Letter from Italy: A Deflated Country Locks Down Again

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Image by Jeyaratnam Caniceus from Pixabay

— Santa Vittoria in Matenano

Italy is now toward the end of the first week of new Covid-19 rules issued by the national government. Many of the previous restrictions were continued but some dramatic new steps have been taken to attempt to bring the recent rapid rise of infections back down to a manageable number. As of this writing, the number of new daily infections has exceeded 30,000.

With the new rules, restaurants and bars must close at 6 pm, except for takeout and orders. Venues of public assembly such as theatres, nightclubs, and stadiums have been closed or sharply curtailed. Large social gatherings of virtually all kinds have been prohibited. This includes the many festivals that typically take place throughout Italy during the autumn. Finally, even at-home gatherings involving people outside the immediate family are firmly discouraged. It’s going to be a lonely couple of months.

For several months in the spring, we all followed even more rigid rules. Only one person per household was allowed to go out to buy groceries. All other shops were closed. If you traveled anywhere for any reason, you had to carry a special form explaining where you lived and where you were going. By the end of May, the results were stunning. The increase in infections and deaths had sharply plummeted

So how did Italy seesaw from one of the early worst-hit countries, with army convoys carrying off coffins, to that of being a model of viral containment, to now – once again – rapidly climbing the Worldometer chart of infections? Essentially, it’s a vivid tale of how quickly the virus can spread again once people become lax in their behavior.

Beginning in June, several things happened. Italians started to take holiday trips – some of them to countries like Greece and Croatia that had imposed relatively few restrictions. Moreover, tourists living elsewhere in the EU started their usual annual treks into Italy for their holidays, soaking up the sun while packing the restaurants and beaches.

We were frankly horrified to watch the coastal beach areas fill up all summer, with families jammed in side-by-side under big umbrellas. Clearly, Italians and visitors wanted to socialize, and socialize they did. The capper was the night clubs, which seemed to enjoy even more tightly packed patrons, all throughout the evening. Young people wanted to party, And party they did.

And some people stopped wearing masks. We would cringe when passing a group of animated friends, behaving as if they had been just let out of a prison sentence.

And so now we are back. At home. Ordering take out. Watching Netflix films for the fifth time. We cancelled plans with a group of friends for a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. We are telling anyone from the U.S. contemplating a vacation and a visit not to think of it until late next spring. But we remind ourselves that we are healthy, and living in a village means we have few dreaded factors about, such as crowded buses and subways. Our village has had few infections and only one death from Covid in eight months.

Some of our friends are not so modestly affected. Several other expat families, despite owning second homes here, have been unable to travel as they have in past years. Their houses sit empty, gardens and potted plants languishing from lack of maintenance. Some of our Italian friends seem exhausted, as if the vigilance and good behavior they displayed throughout the spring has been met with punishment in the fall.

The current reaction among Italians is mixed. Riccardo Vergari, a young gregarious engineer living and working in Milan, tells me that every facet of his life seems constrained. He can’t get together with colleagues after work. He can’t meet up with groups of friends for drinks and music. He works from home reasonably well, but he sorely misses the stimulation of random face-to-face conversations with co-workers. He represents the generation that feels like their formative years of socializing and dating are being stunted. He may put on smiling face but he is noticeably distraught.

Francesca Funari’s family owns the best restaurant in our town. She has worked in other countries, is very articulate, bilingual, and represents an entrepreneurial spirit that has begun to appear in Italy again after years of economic stagnation. Her family’s business has been hit hard; dinners were how they stayed afloat, including large groups celebrating birthdays, holidays, and promotions. All those customers are gone, at least for the near future.  

I expected that she might be especially depressed, given that her entire family life is centered about the restaurant and its loyal clientele. Instead, she is surprisingly sanguine, saying they will find ways to maintain their business, despite the severe crimping of the hours they can be open. They will encourage people to come for lunch. And Italians love their long, lavish lunches. They will again offer deliveries — a concept previously unheard of outside Italy’s big cities.

Francesca herself delivered dishes during the lockdown; passing boxes of delicious meals across our threshold. This week she posted an impassioned letter to the townspeople, asking for their help in keeping the restaurant going. “Come and enjoy a splendid lunch! Order your dinner! We will bring it to you. Or you can pick it up. We are still at your service!” The tone was upbeat and communal, not desperate.  We are ordering something this very evening.

A friend and colleague in Rome, Marco Ercoli, who is of an older generation than the two above, is more darkly reflective. He observes that the pandemic and its economic consequences have shined a spotlight on some fundamental problems in Italian society. He presented me with a long list of faults and missed opportunities, from crumbling infrastructure, to problematic immigration policies, to outdated business practices. Perhaps there will now be an impetus to address these important societal issues, he muses. He admits he is a pessimist, however, and doesn’t see any government official seriously advocating major changes. Even so, Marco is not letting the pandemic dampen his relentless enthusiasm for promoting Italian history and culture.

As for us, we are just keeping our heads down. Staying close to home. And ordering great takeout. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear Mark,i live just across the valley from your town for over 25 years now..in Smerillo.Thank you for that nice letter from Santa Vittoria very well written too.Yes it pretty well sums up both the situation of covid in this area and the local attitudes towards the pandemic.wishing you all well..

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