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Lockdown in Rome: ‘We are living in the future of the pandemic’

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Via Financial Times

Last night, as I got into bed, I asked my wife what day it was. She was silent for a few seconds, counting. The lockdown here in Rome started a little later than in parts of northern Italy, but we’re now in the third week and time has already changed consistency — it has softened and slowly crumbled to pieces.

Not as far as work is concerned, though. In fact, after the first few days of confusion, the pace of work has intensified, in the form of conference calls, Skype and Zoom meetings, and an endless stream of WhatsApp chats.

Without the confines that normally limit its influence, work has invaded every waking hour. Productivity is the one thing we really seem unable to stop, our shared mania — and not coincidentally one of the sources of this crisis. But now it’s productivity for productivity’s sake. I work because I don’t know what else to do.

I mostly write, incessantly, but I’ve also reopened some computing programs I hadn’t looked at since my years as a particle physicist. I’m using them to try to make sense of the numbers of the contagion. I thought I had left maths for good when I became a novelist, but it’s come back to me in the most unexpected way.

My brain no longer understands when to start or stop, so that I sleep very little at night and during the day I remain in a state of physical fatigue, despite my smartphone pedometer signalling a new historic low.

At least I started following a fitness programme on YouTube. I moved the sofa so that I could have enough space to spread one arm at a time. There are four of us in a flat that’s really built for three — and we are the lucky ones.

Only two of us take turns going out to do grocery shopping and putting out the garbage, equipped with the latest version of the self-certification form, as prescribed by the ministry of the interior: have you tested positive? Why are you going out? Where are you from and where are you headed to? It is more prudent to always have the same people go out; in Italy right now, the maximum degree of caution applies to everything we do.

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So I never leave the house. The last time was about 10 days ago, when going for a run on your own — in the park closest to one’s home — was still allowed. To reach it, I had to walk down a stretch of the Foro Imperiale, alongside the Colosseum, the most touristy walk in the world. There was no one there.

I could say that seeing those places freed from the usual mob gave me back a sense of wonder, but I would be lying: all I could feel was anxiety. And unease. Carabinieri cars were slowly driving along the street and a patrol honked to tell me off, hurrying me along. I felt so incongruous in my running gear, trying to fulfil a small desire to stretch my legs on a sunny morning, that I went straight back. I haven’t left the flat since.

Three weeks into the lockdown, Romans seek escape and fresh air on apartment balconies and even the roof
Three weeks into the lockdown, Romans seek escape and fresh air on apartment balconies and even the roof © Contrasto/Eyevine
A souvenir stall closed and covered in a city suddenly empty of tourists
A souvenir stall closed and covered in a city suddenly empty of tourists © Contrasto/Eyevine

I live in Rome, but it’s like I’m not here any more. The city in which we all live is now more extensive and much more ethereal, our emotional centre of gravity tilting towards the north of the country — a new geography made up of the red zones that keep expanding on the contagion map, and of the talk shows we watch every night.

I finally have the opportunity to rediscover all those films I’ve been meaning to watch for years, and yet I can’t watch anything but talk shows, until late at night, until I am completely exhausted.

The epidemic has taken over everything: the newspaper homepages, conversations over dinner, the beauty of Rome, which is right outside waiting, but now feels cold and incapable of offering consolation. Above all, the epidemic has taken over time. It has interrupted the illusion of a rigid, structured, manageable schedule and has given us this sticky mush in return.

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In the first few afternoons of confinement, people would gather at 6pm to sing from their windows. I suppose those videos have been shared around the world. Italy resisting. Italy united in solidarity. Italy singing, despite everything. Very picturesque.

It didn’t last long. Now 6pm is a time exclusively devoted to the Civil Protection Agency bulletin, the time when we listen to the latest numbers, when we count the dead and evaluate the “trend”, when we text the same people, those we have chosen as our confidants during the crisis: “The Veneto is getting out of it thanks to their extensive testing”; “Did you see the curve in Lazio?”; “Spain is growing faster than we are.”

There is this odd feeling — for a country that prides itself on its ancient history — of being in the future: 10 days or 15 or 20, it varies, but still in the future of the pandemic. Nothing to brag about; we would have happily done without it.

Maybe there are some non-accidental reasons why we came first in the leaderboard, but for now they don’t really matter. Instead, we should all understand — everyone, everywhere — that we are at different points in the same story; that in this pandemic we share the same timeline: some are a little further ahead, some a little further back.

Not understanding time has been our mistake from the very beginning. Italy did not look closely at China; Milan did not look at its provinces; southern Italy did not look north; and the rest of Europe did not take what was happening here seriously enough. Meanwhile, between delays and prejudice, we glided together along the same timeline.

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Apparently, during the Italian lockdown there has been an increase in the consumption of yeast and flour, the basic ingredients for pizza and cakes. I’m doing it too: I’m kneading and baking more than ever before in my life. It’s a typical Italian thing and should reassure those who from afar want to continue to think of our balconies overflowing with flowers and our tables set for a feast, not this previously unknown version of Italians, silent and worried behind their masks.

But I have barely touched the cakes I have been baking. I just have this urge to knead: to give shape to messy matter, to flatten it, to roll it out, to make it homogenous, then roll it again, spread it a second time. I just need to be able to control something — anything — while the structure of space and time seems to have escaped my comprehension.

In this world without us, ducks have returned to the fountain in Piazza di Spagna. Undisturbed. I don’t know if it’s a sign of hope or a rather sinister omen. Even beauty becomes questionable in the pandemic. Anyway, no matter how close the ducks are, I won’t be able to see them. I’ll have to settle for the photo circulating on Instagram. By the time I’ll finally be able to return to the square, they will have already flown away.

Paolo Giordano’s ‘How Contagion Works’ is out now in ebook and paperback. His novel ‘Heaven and Earth’ is published in June

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