Tutto andrà bene
"Everything will be fine"... eventually. I'm writing this after almost 3 weeks of isolation in Florence, Italy. A lot has happened since the beginning of the epidemic; work has slowed for me and stopped for others, including my husband, and thousands of Italians have died. As citizens who have had a head start participating in this disaster, it's clear from our perspective that the U.S. is in line for unprecedented tragedy. Hexed Patriot, this blog of mine, has been on the back-burner for months and now that my commissions have receded some I have the time to return to personal projects. To start, I've been revising my firsts posts and sprucing up old illustrations. Although the writing is from only from October, I'm disappointed that a lot of the content has been rendered trivial and irrelevant in the face of our current crisis. I wrote about making an effort to put my work down and leave the house more. I described mental health for day-to-day maintenance, and even my experiences with casual racism. The last two examples are still worth discussing, but the magnitude in which they've grown into real and urgent problems we need to face is not described well because their context has been turned upside down. Italy, soon after China, became the epicenter of the Coronavirus this February. The northern part of Italy was hit especially hard and in consequence, the mass amount of infection caused the closure of entire regions. Shortly thereafter the entire country was put into quarantine, meaning we can only leave the house for the most necessary of reasons. For example going grocery shopping and delivering groceries to elderly family members is permitted and of course, if you have a dog, walks are permitted as well. All of these abrupt changes and concern about the epidemic itself have created a lot of conflicting and strong emotions in a lot of us. To be honest the full impact of the situation is still doesn't feel completely real to me. So to sort out all of the confusion, this post is broken down into sections regarding how life has changed for us in Italy and how that's affected life as an expat:
Intro: What it was like in the beginning
1) Food & Essentials: Do we have enough and how do we get it?
2) Work: Up yours, the world, this wasn't another excuse for Italians to find more time for vacation.
3) Family & Friends: How do you take care of those around you and as expats how do we care for those who live an ocean away?
From the top.
Fear of the virus in Italy did not differ greatly from most other countries at the beginning of the year. As a country with a high level of tourism, it was a concern that tourists would bring the virus to any of the cities with especially dense tourist traffic like Venice, Rome, or Florence. There was one couple from Wuhan that stayed in Florence who tested positive with Covid-19 but their illness was contained as was the case with the rest of the isolated infections. Then in the latter half of February, cases of covid-19 in the north skyrocketed. The numbers grew by the thousands in just a matter of days followed by an alarming death toll. Many individual towns and regions closed their borders and around this time the Chinese community in Florence (one of the largest communities in Europe) isolated themselves as well. Racist sentiments did, and do continue to fly from the mouths of public figures and, of course, the cesspool of Facebook and the like. In the first week of March, a friend from high school came to Florence for work. We went out a couple of times and I made the effort to choose a variety of locales in all corners of the city. Bar hopping, we went to my favorite spots in the center around the Duomo and also back on my side of the river, the Oltrarno. By the end of her week-long stay and our final night out, it was clear that a lot had changed since the time she arrived. In Florence, the streets are made up of ancient stone towers, and rows and rows lightly colored buildings with dark green shutters. The ground floors of these buildings host businesses and the storefront windows of restaurants, gelaterias, and sandwich shops packed tightly together, nearly touching the curb. On this particular night, there was no steady stream of tourists filing down the narrow streets past the normally lit windows, they were instead closed by graffitied, metal shutters rolled down over the doors and displays, locked to the ground as if they had always been abandoned. However, the pubs were still open, and nothing prevented us from walking the city end-to-end catching up and drinking until well after two in the morning. We said good-bye and by the time she was on her plane back to America, the Italian government announced that they had quarantined the majority of Italy's northern provinces. Elia, my husband, and I canceled our trip to Ravenna (in the north), planned for the following week, and my parents canceled their trip to visit us for the week after that. It was then announced all public gatherings spaces were to be closed, including all bars (bars are like cafès here), food distributors except grocery stores and other essential stores (some takeout is still available), and cinemas. And just like that, Elia was out of work just like thousands of others who didn't have the option to work from home. Just hours after the closure announcement, there came another declaring that all of Italy would be following the north into complete isolation. I became very aware of the amount of potential exposure my friend and I had her final night in all of the tiny and packed bars. From the time my friend had departed the country and to the moment of the national quarantine only two days had passed. The 7th to the 9th of March. The whole world saw videos of Italians showing their support for one another by singing and playing instruments from the balconies at six pm during the first days of the quarantine. The third or so day of quarantine everyone stood at their windows at noon to applaud the health workers and their enormous contributions to our safety. The sound was not loud but it was enormous- it could be heard coming from all directions like a rainstorm. Many of the little kids now out of school made hand-colored signs to hang in their windows with rainbows and the words "tutto andrà bene", everything will be ok. In that first week, I took our dog for a long walk to see the empty city usually packed with tourists and locals alike. Florence, still beautiful and impressive had become exactly what officials ordained it be: completely abandoned and silent. An empty Piazza Del Duomo in broad daylight is almost certainly a sight I will never see again in my life. My friend said the first time she left the house she thought her ears had popped because it was so quiet. It felt, and still feels apocalyptic.
