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In Italy, Our Lockdown Continues

We weren’t thinking about the 600 people who died in our region yesterday and the record-breaking 800 people who died today. That fanciful digression lasted about three seconds. As soon as we took our first steps onto the street, I saw the unmistakable army green Carabinieri hummer-type vehicle turning onto our street. “Turn around, we have to go back!,” I said. I fumbled nervously for my keys, opened the door and we rushed back inside the building just as they passed. Technically, we do have a legitimate reason to go out, and I even had a certificate from the government, self-certifying my reason for leaving. Nonetheless, it’s so hard to fight that panic reflex, that survival instinct.

I am actually grateful for all of the chores that keep me busy on lockdown. I am grateful for my small, Italian refrigerator that holds only a fraction of what any self-respecting American refrigerator would hold, and I am glad that the food here isn’t laced with preservatives that would  otherwise keep it fresh for weeks. I have to go out at least every few days to keep meals on the table for my two teenagers and my Italian partner, whose mealtime customs I try to respect as much as possible. If you’ve ever had a meal in Italy, you know what I mean – it’s always a celebration. No paper plates or microwaved chicken nuggets here. I look forward to welcoming Shabbat every Friday, since that’s the only guest we have had in our house for weeks, and we have plenty of good bottles of wine that have been saved for a special occasion. I have two teaching jobs which I am now doing online, which include faculty meetings for two institutions, office hours, testing….and if you add in phone calls and social media updates for my worried friends and family, my days are packed; time is actually flying by for me. 

My partner runs a large study abroad program and is also a professor. Experiencing the remote repatriation of 350 American students from my bedroom felt like being in the mission control center of the Apollo 13 landing. But that was last week already. Now he’s desperately trying to repatriate his daughter from a university in California because the Italian government says she is safer in Italy than she is the US. He’s asthmatic and absolutely should not go out, as he has issues with breathing even in normal conditions, but it doesn’t stop him from worrying. Every other day he wonders if he has the virus. In his spare time, he worries constantly for his elderly mother, who lives on the other side of the city. We haven’t been able to visit her for two weeks. She walks to her neighborhood grocery store regularly just like I do – but the thought of his mother putting herself at risk tears him apart. He talks to her on the phone daily, imploring her to take precautions. His father died a few months ago. He misses him terribly, but realizes how fortunate he was: he was by his bedside when he passed, the whole family got to say goodbye, and they had a proper funeral for him where friends and family came to pay their respects. Today, hundreds of elderly pass away daily and their family might not even know what hospital they are in. All funerals have been suspended. 

What I really am having a hard time with is what I see my kids going through. On the outside looks like a fun break from school, an electronic media paradise without limits, but deep down, I know that they are struggling to make sense of this situation. My son is very focused on his passion, filmmaking and editing, so he is pretty happy staying and home and using his free time to work on personal projects. But he is scared. He worries for me when I go out for groceries. He worries about the virus coming in on my clothes or being on the food that comes in from the store. My daughter, on the other hand, is less fearful on the outside, but very delicate on the inside. I can see that she feels isolated, lonely, and unhinged. Even though most of her classes are now online, it’s only a fraction of the academic work she was doing before lockdown. There is tsunami of free time that she doesn’t know how to fill. She is a very compliant person and will do anything that she is required to do; she’ll gladly chop vegetables, fold laundry or help with anything whenever she is asked. She loves our family lunches, dinners and 5:30pm tea time. Alone in her room, however, she feels intrinsically unmotivated; this free fall of time and space is weighing heavily on her. She wonders if she is the only one who feels this way.

Yesterday, the government announced that our lockdown will be extended until mid-April. I’m jealous of the people who are in their first few days or first week of lockdown, doing fun projects with their kids like baking, art, singing and dancing. At this point, we are all getting on each other’s nerves; I feel like everyone in the apartment is “everywhere I want to be” – a MasterCard dystopia. We are tired of spending hours in front of a screen either teaching, learning or in endless meetings, we are numbed by the death tolls being reported by the news each day, and helplessly watching the US catch up with Italy’s infection rate. However, in the grand scheme of things, this small vignette of daily life on lockdown is not meant to be a complaint; it’s just a personal reflection. We are healthy and safe. I am with the people I love. What if I had listened to my family and returned to the US with my kids, leaving my partner here to face this alone? I would have been miserable. We have clear, unequivocal instructions from the government about what we need to do to stop the spread of the virus – although it continues to spread anyway – and real consequences for noncompliance. We have a sunny terrace where my partner and I eat breakfast each morning, listening to our silent city, with only birds chirping, an occasional ambulance siren and the voices of mothers yelling at their small children through open windows. 

Elyse Resnick is a teacher living in Milan, Italy.