Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lucca under lockdown is compared to a desert, or life in a monastery

What would we be doing every day if Lucy had not slipped on the stairs just a few days before we were set to fly to Italy? We think about that most every day, while we enjoy the slow life in our Gig Harbor country home. Had we gone to our Montecarlo apartment, we’d be confined inside, restricted to weekly shopping trips. We’d be paying a daily fee for a rental car (essential for trips to the supermarket) that sat mostly unused.

Instead, we can shop online at Safeway and Home Depot and pick up supplies in the parking lot for our food and home improvement projects. We have an abundance of private streets to walk, as well as trails in the forest, and our five-acre lot has plenty of room for vegetable, fruit and flower gardening. My sister, brother, daughter, cousins and several long-time neighbors live next door, and we can visit on porches or on the streets and trails.

But life in the province of Lucca is another story, and something I think about often. I periodically check the page of Facebook friend Jonell Galloway to see how she is doing, and to imagine my own life had we been there instead. She recently wrote a long and informative post on life in Lucca that is well worth sharing:

Jonell enjoys caffè alla nocciola, made with
hazelnut liqueur, in earlier times, when
she could go out to a nice coffee bar.
I have spent some 40 days and nights in the Italian desert. That’s what 40 days of lockdown in an ancient city surrounded by stone walls feels like. The only green is the inside bank of the Renaissance city walls around the corner, but looking at it through the window gives me a crick in the neck after a few minutes.

If I walk 50 meters down the street, I can listen to the birds tweeting in the prison yard and experience spring a bit. We hear the nuns singing vespers every night in the convent next to the clinic. I count minutes and hours and days and heads these days. That’s how I pass my time on this velvet sofa, reading how many new cases and deaths there have been due to coronavirus. I live the enclosed life of a nun without the habit and the vows and with the addition of a few sensual pleasures. I take delight in architectural details, cooking, eating, and simply slipping under the sheets at night, and in getting to know my husband better than I thought possible.

The first declared cases of coronavirus in Italy were on January 31, when a state of emergency was immediately declared, and then on February 20, when 16 new cases were found in Lombardy. The north was put in quarantine on March 8 and declared a red zone, meaning that it was on danger alert and its borders were closed. The next day, the entire Italian population of 60 million was locked down; two days later, all businesses except pharmacies and food shops were closed. On the 21st, all non-essential businesses and industries were closed. Twenty-four thousand six hundred forty people have died, there are now fewer new cases, and ICUs have had some relief, and though the numbers are going down, there is still far to go. Lombardy is still suffering badly.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte confers with Minister of
Heath Roberto Speranza. Gotta love those Italian surnames.
Speranza means "hope."
Prime Minister Conte gave a long speech in front of the Senate today. I didn’t hear it all, but he seemed to be preparing us for a very long road. The total lockdown we’ve been living under will gradually be lifted as of May 4, he said, but things will be far from the old normal. He was somber and weary and it was the first time I’ve heard him falter when speaking. He looked tired, as if he hadn’t slept; the poor guy is overworked. It’s gray and rainy and not the day to hear this. Italy has suffered too much for too long. Even though the numbers are going down, we’re nowhere near the end. Lombardy has to get beyond this. Conte refers to the next phase as cohabitation, that is to say living with the virus in our presence. That will be our new way of functioning and it will be full of restrictions. European governments are already talking about a second wave of coronavirus as if it’s a given.

Since Monday, we’ve been able to pick up free masks at the pharmacies. We are now required to wear them in public. Truth is, most people already were and many food shops required them. There was a shortage of hand sanitizer and masks the first week or so, but that was quickly managed. Most shops provide free gloves and sanitizer. The supermarket outside town offers free sanitizer, gloves and masks and takes your temperature before you enter. In the hygiene department, Italy is doing very well.

The rate of Covid is higher in cities such as Turin and Milan with historically poor air quality because their inhabitants often have impaired respiratory function, but now there is less pollution from automobiles thanks to the lockdown. They say that you can now actually see the Alps clearly from the top of Milan cathedral, and air quality has improved all over the country. Milan is already planning to create large pedestrian and bike zones in its downtown, closing them to car traffic. Cities are in the process of rethinking urban planning. The future will be different, and I suspect many of the shops will remain closed, leaving lots of empty buildings.

Paris has stopped hosing down the streets every day because they found there were microparticles of Covid in the water. Apparently, this could work for or against us in that it could possibly help build up our immunity over time, or it could make us sick. Until they know, many streets that are normally disinfected every day remain full of dog doo, at least in Lucca, the only place I’ve known these last 40+ days.

If I were prime minister, tiramisù would
definitely be on my list of essential services. 
Although Lucca is far from a food desert, there are luxuries I miss. The only tiramisù is the one in the freezer, which dates from 44 days ago. There’s no dark chocolate in the house because all the chocolate shops are still closed. I truly thought chocolate was essential, but the government obviously doesn’t agree. All the pastry shops are closed, as are the restaurants. There’s not a cannoli to be had in all of Lucca. On the television news, I saw a pizzeria spacing out tables for a potential reopening. In these old European cities, restaurants are small, so the 2-meter distancing leaves them with few tables; it is dystopic.