After the first week, the quarantine started to feel like a weight. Changes made to our daily lives started to feel less odd and more oppressive. It began to dawn on me that this was only the first week of many, many more to come. We're still fortunate that Florence has remained relatively free of the virus, but concern for the vulnerable around us has grown into consistent worry pressed into the back of our heads. The music stopped, no more clapping, a lot of people realized that everything was not going to be ok anytime soon. It was deemed inappropriate to celebrate when hundreds of people were dying every day. Last week we lost nearly 800 people in a single day which was a record until last Friday, the 27 with 969 losses in one day. This is where we stand now. A lot of us have settled into quarantine life and found ways around the loneliness and pent-up energy, but as the third of April (the estimated end of our quarantine) comes closer it's become clear this will probably not be achieved. So, we continue our lockdown routines and we wait.
Official information about covid-19 in Italy:
Food & Essentials
-Toilet paper vs. bidet
Food: The most common thing I've been asked by all of my concerned friends and family outside of Italy is how we get our groceries and if the store shelves are barren. From the beginning, there hasn't been a lot of panic buying here. There are no shortages of anything deemed essential- including toilet paper. Grocery stores are still open, but many Italians don't do all of their shopping at grocery stores electing to instead go to separate vendors: the greengrocer, the butcher, the cheesemonger (I want to believe that's the only English word for it), etc. We're lucky to live in the city center because we live within walking distance to several options and prefer to go to independent vendors- especially now because the lines are shorter than the grocery store. Today, for example, I left the house to buy vegetables, bread, and wine. My favorite bakery is essentially 1 small room lined with display cases of pastries and behind the counter, several baskets stacked on the walls filled with different sorts of bread. The bakery, minuscule like most other stores in the area, only lets in one person in at a time. Today the line had about three people who were queued outside the door and across the street keeping the one-meter (six feet) of distance. All it took was a global pandemic to convince Italians to form lines, definitively proving that the always could but just chose not to. I cut a girl in line once and I still feel bad about it nearly a year later.
