surviving_italy_quarantine

I’m in Italy on Lockdown. This Is a Warning From the Future.

How do you make sense of being simultaneously bored and ashamed, as your powerlessness in the face of mounting tragedy dawns on you? And what can you do to prevent the hell I’m living in today?

Italy’s lockdown has lurched into its third week. Days have blurred into nights; weeks into weekends; months into years. People aren’t singing from their balconies anymore, at least where I live. The only sound in my neighborhood in the past week was a hollow cry of “We will make it!” from an apartment several blocks away. Spontaneous musical outbursts now earn you a walloping with a milk crate, if you’re lucky. Violating the quarantine risks up to 12 years in prison, which sounds like a blessed relief. Because the joke’s on us: We’re already in prison. 

I came to Rome five months ago, unmoored from my previous job. I was here sniffing out freelance work, with little success. But then, on March 9th, I found myself at the center of the global media’s attention, after the Italian government imposed a full-scale lockdown on the country to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The virus had hit the country especially hard, ravaging the wealthy north and threatening the poorer townships down south. As of last week, it’s killed more people in Italy than anywhere else in the world. The country’s great cities would be put on hold; no going in, no going out. 

You’ll all be locked down soon enough, whether by choice or by government decree. Some of you are probably quarantining yourselves already, receding into the dark squalor of your homes like Quasimodo, only emerging into sunlight for a frantic round of grocery shopping. In the meantime, you might be wondering how to cope with the effects of a potential total lockdown. How to stop your mind from getting all twisted. How to keep the demons at bay. How to stay safe while staying sane. How to make sense of being simultaneously bored and ashamed, as your powerlessness in the face of mounting tragedy dawns on you. What will you do with all of your free time? Is a day on Twitter a day well spent? How much wall-staring is too much wall-staring? 

Well, you’re in luck. I’m a messenger from the imminent-future, and I bring depressing lessons from the quarantine. 

On Other Humans

I’ve had the fortune of being imprisoned with a flatmate, Rick, who was a PhD student in the beforetime. I’ve known him for several years. We share each other’s food; listen to each other’s music; watch Bioshock analysis videos together. But two can be a crowd, too. Minor grievances morph into bitter resentment. We have heated arguments about stupid things, prolonged out of simple boredom, like the time we fought because I told him he was lying to himself about liking bananas, that he was delusional, a madman, that he should be committed. Sometimes, I joke about coming at him in the night. Recently, he bought an air purifier from Amazon, which he says makes for better company. “This air freshener is going to be worth a million Bens,” he said when it arrived.

I’m aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. Some people are spending the quarantine desperately, tragically alone — a la Massimo, a pseudonymous English “Vatican correspondent” whom I recently befriended yet sadly had to abandon once the quarantine set in. “I’m absolutely depressed,” he tells me. “I’ve taken up shaving as a hobby.” 

Still, Massimo has occupied himself with far nobler tasks than I have. Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, as with elsewhere, has felled mostly elderly people and those with underlying conditions, for whom quarantine is particularly harrowing. “I’m with the lady in blue,” says Massimo, referring to the septuagenarian nun he spends much of his time with. “Helping her out has been good — it keeps me distracted and gives me the sense I’m somehow doing my part in helping someone. Which I guess is one of the problems I faced: How can I be useful?” 

The other day, we considered inviting Massimo over for a drink. He was on the verge of psychological breakdown. But he spends a lot of time with his nun friend, and we didn’t want to risk passing onto her any COVID-19 we might have picked up, or conversely, risk him bringing the contagion into our apartment. Such are the complex calculations involved in doing the simplest of things in these dark times. You have to carefully audit the trail of people you’ve encountered, the degrees of separation between you and patient zero, working out who’s been near who, who is now a danger to society. You hear people on the street, where they shouldn’t be, thrashing out the probabilities: “I met Clara, who met Marco, who met Pietro, who was in Lombardy last week…”

Our calculus has been no different (or less grim). Two weeks ago, Rick had been exposed to an infected person, forcing us both to stay indoors for 14 days. We hadn’t shown any symptoms, so had either dodged infection or were asymptomatic — but you never know. 

Was there a compromise? Could we meet Massimo in a designated neutral zone somewhere, keeping a measured distance? Or refuse him entry unless he agreed to come only as far as our front door, and wear a hazmat suit the entire evening? But how would he even obtain a hazmat suit…?

