Part II: Life in Tuscany in the Age of Coronavirus

for Chapters 1-4 see my previous post

CHAPTER 5: FEELING NUMB

Early April: I really don’t know how to describe things now. There are too many changes, too much to take in. The whole world is spinning, but not in the direction we are used to. It reminds me of the feeling I had when I quit smoking, when I felt disoriented, like I constantly needing something, but nothing satisfied or sufficed. I feel numb.

Being the U2 fan that I am, any reference to numbness brings to mind the song Numb that came out when I was in college in the late ’90s… a carefree time with few worries in the (first) world …and a hell of a lot of fun. The lyrics of the song are so telling of that time, but some are eerily relevant today: “Don’t move, Don’t talk out of time, Don’t think, Don’t Worry, Everything’s just fine…Don’t Answer, Don’t Ask, Don’t try and make sense… I feel numb.”

The numbness I feel now comes from the inability to comprehend the enormity of what is happening, and the disorientation of not knowing where we are going, or even of which way is up. And from fear.

It is like being on a boat in rocky seas and the only thing you can do is to curl into a ball undercover and hold on tight, hoping the boat won’t capsize.

CHAPTER 6: ACCEPTANCE – SWALLOWING THE PILL

Easter – Mid-April: This is the phase in which we are realizing that either things won’t get back to normal for quite a long time, or that we may never get back to normal… that there will simply be a “new normal” to get used to. But that’s freaky. So eat, drink, garden and be merry. Distract yourself anyway you can, as this will be a hard pill to swallow. Be happy to be alive. In times like this that isn’t a given.

For me this was a transitional phase, of getting my mind ready for acceptance of things as they are, to face the facts and look beyond my own personal refuge.

April 25th is the national holiday when Italy celebrates Liberation from Nazi-fascism. This year I reflected a lot on how, even during lockdown, we are so lucky to be free. This is no walk in the park, but it is no where near totalitarian oppression and war. It could be much worse.

Getting back to the boat metaphor, this is when you are getting your sea legs. The seas are still rocky, but you get up off the floor, go above board, and try to make it to the helm.

CHAPTER 7: REALIZING THERE’S AN END IN SIGHT… BUT IT’S NOT “THE END”

April 26th: Italy’s prime minister announced that the national lockdown will be gradually loosened. Come May 4th we will be able to exercise outdoors, take walks farther than 600 ft from our home, take a walk with a family member (no more than 2 people at a time!), visit close family members (as long as it’s not a big family gathering, and only within your own region/state), hold a funeral (with max 15 people), and order take-away and delivery food. Everybody still has to wear a mask in public. So our “phase 2” is going to be like most other countries’ “phase 1”. A part of me is looking forward to it, but a part of me really feels we’re jumping the gun. And I also believe this was the first, but won’t be our last lockdown.

As of May 18th, all shops, libraries and museums can reopen and people can play team sports – but somehow still respecting social distancing. The plan is that on June 1st restaurants, bars (Italy’s cafès), and pastry shops can reopen their doors to the public, again with proper social distancing. Oh, and very importantly, June 1st gelato shops can reopen. I can handle lockdown, but I don’t think I could handle a summer without gelato. I guess I’m spoiled – and properly “Italianized”!

So things will slowly, gradually get back to “normal”. But that will be a new normal. A normal in which we continue to practice social distancing, a normal in which we will all be tested for the coronavirus, a normal in which we will not be attending any concerts, big sporting events etc for quite some time. A normal in which we are more careful about how we spend, and more attentive to what we really “need”. So we’re not really getting back to normal, to anything close to a reality we knew before… we will be instead coming to grips with a “new normal”. The big unknown.

After a period of virtual cease-fire among the Italian political parties during the height of the crisis, it is interesting and upsetting to see that opposition parties like Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (and even Renzi’s rogue Italia Viva party which is supposed to be part of the majority!) are now taking any chance they can get to say that anything people perceive as a negative now is the government’s fault. Whatever the government decides must be done, they are adamantly against it… even if they were insisting on doing the same thing just the week before.

I believe that our government has done a good job in managing the crisis, considering there was no precedent for a time like this, and that Italy was really the first democratic country to be hit by the pandemic. So yes, somethings could have been done better, but hindsight is always 20/20. I find it thus really pathetic and disturbing to see the usual fear-mongers becoming “blame-mongers.” There’s a saying in Italy that when someone shamefully takes advantage of another’s moment of vulnerability for their own gain it is like “shooting at the Red Cross / sparare sulla Croce Rossa” (which international treaties deem illegal during a battle) . So unfortunately this is one aspect in which we’ve reverted to the “old normal”.

Once again thinking about being on a boat, this is when you storm has calmed and you think you’ve made sight of land, only to realize you are still lost at sea and there are still sharks all around you.

CHAPTER 8: LOOKING BEYOND OURSELVES – AND INTROSPECTION

I now realize how gradual – and slow- my understanding of the scope of the pandemic has been and how self-centered my vision has been.

