It’s been a peculiar past few days and unless you live in a cave, you have probably seen that Italy is the country, second to China, that has been hit in quite staggering numbers- with the coronavirus. Now, I won’t regurgitate information that can easily be found on the WHO, BBC, government or other websites. What I am comfortable talking about however, is my experience, as a British person living in Italy and how I left just 1 day before the country went into lockdown. Now I’m in self quarantine as a precaution, in my bedroom at my parent’s until 22nd March. I wish I could reassure people and say that it’s just the media making things scary, it can’t be that bad in real life. Sadly, on my final day it was like a horror film- the streets of Rome were eerie and there was a feeling of unease shrouding the city, which I’m sure is growing and lingering each day. Here’s my thoughts on the experience:
One week ago (Wednesday 4th March), I collected the Italian boys I look after from their schools in the North of Rome. They had just been told that they have no school until 15th March which is now likely to be extended. So, carrying bags filled with all their books we went back to the apartment and prepared for a change in routine. I’ll be honest, I thought it was all a bit dramatic, I thought it was an aspect of Italian culture being overly cautious. I was wrong. It was the right measure for the government to implement.
Thursday 5th March was okay, coronavirus was still dominating the news and Northern Italy was certainly seen to be struggling with the rising number of infections and deaths. My au pair routine changed, I was asked to offer the family support in the morning/lunchtime from 10:30am – 3:30/4pm instead of my usual afternoon hours, 2/3pm – 8pm. The boys bless them, are fond of their electronics and it can be difficult to persuade them to try something new. Despite my suggestions to try something arty or bake something British, most of my Thursday was spent waiting for them to finish playing on the I-pad and then taking them to the shop for supplies for us to bake a chocolate cake. We successfully got home and made the cake, or the housekeeper did it (as she likes to take charge) and we kicked a football around the flat for a little bit before the mum finished her working from home phone calls. She took over child care from me, which meant I went for a walk in the sun. The nearby nature reserve was brimming with teenagers, who had no school/university. After that when I was back, I refuelled with a coffee, the mum had to to go out at 6pm till 9pm so I watched the boys again. The dad was supposed to be home at 7pm to relieve me but we waited and he didn’t arrive until 8:30pm- because of national closure and crisis his company was/is under a lot of pressure. I also felt the strain. Au pairs are not paid much, au pairs are not nannies. They are like big sisters or babysitters who work maximum 5 to 6 hours a day. If this was going to be the situation, whereby I was working 8 hours a day watching the kids then I was gearing myself up to ask the parents for a pay rise. Thus the implications of the coronavirus closing schools was already creating a household strain.
Friday 6th March, I was lacking in energy and excitement for the day. I stayed in bed, staring at the ceiling until 9:30am before taking a shower and beginning the day at 10:30am with the kids. They were already bouncing around the apartment with extra energy. I did some English with them, flipping vocab flashcards and then at midday we went to the fruit market and bought all sorts, super sweet apples, oranges, bananas, salad, fennel and hauled it into one big bag and then we walked the long way home just so the boys could burn off some energy and run on the pavements. They were eager to get back and play on the Playstation but I knew that they needed some air and sunshine. Both the parents were working from home that day and by about 3pm the mum took the boys to the park to run around. I had some spare time to call my mum back home and then got ready to go for dinner with my friend Alessia who has appeared on Georgia’s Journal many times before, (see my outfit below!)
On my way to the restaurant, Hard Rock Cafe near Barberini, I caught the metro. It was ghostly for a Friday evening at 6:30pm. I was conscious not to touch anything with my freshly washed hands and I sat on a seat far away from the few people dotted about, just in case. This was the start of my awareness of social distancing. I also came prepared with hand sanitiser in my handbag.
At the restaurant, after looking at the menus and ordering, we went to the bathroom and washed our hands again. We enjoyed our meal, didn’t really talk about the coronavirus. The restaurant was busy with tourists. We simply had a girly catch up talking about guys, music, clothes and TV. After our meal, our huge meal, we walked around Rome. Spooky, deserted Rome. That’s when it was starting to sink in, that this was getting serious. We went to Termini train station at around 10pm and parted ways- once more, I was on the quiet metro to go home.
