiarazione, the Ministry of the Interior form without which you cannot leave the house. Although I didn’t observe any checks in place, violation of the rules is punishable with three months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 206 euros. I also thought about whether to wear a face mask, out of respect for those I come into contact with rather than any undue concern for myself.
The roads were noticeably quieter than usual, as all shops, bars and offices on the usually busy main road were closed. Ahead in the distance I noticed a conspicuous gathering of people outside the post office. As I drew closer, I realised it was a queue at the bus stop. About 10 or 15 people, mostly wearing masks, waiting in line a metre apart. It was a strange disquieting sight.
Although the supermarket car park (with space for perhaps 80/100 vehicles) was quite full, I didn’t have any difficulty finding a space and soon joined the line of about half a dozen or so shoppers queuing a metre apart at the entrance. Some, not all, were wearing masks. The mood was subdued, sober, calm. The entrance was manned by a supermarket employee. The queue wasn’t caused by a high volume of customers, but was instead to manage the flow of people inside the store and to ensure a safe distance was maintained. After a short wait, I found myself amidst the well-stocked fruit and veg aisles, desperately trying to remember what I’d come for!
Inside there were absolutely no shortages and absolutely no panic buying. The shelves were well-stocked with fresh fruit, veg, milk, bread, fish and meat. I had the booze aisle to myself. The toilet roll aisle was an oasis of calm, as I swithered between two-ply and quilted. Italians, of course, were more concerned with which cut of meat to buy or which brand of passata to choose for their weekly batch of ragù.
After a week in isolation, top of my shopping list were a couple of bottles of amaro and some football stickers for the boys (everything else was a luxury!). Conscious that we’d be shopping less frequently than normal, there were some bulk purchases (the first time I’ve bought a litre of honey!), but no panic buying.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I have absolute confidence that supply chains will remain open and that people will behave in a responsible manner.
There were plenty of staff, in fact more so than normal, and while we are rightly recognising the extraordinary work of our health care professionals, we should also be grateful to the more mundane service provided by our supermarkets, who are providing an invaluable service in the most extraordinary circumstances.
After a short wait at the checkout and a quick dash to pick up Harry Potter book (a late addition to the shopping list), I was back in the car park, the morning queue having in the meantime completely dissipated. On the short drive home, I gave a cheerful toot to a lady who had emerged from her balcony to give our health care workers a prearranged applause, in one of many flash mob events scheduled over the weekend, and then headed home and back to the lockdown.
The weekend passed in circumstances quite unlike any I’ve ever experienced. But there was also a ring of familiarity to it. On Saturday afternoon the boys had popcorn and watched a film as my wife and I enjoyed a spritz. We had pizza for dinner and my youngest put on a show (100 greatest guitar riffs has become an instant favourite). On Sunday we enjoyed a coffee on our sunny balcony. After lunch we played football in the garden. As I write this late on Sunday afternoon, the kids are bickering in their bedroom and my wife’s washing the car (in our cavernous subterranean garage). What could be more normal than that?
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