The surreal reality of life in shuttered Rome during Italy’s lockdown

The nearly deserted Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on Thursday, as Italy shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops in a desperate bid to halt the spread of a coronavirus. (Alberto Pizzoli/Afp Via Getty Images)
The nearly deserted Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on Thursday, as Italy shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops in a desperate bid to halt the spread of a coronavirus. (Alberto Pizzoli/Afp Via Getty Images)

Last Saturday night, I watched in surprise and horror as the television broadcast images of hundreds of people storming Milan’s central train station, desperate to catch a train out of the city after rumors circulated of the coming of a quarantine over coronavirus concerns in Italy’s north. Hours later, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a partial closure of the region, centered on Milan.

Then, the next day, the restrictions arrived at my doorstep, as Conte decreed limits on travel nationwide.

A thought crossed my mind: Is it time to panic? And soon, will this become a reality not just here but everywhere?

When I first arrived in Italy, my home, from Lebanon on Feb. 29, things seemed pretty normal. Hardly anyone was wearing a face mask. People continued to go about their lives, which in Rome includes long hours at cafes that were open late at night. Stores operated full-time. Nightlife in youth bar districts went on full-blast. The city’s multitude of museums were open.

But then came the closures in the north after thousands of people tested positive for the coronavirus. It was a turning point.

To move from town to town, Italians have to embark on a bureaucratic obstacle course, filling out a Ministry of the Interior form that asks the reason for travel: either for work, a “situation of necessity,” health reasons or to get home. From Sunday to Wednesday, whenever I went outside, I prepared the form but was never asked by anyone to produce it. Police were mainly questioning travelers leaving the city.

Rome turned quiet. The buses of tourists that usually clog the city’s main arteries around ancient landmarks are long gone. Cafes hosted dwindling numbers, but kids still spilled into malls and fun parts of town.

Then, Wednesday night, another official bombshell: Conte ordered nearly all retail businesses, museums and other places where crowds might gather to close. The only exceptions were pharmacies and food stores. Ironically, Italians can go outside but have practically no place to go.

Lackadaisical Rome put on a new face. On Thursday, the streets were even emptier. I went to the butcher’s shop to pay a bill and had to wait outside until the customer in front of me left. In a pharmacy I visited, customers were ordered to stand three feet apart, in line with a recommendation in Conte’s decree to maintain “secure distance.”

I passed shuttered churches. No Masses are being held — a weird event in a city with so many places of worship. Even the doors to St. Peter’s Basilica are closed.

Nightlife has finally been extinguished. And the daytime joys of morning coffee and friends strolling the streets linked arm in arm are at an end.

I’ve been flooded with WhatsApp messages from concerned friends abroad asking me what’s going on. Every day, I write that we aren’t living under a terrorizing lockdown like in China. There are no house raids here, no detentions or enforced disappearances of dissident journalists who report on the crisis without permission.

But the reality is still surreal.

My house in central Rome has become a fortress of comfort even if under a self-imposed authoritarian regime — under my mom. With military precision, she orders deliveries of groceries. On Mondays and Tuesdays, boxes of food are left outside our door to ensure as less contact as possible. Every week, two different butchers deliver meat “just in case one runs out of food,” my mother says. The living room has become a depot of water bottles and paper towels.

The days begin with detailed morning news bulletins from mom, usually about the progress of the coronavirus in Italy. Dad is more relaxed. He is 70 years old. When he heard on television that it is mainly elderly people dying from the virus, he laughed and said, “Good news. I’m expendable!”

Things quickly become routine. We eat, read, talk and watch TV. Some would call this family quality time.

But on Thursday morning, my mom came out of her bedroom with another bulletin: President Trump is banning anyone except U.S. citizens from entering the United States from large parts of Europe.

Oh. No time to relax, I guess. After a week like this, who knows what’s next?

Antonia Williams-Annunziata is a freelance journalist currently based in Rome. She was formerly regional editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and reporter for Beirut Today.

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