CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – My father got to the outdoor food market in a nearby town in Puglia, the bootheel of Italy, driving his old white Fiat Panda. Life was about to take a sudden turn.
It was Monday, March 9, the morning of the day Italy’s prime minister went on television and ordered the entire country under an emergency lockdown due to the worsening outbreak of the mysterious coronavirus disease in northern Italy.
He parked his Panda in Cisternino, a hilltop town hosting a market that day, and began one of his favorite routines: Mingling with the crowds of market-goers as he buys fruit and vegetables in season.
The markets of Italy are bustling, colorful places, with mounds of oranges, artichokes, broccoli, eggplants and so much more for sale. Vendors holler, weigh bags on scales and banter with customers as coins and banknotes are swiftly exchanged.
“When I got there, it was 9:45 in the morning,” my father tells me over the telephone. “It was a regular market day, fewer people maybe than usual, but really not any different. Then I noticed everyone started closing up. But it was only 9:45. I didn’t know what was going on.”
What had happened was the sudden arrival of the virus even here in Cisternino at the very other end of the Italian peninsula, 560 miles south of Italy’s outbreak zone near Milan. Someone in Cisternino had tested positive shortly before the market opened and now the town’s police were shutting the market down.
It was the last market my father was going to for a long time.
The next day, the first day of the lockdown, he went to a supermarket. When he got there, the scene made his heart sink. People were lining up and keeping three feet from each other. Masks were appearing.
“It was horrible,” he says. “Everyone was standing far away from each other. The supermarket was letting only a few people in at a time. All the clerks were in masks. It was so crowded. I just needed to buy some cat food, so I didn’t go in. It’s not worth going to town. Everyone is afraid to touch each other, it is horrible.”
Twelve days later, my father, who lives alone in the countryside, doesn’t go to town any more. He’s 81 years old, so the less contact he has with anyone else, the better. My brother, who lives close by, is shopping for him.
A big piece of my father’s life is now gone. Every day, he liked to drive to one of the picturesque towns around him, stop in a cafe for an espresso, scan the newspapers bars in Italy offer customers, visit an outdoor market, maybe run into some friends there and drive back home in his Panda to make a tasty lunch.
Now, my father spends his days finding things to do on his land. He is pruning fig trees now. It’s still chilly, so he uses the branches he cuts to burn in his wood stove. He hears the news on his radio, and none of it is good: The pandemic gets worse.
Throughout Italy, it’s the same. Life has been sucked away.
Streets are empty in big cities and small towns alike. Stores are closed and fear reigns. The virus is an invisible enemy that seems to be lurking everywhere, on everything, on every person. Public spaces are now dreaded places. In lines waiting to buy food at supermarkets and smaller shops, people stand at a distance. It’s not uncommon to hear grumbling if someone strays too close.
“Please, keep your distance.”
My wife does most of the shopping for our family of four and when she ventures into Castelbuono, a small mountain town in Sicily, she goes there unwillingly. There are so many surfaces to touch where you fear the virus may be lurking: Handrails on staircases, a button on a public water dispenser, on the plastic bags storekeepers hand you, on the food you buy.
It’s a surreal place. The streets are mostly empty. The piazza is empty. All the cafe tables are gone. The ice cream vendors are shut. At the butcher’s, they don’t let customers inside. No children play, the sound of voices is gone. The church is empty – people pray at home now. There are online masses and each morning townspeople pray to the town’s patron saint for a miracle.
“The weird thing was the piazza,” my wife told me when she returned from her first trip into town to buy food. “It really looked shuttered.”
At a small neighborhood store run by our friends, most everyone was in masks. Even my wife’s dear friend was in a mask. They couldn’t hug each other and kiss, as is the custom in Sicily. At a distance, they said hi.
The friendly storekeepers asked my wife if she had printed an sworn statement declaring her reason for being outside home – an autocertificazione. She didn’t have one, thinking it wasn’t necessary for just going shopping. “No, no, you must have one,” they said out of concern for her.
