How on Earth did we get here?
This is not intended to be a light-hearted piece in any way, given the gravity of what has unfolded over the last few weeks. I haven’t really treated this website as a personal blog, choosing instead to focus on posting a few English lessons that I really liked teaching and some walks that I have loved to the point I wanted to share them with others. I have written a couple of casual entries before on seemingly trivial matters from my own personal perspective, but this one tracks something with far more gravity. Therefore, I shall treat this post as no more than a personal journal of the past month, perhaps to be read back in a few years by myself when reflecting on my second stint in Italy. Other people may be interested in a first-hand account of what has been happening here, so I will write as honestly as I can about what I have felt and seen so far.
The first I had heard about the potential, distant Coronavirus arriving in Italy was on the 22nd February; approximately one week after returning to Lombardy to enjoy a few months in the beautiful Italian region I had experienced three years prior. I was told about this by a student of mine, and following the lesson I decided to search online for more information, and found some news articles in Italian about a possible infection 40km down the road in Codogno.
A strange occurrence; world news reaching the pretty, small towns of Lombardy. However, I brushed it off – my ignorance of the virus prevailing, since it was a) something I only associated with the far east at that time, and b) I assumed the poor victim was being looked after and that would be the end of it.
Looking back at this from today’s point of view, knowing about the virus’s ability to spread and how the shocking statistics would jump so much in just under a month, closing the stories and continuing as usual seems not only ignorant, but foolish.
Venice – 23rd February 2020
The next day, I woke up early and headed to Romano di Lombardia’s train station for a journey to Venice. Despite the wonderful train links in my little town, I had neglected to visit Venice last time around when I lived here in 2017, and with the opening of Il Carnivale in Venice, this was the perfect time to walk, get lost, walk some more, take photographs, and post a few pretty pictures later on.
I walked until my feet were sore, following my nose and heading down streets that frequently had mere paths with dead ends due to the canals. I didn’t mind though – perhaps these were streets that were far enough from the centre and unspectacular enough to warrant my preferred way of exploring cities such as Venice. I really don’t mind getting lost in cities, keeping a couple of monuments or famous sights in mind and letting the streets dictate the rest.
I knew I would eventually get to Piazza San Marco, perhaps go up the tower, remind myself of what the Rialto Bridge looked like (it was packed with tourists – hundreds of people crammed on a single bridge). The true curiosity of the day, however, started early in the morning when I got on the train and saw at least three people wearing face masks – the type I had only ever really seen people regularly wearing on the packed, smoggy streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Of course, I had seen some news stories mentioning the virus, but the masks were clearly an overreaction – the course of action one would take if one did not fully understand the situation.
On this cramped, slightly delayed train from Milan, I observed at each station more and more people entering and exiting the train wearing these masks. My phone informed me that both the Lombardy and Veneto regions were facing more cases of the virus and that this situation was now a concern for much of the north of Italy. As a result, my walk around Venice was a little unusual as I observed masks on most people; some traditional, festive costumes, and others much more sober, clinical fabrics designed to ward off the subject of this recent news. Occasionally they combined into what must now feel like bizarre choices of costumes that perhaps today would not appear knowing what we know now.
Despite the smallest, slightest feeling of trepidation, I continued on (and enjoyed) my walk, taking in the fantastic efforts put into dressing up, and admiring what must be a unique event that perhaps tourists had travelled from all across the world to see. Just beautiful stuff.
Those who had travelled great distances were, however, about to receive some disappointing news. On the train back, I tuned into English radio to listen to the English football, although it was the news update that perhaps surprised me more. The story about the virus was being reported by UK media, and the very city I had just visited was mentioned, since Veneto was a region with reported cases of Coronavirus and the famous festival was under threat.
It was, of course, cut short.
Back in Romano – 24th February 2020
The response to the virus and the action taken was quick and severe. On the next day, Monday, also a bank holiday due to Carnevale, the news broke that any establishment in which a group of people might congregate was to be closed as a preventative measure. This included my workplace (a private language school) as we taught both groups and individual students. Strange news, and certainly not what I was expecting.
