I went out on Tuesday morning wondering what a country on lockdown looks like. I live in the un-touristy Garbatella neighbourhood of Rome, where it was sunny and 15 degrees. It wasn’t as quiet as I expected. Oblivious to government directives, the parrots were squawking in the eucalyptus trees and the neighbourhood cats were sunning themselves on the sidewalk. There were people having breakfast at the coffee bar in the piazza. A mechanic was working on a car and blocking the sidewalk—as usual. All the shops that are usually open were open.
I bumped into my neighbour Paola and we stood there awkwardly, about a metre between us—the prescribed distance. She was upset because her two sons, both in their 20s, work in Switzerland. What concerned her was the possibility that she or her husband might get sick and her boys wouldn’t be able to enter Italy to be with them. Or her sons might get sick and she wouldn’t be able to go to Switzerland.
I told her it was very unlikely that she would get sick, and even less likely that her children would fall ill. But that didn’t make Paola feel better. In fact, she became agitated as she surveyed the scene, noticing all the non-“essential” businesses that were carrying on as usual. Why is that shoe store over there open? Why is the barber open? People should stay home!
Paola’s own husband was told he still had to go to work, even though this meant taking the train. She was concerned that people weren’t taking the crisis seriously, even though, as of Monday night, the entire country was closed for official purposes, and our movements were technically restricted.
I asked Paola what she was doing outside. She said she had to go to the market to get some food. Then she would go home and not go out again unless it was absolutely necessary. I had to do the same thing. But first I needed coffee, so I went to the local bar, which was open. Apparently, I am not the only one who regards its services as essential.
Including me, there were four customers inside, along with the barman, who was wearing a green mask. A sign on the door instructed us to stay one metre apart.
The others were discussing a newspaper story about a woman who’d fled Milan on Sunday night in a taxi. She paid the driver €1,200 to take her to Rome, six hours to the south, when the news was leaked that Milan would be locked down. Apparently, she just couldn’t bear the thought of being trapped.
At the time, only northern areas were locked down. But on Monday, these “red zone” policies were extended to the entire country. According to the guys in the bar, the best thing about a nationwide lockdown was that this woman was now just as stuck in Rome as she once was in Milan. While we enjoyed a laugh at her expense, another person tried to enter the bar, but was told he’d have to wait outside until one of us was finished.
The barman told me he intended to open every day at 7am, but would close by 4pm, earlier than usual. The restaurants are allowed to stay open until 6 o’clock. But since Italians typically don’t have dinner before 8pm, the entire country will be cooking at home.
I put my euro down on the counter. The barman picked it up, his hands protected by blue latex gloves, and dropped it in the cash register.
I then set out for the Testaccio market in the next neighbourhood. Usually, I would take the subway one stop and then walk for 10 minutes. But instead, I opted to just walk the whole way, even though this took me 30 minutes and the subway has never been cleaner. On most days, Rome’s Metro rivals its New York City 1980s-era counterpart for filth and grime. But since the Covid-19 scare began several weeks ago, the stations and trains are getting a daily scrub and steady stream of disinfectant.
There certainly was less traffic than usual, but it was far from a ghost town. There was a work crew fixing potholes, and quite a number of people who seemed just out for a walk. As I got closer to Testaccio, I saw people with shopping trolleys—including one old woman, she must have been 80 at least, wearing a facemask and a pair of yellow rubber cleaning gloves while hauling a trolley overflowing with leafy greens.
I stood on a busy corner at Via Marmorata waiting for the traffic light to change when I saw two police on motorcycles speed toward me. They pulled up and started shouting at the group of four standing behind me. I hadn’t noticed that they were all huddled close together, talking and laughing. One of the officers yelled “Almeno un metro di distanza.” (“At least one metre apart.”) They all abruptly stepped back as though someone had pointed out a dead rat on the sidewalk.
I thought that was a little much. But then I rounded a corner and saw a group of teenagers mocking the rules by hugging, shaking hands and kissing each other while a middle-aged woman screamed at them from the window of an apartment above, and I wondered where were those cops now.
