When I landed in Bologna, an airport worker asked me to stand still so she could take my temperature with a small device, something like a radar gun, pointed at my forehead.
“For corona?” I asked with a cheeky smile. She nodded. Most of the passengers from my flight walked past unchecked. It didn’t seem like an effective method to keep out the virus, no better than the random pat-downs they perform on every tenth potential terrorist at security. I didn’t give it any more thought than that, stepping into my study-abroad semester in Italy.
Later that evening, I arrived in Ferrara, a small city about a hundred miles north of Florence in the flat plains of the Po River valley. Practically everyone owns a bike to navigate its compact street plan, a mix of cobblestoned and paved roads. The city is full of local color, with outdoor markets and regular displays of reenacted Renaissance pomp. It doesn’t make it onto many tourists’ itineraries, but the 600-year-old University of Ferrara draws students from up and down the Italian peninsula, as well as from abroad.
Back in mid-February, one of the few topics of conversation in town was whether or not the mayor would decide to close off Piazza Verdi. Near the city center and bordered by a series of bars, Piazza Verdi offers a convenient meeting point for students on a night out. Residents were so bothered by the racket the kids routinely raised that they were urging the mayor to shut it down entirely.
On my first visit to the square, I could see what the fuss was about. Outside, it was nearly as packed as the bar I had just slid out of; everyone seemed to be yelling over each other and a cloud of cigarette smoke hovered overhead. I may have felt a little sorry for any families living nearby, but I was glad the place was still open. By the end of the night, I’d made friends with a group of Germans and some boys from the south of Italy. We promised to see each other as much as possible in the few remaining days before the semester’s classes began.
Headlines of coronavirus clusters in northern Italy had started to catch our attention by then. They seemed innocuous enough—just a few dozen cases of the disease in two villages—but the photos in the newspapers of armed policemen blocking the highways out of the towns were troubling. I read online that several matches in the second and third division of Italian soccer had been cancelled abruptly. Stadiums could easily become vectors for the virus, experts warned.
On Saturday, February 22, I went with my friend Max to watch Ferrara’s team, SPAL, play Juventus. 15,000 fans were piled into the small stadium; the energy from the stands, the players up close and a couple of beers had me giddy. I threw an arm around Max when SPAL scored. The hardcore fans in the curva kept up a constant frenzy of whistling, jumping and chanting throughout the match and even afterwards, as Max and I made our way out of the packed stadium, someone new breathing down our necks at every step.
When we met up with the other Germans downtown, they told us that our first week of classes, scheduled to start Monday, had been called off as a precaution against the virus.
Piazza Verdi was crowded that night. It was crowded on Sunday night too, but the feeling was different. Of our group, all but one of the Italian boys had a train ticket south the next morning. Their parents wanted them home, and it didn’t make sense for them to stay with nothing to do for a week, possibly more. We all agreed the panic was overblown, that the hysteria was the problem, not the disease. Though the Italians hoped they’d return to Ferrara in a week, we drank as if we knew they wouldn’t be back for far longer.
At around our third bar of the evening, the Germans began to receive calls from home. The news from Italy was all over German TV and radio—reports of barricaded towns and cancelled trains, talk of closing borders.
“Tell them to relax,” the Italians urged, nervously.
One of the boys, Vincenzo, invited us back to his apartment to cap off the night with some specialty cheeses, sausages and red wine from his home province of Puglia. His dad had brought them up for him just a few days earlier, and now Vincenzo wanted them all finished before he left tomorrow.
We tried to revive some of the festive spirits of earlier in the night. A massive Italian flag appeared from somewhere. We took photos with it and sang rousing refrains from the national anthem. Eventually, one of the German girls stepped outside to call her mom again. A few of the Italians said their goodbyes and the rest of us joined our friend on the terrace. We sat quietly smoking cigarettes, listening to her converse in agitated German.
The next day, the Germans rented a car and drove up to Trentino, near Austria. They wanted to check on the situation from there for at least a few days, so that they could hop right over the border if need be.
I felt confident I was making the right choice to stay in Ferrara. The situation was spiraling out of control, I thought, only in people’s heads. The safest strategy was to stay put—off of trains, planes and buses—and to carry on as normal. Then I got a call from my mom; she told me my program had decided to move me to Rome. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t even considered the possibility.
