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Monday, February 26, 2024

On Lockdown in Rome: A Preview of American Life in 11 Days

I have never been much of a runner, but on Saturday I find myself suiting up for exercise and meeting a friend for a run. It has been a week since the Italian prime minister ordered the closure of almost everything—schools, offices, banks—and the city is as empty as the set of a Fellini film. Only retailers deemed vital—supermarkets, pharmacies, tobacconists, newsstands—remain open (with a disputable choice of what kind of shopping is “vital”). Seems like exercising outdoors is deeply vital: I’ve never seen so many runners around the town. They are near the Coliseum; they are in the Piazza Venezia. They are everywhere.

Romans are not known to be super sporty, though. Seeing all those people in their shorts and running shoes reminds me a lot of San Francisco, where I lived from 2016 to 2018 while working as a correspondent for the Italian press.

Even the friend I am going to meet tells me on the phone: “Mi raccomando”—don’t forget—“dress up in runner’s outfit.” I don’t have any actual runner’s outfits. “Figure out something,” she says. The fact is, we don’t actually plan on running at all. Nevertheless my friend shows up in a completely orange get-up—orange leggings, orange cap, orange scarf to cover her mouth. “If you look like a runner you have less chance that the Police will stop you,” she tells me. I rustle up some loose gym clothes.

So, no, we are not becoming all sportaholic like in California. This is a very Italian kind of sport: negotiating a bureaucracy. The government has imposed a rule that you can’t leave your house without a document that says who you are, where you live, and your purpose for being outside. You download it from the internet, print it, and take it with you. But word quickly spread that if you are running, the authorities won’t stop you. So Romans have suddenly become indomitable runners.

The other day a friend of mine who was outside—not running, just strolling around—was approached by a police patrol who said over the loudspeaker: “Go home immediately!” In Italy the police usually don’t communicate through loudspeakers. That is very cinematic, and makes me think of America. I can’t help wondering if the US will soon see the same restrictions. Italy is said to be about 11 days ahead of the US in the progress of the pandemic. The scene in Rome may be a preview of coming attractions in the US.

The lockdown here came in progressively more restrictive stages. It all started at the end of January, when two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for the virus. So the first to close were Chinese outposts in Rome. But still, we thought, it was just un raffreddore, a flu. People were making fun of it even as we expressed solidarity with the Chinese community.

Then the virus spread in Milan: On February 21, 16 new cases were detected in the Lombardy capital. On February 22, the number of cases in Italy rose to 79. Then, on March 8, Lombardy, the epicenter of the outbreak, was locked down. On the following day the same happened to all of Italy, placing more than 60 million people in quarantine. On March 11, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte prohibited nearly all commercial activity.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

The stepwise tightening certainly helped Italians adapt to the idea of these restrictions. At the beginning, it was just “don’t socialize,” meaning don’t go to crowded spots, don’t shake hands. Then it was: Don’t take a train for Milan. Then it was: no school. And finally: Just stay home.

Almost nobody was complying at the beginning. I visited Milan at the end of January and had dinner with friends. When we met up, we goofily avoided hugs and handshakes—like, hey, let’s follow the rules. But after dinner, when it was time to say goodbye, after relaxing and some booze, we were in a more fatalistic mood—like, let’s hug and kiss goodbye. After all, people seriously affected by the coronavirus are mainly elderly. It’s not going to happen to us.

But soon attitudes shifted. The messages from local and central governments turned grave. “Milan doesn't stop,” the mayor of Italy’s finance and design capital had defiantly tweeted at the beginning of the outbreak. But as the epidemic accelerated, the hashtag suddenly changed to #iorestoacasa—I stay home. The death toll rose. As of March 15, there have been 1,809 deaths and more than 20,000 confirmed cases.

The turning point, for me at least, came when I learned that someone real, someone on the fringe of my immediate circle, was in mortal danger. It was the 70-year-old father of a friend of a friend. He died. But the scariest and saddest thing is how he died: alone, in an intensive care unit, with no chance to say goodbye to his loved ones. For now, funerals are also prohibited. That is how one dies in the time of the coronavirus. This is the most terrible thing.

When you hear stories like that, you start following the rules. You are suddenly ready to stay home. You wear your mask, and you don’t feel like making jokes about the virus. You get depressed.

Certainly, after a while, you get used to the lockdown. A kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in, and I find myself thinking that quarantine is not that bad. Maybe it’s just denial, maybe I don’t want to accept that my lifestyle—our lifestyle—has so thoroughly changed. Something that didn’t happen in response to terrorism, for example. This is the first great event for my generation (I was born in 1974) that forces all of us to adapt to new rules.