On Love

Massimo’s admirable personality traits notwithstanding, one thing was certain: Neither of us wanted to sleep with him, and there was little recourse elsewhere. Tinder, in some sick parody of philanthropy, recently made its “passport” feature freely available to all users, meaning you can now match with people in other countries with travel bans. Hinge has rolled out depressing “digital dates.”

But absent dating apps, romance is impossible. I’ve cultivated a melancholy infatuation with an Italian language teacher on YouTube, which means competing with around 240,000 other subscribers. Massimo was somehow seeing a real-life woman pre-virus, but had to put the affair on ice. “She texts me sometimes and I reply,” he tells me. Daring romantic escapades — eloping with your lover in secret on Rome’s deserted streets, your shadows cast as one beneath the pale moonlight, your hands clasped longingly in a moment that will be over far too soon — are now inadvisable, because they pose a risk to public health. “I can’t do much at the moment,” mourns Massimo. “So there’s no point putting energy into it.” 

On Stockpiling 

Although grocery shopping isn’t (yet) a crime in Italy, doing so feels surreal. People stand in orderly lines, a meter apart from one another, waiting to go in one at a time. Cashiers wear masks and latex gloves, suffering in sweltering humidity. 

Still, there is no panic buying here. Italian supermarkets are as well-stocked as ever, almost, and this is a country where an entire bowl of spaghetti carbonara is considered to be a palate cleanser. “Don’t fill the house with food,” warns Adamo Dagradi, a Milanese businessman who has been under lockdown since the end of February, without, from what I’ve gleaned, cracking. Like me, Dagradi shops as he does under non-apocalyptic circumstances, buying mostly fresh food while adding a little bit to the stockpile — an expiring-in-half-an-hour pork roast here, 12 packets of vacuum-packed, astronaut-grade apple pie there.

Italians get this instinctively. When the lockdown was first imposed, I saw people panic buying fresh deli meats. Otherwise, says Dagradi, “you’ll contribute for no reason to empty supermarkets, and take away supplies from other people who might need them.” And why would you do that?

On Mental Health

Quarantine can drive a person stir-crazy. But don’t let yourself be drawn into a Shining-esque fugue state. Don’t let your mind drift in untoward directions. At one particularly dark moment, I began to wonder whether the coronavirus was even real, or if the world had made it up to keep me indoors, because nobody likes me. Avoid this sort of thinking. Focus your energies on productive tasks. Rick spends what feels like dozens of hours a day playing one of those procedurally generated survival games, 7 Days To Die, or otherwise disappearing into the kinder, more loving world of VR. Tragically, although I mock him for it, I just sit there watching him, blankly, whenever he plays. Ah, La Dolce Vita…

Think of these weeks of extended silence as a non-denominational equivalent of Yom Kippur, a time to reflect on all of the terrible things you’ve done, and stare hopelessly into the abyss that is your soul. I’ve spent many of these precious moments agonizing over slightly ill-judged word choices in articles I’ve written. I passed one entire day just waiting for an email to arrive (it didn’t). Alternatively, as my friend Giulia recommends, learn Spanish. 

Madeleine, a student at a Roman culinary school, staves off the hellhounds by keeping up the artifice of a meaningful daily routine. “I try to wake up sometime before 9 a.m.,” she says. “I have my breakfast and coffee and then usually go into my art studio to do a bit of work until lunch time. After I finish my meal, I go on my computer for a bit. In the afternoon, I try to get in a bit of exercise, whether it’s ballet, yoga or just some stretching.” (On my own fitness regime: Sometimes a loud, rhythmic thumping drifts in from Rick’s room; he says he’s “working out.”)

And if the crushing despair and uncertainty of self-isolation begin to chip away at your morale, remember the reason for being in lockdown. “If you feel ‘invincible,’ think about others and the fact that we’re doing this mainly to relieve the pressure on hospitals,” says Dagradi. Giulia agrees. “I found it surreal that I couldn’t go out for a drink with friends or that I couldn’t hug my best friend — the last time I moved from my neighborhood, it shocked me to see how empty my beloved city was — so ghostly,” she says. “But then I realized there was no other way, and I’m glad that the government took this hard decision.” 

I’ve had the same feeling. When Italy was the first Western country to implement a countrywide quarantine, I was tentatively pleased about it — as though I was safely at the eye of a hurricane, while everyone elsewhere was still some way off from it, downstream. I was, pathetically, grateful for the temporary infringement of my personal liberties. I wondered why other countries weren’t doing the same. I pray that this ages well.

