Phase 1: warnings
There were stories in the news about the virus in China since January. When the first infection hit Rome, I told my students to remain calm. The cases were isolated and contained. Still, it clearly worried more than a few people, because when I visited Venice for the opening weekend of Carnevale, the crowds were bearable — no cruise ship rabble to be seen anywhere.
At that time, unbeknownst to most, a new red death was making its way through the masses in Venice that night. Most of northern Italy, in fact.
At the time though, all I thought of was my one true love back in America, and how much she would have enjoyed the nighttime pyrotechnics and acrobatics on the canal. This year’s theme: Love and Folly. What a folly I had committed against love, coming out to this godforsaken country. But I had signed a contract, and with my insane patchwork of career moves, I could nary afford to renege.
A week later, as I packed for my week in Turkey, the first cases appeared in Milan and the Italian government issued a general warning to wash our hands frequently and maybe rethink flight plans. That’s okay, I thought. All will be fine – andra tutto bene. I am young, American, and full of vinegar and third-world parasites. I survive everything.
Turkey was grand. I recommend everyone visit at least once in their life. You know… once all this blows over. That country truly is the world’s largest museum, a layer cake of history, food, culture, language, life, and death, spanning thousands of years. Thanks to my friend Desma for the couch and too much wine.
Returning home, I landed at Bergamo, one of Milan’s three regional airports (yes, that Bergamo). Medical staff in green scrubs and N-95 face masks scanned passengers’ temperatures as they de-boarded. I had a moment of, “This is like the third act of ‘E.T.’ when the government storms Elliot’s home,” and it would not the the last time that thought crossed my mind.
Just behind me in line, a fellow in fine clothing coughed openly into the air, which I thought extremely inconsiderate even in the best of circumstances.
The customs official looked like he was in the middle of his third consecutive double shift, but still greeted me with a halfhearted buon giorno. At this point, I knew nothing of Bergamo’s “Ground Zero” status for COVID in Italy.
At the bus stop outside the airport, a foreigner clamored for help locating the bus to Milan’s city center. She spoke a heavily accented English. I explained that her bus was across the street, and added that I planned to spend the afternoon in Bergamo’s old city. The old city is beautiful. A warlord used to run the town, and amassed fantastic wealth, building grand cathedrals atop his hilltop fortress. My new friend was sold, and elected to join my itinerary instead.
We spent the day wandering the town alongside thousands of other visitors. She was also an educator, teaching Russian to adults in Istanbul. We eventually arrived back to Milan, where I retrieved my dog from the petsitter, and the three of us had a nice dinner on the canals of the Navigli neighborhood (oddly empty for a Saturday night), and said buon serata as she headed off to her hostel.
Upon arriving home, I read reports that Milan would likely come under lockdown soon, and the greater Lombardy region would soon follow. On Sunday, the government announced the closure of all area schools. Our school director, informed us the students would stay home, but teachers would still report on Monday, so we could plan for a week’s worth of online learning, after which we could expect everything to blow over.
Phase 2: distress
The first day of school closures, my team was magnificent in planning out the week ahead. We divvied up responsibilities and by the end of day, we had established channels of home-school communication, front loaded our lessons onto Google Classroom, and felt pretty satisfied with how everything was going so far. I had brought my French press, and we feasted on leftover holiday chocolates.
Who knows, this remote teaching might actually be fun.
The director led a pep talk for staff in the auditorium: “Operating in a time of crisis.” On the massive screen behind him projected a headline from the New York Times, professing that Milan’s Fashion Week was “gripped in fear.” Our director quipped, “This is the media, classically overreacting and stirring panic. I was downtown yesterday, and the only thing gripped was Aperol spritzes at café tables.” Pausing for self-assured chuckles, he added, “We’re going to be fine.” Adra tutto bene.
Tuesday, we returned to school, expecting to run our classrooms from the Mission Control of our campus, but early that afternoon, police arrived to inform the director we had 20 minutes to evacuate the premises. Staff was promptly loaded onto a bus and evacuated to their residences. It seemed that from here on, we would be working from home.
