The sun has retired but the boys that live downstairs are still running around outside and laughing except today they’re all wearing masks. I can hear my roommate chatting on the phone in the kitchen. She’s a nurse and she’s been called into work tomorrow to give blood transfers to people who need them. It’s not an ideal task in a quarantined country where we’re asked not to exit our houses and where the panic outside of them is thicker than Nutella.
“I couldn’t say no though,” she’s saying. “My colleagues are in the same boat.”
I’ve also realized that we’re almost out of milk and eggs but the shops will already be closed because it’s after six p.m. Our whole lives are morphing in ways that we can’t or aren’t yet programmed to anticipate. And we’re in Italy where even on a good day, how things should or could work is as clear as caffè.
However, it was several days ago when we thought that things were going south, although we hadn’t yet woken up to the entirety of Italy in lockdown. Neither had the World Health Organization (WHO) yet declared the Coronavirus aka Covid-19 aka the Beervirus a pandemic. At that point, Italian schools had been closed for almost three weeks but we hadn’t yet witnessed the closure of gyms, spas, movie theaters, museums, sporting events, clubs and any sort of “congregating.” In short, it was before we said arrividerci divertimento (goodbye fun) and buongiorno “io resto a casa” (hello “I stay at home”).
“Are you just arriving?” A bearded server had said on Sunday. My friend Anna and I were approaching the outdoor patio of a bar called Frankie in Faenza. We live in the northern Italian province of Emilia-Romagna which nobody even knew existed until the Coronavirus shined the international spotlight in its espresso brown eyes.
“Can we sit outside?” I asked as a flock of high schoolers in identical 90s style high-waisted jeans paraded by. At that point, folks could still march around in herds. Now, two truly feels like a crowd.
“Sorry but we have to close,” the server said with an apologetic half smile. “If the police pass and see all these people they’ll give us a fine.”
“We’ve reached a new level of madness,” I said to my friend Anna as we returned to our bikes.
“You mean because today Faenza confirmed its first Coronavirus case?” Anna asked as we headed down Corso Garibaldi, one of Faenza’s main drags. It was as empty as some politician’s minds.
“No, because Romagnoli bars are closing,” I said.
Unlike other parts of Italy (like Veneto, where one can find both Venice and people drinking spritz at 10 am), bars in Romagna aren’t so much a place to get drunk as a place to be. During the three-hour long Italian lunch, a bar always offers a panino, caffé and the obligatory free newspaper. Our bars are are where Romagnolo men flock to play cards and ogle women, as they’ve got a reputation for being a bit vecchio bavoso, the Italian version of “creepy old men.”
Anna and I settled in a corner table in an open bar. There was another couple across the room which fulfilled the government’s rule that we maintain a meter’s distance from each other. We ordered spritzes and then took turns washing our hands and applying hand cream to skin cracked from so much of the same. Outside the window, a masked couple walked by hand in hand.
“Cin cin,” we said when our spritzes arrived, the Italian version of “cheers.” A Cin cin demands direct eye contact, probably a holdover from medieval days when the person who didn’t meet your gaze was the one who dumped poison in your mead.
“The director of my school needs to be tested because one of his students tested positive,” said Anna. Like me, she’s an English teacher.
“Does that mean you’ll have to be tested, too?” I asked, sipping my suitably strong spritz.
Anna shrugged. “If he tests positive then I guess so. Do you think I’ll have to be quarantined at home for fourteen days?”
“Boh,” I said, employing one of my favorite Italian responses which conveys anything from “who knows” to “I don’t feel like responding” to “who cares?” Our pizza board arrived, filling the air with the scent of prosciutto and fontina.
We fell silent and I listened in on the couple as they tried to understand whether or not the library would be open the next day. The girl needed to present her thesis at her University even though she wasn’t sure it could happen. Recently, graduates have begun to defend their theses online with the panel of judges streaming live from each of their houses.
Now that lockdown has tightened with the WHO’s declaration, my next happy hour will occur on Skype with my friends who live in Forli. It’s just one stop away by train but we’re not allowed to step foot out of our own towns. The only (strictly monitored and enforced) exceptions are proven reasons of work, health or necessity.
But if you’ve been reading my blog for more than two seconds, you know that there’s always a Sylva Lining to be found: biking! It’s got to be done solo and a meter away from any other life form, but it’s possible nonetheless. And where there’s possibility, there’s hope.