This meant that schools, universities, museums, cinemas, shopping centres (except for the supermarkets), and many other venues had to close for the rest of February, leaving an already fairly quiet Romano even quieter. That said, Romano (and much of Lombardy) is special to me not just because of its towns but also because of its beautiful countryside. More towns were now closed off and quarantined (the so-called ‘red zone’ of approximately 12 towns nearby), but it didn’t mean other places couldn’t be taken in.
(I actually wrote about this beautiful walk here.)
The week ran its course, February became March, and I was informed that we could return to work on Monday, albeit with a number of restrictions and precautions.
The one-to-one week (2nd to 7th March)
With all state schools and universities closed, we were allowed to remain open on the basis that a) we did not teach any group classes, b) the tables and rooms were disinfected between each lesson, c) we kept a distance of at least one metre with each other, and d) we washed our hands constantly and maintained impeccable hygiene standards.
The week continued fairly normally – I taught my individual students, and we at least had a good topic of conversation that would exercise their English for the opening stages of our lessons. People were naturally concerned about the implications of the virus, but my teenage students were mostly a little bored and concerned with the disruption to their classes (and, of course, not being able to see their friends).
Come the end of the week (Saturday), I taught my final lessons, left the school, napped to the football commentary, and went out for some drinks with my new colleagues. That evening, one of my colleagues discovered some rather unusual news on his phone that concerned us all.
The whole of the Lombardy region was set to be quarantined, with the whole area becoming a ‘red zone’ instead of the towns that had earlier been set aside. This was big news, and would naturally impact on our travel plans, where we would be able to go, who could come in and leave, and so on. We had no idea how minor this would seem two days later.
The full closure of Italy – 9th March
I went into work the following Monday as we were still permitted our individual lessons. My boss, an Irish gentleman who has lived here for a great number of years, informed me that a number of my students had cancelled and that I would only be teaching the one student today. This was due to the fact that a further measure was being introduced in Lombardy whereby people could not drive or travel from town to town without good reason, and their English lessons were perhaps not worth the risk when the police were being assigned to the streets.
Following my single lesson of that day, my boss informed me that he was 99% sure that we would be closed the following day as developments were ongoing and there were rumours of potentially leaked plans from the Italian government. These plans, it turned out, were exactly what was going to happen.
That night, Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, announced that the entire country of Italy was to be put into lockdown – driving from town to town would be prohibited across the whole of the country unless you carried a self-certified document declaring your valid reason for travel, people who were symptomatic would be ordered to stay at home, and everything was to remain closed.
These measures became more and more severe on a daily basis. Late on the 11th March as it became the 12th, it was announced that Italy would close all shops, bars, and establishments except for supermarkets and pharmacies so that essential supplies could still be obtained. The local mayor (who can be followed on Facebook, along with the local government here) is imploring, capital letters and all, that people stay at home at all costs. The potential future of the region might depend on a simple choice to isolate oneself and cut this horrendous virus off.
The situation today
…which leads me to today, as I write from my bed trying to quantify what has been happening here. One month ago, I decided to head back to a beautiful part of a beautiful country to spend a few months teaching in an area I knew well and to perhaps explore a few new places. Instead, I have spent the last week/week and a half in total isolation, save the occasional walk around the block to stretch my legs. Some people in the local Facebook page here have interpreted the local governance as justification for wishing that those who step out of their door meet an untimely end as they mercilessly and selfishly spread their bacteria around the town. The truth is, the effects of this virus go far beyond the virus itself – social media is utterly toxic, those with existing mental health conditions are essentially expected to suck it up, and people such as myself are assumed to be in the same condition as we always are. And why wouldn’t we be?
I am finishing my account of this situation in the early hours of the 17th March, and I have barely scratched the surface of the true severity of this crisis. At this very moment, in Italy alone TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY EIGHT people have lost their lives to this virus, THREE HUNDRED AND FORTY NINE of which passed in the last 24 hours. Hospitals are not simply at breaking point – they have broken. Doctors and medical staff are being placed in the unimaginable position of having to let people die due to a simple lack of resources – this situation is unprecedented. I am a mere visitor here, an outsider whose arrival served only to help a few people along the way in their learning of English – physically, I am (touch wood) unharmed so far. Mentally, I could write a few thousand words on that situation, but this is (perhaps quite rightly) not a priority here right now. People are dying out there – I have never heard so many ambulance sirens from my bedroom, and I dread to think how many people have lost relatives and loved ones so far, and how many are about to.
