You might recall those lines as the opening to Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. 35 years since the publishing of that book, I’m sitting sequestered away in my kitchen in Bergamo, Italy at 11am on a Wednesday afternoon, listening to the ominous drone of sirens that constantly remind me we are facing another C word – Coronavirus.
It is just the third day into a country-wide lockdown, with 60 million people attempting to suffocate the social butterfly nature of a respiratory illness that flourishes in defenceless, virgin lungs. The main concern isn’t death by bloody diarrhea or dehydration, nor even really death by pneumonia strengthened by a host of co-morbidities. What we in the so-called “zona rossa” of Lombardy are concerned about is the potential death of our national healthcare system that at the moment, finds itself at the tipping point. Doctors and nurses are tasked with the impossible – to choose who to try to save, to look at a patient chart and make a decision. “You decide based on age, on health condition. Just like in all situations of war. I’m not the one saying this, it’s textbook,” are the words of Dr. Christian Salaroli, a Bergamo-based doctor working on the frontlines. The allusions to war don’t stop here. Just taking a look at the deserted streets of the city and the shuttered up shops brings back memories that many older generations had hoped to forget forevermore.
Those of us who have never lived through the wars are perhaps struggling the most as the circumstances require a complete change in social routine and lifestyle that most are not accustomed to. No more aperitivo hour, the beloved pre-dinner, post-work drinks wrought with bubbly prosecco and bright orange Aperol. No more lingering dinners at checker-tabled trattorias. No more pushing and shoving to get your pistachio gelato order as the days get warmer. No more soccer. No more Sunday mornings at the museum admiring the masterful chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. Just a two-letter word, no. And that is a word that I’ve come to realize Italians don’t like to hear. Italians don’t like to be told they can’t do something and they are a population infamous for their cunningness and ability to bend the rules. I say this with all the admiration in the world because it’s the reason this country is also so loved. We love Italy for her messy self, her beautiful ruins, her lack of organization, and aversion to standing in lines.
But this time, in the time of coronavirus, all the things we love about her became dangerous faults and weaknesses. Italians put under quarantine were finding ways out. A just-diagnosed patient called a taxi from the hospital to escape. People continued to go to aperitivo and soccer games and boasting about their rebellious acts on social media. The rules were seen as ‘suggestions’ here, just like the rules of the road. There’s nothing more entertaining and adrenaline-inducing than negotiating your way on Italy’s roads but the same attitude cannot be applied to the current situation, it is not open to negotiation. Objection to this fact has essentially been the country’s undoing.
However now, as Italians are finally realizing the gravity of the situation due to the strict lockdown provisions put in place, another quality is coming to light- determination. As an adopted Italian, I can confirm that if there is one thing that Italians do not lack, it is the ability to band together in a time of need, in this time of need – the time of Coronavirus. Now is the time to be more Italian than ever. L’arte di arrangiarsi is called into effect. The art of getting by. With the long days ahead of us as we await the end of the lockdown in April, il dolce far niente comes to mind. We must marvel in the sweetness of doing nothing. We may have taken awhile to get here, through an oscillation of misinformation, panic, and laissez-faire attitudes, but here we are and tutto andrà bene. Everything will be ok.