They then talked about whether it was even lawful to go for a walk to get some fresh air. No, that’s not allowed, they said. Now, some 10 days later, it’s officially unlawful to go for a walk or any other sporting activity that takes you far from home.
So, strolls in the countryside, a bicycle ride in the spring air, a walk in the park and a trip to a country home on the weekend can be considered criminal offenses.
“It was a desert,” a friend who lives in Milan tells me over the telephone. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Milan is Italy’s version of New York City with the country’s stock market, a plethora of theaters and clubs, a hectic pace. Today, it’s shut down, under siege by the virus.
Shut up in an apartment in a big condominium, the days pass in silence. Everyone is indoors.
“There’s this ghostly silence,” he says. “If you meet someone in the stairwell of the condominium, you wait for the person to go by. They look at you like you have leprosy.”
Early on during the lockdown, social media filled up with a call for citizens to sing from their balconies, play instruments, jazz up Italy.
But this flash mob moment was a bust in my friend’s buildings.
“No one showed up! I heard someone with a tambourine hit it a couple of times and then disappear inside.”
On the streets, police patrol. Now, soldiers are beginning to appear. Call it martial law.
“Lombardy seems like it is under Nazism,” my friend tells me. “This is historic.”
Everyone, he says, understands the stakes. “This is a period where we have to feel that there is a war, stay in your bunker.”
This virus is deadly, it is killing so many, entering bodies and homes and striking – especially those who are older. It is bringing back the stories grandparents once told of a time in the distant past when there was another plague, when the Spanish influenza killed so many.
It is deadly and devastating. It’s shut Italy down and now it is shutting the rest of Europe down. The United States is closing in on itself too.
All of us watch and wonder. What will happen? Will I get sick? Will I survive? Is this the end of the world as we have known it?
“It will be the biggest [economic] depression ever,” a friend who lives in Puglia tells me when I call him up. This friend, like so many Italians – even those in their 40s and older – lives with his parents who are nearing 80. “We will all be poorer.”
But he, like a growing number of people, also can imagine that society will change in ways that are beneficial.
“It’s an opportunity,” he tells me. “It’s like a war: After a war you have to do reconstruction, you have to reconstruct the economy.”
“It’s possible,” he tells me, “that we can create a new economy, one that isn’t globalized, made by multinationals.”
We talk some more. He follows the news carefully, reads from a wide variety of sources, watches the TV news and like so many today also examines what alternative news websites are saying. He, like so many others, doesn’t believe everything that is said on the mainstream news.
“It’s what gives me the most comfort,” he says about his time looking for information on the internet.
By now, it’s common to hear Italians speculate that this virus was created in a laboratory and that this pandemic is an offspring of the conflict between the United States and China. But my friend dismisses these conspiracy theories. “It has evolved in nature, there is not a plot,” he tells me.
Geopolitics is on the mind of people here. Many are upset at how the European Union has been reluctant to help Italy at this dire moment. People openly talk about leaving the EU just like the United Kingdom did in a so-called Italexit. There’s worry that Italy will end up like Greece after the 2008 financial crash and be forced into accepting a huge bailout on condition that Italy slash public spending even more and privatize more of its assets.
You hear praise for China and disappointment in the U.S., especially in U.S. President Donald Trump. Now that China has contained the virus and begun to send doctors, experts and supplies around the world, many Italians view China as the real superpower. “It’s the West that needs China now,” my friend in Puglia says.
As the days pass, friends tells us about how bored their children are. You hear about rising frustration. There are stories of couples fighting, siblings bickering. It’s hard to be indoors day after day.
Gloominess is setting in and there’s fear the virus is moving through the population – silent, deadly.
Here in southern Italy, the fear is that some among the thousands of people who fled the north after the outbreak and headed south brought the virus with them. Steadily, the number of confirmed cases has gone up in southern Italy, but there has not as yet been a massive spike. People who came south have been called criminals and harassed. We heard one person who’d come back from the north was shouted at in the street in town.
