From inside locked-down Italy, reflections on family life in Verona
Since my last post (only two days ago- seems like a lifetime!), we have now settled into a way of life that just a week ago would have seemed unimaginable.
We are almost entirely confined to our own apartment.
While its a longstanding joke amongst my friends and family that I've been on an 8-year sabbatical here in Verona, as anyone who has kids, work, hobbies and a life will tell you, events can sometimes pass you by in a bit of a blur. Getting the kids out the door in the morning, rushing to work, rushing home to get the kids, trying to squeeze in an aperol, football, music, writing, pub, bike, gym. On any given day, I have four different bags on the go, depending on where I'm rushing off to next.
For a moment, that life is on standby.
We’re now on day 4 of our home-schooling regime. The kids have quickly adapted to their new reality. Our youngest (5) has tended to drift away after an hour so, but that’s fine. He’s made great progress with his numbers and I’ve really enjoyed helping him. It’s amazing how the mechanics of learning to form numbers and letters comes back to you after all these years – we must have had some amazing teachers! I can even remember some of the rhymes they used to recite to us as we learned to write - “top to bottom up and over” (that’s an ‘r’ by the way).
With our eldest the situation is slightly more complex! While I’m conversant in some of his subjects (history, geography, English and German), maths is a different story! I remember doing Lowest Common Denominator at school, but the Least Common Multiple! Is that even a thing!
Anyway, there’s a free lunch in Verona for the first person who can come back to me with the LCM of 288 and 512 – and, as the legendary Mr Woods used to say, “I want to see yer workings”.
We’re lucky to have a communal garden where our kids have been able to play for a couple of hours every day. And of course, we’ve got each other. Some of my friends live alone and that can’t be easy.
On Wednesday, conscious that I hadn’t been beyond the confines of our compound for a few days, I went for a run along the banks of the Adige. My route took me down to the river and then out of town towards the damn at Chievo. Traffic was lighter than usual, but there were some people out running and dog walking. A few were wearing masks. Most initiated some kind of body swerve as we approached each other to avoid passing too closely. Whether such excursions are even permissible now under the new regulations is not entirely clear.
Just after dinner on Wednesday came the news that there would be a further statement that evening from Prime Minister Conte. We already had a sense of what was coming and so we sent the kids to bed and fortified ourselves with a rather nice digestivo from Lucca.
The news that further restrictions would apply was met here with a degree of resignation. Everyone in Italy understands the gravity of the situation. The latest official statistics show 12,839 confirmed cases and 1,016 deaths in Italy.
As far as I am aware, there has been no resistance or opposition to the draconian measures that have been implemented in the last week. Italy has placed its public health above all other considerations, including economic and personal freedom, and that is a position that most Italians have endorsed.
From the epicentre of the crisis, we look on in bewilderment at what’s been going on elsewhere. But then we remember that just a couple of weeks ago we too were sceptical, blasé, cavalier even. Images of hundreds of thousands of people gathering for Cheltenham, lingering comparisons with the flu and a conviction that because I’m young and healthy I don't need to be concerned.
You only have to look into the eyes of an experienced triage nurse as she is asked if she is afraid, or observe the exponential growth rates of the virus, to appreciate the nature of the crisis we are facing.
Remember, the purpose of the lock down isn’t to protect yourself, it’s to protect the most vulnerable and to shield the hospitals from the catastrophic onslaught that even just a 2/3% shift in ICU admissions would cause.
In Italy, Social distancing is seen as a necessary act of community solidarity. But as Prime Minister Conte reminded us last night, we will not know for a week or two what affect the restrictions have had on containing the spread of the virus.
It’s going to be a long two weeks.
Today (Thursday) we have seen signs that the global response to the crisis is shifting. Actions that would have seemed absolutely unthinkable a week ago (America’s European travel ban and India’s ban on tourists) now scarcely raise an eyebrow, while the UK government appears to be sticking to its light-touch approach.
As this most surreal of weeks draws to a close, my thoughts turn towards the weekend.
The kids won’t be at “school”. I won’t be “teaching” and my wife won’t be working. (Did you notice I didn’t use parenthesis for my wife? That’s because she is actually working, albeit from home).
