In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, set in the 14th century, a group of young women and men retreat to the hills just outside Florence to escape the bubonic plague ravaging the Italian city. There, they exchange tales to pass the time.
I was in Rome the day that coronavirus became something more than just a thought in the back of my mind.
It was on 31 January 2020. Everyone was talking about it, even in those early days. There’s a pun to be made here about something gone viral. The word was already on everyone’s tongues. I picked it up as I paused by small clusters of people in conversation. I heard it as I meandered along cobblestone streets and weaved in and out of cafés, photographing Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi at Piazza Navona and jotting down notes for my next travel article.
Two women came into the café on Via dei Coronari where I had ordered a cappuccino and waited for my phone to charge. They speculated on the future. Was it really wise to shut schools and shops down, as floating rumors suggested might happen? How could a nation go ahead like that? It was probably best to avoid crowded, confined spaces like, the Metro, for the time being, they said, but the show must ultimately go on.
People were wearing masks that day, something I hadn’t seen on my last trip to Rome, a week or so earlier.
It was an unnerving sight. Ducking into an antique bookstore, I repeated to myself the mantra of H1N1, SARS, MERS, we’ve seen this before, quiet now. I would visit another bookstore, the large Feltrinelli by the Pantheon, before the day was over. I have the habit in times of stress of browsing the shelves and their titles and indulging in fantasies of buying obscene amounts of books. Bookstores such as this have seen me through many a crisis, helping to tether my frantic, runaway thoughts.
Toward the evening, I met a man I had been chatting with via a dating app. Handsome with southern Italian charm and a sense of humor, he presented a welcome diversion from the threat that seemed to loom. When we leaned toward each other for a customary Italian peck on the cheek, I turned my face away mid-kiss to sneeze. He stepped back theatrically, asking if I had been in proximity to any Chinese people. Needless to say – and this was for the best – it didn’t work out.
I pulled my scarf over my mouth and nose as I boarded the crowded Metro A line to make my way back to Rome’s central transport hub, Termini, and board the train for Pescara Centrale. A man sat opposite me with a phlegmy cough that he took pains to stifle in the poorly ventilated carriage. I made myself small and breathed into my wool scarf.
I would return to my home in Abruzzo, an hour’s distance from Rome, and learn that very evening that I had passed by a bar that would go down in internet infamy as one of the first indicators that Sinophobia was becoming a problem in Italy and elsewhere in the world. It’s located by the Trevi Fountain, where I had recently lunched with a friend on the second floor of an old hotel overlooking the immense Baroque structure. We sat to a simple meal of ricotta, eggs, and focaccia with the hotel’s owners, friends of my friend, as we spoke of ordinary things — memories, family, work, relationships — the virus still in the background of conversation. Someone touched on the topic of ‘exotic’ food and the viral photos of bat soup and dogs in cages. I watched the view from the window and wondered what the fountain might look like stripped of its crowds, like Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg would have seen it in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
After lunch, I walked past the bar that I would later read about in media reports. The 8 ½ x 11 printed paper sign, taped to the door of the bar, read thus, in English and what I assumed was Mandarin: “Due to international security measures all people coming from China are not allowed to have access in this place. We do apologise for any inconvenient (sic).” I thought about the sizable Chinese community where I live. Many of its family-owned businesses would go on to suffer the repercussions of fear-based prejudice well before the nation-wide shutdown, as customers avoided stores and restaurants that hinted of anything ‘Asian’.
Two cases had been confirmed in the capital, and a state of emergency was declared that same day (31 January). Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stressed that there was no need for alarm. Nonetheless, all flights to and from China would be suspended for good measure. Conte failed to address how this would affect travelers arriving in Italy on non-direct flights from China.
Things stayed the same for a while. Our family business carried on. It was late February, and I still debated whether to travel to Manchester for a friend’s April wedding. I returned to Rome once more on a bright and chilly day and toured the sprawling, bright green knolls and ancient Roman aqueducts at the Parco degli Acquedotti. My editor at the travel company I wrote for was still suggesting assignments to me, and I took abundant photos in anticipation of my next article. I was supposed to cover the new Raffaello exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, then perhaps put together another article for 25 March, Dante Day. I was looking forward to making use of all the niche knowledge on Dante I had acquired while studying for my BA degree.
On 3 March, my editor told me that his company had received more cancellations than ever before and that I would have to hold off on the next article. My travel writing job, with which I was so enamored, was gone. I lost a source of income that day, but I comforted myself with the thought that this would blow over soon. The apocalypse is both sudden and gradual, and we cling to normalcy, or the illusion of it, even as the ground shifts beneath our feet. “This is fine,” says a smiling, empty-eyed Question Hound from KC Green’s webcomic Gunshow, as he sits in a house engulfed by flames. I repeated countless more such platitudes to myself in the hope that, at the very least, I had learned to lie to myself well. I hadn’t.
When I heard my cousin was returning to our home in central Italy from her university up north in Trieste at the end of February, the gravity of what was happening began to sink in. She arrived, and we took the country road we always walked on together whenever she visited from university, exchanging thoughts on this issue that now occupied the foreground of our mental stage. Rumors that northern Italy would quarantine its 16 million inhabitants sparked a panicked mass exodus from those regions. News tumbled in after that. Schools closed. Museums, cinemas, and theaters followed suit. A quarantine was indeed imposed up north. Then, whatever this new monster was, it came knocking at our door.
