Italy, April 2020

What happened in the north of Italy was just so dreadful.

When we first heard about the virus in China, like lots of people, we thought it won’t come here.

You don’t think it’s going to come to Italy. 

On the Saturday evening before lockdown we went round to see friends and they made pizza. And that was the last time that we were out – with people.  

We were talking about the virus and worried about it and saying it was very serious… and how shocking the number of deaths was. You can’t take it in….  

And then on the Sunday evening (8 March) they announced the lockdown. 

I live here with and my husband G. and my son M.  – who is going to be 30 this summer – and has Down Syndrome.

Our life is very much based around his routine. 

Normally on a Friday evening he and his assistant go to a nearby bar to meet up with other friends and their assistants.  That Friday the boys all met up and we parents also went for coffee.  

The north was already in lockdown.

One of my friends is a nurse and she was telling us just how serious it was in the hospital. And even as we parted we kissed cheeks… behaving in a way that is irrational – almost as if the virus was not going to reach us.

window bars looking onto garden and geranium

Where we live in Rome it’s densely populated. However, contagion rates here are low at the moment.

In Italy – although some people are absolutely obsessive about avoiding contact – with the extended families living nearby there is still probably a lot more to-ing and fro-ing that we don’t see.  

With some of the neighbours, normally you would make the effort to turn around and say ‘hello’. I see now that if they haven’t caught your eye, they will just walk on.  That is new.

And people in queues will talk on their phones, but avoid chatting as they would have done in the past.

The word everyone has been using is ‘surreal’

We are in limbo.

In the meantime businesses are going bust.

My husband’s restaurant should have been open. It’s right on the beach, on the seafront, and this should have been a very busy weekend. 

Things have changed.

Italy has had problems since the financial crisis.

It affected things very badly and many areas never fully recovered.

People who lost jobs opened pubs restaurants or bars, so already many businesses were just getting by. 

Now though, there’s no money coming in and there are the electricity bills, gas bills, regular fixed bills.

G. gets agitated about it… I say one day at a time… because there is nothing we can do about it. 

Even now he says they don’t realise.

They do realise. It’s everybody…. Everybody.

shelf with ornaments above door in italy

It’s weird.. and the economic implications are huge.  

I am working more than usual.

That just because I was offered interesting work back in September. I’ve got four teaching contracts this term, instead of the usual two.

We had only just started the second term so we had a couple of weeks with students and then suddenly we got word that the university was closing.

And I remember thinking… it’s only going to be for a week or so.

Which is really ridiculous!

For a week we didn’t teach and things stopped and that was very strange. It was this sense I suppose of the ‘phoney war’.

And then we got the word that we had to do online lessons and use particular platforms.

Of all the times to go online it was the very worst. 

My computer had not been updated for years.

Suddenly I had to download programmes for online security and I had to find out how to do these things by myself.  I had a new phone and couldn’t get stuff synchronised.

That weekend before I started teaching, I felt I was going to have a heart attack! 

Hours spent on the helplines to get things sorted out.

There was a lot of anxiety…..

It’s better now, but at the beginning you felt it was your responsibility if the technology didn’t work. Of course, then you realise it’s not. 

These are exceptional times.  

desk with papers on bed

For us, teaching is all about the interaction within the classroom.

You want to do it properly and you want the students to get the benefit from it.  

With online work, we’ve discovered with students that the level of concentration required is so much higher.

The students need breaks and you’ve got to change things around.

It’s an awful lot of work and a lot of emotional input as the dynamic is different via a screen. You do the work while it’s there because it’s well paid – that’s the nature of being freelance. 

These last couple of days over Easter when I have not been working have been great –  though I’m still catching up on marking, because marking online take three times as long! 

At the beginning I was waking up much earlier than usual – at 5:30am – and organising lessons, desperately trying to get on top of things.

I think there’s something psychological about it – you think that if you can get one area of your life under control the world will be ok. 

bed beside desk and laptop as home office

This is where I sit and work. It’s right beside my bed.

The furniture has all been moved around.

I used to work in M.’s room or in the living room but the broadband connection just wasn’t good enough.

The only way it works is if it’s connected to the router by cable. We have fibre broadband so the connection should be good but everybody  is online.

A lot of the schools are already doing online teaching.  Universities are all doing online teaching. And of course everyone who is stuck at home is watching films and Netflix.  