STEP 1: ME & MY FAMILY In late February, when they announced they were suspending all school field trips, I realized mobility would be limited for a lot of people. We had booked a train and an apartment in Rome for the last weekend in February, but on February 23rd decided to cancel the trip. When we requested a refund, both the owner of the apartment and the AirBnB staff were peeved and dumbfounded – they told us if we canceled out of fear of the virus we were overreacting. There were only 3 (known) cases in Rome. Tour guides throughout Italy were doing flashmobs to encourage people to not believe the hype, stay positive and keep traveling! But back then I had an inkling that any crowded place wasn’t safe, and I knew that this would affect my and my husband’s jobs as freelance tour guides working primarily with Americans. I was worried about us.

STEP 2: PEOPLE LIKE ME So I got it, but I didn’t really get it. I thought this was going to be bad news for the two of us and our jobs, and also for tour guides in general, especially because we are all self-employed.

STEP 3: FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES It took a few weeks before I realized that it would be a while before people started to travel to Italy again. This would also be massively detrimental for a whole bunch of other people who depend on tourism, like our friends who own or work in hotels, b&bs, restaurants, bars, museums, transportation, and even travel advisors, writers and agencies big and small.

STEP 4: THE INNER CIRCLE & THE “UNLUCKY” Only later did I start to realize the ripple effect this was having, with so many employees being furloughed or fired, and potentially putting out of business alabaster carvers, jewellers, wineries, honey farms, all of that “artisanal excellence” that has made Tuscany so unique over the centuries (and generally kept afloat by the “tourist dollar”). This really hurt. These are friends – people we really admire, trust and care about, people who work so hard, and so honestly. If they closed we wouldn’t just lose a business, we’d lose a part of our heritage. Forever.

I thought the world was divided between the lucky and unlucky: lucky were those who didn’t work in tourism and would eventually go back to work as normal, luckier yet were those working from home and were getting paid as usual… and unlucky were those working on the front lines (in the hospitals, in the supermarkets, repairing water lines and all essential jobs – our heroes, because we literally cannot survive without them), and unlucky were people like us who probably would have no work and no income for a year or more, and the unluckiest of all were the multitudes of people working seasonal jobs or under the table who previously earned a bare minimum, and now had nothing at all, and zero benefits. And I know I’m not even mentioning those infected with the virus or those who have died from it. That is the unmentionable worst fear.

STEP 5: NO ONE IS LUCKY RIGHT NOW I now know that even the lucky are unlucky. This will hurt everybody in ways and to extents we do not yet know. No one will go unscathed, and many wounds will be deep. With the economy plummeting everyone is affected and no one’s livelihood is certain any more. We are all going to suffer in someway. I find no joy in that, but it does lead me to hope that we will look beyond ourselves, as we are all in this together. This is the moment of big change – of the paradigm shift. But change isn’t always bad…

CHAPTER 9: FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE

I have found it so important – liberating, actually – to accept that what is happening to my career, my life, my future in this moment – and to the lives of most living beings on planet earth – is something we really cannot control. I am not a fatalist, but I certainly can’t control a pandemic, nor can anybody else of course. This is the perfect storm, and we are in the middle of it. All of us. We are, as they say, all in the same boat. And it is up to us to do our best to plug the holes in the boat, keep it afloat, keep as many people onboard as possible, and find an alternate course.

Maybe we won’t reach the destination we’d planned on. Or maybe we will, and it will just take longer than we thought. I think when we eventually hit land it will be uncharted territory.

In the meantime, I am trying to focus on how lucky I am. We live in the countryside, in a beautiful place. I am married to the love of my life, who has the house fully stocked with great bottles of wine, is an amazing cook, and was born and raised on the land where we live, so he knows it like the back of his hand. We can grow food and keep busy gardening, pruning trees, building forts. We’ve got two amazing kids that keep each other occupied (both playing and fighting!). We’ve got enough savings to keep us afloat for a bit, and if we are really frugal, our cost of living is pretty low. These are pretty solid foundations nowadays.

And we have time. That elusive object of desire of our lives until now… “I wish I had more time”…there was never enough. And now we’ve got what we asked for. So that’s the challenge of the “new normal”: learning how to use time as we truly wish. In theory I can really do anything I choose: cook, paint, write, garden, play, read…but I end up finding ways to fill up my days, and even now there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day. It is a new rhythm to get used to.

Even though I must stay at home, in a sense the world is now my oyster. So I may be out of work (as I knew it) for quite a while, but I am certainly not out of new endeavors. Who knows where this may lead? It might just be the right time to experiment with reinventing ourselves. I believe we can find a way.

4 comments

  1. A lovely, thoughtful blog! Thank you. Your father stays at my house every summer when he is at the Yellow Barn Festival in Vermont, and he has done so for about a decade now. He is a wonderful person, not to mention his wonderful voice! Stay well, as we all are aware that the virus has been really difficult in Italy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your note. It means a lot to connect with people! I hope that your travels may bring you to Tuscany someday. In the meantime, let’s all stay safe & smart …. and positive!

      Like

  2. Thank you Annie!!! I love reading your posts, and was thinking of you recently, wondering how you are doing. Stay healthy and positive! There are so many of us ( italomaniacs ) , who can’t wait to return to that wonderful country!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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