That event triggered some old ghosts. It wasn’t so much the evacuation itself, nor the suddenness of it. It was the unspoken fear, the uncertainty of what lay ahead, that could be read on the faces of every staff member on the bus. Some were texting family members, some were making jokes, to keep things light, but everyone was scared. For me, it was Beirut 2007 all over again. But this time, it was not a car bomb detonation or Hezbollah taking over the city streets. Those are threats you can see.
I had known about the instability in Lebanon well before my arrival. The weeks leading up to my relocation, my brain cycled through one scenario after another — a car would explode next to me, or somebody would detach another person’s head, or I’d be caught up in a protest that got out of hand. What nobody tells you though, is the anxiety does not come from the explosion or the beheading or the police storming the mob with live rounds. That part, in fact, is sweet relief from the real anxiety: the uncertainty of what’s to come, and when.
How far would this go? Clearly we were going to be out more than a week. Would this just be an Italian crisis, or would it affect my family and friends elsewhere in the world? Who was already sick? Was I sick? I had spent considerable time in the hotspots of Venice, Bergamo, and of course Milan. Who knows what Turkey has yet to discover? Sure, I am youngish and relatively healthy, but after bouts with more developing world illnesses than I can calculate, my body has taken some hits. How strong is my immune system these days, really? I felt less smug about my archaic third-world parasites now. Would they end me?
Thinking on the future, what would this mean for supply lines? Would there be a run on the grocery stores? Should I stock up now? What about the power grid? The hospitals? Civil defense? Was the Italian government up to the job?
Arriving home, I dug a stale, half-empty pack of Gauloises from the back of my kitchen cabinet, stashed after a brief relapse in November. I poured a stiff bolt of rye whiskey. I lit up, and let the dread sink in. Somewhere in my head, my one true love muttered, “Sam, no.”
God, I needed a vacation.
Phase 3: denial
Week One was school closures. Week Two, the government laid out what I now call the “gentle suggestions.” People should limit their movements. People should not leave their towns and cities. People should remain calm. And keep washing your hands!
People, including myself, interpreted this as, “Things are normal. Everything is fine. Live your life while you still can.”
One of my colleagues texted, “A few of us are headed to Lake Como. If we have to work remote, let’s at least work someplace with a view.” They headed up mid-week, and several more of us joined that weekend. We had a splendid time. Normally this time of year, the lake would be packed, restaurants reservation only, and all the accommodations overbooked. Yet we had the run of the place.
“If this is the apocalypse, I can’t complain,” I thought to myself wryly.
Late Saturday night, as we played cards around a tiny table in our AirBnB, the government passed a new law to officially restrict the movement of people within Lombardy. We read the news from our phones, and a frenzied, wine-drunk dialogue followed.
We have to get out of Lombardy! Who the hell wants to stay in boring old Milan?
Let’s go to Tuscany! It’s a short train ride; we could be there by Sunday night.
Yes… but I need to go back to my apartment first. I need my passport. And more dog food. And more than one change of underwear.
There are places to rent in Tuscany for… nothing! Nobody’s holidaying in Italy. Owners are desperate. Think of it! A villa amongst the olive groves, and for maybe 50 euro a week, if we split it up.
What if they lock down all Italy next? Should we instead think about getting home?
Home? Where is home exactly?
Another barrage of news reports swarmed our phones. The lockdown, in just a matter of hours, now extended to the entire country. That settled the Tuscany debate.
It’s not clear from the news report… are any trains running? Will we be able to return to Milan tomorrow?
If not, we’ll stay here! And swim! And drink wine!
But… all my stuff is in my apartment.
Yeah, I’ll need my laptop. And the wi-fi here is terrible.
Just like that, our gay Hemingway fantasy faded away.
We spent the next day on the lakeside. The realization slowly sank in that day: this would be our last weekend getaway in Italy for an indeterminable period of time. We found the one open bodega in town and purchased beers and ate pizza from the one open kitchen. The dogs ran up and down the sand, joyful, oblivious.
We got to the station, relieved to find the trains were still running, at least for the rest of the day. On the platform, we waited wordlessly for the delayed train. Behind us sat a forgotten building, easily a century old, morosely surrounded by a rusted iron gate. Over the shuttered window with peeling paint hung a sign: VILLA ALL’AFFLUENZA.
Nothing subtle about omens like that.
Phase 4: adjustment
One day, businesses were still open. Distancing measures were put in place, but scarcely enforced. Indeed, neighborhood pubs bustled harder than ever before.
