Update from Italy: Day 12 in the Florentine Quarantine

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Sometime around four a.m., when my stomach was broadcasting static noise waiting for the regular programming to begin, I wondered: what does the planet think? What do the plants and animals think? Where do they think the humans have gone?

The pandemic will re-green the planet. The plants and animals will slowly creep back and reestablish. (If you’re up on your scientific reports, we are in for at least twelve to eighteen months of this until the situation gets under control.) Cruise ships are docked. (Requisition them all as quarantine hotels, maybe salvage some of their global reputation and make themselves useful, for once). Airplanes are not flying – United alone has cut their service by 95% for April. Roads are empty. Interstate highways and autostrade are close to empty. As the humans shut down, the planet creeps back out.

China is slowing emerging from their three-month Corona waltz. Pollution has cleared. Not sure how long this will last, as subsequent outbreaks are anticipated in the prevailing model. The air is rapidly clearing over Los Angeles.

Our birds in Florence are in a near-constant concert. Under sunshine and blue skies, all the hoomans are inside. The Florence airport closed a week ago. A strange calm hangs in the air, and then you realize: it’s simply the absence of human activity. A click and a chirrup float up from the courtyard, four stories below.

It was said that Adriatic dolphins have begun swimming in the Lido of Venice, nudging up to the embankment where gondoliers normally tie their skiffs. This bit of news has been debunked multiple times, more poignant perhaps is how many hoomans wished it were true. There is a yearning to give back so much of the Earth’s space we have roughly claimed. Swans have always plied the canals of Burano; just outside Venice, and the dolphins have, in fact, returned to the harbor in Cagliari, at the southern tip of Sardegna.

It’s hard to say what dogs might make of all this. They’re getting outside a lot less if they are urban dwellers. Perhaps, like teenagers, they’re pissed off their parents are now home all day, barking orders at them. Or maybe the more codependent canines are relieved to finally have Dog Mom All To Themselves. I bet some dogs in Florence are being made to pee and poo on a patch of green plastic grass in a tight apartment, and are rebelling. Dog owners might be reconsidering their commitment to all-indoor dog culture. I suspect a few divans have been manged.

Cats don’t care. Never did. Fill up the bowl, hooman. Now go away.

The flora all collectively breathe a huge sigh of relief, now that they can keep up with oxygen demand. For once. Meet those target goals.

Maybe we’ll have a bumper population of insects, bees especially, this summer.

I would love to know what the non-human part of this planet think of all the hoomans holed up. What do you think the plants and animals are thinking? Apart from, stay where you are. On second thought, they’re probably just relieved to have normal life back for a bit. We’ve not been the best of roommates.

Update from Italy: Day 11 of General QuarANXIETY

Photo by Damien TUPINIER on Unsplash

We’re in Day 11 of general quarantine here in Florence, although the real worry at our house began somewhere around February 20 or 21, when the Zona Rossa included a handful of seemingly very unfortunate smaller towns in the far north of Italy. Far, far away. How quickly the days fluttered forward, like the calendar in Citizen Kane or some other old timey movie where the passage of the fifth dimension seemed to warp and fast forward, then rewind. Our family has been on high alert since the week of February 18. Thirty-one days ago. One long month ago. Italian fatalities now outpace China’s. We lost a breathtaking 627 people today. The numbers keep going up. We knew they would, with the incubation period and the symptomatic progression. It’s just awful to see our worst fears unfolding. This wave will wash up everywhere.

The readership on my posts has plummeted. I suspect everyone in the U.S. came to their senses, stopped gawking, and made a shopping list, and are now coping with the same rapidly evolving set of circumstances that we most recently moved through. The first awareness, the curiosity, then wonder, the doubt, the denial, the jokes (THE JOKES, jesus, no more jokes please) baby steps, bigger steps, biggest steps, mass intervention, a playground cordoned off with laminated signs, AVVISO COVID-19 VIETATO ENTRARE. (Public notice, Covid-19, Forbidden Entry.) I have been thinking about what post might be most helpful on your timeline as you start moving more quickly into this future where we now find ourselves, a world that Spain and now France are waking up to, and the UK is not far behind.

The back and forth, the helplessness and worry, the funneling of all constructive energy into household chores, the increasing realization of what new world we’ve entered into, have all contributed to a diffuse sense of quaranxiety.

The symptoms of quaranxiety are manifest. I will here describe some of them.

You may wake up in the morning and forget what day it is. You will note the sun is shining and birds are singing, but you cannot go outside without a permission slip. You will look longingly outside. You will try, and probably fail, to refrain from checking too much news online. Your heart will sink as the fatalities from yesterday look even worse. So many. So many more cases ready to tip into the abyss. So many positives that might become severe.

You check in with your WhatsApp group but it does little to soothe the motor in your heart that is running in fifth gear. Your left eyebrow is still twitching. The kids have been out of school for over two weeks and the end is nowhere in sight, for them, for anyone. There is whining followed by a heartbreakingly tender camaraderie. There are occasional WhatsApp video playdates that your younger child can no longer manage because they depress her. She misses her friends so.

You make lunch. You own that laundry like it’s never been owned before. You start sorting out every nook and cranny in the house. Your inner farmwife begins to despair at a lambing season lost and the chickens refuse to lay. Your husband comes back from the grocery run with interesting choices because that’s what was available. You ask him, then beg him, to go to the grocery store less frequently, to reduce exposure for everyone.

