To My Struggling Home Country: An Italian Student’s Ode to Normalcy

15 March 2020

In the past week, my parents and I have settled into a rigorous routine of phoning each other at least twice every day, even if just to quickly check up on each other. During tonight’s phone call, my mum tells me that one of these days we should doll ourselves up nicely, make some cocktails and Skype each other so we can have a drink together again. The memory of mellow and indulgent late afternoons spent sitting outside bars and having aperitivo with her surrounded by the busy streets’ chatter produces a sharp ache in my chest: these days, I feel my eyes start burning at the slightest distant echoes of ordinary life. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has rapidly made its way through Europe in the past few weeks, and today Italy stands out as the most affected country in the continent. Yesterday the highest number of deaths in the country since the start of contagion was reported, with a devastating toll of 368. When I last was in Italy Coronavirus had only just been detected in the Hubei province of China, and rumours of a strange respiratory illness in Asia were very occasionally passed around with a carefree, often humorous attitude. Last Monday the entire country was put on total lockdown, leaving me with no way of knowing when I’ll be able to travel back home and reunite with my family. Having had no time to mentally prepare for being cut off from physically reaching all my loved ones, a sharp, intense desperation set in almost immediately. Though it hasn’t gone away in the past few days, I now often find myself oscillating between spikes of intense anxiety and a duller, more corrosive sense of anguish for everything that feels lost just now, and everything that I’ve never appreciated enough when I still could.

It’s all too easy, these days, to chastise myself for taking for granted everything that makes ordinary life feel structured and fulfilling. It’s also incredibly hard to put into words how surreal and alienating it has been to experience this second-hand loss of normalcy: while schools, businesses and all kinds of merriments in people’s social lives continued undisturbed in Scotland, my consciousness was overloaded with haunting images of deserted squares, closed shops and seemingly abandoned monuments back home. Suddenly here were the symbols of my nation, the booming crowds of tourists outside the Colosseum, eager beachgoers in Rimini and busybody office workers in Milan, vanished and already feeling like ghostly echoes of the past. I have known my country to be a lot of things in the long, sometimes oppressive nineteen years I have lived there: I’ve known it as busy, chaotic, controversial, disorderly and endless more. Now, it seems, it’s just quiet.

The contrast with Glasgow felt jarring and surreal: the busy West End streets, with their overcrowded cafes and pubs, brought no joy to me anymore. There was something incredibly haunting about knowing I was most likely doing something perfectly trivial and ordinary for the last time in the foreseeable future, be it a game of pool at the student union or a ride on the subway. Inevitably, the past few days have brought about a sweeping wave of fear to Scotland too. We are all now witnessing the spreading of the outbreak slowly chipping away at every stratus of our social habits, and for many Italian students at Glasgow like myself, it feels like a déjà vu. Most of us have already spent the past couple of weeks in a hesitant state of altered cognition, vicariously experiencing the draconian Italian lockdown through our families and friends and having to be functional and productive in our daily activities at the same time. Many of us even huffed and puffed as people back home complained daily, and lured ourselves into the illusion that somehow everything we were hearing about would not reach us here; that if we had to suffer separation from our families at a highly dangerous time, at least we could fool ourselves with a precarious sense of safety.

Downing Street’s inaction and negligent response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.K. has sparked indignation in countless Italians residents here, manifesting in the forms of petitions, online initiatives and nation-wide calls for people to autonomously self-isolate to counteract Boris Johnson’s failure at establishing protective measures for citizens. Students of all nationalities on social media are expressing conflicting feelings between wanting to self-isolate as much as possible and feeling like they’re missing out on what may very well be the last few days of relative normalcy. Some are hurrying back to their cities, boarding planes and trains after packing last-minute to return to their families and face the eventuality of quarantine at home. Many of us are, on the other hand, bracing for the worst of this outbreak here in Glasgow, whether by choice or forced to stay put by our home country’s dire conditions. 

Ultimately, I am placing vast amounts of trust in the human ability to adapt even to the most daunting circumstances. I strive to take after my family in finding entertainment and fulfilment in any way one can while cooped up inside, and I’m confident that their resilience will inspire me endlessly moving forward. Especially over here, these are times of unprecedented uncertainty: though a general pattern can be anticipated based on what we know about other heavily affected countries, it is impossible at the moment to predict when and to which extent our lives will slip into further drastic change after the shock of having our second semester end abruptly for the most tragic of reasons. In the meantime, for a little while I will perhaps keep tearing up at the thought of the mundane little crumbs of the life I have left behind in Italy: I never imagined it could be possible to feel heartbroken at the memory of a pop song blasting through the crowded shopping centre my family and I used to wander through on weekends. But every now and then there are also flashes of the clear sky above the Duomo in Milan, and the limpid waters of the Venice canals after the lockdown-induced drastic decrease in pollution. On days like this, it feels enough to put all my hopes in a sunny summer day not too long from now, on having ice cream with friends and holding my mum very, very tight. Maybe I’ll finally visit Venice for the first time and maybe, just maybe, the water will still be clear and glimmering with fish. 

[Susanna Zarli – she/her – @veterisflammae]

[Photo credit: REUTERS/Yara Nardi]

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