When I got to the market, I found my usual vegetable lady—though at first I didn’t recognize her with her hair pulled under a hat, a mask covering most of her face and gloves that went up to her elbows. I asked for four artichokes all trimmed, since they’re in season. While she was preparing them, I told her about the kids on the street. She pulled her mask down and waved her paring knife around while letting off a little steam. She told me that when the government closed the schools and universities the week before, all these young students saw it as a chance to go clubbing all night. They’ve all heard that the virus won’t hurt them much, though it can kill their grandparents. So now, because of them, my vegetable lady insisted, the government had to close the whole country down, shutting down all the night clubs in the process—and even the wine bars and restaurants—just to get these kids off the streets. On the weekend, she explained, only food stores will be allowed to open. Nothing else.
At the bar where I’d sipped my cappuccino, the other coffee drinkers all thought the government had closed the country down because of the people who’d fled south from Milan. For its part, the government isn’t blaming teenagers or the Milanese, but says the draconian new measures are required because the number of infected Italians had jumped to almost 10,000 by Monday, with the number of deaths approaching 500. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told us that we’re out of time.
There is, of course, a hashtag for all this: #iostoacasa, which means “I’m staying home.” There are also memes circulating that are meant to remind us of how little is being asked of citizens (other than the suspension of our ordinary democratic liberty to move around, of course), such as: “Let’s remember that our grandparents were ordered to go to war, while we’re only being asked to sit on the couch.” Another, loosely translated, instructs us: “We’re being told that by staying at home and doing fuck all, we can save the world. When are we ever going to have another chance like this?”
I made one last stop at the butcher, where I had to take a number and stand outside so that no more than three people would be in the store. I had number 49, and they were calling 26. The woman holding 45 opened a bottle of white wine that she had in her backpack and offered us plastic cups. Almost everyone took a little bit, and I did, too, since it seemed like the neighbourly thing to do. But I was concerned that she was standing too close as she poured it, and that she wasn’t wearing gloves. A man—number 38—read out a headline from La Republicca. In the badly affected northern region of Lombardy, we learned, officials are considering closing all shops and offices, and shutting down public transportation. There were murmurs of “È giusto, è giusto.” (“It’s the right thing to do.”) The woman with the wine bottle added “E la prossima? Noi.” (“We’re next.”)
I bought some chicken legs and meatballs. I had a feeling that I ought to buy more, but we’ve been assured that there will be no food shortages and that the food shops will remain open.
It was beautiful outside. It would have been nice to linger, to buy a sandwich somewhere and to sit in the piazza while eating it, watching the kids kicking soccer balls around. But there were no kids kicking soccer balls, and everyone seemed to be heading away from the market.
I was too tired to walk home. So I took the Metro, being careful not to touch anything. By the time I made it back to Garbatella, the shops were all closed, and the mechanic had pulled down his gate.
The coffee bar was still open, though. On his way out was Luca, who owns another bar about a block away, more of a night spot where people gather for a glass of wine and foozball. He opened it only a year ago, taking care in his selection of décor and menu items. He told me it had always been his dream to own a place like that, even though these bars all operate on small profit margins. Many of them won’t survive this crisis. And Luca made a very Italian gesture, with his arms open, palms out and head off to the side, which seemed like a gesture of helplessness, even surrender.
Last week, when only a few areas in the north of Italy were under lockdown, I took a walk around the centre of Rome to enjoy the historic sights in an atmosphere free of tourists. I went into several churches and noticed that there was no holy water in the basins. I joked that I never thought I’d see the day that the fonts in the churches of Rome would be dry.
You have to look closely to see such details. To a visitor, Rome doesn’t look so terribly different on its first day of lockdown. This isn’t communist Berlin, after all: There are no walls keeping us in. But to a resident, the city feels nothing like it did just a few weeks ago.
I put a bottle of wine in the fridge to chill so I could serve it with the meatballs for dinner. Or maybe I’ll have a glass when my husband comes home from work. We’ll share stories about what kind of a day it’s been, while we sit on the couch, courageously saving the world.
Jeannie Marshall, author of Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products, has written for numerous Canadian newspapers and magazines. She has lived in Italy since 2002, and Tweets at @JeannieMMarshal.
Feature image: Coronavirus emergency in Milan, citizens and tourists stroll through the city center wearing protective masks. Alberto Grosescu / Alamy