KESWICK, CUMBRIA, ENGLAND—A quick note from the fells. As I write, a camper van is grinding its gears going up the steep pass behind me. My family come from Cumbria and we have a house at the top of Borrowdale. It’s in a hamlet, with a farm, an old house that does bed & breakfast, and two rows of cottages, most of them holiday lets.
The few permanent, or semi-permanent, residents all gossip on doorsteps or over fences. Two days ago, the chat was about the quiet: we miss the children in hard hats and waterproofs going to scramble up the waterfalls in the gorge. The hotels and bed & breakfasts are closed, so one neighbor was worrying when the forms would come to ensure pay for the workers laid off. In the nursery field, the brown-and-white Jacob’s sheep already have triplets: the Swaledales are due in early April, and the black Herdwick lambs, the hardy mountain sheep, a couple of weeks later. While he waits, the young farmer opposite us was putting up yurts and mending paths in the campsite, but acknowledging that would have to close, too.
But now the quiet has gone. Far from staying at home, people are fleeing to the country. Hotels may be empty, but holiday cottages are filling up, camper vans are parking overnight down the road, and there are queues at the chip shop in Keswick. The National Trust,the biggest landowner in the valley, has closed stately homes and restaurants elsewhere, but they have left the car parks here open, and they are full.
So much for avoiding crowds and public spaces. We are not alone. In Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, the town’s population has reportedly doubled. In Cornwall, the authorities have begged people not to go to second homes as the county can’t cater for them all when coronavirus hits. In Scotland, camper vans and caravans are a streaming north, as people plan to self-isolate in the Highlands, and the ferries to the Hebrides have been busy. On Sunday 22 March, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced that holiday lets must close, and the ferries would only carry people who actually lived on the islands, noting dryly, “You can’t outrun a virus.”
And our own fells? On the infection map of Britain, far from being a refuge, Cumbria is now marked in red, in the top twenty hotspots for infection. But hey, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, a local builder is pointing a wall, and there are primroses in the wood. I know it’s wrong but I can understand why people want to be here. Including me.
Jenny Uglow is the author of The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. (December 2019)
ROME, ITALY—Today is Day Fourteen of the first lockdown imposed in peacetime in a Western democracy. The measures are getting even tighter because the numbers of deaths from the virus and of new Covid-19 cases continues to spiral upward. Late last night, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the nation this is Italy’s most serious crisis since World War II, as he announced a total shutdown of all production facilities except those essential to maintaining the nation’s supply chain. In the hardest-hit northern Lombardy region, authorities went further and banned all outdoor sports or exercise activities—even if practiced alone.
As I write, I’m listening on YouTube to a “virtual chorus” of Verdi’s Va Pensiero—Italy’s unofficial anthem of national unity. Its soaring music and lyrics are soothing in this bleak time of solitude and anxiety. On Day One of the lockdown here in Rome, the first thing I noticed was a totally new urban soundtrack. The nearby Lungotevere Farnesina that flanks the Tiber River, is normally a chaotic, screeching rumble of cars, buses and motorcycles. It’s now on mute.
Many apartments in my neighborhood have been turned into Airbnb rentals. They’re all empty now, eliminating another familiar sound: the clinkety-clank of tourists’ luggage trolleys being dragged over bumpy cobblestones. From my rooftop, all I hear are chirping birds. My next-door neighbor has disappeared. I know this only because I no longer hear her dog barking. I wonder, has she fled to the countryside, perhaps to relive a contemporary version of The Decameron? My sense of isolation deepens.
Some of the strangest sights are Rome’s great Baroque squares: Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo are vast expanses of emptiness. Piazzas, after all, are the hub of Italian urban life—they serve as playgrounds for children and their outdoor cafés are social gathering points for cappuccino in the morning and aperitivo in the early evening. I heard Rome described this way: it’s as if a neutron bomb has exploded. There’s no life left, but all the buildings and monuments stand intact. Life in #coronavirusitalia is like being suspended between the Dark Ages and a globalized sci-fi future.
I venture out of quarantine to buy groceries. Only a few people at a time are allowed to enter supermarkets. Customers—many wearing face-masks—wait outside in an orderly line, standing three or four yards apart. We eye one another warily, there’s no small talk. I’ve noticed I have a new way of interacting with the rare stranger walking toward me on the sidewalk. I find myself gyrating very slowly to signal my intention to cross the street to walk on the other side. My movements remind me of Tai Chi, or do I resemble an Egyptian hieroglyphic as I stick close the walls?
Homebound, Italians have found novel ways to exorcise the Corona Demon: one day, at noon, they went to their windows and broke out in nationwide cheering and clapping for medical workers who are risking their lives and dying from infection on the Covid-19 battlefield.
A new ritual is the social-distanced flash mobs that occur at 6 PM, in which people go to their windows, balconies, or roofs, and break out in song: opera, pop, even the national anthem. Perhaps that’s another way to drown out the other new ritual, the grimmest: the 6 o’clock televised press conference at which the Civil Protection Agency chief announces the latest number of Covid-19 cases and the day’s body count.