Oh, you’ll do a little work. For ten minutes everything will seem normal, then the kids will start complaining they’re hungry and want a snack, or you’ll feel guilty they’ve been tucked away in some corner with a tablet for hours. For brief moments, lost in a task, you’ll forget the bigger picture. Then you’ll remember and it’s like someone punched you in the stomach, then made you swallow an ice ball. The army convoys taking bodies away. The cremations that can’t happen quickly enough to keep pack with demand. The families without funerals. The hospitals waving their own white flags. The doctors and staff lost to the virus.

Reading English language news last week was schizophrenic. We were living the reality, had been for two weeks, and the UK and US were making jokes about it, doubting it, hoax theories galore. The herd immunity will take care of things, said the albino banana. We’ve already taken care of everything, zero cases, said the radioactive yam.

The little heart that beats and beats, today for sure, tomorrow we hope. You begin to read books about the Plague in fourteen century Europe, and the citizens of Florence really sound sound … a lot like they always have. They pray. They plan pilgrimages, they give alms, they stay home, they worry. They try to distract and distance themselves. But disease seems to always nip at their heels, and luck doesn’t hold out for everyone.

And yet in the middle of this mess, some small miracles seem to be happening. Even though you are anxious and worried, you are somehow more relaxed. Your family is with you. The world is outside. People have been through things before. This is how history happens. Thinks are okay for now. Maybe history will find you more acutely tomorrow. You hope not, but what agency have we in all this? This moment, then another moment. There are ten rolls of toilet paper in the apartment. Now nine, because your eight-year-old has batted one into the toilet. It is okay. Every now and then you get a glimpse of beauty and truth and strength that, let’s face it, you didn’t see every day. You were just so busy.

You thought your heart was abuzz with bees
Filled with fear for the stings
but no! your heart was a hive, alive
Filled not with fear but honey.

Photo by Heather Barnes on Unsplash

Update from Italy: Day 9 of General Quarantine

Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash

The Italian Quarantine. It sounds like a film. I numbered our days on a calendar since we went into quarantine. I had already lost track of time and incorrectly numbered it, starting it one day earlier than it actually did. For the record, day 1 was March 10. And March 31 will be day 22.

Jason and I are both working from home some; he goes into the office most days for an hour or two. Business, although hobbled, continues. We make meals. We cajole Vic into doing his classwork. We try to keep enough going to keep Eleanor engaged. We try to manage our own anxiety, thrust into a new landscape of boredom, anxiety, and monotony. It feels a bit like post-op recovery, that first time you have major surgery. Gonna be such a party! I thought, in 1999, laying in all manner of books I planned to read and films I knew I was going to watch. But when I came out of the anesthesia and went home, I moved instead into weeks of pain and Vicodin haze. I watched part of Willow out of my mind on Vicodin. I read nothing. I looked out the window and tried to think healthy thoughts. The disruption of my routine offered nothing at all like a holiday. It was instead an in-between time of pain, nausea, and insomnia, where nothing remotely approached pleasure, or even rest.

If you are in France or Spain or the Bay area, you’re going into this new culture now. My advice? Keep track. It will be so easy to lose track of time. Decide now your strategy for fresh air that keeps both you and your community safe. Determine where your chat groups are and where you’re going to go to check in. Don’t stare at your screens all day. Limit your social media intake, and your news intake. We are watching a major global shift happen, and it’s not going to end anytime soon. When we all emerge from this, things will look very, very different on the other side. We have all been pushed through a door with minimal awareness of its implications.

Jason and I were talking today about how this pandemic will change healthcare for the next year, at least. Perhaps large, temporary hospitals will be set up outside of cities around the world to manage the continuing infections and new patients. In the absence of a vaccination, people will continue becoming infected until a vaccine is available. (Maybe people who doubted vaccines will come around to their usefulness.) Travel may remain restricted for months to come, and the travel industry may never bounce back to former levels. Who can justify air travel and airports and cruises now? Smaller airlines and businesses will fold, unable to sustain themselves during the tremendous global economic slump. It won’t matter, because we’ll mostly all be at home for months to come, binging on news and feeling ill as we wonder how it all came to this so quickly. Quarantine is imperfect; it is impossible to ground everyone. Infection will continue to spread and pop up. We will all remember wistfully a time when we stepped outside without a permission slip, to go to the grocery store or out for an apero. China has been closing its large, temporary hospitals, but I am sure they will keep them ready for renewed outbreaks. China is now reporting new cases from carriers who have traveled into China. I don’t know how all this is really going to be managed unless people stop travelling and moving around – moving around the world, their country, their state, their cities, their communities.

Here are my hopes for how this might change us all for the better. Maybe we will all be less likely to be taken in by political spin, since the facts around a pandemic could get pretty hard to hide, depending on how severe it gets. Maybe those who have found themselves in leadership positions to their profit alone will be replaced by broader minds that can think and responded humanely and appropriately to large-scale crises. I hope that, particularly in western Anglophone cultures, where so many are so convinced of their individuality and their ability to go on their own, communities pull together and realize that we are only as strong as our weakest link, so it is in everyone’s best interest to support everyone. As much as you can. Even if it doesn’t seem fair to you. Especially if it does not seem fair to you. Resources are going to be stressed. The deficits will be huge: healthcare, hospitals, test kits, masks, EPP, income, maybe food, social connection. We are all going to be sharing in these stresses and losses together whether people like it or not. Choose to be kind. Choose to be broad-minded. Seek to learn, to understand, to really listen to what other people are saying.

