How do you say quarantine, contagion, desperate and disaster in Italian? I have been chatting with family and friends in Northern Italy, with Italian words I had not used in a while. My Americanization of Italian (contagio, not contagione) is providing comic relief for their anxiety. After initially reporting to everyone here that the coronavirus was not causing major panic in Lombardy, where I grew up, the news has not been good, getting worse.
Italy is about seven days ahead of the United States, so I feel Cassandra-like, telling incredulous Americans to stay home, take the pandemic seriously and stop buying toilet paper. The situation is urgent: hospitals triaging with no ventilators for those over 60; hotels being turned in makeshift emergency rooms; exhausted medical staff working overtime; and no social gatherings, no aperitivo.
The most anxious reports from friends who have been teaching online for weeks and are stuck at home lead me to reflect on how and why Italy, and soon the United States, is about contact and class (contatto e classe).
Contact matters. Italians touch and are touchy. We greet each other with two kisses, one per cheek, we hug, we gesticulate, we gently (mostly) tap each other’s arm as we speak, as if making sure the other is paying attention: “Are you listening? I am here.” Northern Italians, from the mountains and/or industrious cities, are colder, less touchy, but contact is still part of everyday life, from buying fresh bread to stopping for a supposedly quick espresso, and conversing non-so-expressly with anyone we meet.
The quarantine means limited or no contact, no hanging out in public squares, no strolling in the quaint Italian streets. The images of eerily quiet Milan, Venice and Rome make me, and maybe others, reflect on the drastic measure of isolating an entire country.
Class matters, also. Milan and Northern Italy are the financial centers, where everything from the stock market to high fashion dictates the lives of others. Class is about status, race, origin, religion and gender, as a difference between North and South, and now more apparently between citizens and noncitizens. The quarantine is reinvigorating class and regional differences within Italy and Europe.
As officials ask young, healthy, possibly virus-carrying Italians to stay put, thinking not only of themselves but of those who may get contaminated, many assert their freedom of movement, their need for contact. The infamous and at times reckless Italian disregard for rules becomes disrespect for others, leading to a rapid spread of cases and the highest percentage of deaths. Italians to give up aperitivo? At first no, but now more people are showing small signs of anxiety even in their defiance.
Will the U.S. go through a similar cycle of incredulity, anxiety, semi-compliance, dolce far niente (sweet doing nothing), before going back to aperitivo? Sure, Italy is not the U.S., but the now-ubiquitous curve reveals the effectiveness of being quarantined (from quaranta, 40, the days traditionally associated with the self- or state-imposed isolation).
Being without contact, having to give up the cheerfulness of kissing each other every time you greet an Italian, leads to lessons about the importance of presence, human touch, human voice, shared laughter and tears (weddings and funerals are banned). The South of Italy is always more cheerful than the North: residents in Naples have inspired others to sing from windows, in unison across balconies, as the substitute of the practice of bumping each other’s arm, “Are you listening? I am here.”
For all the talk about online classrooms and virtual conferences, my Italian friends and families, as well as Wake Forest students, lamented the lack of togetherness even before schools were closing. Il dolce far niente is a lifestyle, but forced social distancing is hard. As #stareacasa trends on social media, Italians reflect on the values of staying at home, but contact and class are not equal.
Just like in the U.S., my friends remind me that not all pupils have access to online learning, not all retired parents have relatives or Amazon to deliver groceries, health care access varies greatly. The lesson about contact and class is to treasure the time together, not just for family and friends, but for those who are “out” of touch, out of sight, others.