Sylvia Poggioli, a longtime Europe correspondent for National Public Radio based in Rome, is currently working on a book about her family’s transatlantic history. (May 2018)
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—I keep a diary. Normally it’s just a quickly scrawled list of books and films and the names of people I meet. In the last few weeks I’ve found myself writing several pages a day. I’d been following the progress of the SARS Cov-2 coronavirus since the news broke in early January, and looking back at my online activity I see that I’d been concerned enough to order a pack of N95 masks on January 24, but the first time I thought the virus worth mentioning in the diary was almost a month later, on February 22. New York University, where I teach, closed its Florence campus. I wrote, “Coronavirus suddenly on everyone’s minds.” That’s it. By the following week, it had crowded out everything else.
I began writing about the strangeness of trying to prepare for something completely invisible, a threat that government officials were saying was not a threat. On March 5, I did a bookstore event with the Japanese novelist Yoko Tawada. Afterward I got talking to a young doctor, who looked casually around at the people lining up to have books signed and said—aware, I’m sure, of the effect her words were having—that she estimated at least three people in the room were carrying the virus. It seemed abstract, unreal. On March 7, my wife and I went to a dinner party, where we felt awkward for refusing to hug people. March 9 was the last time we ate dinner in a restaurant. March 11 was the last time I rode the subway, which makes me luckier than many New Yorkers. On March 12, my graduate seminar moved online.
The rapid disintegration of all social and economic life has exposed the terrible fragility of the American system. How does a society that privatizes risk cope with a public health crisis? How can it ask for social solidarity when it demonizes every expression of it as “socialism”? Suddenly we are all socialists, even Mitt Romney, trying to reinvent community as we self-isolate in our apartments.
On March 15, the night New York closed its bars and restaurants, I tweeted an image made by a Reddit user called damnburglar in 2014, a version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks with the people removed, an uncanny empty space. Twenty-seven thousand people “liked” it. On March 18, I heard that an acquaintance had been taken to hospital and put on a ventilator. The expression “going viral” is suddenly in bad taste. In ways small and large, we are being made to look at our networked world again, to ask about what we want to share, what we have forgotten how to share, and what we must at all costs keep to ourselves.
Hari Kunzru’s next novel, Red Pill, will be published in September. (March 2020)
TOKYO, JAPAN—Spring is here in Tokyo, and so are the cherry blossoms.
Yesterday, I wore a bright blue silk scarf that looked even brighter under the spring sun and took a train to Kichijoji, where my sister lives. It had been nearly four weeks since I put on makeup, dressed in nice clothes, and hopped on a train. Following the government’s instructions, like a model citizen, I had cancelled my earlier piano lesson with my sister and postponed all other engagements, including doctor’s appointments. A life of semi-isolation hardly bothered me because, as an aging novelist, I had been leading such a life for years anyway—knowing that the time left for me to write is limited, with or without the deadly virus floating in the air. But yesterday, I decided to venture out, as there is no lockdown here in Tokyo and no sign of an exponential rise in the number of deaths—only four so far—or of those in critical condition.
The train was much less crowded than usual, as was only to be expected. Yet Kichijoji Station, twenty minutes west of the city center, seemed to be overflowing with people. My sister and I decided to stick to our lesson-day routine and first treat ourselves to the lunch specials at a French restaurant we like, one that’s spacious with a high ceiling—a rarity in Tokyo. We discovered on our way in that the place with the oh-so-exclusive air had set up a table outside to sell bento boxes.
“French bento boxes!” We laughed, amused.
Our waitress, someone whom we have known for years, told us that the restaurant was struggling due to a flood of cancellations; still, we saw plenty of other guests enjoying their meals in leisurely fashion, their subdued laughter rising in the sun-bathed room.
All in all, life in the Tokyo suburbs goes on almost as usual, with relatively minor visible changes—something that seems uncanny given the twenty-four-hour reports of global pandemonium. Our prime minister has so far refrained from declaring a state of emergency, to avoid bringing the country’s economic activities to a halt. He even announced that nationwide school closings will end in April, the beginning of the school year.
Only time will tell if he has made the right decisions or not. But people may never agree on how the government should have reacted, given the innate difficulty of fighting such a flighty, invisible enemy. Who would have imagined three weeks ago that the virus would wreak havoc in faraway Europe and the US? Why hasn’t it done so here, yet?
After my piano lesson, I did some grocery shopping—there was no line at the register—and took the train back. As I walked home from the station, cutting through a park as I usually do, I saw kids playing soccer in the athletic field of an adjacent school; people walking their tiny dogs; families and friends picnicking under cherry blossoms, some of them pleasantly drunk.
I realized what I had been experiencing the whole day of my outing: a heightened appreciation of our ordinary lives, as if they were something extraordinary—something almost like a miracle. I knew that the feeling would disappear as the virus faded away, or, in the worst-case scenario, as we resigned ourselves to living with it. And I thought about the role of literature, how it can make us appreciate our ordinary lives as if they were a miracle—and do so even in a time of boring normalcy.
Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist. A former resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she has also taught at Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University. Among her books in translation are the nonfiction The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2015), and the novels A True Novel (2013) and Inheritance from Mother (2017). (March 2020)