The very next day, everything shut. Everyone indoors, only grocery stores, pharmacies, and essential services allowed to remain open. Public transportation still runs, but there’s no place to go, and even if there were, explanatory documentation is needed — travel papers, essentially. Otherwise, be prepared to pay a €280 fine.
The tram is full but seats are available. My loyal friend, Boo, sits in the hard plastic seat next to mine. She’s hungry because her dinner is late and I had to make a few stops in town.
When I first arrived in Milan, my reading of local folks was cold, similar to other corners of Europe but famously true for northern Italy. Yet in recent weeks, the people have warmed. People do not take themselves so seriously anymore. On the tram, for example, an ever-increasing number of Milanese approach my dog. They scratch Boo behind the ear, whisper some praises into her lambskin ear, smile at me, and continue on to their seat. “Bellisima,” they say.
That never used to happen before.
These are different times, now. These are the times of COVID-19. Writing those words, they feel like a science-fiction novel dripping from my fingers, but these are the times in which I now live. And soon, I am sure you will too.
Which brings me to the point of this exercise. Many an article, if any articles are to be believed anymore, suggest that 70% of the population will contract this coronavirus. Of those 70%, a not-insignificant percentage will die — people who are vulnerable to merciless attacks on the lungs and immune system. I cannot overstate the incredible death toll. It is hard for me to process what has yet to happen in the coming months.
These are the morose thoughts that weigh on my brain every single day, to the point that I do what I must do to stay sane and productive: I compartmentalize. Deaths of loved ones and the collapse of society as we know it are events that I package away into a safe little cave in my brain. Always have, probably always will. With upheaval, I deal with the emotions, and move on. Not much sense in pre-worrying — those were my values growing up, and they have served me well.
For now, ride the tram. This is my short ride home from a strange night out.
For the second week in a row, after a week off for our weeklong February break (So that’s what… three weeks gone? I’m losing track.) all teachers at my school worked remotely. A real roller coaster, this has been. At first, it felt like an extension of the holiday. Yes, you are technically working, but you do not have any kids in the classroom, so… cool.
By the third week, about 90% of our students were online, transacting with our virtual learning platforms — eager, I imagine, for some returned sense of structure. Assignments went out, completed work came in. At times I feel like this hiccup in our civilization is a harbinger to the next stage of pedagogical evolution, an era when students earn college degrees without the need to leave home.
On typing that, one million teachers are losing their minds. How? They ask. How will students learn social skills? And emotional intelligence? And so on?
Fair question. Maybe in our post COVID-19 society, they will no longer need those skills. Maybe I have watched too many movies, but maybe our society will become one that lives entirely behind a monitor and screams at itself for a living. But then, what do I know?
For now, ride the tram. This is my short ride home from a strange night out.
This afternoon, I reached the end of an exhausting day. In the third week, my online classroom started to run like clockwork. The system lines up assignments for the week, ready to fire off volleys of learning at nine o’clock sharp every morning. I could even differentiate lessons to groups of students. By video, I could conduct one-on-one sessions with strugglers, small group sessions with writers baffled by commas, and all-class sessions just for the fun of it. If this was to be the New Normal, I was killing it. Yet this afternoon, I felt burnout take hold.
I differentiate. I conference. I respond to a thousand bleeps and bloops of instant messages moment to moment from my class and colleagues via Classroom, Hangouts, Zoom, WhatsApp, and on and on. I plan and plan and adjust planning when students fly off the rails. Probably I do this better than ever before, because I have nothing to distract me here at home, except my dog, Boo. And maybe the weather outside. And the neighbor’s errant home alarm or the couple fighting upstairs loudly in Italian — they are expecting their first baby, and they are not sure yet how to process that — or the couple next door, who stay at home with their children who cannot attend school right now. All of them stuck at home, just like me.
Weeks ago, I spent most of the day in my classroom, surrounded by inquisitive children. While they were away at PE or Music or whatever, I would get a macchiato from the machine downstairs, or drop in on my teammates to catch up on the latest. Now, it is me, Boo, and the gossip local to my apartment block.
Tonight, a text popped up on my phone: “Picnic. Super secret park. Bring bocci balls and beers.”