Ordinarily we’d be going to the football, or taking a day trip to the lake, or going out for lunch, or sneaking out for a cheeky pint (I’m beginning to think the recent closure of the Celtic Pub was a necessary training exercise for the social distancing that we’re now facing).
None of these normal activities will be possible this weekend.
Instead we’ll be stuck at home. Together. For the entire weekend!
What the hell are we going to do???
I’ll let you know next week!
Amended on 16 March 2020 to reflect the fact that it was the Cheltenham races (not Ascot as originally stated) that hundreds and thousands of people gathered for.
From inside locked-down Italy, some reflections on family life in Verona
21 February 2020
It was Carnival season and in Verona schools were closed for a few days holiday. Taking advantage of the break, I travelled from Verona via Manchester for a family get together in Kendal with my eldest son (11).
My biggest concern at this point was the severe weather warnings that were in place across northern England and the rapidly rising River Kent, which seemed to be encroaching on the bedroom window of the riverside hotel where we were to spend the weekend!
That all seems like a very long time ago now.
The following day the Italian government announced the suspension of all Serie A matches in the Lombardy and Veneto regions, including the game between Hellas Verona and Cagliari scheduled for 23 February, the first tangible indication of the disruption that was to follow. While of course, at times like this football is hardly the most pressing concern, it nonetheless provides a useful bellwether from which we can extrapolate the mood and response of a nation
At this point the virus was contained to 10 towns in northern Italy, where there had been approximately 50 reported cased and two deaths. Those towns were the first in Italy to experience the lockdown. While the Italian stock market plunged, speculation began to mount that Serie A matches would be played behind closed doors. Verona, at this point, wasn’t directly affected.
By 25 February the number of confirmed cases had leapt to 300, with 12 reported fatalities. While a large-scale testing operation had been initiated, the identity of patient zero remained a mystery. Despite the rapidly escalating crisis, mixed messages continued to cause confusion and frustration. The seeming incapacity of the football authorities to come to a clear and coherent decision about the forthcoming fixture list was a particular cause of frustration in a nation where football is a religion.
By the time we travelled back to Verona on 26 February, I was anxious to be reunited with the rest of my family after what seemed like a very long time apart. My youngest (5) had been spending a couple of days with his nonni in Tuscany, while my wife had business commitments in the UK that were subsequently cancelled because of the unfolding crisis. The flight back to Verona that day was half empty, a further indication of what was to follow. As we disembarked the plane, our temperatures were checked by red cross volunteers and as we travelled through the city on our way home that afternoon, the mood seemed quieter than usual.
The next day I took a walk around the city. Without the usual throngs of tourists, the streets of Verona were deserted, but the locals were quietly going about their business as best they could.
The next day the football authorities circulated a revised fixture list for the matches scheduled for March. Finally, a decision had been taken. The crisis was escalating, but at least we’d have some football to keep us entertained.
That weekend (29/30 February) we travelled down to Tuscany, passing through a blizzard on the high mountain pass that would take us into Garfagnana. Rumours were circulating that schools in Lombardy, Emilia Romana and Veneto would remain closed for a further eight days. Across northern Italy parents waited for news with bated breath.
When the decision to close the schools was confirmed, my wife and I decided to travel back to Verona and leave our kids with their grandparents in Tuscany. Meanwhile rumours and counter rumours continued to circulate. Monday night’s game would go ahead as planned. It would go ahead but behind closed doors. It would be cancelled. A meme even circulated suggesting that the match would go ahead with the fans but without the players!
In the end, the game between Sampdoria and Verona was cancelled at the very last minute, causing Verona’s captain to describe the situation as an embarrassment and to accuse the football authorities of treating players like playthings. His complaint wasn’t that the game was cancelled, but that the authorities waited until the very last minute to make a decision.
That week the situation in Verona seemed surreal. The city desperately wanted life to continue as normal, but something wasn’t quite right. With all my teaching commitments cancelled, I’d planned to do a few days writing at the library, but by the end of the week even the library was closed. With my coaching commitments also suspended, I wandered somewhat aimlessly around the city (so what’s new?). At Juliet’s balcony, a place I would normally avoid, I had the whole courtyard to myself!
