I’m living in a sci-fi movie. In fact, you are too. We’re just further along in the plot than you are. A man buys food in a market in some little-known spot in China and Rome becomes a ghost town. It’s a strange movie and the popcorn tastes of hand sanitizer. This is Italy. Once it meant “pasta,” now it means “coronavirus.”
A war with no bombs and no pizza—not even in Naples. Every street is deserted. No movies, no bars, no parties. The Vatican was empty when I visited last Saturday. In the Sistine Chapel, God silently overpowered the few humans left on earth in His Last Judgment. It was magnificent. The chapel closed to visitors the next day.
Eternal Rome basks in her glory. The Colosseum dozes, a newborn cradled by seven gentle hills and lulled by the music of a past that sings ever louder today. The birdsong is deafening. Sparrows mainly. Or Eurasian hoopoe. Sounds you never heard. But they have been here since Romulus.
The Fontana di Trevi in Rome, March 2020. Photo: Maurizio Fiorino.
This movie is frightening. Haven’t you heard? Schools are closed indefinitely. Your children are home, all of them. You have to work? Tough. You have rent to pay? Figure it out. This is the first fight with your teenagers in quarantine, who have an “emergency”: the need to meet their friends. “No, you can’t,” you repeat for the umpteenth time while teaching the littler ones a new way to sneeze: “into your elbow, darling.” Could this novel behavior also be a way of hiding our shame? I can’t help thinking we’ll need to unteach all this later. This Rome, when all’s said and done.
But I’m safe, for now. My children are at their father’s place—infecting each other, fighting each other. Too young and strong and beautiful to succumb. I’m lucky and I’m grateful. Alone in my empty apartment, I plop down on the sofa. I’m as happy as Columbus reaching America and I rest. It’s the first time my lying on the couch counts as a contribution to society. Nothing to do: a depressive’s heaven. When was the last time I had nothing to do? Stay at home? Fine. Don’t talk to anyone? I’m still in denial.
I’ve been in denial since the beginning. The news showed a pulsing red dot somewhere on the planet. It was China. “Come on! China! So far away!” Not that I didn’t care. I did, as much as you do when something bad befalls someone else. Then that same red pulsing image appeared at the top of my boot-shaped country and took hold. I watched and thought, “Jesus.” I was staggered. Scared. My cousins, whom I love dearly, are in Milan, but still I thought, “Oh, it’s Milan! We’re hundreds of miles to the south.”
And now it’s here. I’m trying to convince my mom, as stubborn as a seventy-eight-year-old can be, not to go out. David’s marble bum has more give to it.
“I can’t stay home, I have important things to do.”
She is talking to me on the phone since we’re not allowed to visit each other. I ask her what is so important. She says she needs to drive to the supermarket and other stuff.
“I survived three bouts of cancer, I’m a miracle myself!”
“Mamma, you don’t want this thing.”
“I know all of that,” she says. “I can’t see my friends, I can’t see my grandchildren! I only leave the house for very urgent stuff.”
“We’re almost out of dog food. And other stuff.”
An empty shopping mall in Rome amid the coronavirus outbreak, March 2020. Photo: Maurizio Fiorino.
A few decades ago, my mom replaced church with ritual shopping. The same day I spoke to her by phone, the Pope gave his Sunday blessing via livestream—so as not to gather crowds—and the most holy ritual of all, football, suspended its own Sunday Mass. Muslims can’t pray together (the mosques are closed). Just one religion, my mother’s, refuses to be cowed. The shoppers form orderly lines snaking out of doors, standing a meter apart on the pavement in accordance with the latest government advice, only four allowed inside the shop at any one time. What can we do? We still need food and the supermarkets are open.
“You could infect Dad.”
“Oh, him!” she says. “It’s him who’s to blame. He went to his tennis club, but it was closed.”
“He wanted to go to the gym!”
“Gyms are closed, Mamma.”
“It’s a private club.”
“A private club is still a public place!”
“Don’t yell at me, your father’s to blame!”
“Pass me to Dad.”
“He’s in a bad mood. Be careful.”
My father is willing to get COVID-19 by going to the gym, the place where he supposedly goes to be healthier. He’s eighty-five and doesn’t want to surrender his routine.
“Dad, they don’t have enough ventilators in the hospitals. Do you understand? There aren’t enough ventilators to cure people.”
“I know that. They choose who to treat by their age. Old people . . .” he laughs. “Let them die! They’re ready for it!”
“Not so old, Dad. Over sixty.”
“. . .”
“Dad! It’s like a war and . . .”
“The war was worse! . . . Sixty . . .” he grumbles while passing the phone back to the Shopper.
The Colosseum, typically swarming with tourists, has gone silent amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Maurizio Fiorino.
It’s not really happening: the Donald Trump approach to catastrophe. Convincing Donald or my mom seems very difficult. “It’s not really happening” is what I thought when the city was still roaring and howling with traffic and we all went to the movies and ate pizza and our kids were still in school and we could still put on weddings. “Not really. Not in a dangerous way. Not to me. Not now.”
She takes a deep breath to express all the sacrifice she’s enduring right now. Breathe in, breathe out. Deep breaths.
“OK, not today.”
The skies over Rome today are as empty and silent as when this city was born. The streets are like a moving picture of life in the 1800s, cars as rare as carriages. I’m among the lucky ones. I have yet to contract anything. Recession pokes its maw out, like a stray dog. I want nothing to do with it. What I do want to do is tell you about a marvelous poem by Mariangela Gualtieri that went viral here in just a few hours. As the poem suggests, major events provoke major changes. I will try to translate the opening lines into English:
“The Ninth of March, Two Thousand and Twenty”
This is what I want to tell you:
we had to stop. We knew it.
We all felt that our living was much too furious.
Inside things. Outside ourselves.
Shake each single hour—make it bloom