The messages started rolling in on March 10. “You guys holding up over there?” “The lockdown sounds nuts!” “Be safe!”
The Italian government had just announced a nationwide lockdown after the novel coronavirus began to crash through northern regions of the country. Schools were closed, businesses would be next, and leaving our houses was now largely forbidden.
I’m an American living with my husband, Ruben Mozzi, and our daughter, Bea, in Rome, and though this scene would soon play out all over the Western world, it seemed almost absurd at the time. Not knowing what to expect, we hunkered down at home with cautious optimism and an already full pantry.
I grew up in Montana, after all, where preparedness has always been a way of life. We waited for the wave to drown our city next. And we waited. For most of March, Italy must have looked to outsiders like complete chaos.
It was in places like Bergamo, a wealthy city of 120,000 in the region of Lombardy. We heard stories of supply shortages, exhausted health care workers and loved ones dying alone. We saw the footage of a military caravan taking the bodies away from no-vacancy morgues.
But Rome is a 375-mile drive from Bergamo. Our region of Lazio has been largely spared the crushing COVID-19 numbers of the north. Thousands of cases, yes, and at least 375 tragic deaths, but hospitals have remained stable so far and panic at a minimum.
Supermarket shelves have been, with rare exception, fully stocked, and there was never a run on toilet paper. Maybe it’s because every house in Italy has a bidet, but I won’t get into that here.
The change in Rome has been the silence. For a week or so, Italians were singing their hearts out from balconies and blasting Bocelli from windows. The daily 6 p.m. singing sessions soon faded, though, giving way to daily 6 p.m. death toll announcements from government officials.
Streets and piazzas were deserted. Our family runs a hospitality business here renovating and managing vacation apartments in the city center. The tourism industry didn’t just fade; it was lights out with no return in sight.
Rome without tourists is a strange place: empty Spanish Steps, no coins tossed in the Trevi Fountain, no flocks of craning necks in the Sistine Chapel. Tourism represents about 13% of the Italian GDP (it’s 3% in the U.S.), and its near total disappearance will be an enormous, if not fatal, blow to countless businesses here.
Hundreds of people are still dying every day, but Italians are eager for the country to come back to life. Going out for a recent walk, I could feel the stifled energy. There were more cars on the road and many more people walking, jogging, just trying to be in the world.
This is overly dramatic for Americans, but the famous concept of dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, really only works in tandem with social contact. Lunches with colleagues, happy hours with friends, long dinners with family and half a dozen chatty coffee breaks in between.
Many people now have little to do, but without others to share in the nothingness, most Italians don’t really see the point. Easter, in particular, presented something of an existential crisis for families. The weekend usually marks a period of relaxation, as warm weather and a series of public holidays allow for great familial feasts in country homes.
This year, officials had to beg Italians to stay put. Still, all over the country, some risked fines to gather, especially for religious services. Just try telling your nonna that she can’t go to church on Easter Sunday.
In Rome, people still venture out for groceries more often than many Americans, and they still take time to carefully direct the slicing of their prosciutto order at the deli counter. But gone are the friendly chats about weather or someone’s persistent sore throat.
Talking about one’s health with everybody in earshot is usually a popular pastime, but not anymore. No more casual complaining about a fever. Just dour, mask-covered faces, everyone suspiciously eyeing the next person in line. Italy’s sparkle has faded a bit, too, but it will be back. We can wait.
For years before moving here, I worked as a designer and staff editor in newsrooms. Something I always loved about the newspaper business, despite the terrible hours and constant fear of layoffs, was the feeling that you’re a part of big events.
However small my role was, I was right there in the thick of it working against deadline to get the story out. It was no war zone, but, hey, it was exciting.
Now, here I am in the middle of a global crisis with nowhere to be. No story to produce. No deadlines other than that worksheet my daughter needs to color before her online class tomorrow.
This is a total luxury, to be nonessential and safe at home, so I focus on feeding my family and educating my kid. We make donations and try to be helpful in the neighborhood. I wish I had an amusing meme to contribute, but I’m not that clever.
This state of limbo is one of privilege, yes, but also one of uncertainty. Even professional soccer players, young and healthy and often rich, are swallowing this forced vacation with difficulty. A survey conducted by Fifpro, the global players’ union, found reported symptoms of depression among players to have doubled since COVID-19 shutdowns. Waiting is difficult for all of us.
A gradual reopening of Italian businesses and public spaces is set to begin in the coming weeks, and soon we’ll be able to move about freely within our regions. The virus will still loom over our daily lives but, for now, we’re lucky to have picked up only a new hand-washing regime and a healthy appreciation for all of the teachers out there.
The travel industry, however, will be devastated for some time. We can only focus on our families and think of ways to get our livelihoods back on track when the tourists do return. We’ll have to wait.
The Spokesman-Review features editor Don Chareunsy and Liz (Grauman) Mozzi worked together at the San Diego Union-Tribune in the 2000s.
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