Empathy is the only way through this. That, and the shock we will all feel when we realize how much we hated our commutes, putting the kids in daycare, the 8 to 5 job and the 9 to 3 school day, the shortness of the weekends, the high cost of health care and retirement and never having a real vacation, the quarterly results and the annual reviews, the sheer grind of it all. And the corresponding wonder at the fresh air, the calmer mornings, the birdsong weaving throughout. And we’ll wonder why it took something as huge and horrible as this to realize how beautiful and good everything always was, all along, if only we would just have let it be.

Update from Italy: Day 8 of General Quarantine

Oh sheepies. What I wouldn’t do to be hanging out in a field with you.
Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

The kids and I made rustic biscotti today with olive oil and finocchio seeds. It was a recipe I found online which I’d never used before. In time gone by, I was a mad biscotti queen. I routinely made 100 biscotti, and brought my biscotti surplus to my office in large plastic tubs recycled from Target that Jason used to buy for his office kibble. There’s a lot to be said for chores and tactile tasks during quarantine, and wrangling a sticky loaf of dough that within minutes fills the kitchen with a springtime perfume of vanilla and anise. (Nibbles lumpy slice from end of loaf.) They turned out decent.

I am still getting some work done for the law office. The attorneys go in (maintaining a safe distance, everyone in their office), but I’m home with kids, who are in turn home from school. Jason’s been going into his office building (maintaining a safe distance, everyone in their office) once a day to check in one things, wrapping up loose ends. Gonzaga boxed up posted back to the U.S. all the personal items of the 161 students whose program ended early on February 26 and went home that week and the week after. There are a lot of questions about summer and fall term. There are no answers, and if they are, they are valid for this week only. Maybe this day only. Maybe this hour only. The landscape is changing fast.

Victor has been getting better about doing his classwork. I print out his worksheets each morning. If the work is too boring, he gets his little sister to help (usually with coloring items on a worksheet, which he feels is beneath a child of his age to be asked to do). I think their team efforts are sweet but hope she does not resent it later. The curfew on Victor’s iPad now ends at noon to facilitate his homework. I might just curfew it from 8 PM to 4 PM. Eleanor cares less about hers, so a less draconian curfew is needed. Jason got a new Wii U controller so they can play Just Dance together for points. I might start doing the workout sequences. I just binged both seasons of Killing Eve, which were superb and nailbiting enough to take my mind off any externally relevant local stress. Consigliato.

So, this is it. We are slowly finding our sea legs here on Day 8 of the general quarantine. I am so on top of laundry, dishes, and meals, you would not believe it. My inner farm wife is at peace. I told Jason the other day, maybe I’d made a mistake? Maybe the life of the mind was not for me. My imbalanced vata dosha gets inflamed and anxious, competitive and worried with books, writing, drafting, posting, publishing. In many ways, this is my element, but I can’t stay there all the time. Somewhere an epigenetic switch was flipped on one of my X chromosomes, probably in Finland or Scotland around 1750, and I live for household chores. I wish they were farm chores. I would like to have a flock of sheep. Maybe I am a Halldor Laxness heroine. But for now, I will content my itchy fingers and industrious impulse with laundry, dishes, and meals, and mending clothes. I have been known to iron cloth napkins as a meditative enterprise. It is a true pleasure to do them, after having been deep in baby and toddler years from 2011-2017 or so, and always wanting to get to those dishes and laundry but somehow never being able to. Just relax, people would say, enjoy your baby, but that was pretty hard to do when you were running low on food, every dish in the house was dirty, and you were wearing the fourth and final clean side of a t-shirt, the other three having been streaked with yogurt, baby urp, or worse.

Upcoming topics: 1. ) culturally significance of collective response to outbreak and quarantine, and 2.) Are pandemics always experienced personally?

Update from Italy: Day 7 of General Quarantine

Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

We are in the morning of Day 7 of the general quarantine in Italy.

I have had other experiences in my life that were, in important ways, analogous to this one. One event in particular continues to come to mind. September, 1995. I am living a version of the young and carefree backpacker adventure, Eurail pass in hand, well before the time of smartphones and internet and social media, when you could go from the U.S. to Europe and it was like taking a rocket to Mars. There was no location setting to turn off. I wrote paper letters and made very expensive phone calls to the U.S.

By late September I was in week nine or ten of my adventure, which was meant to be about three months in length before I reported to Strasbourg for graduate coursework, staying with a network of friends across western Europe, most of whom I’d made a couple years earlier when on an exchange program in Spain. I had just turned twenty-two but probably looked about fourteen. I was travelling, at the time, with a very witty Californian named Jessica after we’d crossed paths at the Pensione Sandy in Rome. We both wanted to go to Budapest, and so set off for Assisi, then Venezia. After a lackluster, that is to say, hot and sweaty, sojourn in Venezia, we boarded a train for Budapest. We did not bother to consult where the train might be stopping prior to Budapest. I suppose we thought the tracks were laid as the crowd flies. We were laughing loudly and annoying people in the train carriage. We had two bottles of red wine, and bread and cheese. The loaf of bread was so big that we named it Al and shared it for a few days, eating it with cheese and Nutella.