As a freelance writer, I say to myself that the lockdown doesn’t change much from before. I stay in my pajamas all day, as before, plus there is the cancellation of all social activities. No more endless dinner parties or pointless meetings. It’s so relieving.

This week, for example, I was invited to a reading where I was supposed to introduce the novel of a colleague of mine. I should have read it, prepared meaningful questions, praised the book (which is completely dumb), and been ready to appear in public, something that makes me nervous every time. Canceled. Cancellato has became to me the most beautiful word in the Italian dictionary. Not Ti amo or pizza. Canceled.


Still, especially for people like me who already work from home, going outside becomes an obsession. So it is with the greatest joy that I join my friend for this stroll disguised as a run. We make sure to keep the right distance (one meter apart, according to the rules). We have to yell a bit, due to the distance and because of the scarf covering her mouth.

As in the Bay Area, the subject of real estate inevitably comes up. “The question is: quarantine with terrace or without?” she says abruptly as we stride along dressed in our improbable runners’ clothes.

She is looking for a bigger space, and she tells me she just saw an 860-square-foot flat here in the neighborhood. With no balconies. “But I finally realized that an outdoor space is essential,” she goes on. For the first time she is living with her fiancée, who is from Naples, and the fiancée happened to be here in Rome for a visit just when the country was put under lockdown. So, according to the new rules, if she goes back to Naples she won’t be able to leave home for who knows how long. So she has decided to stay in Rome.

It’s a story playing out among many couples in Italy right now. Unpredicted move-ins. New families. Will their children be called the coronaboomers? We go on talking about housing. Surely they need more space: a terrace definitely helps. In Rome, when you are looking for a house to buy, the agent will tell you that “a terrace is an extra room,” due to the mild climate, but now that room is increasingly valuable. Every extra space becomes precious especially if you have a tiny house like mine.

Unfortunately I don’t have any real terrace, I just have a small outdoor space in front of my door, like a little communal deck on the roof of the old building where I live, just in front of my neighbor’s window. I have never used it. Normally I would be embarrassed to be in his sight while eating or making a phone call or whatever. But yesterday I put a table outside and had lunch there. We are all letting our defenses down, I guess.

While dining al fresco I could see my neighbor had just done his laundry and there was a police uniform hanging up. I have not spoken to him for a while. Years ago he told me he was planning to take the exam to become an officer. It looks like he made it. I guess police uniforms don’t need to be dry-cleaned.

Over the weekend, different flash mobs were organized all over the country: people singing or playing music from their balconies—the national anthem, “Canto della Verbena,” “Abbracciame” (“Hug me”). Videos of the music went viral. Are we all starting to talk to each other from balcony to balcony? Are we all in an episode of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend?

But books! While I was celebrating not going to the book fair, I checked my Instagram and almost everybody in my feed was pictured reading a book. Was it a reading pandemic? A friend whom I’ve never considered a book worm was reading an essay on Tolstoy. Another one was “rereading” Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Come on.

Real data shows that book sales are down some 25 percent during this lockdown. People are not actually buying books—not in physical shops (understandably), and online sales are plummeting too. So, either Italians are rereading all the volumes they have at home, or they’re just lying. I myself noticed an urgent need to do something more trivial than reading: Cooking. Eating.

I am actually buying a lot of food. I’m Italian, after all. Suddenly I want to cook. I want to make more elaborate dishes than usual. It’s a way to escape the quiet apocalypse outside my door, obviously. Two days ago I felt very clearly that I wanted to make a quiche. Then I realized that I don’t have an oven. Only a microwave. How have I lived so far without a real oven?

Buying groceries has become the centerpiece of the day. Amazon is backed up with tons of orders. Same with the other online stores. The first available delivery is after 10 days. So—not forgetting my document—I go to the supermarket, where they let you in two by two, so big lines form on the otherwise empty streets. Young people around me check their iPhones; older people show a strange excitement: “It’s like during the war!” a gentleman in his eighties says with a smile. They are transported to their younger days.

We are walking back from our little stroll, my friend and I. We see the many homeless people who live here—it’s like San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. We wonder what they will do. Will someone give them masks? Are they going to be tested?

My thoughts go to the Bay Area. The political situation here is also similar to America’s. We are experiencing the most amateur government in the last 50 years. The irony is that this government seemed destined to fall soon because of its ineffectiveness, but now this lockdown is giving Prime Minister Conte a sort of grandeur. A formerly obscure law professor, Conte is taking on a Churchillian profile. “It’s the darkest hour,” he said in his most recent, solemn TV message in which he announced the lockdown of tens of millions of people. Except those wearing running clothes.

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