World

From a restricted Italy, an artist’s eye on the coronavirus

Trying to make a friend feel balanced and welcomed in her temporary home

Artist Emiliano Ponzi has been drawing and writing about daily life in Milan during the coronavirus outbreak. Since March 14, when he started documenting his experiences during lockdown, the number of virus-related deaths in Italy has risen to more than 30,000.

May 12

Ayumi is one of the sweetest people I know. I met her years ago, when she was living in New York and we used to share a studio in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, during my visits. An excellent painter who is half Chinese and half Japanese, she moved to the states to study art at college.

We use to go downstairs to smoke a cigarette for a break during the working days, and go to dinners and art openings at night or on the weekends.

Born and raised between very different cultures, she has a unique gift. She can embrace the shape of the person she is talking to, moving through peaks and valleys of the other temperament, finding the right balance to make you feel comfortable and welcomed.

Infected

219,814

Deaths

30,739

(As of May 12 in Italy)

Last August, her boyfriend was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, for a year for business, and she decided to share this new experience with him in a country where she doesn’t know the language or the culture. But she expected she could adapt to new situations as she already had in her other moves.

They are living in an apart-hotel; it’s a popular accommodation for short- and mid-term rentals in Germany. They have a small apartment with a small kitchen in a building with similar units. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, they have spent their days in this tiny space: working eating, sleeping, fighting, etc. From her small balcony, she can enjoy the view of a communal garden with trees and grass. Hearing birds sing and children at play, off from school, helps her to feel a bit less lonely.

Most of the apart-hotel guests moved out, and at night, only their room has the lights on, and sometimes she loses track of time.

Germany has not been as strict as Italy with its stay-at-home directives, and so people are hanging out by the river. She sees few of them wearing masks. At the beginning of the outbreak, she still went to paint at her studio close to the Frankfurt station. She got a lot of hostile looks, and some people shouted slurs at her, and a few spit at her, singling her out as an Asian woman.

After that harassment on the street, she decided she would not got outside. Now, she stays inside and waits for all this to go away.

I asked her to do me a favor after our call: Take a deep breath, dress up as she used to when she went out, and head downstairs for a short walk in that green garden she usually enjoys just from her balcony.


(For The Washington Post)

May 5

It wasn’t a beautiful day in Sao Paulo. It was the only damn day of rain and wind after two months of sunny weather. But weddings are planned in advance, and no forecast can predict the best day for a ceremony.

She had a classic white dress lit up with red high heels and held a bouquet of bright flowers. He wore a gray linen jacket, a white shirt and black pants. Or maybe they were dark blue? Who can tell exactly on Zoom?

They both wore masks.

Infected

211,938

Deaths

29,079

(As of May 5 in Italy)

On May 2, I witnessed the wedding of Vincenzo and Nara. He is a great friend, an Italian living in New York, and one the best animators I’ve ever worked with. She is Brazilian, an actress and screenplay writer. They met during another rainy Italian-Brazilian marriage four years ago. Rain calls rain, but love calls love, despite the many difficulties of staying together across continents.

To be together, Vincenzo took one of the last flights in March from New York, just before the lockdown. Then he spent a week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in quarantine, in an Airbnb apartment, before hugging Nara again. They are living now in Nara’s mother’s house, but the ceremony took place on her father’s patio that is also a basketball court.

I received the Zoom invite for the midnight toast. But I kind of crashed: I asked to attend the ceremony, three hours earlier, with parents and close relatives only. I was an undercover guest, with camera and microphone turned off, so I could only observe others’ emotions through the small-screen windows on top of the big one, where the newlyweds were laughing, joking, switching from Brazilian to English to Italian. Team Italy was Vincenzo’s family with mum, dad and nephews on the first screen, his sister on the second, his brother on the third, his cousin and wife on the fourth, a young close friend on the fifth, an older friend on the seventh, and then mine, a black muted one with just my name on it.

Team Brazil consisted of two ministers with the paperwork, the two witnesses, Nara’s sisters and parents and a couple more people.

From my position of privilege, I toggled back and forth and saw a tear on the cheeks of Vincenzo’s mother and sister. His father walked away from the computer to reach an old piano and started playing a bridal march, with somewhat questionable results. He wisely pointed out that as this was the only music they could have, it obviously was the best. Vincenzo’s nephews wore pajamas, and a friend watched the ceremony from her bed.

It was probably the most intimate wedding I ever “attended.” There were no layers of formality, no unwritten codes, no tight dress, no painful heels, no long wait between first and second course. It was all about staying cozy on the couch and watching the movie made by actors we know in person. It felt natural to be natural, without structured behavior.

And the emotions were as fully real as if I had been there in person, even if the glass of the screen or the pixelated faces made it feel a little weird. No one really cared. The wedding ritual was the same: the minister’s speech, spouses’ signatures, the kiss, the hug with parents-in-law, the serious and funny photo shoot. Everyone wearing a mask.

Life goes on, life triumphs … always.

