A Letter from John Fleischman, Who’s Locked Down in Lombardy

What it’s like to be a Cincinnati time traveler marooned in the epicenter of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Today is May Day, which means that my wife, Mary, and I have been locked down for 54 days in our tiny apartment in Lombardy, the region in northern Italy that has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in this country. That’s the official count, at least.

Unofficially, we’ve been in self-isolation since February 24, when our daughter called us from her home in Treviglio, a small city east of Milan in the province of Bergamo. We were in Geneva, Switzerland, for the weekend. Claire told us that the regional government had just invoked all sorts of emergency measures, locking down entire towns. A supermarket stampede was underway in Treviglio. (Being Italians, they were clearing the shelves of pasta, prosciutto, and mineral water. In the land of the bidet, toilet paper was not a top essential.)

“They may be closing the border,” Claire said. “You’d better get back here.” Closing the Swiss border! Suddenly we were caught up in a World War II espionage movie. Mary and I hightailed it to the Geneva station and the night train through the Alps back to Milan’s central station, where the normally turbulent passenger concourse was eerily quiet. That’s when the coronavirus first burst through the background buzz of dismaying world events and became all too real for us.

Our daughter had come to Italy to study art history in college and basically never left. Now married with two kids, a husband who is an Inspector in the state police, and a career in international luxury packaging sales, Claire lives about 14 miles south of the town of Bergamo. It used to be known to tourists as a charming medieval citadel city perched on the front range of the Alps—now it’s become a name of historic dread. In March alone, 4,500 people died of COVID-19 in the province. The municipal crematorium was so overwhelmed that Italian army trucks were called to carry away bodies to facilities elsewhere. The infection graph has flattened since March, but the name can still stop Cincinnati friends in their FaceTime tracks. Bergamo? Is that where…?

Still, we love it here. After Mary and I retired, Claire found us a tiny apartment in the building next door, and for the last four years we’ve stayed here for roughly half the year and then back in Cincinnati for the other half. We have grandchildren in both places. Many Americans have the idea that Italy is a larger Disneyland, an enchanted land of history, art, and prosecco. We live here in Real Italy, a place where grandkids have to be taken to the dentist, schools give too much homework, and everyone worries about the economy, now more than ever. Day-to-day life is remarkably like Real Ohio back in Cincinnati, but with better coffee.

We were supposed to fly home in early April, but we’re not sure when we’re going to arrive at CVG. Our flights keep getting cancelled. Nor are we sure what home will look like when we do. But on this May Day, we are very safe here as anziani (oldsters) locked down in our two-room apartment. Claire does all our shopping now, parks it outside our door, rings the bell, and then steps back to a safe social distance. Sometimes our 13-year-old granddaughter comes by and chats with us from the hallway. It’s weird.

Locked down in Lombardy, Italy.

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

An old word has come back to us with new meaning: pastime. To make the days go round, we read e-books. We stream exercise videos on YouTube. I draw and paint. Mary studies for her written Italian driving license test, which is notorious for its complexity—there are said to be 3,000 possible questions, more than enough to last a pandemic or two. We burn through long stretches of Netflix. We attempt a massive jigsaw puzzle and give up after four weeks.

Fortunately, we have a balcony where I sit in spring sunshine and watch the world’s worst health crisis in a century unfold. It’s strange how little there is to see. Chiefly, it’s absence. No knots of high school kids shuffling up from the station a few minutes before the bell, texting, shrieking, and smoking. No packs of moms, dads, and nonni (grandparents) herding little ones toward the elementary school. No pendolari, the weary train commuters to Milan who used to snap up all the parking outside our building by 7:15 a.m. There is very little traffic except for the local police rolling slowly through the quiet streets, blaring a loudspeaker warning us to stay inside or risk a fine.

Then there are ambulance sirens, heading for the large hospital on the outskirts of town that’s shifted operations almost entirely to COVID-19. The curves of infection slope downward now, but there are still too many sirens for my ears. They remind me of the quiet courage of Italian medical staff who answer the sirens and who have died in staggering numbers. The sirens can also stand for the other public workers, from the Polizia di Stato to the sanitation crews to the supermarket checkout clerks who risk infection daily. (Italian checkout clerks have always worked sitting down. Now they work from behind plexiglass shields.)

My view of COVID-19 was reflected back from Cincinnati friends and family on video calls. In March, I felt I was shouting down a tunnel through time, my words echoing back from an Ohio that was still in a lost age called “Before the Virus Got Ugly.” It wasn’t that my Cincinnati folks didn’t believe me about the rituals of self-isolation, social distancing, and disinfecting doorknobs—they just couldn’t imagine what was coming to Cincinnati until it did. Today, we are in synch.

I look back on our February train ride south through the Alps and the night. We had to change trains at Brig-Glis, a ski and tourist town in the Swiss canton of Valais. It’s in German-speaking Switzerland and, on that chilly Sunday evening, was enthusiastically celebrating Fasnacht, the Swiss version of Mardi Gras. We had time to leave the station and walk uphill toward the town square and the sounds of oompah music. The square was packed with families, tourists, and skiers. Children were hoisted on shoulders to see a clown band of women in elaborate stiff dresses and pancake white makeup, loudly playing folk tunes on red plastic band instruments backed by thunderous percussion. Only they weren’t all women, but mostly men in drag with fright wigs, trailing long gowns decked out in harlequin checks.

Was the coronavirus in Brig on Fasnacht? Probably. Ten weeks later on May 7, the Swiss health authorities are reporting 1,854 cases of COVID-19 in that canton, with 96 deaths. In Brig, we listened unawares and then walked downhill to what became our last restaurant dinner and an extended trip home.

[Editor’s Note: John and Mary finally made it back to Cincinnati in early June. Welcome home!]

John Fleischman, a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology, is author of the acclaimed children’s book Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science, as well as a number of books that focus on Cincinnati history.

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