We made friends with a Hungarian graduate student named Péter, and after a jovial impromptu dinner party, nodded off.

We awoke around midnight, rubbing our eyes. Ljubljana? What the hell – what was this southern loop? We thought this was the Hungarian Express. Where were we? We were on a train to … the Balkans?

You did not know this train goes to Zagreb? Péter deadpanned.

We began to feel nervous. At each stop, military police and soldiers started getting on and off. Jessica pulled on a grey knit beanie. Try to look less … American, she suggested.

Laughing less will help, Péter said. I swallowed. The wine had left a sour taste in my mouth.

ZAGREB. The signs on the platform reflected weak grey under the lamps. The train stopped with a creak and a groan. The military police boarded and began checking passports, one by one. I shrank down into the seat. The dirty glass door slid open. Pasosi! someone yelled. A skinny soldier frowned at us. We all three held out our passports: Hungarian, two American. He took Péter’s Hungarian passport, grimaced, and handed it back. He said something to us that we didn’t understand. He repeated it in German. Ja, wir sind zusammen! Jessica yelled. Her frown was convincing. She was a passable German. Kommen Sie! he shouted to Jessica and me. What about our things? we asked in a panic. Leave them, he shrugged. We looked back at Péter who also shrugged. Shrugging, the international language of who cares. The soldier followed us out of the carriage and onto the platform, where approximately 40,000 working class Slavs were waiting to board the train. Go! he said. We did as he asked and walked into the train station, then out of it, then to the left and down a block. Where are we going? Jessica asked. To the station, he said.

The station waiting room floor was a mosaic of brightly-colored tiles laid in a geometric design. A Romanian couple and a Japanese woman, also from the train, waited nervously on a wooden bench. You speak German? I hissed to Jessica. My teeth were chattering. I was scared.

The police put on a show for us. There was yelling. Why you are here what you do here why you come to Zagreb! Total mistake, so sorry, we said. We were in Venice and woke up here. The chubby police chief snorted. No weeza you have no tranzit weeza! Give us all your American money! I mustered my courage and said, Don’t have any, so sorry. Which was true. I was skinnt. The chief looked like he wanted to rip my passport in half. What money you have! I held out about 40,000 Italian lire. Jessica had a little more. We put it all on the desk. They gave us about 4 rubber stamps each and a sticker, and the soldiers escorted us back to the train. Soldiers were everywhere. This was before the Dayton Peace Accords were brokered the following month.

In our absence the 40,000 workers had boarded the train, going to work outside of the city, but probably no further than Velika Gorica. I was super rattled and anxious. People were hanging out of train windows, wearing blue and grey and black. We got back in the train carriage. They gave us a thumbs-up. Jessica growled, do they mean they stole all our stuff or the bags are still there? But our backpacks were there with Péter, who gave them a friendly pat. Come sit back down, he said. Welcome to eastern Europe.

The remainder of the train journey consisted of blankly looking out the window into the sea of dense fog that settled in the fields. Jessica and I realized that we had no train ticket and our Eurail passes weren’t worth the money they were printed on. Those police and soldiers just wanted us out of there, out of their country as soon as possible. Each time a conductor came by, we had no ticket to give, just our worthless paper Eurail passes, accompanied by our passports still wet with ink stamps that might have carried an additional note saying, give these two idiots an extra-hard time. And they did. No ticket what about supplement! The famous train ticket supplement shakedown by every mustachioed conductor in an ill-fitting, grimy uniform. It was twelve hours of being terrified, not being sure how it would all end, filled with remorse at having started out so naive. Twelve hours of looking at the filthy floor, gazing out the window, making no eye contact. Jessica looked like a hired assassin in her grey beanie. I just looked pathetic. When we arrived in Vienna, relief washed over me that the long and uncertain chapter of terrified waiting had come to an end, knowing that I had made an awful mistake that endangered my safety and could have been avoided, had I but taken a few simple measures to make sure I knew what I was doing and following best practices. I wondered afterward what might have happened had the two idiot American backpackers been taking into police or military custody, or trafficked to who knows where. We had been very, very foolish. It was a lesson I never forgot. Along with how and under what circumstances to stop smiling in public.

This experience is necessarily going to be different for everyone, depending on where you live and with how many people. I understand that my experience is not universal. My aim here is to report how the general quarantine is going here in Tuscany me and my family. I get that other people in the same area may be having a completely different experience, and I respect that. But I believe there’s a little bit of the midnight train to Zagreb in this for everyone.

Update from Italy: Day 6 of General Quarantine

This is about the amount of food that we are purchasing each day. Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

The new title convention speaks volumes. It no longer really matters here what the date is, but rather where we are on this new timeline of waiting, isolation, anxiety, and monotony. It’s not easy. We don’t know when it’s going to end. We have a general idea (sometimes around Easter? earlier if we are lucky) that is subject to the whims of daily developments in the machinations of our pathogen overlords. We are not in control here. All we can do is cope, and manage. But we are not the decision-makers in the grand scheme of things. And in choosing our responses we find our agency. See this piece posted on CNN by an American living in Bergamo, up in the very hard-hit north.