This simple video shows the difference a week has made to the local newspaper in the Bergamo region in terms of the number of obituaries that have been received recently. From one page to ten, notwithstanding those who have not been sent in to the newspaper.
My town here, Romano, is utterly silent. In my solitary, silent leg-stretches around the block, it is hard to miss the flags that are now attached to people’s houses, proudly stating that ‘Tutto andrà bene’ (everything will be OK) along with pictures of rainbows. Unfortunately, I do not respond especially well to ‘keep yourself busy’ or ‘everything will be alright’ – it is a personal fault of mine, and I know I need to find a more optimistic outlook. The trouble is, I need concrete facts, stats, and actions to form a more positive perspective.
Spain, France, Germany, and many other countries appear to be following Italy’s model in closing much of the country down in an effort to contain this appalling virus. And it is appalling. I fall firmly into the safe category of people – I have no real issues with my immune system, and I am 33, meaning that if I contract the virus tomorrow in my local supermarket, I would most likely just have to wait it out, and eventually hopefully join the approximately 80,000 people (out of 182,000) who have thankfully recovered so far.
If, by some miracle, you are one of the people who has contributed to my utter disdain for humanity through their supermarket-based actions and their social media contributions, let me leave you this. You might be okay, you might never be seriously affected by the spread of this virus, but will you be able to live with the idea that your actions or ignorance might kill others? And this is literal – people now hold within their hands the ability to kill others depending on what they choose to do over the next couple of weeks. There is a reason police are being given the power to charge people with manslaughter or even murder if you enter a public space whilst symptomatic.
The selfish, personal stuff
In these times, I do feel expressing my own thoughts or feelings is an incredibly awkward thing. Declaring opinions or statements on something that even experts do not fully understand should be done with the knowledge of just that – you know very little and your words might greatly affect others.
So I shall leave these ramblings with some thoughts on myself, my surroundings, and my future. I am hugely down at the moment – whether it is the reality of what surrounds me here in Lombardy, the fact that I have been incredibly alone for the past week, or perhaps the uncertainty surrounding my immediate future, the depression is inescapable. I can no longer let off steam by heading to some unknown town and pounding the pavement until I either feel slightly better or entirely exhausted. I know that my problems are utterly minuscule compared to what many others so close to me here must be going through – but what I feel still exists and I suppose it matters to at least one person.
Social media has been utterly awful – I tell myself that I should spend less time on it (or perhaps no time), but in such a fluid news cycle, it is almost a vital lifeline in staying informed. Also, the window to everyone I love comes through Facebook and the like.
A few people have been in contact with me recently, and I cannot begin to thank and appreciate those who have perhaps been more proactive than usual and given me a video call, Skyped me, or sent a message on Messenger. Over the last decade I have been shockingly inactive in maintaining contact with people I genuinely love – these are flaws of my own and are no reflection on how I regarded our friendships. If we ever shared a conversation, a drink, or perhaps a fleeting message at some point, I would be so delighted to chat.
The continent and perhaps the world faces a crisis that might seemingly last indefinitely. Each day I selfishly await news that might enable me to plan the months ahead and get back to the UK in time for my summer job at the fantastic Durham University. Meanwhile, people’s lives are falling apart due to a virus that is clearly not just another flu, why would you even make a point about that, and what the fuck are you even talking about? (Sorry, my mind switched to social media for a moment there. Please, think before you post something that others might see.)
And I haven’t even begun to talk about the absence of Premier League football and the effect that has had… Man…
are you neil hocking from Paignton?
Thank you for that very humane and good insight into what is happening in Italy. I wish you well and that we may all survive this horror and get on with our lives. Keep safe and well.
Thank you so much, Barry. Take care of yourself.