On Saturday 7th March I had no direct plans. Again, I had quite a low, sombre mood and didn’t feel motivated to do anything. Plus, my phone was alerting me of museum closures, more infections and deaths and…the entirety of the Lombardy region was in lockdown. Meaning that there were people in the night frantically getting on trains and fleeing to the South so that they wouldn’t be stuck. This would soon prove to be quite a fatal move, as people unknowingly carrying the virus were now spreading it around the whole of Italy.
Saturday afternoon, whilst helping my host mum make pesto pasta she asked me to book a flight home. Not because they wanted me to go, but because the situation was getting worse and they did not want me to be in a position where I would be stuck or ill, in a country that is not mine and away from my family. My host mum cried and gave me a hug. My host dad said that he hopes it will be over soon so that I can come back in April or May. Who knows at this stage. After lunch, I called my mum back home and she helped me book a flight for the next day. Luckily I had an Easyjet flight to London booked for 20th March and was able to change the date for a reasonable enough fee.
I started packing, knowing that I had about 24 hours before I would leave Rome. I had accumulated some clothes, more notebooks and general travel things like restaurant business cards or tourist leaflets. I managed to fit most of my belongings in one big suitcase and one hand luggage suitcase. I did have to leave one drawer of summer clothes, like shorts and some T-shirts simply because my suitcase was bursting. Even if I don’t go back to continue au pairing, I will pop back for a holiday to see my friends in Rome and I can collect the clothes and photos I left on the wall then.
Saturday night I decided to go to Yellow Bar, to celebrate my final night despite not having many friends available for going out- they wanted to stay in, to protect themselves. Which I completely understood. If it had not been my last night I would have done the same. I arrived there at 11pm and normally it’s a busy, lively place but yes, you can imagine it was sleepy and fortunately easy to get served at the bar. I sat around a table with a Canadian girl who teaches English in Rome, and a German Guy and an American Guy who were travelling. We didn’t shake hands, or hug. If someone coughed, it was into their elbow. It was now becoming the norm for people to respect space and hygiene.
Later on, at midnight I think, some of my Italian friends showed up. It was nice to say hi and bye face to face before leaving. They were with a girl who unfortunately, does not see eye to eye with me. She is from the North of England whereas I’m from the far South, we have different views and opinions on life. At one point we bonded because we were recently graduated Brits living in Rome, but the deadliness of miscommunication about a guy a couple of weeks ago (I know, it’s pathetic) meant that when she saw me in the bar, paired with alcohol, she went mad. Her snide remarks meant that I went and spoke to other people, I tried to ignore it and have a good time but really…the night was tainted. It was still mercury retrograde, I had anxiety about travelling the next day because of the coronavirus and I wanted to get home to bed. I asked the American guy to walk me to my night bus stop at 1am, laughing off how the one person I cannot get on with in Rome is in fact British, and I got on the bus. My last night in Rome, was sour and uncertain.
Sunday I woke up with a headache. I only had two gin and tonics the night before, but the stress of the British girl and the embarrassment of it- I won’t lie, it made me happy to be leaving that day. I don’t do petty drama. I sat on the balcony, enjoying the Italian sun and spoke on the phone to my Canadian friend who couldn’t believe that I was going back to the UK. I took my sheets off the bed, spent time in the kitchen with the family…waited around. The younger boy did make me laugh because his main worry was would the Juventus football game be cancelled. I don’t think it was but it was played indoors with no crowds. In the evening my host mum dropped me to termini train station, it was not busy at all and I got the Leonardo Express train to Fiumicino airport. As the sun set I put a little broken heart emoji on an Instagram story.
My bag was 5 kg overweight. The lovely lady at check in didn’t charge me 60 euros and let me get away with it, what an angel. I went through security quickly, I found a cafe to sit in and drank fancy flavoured bottled water. There were no temperature checks in the airport but I understand now they check temperature and people have to fill out forms. I listened to Sam Fender’s music in my headphones and wore a mask, even though some people say a mask is ineffective. I felt strange. Rome has been an adventure that has ended abruptly.