Immediately there followed a map pin. It was not a green space. It appeared to be in the middle of an intersection. Boo and I set off, bocci set and bottles in a bag. Boarded a pretty vacant tram and hopped off not far from my favorite beer bar, which had just shut down along with all the other pubs and restaurants in the area. We walked about a half mile to the pin and proceeded to walk several times around a massive raised traffic island that towered about seven feet over the sidewalk. Did my friend prank me? Did she map the wrong spot?
That’s when her black terrier poked its head over the ledge of the traffic island and yipped at Boo, her best friend. “Hey Sam, hold on. I’ll throw you a chair!”
A plastic patio chair toppled over the side and onto the pavement in front of me. I propped it upright and stepped up onto a verdant field. On a picnic blanket on the grass sat a mess of good friends, gin and tonics in hand. “You brought the bocci set! Yes!”
We hoisted up Boo, who immediately started lapping the perimeter with her canine pal. Next we pulled up the access chair, like kids in a secret treehouse. The world was ours.
As the sun set over the city of Milan, we frolicked. Tossed a frisbee around, polished off a bottle of Prosecco, and speculated on the weeks ahead.
How long do you think this will last?
Ah, two weeks. Three, max.
Cars indifferently drove around our island of grass. Empty city buses chugged along behind them.
On the way home, I stopped by my local takeaway shop. They just finished what looks like an expensive renovation. The Turks who run it always recognize me, and shout “Carolina Sud!” because that’s the only thing about me they really know. They think I live close to their cousin in Los Angeles. That would be the last night they were open to customers.
As the Turks bagged up my kabab, my one true love called. She worried the virus could imperil our April holiday plans for Budapest. “Maybe,” I suggested naively, “but at this point, Italy is the only European country affected. It might spread a bit, but we’re talking weeks, not months. Let’s not cancel flights just yet.”
Budapest aside, she said, what about returning to America this summer? “It’s fine, our airports will stay open. I might have to self-isolate for a little while, but I heard the US government has really nice hotel rooms for Americans returning home to quarantine.”
Yes, this COVID-19 business was disruptive, but it is all under control. Besides, I thought, hot sack of shawarma in hand, if I must weather a storm, at least it is here in Italy.
Boarded the tram again, and not sure what brought it on, but suddenly my self-assurance was flooded by a tsunami of malaise and existential dread. Maybe it was the fact that on a normally packed nighttime tram, I was the only passenger. Maybe it was the red and white striped tape cordoning off the front car so no one would sit close to the driver. Maybe it was the irony of the advertisement plastered across a tram passing in the opposite direction, inviting holiday makers to visit scenic sunny Tel Aviv. I felt this gut wrenching sensation that things were not going to be okay for quite some time.
For now, ride the tram. This is my short ride home from what will be my last strange night out.
Phase 5: ennui
At the onset, we all joked this was like the ten-minute montage that opens every dystopian film. Now it feels like we’re in the second act, as the survivors try to make sense of a new world.
A few hours a day, jokes feel good. Got to have a sense of humor about these things.
The next few hours, I resent anyone who tries to make light of this.
Then it’s back to, “Sorry, I know I was a dick earlier, but do you have any more jokes about the pandemic?”
Not sure for how many weeks now I have joined the entire population of Italy, and large swaths of Europe, in isolation. Is it five weeks? Six?
Lost count of how many screeds I posted to social media, begging my friends and family in America to self-isolate, in spite of the president’s insistence to the contrary.
I think back to the days of Lake Como and Grass Island. Was I really that stupid? Why did I think Italy would somehow be an exception to the strong body of evidence (bodies, really) presented by China? Sure, I could plead ignorance, or point out how Italy’s government did not lay down strong enough measures. Ultimately though, the information was there. Instead of sacrifice and self-isolation, I chose self-fulfillment. Now, I think about all the more than 20 thousand dead in Italy alone. How many of those were indirectly caused by my personal choices? Maybe none. But if even my desire for a jolly afternoon out caused in some way the premature demise of only one person, that is one person who would be alive today if I had instead chosen to stay home.
With a hint of nostalgia, I see the “Teaching During COVID” Facebook page is fully in Phase 2: distress. American public school teachers ask questions that will never be answered.
State tests are in six weeks. My students need to start reviewing now! We don’t have time for this!