The vegetable vendor sets up every day in the piazza by our house, which has never changed but what has changed is the barricade of milk crates they've set up to keep the customers several feet away from the vendors and their stock. They even put up signs telling us where to queue along with their stand that stretches about thirty feet (c.1-? meters) at the edge of the square. The first week they were giving away free food donated by the surrounding restaurants knowing their stock would go bad anyway. On my way home I do pass the grocery store which has people lined up for almost two blocks. No thank you. These changes haven't been too bad, it just takes a little more time and a lot more strength at least on Elia's part. Once a week he has been doing rounds to all of these vendors, going to the grocery store for anything he's missed then driving all of it back to his mother who lives in the suburbs. Unless you have a dog leash in your hand, you're subject to get questioned by the police and fined if you do not have a valid reason to be outside of your house. To avoid the ticket, each person must write down on a signed piece of paper who they are, what they are doing, who they will be seeing, and what time they left the house. Toilet paper vs. bidet: Some friends and I had a dinner party a day or so before the lockdown and one of the Italian guests whispered to her table-neighbor "ma perche non usano i bidet?". Straight from the horse's mouth: why doesn't the rest of the world use bidets? The Italians and the French have been saying this for decades and now that America has nothing to wipe its butt with, I'm sure they feel even more superior than normal. Let's just dispel a few misconceptions regarding the bidet though: -You use TP and the bidet, but you use a lot less TP because you wash your butt after with bidet soap and water. -You don't walk away with a wet ass! We're not animals, there are special bidet towels hung next to the bidet and no, we don't share them. However, I know many Americans who did not know these little towels were not to dry your hands- or face with. Listen, mistakes have been made, but we understand now how the bidet is essential. -You don't have to wash your bum in freezing cold water. It's like a sink, so it can be hot or cold or even luke-warm. We live in the future, truly. Elderly Neighbors: We live on the top floor of an apartment building shared by an elderly woman and an elderly man, I'm not sure how old but they definitely have seen a vintage Nazi or two back in the day. The woman lives on the first floor has a son who is very nice and has been taking care of her needs. The man lives directly below us and eats candy every night at around 3 am then throws the wrappers out the window and assumes no one notices the mountain of wrappers outside our door every morning. Unfortunately, he lives alone. Every time we go out for supplies we knock and ask if he needs anything; it's usually just a newspaper or some cake. Obviously, he's getting his real food elsewhere and we keep catching him doing his own shopping. He thinks it's hilarious how worried we are but we'll keep asking each time we go out anyway and hope that he remains healthy. It's not like we can stop him. Last time I confronted him he shouted several blasphemies followed by "I simply can't stay inside all day!". In case you were wondering he's still managed to get his hands on loads of wrapped candy even in the lockdown.
Image 1: Piazza Santo Spirito with only vegetable stands, and people standing apart
Image 2: Chiesa Santo Spirito (opposite of the vegetable stands)
Image 3: A normally busy street with new pavement and no cars- or people
Image 4: A flyer posted by neighborhood organizations offering free delivery of groceries to those who are worried about leaving the house. On the bottom it's written:"In questi giorni difficili crediamo sia fondamentale aiutarsi a vicenda" (In these difficult days we believe it is essential to help each other).
Image 5: By the Ponte Vecchio, nearly empty. A frame used for advertising cultural events instead has a poster instructing people to stay inside, wash their hands, and what to do if one believes to be sick.
-As a freelancer
-As a hired (defendant) employee
Like thousands of other people, in Italy and now back at home in the US, work has been canceled or transitioned to function remotely, or just ended altogether. I'm sure I don't need to elaborate on how this sudden blow feels. Here's what it's been looking like in our household: Freelance: Obviously I work from home, so that has not changed too much for me. However, a few of my regular clients have been a little quiet. A lot of the businesses we do graphic work for I imagine are closed so there's no point doing ads or promoting the events they've had to cancel. I can live with that. I just finished up a few other projects including another illustration for Culture Trip, so I'm ok at the moment. As a freelancer, I will get some assistance from the government. Although I have a feeling my work will slow, I feel fortunate that I probably won't be without work. Dependant: Elia, is in a more common situation as an employee with a full-time contract. Every worker, no matter what they do, is entitled to paid sick leave. Obviously, in the face of a pandemic, there are special circumstances and those who cannot work, even from home, right now will be given a stipend. I'm not really sure what this will look like at the moment. Either way, I'm worried about Elia's work situation in the long-term. Before the lockdown, he worked in a cinema that closes for half the summer and it's possible it just might not reopen this season. His second job as a tour guide has been completely obliterated as no one knows when Italy's quarantine will end. Additionally, it's impossible to know when other country's quarantines will end which is unfortunate because their tourists support many people in cities like Florence. To keep up Elia's tour-guide game, I recommend he practices with our dog who is the only one who is truly allowed to tour the city at the moment.