By Friday and Saturday that week (6/7 March), Verona seemed to be back to its sunny, bustling best. On Friday night I went out for a few drinks and was pleased to see the bars were busy and people were in good spirits – an air of high-spirited defiance! The situation with the fixture list was looking increasingly shambolic, but I was optimistic that we would at least have some football to enjoy in the coming weeks. Indeed, on 6 March (just 4 days ago), a fixture list which involved Hellas Verona playing four games in 15 days looked viable.
On Sunday our plan was to travel down to Tuscany to pick up the kids. Regardless of whether schools would open on Monday, our intention was to be reunited as a family and to give the nonni some respite after a couple of weeks with their hands full. We made plans to travel down to Tuscany on Sunday morning (it’s about a 3 and a half hour drive from Verona to Corfino) and to travel immediately back up to Verona that afternoon, keeping our contact with my mother and father-in-law to an absolute minimum, after all we were travelling from a high risk area and they were in a high risk category.
Late on Saturday evening came the most (in fact probably the only) traumatic moment of the crisis so far for us. As we were preparing for bed, news began to circulate of an imminent lockdown of northern Italy. Without clearly understanding what the practicalities of this meant, we immediately decided to go and get our kids. We hastily packed a few items for the journey, made a few phone calls and set off into the night.
By the time we crossed into Emilia-Romana, we had the absurd notion that our path out of the region and into Tuscany would be blocked and that we’d also be prevented from returning to Verona. Visions of military-style roadblocks and weeks spent in quarantine in some remote community hall crossed our minds. With tears in our eyes, we decided to turn around and head back to Verona before the lockdown came into force, trying desperately to come to terms with not seeing our kids again for a month.
As we came off the motorway to turn around, we noticed a police patrol car at the tollbooth. We explained the situation and asked the machine-gun totting officers what we should do. They left us with the distinct impression that we need not worry about roadblocks and quarantine, for such measures were not anticipated to be implemented during the night. And so we set off again, toward the snow-capped mountain pass that would take us to Corfino.
We arrived at about two in the morning, ushered our confused kids into the car and immediately headed back towards Verona, this time taking the longer route that would take us towards Lucca, then Firenze and Bologna, avoiding the treacherous mountain pass.
On that long drive back to Verona, we tuned into Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s sobering press conference in which he confirmed that he had signed off plans to strictly limit movement in and out of large areas of Italy, including Venice and Milan, for nearly a month. By now there had been 7,000 confirmed cases in Italy and 360 fatalities.
It was nearly 6 am on Sunday morning when we arrived back in Verona. Exhausted but together.
Perhaps it was an over-reaction. We could, in all likelihood, have travelled on Sunday without the need to take our kids away from their nonni in the dead of night. But for a few hours that evening, I caught a glimpse of what enforced separation from your kids might feel like.
Back in Verona, the mixed messages and confusion continued. Some matches in Serie A and B went ahead that weekend, as well as Monday evening’s game between Sampdoria and Verona, but in the surreal surroundings of an empty stadium and against the backdrop of a country in crisis.
With all further teaching commitments cancelled and the boys at home until the 15 March, I was anxiously contemplating the two weeks of home-schooling that lay ahead. For now, though, we took some comfort from the fact that we were at least outside the red zone and that the most draconian restrictions didn’t apply to us.
The following day (yesterday) we began our first day of home schooling. To my eldest son’s chagrin, I had prepared a detailed timetable of how we would spend our time. His teachers had helpfully provided some instructions on the online register, giving us a framework around which to focus our studies.
While I would never have chosen this outcome, the circumstances have conspired to create a situation in which I could put all my other commitments and preoccupations to one side (teaching, coaching and writing) and concentrate entirely on just being a dad. Perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad after all!
And so, the first day passed productively and in good spirits (aside from the tantrum during a kickabout in the garden - I was never offside). The kids have worked hard and got involved in things they wouldn’t otherwise have done (preparing and serving lunch for example).
Then late on Monday night Conte delivered another emergency statement. All of Italy was now a “red zone”. Schools across Italy would be closed until 3 April.
