Venice in February is an acquired delight. From my first winter visit there around 25 years ago, the relative emptiness of the winding streets, the fog from the canals and the possibility to admire views of the landscape without the typical hoard of tourists has been one of my favorite escapes. On Valentine’s Day during the first year of COVID 19, it appeared to be no different. We boarded a local boat shuttle from the airport directly to the central train station and then walked through the labyrinth of pathways until we arrived at our favorite restaurant, ‘The Little Garden.’ The Friulian manager now knows us as we come to eat there quite regularly when we are in Venice, and he kindly found us a table inside this time, since the February evenings, while warmer than usual, were too cold for dining in the little garden. We enjoyed our meal in a crowded room next to a large table of what appeared to be theatre actors with adorned with little hearts for Valentine’s Day. Then we drove to our rural house for the weekend together as a family. We saw friends, walked in the public square, and went out for pizza dinner in the big village close to where we live in Veneto. Nothing seemed different. I had kept the public health information sheet on Corona in Italian and English that was handed to me in the airport by the colleague of the person who measured my temperature. It outlined the headache, dry cough and fever that were, at that time, the ‘classic’ Corona symptoms. The pamphlet said that you should call the doctor if you experienced these symptoms and that you should wash your hands. I thought it might be of interest to a global health colleague who had written to ask about my interest in collaborating on a rapid-funding proposal in Finland, but then, finding it not really very interesting, I tossed it onto the recycling pile.
I was scheduled to teach a masterclass at the University of Torino, coinciding with a visit from a dear friend from the US, a great opportunity to take a short trip and show her another part of Italy. On our journey, we had been invited to join our friends for the “Battle of the Oranges” at the Historic Carnival of Ivrea. At this festival the people of Ivrea celebrate their right to self-rule, commemorating an episode from the Middle Ages where the city was liberated from tyranny. During the Battle of the Oranges, which continues over three days, more than 12,000 people congregate in the city’s main squares and throw over 11,000 tons of oranges at each other. On Sunday, February 23rd, we joined in the festivities, outdoors, in the sunshine, pushing through crowds and ducking behind nets and obstacles to avoid getting hit with flying oranges. At the end of the afternoon, when waiting in line for the restroom at a local bar, I overheard the conversation of other revelers—"we are so lucky to enjoy the last day of the Carnivale because after today, it will be shut down due to Corona virus.” We knew that the Carnivale in Venice had also been stopped, and we had heard that there were now Covid cases also in Lombardy region. Still, in late February 2020, no one in the conversation seemed to imagine that calling off the winter festivals was more than an unfortunate case of overregulation by the Italian provincial government, and the discussion turned to speculation over the oranges that wouldn’t get thrown because Corona had shortened the battle.
Having never finished my blog on our time in the first European experience with what has now become global, tactile and the dreaded potentially-new normal, I am now returning to it with a gaping jaw. WOW. Seriously, I actually did that. Me. The person who still only wants to meet friends outside, despite now living in one of the few places where the global pandemic is under ‘control.’ In late February, I went to a non-essential gathering of tens of thousands of revelers during the steep rise of Covid cases in Northern Italy, and then complained, that it was being closed down. I actually complained to my friends. But I also started washing my hands a little more often than I might have otherwise. We joked about Corona-virus so much on our What’sApp messages that my phone suggested a Covid emoji 🦠 Gallows humor, nervous giggling, coping through denial and just figuring it out, the sensemaking around what was happening to me was not already charted by the thousands of social media posts, messages, blogs and articles with titles like “A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future.” Advice would of course come, written by public health experts, psychologists, artists, politicians, activists, moms, spiritual leaders, friends and relatives. My sensemaking, before the invasion of Covid-19 into every aspect of my life and understanding of how to live my life, was based on colloquial quotidian experiences of imagining a bounded, exceptional, Italian problem.
At the end of our holiday on February 28th we rode together to the airport in Milan. Our taxi driver explained how the mayor was actually re-opening the Duomo di Milano in support of the tourists. The airport was a little less crowded than usual, but that could have been seasonal variation. About a fourth of the travelers were wearing face masks. We weren’t among them. We all felt fine and were leaving the Corona Virus behind, contained in ‘Red Zoned’ villages. My airplane wasn’t crowded, and I noticed myself breathing more than the usual sigh of relief when boarding had completed and the seat next to me was still empty. I settled in to take solace in my paper edition of the International New York Times. The stock market plummet, which has never really interested me as much as it should, suddenly seemed worth considering. The articles over whether Corona was just another common flu were reassuring. Now months later, I remember the resonance of the Opinion piece by Paul Krugman. We might think this was manageable at a personal level, containable with good political decision-making, and not likely to change everything. ‘But anyone feeling confident right now isn’t paying attention.’
Disembarking the plane in Copenhagen, I was not noticed. No one handed me a pamphlet with information about washing my hands and keeping distance. No one checked my temperature. No one in the airport was wearing a mask, eyeing each other with suspicion, rushing to escape the crowded hallways. No one on the public train I always take from the airport to my apartment was doing anything different than they normally would have at the end of what is typically the darkest month of February. Yet, everything had already begun to change for all of us. Writing messages to inform each other of safe arrivals in North Carolina, California and Copenhagen and reassuring our friend who stayed back in her home in Lombardy, we somehow knew that the closed shops, face masks, policy flip-flops, hyperattention to symptoms, personal and political insecurity would continue to affect us all. We had seen the future. Now we are here.