SOAVE – Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte's decision to lock down the entire country brought some welcome clarity to my family life after weeks of growing uncertainty about how to behave in a time of coronavirus.
I live that stereotype of the multi-generational Italian family, next door to in-laws, both over 80 and suffering from a collection of non-debilitating ailments common for their age. I also live with two teenagers, one of whom in particular has chafed against any suggestion that his social life should be curtailed just when the virus has freed him from that age-old adolescent burden: school.
So as I continued to commute to my job as an Associated Press correspondent based in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, from a small town in neighboring Veneto, the virus seemed both near and far.
Near, because the two regions were quickly identified as hot spots with growing numbers of infections and two so-called red zones — but far, because no one we knew was sick, and many of the restrictions were still theoretical. They boiled down to frequent hand-washing.
Virus fear escalated in mid-February as I covered Milan Fashion Week, shoulder-to-shoulder with fashion types from all over the globe, and where the closing show by Giorgio Armani was streamed without an audience as a precaution. But the closest cluster — not yet a red zone — was still an hour away.
As the first restrictions took effect in Veneto and Lombardy — closing schools, museums, cinemas and bars after 6 p.m. — we scoffed at the reactive panic shopping. What were people doing with all that toilet paper? We had flour and pasta aplenty at home. And who needs a shopping cart full of bottled water? The taps weren’t being turned off.
The first day of the new measures was supposed to be the start of a three-day family break for Carnival in Nice, on the coast in neighboring France. But our sociable son woke up with a fever and stomach flu symptoms, and we decided it was better not to chance crossing the border as Italy became a focal point in coronavirus coverage.
Normally we would have gone, stomach flu or not, and instructed the teen to sleep in the car, reasoning that the sea air would do him good. The painful decision to cancel seemed particularly wise after hearing reports of Italian cars being stopped in France for temperature checks. Imagine being found out transporting a feverish 16-year-old: the personal horror, the probable headlines.
Back at work, I wrote about social distancing, about how Italians’ habit of kissing could be part of the problem, before the 1-meter (yard) distancing rule started to gain currency. At home, we began a weeks-long struggle to impress upon invincible youth how vulnerable the elderly are to the virus.
I compensated for our dashed holiday by taking my daughter spring clothes shopping in teen-focused stores where we no longer had to queue for dressing rooms. We ate out in empty restaurants. We had facials. We had to order ice cream at a table, not at the counter. It was the same when we wanted a quick refreshment after 6 p.m. — sit at a table, don't just stand at the bar.
Cities were empty, parking places too easy to find, but we didn’t feel particularly discouraged to be out. In fact, a hashtag began to circulate: #milanononsiferma, or #milandoesntstop. By being out -- as long as we washed our hands frequently -- we were doing our civic duty.
Then virus cases skyrocketed, with Italy registering the most infections outside of China. My in-laws stopped going to the grocery store, instead ordering online. And they stopped kissing their grandchildren every morning and evening, as has been their habit.
Finally, my children got remote homework assignments, and teachers started organizing video classes — even if the app sometimes failed. The notion of a holiday was over.
Then this past weekend, we saw the red zone expand from two distant dots on the map — east and west — to provinces just 30 minutes each direction. A Sunday family dinner with my kids’ four cousins -- who are also going stir-crazy with no school — was canceled by the new travel ban out of Lombardy.
Also scratched were my plans to hop over on a free day and see Venice in its newfound quiet after a hotel owner with zero rooms booked because of the virus described the glassy surface of the Grand Canal absent boats transporting Venetians and their wares.
Finally, on Monday evening, the red ink of the restricted travel zone soaked through the entire map of Italy, which had become one big hot spot. The same day, the first confirmed case was announced on Facebook by the mayor of our town. Suddenly, the virus was just near. And Conte declared the new Italian motto: ‘’I stay at home.''
When I told my son, standing at his Playstation, about the national lockdown until April 3, he looked dejected. ‘’How many days is that? What am I going to do for a month?’’ But for the first time in three weeks, he accepted he couldn’t go out that night.