That evening, I went downtown to meet Giorgio, the only one of my friends left. Ferrara had become a ghost town. A few small groups of students milled about an unnaturally-quiet Piazza Verdi. It was Monday night, to be fair, but there was no school on Tuesday; if the kids were still around, they would have been here. The square had cleared out on its own, no fences needed. I walked back to my apartment through the fog that comes to sit motionless over Ferrara almost every night. It was denser than I’d seen it in my two-week stay in the city, and the silence was complete.
I ate lunch the next day with my flatmate, Manuel, and his dad and brother. They had come up from Puglia a couple days earlier to visit Manuel and had, of course, brought plenty of food. Manuel’s dad alternated bites of homemade meatballs with bites from a fresh chili pepper. He encouraged me to try it, hoping to cheer me up. One nibble from the pepper lit my mouth on fire.
While I packed up the last of my bags, Manuel’s brother came to my door to show me something on his phone. It was an N95 mask available for ninety euros on Amazon. He clearly didn’t understand that my concern wasn’t for catching the virus but for the hassle it was putting me through. I thanked him anyway.
. . .
On the train to Rome, I noticed uneasily a number of passengers wearing masks. I got a text from a Roman friend warning me that the authorities could fine me if I didn’t report my arrival from the north immediately and have a test for coronavirus. I was gripped by a new anxiety. What if I did have the virus? They’d keep me quarantined for weeks in a hospital bed. Eyeing the people I brushed past with suspicion, I made my way to the grimy train bathroom and washed my hands thoroughly.
By the time I was supposed to pull into Rome, all the urgent care units would be closed. I called the national coronavirus hotline and was informed all the lines were full. Mysteriously, the number for Rome’s province of Lazio wasn’t scheduled to be active for another two days.
When I got to Rome, I went straight to the apartment my program had managed to rent for me on extremely short notice. The landlord hadn’t had time to find sheets, blankets, or a pillow for the mattress. I woke up before 7:00 AM and was at urgent care when it opened. I explained my situation to the first doctor I saw. He asked where I was coming from.
“That’s not a red zone,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything.” I was pleased, but also troubled by his response, as if he’d much rather see me out the door than test a possible case of the disease. I walked through the historic center of Rome, surprised to see that the city, though a bit emptier than I remembered it, was running as normal. I’d expected to find the capital in crisis mode, preparing to be steamrolled by the advance of the virus’s northern front. I was beyond relieved to find that everything was fine.
On Friday, February 28, I went to La Sapienza University for my first and last class of the semester. Nearly all the seats for my Shakespeare course were taken. Outside, hundreds of students lounged and chatted on the sundrenched lawns, spreading their arms and legs comfortably over each other.
Within days of my arrival in Rome, the Italian government ordered all schools and universities in the entire country closed until March 20. My program could no longer guarantee my credits if I stayed in Italy, and they cancelled my semester abroad. At this point, my parents thought it was time for me to throw in the towel and come home. I pleaded with them to give me a few days to find something else to do in Rome. I reached out to an agency I’d been in touch with about a summer internship and let them know I was available to begin now. They told me they could probably get me started within a week or two. My parents reluctantly agreed to let me stay.
While I waited in limbo for word from my bosses, I checked in daily on the Italian news. The cases in the north were not leveling off as I’d hoped they would; in fact, they were ballooning exponentially. A cluster was spreading rapidly in a Roman suburb. I fought hard to convince myself that all was well. Sure, most of the tourists were gone, and all the famous sites were more eerily empty every day, but life went on. Romans still gathered at the park on Saturday afternoon to kick a soccer ball around and have a picnic; they continued to ride the subway and the trams.
My German friends came to visit me for a few days. They didn’t have any class either, and as long as the highways and borders were open, they were planning to stay in Italy. They couldn’t have picked a better time to tour Rome, I joked. We had Piazza Navona, the Vatican, the Appian Way practically all to ourselves. Vincenzo took a bus up from Puglia to see us for a day. He came to my apartment for dinner with his cousin, who was studying in Rome but leaving for home the next day with him. She’d also recently had a shipment of Pugliese delicacies delivered by family and she brought over what needed to be finished. We drank two or three bottles of wine and ate traditional horsemeat sausages.
