Rome unlocking

“Now we can start living again” is the phrase I most hear around my neighbourhood.  Its mostly from the elderly, those over 70, of which Italy has one of the highest population levels globally.  My suburb is representative, many of the inhabitants are over that age, and in the range that has been most impacted by COVID.

The vaccines are here and being handed out with military precision and effectiveness as always happens when things get handed over for the army to do.  The infection and death rates are plummeting and soon this all will be a memory. I am glad we have faced it head on, dealing with and learning from the consequences, adapting, and adjusting rather than trying to avoid it, pretending it’s not there, or hoping that it will just go away. The changes we made as a population and as a nation helped us survive and will continue to, as changes always do.  There is a lot to be said for having weathered a storm.   

When in March 2020 we were sent home from work for two weeks, with schools, restaurants, gyms, shops all closed, no one imagined that we would still be in some form of lockdown more than one year later.  March 2021 was a hard month for everyone.  In March 2020 no one imagined that instead of two weeks it would be more than two months before we were allowed outside again without a certified signed document stating the 3 reasons you could leave your apartment (buying food locally, visiting the doctor or on a walk by yourself in your own neighbourhood for mental or physical health reasons), or risk being fined up to 800 Euro. No one imagined that over one year later it would still be mandatory to always wear masks inside and outside, or that some form of lockdown would continue indefinitely with strict lockdown occurring again at Christmas, New Year, Easter and for weeks at a time either side. 

I like many others have never returned to the workplace. No one imagined that after a brief hiatus last summer, all gyms, theatres, schools, and businesses would again be closed until the beginning of the next summer, or that when restaurants, bars and cafes were closed at 6pm and a curfew installed at the beginning of last autumn, that it would be spring before we could go out and eat at night again.  And no one imagined that there would be second birthdays or anniversaries of things in lockdown.  The challenge of adapting the celebration to the new restrictions and the fun of inventing new ways to do things is gone the second time around. All the energy to recreate new traditions and the fight to make the best of it has gone.  Used up in the more than a year of daily energy required to be resilient in the face of a never-ending threat and combatting an ever-present level of anxiety that we all feel, an undercurrent to everything we do, making any other stressful events even more so. After a year of this we are all slightly stupefied and lethargic, it’s as close to a zombie nation as I hope to ever live in.

There is a listlessness that comes after over a year of lockdown and restrictions.  We have all been champions at working and schooling from home converting an entire nation almost overnight to digital. We work, study, socialise, exercise, play, relax, celebrate, eat, shop, have medical appointments all through the screen of our computers, and always in the same 20 square metres. Italians like many nations live in relatively small and mostly shared spaces where there is only one space for the family to relax during their leisure time.  This space is also the workspace, the study space, and the exercise space.  Yoga mats replace roll away desks, and ironing boards in front of sofas become ballet barres after hours.  Balconies, if you have one become the place where you can shout out or down to friends and neighbours in the street, and many an abandoned rooftop got dusted off and decorated with socially distanced deck chairs and tables over the past year.

We haven’t been able to hug or kiss or touch each other for over a year, a culture that kiss each other several times a day, amongst friends and family.  Recently a friend gave me a clandestine hug when she came to visit me while I was mourning the death of a family member (not from COVID).  It was like an electric shock.  The feel of someone’s arms around me stunned me out of my grief for a few minutes and then made feel incredibly sad that we had all missed out on this most basic of human kindnesses in a time when we all most needed it.  Eating together as families and friends outside in the public places that replace most people’s living rooms, sharing a table, sitting long into the night together, the tinkling of glasses in the moonlight, or the odour of fresh seafood in the sunlight, the energy we all get from each other, from changing our environments, from the wind that whips up the edges of table clothes, from the sounds of music coming from other classrooms in the gym or dance school, the stimulation of peers and colleagues, the snatches of different languages, going for a walk in the countryside, being in nature, leaving the province to go on holiday or visit family, the feeling of being challenged physically, the feeling of advancement over compensation, of thriving rather than surviving, of gain over loss, these are all the things that have been sacrificed in this long, hard, more than a years battle.  They are integral to the experience of life here and without them life has changed considerably.