Viva a vida! Viva os noivos!

Cheers to the bride and groom.


(For The Washington Post)

April 28

We Italians now have two dates, two tentative steps to a return to open society:

On May 4, we can visit parents and relatives inside the same region, and funerals can resume, with a maximum of 15 people. Parks can reopen, and so, too, can some factories. All with appropriate social distancing and masks.

On May 18, bars, restaurants, stores and museums reopen, too, although it’s still unclear just how this will work.

Infected

199,414

Deaths

26,977

(As of April 28 in Italy)

In Italy, we have suffered one of the pandemic’s deadliest outbreaks in the world, and we have endured Europe’s longest lockdown. If the past two months have been a long night, we can whisper that May will bring the beginning of the sunrise.

Waiting for the dawn, I started enjoying the darkness. It’s not that I started getting used to the lack of freedom. I miss seeing people and hanging out at bars and restaurants and going to events and getting on a plane now and then.

But this long night has brought a new kind of calm, with less inputs coming from the outside world. Being locked in with strict rules for almost 50 days has made me reconnect with an inner part of myself. It has made me wonder about the meaning of happiness now and before, to reflect on the things we need vs. the things we want.

I naturally asked myself which of those things I used to do were coming from a genuine desire or a specific intent — or if they were just habit, part of my daily loop that had me running like a mouse on a wheel. Only when you are forced to stop can you see that wheel.

We give small and big parts of ourselves to others, and that’s amazing. It is the foundation for empathy, friendship and love. But living inside an accelerated society, I have the sensation that the constant stimuli can lead us to distance from our own need, to disconnect the inside to tune into the outside.

So many things, so many plans for the close/mid-/long-term future, so many notes on the calendar, so much noise pushed into a time that doesn’t exist and is still to come.

It’s like trying to make a good photograph, setting the focus on the background and never on the foreground.

I have the feeling I’m building a bubble around me now, putting the present time and my self (not my selfishness) in front of my nose.

Making a bubble of reconnection is the primary act of empathy toward oneself. We can use that act to come back, and perhaps live a more authentic life along with others.


(For The Washington Post)

April 21

The city is like a human body, with boulevards and streets as arteries and its veins now empty. In Milan, the only people filling this void are delivery guys riding their bicycles at full speed. We have three major online delivery companies that serve restaurants trying to survive in this shuttered city of 1.3 million. And who are the people on this new outdoor velodrome?

Infected

181,228

Deaths

24,114

(As of April 21 in Italy)

The majority are immigrants, most from Africa and Asia, according to a 2019 study by the University of Milan. They are predominantly under 30. And 97 percent of them are men.

For many of them, this is their full-time job. They are paid what they are paid, which is not much of course. So more deliveries equates to more money and more tips. With that increase, is frequency in accidents. And we all know that hospitals these days aren’t the safest places in the world.

I have to be honest: In what we could call “the time before,” some of them were quite annoying for pedestrians, as they zigged across sidewalks, and for drivers, as they zagged between vehicles stopped for red lights. But I got it, because more rides, more money.

They don’t come upstairs anymore; they wait for you downstairs wearing masks and gloves. As soon as you show up, they take the food from the shining branded cubical backpack and place it on the ground. It seems as if there is an invisible bulletproof door between the two of us.

I wait for him to drop the bags and step back, so the imaginary door can automatically open on my side and I can finally bring the Greek souvlaki upstairs.

The delivery guys have different places to rest, eat, laugh and chitchat before starting to pedal again. One such spot is very close to my house. It is one of the 11 doors built into the wall that for centuries was used to defend the inner part of the city.

When the food couriers’ shifts are over, they stand in a row with their bikes on the subway platform, waiting for the trains back to their homes, mostly located outside the city center in what is called “Hinterland.”

And the next day, they will be back, to feed the homebound and to fill up the emptiness of the city. They can finally be the lords of the land, riding their iron horses at full speed without anyone yelling at them.


(For The Washington Post)

April 6

When I was a kid, this was the time of year I sat in school watching the sunshine begin its spring dance of shadows and light. At my desk, I looked out the window dreaming with eyes wide open about the time the early alarm clocks, homework and tests would be over. Time for hanging out with friends at the beach in those never-ending summer afternoons.

Infected

128,948

Deaths

15,887

(As of April 6 in Italy)

When that time comes again, it’s going to be a beautiful day.

We could call it “liberation day,” which has the flavor of a blockbuster action movie title, but this can feel like war.

People will hug and kiss again as we Italians are used to doing. Restaurants will prepare tables, cleaning glasses as if it were a big opening night. All the store windows will shine.

It’s going to be a celebration of dusting, coming back to the studio and taking a cloth to the computers, wiping down the table with the pens and markers.

It’s going to be the day of our victory over this virus, and the layers of dust will be the degree of our sacrifice in staying home and respecting rules.