The fear grows. People in a town some 10 miles away tested positive for COVID-19. Positives have been found in nearby Cefalù, a gorgeous tourist destination on the sea. The mayor in Castelbuono says no one has been found with the virus yet here. But it only seems to be a matter of time.
I call my younger brother who lives in Veneto, not far from the zona rossa, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy.
He’s still got a job, but he’s worried. He does digital work for a small company, but the future is so uncertain, he tells me.
“We need people who come to our business,” he says. “Everyone is in quarantine. Clients can’t come. We don’t have any traffic in clients, we don’t sell anything.”
For now, he works part-time from home, which he doesn’t like. He finds himself working late at night.
“There is a crisis now, the question is whether it will be a huge crisis,” he says. There’s a lot of anxiety at his work because it’s unclear if the business can stay open.
“I don’t know how the small businesses are going to survive this,” he tells me. “A barber, a bar owner who has closed. I want to see how many reopen at the end of this.”
He lives near older family members, including a grandmother who is nearly 100 years old. He avoids them now for fear of becoming a “vehicle of transmission.”
When the outbreak began, my Italian stepmother was taking it in stride. On Facebook, she shared a meme that said: “Finally, I can save Italy by staying in my pajamas.”
I asked her if her perception of the outbreak had changed. We were talking by telephone.
“Yes, the perception is different,” she tells me, speaking in perfect English. “In the beginning, I was the one saying I am not afraid.”
Now, though, she says she’s afraid. “I do fear what is going to happen.”
She lives on an upper floor of an apartment building in a newer part of Vicenza, a city in Veneto. So, for her, daily walks in the neighborhood helped her cope with the quarantine. But as the lockdown intensifies, she’s says people who take walks have been labeled as criminals.
“They are doing a big campaign against going out even for a walk,” she says. She tells me about a friend who went for a bicycle ride and had someone shout at her, “imbecile!”
My stepmother tells me that she is “doing my own little battle on Facebook” arguing that people should not insult others for going outside for short strolls alone.
From what she can tell, those denouncing people who go for walks are hypocritical because they often live in the countryside or in a “villa with a nice garden.” They can get outside unlike her and everyone else stuck in apartments.
She says she even saw a television journalist talking about the need for people to stay home with the words “imbeciles stay home” written on the background.
“Sometimes during the day you feel crazy and you need to go outside,” she says.
Strolls far from home are illegal now. It’s a difficult balance, she knows that. She’s heard about groups, often made up of young people, walking in the hills. But she’s also heard about a man on his way to tend to his vineyard who was stopped by carabinieri – Italian military police – and charged with breaking the lockdown laws.
In the courtyard of her apartment building, a child often kicks a soccer ball by himself. No one has complained yet about the child’s games, but she wonders how long it will be before he’s told he can’t kick the ball.
Life turns ever more inwards.
“Of course you get more bored,” my stepmother tells me.
She spends her time doing an online French language course and doing meditation. She’s in touch with friends on social media. A lot of jokes are going around on the internet and they make her smile.
“There’s one joke about people taking out their dogs out for a walk a lot of times during the day,” she says with a chuckle.
Now, under new lockdown rules, people are not supposed to take their dogs far from home.
When Italians decided to sing and play music from their balconies, she went out with her mandolin and played. But no one else came out on their balconies. She went back inside disappointed.
“It’s very dull, no one does anything,” she says. “I hardly ever see people on the balconies. I imagine a lot of people are on TV or the computer.”
For her, it’s crucial to stay positive – and not get obsessed with how bad the pandemic is.
She cites a medical expert who advises against getting distressed because negative emotions can weaken one’s immune system. This, she says, is about striking the right balance of chemicals in your body.
“So try not to watch bad news too much,” she tells me. “Try to reduce the time you worry about it. Listen to classical music, have a good time, read books, try not to panic in other words. It’s a good way to stay mentally OK.”
I like this advice.
She sighs. When will it end?
“They used to say it was going to be this week, now they are saying 18 days,” she says. “They keep changing their minds.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.