Freed from stay-home orders imposed on March 11, Sicilians in Castelbuono feel relieved, but still worried about what the future holds.
CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — On his first day back at his small florist shop in this medieval town in Sicily’s Madonie mountains, Nicola Failla waited hours for his first customer. Finally, just before closing his shop’s doors for lunch, he sold a bouquet of flowers.
“It was emotional,” he said of his first sale after two months of lockdown. “A boy wanted flowers for a girl.”
Such simple and time-honored acts like buying flowers for a sweetheart or eating an ice cream cone from a café are now endowed with new emotion and meaning for Italians cautiously returning to the streets, squares, parks and stores of a terrified and pandemic-hit nation shut down since March 11.
Nationwide restrictions were eased on Monday in what authorities plan to be a staged and gradual return to business and activities so basic to the Italian way of life, such as playing soccer, swimming in the sea and attending church. But it will be a slow and surreal return to public life, and public gatherings such as church Masses remain off-limits.
A walk through Castelbuono, a town of about 10,000 residents that relies on a mixture of tourism, restaurants and seasonal forestry work, reveals a townsfolk quietly joyful to see life return to their streets but also expressing mixed feelings about a future darkened by the coronavirus pandemic. Until now, the town has detected only two confirmed cases of the virus, both involving young men who came home from elsewhere.
Franco Corradino sat at his computer inside his specialty tourist store, La Fontana, on the main street near a town square with an old clock tower, a central fountain, cafés, folk music clubs and a historic cathedral. The square’s liveliness, though, hasn’t returned despite the lifting of restrictions.
Corradino looked a bit worn down as he pored over paperwork on his computer and made phone calls.
His clients are tourists, but there’s no telling when people from around the world — Germany, the Netherlands, France, Japan, the United States, Russia — will be back on the streets of Castelbuono.
“Economically, we’re below zero,” he said. “Everyone who works with tourists is in the same boat. The hotels are closed, the B&Bs are closed, the museums, everything to do with tourists is closed.”
Before the pandemic, he stood at a booth on the sidewalk in front of his store and lured in passing visitors with his shelves crammed with local wines, Sicilian chocolates, jars of rare honey and elixirs made from ash-tree sap, a product known as manna that once was common in southern Italy but now is made on a commercial scale only in Castelbuono and the surrounding area.
Like other small business owners in Castelbuono, he hasn’t received any state aid yet, and “without a crystal ball,” he didn’t know when he might start seeing clients again. Travel between towns, provinces and regions in Italy remains tightly controlled and off-limits except for urgent needs. This means Castelbuono is starved of visitors even from other parts of Sicily.
“We are hopeful for the future,” he said, as he offered a taste of the liquefied manna he and his brother make. “You have to be hopeful.”
Past the main square, Piazza Margherita, Michaela Carollo was washing the windows on her store, a small clothing outlet. She was allowed to reopen in mid-April, when children’s clothing stores were among the only nonessential businesses permitted to reopen. But she said sales have been very slow.
“People aren’t going out because they’re afraid,” she said.
She hopes that by summer the coronavirus outbreak will be contained enough to let Italians enjoy the hotter months. “I sell swimwear too.”
‘This Will Be About Surviving, Not Thriving’
Farther along the main street, Vincenzo Allegra, a 59-year-old veterinarian and sanitation inspector, sat on a bench and took part in the reawakening of his town. Like so many others, his work too has fallen off dramatically since food outlets he inspects closed.
“There’s some activity,” he said, talking behind a mask, which nearly everyone wears in public.
A mother pushing a stroller stopped to talk with friends. During the lockdown, children were rarely seen, but they are becoming part of daily public life again. Down the street, Allegra’s sister-in-law passed by and they exchanged a few words. Shopkeepers conversed in the nearby alley in front of their newly reopened boutiques.
“People want to go out,” he said.
But he predicted hard times lie ahead for mom-and-pop shops.
“There will be a depression. Some will close. This will be about surviving, not thriving. Those with the resources will survive,” he said. “People aren’t going to buy things. Who is going to buy a flower? Not even for the dead. People are scared.”
Emilio Minutella, a 70-year-old photographer who runs a camera store, wandered over and started chatting with Allegra. His business too has dried up, with weddings postponed for a year and his store still shuttered.