As I was on the phone to my friend who lives in the Netherlands whilst I was boarding the plane, I told him that I felt a mixture of emotions and it dawned on me. Despite being told I could come back and au pair, I had and still do have a gut feeling that Italy is going to be in lockdown for a long time. It’ll take months before it gets back on it’s feet. It was the end of my life there. Rome has been like a therapist to me, I have grown, learnt how to cope on my own and navigate a new city, a new language and a new culture. I have met people who are like sunshine, some people who are dark and mysterious and some people like the host family grandma, who showed me Italian recipes or the locals who introduced me to Italian music. I’ve learnt a lot, worn my soul for everyone to see – like, this is me Italy, 22, alone and here to experience LIFE – but, I was never completely me. That’s what my Dutch friend reminded me. You weren’t completely happy though were you Georgia. And it’s true. I was about 70% myself in Rome. Little things like wiggling my shoulders whilst listening to music in my headphones, or dancing on my tiptoes as I walk down the street…or wearing what I truly wanted to wear, like my bright bohemian clothes or writing in a cafe, I would get stared at, intensely. For these weird idiosyncrasies make me shine and I could truly embrace them when I lived in Norwich. So it’s interesting. I’d like to try living in Milan, when the chaos is over because I believe I could be 90% me there. It’s a progressive fashion capital of course.
So, leaving Rome early was perhaps a blessing in disguise. And 2 weeks in quarantine, in my bedroom back home- only seeing my room, the bathroom and landing as my world for that amount of time is going to drive me insane. But I have books, the internet, birds and fields outside the window. I have music and my mum’s amazing cooking that she leaves on the stairs. I’m lucky and I have an end point. The NHS might test me to see if I’m carrying the virus but even if I don’t, 14 days of self isolation is a requirement for anyone returning from Italy at this stage. On Sunday night my mum picked me up from Gatwick, i wore my mask and she wore gloves. I didn’t let her touch my bags, we didn’t hug or kiss. She brought me home and I took my luggage straight to my room and jumped in a hot shower. I could only pet the dogs briefly, at the bottom of the stairs, with washed hands. I slept in my sectioned off bedroom into a deep, collapsed sleep. In the morning my brekkie was like being in a hotel. I was weirdly calm and at peace, in familiar surroundings with the view of the English countryside close by.
Monday 9th March, I saw it. Because I’m living on the internet with nothing to do. After binge-watching the BBC drama the Split all day my phone alerted me. That the whole of Italy has shut down. My au pair friends still in Rome who want to get home to Canada, Austria, Denmark or Spain for example have had flights cancelled. They’re stuck. My Italian friends are nervous about how long they’ll be stuck indoors. There are strict rules about buying groceries and if you leave the house with a temperature or symptoms, you can go to prison for making the population sick. Articles are showing desolate pictures of Rome and Milan. The U.K is panicking or saying that the media is being dramatic. But it’s Italy and China who are living this reality at the moment and we must support them.
My Canadian friend who is a student in Rome and in my book club, today she called me, she is creating an Instagram account about the lockdown to lighten the situation- I’ll ask her for the link. Not one of my Italian friends has complained about the pandemic either . It is what it is. They say on the phone to me. They’re keeping positive, staying strong. So I take back what I said about Italians being dramatic. They’re not the ones panic buying loo roll in Tesco…
So that’s my story, of how I got out of Italy 24 hours before lockdown. Thinking of you all and to any family affected by this perplexing virus that is accompanied with many conspiracies.
As for my confused brain right now, all I can say is, the travel bug is contagious too.
I’m going to start creating an Italy photo album I think, to pass my time in self-isolation whilst I wait to be tested for coronavirus. I am showing one symptom, shortness of breath but I genuinely think that’s the anxiety of rushing back and thinking what I should do with myself now. I’m going to relax. To remember the magic, the essence of Italy, like the wishes in fountains, limoncello and crazy drivers and not this historical moment right now.