That night I had a moment of doubt as I played out in my mind the worst case scenarios for my country, for my city, for my family.
But by morning my doubts had subsided and the rationalist in me once again resolved that we would pass through the crisis unscathed.
And day two has proceeded much the same as day one. My eldest has plenty of work to do in subjects as fascinating as verb conjugations, river flow, romantic art and the books of the bible (I directed him towards Psalm 23: 4, which seemed appropriate in the circumstances). And I’ve enjoyed spending more quality time with my kids, helping my youngest form numbers and letters, painting, reading and playing – things which would ordinarily have got lost in the daily demands of life, school, work, after-school activities, etc.
And while they spend an hour or two in the garden, playing with the other kids from our block, I have a moment to catch my breath, and to reflect on these grave days that we’re enjoying together.
Although I’d heard rumours, the official notification, when it arrived last week, was a shock.
Like any loss, the announcement that the Celtic Pub would be no more will take some getting used to.
Adjusting to life post-Celtic will not be easy.
When it comes to pubs, I’ve only ever had three true loves (if you don’t count the long-distance relationship with my granddad’s social club).
It is said that you never forget your first love, and that is certainly the case with the Manor, a sprawling suburban establishment that gave its youthful clientele their first intoxicating taste of pub life.
Ten years later, I fell for the more sophisticated charms of the Cameo in Leith. A stone’s throw from home, it had that eclectic blend of attributes I find so alluring in a pub – homeliness, character and spirit! [I visited the Cameo recently and was distressed to see how it had become a bland, bloated and soulless shadow of its former self.]
Finally, it was in Verona of all places that I fell in love again.
It’s difficult to explain that strange mixture of contentment, calmness and homecoming that overcame me that warm May afternoon when I finally crossed the unassuming threshold on via Santa Chiara. I experienced what can only be described as a moment of divine rapture.
The snug interior. The quirky blend of trinkets and wall-hangings. The astute attention to detail (like the hooks under the bar - always an indication of a well-run establishment).
The easy, relaxed ambience, the handful of amiable locals, the barman - efficient, convivial and welcoming. And finally, that first pint of Tennent’s Export Strength Lager. Mouthwatering!
Without realizing it, I had stumbled across what I’d been searching for since moving to Verona two years previously - community, friendship and somewhere to watch the football!
These days, I generally ply the quiet early evening shift. I call in a couple of times a week. I’m proud to call the Celtic Pub my local. Privileged to be considered a regular.
Of course, institutions like these don’t happen by accident. They take vision, passion and hard work to create and maintain. So Corrado’s decision to walk away after six years at the helm is a brave but painful one. One that will create a massive void in the lives of all those of us who have enjoyed his hospitality over the years.
This weekend, amongst music, laughter and tears, we’ll drink our final pints together in the Celtic Pub. Of course, there will be other pubs. But there will never be another Celtic Pub. Not for me. And not for those of us who drink there.
Cheers Corrado. Thanks for the memories! They’re gonna live forever.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to enjoy a whistle-stop tour of Tuscan viticulture at a five-star luxury resort near Siena. Yes, I know, it was one of my toughest assignments yet!
Siena, it barely needs saying, lies in the heart of one of Italy’s most prestigious wine producing regions. Tuscany is to Italy what Bordeaux is to France. It has 40 DOC(G) status wines (second only to Piedmont, which has 52) and is home to some of the most recognisable names in Italian wine.
The resort’s cavernous cellar, situated below a thirteenth-century villa, contains over 1200 prestigious and boutique labels. I was lucky enough to taste a few of them.
A great white
Teruzzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano (2010)
We started the tasting with a Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Tuscany’s renowned white wine made from the Vernaccia grape. It is one of the regions most historic wines. In 1966, it became Italy’s first DOC and in 1993 it was elevated to DOCG status.
San Gimignano itself is a charming medieval village about 35 kilometres from Siena. Its striking hilltop location, medieval walls, towers and churches make it an ever-popular tourist destination, while the high altitudes and calcareous, sandy soils surrounding the village are well suited to producing structured, aromatic white wine.