How am I supposed to teach PE?
All of my students are below the poverty line. Few have access to three meals a day, and forget about home internet. How to even begin?
I reflect on how extraordinarily fortunate I am to work with a school community where all students are internet-connected and device-equipped.
Every day, I hear from friends around the world. They reach out, eager to reconnect with the kind of authenticity social media nearly exterminated over the last two decades. We talk… on the phone. Apparently, some of my friends have had kids. Some of them are on a second marriage, or a third. One of them has been in Thailand for two years. I had no idea. They are all distressed, and coping in their own ways.
Every night, I talk to my one true love. She also works from home. We feel fortunate to continue work and earn a salary. So many people we know — service industry friends, small business owners, white collar rank-and-file — face certain unemployment. There is no way for them to find new jobs, because that would involve going outdoors. America’s federal government has yet to pass any social distancing laws, and in spite of having more data and lead time than Europe, the president has bungled every phase of this crisis.
My one true love worries about me in Italy. I worry about her in America. We feel unfortunate to be thousands of miles apart. We know now, Budapest is off the table. For the time being, we have to settle for Netflix parties, sans chill.
Oh, sorry to hear that your exotic Budapest holiday is off the table, Sam. That must be so hard, what with having a job and and all, one that you can continue to work from home without interruption or reduction in salary. Really has to suck, to tap the brakes on your jet set lifestyle so that you do not pass a lethal, highly contagious disease on to innocent people. Boo hoo hoo.
Listen, I get it. Every single morning, I count my blessings. The majority of my friends are in far more fragile positions than me; many are already out of work. To say nothing of people who work two jobs and just scrape by, and now have one job, or no job. Or unemployed folks with kids, especially those raising kids on their own. Or the developing world for chrissakes.
To paraphrase Tom Robbins, everyone has their own sad story. The game of life stacks the odds against all its players. Every person’s pain and suffering is relative, and every person’s pain and suffering is legitimate. Further, says Robbins: “Maybe death is fair, but certainly not life. We must accept the unfairness as proof of the sublime flux of existence, the capricious music of the universe — and go on about our tasks.”
To clear my head, I walk the dog through parks overgrown with grass and wildflowers. I let her off leash in a now-abandoned office park, where she runs laps on smooth asphalt that set only a few months ago, part of a construction site that months ago buzzed incessantly with promise and progress. Nearby, glass towers reflect the late March sun, except where smashed windows have been patched by battered office desks, thanks to resident squatters. (How are those folks doing right now?) Graffiti cakes the doors that once saw the comings and goings of tailored Armanis and Ferris and Versaces and Pradas. Here and there, dandelions poke through the sidewalk cracks.
Phase 6: acceptance
I am so productive! Look at all that I get done around the house now! The closets and cabinets, so organized! The floors, they glisten. The toilet, it sparkles. The grout is whiter than a dentist’s teeth. The dog smells of lilac shampoo.
I fill pages of my sketchbook. I burn through Hemingway. I cook my way through Andy Ricker, David Chang, Julia Child, and America’s Test Kitchen. I tinker with the wiring of my turntable to perfect the vinyl resonance of The Temptations, Ray Charles, Chet Baker, and innumerable jazz quartets and symphony orchestras and the faraway sounds of West Africa.
The floor could use one more sweep and mop. Honestly, how does one dog produce so much hair in such a short time?
Now that the students have accepted our New Normal, they are really into the swing of things. Despite all logistical obstacles and new stressors of our new societal framework, I feel we are back into the practice of teaching and learning. What has been most intriguing, and sometimes depressing, is how the children’s adaptations manifest in their school work. We recently assigned a fantasy fiction writing project. Many, many of our young authors drafted stories about pandemics, trauma, and social collapse. Not one single story about dragons.
The lines for groceries remain, as do the occasional shortages and outages. Luckily, I am observant and resourceful. I know weekdays at 4pm, I can dash from my home office to a certain Carrefour and encounter no line. I know if that store is out of flour or eggs or AA batteries, one of the family-owned corner stores will likely have what I need. At one such shop in my neighborhood, a man sells pantry wares and fresh produce, but most wonderfully, he also sells bread baked by his nona.