On Nightlife

Nightlife? This isn’t Prague under Nazi occupation. There are no illegal underground quarantine raves where people sneeze on each other, just to own the government. You’re a walking, talking Chernobyl — why the hell would anybody want to go near you anyway? 

So the weekends are pretty desolate, insofar as they even exist. “There’s no difference between Saturdays and Tuesdays,” says the impossibly bleak Massimo. “They’ve all blended into one.” He considers. “I guess I read a lot and drink. But the specificity of days has kind of faded away.” You can, at least, artificially recreate what Massimo describes as “Sat vibes.” Put on some Nate Dogg and Warren G, make yours a double, then dance fruitlessly around your apartment until you collapse asleep at 8:30 p.m.

On Braving the Law

Dare you venture outside? In Rome, you have to fill out a form detailing your motives. If they’re deemed “non-essential” you can be fined up to $4,400 or imprisoned. Such activities include “playing sports with multiple people,” “jogging,” “loitering,” “visiting family members,” “being homeless” and even cycling, which the government discourages on the grounds that falling off one’s bike would take up valuable non-idiot hospital space. The form, called an “autocertificazione,” is also continuously updated, and is currently on its fifth iteration, even more oblique than the last. To get one, those without a printer can ask for one at the local post office. To get to the post office, you need to go outside. To go outside, you need a… You get the idea. 

More than 100,000 people have apparently already been fined, according to the Italian government. At the best of times, Italy motivates obedience with thousands of invisible rules — now, with the threat of police lurking on every street poised to catch curfew violators, the entire country has become an open-air panopticon

That was another consideration when Massimo wanted to come over. What if he got caught, and was frogmarched to the Colosseum and summarily executed, or thrown to the lions? The Italians are a typically laid-back people, but their government gets alarmingly authoritarian, alarmingly fast. And although we live out in the boonies where the police rarely show up, and many Italians walk around relatively freely, Massimo lives in the city center, where police cars patrol the streets, yelling at people through loudspeakers to “restate a casa!” 

Usually, I prepare an alibi, such as, “I’m shopping.” And invariably I am shopping. But if a caribiniere catches you 10 miles from your stated address with a haul that consists mostly of ice-cold Peronis, he’s going to wonder how much “shopping” you’re really doing. 

Honestly, it’s best to slavishly lick the government’s jackboot and remain in your miserable abode at all times. Especially if you live in the U.S. That’s the best way to defy Trump’s lack of a quarantine anyway, right? So barricade the front door. Don’t look out the window. Don’t even open your eyes. Just stew in a soundless, sightless stasis. When the government buckles and finally imposes a lockdown, you won’t even notice the difference. 

On the Virus Itself

Why would you even want to go outside? Outdoor surfaces — walls, metal railings, stone benches, wooden doors — seem to glow with radiation, as if tainted by the virus. Psychosomatic paranoia abounds; a sneeze feels like the kiss of death. To be sure, Rome has barely over a thousand cases, fewer than in New York, but the outbreak up north is still increasing. As of this morning, 74,386 cases have been reported, and 7,503 people have died

Every night at 6 p.m., the government reports the latest day’s toll. When the lockdown began, I had hoped the number would steadily decrease. That didn’t happen, so I hoped instead that the rate at which it went up would decrease. When that didn’t happen either, I had to settle with the “third derivative,” the rate of the rate of increase. Or, god forbid, the fourth derivative…

Few expect the lockdown to end at the supposed April 3rd expiration date. While there are signs that the rate of increase is slowing, hundreds are still dying each day, especially in the north. But there is, at least, a feeling that the “first wave” of pre-lockdown infections are finally bearing out, the two-week incubation periods having run their course. If the lockdown has been successful, the rate of increase should soon start to drop precipitously. But the government has mostly limited testing to people with severe symptoms, so we may never know how many of us are silent carriers, spreading the virus obliviously. 

So I expect to be under house arrest for at least a couple more weeks, if not months. To be frank, despite everything above, there’s something quite appealing about the prospect. Like most prisoners, I’ve somehow already become more comfortable on the inside than the outside, dubious of life beyond my four immediate walls and my stockpile of provisions, two-buck chuck and an internet’s worth of minor distractions. Not to mention, the future — mine and everybody else’s. 

Lockdown, it seems, has grown on me.