On nosing the cork, a look of mild consternation played across the face of our urbane sommelier. He quickly regained his composure, poured the wine and had a sniff. While he seemed far from convinced, we proceeded with the tasting. Unfortunately, the sommelier’s suspicions were confirmed when he took a mouthful of the wine. It wasn’t corked, he explained, it was just un po’ chiuso (a bit closed). This can be a particular problem with white wine, which doesn’t age as well as red. With some breathing time, the wine would probably have improved, but eager to proceed with our tasting, he reached for another bottle.
No problems at the second time of asking, and we were soon enjoying a crisp, floral bouquet with a slightly bitter almondy finish. A classic Vernaccia di San Gimignano!
A timeless classic
Selvapiana Chianti Rufina (2015)
As early as the 14th century a wine known as Chianti was being produced in the hills between Florence and Siena. A few centuries later, the Medici established the first known laws governing wine production, establishing, amongst other things, the various production zones of the Chianti region. Due to overproduction and substandard production techniques, Chianti’s image was tarnished somewhat during the 1970s and 1980s and even today the brand still suffers from its straw-covered fiasco table wine image. Personally, I’m a big fan of that nostalgic facade, but perhaps not quite in keeping with today’s luxurious surroundings!
An upgrade to DOCG status in 1984 sparked a much-needed renaissance in production techniques and the creation of the gallo nero (black rooster) logo, the symbol of the Chianti producers’ association, coincided with a general improvement in production values across the region.
Tuscan wines are dominated by two grapes – the white trebbiano and the red sangiovese. It is said these were native wild vines, domesticated long ago by the Etruscans. The ancient Sangiovese grape is perhaps the most important native red grape in Italy (alongside the Nebbiolo of Piedmont). Naturally high in acidity and aroma, it is the predominant grape variety in Chianti Classico. As well it’s characteristic black cherry flavour, the Sangiovese also gives Chianti a certain woody, smoky quality, an intoxicating blend of sweet and spicy.
On the shelfs of the cantina, I noticed a few of the famed 1997 vintage (a year in which the reforms and replantings of the 1980s and 1990s coincided with particularly good weather) and was tempted to ask for a taste, but instead we settled for a fresher vintage, still mouth-wateringly good!
On the rocks
Next, the Sommelier produced a Bolgheri Sassicaia. Bolgheri is about 30 minutes south of Livorno on Tuscany’s Mediterranean coast. It is an area densely populated with cinghiale – Italy’s ubiquitous wild boar and is prime hunting territory. Compared to the ancient Chianti, the red wine produced on the now-famous hills of Bolgheri is a newcomer to the Italian wine scene. In 1944, while others had more pressing matters to attend to, Mario Incisa, recently arrived from Piedmont, planted his first vineyard. Intent on making a Bordeaux-style wine for his personal consumption, it wasn’t until 1968 that he released his first wine onto the market. He called his wine Sassicaia (rocky place) and it took the wine world by storm.
The elegant blend of merlot and cabernet grapes married with the tarry, woody notes typical of Tuscan vines proved to be a winning combination, while the proximity of the Tuscan coast gave the Sassicaia its unmistakable saline quality. In 1984 a Bolgheri DOC was created and over the last decade wine making in the region has exploded.
The big brown
Brunello di Montalcino Casanova di Neri 2014
With our dinner reservation rapidly approaching, it was time for our final tasting, a Brunello di Montalcino.
Montalcino is another of those iconic Tuscan hill towns. Just 25 kilometres south of Siena, the climate here is dryer, hotter and more Mediterranean than the damper, cooler climate of the Chianti Classico territory. The soils are also different, containing more sand and limestone. These factors combine to produce a super robust strand of the sangiovese - the famed Brunello di Montalcino.
With its deep flavours and superior ageing potential, Brunello di Montalcino is up there with Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco as one of Italy’s most sought after wines. The wine we tasted was rich and full-bodied with warm red-cherry and plum and hints of chocolate, leather and coffee. Intoxicating!
Small Italian towns tend to disappoint me. I guess that could be said about small towns in general, not just in Italy.
Lacking in personality, devoid of industry or purpose, cleansed of history and character, culturally barren and culinarily bland, small towns are, in my experience, best avoided.
Give me a vibrant city or a small hilltop village any day. Anything in between is unworthy of my time or effort.
