Anger, frustration, confusion, doubt, disbelief, despair.
And I’ve not even had my morning coffee yet!
Well, we’re now 40 days into the lockdown [or at least we were on Friday when I began writing this blog], and I guess it’s normal that a crisis of this natures provokes such an intense emotional response.
But how do we process these deep emotions without the usual outlets of football, the pub or a long run?
Writing, reading, exercise and music all provide some relief from the tension/boredom/frustration of the lockdown.
Alcohol also helps, but rarely before breakfast.
For me, writing has been cathartic. No matter how confused or angry or worried I’ve been, I’ve always felt better after committing my thoughts to paper.
Exercise is another escape. I lock myself in our subterranean garage for an hour each evening. Nothing more illicit than the early evening news and a few bench presses, but being out of the house, away from the kids and in my own space for an hour or so is liberating. I invariably return to the lockdown in better humour than I left.
Since Tuesday, when there was a slight relaxation of the rules (certain shops have now re-opened and taking exercise within a 200 metre radius of your house is now permitted as long as you wear gloves and a mask), I’ve also taken to running up and down our street every other day. Fifteen 3-minute laps to rack up around 5 kilometres.
Others in our neighbourhood have also begun to enjoy these first tentative steps of freedom beyond the confines of their homes and we discreetly acknowledge each other as we pass from a safe distance.
Reading is another escape. For the first 30 days of the lockdown I could barely lift a book. The sustained concentration required to switch off from the minute by minute evolution of the crisis was beyond me. Besides, with two kids to feed, entertain and educate, finding a moment to pick up a book was never easy.
But in the last week or so, I’ve started to read again. I turned to a book that has inspired me in the past. Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers tells the story of a company of airborne light infantry established in the summer of 1942 at the height of the Second World War. The company was deployed in France, Holland, Belgium and Germany, before taking Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchstesgaden.
Band of Brothers underlines the importance of training, preparation, equipment and, above all, leadership. Easy Company was blessed with outstanding NCOs and a company commander who led from the front.
Reflecting on the hardships that generation endured and the sacrifices they made puts our own experience into some perspective.
A final outlet during these challenging 40 days has been music. In the early days of the lockdown, we let our hair down with some extravagant guitar riffs and in-house shows. That soon gave way to a more melancholic air, as I introduced the kids to the joys of Simon and Garfunkel, the Verve and James Taylor (they'll thank me for it one day).
More recently I’ve been revisiting some early Oasis, inspired by the Listen Up podcast, published last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of Definitely Maybe. Although it’s by no means my favourite album, it is one that, more than any other, defines my youth.
Perhaps it’s that transcendence back to those days of youthful freedom, excess and discovery that is so comforting in these strange days of lockdown?
Anyway, next week I’m gonna dust down my guitar. It’s never too late to be a rock star!
It’s been a long, slow week. In fact, I spent much of Tuesday entirely unconvinced that it could still only be Tuesday. It was. By Wednesday things had picked up. And by Thursday, the first day of the Italian Easter holidays, the weekend had finally arrived!
It promises to be an Easter weekend quite unlike any other.
Last Easter we were sledging in the Dolomites. The Easter before that we were in Tuscany with the in-laws.
This Easter we'll be lucky to make it off our compound.
And we’re not likely to be going anywhere else (apart from the weekly trip to the supermarket) any time soon.
Few were surprised earlier this evening when Prime Minister Conte announced an extension of the current lockdown from April 13 to May 3. That’s another 24 days of lockdown!
And even that is unlikely to be the end.
If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that we are no more than midway through the lockdown (which came into effect here on 9 March).
Italy still has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world (18,279), although there is some evidence that the death toll has now plateued. But the lockdown is working. Imagine how much higher the death toll would be if the virus had been allowed to spread unchecked. Of course, the raw statistics have severe limitations, but they do convey an undeniable trend.
In the coming days, Italy's grim tally will undoubtedly be surpassed by other nations. In fact, with 980 recorded deaths in the last 24 hours, the UK has now overtaken Italy as the epicentre of the crisis in Europe (Italy’s highest single death day was the 27 March when it recorded 919 deaths).
I remember how gut-wrenching it was to hear those daily tallies. Now the UK faces a similarly challenging period. Of course Italy and the rest of Europe will offer what assistance and solidarity they can, but the stark reality is that strict lockdown and social distancing are the only remedies currently available.
Even under strict lockdown daily life will, as ever, continue. Intensify and blossom even.
On our compound the seasons have decisively shifted.
I haven’t worn long trousers for a few weeks now. As the temperature soars towards the high twenties, we spend as much time as possible ‘outdoors’ - on our balcony, in our communal garden, or in our cavernous subterranean garage. The plants on our balcony have never been so well tended!
Despite the restrictions, our youngest (who celebrated his 6th birthday at the end of March) has graduated from his little bike to his big brothers old one. He gleefully does laps of the garage and, in compliance with the ‘200 metre directive’, has occassionally ventured out onto the deserted street in front of our apartment. These are milestone moments which we continue to chalk up despite the suffocating restrictions on our daily life.
Less significant, the weekly trip to the supermarket was surreal, but uneventful (no police check this time). The giant queue, which snaked its way around the carpark, advanced quickly enough, but in stark contrast to just a few weeks ago, everyone was wearing masks and gloves. Despite what I heard today from UK government scientific and medical advisers, gloves and masks will become a new global norm in the months to come, as we learn to live with the virus. Inside, the only shortages were for flour and eggs, as Italians were evidently planning some seasonal home baking. Otherwise it was business as usual.
I stocked up on the essentials – Easter eggs, pre-mixed Aperol spritz and a large case of beer. I balked slightly at the checkout, but then remembered that this was the first time I’d opened my wallet in two weeks (I quietly vowed that any cash I had left at the end of this crisis, would be gleefully unleashed on the local economy).
Finally, this longest of weeks is coming to an end.
It's Easter. A celebration of rebirth and resurrection.
In Italy, we dare not yet celebrate the end of the crisis. Nor even the beginning of the end.
But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
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.
Available now on Amazon:
A short collect of reflections on family life in locked down Italy
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