In October, I wrote about the beauty of Bergamo and Milan in the Star Tribune’s Travel section. The situation there has changed. Italian resilience and humor in the face of a dark reality is evidenced by musicians performing from their balconies. My friends in northern Italy, however, have issued warnings and a preview of what could come to the U.S. in a couple of weeks.
The grim news is that more than 350 people are dying per day in Italy, and the number is rising.
“Unfortunately the situation here is a horror film,” Patrizia from Bergamo wrote me. “The hospitals are overcrowded and, alas, the doctors are selecting who to cure or not, who to save and who to let die.” She then listed friends who have passed away.
Marco from Bergamo posted on his Facebook page: “I used to say ‘we’re not in China,’ now I have 2,500 infected people within a 20-mile range of where I’m sitting right this moment. And within 10 miles are 3% of ALL DEATHS WORLDWIDE … I wish events, planes and schools had been closed sooner. That way if an old person like my grandma got sick now she could still get care and not be left to die because doctors would rather save a younger one.”
Maria Laura in neighboring Brescia told me, “I hear ambulances and helicopter ambulances going around day and night. I’m very afraid.” I just visited her family this summer and I couldn’t imagine a cheerier, more delightful place with exquisite food and wine.
People in Milan, as well, are usually social butterflies with the “aperitivo” at happy hour as a cornerstone of daily life. Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, traveled to Milan last month to have an aperitivo with young people and prove that despite COVID-19, “Milan doesn’t stop.” He caught the virus and returned to Rome.
“There are a bunch of idiots around, especially young people, who don’t care if they get it,” my friend Giovanni in Milan said. “It’s the boomers vs. millennials, and guess who dies?”
His sister Anna was a bit more upbeat about being a shut-in: “Our social life now is having an aperitivo on FaceTime with friends.”
Patrizia hasn’t seen her relatives in three weeks. “Learn from the example that’s happening here in Bergamo: DON’T LEAVE YOUR HOUSE if you don’t absolutely have to,” she wrote me. “The contagion spreads at an impressive speed. ONLY ONE PERSON can go shopping … DON’T GO OUT TO DINNER OR MEET WITH FRIENDS OR RELATIVES.” Italians aren’t allowed outside unless they have a printed document or a good reason. “If the police stop you while you’re out of the house and you don’t have permission, you’ll get a 200 euro fine.”
“For a democracy this is unprecedented that it’s illegal to go around, but no one really knows what the rules are,” Giovanni said. “I don’t print out the document because I live right nearby. Can you walk around? Well, if you have a dog maybe, but if one person goes, many go. If one person is walking around, it’s fine, but if more go …”
Antonio, who lives in St. Paul’s sister city of Modena, wrote me: “I can say that for now what works is to not have contact with any other human being and the complete closure of all your relations.” The problem was getting food, but he had a system. “I have food delivered that I pay for down on the landing. Then I bring it into the front entrance, which is my decontamination room. I leave it there for several hours, even if they say that it should be left for two days. It’s all packaged anyway.”
Giovanni said that he has a routine if he has to leave his apartment: “I go out and then return and immediately change my clothes. I air those clothes out on the balcony.”
Antonio takes it a step further with anything that comes from the outside world, “With cash, I hang it up somewhere and only use it after a couple of days because it could be contaminated.”
Anna said that “One hardship right now is going out shopping since we have to wait in line at least an hour to enter the grocery store.” Her brother Giovanni added, “I had to wait 50 minutes to get in, but it was so quiet. There weren’t kids screaming and pulling things off the shelves or impatient people pushing shopping carts and blocking the aisles. It was great.”
Ubaldo from Rome had a similar reaction: “The situation is absurd. Rome is deserted, but at least there’s no traffic!”
Giovanni said that the crowded streets of Milan are now empty. “I feel like I’m at your house in Minneapolis and I see one car every thirty minutes.” Because of this, he noticed that the city is less polluted. “I used to smell the smog and the odor of paint thinner off the Lambro River near my house. Now I can breathe. The city is silent. NASA satellite images show that the air is much cleaner now over Milano.”
I asked Giovanni for any advice for the U.S. He replied: “There’s no national health care in the U.S. Maybe start with that.”
He was amazed that other countries haven’t taken more precautions. “I saw a soccer match of Liverpool vs. Madrid last week on TV. The stadium in England was completely full. I couldn’t believe it. The government there doesn’t think it’s a big deal. They’re not using these two weeks to prepare.”
To deal with complete isolation and lack of food, Antonio has been watching Neapolitan camorra (mafia) films to pass the time. “I pretend I’ve been condemned and have to spend time in prison. Patience. It’s better to die of hunger than suffocation.”
Giovanni wonders how much longer this can go on. “A monthlong break is doable, but then? If this keeps going for months, who knows? People could start fighting in the streets. In three months things could go bad, and we’re at Mad Max.”
Roberto in Modena hoped for a more positive result. “Even if we can’t see the end and don’t know when the number of cases will go down of those infected or dead (yes, there are those too), the slogan of the moment that we keep telling ourselves is andrà tutto bene, ‘Everything will be all right.’ ”
Eric Dregni is an English professor at Concordia University, St. Paul, dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, Lago del Bosco, and author of “Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy’s Culinary Capital” and “You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches from Summer Camp.”