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?
Richard Hough writes about history, football, wine, whisky, culture + travel and is currently working on a trilogy about wartime Verona.