How often have you thought about a landmark, a museum, or a town nearby that you will leave that for later to visit, because there is plenty of time for that and there are other things to see first? In November 2019 I wrote about exactly that in the context of my visit to the town of Bergamo and that I was glad I hadn’t left it for later. I had no way of knowing how frighteningly accurate that observation would be. A few months later, we were all out of time and none of us could go anywhere, not even places nearby, and most certainly not to Bergamo.
My blog post on Bergamo also ended up being the last thing I have written for a long time. For most of the last six months I had no time to write another blog post and by the time I did have time again, I did not know how or what to write next. And because of everything that happened in Bergamo, I felt very strongly that I could not just continue with writing posts as I had previously done, without giving recognition to what happened in Italy and my experience there during these times of COVID-19.
I was living and working in Milan when COVID-19 struck and sent Italy into lockdown, the first Western country to do so, after China. Ironically, I had just arrived in New York for a long weekend when the news of a COVID-cluster near Milan started spreading and Codogno and surrounding villages were put into lockdown. Over that long weekend, in between visits to museums, bars and Broadway, I communicated back and forwards with colleagues in Italy and Australia on what actions we would have to take. By the time I flew back to Milan on the Monday night of 24 February, the outbreak was growing and the plane was virtually empty. All that free space would normally have felt like a luxury, but now it felt distinctly uncomfortable. Never mind being able to stretch out during the night flight; I felt like I was flying into the eye of the storm. In the immigration queue at Malpensa I noticed a man in front of me wearing a mask and surgical gloves and applying sanitiser to the gloves. I remember thinking to myself that he was overreacting. With the benefit of hindsight I have to admit that maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all.
Back at work, that last week of February and the first two weeks of March were chaotic and surreal weeks. Decrees and regulations changed daily, televised addresses by the Prime Minister became must-watch television, shops closed, Milan’s streets and squares emptied. You could have fired a cannon through the normally busy Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and not hit a soul. The city felt like it was holding its breath.
I was mainly focused on how to keep my team safe, while still delivering key services to our clients. Those who could do their job remotely, worked from home. For the others we developed a roster of only necessary staff, but I felt uneasy asking staff to come in, particularly those with a long commute. When the announcement of full lockdown came, it was almost a relief. Some people still tried to escape the city, rushing to Milan Central Station and jumping on the last train to Salerno. It was so reminiscent of the novel The Plague by Albert Camus. Most of us, however, settled quietly into our confinement. Once the rest of the country followed suit, it was time to also close the office and when I locked the doors for the final time, I did so not knowing when I would be able to reopen. We were in uncharted territory, like those sea charts of old days: here be dragons.
As the ICUs started filling up and the hospital system was teetering on the edge of collapsing under the strain, other European countries quickly followed into similar lockdowns. I had hoped that things would quieten down, but the contrary was the case. There were televised press conferences to follow every night, regulations kept changing, airports were closing and it was difficult for travellers to find a way out of Italy and back home. The phone rang off the hook. Infection numbers went up rapidly and were followed by a quick rise in the number of deaths. I remember one evening doing a double take when they announced 133 deaths. Later that would seem so low compared to the average of the daily death tally that hovered in the 600s for many weeks, peaking at 919 at one point. Now of course those numbers have been overtaken by what is happening in Brazil, India and the US, but back then those numbers were shocking. And to be honest, they still are; Italy lost a generation there and so many families are grieving the abrupt loss of grandparents and parents.
Days seemed endless, filled with an intense level of work. I would fall asleep on the sofa watching the news, sometimes over food. Exhaustion was taking hold. The streets of Milan emptied further. The few people that had to be outside scurried along, avoiding other people to the point of crossing to the other side of the street. We wore masks and gloves and looked at each other with fear in our eyes. Normally Italians are so affectionate, but now we did not want to be near anyone.
Once a week I would go to the nearby supermarket to stock up on supplies, equipped with mask, gloves and a self-declaration form filled out in case the authorities stopped you. Even early in the morning there was already a queue building. An hour’s wait was normal and once I waited an hour and a half to get inside the store. And when you finally did make it inside, there was no joy in the act of grocery shopping itself. The supermarket was well stocked, but you simply moved rapidly through the store to get your needs, touching as little as possible, getting through the checkout as fast as possible. The waiting times I didn’t mind; I used it as a time to listen to a podcast or call a friend and soak up some fresh air (from behind my mask) standing outside, before returning to the home to carefully unpack, wondering whether any of the items possibly carried the virus.
Whenever I would get out, what would strike me were the faces of dogs being walked. They had this look of incredulous bliss on their faces, a smile from ear to ear and they would look at other people as if to say “see, my owner is taking me for walks and is with me all the time. Life is so so good!” That was in sharp contrast to the faces of the homeless. On one of the first nights of the lockdown, I watched from my window two homeless men below in the street. They were both sitting on a street bench, but each at one end of the bench, as far apart as they could be to abide by the rules, but still seeking some comfort in each other’s presence. They were sharing some food with each other. It was a heartbreaking scene to see. They had no safe place to go to in this pandemic, no home to hide in. They only had each other’s company. At a distance.