Spain and France joined Italy last night in a general quarantine. The virus is already everywhere and spreading fast. Personally, I am more in favor of closed borders as it stops people from travelling and treating this crisis like a holiday. People, please, for the love of God, go home and stay put, if you can. Stay there. The WaPo has created this nice animated graphic article to illustrate why you need to stay home, if the facts of this are unclear to you. And if the facts are clear to you, it’s calming to watch the little dots slow down as isolation strategies work as expected. Although it is a flaw in the model that no dots are disappearing, which should be the case, given the facts of reality.

I received a long communication yesterday from a Canadian friend living in the D.C. area. She had some excellent questions. I copy her questions (lightly edited for anonymity) below in their near entirely, as I am sure they will resonate with many of my readers.

I’ve been reading your recent posts with a great deal of interest – thank you for being so frank but also down-to-earth in communicating what you all are going through right now. We are probably a couple of weeks out from the kinds of measures you’re currently living with, though it makes me even more nervous to think that we won’t have these or any other serious measures implemented to prevent terrible outcomes. I have practical questions about how you all go about your day-to-day right now in light of viral spread and lockdown measures. I spent yesterday shopping for groceries at a local store, and it was the final leg of our stock-up. It was complete chaos, vs the perfectly ordinary shopping trips I’d taken the previous weekend and week. In any case, we have only a certain quantity of things like milk, yogurt, meat, and fresh vegetables and fruit; some of these can’t be stockpiled, and our daughter basically subsists off of these foods. How do you re-stock on perishables? Has there been any interruption to the food supply chain? Did you all experience the same type of empty-shelves hoarding before the country went into lockdown? What about work outside the home? Like Jason, my husband is still expected to go into work. He has an excellent cleaning staff and no contact with the public – only the same crew of library employees. Still, this worries me. Are you implementing good hand-washing practices and hoping for the best when it comes to working outside the home? We’re also currently in a part-time nanny-share with another family, which I know is a big risk, and I’m currently struggling to imagine how to step away from it and still be in a position to keep up the frequency of my doctor’s visits where my daughter can’t possibly come with. But we will figure this stuff out in the coming week. From your updates it sounds like you all are managing, and though Italy still can’t likely see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. But it will eventually come, for all of us. We are at a disadvantage here in the US, seeing this coming like a bullet down the barrel of a gun, but paralyzed in many ways by idiotic government decisions that reinforce private citizens’ dumb choices. Despite that, we are trying to mentally emphasize the reality of the current situation to ourselves, even though widespread viral contagion is not yet a visible, known reality here in DC. Despite all this, we’ve got beautiful spring weather, and like your account of monuments around town that are completely emptied out of tourists, we’ll have the cherry blossoms all to ourselves, probably, when they peak in a couple of weeks.

Q: How do you re-stock on perishables? Has there been any interruption to the food supply chain? A: We have not yet seen an interruption in the supply chain. Deliveries seem to be happening as usual. Jason made the point that the Italian supply chain (for examples, for groceries) is much shorter than America’s supply chain. He went to the open market yesterday and purchased fresh produce, meat, cheese, and a chicken. Under the general quarantine, one family member per day may go a grocery run to the most local store. Jason has been going once a day for a small bag of groceries. We ar enot going to starve. The shopping is not policed; people are calmly working together to make this happen in a calm and orderly way. Italians are extremely serious about grocery shopping even without a pandemic afoot. Still, buy some cans of pears and peaches if your child demands fruit. Get frozen fruit and veg. Buy some applesauce, and shelf-stable milk.

Q: Did you all experience the same type of empty-shelves hoarding? A: No. Jason reports to me from the dining room table that shelves have not been aggressively swept bare as we have seen on the news in happening in America. I have my theories about this. 1.) There is a long history of cooperative civilization through centuries of war, famine, and pestilence. 2.) As a fundamentally cooperative society, Italians excel at empathy and sharing with others. These are valued taught and reinforced from birth (with the exception of playground swings; don’t get me started.) Italians are quick to imagine how a person might feel if stricken with fear, suffering injustice, battling illness. Or running low on milk. Also, we have lots of soap and bidets, so the whole loo roll thing did not even happen. 3.) The Pope lives close by and is keeping a close eye on everyone. How’s that for gentle social pressure. In truth, cultural Catholicism continues to underpin Italian values. My two cents on that. 4.) Because Italy has public healthcare, health crises are collectively understood to be everyone’s problem, whether it’s a single instance of free open-heart surgery, or more than 20,000 positive cases of Covid-19, more than 1,500 deaths, and hundreds of people in ICU struggling with the infection. Asking this question, therefore, is a bit like asking “How in the world do you get by on Italian espresso?” or “Can you even get a glass of wine in Italy?”

Q: Are you implementing good hand-washing practices and hoping for the best when it comes to working outside the home? A: I have not worked in the office since March 3, and Jason hasn’t been to his office in days. The general quarantine provides that any work that can be done from home is best done from home. If you can assertively advocate for work from home, do so. If you are a manager, director, or CEO who can make this decision, please make it. If you are Congress or the president, please issue this executive order. The exceptions to Italian work from home include basic needs, like grocers and pharmacies, public offices, public safety, transpo; or if you have your own office and can guarantee a socially safe distance (official safe distance is one meter, but I think five meters is closer to safe, after reports from China emerged). We have been washing our hands assiduously as a family. We have bought creamy hypoallergenic soap and glycerine hand lotion.