On the evening of March 7, I searched the web for updates on the coronavirus crisis. As soon as I saw the headlines that popped up, I knew my time was up. The government was locking down the whole province of Lombardy and a series of other small regions in the north, a quarter of the country’s total population, effective tomorrow. What had seemed like a last-resort measure out of a science fiction book had become real. My mom called me before I could call her. This time, I didn’t resist her request to get myself on the earliest flight I could find.
Fiumicino Airport was deserted the next morning. I didn’t wait behind a soul at baggage check or security. The only airport lines I dealt with were of an entirely new variety. Before we could board, each passenger on my quarter-full flight had to step up to about ten feet away from a tall machine like a camera tripod. Manned by two workers in full-length protective gear and heavy-duty masks, it could somehow take our temperatures from that distance. It was unclear what would happen if you were running a fever. Luckily, I wasn’t.
Thirty-five thousand feet in the air, I looked out my window at the Alps stretching like an eggshell mattress out to the horizon. It felt like much longer than one month since I’d last seen that otherworldly view, but I couldn’t help remembering painfully that I wasn’t supposed to have seen it for another six.
. . .
Somewhere between my home in Western Massachusetts and the Albany train station, my mom and brother bought a can of Lysol disinfectant. They sprayed me and my bags before I got into the car. They were worried I was bringing coronavirus home, that the authorities would trace an outbreak back to me, patient zero. If I was infected, the Lysol wouldn’t have any effect, but they didn’t know what else to do.
At Newark, I hadn’t noticed a single precaution against the virus. No thermometers, no instructions for quarantine, nothing; I’d breezed through customs. I had to admit I was more than a little surprised by the airport’s cavalier attitude, but I assured my mom and brother that I wouldn’t have time to spread the disease through my county. We were headed for a lockdown, I was sure. If the US had learned anything from what was happening across the Atlantic, they’d immediately take the same steps Italy had. It was obvious that only in this way could they prevent the same chaos and suffering. I’d spent the last couple of weeks convincing myself that what was happening in Italy was unnecessary. As soon as my semester abroad came crashing down, I was ready to accept the truth, that the virus cared nothing for my hopes and prayers. It didn’t care for Donald Trump’s or America’s either. Anyone could see that.
I was wrong. In my hometown, restaurants and cafés stayed open, and busy, for over a week. The administrators of the local college were the only ones taking proactive measures. They cancelled the last week of classes before spring break to send everyone home. The students complained that the college had overreacted and was only worried about liability. As I drove through campus after their last day of classes, I had to stop and back up the street—a mass of partying students blocked my way. No one had missed out on the invite to this final rager of the semester. There were so many of them stuffed between two houses on opposite sides of the street that it would have been hard to get through on foot, let alone in a car. Two old ladies on the sidewalk were shaking their heads in disappointment.
I was also indignant. It was irresponsible and disrespectful for people to continue on as normal with the virus bearing down on us. At the same time, I felt a sense of reassurance similar to what I felt when I got to Rome. If no one seemed to care, then was there a problem?
Several days after I returned home, a friend texted me asking if I wanted to come to a weekly game of pick-up soccer in town. I’d love to, I told him, but there was no way pickup soccer was still happening. He assured me it was. Curious and foolishly optimistic, I showed up, along with twenty other people.
After the game, one of the adults said to me and my friends: “So I guess you guys will be around to play for a while.” He didn’t seem to register that the reason we were all back from school was the same reason we shouldn’t be playing soccer together.
“Yeah, we will,” I replied.
That was the last game of pickup. The next time I was out at the field kicking around with just a few friends, a pediatrician and mother of one of our classmates scolded us.
“Keeping social distance doesn’t mean playing soccer,” she said. We laughed it off then but none of us wrote to each other to play again for many days. Two weeks too late—but now people were getting scared. I was, too.
I watched the coronavirus panic arrive in three different waves—in Ferrara, in Rome and in Massachusetts. What makes the virus such a powerful foe, I’ve learned, is its invisibility. You can’t see it, you can’t hear it, and so you ignore it until you can’t anymore. It fooled me three times, even as it chased me around the globe. I’m thankful it never actually caught up to me. As we look to restart the planet spinning on its axis, with the hope that the worst is behind us, I fear we are all fooling ourselves once again. I worry because I know that once enough people let their guard down, I’ll let mine down, too.
Matthew Kleiner | email@example.com