I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, by what I found at Colle di Val d'Elsa, a small-town of 22,000 inhabitants in the Elsa valley, somewhere between Siena and Florence.
Colle di Val d'Elsa is that rare thing, a small town with purpose, character, industry and charm. Not to mention a few quirky surprises too.
The town has a thriving crystal glassware industry. Remarkably, it is said that 15% of the world’s crystal is produced here. Indeed, there are numerous outlets and manufacturers displaying their fine wares throughout the town. Perhaps it is this industrial vigour that underpins the town’s vibrancy.
Another striking feature of Colle di Val d’Elsa is that it is split in two levels - the "Colle alta" and the "Colle bassa". The oldest part of the town, the "colle alta", is connected to the lower part of the town, the Colle bassa, by a 400-metre elevator which is accessed through a restored Second World War air raid shelter. A novel way to arrive at the panoramic old town.
At the lower level, the town’s principal square, Piazza Arnolfo di Cambio (named after the town’s renowned architect and sculptor), provides a striking focal point for the city. Bright, clean and well-maintained, the piazza hosts a pharmacy, post office and police headquarters, as well as the usual bars, bakeries and shops, making it a vibrant focal point for the town. For the local pensioners, it’s just a pleasant place to pass the time of day.
Colle di Val d’Elsa is also a staging post on the via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim trail that connects Canterbury and Rome. Today, modern day backpackers are a familiar sight as they pass through the town on their way to Siena.
With three active theatrical companies, two theatres and three cinemas, the town boasts a vibrant arts scene. Colle di Val d’Elsa also exudes a certain multicultural air (not always the case in Italian towns and villages). In October 2013, the town's new mosque was inaugurated. Although its foundation was not without controversy, it is now an important place of prayer and worship for the local Islamic community
And now we come to the quirky - and these, if I’m being honest, are the episodes that really swung it for me with Colle di Val d'Elsa.
First, looking for a simple bite to eat, we chose an unassuming trattoria just around the corner from Piazza Cambio. I was immediately drawn to the remarkable collection of whisky miniatures crammed into two glass fronted cabinets. A reminder of home, the collection was also an intriguing glimpse into the history and idiosyncrasy of this small town
The second episode occurred later that evening. With Hellas Verona playing Sassuolo, I was keen to find somewhere to watch the game. As this wasn’t exactly a glamour tie and I was, after all, in a small Tuscan town with no obvious interest in the game, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about finding somewhere to watch it.
With some vague directions, I was soon making my way towards a pub on the fringes of the town. I had no trouble finding the joint, as karaoke emanating from the gazebo could be heard for miles around. I walked into a lively, bustling bar, festooned with football memorabilia. Even better, there was a decent crowd, clearly enjoying the match in front of large screen.
As I supped on my first pint, taking in the surroundings, it was clear that this bar had a direct and authentic connection with football. The memorabilia on display had a rich and authentic feel to it. The centrepiece was a full-size poster of Diego Maradona in his distinctive Napoli strip, posing with who I assumed to be a Juventus player who seemed vaguely familiar, but who I couldn’t quite place.
By the time I’d ordered my second pint, the identity of the mysterious Juventus player was beginning to distract me from the game itself.
When the barman poured my third pint it clicked. “È tu, vero?”, I said, smiling and pointing to the picture behind him. “Si”, he replied, "it's me".
The barman’s name was Luciano Macri. On 12 August 1984, Napoli had come to Tuscany to play Siena in a pre-season friendly. Siena were struggling in the lower divisions. Macri was a young striker on the periphery of the Siena squad.
A certain Diego Armando Maradona had just arrived at Napoli from Barcelona and this preseason friendly was his first opportunity to show what he could do.
It was a masterful display. Maradona orchestrated a 4-0 victory while barely seeming to move out of third gear.
For Macri, this close encounter with footballing genius would be the highlight of his playing career.
He never made the big time himself, but would always treasure the moment he came face to face with the greatest player the world has ever seen.
For me, the opportunity to have a pint with someone who had played against Maradona was yet another reason to love Colle di Val d’Elsa. Perhaps small towns aren't so bad after all!
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