Science will bring people to heel. Ignore science and imperil your life. It seems that in many places in America and the UK, phase 2 of the crisis is happening. The response: THIS IS AN ECONOMIC CRISIS. This is simply not true. It is the voice of panic and suffers from a gross lack of perspective. Defiant socializing spreads infection quickly. Guess what? The virus doesn’t care if you believe it’s real. Don’t fear so much the possibility of becoming sick and suffering yourself. Think of passing the virus on to someone older and/or more vulnerable than you. Please think about this. Or I’m gonna have the Pope call you at home to review basic ethics.

Update from Italy: Saturday, March 14

Photo by Josué AS on Unsplash

This is day five of the general quarantine across the country in Italy. I suspect the earliest we might return to normal could be April 5, or after Easter and Pasquetta (the Monday after Easter), so April 14. I’m kind of losing track of time. I need to start red-Xing a calendar or something. Another part of me thinks this could go on longer. Much longer. Like Q2 could just vanish. The world might come back to normal in June. But from here, and given the rate events are moving, April and May are probably writeoffs.

Yesterday was a tough news day. Cases are still sharply increasing, and just yesterday there were 250 new fatalities. The virus is a freight train that gathers steam and just gets heavier. I saw research that China could have reduced cases by 66% of they’d taken action one week earlier, and by 95% had action been take three weeks earlier. But the issue with public health emergencies is that few people believe they’re serious or real until they see tangible signs of emergency. The folly in that is obvious. But science will come for us all, sooner or later. I am still snickering darkly at the Pathogen Overlords moniker from that Psychology Today article.

We are managing out cooped-up feelings and anxiety pretty well here, all told. We’re getting out once a day to buy very small sacks of groceries, but if that ended, we’d be ok for 3-4 weeks at home, eating everything in the house that we have purchased and stockpiled. But even in China, at the height of their quarantine, one person per family per day was permitted to leave to grocery shop.

I’ve been binge watching Killing Eve and the BBC’s Henriad. Vic has been doing homework. The kids are getting a lot of use out of the Wii U Just Dance game, thank god. There’s even a workout setting where it will tell you how many calories you burned per song. Helpful.

I’m on top of our dishes, laundry, and dinners (tonight: butter chicken with rice and saag, and a freezer packet of pappadums I found that I’m gonna fry!) and meals. I’m going through pockets of disorganization one my one in the apartment to set things aright. As any child who has survived uncontrollable circumstances can tell you, OCD is a humane response to a feeling of being out of control, which describes, right now, a huge portion of the global population. Obviously my well-folded stacks of clothes on my bedroom shelves aren’t going to mitigate outcomes I cannot control, but it is a method to channel the helpless feeling. Someday I might tell you how I used to meticulously straighten the fringe on a throw rug in my bedroom at 3 a.m. with my hairbrush. (Disclosure: I was 8.)

We have completed our permission slips and signed them. The parks are closed – any gate that can be shut has been cable-tied with a warning – but the green spaces in fact, remain open, under the watchful eye of the polizia patrol (four today in our smallish park). Jason keeps one civil permission slip for grocery runs, and another civil permission slip for the fresh air and twenty to thirty minutes of attività motoria. This makes sense to me. These are effective precautions to think before you leave the house, it better be for one of three reasons. We take special care to look extra active when outside so as to not rouse any suspicions of bad-faith permission slip toting. Vic races on his razor scooter, Eleanor is readying for the peloton on her bike, Jason jogs after Eleanor, and I walk with Victor. There is a somber Salve (hello) here and there, but in general no one is much for greeting, since friends and strangers not supposed to approach one another. Family members are assumed to already be breathing one another’s air in an enclosed space, so are free to fraternize on the outside. The ATAF line buses chug by like ghost buses, with one to four passengers each. More people are wearing masks now.

Still. It feels good to respect the quarantine and to do our bit. It’s not the hardest position. I feel for the medical staff, everyone working in grocery stores and service capacities, and my god, those bus drivers and train conductors. This recent piece sums my feelings perfectly about being in lockdown where we are. Tuscany is managing decently, it seems, but we are in the northern part of the region that shares a border with Emilia Romagna, which is a hotspot of its own – less than Lombardy, but more than the Veneto. I am keeping a close eye on the daily reports of positive results, active and recovered patients, and fatalities.

As they say in Florence, Staharmo! Sta calmo. Stay calm!

Update from Italy: Friday, March 13

Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash

Not gonna lie. I’m jittery as hell. Everyone has something to say, someone who knows someone who really knows something. But none of it is real. We’re all just looking for an anchor, a psychological handhold on the current climbing wall. And this is in a country with a fairly transparent media, reporting numbers, and proactively testing.

People. I hope you have cancelled your trips through next month, have stocked up at least four weeks’ worth of food and OTC medicine, and have your heads screwed on straight. Get in your house and stay there. Not because you’re going to croak, but because of epidemic spread that will be very, very grave for many, many others.