My mother sent me a video of the police outside our family business. They had ordered us to put tape markers throughout the store to keep people at least one meter from food displays and advised us to buy masks and hand sanitizer. Shops were only allowing a set number of customers to enter at a time. A 6PM curfew was imposed.
Then it all shut down. Everything.
We had owned the business — an established and well-liked pizzeria — since 2007, when I first moved to Italy from the US with my family. It had weathered the crippling Great Recession that saw many like it crumple and, although it did not come out unscathed then, it endured, supporting two families, two mortgages, and two college-bound kids. But this was different. We began to scramble for solutions. Our online presence was not strong; we had only the bare bones of a website. Home delivery is not prevalent in this area as it is in larger Italian cities such as Rome. What to do?
We still do not have the answer. We are working on it, dodging curveballs as we do.
As I write, on 7 April, my brother is at the hospital, having been admitted to the ER for severe abdominal pain. He will be undergoing exploratory surgery to determine the problem. They suspect appendicitis. This morning, I watched as medical personnel, covered from head to toe in protective gear like bubble-wrapped fragile goods, sprayed the ground with disinfectants. There were tents set up in front of the hospital where those entering the emergency department must first have their temperatures checked.
In the initial confusion, I ran up and down between hospital floors, pulling the neck of my sweatshirt over mouth and nose (I had forgotten to bring a mask in my rush) and looking for my brother before learning they had transferred him to another department. There was simply not enough room where he was supposed to be. The staff was hurried. Too many questions were unwelcome. Waiting was the order of the day. I stopped myself from dwelling on how perfect breeding ground for pathogens a hospital is.
“Attention,” read in bold print the paper sign posted outside the door to the department my brother was in, “In light of the CORONA VIRUS (COVID-19) emergency, each patient may receive one visit from a single close relative for a RESTRICTED TIME (one hour, from 3-4 p.m.). Visitors must wear appropriate protection.” In all capital letters below was another sign reminding us to respect the minimum one-meter distance rule.
There is something incredibly sobering about seeing your country in the news and thinking about all the times you witnessed the misery of others from a distance. The privileged among us think of bad news is something that happens to other people, far away from us. I had grown up on war stories — my mother, uncles, aunts, and grandparents had lived through Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war — but I had never been through a crisis of national magnitude.
I have not picked up a book in over a month, so paralyzing is the dread and uncertainty.
Ironically, the very thing many of us have lamented as chief atomizer of humankind, social media, has proven to be indispensable for bringing us together — and for bringing me solace. As the world falls quiet, as we become ever more inconspicuous, even as we regard one another with suspicion as de-personalized and unwitting mules for this invisible enemy, we have never been more connected. The prevalence of social media means that we are simultaneously hyper-aware of the massive, international scale of what is happening and interconnected in an unprecedented way.
So much for cynical musings on the wholesome simplicity of life before smartphones. For all its ills, for all the research on the isolating, alienating effects of social media, it seems that social media is what is enabling many of us to cope through this ordeal. For us, as social animals, one of the biggest tolls of this virus — besides the obvious, mortal one — has been the isolation, the interruption of and tangible change to our everyday lives, and the sense of uncertainty and impending doom. Social media has mitigated this predicament by fostering among us a feeling of universality, albeit one of shared pain. It has shown us the power of empathy and altruism even in isolation and has motivated us to participate therein. It has helped fulfill our need for ritual and meaning in the chaos, tying lifelines around the world to the single mast of shared experience.
We have engaged in battle with a physical, albeit invisible, enemy. Yet this battle is fought on several fronts, with the fighting assuming different forms. Nearly 8,000 Italian doctors answered a call for volunteers that initially asked for 300 — all within 24 hours. The contribution required of those of us who don’t work in the medical field is a modern-day Decameron-style retreat to the cyber hills of our bedrooms. There, to keep ourselves from going insane, we share memes and post stories — of Italian mayors threatening to send police with flamethrowers to people flouting the law and gathering in groups, of the quarantined stepping out on their balconies to play music or sing, of people lowering buckets of food from their windows for homeless and other needy people in the streets below. The list goes on for however many inspirational stories come under #covidkindness and similar social media trends.
So, really, we are doing what humans have always done and do best — tell stories — only this time with a tool that is immediate in the impact it leaves and the feedback it elicits. The best thing I have done during this crisis is reach out to friends in parts of this world far from mine who have been through far worse, namely, that human pandemic that is war. Real war. The very dirty sort that interrupts food supplies and destroys water pipes and hospitals and leaves behind great carcasses — cars, tanks, homes, monuments, bodies.
I asked my Iraqi friend what advice he had for me, even as I felt a little foolish yielding to sadness when I had not lost anything more than possibilities and a job and he had seen so much worse. He told me to document everything, to spread hope, to capture the beautiful moments that shine through dark times.
The area around the Trevi Fountain is empty now, as is that around the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Vittoriano. Rome’s monuments wait to be admired by adoring crowds again, and we wait to take little things for granted again.
I can no longer walk that country road close to where I live. I was stopped by police just the other day, and they warned me that I must remain within 500 meters of my house. I go around and around my block, remembering my friend’s words each time I stop to take pictures of the beautiful, blooming trees we are seeing here in Italy this spring. I scarcely could have imagined, when I read Decameron years ago, that I would have profoundly related to it in 2020. I, too, have retreated to the hills in the time of pandemic.