Thursday, April 02, 2020


I begin writing this post on a Sunday lunchtime, a moment when, all over Sicily, a great feat of transportation takes place. It is the movement of happy families off to see other relatives for lunch and it is the movement of food. People carry the antipasti, or the pasta sauce, or the main to their relatives' house, but most of all they carry pastries and desserts - some lovingly made at home, some just as lovingly chosen from the mouthwatering displays of myriad pastry shops. 

But today there is no movement and today there is silence. The earlier sounds, of bells for Mass, of cars full of chattering families going to or from church and thence to the pasticceria or home to pick up the food they have made, of greetings shouted from cars or as they arrive at their destinations, have also been absent.

I go out with my dog for no more than five minutes and only in the street where we live, where she sees none of the people who normally stop and pat her and none of her four-legged friends. I carry a self-certification document, stating for which of the permitted reasons I am out and I hurry, for there are neighbours watching, watching.... I am doing nothing that is not allowed but still I hurry. Besides, every moment outside constitutes a risk and I feel unsafe. Near the post office there is a police car, whose occupants are also watching. They are protecting us, of course and I am grateful. I hurry, not for fear of them but for fear of the thing that terrifies us all - the thing we can't see, the virus.

I am not myself. I look different, too. My hair is tied back - the only way I can tame it now - and I wear no lipstick because of the mask. I am not wearing single use gloves because I can't manage the dog lead well if I do but if I have to go out for another permitted reason - say, to go to the pharmacy for repeat prescriptions - I wear them. 

This is our third Sunday in total lockdown but let us go back a little in order to understand how it came to this, because there is a factor affecting the South that I do not think is generally known outside Italy: You will have read that the most tragic consequences of the virus have been seen in Northern Italy, in particular the region of Lombardy (which includes the great financial and academic centre that is Milan) and in the town of Bergamo. This area, along with 14 other provinces, was declared a "red zone" on 8th March, meaning that there should have been virtually no movement in or out of the area. But one right remained, the right to return home (obviously meaning that essential workers could travel to and from work if they happened to live in another town). The 8th March was also a Sunday but on the Saturday night a newspaper leaked the news that Lombardy was to be totally locked down. This caused 20,000  - yes, you read that right - Sicilians working or studying in Lombardy to rush for the trains South in order to reach home before the decree became law on 10th March. They were all instructed to declare themselves and self-isolate and to be fair, it is estimated that most did. Some, however, did not and most new coronavirus cases I've read of in my area seem to have been caused by contact with arrivals from the North. It was after this event that another decree was quickly issued by Prime Minister Conte on 11th March, putting the whole of Italy on lockdown.

The arrivals, however, did not stop and there has been one very controversial case in my town of Modica. I see that it is now being reported in the British press and I do not want to say more about it here as it may become sub judice. There are now estimated to be around 44,000 people who have travelled to their family homes in Sicily since the night of 7th March. The Mayor of Messina has been on the quayside there this week trying to stop people disembarking. Opinion is divided on this but I am sure we can all understand that the Mayors take their responsibilities very seriously and feel that their primary duty is to protect their citizens. The Mayor of Modica, with whom I do not always agree politically, has had, I am sure, not a wink of sleep since the beginning of the emergency and I salute him here.

I mentioned Bergamo. It was the first Italian city I ever saw and I have very happy memories of it. It is said that a generation of grandparents has been lost in Bergamo Province and the TV pictures of army trucks taking the bodies of  people who had died alone to cemeteries outside their beloved town were heartbreaking. I can only assume that those, in my own country, who have been somewhat cavalier about loss of life to this virus have not seen them.

The British media seem to think we are all still singing on balconies here. I assure them we are not. Do they think we can sing catchy pop songs after we have seen Bergamo? Instead, at midday this Tuesday, there was a minute's silence, with flags at half mast, all over Italy for the victims. I do not see that being reported in Britain. The Mayor of Rome said simply, "We will do it. We will do it for them." We are not singing; we are crying.

How am I? Frightened, like all of you. Finding it hard to concentrate, like many of you. Missing human contact, for we cannot even see friends, or, save for a few exceptional circumstances, family unless we live with them. I miss the tap-tap-whoosh sound of the coffee machine in the bar and the Sicilian  elongated "Ciaoooo" in the street.  I have my books, I have my precious dog and I have both the comfort and the terror of the internet. There are many who have less than me and there are many who are lonelier than me. And I have never felt closer to the wonderful people of my beautiful, adopted country.

"Thy people shall be my people."
"Il tuo popolo sarà il mio populo."
- Ruth / Rut: 1:16


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