We’re probably going to get Covid-19, most of us. Research shows that 40-70% of the globe will be infected this year. And 50% of those infections will require hospitalization, and maybe ventilation. And 5-10% of those will be sent to ICU. All those infections cannot happen in the next 4-6 weeks. Our medical systems worldwide, in any country, will not be able to treat the influx. And an overwhelmed medical system won’t be able to treat anyone for anything else, so do that math. People tend to need healthcare. Just in general. You know, bodies and whatnot. It’s a Buddhist precept that it is the nature of the body to fail, so we should all recognize the incredible days when everything works transparently, like some magical UI in a magical Body App.

One other thing. That quarantine? Think about what you’re going to do to stay fit, aside from having panic attacks that increase your heart rate to 80% of capacity. It’s not really the right kind of cardio anyway. We’re all gonna emerge from 4 to 8 weeks of quarantine flabby, pale, and jittery. Mini trampoline, Wii U Just Dance, Yoga with Adriene? Jason and I are going stir crazy and this is day 4. Of …. I already forgot how many days. I’m sending him to his office gym tomorrow on the slim pretext of work.

Finally. One last bit of news. They’re tightening up grocery store access in town. Yesterday it was 10-12 shoppers at a time, today it was 3-4. We might be going the China way on this (we have pretty much been doing this already); one person per day. We don’t have time slots yet. Public health officials have not come to our apartment to take our temperatures. We are not reporting our temperatures on an app, yet. No app is reporting movements of the recently infected, as they did in South Korea. But these things could happen next week. Or the week after. We both have our self-completed permission slips to be outside, motivo: attività motoria (exercise). The polizia could stop us anytime and ask us to give them these documents. I guess then we would go home to print and complete and sign another form. Still, there’s no other country in which I’d rather be in lockdown. The food is superb, people are sympathetic, and we have Chianti by the box.

Update from Italy: Further Preparedness Notes on the Coronavirus Lockdown

In no way do I advocate for substance abuse, but a 6 PM quarantine spritz might be a good idea. You’re not going anywhere. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

As the coronavirus wave rolls west, it seems much of the world is about ten days behind Italy. We’re on day 4 of a 27-day lockdown, and the kids are on day 9 of 32 days of the school closure. I received last night a long and detailed email from a lawyer friend and former colleague in Chicago, asking me how she should prepare. Julie is a calm and intelligent woman, and she also knows which way the wind blows.

What is Italy doing for those who were not able to afford to stockpile food and supplies?  What have you done to make sure your family is fed while restaurants and businesses are closed?   What types of medicines/supplies did you buy to help treat the virus if it strikes your home?   Are their any remedies that the health care professionals are recommending—increase vitamin intake, increase water intake. . . ?  Tips on how to stockpile the fridge—for how long?

I began to respond to her, but then thought I would turn it into today’s post. Stateside friends, EU friends, UK friends, you have time to prepare, but do it soon, before the end of the weekend. Do it respectfully. Do not freak out. And do it of your own free will, as soon as possible, if you can. Do not wait for local authorities to usher in this chapter for you. The sooner everyone stops moving around, the quicker medical services can get a handle on the virus. I am talking about the shortest trips and the longest trips. Stop leaving your house. Epidemiological theory demands it – this fantastic article from the WaPo explains why (paywalled).

I am here from ten days into your future. It’s coming to your community. I’m going to suggest, very calmly, what next steps you might consider taking. Four weeks or more is a long time to be at home.

First and foremost. Wherever you stock up on CALM, get as much of that as possible and hoard the shit out of it. You know how in all horror films the person who is freaking out the hardest is always, and obviously, the one who … doesn’t survive. Or doesn’t do well, in a best-case scenario. Channel your inner Liam Neeson and buck up. Your family and community need you to be calm and competent on the coming weeks.

Grocery shop thoughtfully. Plan out your meals, and plan to eat everything in your house, as much as you can. You’re smart. You know basic dry goods strategies. There are tons of articles online right now, with the BBC, The Guardian, NYT, the WaPo, and elsewhere, about strategic grocery shopping to prep for a lockdown. It’s four to eight weeks, not a nuclear winter, so continue to remain calm. And don’t plan to eat garbanzo beans for eight straight weeks. I did that once in 2001. Never again. In China and Italy, controlled grocery shopping has continued. You’re not going to starve in your home. But you’re not going to be able to pop out because you forgot to buy tahini or tortillas or whatever. So plan ahead, and plan for menu moderation.

Find a prep list to help guide you. This list seems sane. To this I would add, make a go-bag of your essential ID, cash, credit cards, eyeglasses, and medicine, and a book, and your phone and its charger, in case medical exigencies separate you from your family.

Talk with your family members about what you plan to do if one or both adults become ill, or hospitalized. Will you quarantine at home to mitigate exposure? Do you have a room or a space available for this? If so, consider preparing it. Perhaps use it to work from home , unless a family member becomes ill.

Make sure you have topped up all your prescription medications and any OTC you might need during a one- or two-month period. If you contract COVID-19 and you are part of the lucky half of infected people who do NOT require hospitalization, you’ll probably feel like shit with flu symptoms. NyQuil, DayQuil, and TheraFlu would probably be useful. Maybe some vitamins or probiotic tabs to help the recovery. Plan to drink all your tea, whether or not you’re sick.