The sound of ambulance sirens was all-pervasive. Italian ambulance sirens are loud, very loud. And for weeks on end they did not stop; they went on and on and on and on. Ask anyone who was in Milan during these months and they will all say how they remember the continuous sound of ambulance sirens. After a while I was able to predict fairly accurately what the daily number of new infections was in the province of Milan, based on the intensity of ambulance sirens I heard during the day. The numbers kept climbing, particularly in Bergamo and Brescia. The morgues filled beyond capacity and convoys of army trucks took the dead away to other morgues. Then the numbers started climbing in Milan until they were the worst in the country, but in terms of impact, Bergamo was the hardest hit location and overall far too many doctors and nurses succumbed to the virus.
Somehow in the midst of all this anxiety, death and grief, nature did its normal thing: spring arrived. The swallows returned to nest above the window of my study. I watched the gentle unfurling of tree leaves in the street below, from wispy green fluff, to darker, strong leaves. On a webcam I watched peregrine falcon chicks grow into their disproportionately large feet, shed their baby down, unfold their feathers and learn to fly. And for the first time I could see the Alps from my apartment, now that the smog had disappeared.
Eventually, after weeks and months, the team and I started feeling drained. The mad stress of the full on crisis was gone and was replaced by exhaustion, a lack of hope and fear for the future. Although the health crisis was passing, the scale of the economic crisis was obvious and there was great concern for what was ahead. For now, all we could do was celebrate the little wins and hold on to those experiences.
When things gradually opened up, the first freedom I enjoyed was a walk in the park. The lockdown had been one of the strictest globally and to be able to get out for a walk in the park felt like an incredible luxury. The trees were in leaf, I marvelled at the texture of bark, listened to the sound of gravel under my feet and loved seeing the open spaces of green before my eyes.
After a few weeks of this luxury, restrictions were relaxed to allow travel inside our region of residence. Lucky for me Lombardy is a large region. I was still a bit apprehensive about heading out, so my first foray was a car trip and I drove to nearby Lago d’Iseo for a loop around the lake. As the following weekend was promising good weather, I decided on a walk in the Bergamasque Alps (Alpi Orobie). That same weekend, on the advice of one of my colleagues, I visited the city of Mantova on my way to lunch in the country at the house of friends. All those excursions brought a sense of renewal and helped regain confidence in being out and about. Notwithstanding the relief in seeing other people, most of us still stepped around each other with great care, maintaining as much distance as possible, particularly with the elderly. We all smiled at each other with our eyes above our masks and made a point of saying hello to each other.
Another fortnight later, travel between regions was allowed. Knowing that I was in the tail end of my assignment and that the clock was about to run out on my time in Italy, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Ligurian coast and took a weekend trip to the fishing village of Camogli. I headed out on a Friday morning and just after lunchtime I was sitting on the terrace of the hotel where I had booked, overlooking the village and the sea. There was truly nothing more that I wanted from life at that moment: a warm seat in the shade, sun on my legs, a beautiful view, an aperol spritz and a bowl of olives in front of me. I took in the light reflecting on the water, the sound of the waves crashing on the pebbly beach, the soft pastel colours of stone houses and the squeals of delight of teenagers swimming in the sea and congregating at a rock barrier. I sat there for hours, not wanting to move from this newfound happiness. As long as I sat there, I felt all was well with the world.
Eventually I had to move, of course, in every sense of the word. In mid-July it was time to leave Italy and return to Australia. I moved through nearly empty and eerily quiet airports, on planes that were at very reduced capacity, looked after by airline staff dressed in PPE. On landing in Sydney I was briskly moved into 14-days hotel quarantine. Afterwards, fresh air never tasted so sweet and the road trip from Sydney to Melbourne was both cathartic and healing, driving through Australia’s big landscapes in that special quality of light that you only find down under, and a wedge-tailed eagle soaring on a thermal in the sky.
Of course as luck would have it, I arrived in Melbourne the night before six weeks of Stage 4 restrictions were announced, so it was back to lockdown and a curfew to boot. We are in week five now and the infection numbers are coming under control. With a bit of luck we will soon be allowed to slowly start expanding our boundaries again. In these past months I’ve learned to find beauty in small and simple things – a spring blossom seen on my daily walk, birds warbling in the grey-blue dawn as the night flees, the smell of freshly baked bread, a tangerine sunset, the pale mirror of the Bay on a wind still morning, a flowering bottle brush shrub. Once restrictions are slowly being lifted it will be time to go and visit all those places nearby that I’ve neglected in the past. After all, you never know when time is lost again.