By Mary Hudson
I became aware of the dangerous new COVID-19 virus around the middle of February. The whole world was slowly gearing up to deal with it, including by restricting travel and requiring social distancing. However, it was imperative for me to fly back to New York from where I live in Italy. By departure date, it wasn’t certain as to whether we’d be able to fly out, but we did. Before boarding, everyone’s temperature was taken (from a distance) and anyone feverish was not allowed on the half-empty plane. At JFK there were no apparent precautions. When I was asked where I’d come from, the security officer didn’t flinch when I said I’d come from Rome.
I spent the first week in the city taking care of business, running from pillar to post via the subways, in cars that were much less crowded than usual. In the meantime, the news from Italy was horrifying. Up north, hundreds of people were dying from the virus every day, and there were a few other parts of Italy affected too. It was just awful. Already, before I left, the schools had been closed, and now, all over the country people were confined to their homes. As the weeks passed the restrictions became increasingly more severe. By March 17th, the date of my planned return, things were so scary that friends and family strongly advised me to stay in my hometown outside the city, which I did.
Despite the ban on flying in and out of Europe, there was one flight a day between New York and Rome, as Italian residents were granted the right to return home rather than be stranded in the U.S. By the 30th of March I made the difficult decision to go back. Not initially successful, I was able to fly the next day. Before boarding, all passengers were given a form to be handed in upon arrival at Fiumicino Airport. The information required included the make and license plate number of the car to the airport, Italian telephone number, email address, name of my town’s mayor and local doctor, and the phone number of the car service hired for transport home (a village outside of Rome). It all went smoothly.
Not two hours after opening my door, there was a phone call: “Signora, this is the vigili urbani (the local police), are you at home?” “Yes,” I answered. “Please open your door. We are downstairs and want to speak to you,” they responded.
From the street they told me emphatically what I already knew—that I wasn’t allowed outside my home for 14 days. They left a flyer outlining other rules: for instance, no visitors whatsoever, and trash had to be segregated from other people’s, all put together unsorted by use of rubber gloves. The police also told me to call the National Department of Health to report my presence, which I did. That was that, I thought.
The next day I was busy adjusting to this strange new world when a woman at the health department phoned to tell me I had to take my temperature twice a day, record it on a table she would email, and scan her a copy every other day.
Another call came. This time it was the mayor of our town. She’s a very popular mayor, a lovely person. She wanted to be sure I understood the rules and expressed concern for my welfare. I was to phone her personally if I needed anything.
A few hours later, another phone call came. It was my local doctor, with whom I’d had little contact so he probably didn’t remember me. He stressed the importance of following the rules to the letter, which I was happy to do. Surprisingly, shortly after 11:00 that night there was yet another call. This time it was from La Protezione Civile, a volunteer organization that helps fellow villagers in times of need. The woman on the other end of the line, offering profuse apologies for the lateness of the hour, told me they had left a carton of food outside. It was a gift, but in the future I should phone her to arrange to buy my groceries through them. The big carton, so heavy I could hardly lift it, was filled with foodstuffs. Much to my amusement, on top of the food was a large torn-off bit of cardboard containing one word scratched out by a ballpoint pen: AMERICANA.
Things have gone smoothly since then, with timely temperature reporting to the health authorities and doctor.
Italian society is noted for its seeming lack of organization, a reputation not always merited. During this crisis Italians have proven themselves to be extraordinarily disciplined, organized and efficient. And despite the dire situation the country is in, they have retained their wonderful affability and good humor. The experience has filled me with gratitude and admiration.
I am an American retired NYC teacher and translator living in Italy. I’ve published Simone Bertière’s The Indomitable Marie-Antoinette and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Fable for Another Time, which received the 2004 Modern Language Association’s first prize for the translation of a literary work. email: email@example.com