We in Italy are in the process of emerging from two continuous months of being strictly “confined to quarters.” Most people have paid attention to the guidelines for staying at home, social distancing and wearing gloves and masks when outside. And it has worked, as both the number of virus cases and deaths plummeted to low, pre-lockdown levels. For a while, the country’s leading position in the world as a public health tragedy now seems to be under control. Today, in mid-May, Italy isn’t even in the top five problematic countries. Parts of the U.S. are only now beginning to see their figures spike upward.
So we are all ready to re-open. Under new guidelines we will be able to move about the country, see friends and family, shop and visit places as we wish with no special “self-certification” forms. Restaurants and movie theatres will reopen in another few weeks. We will even be able to visit other countries in the EU and vice versa. We will not, however, see visitors from the U.S. and other parts of the world this summer. No hordes of tourists will be packing restaurants, queuing up at museums, or surging along the winding lanes of Venice Which is perhaps for the best. Venice definitely needs a rest.
What has been fascinating to observe is the Italian adaptation to social distancing. As a culture, Italians love to congregate, eat long meals with friends and family in close conversational proximity, and spend time walking about streets and piazzas in their daily passeggiata. Sitting at tables and slowly sipping prosecco is a major part of the daily routine. So how would Italians behave in this era of personal limitations? Frankly, I was worried that very quickly the restrictions would be ignored.
But that does not appear to be the case. Certainly not in our village anyway.
Much has been written about the “Swedish Model” of dealing with the virus. I would like to describe the “Italian Model” of dealing with public space and social separation.
Earlier this week we went out for our own passeggiata. Normally, this consists of a slow, meandering stroll that can take thirty minutes to an hour, depending on how many people we meet and how many impromptu conversations we engage in. This one exceeded an hour.
There are four places in the village where people tend to spend time congregating:
- The square by the town gate, flanked by a meat market, a grocery, the post office, and the town bakery.
- The space in the main central street, located between a big coffee bar and a well-known family-owned restaurant.
- A similar space between another coffee bar and the town’s community hall.
- The broad space in front of a food market at the south end of the main street where notices of live musical performances and local deaths are posted.
Three of these spaces had people in them, albeit spaced apart. All but a few wore masks. And yet they still greeted each other enthusiastically. They still engaged in animated conversations. And they still clearly enjoyed each other’s company. As the aged American expat in town, who is within a vulnerable demographic, many people have regularly asked how I am doing. It is a sweet and caring gesture.
On the walk, an open-sided truck was parked on the edge of one of the spaces and was doing a brisk business with its artfully arranged array of vegetables and fruit freshly picked from nearby farms. The proprietor had set up a clear zone using posts and ropes around the truck to keep customers at a distance. You told him what you wanted, he held it up for approval, and dropped it in a sack. A simple but effective accommodation.
Similarly, the fish vending truck that comes in twice a week takes its position in another one of the spaces. The fish are displayed, as always, behind a curved glass case and countertop. And as always, customers stand – albeit separated – and discuss the best selections. Every Tuesday and Friday, this truck appears at 11:30am on the dot. You can hear it coming from a distance due to the announcement of “Pesci! Pesci! …Pesci Oggi!” (“Fish! Fish! …Fish Today!”) loudly shouted by the driver into a hand-held microphone.
I have been taken by how everyone in the village seems to still be enjoying the public spaces. They are just doing this while being mindful of the safety of others. This attitude of collective responsibility is what we most noticed when we first arrived. Everyone exhibits a genuine caring for others. It did not take very long for us to be part of a simple social compact –considering the health and welfare of your fellow citizen.
Almost on a daily basis we are reminded of this precious social order — the willingness to give kindnesses. One elderly neighbor gives us bottles of cooked wines she makes; we give her help when she needs it. Another person in town hands us fresh eggs from her chickens; my wife hems curtains for her. Just today, our auto mechanic dropped off several pots of mums he saw at a nursery; he had previously overheard my wife say she likes them.
As we continued our walk, passing shops, the owners inside waved and shouted out greetings. People conversed from their balconies and windows. We always chat briefly with the affable postal carrier and the person delivering food to our door. Despite the physical separation, residents have managed to nurture the sense of community.
The important role of public place has been maintained even though it has been temporarily muted.