A Former Athenian on What It’s Like Under Quarantine in Italy

You know it’s coming. You see your teenage son standing in the kitchen, gazing forlornly into the fridge. He abruptly closes the fridge door and moves to the pantry. The sparse contents of the pantry are summarily dismissed, and the boy lets loose a long theatrical sigh. There is silence, and then the verdict falls.

“We need food.”

He’s right, of course. We need groceries. And that means me. Going out. My wife and I generally take turns, and this time it’s on me. There’s no use in delaying; might as well get it over with. Or wait, no, maybe I should choose a time. Here in Italy they use the term partenza smart, or “well timed departure,” which usually refers to those hazy days of summer when the entire nation is migrating from North to South, from inland to seashore, and it can often take an entire day to reach a destination that would normally take only a few hours. So be smart. Leave before, or after, everybody else. Or even better, leave when everybody else is having lunch. Yeah, the partenza a pranzo has a nice ring to it. And it gives me a little time to get prepared.

OK, here we go. Permission slip? . Medical mask? Check. Rubber gloves? Yes. Hazmat suit? I wish! The question is, which jacket to wear? I plan on going by bicycle, and there’s a blustery wind out today. Got to be the big coat, then. But what if I start to sweat at the supermarket? Will those beads of moisture on my forehead be more likely to pick up the virus germs? Or will my perspiration potentially create a hotspot of infection?

I decide on the puffy jacket. And no scarf. I don’t want any loose, dangly things swabbing up other people’s spittle out there. Oh yeah, one more thing: the grocery list, upon which my son has helpfully written “Lots of food that’s good to eat.” All right, my objectives are clear!

1:30 p.m., aka “Italians-eating-lunch time,” is approaching, and so I head out on my trusty bike. Sweet freedom! The supermarket is less than two miles away, and the pedaling feels glorious. I take in great gulps of fresh air while battling the brisk wind. There’s literally nobody around, and it crosses my mind to stop and take pictures of an empty piazza or two, to capture the astonishing yet dismal beauty of the quarantined city. But I decide it’s not worth it. Taking pictures with my mind, I pedal on.

Good tidings as I near the distant supermarket: I see no human beings outside; no line. My partenza smart hit the bulls-eye! Though, once I enter the shopping center, I do realize that a small line of a dozen or so other “smart shoppers” is waiting to get in. No problem, it could’ve been so much worse. And now, it’s time to get serious.

There are stories going around about Federico Pizzarotti, the mayor of Parma, standing outside this very supermarket and checking people’s receipts as they come out. We are supposed to get several days’ worth of groceries every time we do the shopping. The story goes that one guy was caught with a little bag containing only three slices of prosciutto. Delicious prosciutto, I might add, but still—only three slices! The polizia came, and they sent the guy straight to jail. Kidding, they fined him a few hundred euros, which would obviously sting badly in these days when most of us aren’t working. So I need to plan on filling up my shopper, just in case il signor sindaco or anybody else checks me on the way out.

But my planning is interrupted by the lady behind me in line. She seems to be asking me something. I can’t understand anything she’s saying through the medical mask, and when I say “Cosa?” or “What?” she can’t understand me either. You wonder what the etiquette is in these situations. The urge is to lift up the mask and get straight to the point, but then again the entire line and a couple of rent-a-cops are looking at us now, so the masks must stay on. (Also, first and foremost, I don’t want her spittle on my face.) Eventually, I seem to understand that she wants me to “watch” her cart, possibly moving it along as the line progresses, so that she can go wandering through the shopping center looking through closed shop windows at things she can’t buy.

The guy in front of me shakes his head and tells me that the lady needs to take care of her own cart. Of course, that’s just what I think he’s saying. But the guy somehow reminds me of my friend Fabio, who’s the kind of guy who gets things done, but with a smile on his face, and so I imagine him saying something reasonable.

I tell the lady I don’t want to touch her cart, but of course she doesn’t understand and goes window-shopping anyway. I proceed meekly towards the supermarket entrance, now the next in line to get in, and hope that there won’t be any repercussions for not guarding the can’t-shop-shopping-lady’s cart. What if she touches me?

I see her later, coming out of the supermarket, but she doesn’t recognize me. In fact, it’s hard to recognize anybody with these big masks over our faces. I wonder how people will fall in love at first sight if we have to wear these masks for much longer. Should we put pictures of our actual faces on the masks? I’d be tempted to put a picture of Chris Martin on my mask, when I really look like The Dude from The Big Lebowski these days.

All right, time to focus as I am allowed into the promised land. At first all is well. I see plenty of space, people keeping the required distance, the shelves fully stocked with good things to eat.

But I soon bump into awkward moments, in the aisles, by the milk and the cheese, when meeting other shoppers. Somebody has to retreat in order to maintain a safe distance. I’m usually the one to retreat. No, I’m always the one to retreat. Three, four times. There’s no pride involved in this—it’s all about keeping healthy and getting Italy out of quarantine as soon as possible. But why always me? Doesn’t anybody else have the same kind of scruples? I want to shout as I’m backing up again: I’M DOING THIS FOR ITALY! Nobody would understand, anyway.

In one aisle, I am appalled by the mass of humanity. Five different people are perusing the pasta. And then an elderly lady comes cruising in from behind me, trapping me by the fusilli. This is not good. I try to say something, but obviously nobody understands. The old lady reaches for the fusilli right in front of my face. The horror!

I abandon all hope of obtaining pasta, knowing we have plenty at home. Pushing the lady’s cart out of the way as gently as possible, I retreat towards the fruit and vegetables. Here there is more space, and for some reason the people behave with more civic sense.

Having more or less filled up my cart, I make for the check-out. I’m one of those people who must always chat with the check-out person. But there can be no chatting now. Words are impossible to understand through the mask. R.E.M.’s “Imitation of Life” is playing, and I really need to tell the check-out lady about my years in Athens, GA, but it’s not happening. She can’t even tell if I’m smiling or not. So I give her the double thumbs-up. She gives me the thumbs-up back, and then, as I’m leaving, I get one word out that she can understand through the mask: “Grazie!”

As I’m biking back towards home with my bag full of good things to eat, I wonder if the check-out lady was smiling back at me behind her mask. Pretty sure that she was.

Meanwhile, I’m singing along with Michael Stipe: “This lightning storm, this tidal wave/ This avalanche, I’m not afraid/ Come on, come on, no one can see me cry.”