An alum reflects on life in Italy during the Covid-19 lockdown
I used to take long walks. I loved to wander through the narrow streets of Florence until the historic buildings and terraces opened up to reveal a sparkling river, which I knew to be the Arno.
I’d cross the Ponte Alle Grazie, soaking in the Tuscan sun, untill I reached the other side of Florence, the hilly part of Santo Spirito near Giardino Bardini and, beyond, the famous hilltop terrace of the Piazzale Michelangelo. Across from the Ponte Alle Grazie, the Ponte Vecchio looks as if it’s been here forever. This fortress-like bridge is where local jewelers sell fine gold and silver. As I got to Santo Spirito, my wonder at Florence’s beauty continued. Past shade-providing umbrella trees and fenced-in gardens, I’d watch the water in constant pursuit of itself. It was emerald green and glittering, rippling above the smooth watercourse bed. I’d pass rows and rows of motorcycles and tiny Fiats parked by the side of the Arno. A graffitied garbage-collector unit, a wine shop, a group of young women taking glamorous pictures by the water . . .
Being by the Arno was my heaven. I could always listen to the rumbling water and watch the sun kiss every terra-cotta roof. Sometimes I’d cross the Ponte Vecchio and pass Santa Maria Novella until I reached the long gardens of Le Cascine. Now I’d be tired, and I’d head home via the colonnaded Piazzale degli Uffizi. I’d be bumping shoulders with hordes of tourists, vendors, pickpockets, locals.
It used to take time to get around the city, to navigate my way through the crowds taking in the beauty surrounding them. But right now, in the middle of March, the piazzas are empty. The streets are clear of any foot traffic. I wish I was exaggerating, but when I step outside to do only the most essential grocery shopping, I meet not a soul. All of Florence is staying indoors because of the Covid-19 pandemic. All the shops, aside from the Conad Supermarket and some pharmacies, are closed. Florence is on lockdown.
No more do my riverside walks brighten my day. I’m confined to the apartment I share with another graduate student. Occasionally we visit a friend who lives right above the Florence leather market, which is now almost bereft of activity. When we do, we keep ourselves one full meter away from anyone we encounter and pray that we won’t be stopped by the carabinieri and questioned as to why we’re outside. To leave your house, you must carry an official document from the Ministry Interior and have a good reason to be out. Only essential travel is allowed.
Lines of people standing one meter apart wind their way around the Via Fiesolana because there are now lines out the door of the Conad Supermarket. In my tiny grocery store, workers struggle to keep up with the demands of shoppers. Employees wear masks and gloves, and they don’t touch anything except the food they ring up at the cash register. While waiting your turn, you must stand two meters away from the person in front of you. Because of this, only ten or so customers can be in the supermarket at one time, which adds to the long wait outside. Before you enter, a worker wearing a mask sprays your hands with disinfectant.
Italians are dealing with all the limitations in an inspiring way. On social media, I see videos of neighbors who have improvised musical ensembles, cobbling together various instrumental sounds as they sing from their balconies. These expressions of community hark back to festival celebrations but are also a testament to loneliness bursting through the seams. It’s a paradoxical wave of emotion through the streets as the voices, trumpets, and tambourines echo and slap against the stone walls. I feel as if I’m dreaming when this music rises up above the golden cross of the Cupola del Brunelleschi.
At night, lights are dimmed and the stars twinkle so brightly that they seem poised to explode.
For an Italian, hugging and kissing friends is an integral part of everyday life, and that being banned by the government is a harsh blow. But this morning I awoke to the booming sound of classical music coming from the window of my neighbor’s apartment. Italians are reminding each other that despite all the restrictions, the sense of community is as strong as ever. They’ve found ways to acknowledge each other and to say that we’re all in this together.
Part of me wishes that I could see springtime Florence in all its extraordinary beauty, with its festive atmosphere, its gawking tourists, its orgy of art, wine, and food. But I know that what I’m witnessing now is a kind of solidarity that goes back centuries in Italy’s history. It’s a privilege to be in a community in which amid all the fear and anxiety, I can still hear music.
This essay reflects the opinions of the author.
Photos by the author.