You don’t want to show your bed to the students so you have to avoid that angle –  which is why I’m crushed into this corner here.

A lot of my friends are saying ‘my house has never been cleaner’.

Not me! I haven’t got any time to clean it.

G. is fantastic and it is neat and tidy but it is getting grubby… though the air outside is cleaner.

I see the sunshine streaming in through windows that could do with a wash but aren’t going to get one till teaching stops! 

We live in a two bedroom apartment ( 23 years) and are lucky because we have windows on three sides.

We are on the ground floor and look out onto the communal garden.

The bird song is incredible.  I’ve always noticed it in spring…because we have the garden.  At the moment it’s deafening because the garden is full of green parrots. 

M. and I can sit in the sun.

There are very few people around because they are staying inside or they have balconies. We just step outside and we’re in the garden. That makes a huge difference. 

In Italy, our parks are all locked due to virus.  

The first few days M. and I went out to the park and there were lots of dog owners about.

We saw a dear friend and her daughter and her grandchild.  Our families are close friends and we stood at a distance and chatted. 

About two days later they realised the parks were just too risky and the gates are padlocked. To be honest you miss it so much.  

But then you put everything into perspective…

For most of us in Italy our lives are just on hold, while all the medical staff are risking their lives, and so many have died.

3 prints of ancient Rome

These old prints of Rome I bought in England in a second-hand shop. I loved the fact that I was bringing them back where they came from.

These mirrors were from my three sisters

We are not normally here for Easter.

We would have been over on the Adriatic, where we have the restaurant. 

When the boys were small we used to go there at least once a month.  Now M. has activities at the weekend and I don’t want to interrupt his routine – because if he’s happy, I’m happy. We’ve always had fantastic care with him.

Most of the assistants he’s had over the years are psychologists, many still studying for further qualifications. It’s not an easy area to find work in. I discourage people when they say they want to study psychology, but the positive side for us is that we have these wonderful people working with him, paid for by the council. 

M’s assistant works with him on Skype for the course he’s doing. She will read him texts and they will also watch silly videos on YouTube, to break up the routine. 

We are very lucky with him.

M. is very easy-going, but he needs a lot of care as he is not independent. I always feel guilty that he’s getting less of my attention than usual.

These last couple of days it’s been great to spend the time as a family doing things.

He hasn’t been out with anybody other than us and has been cooped up since lockdown.

communal garden Rome, camellia and greenery

I have a good friend who also has a son with Down syndrome who will come by early afternoon if it’s sunny.

We sit in the garden with the boys – masks on, and a couple of metres apart.

The authorities in Italy understand that someone with autism, for example, or a child who is hyperactive, can’t just be left inside all day. 

We have permission to take our kids out.

My friend’s son has additional problems and it’s really tough both for her and for him.  You hear about the risk for mental health and it is very worrying.

My husband will do the shopping….  it’s also an excuse to get out. 

You are allowed to go out as long as you have an auto certification justifying where you are going and why, with the time written down. 

We can go out for a walk alone but you’re supposed to stay within 200m of the home. I’ll go around the outside of the park a few times, which is pushing it.

You see the police out, but I’ve never been stopped.

I am not obsessive but as soon as you come through the door you wash your hands.

I don’t wear gloves when I go out, as I’m not touching anything really – and they are hard to find.

We will wash the doorknobs every time we come in and spray the keys.

You have to take this seriously. 

At the beginning we tried to make homemade masks because you couldn’t get hold of them.

Now you can find them, but they’re really expensive.

Those are the only people who are making money in this period….. Supermarkets too because people are eating, and all the jokes going round are about what size we’ll be when we finally emerge!

We are eating very well.  G. is cooking lovely meals and we have a bottle of wine every evening. 

I’m most looking forward to is … seeing friends and going out.

OK, you can see friends virtually but actually going out for meals…. going  to the beach…walking along the beach.

And getting into our park..

A year ago my closest friend died and I was waking up in the middle of the night and not sleeping. I would watch Marie Kondo… ‘ folding’ and ‘drawers’ … all of that.

There is something so therapeutic about trying to put some sense of order into mess. 

I’m not doing it now –  because there isn’t the time.  But that kind of attention  is going into my work.

It’s a way of trying to re-organise a disorganised universe.

All photos taken at home by respondent

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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