You are here

PERSPECTIVE

My lockdown diary, from a small, old town in Italy

Everything is shut: No schools, no shops, no bars and restaurants, no meetings. Just "stay at home".

BT_20200314_BSLOCK_4060375.jpg
In many Italian towns, the usually busy streets are deserted as people stay home most of the time.

Crema, Italy

AN OPEN society in lockdown: It's almost an oxymoron, a mind game. Until it happens, and life suddenly changes. It's happening to me and all Italians. Beginning in the north, where I live, and now in the whole country.

Everything is shut: no schools, no meetings, no parties, no movies, no plays, no sporting events. No bars and no restaurants. No shops open, except food stores and pharmacies. Across the country, as of Thursday, 15,113 people have contracted the virus (about half are in hospital); 1,016 have died and 1,258 have recovered. The Italian government's mantra is three words: "Restate a casa" - Stay at home.

What happens to daily life in a small, old town near Milan during an epidemic? Crema is pretty, wealthy and proud, a quintessential Italian community where everyone knows each other. It has been described in books and became a backdrop for the film Call Me By Your Name. Outside my window, I can see the whole of the main square, Piazza del Duomo.

As I write, it's 10am and the square is empty - a bizarre silence. Normally, the square teems with students, shoppers, farmers, friends heading to cafes for their morning cappuccino. Beneath my window, pensioners usually gather to catch the early sun. Today the sun bounces off the bricks of the cathedral, undisturbed except for a masked cyclist pedalling through the Torrazzo gate. Even the church bells sound different in the empty quiet.

When people have appeared, they've given one another a wide berth. So un-Italian. Normally, people charge into each other and greet with affection, shaking hands, kissing and embracing. Italy is a touchy-feely society.

We tend to trust our senses and intuition more than grand ideas (those are Germany's trademark). For us, life is food, wine, music, arts, design, landscape; the smell of the countryside; the warmth of one's family, and the embrace of friends. Those involve our mouths, our noses, our ears, our eyes, our hands.

Fear of Covid-19 forces us to repudiate those senses. It's painful.

Tough for healthcare staff

Crema is less than 15 miles away from the original lockdown areas of Codogno and Castiglione d'Adda, and our hospital has been swamped by Covid-19 patients. I know several people who work there - doctors, nurses, staff. They're exhausted, but don't give up. Lombardy's public health service is the best in Italy, and Italy's is widely considered the best in Europe. Still, it's hard. As of Wednesday, there were 91 Covid-19 cases in Crema, and 263 in the wider area around it known as Cremasco.

On Tuesday, three young people started a fund-raising campaign to support our hospital; in one day they collected 80,000 euros (S$125,864). "But what do you do with the money if protective equipment for doctors and nurses is not available?" an acquaintance who works at the hospital texted to me.

You might assume that our inboxes would be bursting with e-mails, now that people are at home with time on their hands. Not so. Most e-mails announce the cancellation of events and the interruption of services. Even the deluge of WhatsApp messages, which flooded smartphones with news and jokes at the beginning of the epidemic, has dried up. Facebook posts, by contrast, haven't. People put up little manifestoes to tell the outside world what's on their minds, like messages in a digital bottle.

Irene Soave, a colleague at Corriere della Sera and a fellow author, wrote: "The least panic-stricken are the people like me, who tend to panic. My so-called "calm friends" call me 10 times a day to ask: "Are you worried?" But their voices sound an octave too high."

After lunch - at home with my wife, Ortensia, because large groups are to be avoided - we go for a walk with our dog, Mirta. We're allowed to do that. Detailed instructions from the government include a list of FAQs, and walks in the countryside are permitted "as long as it is not in a group, and keeping a distance of one metre from each other".

Other common questions? "Can I go to work?" (Answer: yes, but you have to prove that's where you're going.) "Can I go and see my friends in another town?" (Answer: no.) "Can I go away on vacation?" (Answer: forget about it.) So off we walk, in the lukewarm sun, among flat fields and shallow ditches, with the snow-covered mountains around Bergamo in the background. The sky is lacquered blue.

Mirta - a black Labrador - is blissfully oblivious of the epidemic, enthusiastic about the smell of the coming Italian spring. Along the tracks, normally used by local farmers, we meet a few joggers. Most wave hello. No one stops.

Our son Antonio, 27, runs a restaurant not far from here on a little lake created by spring water from the Serio River. He employs six people, about his age. They tried to keep going, but earlier this month new rules forced restaurants - even those in the countryside, like Antonio's - to shut at 6pm.

Although ingredients could be bought and were being delivered, it didn't make sense to open just for lunch. People can't travel or meet up, and those who do so don't enjoy themselves. Antonio decided to pay his staff's salaries even while the restaurant lies shut. But how long can he afford that?

Keep calm and carry on

We return home, along semi-deserted streets. I switch on the television. Serie A, Italy's main soccer league, is suspended. No matches. Watching reruns of last night's NBA basketball or last weekend's Premier League soccer, played to packed stadiums, seems weird. I walk back to my office to finish writing my column for Corriere della Sera. Tomorrow, I'm going to Milan, 30 miles away. I will have to carry my press card and fill in a form declaring that my travel is for work, in case the police stop me.

Life at the paper, I'm told, has changed. Those who can work from home are invited to do so; desk staff are down to the bare minimum. But information is vital, as the government keeps saying. So we keep going, one way or another, and that's not bad. We feel like firefighters in a fire - at least we have something to do.

Late afternoon, I head back home. The light has changed, the square is still empty. I walk along by the Duomo, a jewel of Romanesque Gothic architecture. It was burned to the ground by a vindictive German emperor in the 12th century, after a long siege; the "Cremaschi" - the people of Crema - built a new one.

Inside, it's dark. In a side chapel, there is a wooden crucifix carved in the 13th century, to which people in town prayed for help during the plague of 1630-1631, described in Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, and again in 1747. Today, a woman is sitting in the front. She hears me but doesn't turn her head.

I leave the church. Suddenly, there's loud music outside. Noise at last! But it is only the resident lunatic who spends his days cycling back and forth along the main streets, with a huge boombox mounted on the back of his bike.

A few months ago, someone stole a previous boombox, and people in Crema raised money to buy him a new, louder one. He loves old hits, apparently. Today it's Ti Amo, by Umberto Tozzi. It's absurd, but nicely so. Life goes on in Italy, after all. NYTIMES

READ MORE: A small hospital in the fight of its life against the deadly coronavirus