It started by casually listening to updates on the spread of the "novel COVID-19" on the BBC World News podcast over my morning espresso. Disinterested. Removed. Neutral.
Then the announcement came from my university here in Florence, the day after my students and I returned from a field trip to Padova. Huge outbreak in Northern Italy, affecting the regions of Lombardia and the Veneto. The school was monitoring the situation.
I'd already been monitoring the situation in China. I'd seen this before. I wanted to brush it off, ignore it, but I couldn't escape the looming, nagging sensation that it was going to get worse.
Image credit: Alexandra Wendt
Two days later, one of my fellow teaching assistants told me that she'd heard from the undergrads that they'd been told they would be evacuated, if the situation got bad enough. That's preposterous, I said. They're just planning for extremes. No way that will happen.
It did. A day later.
Within one week, all of the happiness and stability I had finally, finally managed to cultivate after an excruciating past year crumbled. I found myself fearing for the status of my job, uprooted and uplifted as the unthinkable happened--people were trying to make me go home. Italy was in a state of emergency. I am a U.S. citizen. Just go home.
But I was already home.
I've lived in Italy for over two years now. After coming and going, filling out three different visa applications, this year was the year I was supposed to relax and finally, finally be secure in the thought that it would be own choice if I ever left, not external circumstances. I had found stability. I had found a path to follow. For the first time since I departed my hometown for college, seven years ago, I had started to take root somewhere.
I had a life here, after longing for one as a starry-eyed study abroad student. I'd tackled immigration procedures, grumpy Poste workers, dodged transportation strikes, and despite it all I still loved my adopted country dearly.
I have a man I love here. The thought of leaving him--and under these circumstances--was absolutely heart-wrenching.
It's still hard to process what's happened, and with the situation changing daily, I've held off writing a blog post. I'm not an infectious disease specialist--and neither are most of you--and I'm afraid of spreading false information. All I can do is record my personal experience.
It's surreal. It's like being in a science fiction novel. I've tried to stop listening to most of the news, other than for important updates, and I avoid American headlines altogether because they make it sound like we're in a war zone. Though it does feel like that more, day by day.
When I first started writing this post, only the north was under lockdown. A few hours later, it was the entire country. When I went outside the morning after, there were still people in the streets, perhaps fewer, though a huge line trailed outside of my grocery store. When I went to take my afternoon coffee later, taped Xs on the floor marked where people could stand--at least a meter apart.
A day later all bars, restaurants, and shops closed. The Florence mayor now discourages walks and runs (a huge sacrifice for this girl who's used to regular workouts). The only places open are grocery stores and pharmacies, and even those are closed on weekends now. You aren't allowed to leave home other than for work, grocery shopping, or health reasons (walking the dog is okay too). You'll need to fill out a certificate that validates where you're going, if the police stop you.
Social media hashtags changed from #iononmifermo (I don't stop) to #iorestoacasa (I stay at home) overnight. Those of us who scoffed at the initial "overreaction" to the situation are now concerned. I mocked the people stockpiling supplies, while my own freezer is full and bottles of wine crowd my kitchen (#priorities). I am in the unique and bizarre situation of being one of the only young Americans in Florence. Bar workers in the center who used to greet me with the same general disdain they gave to the American students later gave me bright, eager smiles with a friendliness taken right out of my Midwestern hometown.
Now we all remain at home and try to make the best of a bleak situation. Try to warn the world about how bad it can get.
I applaud the way Italy has handled the situation. From the beginning, they have taken aggressive measures against this virus, being one of the only countries actively testing for it. The measures now are extreme, but they need to be extreme in order to put an end to this.
I hope I can say this is the end, and all we need to do is comply with the rules and ride it out. I hope April 3rd is a joyous day of celebration as everything reopens, children go back to school, businesses operate as normal, and people stop wearing masks in public. I hope the rest of the world sees a slowdown in the number of cases over the coming weeks.
All I can do is hope and pray because I've learned to stop assuming at this point.
I love my adopted country, and it breaks my heart to watch what it's going through. If there's one thing I've learned about Italians, it's that they are some of the most resilient people I've ever seen. They--we--are going to get through this.
For the rest of the world: please take note.