My quarantine project has been to research the traditional food of Lucca. Those local ingredients are plentiful and easy to get. I might end up becoming a specialist, although I doubt many outside Lucca and Tuscany would be interested. We eat well, we eat locally — lots of polenta, pici, artichokes, and meat. Fava beans, white asparagus, agretti (saltwort), and peas are delicious this year. Dried beans of all types are a staple food in Tuscany, most often seasoned with garlic, sage and olive oil and sometimes with a bit of tomato paste. They are often used in soups along with stale bread or farro.

I am among the lucky ones. I never forget that. I have plenty to eat and live in a spacious, comfortable house. It’s a strange feeling to watch the world through your own barred windows (that’s part of the architecture here), not experiencing social contact, and looking at pictures of long lines for food banks in your native country. It’s strange to know the world only through news sites. It’s strange to be confined to four walls that are themselves surrounded by more walls.

I see the world before me quickly becoming comfortable for only the rich. Poverty sits around every corner. The middle class is quickly disappearing, even though most Italians have savings to get through hard times. There’s a long tradition of "spesa sospesa," which allows you to leave some groceries at checkout so they can be donated to needy shoppers. Hunger might seem hidden, but many posters around town are requesting food donations. Unlike in the U.S., the Italian media aren’t showing us the vivid images. Unemployment, well, we can’t even put numbers on that for the moment. Even when restaurants open, due to social distancing, they will have fewer customers, so prices will inevitably go up. The same will apply to shops, cinemas, theatres, and flights. The main budget airlines in Europe stopped all flights weeks ago. Going to a movie or out to eat, travel, will become a luxury. The rich will get all the tiramisù and we’ll be eating dry bread.

The door has been opened to new kinds of crime. A local pizzeria that does home delivery — the only one in town that I know of — delivered a pizza last week and the customer refused to pay. The "customer" took out a butcher knife and tried to rob the delivery man, who fled. When the police arrived on the scene and entered the guy’s lodgings, they discovered that he was illegally renting out bed space to 15 people and advertising it online. He has now taken up residence in the prison across the street from us. Several European countries have received faulty test kits and masks from China. One hospital received fake N95 masks. I have heard that the mafia is hard at work and finding new ways of extorting money, such as offering money to small businesses that don’t qualify for emergency government subsidies.

This week the government started a new program of testing for antibodies. They began with health workers, policemen, and other essential workers. The plan is that everybody will eventually be tested for either the virus or antibodies. Chile is already issuing Covid passports, and that was initially an Italian plan, but you don’t hear much about it these days. It would make sense that those who have antibodies or who test negative should be the first to go back to work and to school. I will follow that with great interest. We’ll all certainly have to install a tracking app on our phones so that our exposure to the virus can be traced if necessary. The government said this would not be forced upon us, but we know it must be generalized if it is to work. It makes sense as long as they don’t use it for nefarious purposes.

In the beginning, the situation felt surreal. Little by little, it all sank in and everybody seemed to agree that strict lockdown was the only rational solution. Now it’s the new norm; we know we’re going to be living in some similar way for a very long time. Some people disobeyed the rules as the numbers kept going up, and as a result, restrictions were tightened. Our lockdown has not been light in any way. From almost the outset, gatherings of any kind have been forbidden. We have to stay near our house — no drives into the countryside or hills — and only one of us can go out at a time. Peter and I can’t even walk down the street together. We have to fill out a form each time we go out stating our purpose. We’ve gotten used to it. There’s a sort of consensual agreement among most Italians that this is for the good of all. Even though the police are constantly patrolling the streets and can ask to check our forms, it in no way feels like martial law. They feel more like our allies rather than our enemy.

This “prison” makes me understand how much I value freedom, yet oddly enough, I don’t resent this confinement. It is, I think, the only logical way to fight the virus, and I want more than anything to do what’s right. I read a Harvard study that said it’s likely we’ll be in and out of lockdown for the next two years. I can deal with that. I’m experienced now. The worst part is the monotony, the repetitiveness of the days that all run into each other, since there is nothing to mark one from the other. I sometimes find myself sighing under my breath like my mother did. When Peter asks me what’s wrong, I say the same thing as her: “life.” It is a momentary sense of despair that passes as quickly as it comes.

If I have one word of advice, it’s that this is no time to be separated from your own ones. I say that with my entire family scattered around the globe. Videoconferencing has become our normal way of communicating. Sometimes the kids even call us from bed or while cooking so it’s almost like being together and sharing day-to-day life again. We say, “I love you” more often. We send virtual kisses and hugs. Reach out to the ones you love now, not later. Learn to say, “I love you” out loud. You just don’t know what tomorrow might bring, even if it’s just more of the same. After this long writing, I am starting my 44th day. There will be no leaving this “desert” anytime soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Jonell and for passing them on, Paul. I live in Colorado, USA, and this is an important glimpse into our future, I believe.
    Sending good health, good humor and safety to you all!
    Ann Spadoni Peterson


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