Family & Friends
Family: Well this is a tough one. I'm sure we're all worried about our parents and grandparents at the moment, this is very real fear all of us are sharing right now. Elia's dad has cancer and therefore a weak immune system. Recognizing that he's especially vulnerable we've stopped seeing him before the quarantine officially began. Unfortunately, hospitals are risky places for people like his dad so they've stopped his treatment altogether. This is one of those situations that is hard and it's shitty because no one has much control of the situation at any level. Things aren't all bad; Elia's been talking to his dad on the phone almost every day plus his dad is a woodsy sort so he's happy in his home in the country. His dad also has an amazing partner looking after him, I don't know her well but the way that she's volunteered step in indicates that she's genuinely a good person. There's no point worrying more about this situation, it can't be changed and from my perspective, Elia is doing the most that he can do so the most that I can do is support him. My family back at home is ok. They're also spread out all over America and one even lives in Thailand. I've of course gotten many, many messages from all of them as they've been following the news of Italy's crisis. My immediate family is also spread out: Alaska, San Diego, and New York. For the first time my mother is a bit undone over our distance- she, of course, is worried that if anything were to happen to any of us she can no longer just hop on a plane to reach us. Her concern is warranted especially because, in a stroke of bad luck, two of her kids are in two of the most contaminated places on the planet. I would have and would still be ok if I got sick as I'm with my husband and dog, my brother Stuart in NYC is alone however and going a bit stir crazy. Especially because he has the fucking virus. Stuart is young so he's going to be ok, it's just uncomfortable and he obviously cannot leave his house for any reason. He told me he's so bored and all he wants to do is just go to the grocery store. We're fortunate that this is the extent we've been affected by the virus. It's mentally taxing as a country to watch the continual tragedy unfold in Northern Italy. The amount of death is staggering and seeing just the pictures of literal parades of trucks filled with bodies seeking cremation because they're running out of disposal space is horrible. As an American over here, I'm scared and angry at how slow the U.S. has been to act and how not enough people are taking it seriously. I don't care how bored you are at home, I know you need to blow off steam because the gyms are closed, but stay the fuck home. Don't go to the park, don't go for a fucking jog, don't go to the fucking beach, most of you have yards over there- the sun still shines out back doesn't it? the guilt of knowing that you've passed on the virus and killed someone is plausible, horrible and totally preventable.
Friends (and Home): At least a lot of us living over here are used to communicating through video chat with our friends who live far away, it's just weird chatting with friends who live down the street. After the first few days of the quarantine, we started missing going out for drinks and dinner so we made the point to have dinners, drinks, and aperitivo together via chat.
Now that my American buddies are in quarantine, it's been easier to get more of us together to "hang out" so in that sense a lot of us have been more connected than ever. I've had fun designating time to make social connections in my own home using fun apps like Houseparty. There's just a light cloud of sadness that hangs over all of these meetings though, we're happy to be together but it doesn't feel like a celebration. As Italians, we've faced a lot of hardship and in turn, have seen the best in humanity as well. Even just in our neighborhood, there's been a lot of effort to help out everyone even if it is just respecting the rules of the quarantine, for the most part.
Thoughts and Prayers and Pitchforks and Torches
As Americans in Italy, many of us have been sharing some genuinely, strong and negative emotions about our country, teetering on the edge of disaster. We see a country that is not only divided and disdainful of science, but they're also unprepared, the U.S. system is simply not built to help the most vulnerable people in our population. Those who are poor, marginalized, and have "pre-existing conditions" that in other countries is just called a "medical history" have always had little options for class mobility. The number of persons who are now sliding into these categories is rapidly rising and the US government simply hasn't done enough or hasn't done anything quick enough to help its citizens- especially when compared to the actions of other first world countries. Not only when it has come to financial aid in a crisis, but the preparedness and ability of the healthcare system to take care of patients and even healthcare workers.
It's easy and privileged for me to say "America needs basic services like mandatory paid sick leave and universal healthcare," from over here in Europe. But the reason we have governments that function more for the people rather than profit is that they fought for it and stood their ground for as long as it took. The disregard for life that the U.S. government has blatantly shown its people in the past few weeks should enrage you. Americans can have the care they deserve if they take to the streets and take what's theirs.
Just take to the streets after the pandemic has passed.
We've seen America come together and go above and beyond for their neighbors in times of hardship, and we're hoping that not only will we see it again as the virus continues to spread but we also hope this unity will be the motivation for citizens to fill the gaping holes in our government's public services that unfortunately will consume many people in the coming months.
Here's some fun reading:
Where Gig Economy Workers And Freelancers Can Look For Some Relief Today*It's worth mentioning that the majority of resources mentioned in this article lists are private- and not publicly funded resources. Many gig workers at the mercy of their "employers"