Yesterday morning, I hopped on a Google Hangouts call with Jill Weinreich, an American art director and professional translator who’s lived and worked in Italy since the 1990s. I was in my home office here in St. Louis (the whole TravelAwaits team is working from home); Jill was in her Venetian dining room. It was evening there -- the end of another day of Italian lockdown in response to COVID-19.
If you’ve been following the news, you’ve seen the numbers and maps awash with red. Italy has been hit hard. According to Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center, it’s second only to China in terms of confirmed coronavirus case counts by country. And then there’s the reporting about the Italian lockdown. But what’s it really like? And what do people in Italy wish we knew as we make our own decisions -- personally, as families, and as a nation -- in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Jill shared her thoughts openly, and I found them both surprising and heartening. Here’s what she hopes we’ll keep in mind.
‘The Me Mentality Is Not Going To Work’
In the States, many of us are committed to social distancing, which Jill said people in Italy were told to do at first, too. But as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases grew exponentially, Italian officials started to realize just how serious the disease is.
Jill was honest: She worries that the majority of Americans still aren’t taking the threat of coronavirus seriously, and she finds it disheartening. At this point, she said it’s not even about numbers, because if you don’t know how many people are being tested, the numbers mean nothing.
Instead, she said, “The reason that everybody is being asked to limit what they do is community.” She told me, “It’s the whole me mentality that is not going to work.”
‘It Is A Lockdown; We’re Not Under Martial Law’
As Italian employers started encouraging “smart working” -- the Italian lingo for working from home -- to encourage social distancing, those with more flexibility in their schedules started meeting up at bars and cafes for social interaction. Distancing wasn’t working. The government started implementing total closures, which now apply across the country and essentially mean the closure of bars and restaurants to prevent casual social interaction. But Jill stressed that the country isn’t under martial law.
“Everybody I know is absolutely in favor of these restrictions. Nobody I know is fighting it,” she said. It might have taken some time, but people in Italy have come to realize what Jill summed up when she told me, “The only way to fight this right now is ourselves. Nothing medically. Nothing invented or found. We know this works.” And by this, she means staying home as much as possible.
Italian police are enforcing the lockdown, but I was surprised when Jill showed me a nearly page-long list of businesses that have been deemed necessities. It isn’t just banks, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, and post offices that are open. In fact, Jill’s husband runs a business that’s been deemed a necessity, so he still has to go out to work and probably won’t be eligible for the same financial support as those who work for or own businesses that have closed.
That said, Jill explained that they live in an area with a lot of green space. In fact, her home is near the last vaporetto (the Venetian water bus) stop before the Lido, and there’s been a lot of criticism in online neighborhood groups that there are still too many people outside.
“The weather is gorgeous,” she told me, “and there are so many people out. But the police have stepped up their patrolling. You can be stopped. They want to know why you’re out. You can be fined, or you have to sign a self declaration,” essentially swearing that you’re on your way to or from a necessary outing.
While we were chatting, Jill said she wished she could take and share more pictures of the now very empty Piazza San Marco, but that when she tried to capture a few shots on the way from a grocery run the other day, her husband wanted to keep moving so they wouldn’t be questioned by the police.
‘This Is Not A Hardship’
Jill explained that the Veneto region where she lives has been hit hard by COVID-19, but that it’s the Lombardy region (which encompasses Milan and Como) that’s seen the most deaths. Her stepson lives there. “He said all you hear is ambulances going back and forth all day long,” she told me. The other day, the Bergamo (another Lombardy city) newspaper had 10 pages of obituaries. People are not even allowed to have funerals right now.
In light of this, and even in light of the fact that “the city of Venice is on its knees,” she said, “Being told to stay at home, for me, is not a hardship. It’s a solution.” She was very forthcoming about the fact that the lockdown is affecting every aspect of her life. She has no work right now. But she said, “The thing I do have control over is how I spend my day. My thoughts. Trying to support my husband. We’re just going to get through it and get our community healthy again, and then pick up the pieces. I prefer not to complain. This is not a hardship,” and she’s not feeling stir crazy.
She said she always has projects to do at home, but that she hasn’t been particularly productive. She has a lot going through her head. “I’m not thrilled to watch the economy of the country I call home tank,” she confessed. And she has older family members to think about, too. In Venice, her father-in-law has been in the hospital for over a month (for reasons unrelated to COVID-19). Her father is back in the States. She’s asked him to self-isolate.
‘It Will Get Better’
But Jill said it’s probably going to get a lot worse first. “I guess that’s why I wish people in the U.S. would take this seriously.” I was surprised when she said she’s looking forward to the day when tourists return. But then, she’s made her life in a city that’s dependent on the travel industry. Right now, all the shutters are closed. Bars and cafes are closed. The doors to the hotels are locked up. “I’m walking these empty streets thinking, How am I going to feel? I’m going to feel so grateful when there are other people here.”
While she stresses that you should stay home now, she also wants people to know that “when we have a new sense of normalcy in the future and people start feeling safe about traveling again, you can be sure [that you’ll be welcomed] with open arms.”
A friend whose daughter is supposed to get married in Italy this year asked Jill what they should do. “When the time is right,” Jill told her, “they’re going to treat her like a queen. It will be a very good time for travel at some point in the future.” She suggests that folks who want to travel to Italy postpone rather than canceling their trips completely, which is a suggestion we make in our article on ways to support your favorite travel businesses, even from home.
Jill reiterated that there’s no reason to panic. Just stay home. “Stay home because you can,” she said. Our conversation was a good reminder for me. Since we talked, I’m feeling even more empowered in my decision not to go out -- and grateful that I don’t have to (I can work from home; my house is very comfortable; I have plenty of food and don’t rely on medication). I’m also feeling more connected to people around the world and excited to travel when the time is right.
Jill pointed out that there are ways to get your Italy fix and “enjoy Italy from an armchair.” “You can support Italian businesses. You can visit museums for free online.” Of course, you can also read up on Italian destinations and itineraries.
“Promote a bit of positivity,” Jill advised. “This is about a solution.”
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