It has made us all more appreciative of small things, tolerant, and thankful for the battle we have fought and (mostly) won together. With great suffering comes great joy.  I don’t know whether the suffering always has to equal the joy, but I would never have imagined I would have the amount of joy I am experiencing right now at the announcement that my ballet school will now be open in a week, or at how much the joy is intensified by sharing it with the 10 others that I have struggled through 9 months of pretty hopeless and very frustrating ballet lessons via zoom! Due to bandwidth issues we all heard the music at different times so we could never co-ordinate our movements, and those of us (i.e. me) used to copying the person in front them, could no longer do so. For the teacher to be able to see my whole body the screen had to be so far away that I needed my glasses on to see anyone else, and for the same reason I have become very familiar with everyone’s crotches as we neared the screens each time the teacher needed to demo something. Let’s not even mention trying to do pirouettes in the space usually taken up by a desk.  Or about how my barre, which is really the back of my office chair, keeps wheeling itself away during pliés so I am left holding on to thin air and post-menopausal muscle density. Small suffering, maybe, big joy at its ending, definitely.

So maybe the joy is always greater, and, in that case, we are all in for a big load of it. Not the least of which is that we will soon be free to leave the country and wander this wonderful earth again, as well as welcome visitors to this wonderful piece of it. Flights full of vaccinated, quarantine exempt citizens from the UK and US are speeding towards us this very minute.

When I hear the phrase “now we can begin living life again”, I know exactly what it means, and I sincerely look forward to it.

The eye of the storm

Since the beginning of quarantine two weeks ago it has been very calm here in Rome.  Somewhere else the virus has been raging and people are having their loved ones in coffins being removed by the army.  Somewhere else people are fighting in supermarkets over the last rolls of toilet paper, and somewhere else shelves of supplies are disappearing at a great rate.  Somewhere else politicians are dismissing, ranting, raving, telling everybody that all is well, while trying to give this sickness a nationality.

Here the birds are loud and their song is bright, and it is heard all day long.  The shushing sound of the traffic that reminds me of my seaside city home and the sounds I fell asleep to as a child, is silent.  On windless nights, which these have mostly been, not even a grain of dirt moves on the roads and footpaths that surround my apartment block.  The moon is huge and shines out through the leafless trees each night mocking me in my sleeplessness – too much light and too much silence – both stimulants for my body.  During the day the unfolding drama and constant mental activity of processing, associating, cataloguing and adapting taking place, on top of a usual work load and the daily running of a household, have put me in overload and I have difficulty shutting down.

But outside, my environment is eerily quiet.  The usually busy streets full of traffic, children, motorbikes, delivery men calling to each other, the gardeners with their leaf blowers, the actors from the theatre next door who rehearse on the street and sometimes in our communal garden, the portiere (caretaker) who calls out to people as they leave and enter all day, none of this is happening. The shoppers, the unemployed, the elderly, the mothers, the shop keepers, café owners and workers who stroll outside during their lunch hour, who all usually fill the streets, are not there.

The silence and the inactivity are overwhelming. Even the dogs are quiet.  There is nothing to bark at.

Occasionally someone scurries by, head down, mask on, always alone, and sometimes wearing plastic gloves. If we meet coming towards each other we each take a side of the footpath and veer past each other, sometimes with cheery eye contact, sometimes not.  I can sleep without ear plugs for the first time in two decades.  I can rest during siesta listening to the wind if there is some, and now the birds are so loud they keep me awake. Sometimes I can even hear bees.  Blossom rains down along empty streets, sunlight pours over still piazzas, cats lazily stroll across them and I don’t bother to look either way when I step onto a road.

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There is music everywhere though, loud and blasting from speakers but also being played from pianos, guitars and keyboards, much more than usual.  None of us are comfortable with the silence.  We are all used to the noise that surrounds us daily and reminds us we are part of a huge city and that although we may be alone in an apartment we only have to open a window to know we are part of a community.

Now we have to shout out to each other to remind ourselves of that, and so we do.  Each night at six we join together on balconies and at windows to make noise, to combat the silence that says we are a city that is in lock down, in mourning, in fear and dread for what may come.  Each night we gather to shake off the silent day and break it up from the silent night and remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are here, all here, all here in this together. We sing and shout and clap from our silent siloes and rebel against our quarantine from each other and this is how we are able to be patriots and our usual anarchic selves both at the same time. This is how we are able to be in this storm, in its eye, all together.