“I’m getting by with my pension,” he said. With a grin and grabbing a comfortable stomach, he added: “I’m tightening my belt.”
Thanks to a brother-in-law who supplies him with food from an abundant garden, he said he has saved on grocery bills.
“Each one of us has a little piece of land to grow lettuce and what have you,” he said.
Resilience is part of the DNA in Sicily, a region of Italy that historically has suffered from poverty, injustice and discrimination. But this history of hardship seems to be helping in this calamity. In southern Italy, families are tight-knit and they share resources, grow their own food, often own their homes and are accustomed to penny pinching.
“We’re reliving what our parents lived through in the 1930s,” Minutella said.
Failla, the 66-year-old florist who’d just sold his first bunch of flowers, stood at the door of his shop and joined the conversation.
The men recalled stories their parents told them about life during the Great Depression in Castelbuono, when people lined up to receive rations of bread and conducted intricate forms of barter.
“At least we now have a little money with which to buy bread,” Minutella said. Quickly, he added there’s not much reason to rejoice. “We’re still in mourning here. There’s a lot of suffering.”
At that moment, a woman they knew entered the conversation, seeking to relish this moment of conviviality on the street after such a long silence. She railed against world leaders and pharmaceutical companies, saying everyone will be forced to take dangerous vaccinations.
“They have the world in their hands,” she said. “It will kill everyone.”
She wandered off. Expecting no clients with the customary lunch hours approaching, Failla the florist decided to close up his store. As with other shopkeepers, he’s staying open only half days for now. In Italy, stores customarily close for lunch and reopen in mid-afternoon.
“I’m trying to start a garden to save a little bit,” he said of his plans to survive the hard times ahead.
A bit farther on, Paolo Scialabba, a fruit and vegetable vendor, was weighing and selling bunches of potatoes, onions, cherries and oranges. As a food seller, he was allowed to stay open during the two-month lockdown and he was thankful for that.
“This was a big advantage for me,” he said.
He said the lockdown finally stopped traveling fruit-and-vegetable sellers from coming to Castelbuono. He accused many of them of not paying taxes and undercutting his business.
“I’ve worked like I should be working throughout the year,” he said. “It’s right like this. The money people spend should stay in this town.”
Although business has been good for him, the lockdown has been cumbersome for southern Italians, he said.
“We are more personal, more affectionate,” he said. “We are attached to personal contact. We are more open. Yet we are giving up the handshakes, the hugs, the kisses.”
He praised southern Italians for obeying the lockdown rules and helping to keep the contagion largely in check. He said southern Italy historically has been underfunded and an outbreak here would be devastating.
“The health system in the south is not the same as it is in the north. If it happened here, it could be twice as bad,” he said.
“It won’t be the same as before. The big meals with everyone together in the pizzerias, the big family lunches, they won’t be like they were before,” he said. “We just have to get used to this.”
Still farther along, up a street that leads to another main square in the upper part of Castelbuono, finally a café was open. Other bars and cafés were still shuttered Tuesday.
“We opened at 7:30 a.m.,” said Antonio Sferruzza, one of several brothers who grew up in the United States and returned to Castelbuono to open a café 40 years ago. Today, they sell everything from exquisite ice cream to espressos and cannoli and pandoro, all made on the premises.
“It was a good sensation,” Sferruzza said about reopening, dressed in an apron and a mask. “I was happy.”
For now, only one customer at a time is allowed into Bar Sferruzza and people cannot consume products inside the tiled interior of the café.
During the lockdown, the café was allowed to continue operating as a takeout service. Incredibly, there was so much demand for ice cream he was making lots of it each day and delivering it to homes, Sferruzza said.
For him, there’s magic in making great food and sweets for people.
“We make good stuff,” he said, speaking in English he learned while growing up in the United States. “This is not easy. You have to put all your innovation into it.”
His eyes gleamed with amusement upon recalling a young woman who showed up earlier to buy her first ice cream cone after the easing of the lockdown.
“She almost cried,” he said. “She thanked me for the ice cream. She really wanted it. She said: ‘Thanks a lot for the good stuff you make.’”
“It’s not just about making money,” he said. “I’m here to serve people.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.