The neighbors upstairs argue more, but they make love more often, too. Sometimes I go on the deck to enjoy the sunbeams of an early spring, and sometimes they emerge at the same time to share a post-coital cigarette.
Phase 7: dissonance
Another round of this garbage. What am I even doing? I talk to faces on a screen all day and for this I receive meal tickets.
Is this even real? What if this is some sort of Philip K. Dick universe, in which we lost an inter-dimensional bet and wound up on the wrong space-time continuum?
Or what if this is some college acid adventure that I never came down from? What if the last twenty years have all been a massive hallucination and this part is the “bad trip” people always talk about? Am I actually laid out on a battered, beer-stained second-hand couch right now in Rock Hill, South Carolina, drooling, eyes rolling around as I gaze into the acoustic specks on the ceiling tiles above me? In another few hours, will I emerge from my chemical catatonia?
Or maybe just the opposite is true. Perhaps I am a comatose octogenarian in hospice care, riding the waves of memories on one final morphine pleasure cruise before the sea turns to black. Because none of this shit can be real, can it?
Say, those are great ideas for a short story. I should do some writing today.
Phase 8: anger
I went on Facebook instead. Facebook and Instagram led me down a dark well of reputable and less-than-reputable news sources. This uncertain world is crumbling around me and the only thing I can do is sit indoors and write letters to my lawmakers.
“Appalled” is not the right word to describe my feelings towards people who by now know full well the gravity of their decision to distance themselves socially, yet still refuse to do so. Nor do I have any remaining love or tolerance for politicians who somehow think their constituency immune from the ravages of this pandemic. Ignorance is no longer a legitimate plea.
Oh but the economy!
I know, I know. Money is more than just a social construct. It is a social construct that dictates our allowance of shelter and meal tickets. People are out of work, and will be out of work indefinitely. That is an awful reality.
No one said social distancing was going to be an easy sacrifice. By definition though, what sacrifice is easy?
In Italy the people see things this way: in wartime, it was everyone’s duty to prepare for war and fight. They left behind families and jobs, and millions never returned home. Farms and businesses disintegrated. Knowing this, people still made those sacrifices in service to their homeland.
Today, your homeland needs you to stay at home. Not train to kill, not deploy to a war zone, but Just Stay Home.
Oh, but this one article I read!
You mean that article about herd immunity? Yeah, that worked out real well for the United Kingdom. Ask Boris Johnson.
Or do you mean that article about the calculation of COVID deaths, how some deaths are not confirmed COVID cases? To me, this is like the argument that some people lived in homes with lead paint and never got cancer. It is true, lead paint does not have a 100% kill rate. However, it has resulted in enough cancer cases to make health authorities and the government take decisive action. Similarly, we can say that lots and lots of people have definitely died of COVID-19. Some percentage of those did not die of the corona virus directly, but indirectly, a consequence of overwhelmed hospitals or other related factors. Even if only say, 10% of deaths are definitely COVID cases, that means 19 thousand people have directly died of this illness, globally. Surely, it is worth making sacrifices to ensure that number does not climb any higher.
For hours sometimes, I host imaginary debates with naysayers, because I am tired of posting on social media. All the Likes in the world will never make people actually do the right thing.
Deaths are getting closer to home. Personal friends have lost family members, some COVID-related, some not. In any case, the current state of affairs throws caustic acid on an already horrific tragedy. Something I heard that absolutely broke me today was, “I could not hold my mother’s hand while she left this world, as she’d held my hand when I came into it.”
My one true love talks me down from the ledge. I wonder if I am dragging her down with me. We were supposed to be in Budapest today. The itinerary says we would visit some old Communist museum, and drink at the Ruin Pubs. Tomorrow, we planned to visit a beer spa. Instead, I stare down the barrel of three more months abroad.
People will ask me when I get back, how was Italy? What did you see?
Well, from March onwards, not a whole hell of a lot. The innermost recesses of my soul mostly, and the demons who live there. On the bright side, I finally worked through the entire Julia Childs cookbook.
That, and I got back into yoga. My exercise routine is better now than it has been in almost ten years. I learned how to see moments of boredom and inactivity as opportunities for reflection and mediation. I reconnected with old friends and family in profound new ways, and realized the importance of love. I learned to better love myself, too.
Maybe I come out of this a better person. We shall see what Phase 9 has to offer.