Take some vitamins. Eat your colors. Squeeze some fresh orange juice. We’re doing that every day.

It’s a lot of at-home time. What will help keep you calm at home? If the internet holds out you can stream movies or TV or whatever. Books are good. Kids will need activities and relatively buoyant parents to keep them occupied. Plan ahead on that count, as much as you do on meals, if you have kids at home. Make a list of stuff you never get to, but always mean to, and plan on doing that. You can work on machine learning to help research clinics find a vaccine, or learn how to code Python or make something you’ve always wanted to but haven’t had the time to learn how to do yet. Have a glass of wine; you’re not going anywhere. Drink the good stuff.

What about some Marie Kondo in your home? You’ll be so glad to get out of quarantine when all this is over that nothing will bring you as much joy as fresh air and sunshine, so it’ll be really easy to ditch all the crap you don’t need. We finally opened all our windows today because no amount of essential oil was able to disguise the stale air.

Since you’re not going to be leaving home for weeks, you can take a luxurious bath or a shower every single day. Line up all your nice items and let the bubbles begin. Jason gave me a luxe gift box from L*U*S*H for Valentine’s Day and it is being thoroughly enjoyed.

I also thought of a few things you will NOT need to worry about.

Forget the deodorant, since you’ll have an excellent daily bathing routine. Fill up your tank one last time with gas and forget about driving; you are going nowhere. Recycle all coupons now. You’re not going out for awhile. Get off of social media, because it is NOT going to help you survive. Ration and manage your logged-in social media time, and if you feel anxious, get out of there! If you planned a trip in March or April, cancel it now. If you are somewhere else not home, plan to stay there until all this is over, if you can. And last, while everyone has gotten used to fast deliveries of everything, please, manage your own needs while you can. (An exception to this in Italy is that over-65s are getting support for grocery acquisition; I think their purchases are getting dropped off at their door.) Every additional delivery puts that delivery person at further risk. Just eat your garbanzos.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more ideas and observation about how to cope personally with a pandemic that’s gathering steam.

Update from Italy: The Lowdown on the Lockdown

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

I’m not gonna lie, the lockdown feels a little bit like The Shawshank Redemption. You remember that movie, from the nineties? Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman; I used to call it The Scrimshaw Redemption. A friend asked me today via chat if I feel like Anne Frank. Not yet! I crowed. We’re fine. Stressed, but fine. But that other shoe dropped this afternoon when the Comune di Firenze (city council) took the action to close all the city parks and greens paces because people were just getting too close. And I believe it. I have observed much public people closeness in our park out front since last Thursday. And Piazza D’Azeglio is premium Florentine park space, so I know whereof I speak. The polizia were slowly circling in those weird navy blue Honda Civics they drive, slowing down to tell people to stand back from one another. The recommended distance is one meter, but epidemic research out of China post facto has stated that the safe distance is closer to 4.5 meters.

So, I provide here a quick Q&A. The lowdown on our lockdown, if you will. Now, this has been a fast moving target, with daily tweaks and changes in the name of public health. And before you ask, no, I do not feel my civil rights have somehow been abridged; no, we are not in martial law. This is the reality of a tremendous public health crisis.

Q: Are you at home all day? A: Pretty much. 14 of 15 waking hours are in our apartment.

Q: How are the kids? A: As you might expect.

Q: What are reasons to leave home? A: To go to a job that cannot be done from home; to grocery shop; to go to a pharmacy or a doctor’s appointment.

Q: Is public transport running? A: Yes, but very scarce ridership.

Q: Is the mail being delivered? A: As far as I can tell, yes.

Q: What’s the grocery shopping like? A: In-store density is controlled by employees of the local Carrefour. It reminds me of those bouncy castles where output has to equal input to maintain internal equilibrium. Jason had to wait outside with a shopping bag this morning, but was allowed to enter when a few people came out. Touchless pay is preferred. The checkers have been superstars (shout OUT to the Carrefour on Via Carducci!) We’ll keep doing this until they say to stop.

Q: Can you go to the park? A: Not anymore. That changed after lunch today. We’ll get creative (even more creative) about kids exercise (peppy; aged 5 and 8).

Q: Are people wearing masks? A: This morning, our last trip to the park, mask-wearing seemed about half. A few N95 masks. A lot of lawnmower masks. Some scarves repurposed as desperado kerchiefs, which is better than nothing.

Q: Are you wearing a mask, Monica? A: This is weird. What kind of question is this? (Joke.) Not at this time, but if I had one, and I was on the sidewalk, I might. If I were on a city bus, I definitely would put a mask and disposable gloves on.

Q: Do you feel scared? A: More anxious, as the addenda to decrees seem to be coming once a day to further restrict movement and activity: Thursday, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday.

Q: I bet it’s chaos in Italy? A: You shut your mouth. I’ve never seen such a community of civil, law-abiding, courteous people in my life. Even when faced with extreme stress. And reminder: 22% of them are over 65.

Q: Anything else? A: I took off all my rings and then cut my nails very short in the interest of effective hand washing. I did the same for the kids. No rings, but their nails are gone.

This is March 12. The earliest things here might return to normal – school, work, sunshine, caffè, street life – is April 6. It’s a long game, people. I keep saying this. Please believe me. Dig in.