But we have to be patient. We are living in the present, an act of minding the “here and now.” We can’t let days pass one after the other while we wait for that liberation day. We all know that closing this dramatic chapter of human history and returning from economic collapse means having a vaccine, and it takes time.

So we can look outside, imagining those warm afternoons at the seaside as I used to when I was a kid. But at a certain point, as if the teacher was yelling at us because we were distracted, we have to bring our sight back to the books and the tests on our desk and keep going.

I hate cleaning. But when the day comes, it will be amazing and, quoting John Fante, while wiping my table, I will say softly: “Ask the dust.”


(For The Washington Post)

April 2

Laura Pezzino, 41, has been working as a freelance journalist for a couple of months. She previously worked as a book editor for Vanity Fair Italy. Her interests are books and poetry, and she also organizes cultural events. At the beginning of the lockdown, she launched the Instagram project @ACasaConUnPoeta.

E: Ciao, Laura!

L: Hi, Emi. Thanks a lot for this opportunity!

E: First of all, how are you?

L: My health is good. I feel good in that way. However, as days go by, I feel my heart becoming heavier and a head full of snakes.

E: How are your beloved people?

L: My family lives in another region, and they are well; nobody is sick at the moment. Many friends of mine have gotten covid-19, but all of them are recovering. I am very lucky.

Infected

115,242

Deaths

13,915

(As of April 2 in Italy)

E: Are you afraid of being infected?

L: Not quite, actually. I have this presumption that makes me think that, should I get sick, I would recover. Probably it’s just a way to exorcise the fear.

E: Where are you now?

L: I live in Milan, in the Porta Venezia neighborhood

E: Are you alone at home in this lockdown? Since when?

L: Yes, I’ve been alone at home since March 2.

E: When was the last time you got out?

L: Six days ago, when I went to the news agent to buy magazines. I try to go grocery shopping every 10 days. I don’t eat much. I’ll go out tomorrow to buy magazines and have a little walk down the street.

E: Three things that you miss badly?

L: My cats, who are at my parents’ house. Milan during springtime, meaning being out. Sharing.

E: And a partner?

L: I don’t miss a “quarantine man.” I miss a real encounter. But maybe these days a little door is opening, and someone might get in.

E: Has your relationship with time and free time changed?

L: It has changed in so far that there is no more spare time. You have spare, free time when you can use it as you want, when you can decide to go to the theater, have a happy hour or stay home and read or watch Netflix. Quarantine makes us have no options. So I think I only had one minute “free” since the beginning.

E: Are you learning something during this quarantine?

L: It’s not over, but I’ve learned that I’m just a learner in life. I think I’ve learned a few things already. First, how I dealt with an emergency situation: being alone in front of my fragilities has scarred me for life. Second, I need people more than I thought. Third, I have amazing neighbors: I didn’t know them at all before, now I share my only social moments with them. We have even read some poetry together, each at their balcony or window. I am immensely thankful for this. It’s like softening some hard parts inside me, while others will get stronger after all this.

E: Are you just waiting for this to be over, or are you starting to get used to it?

L: I don’t think that this quarantine is a suspension of life. I don’t want to get used to this mode, as much as I don’t want to get used to when it will all be “normal” again. What has become clear is our state on “non-permanence."

E: What has left an impression on you the most?

L: Military trucks filing past with the coffins of the dead of Bergamo. Knowing that people must die alone in hospitals. That relatives cannot be with their dear ones in their last travel. Our land is full with Antigones, crying with no consolation.

E: Spring is coming! Do you want to be outside with a drink in your hand?

L: A lot!

E: When all this will be over, what is the first thing you are going to do?

L: Partying, no matter with whom or where. I already know how I’ll dress.

E: And the second?

L: I’ll go and see my parents and nieces. I see [my nieces] growing from my smartphone. The live 10 kilometers from the seaside, so that’s where I’ll go next. I need to face the infinite.

E: Do you want everything reverted to exactly as it was before the pandemic?

L: I would be a fool to think so. Clearly, the “before” was not right. I, we, the world needs profound transformation, a shift in priorities.

E: What don’t you want anymore?

L: Living as if under sedatives. I want to feel more and not less. Notice things around me. I want to be nicer to myself and people around me.

E: What is a habit you have picked up and like?

L: Going grocery shopping is amazing! No more online grocery!

E: Did you find a new object you have a special relationship with? (Computers and cellphones don’t count, as they are vital.)

L: My bath. Taking a bath is now a ritual, it’s almost a sacred moment. There is always a self before and after the bath. The water retains the memory of what was, it’s the mother element. Every time, it renews me.

E: Is this lockdown therapeutic or torture?

L: It will be instructive. And, at times, a bit of a torture.

E: If you look out of the window, to the horizon, what do you wish to see a year from now?

L: A spring of freedom.

E: Do you spend time at the window?

L: Not much, sometimes I feel like the sunlight hurts my eyes.

E: Grazie mille.

Stay safe.


(For The Washington Post)

March 31

I’m very curious about biographies: the lives of other people, their thoughts, processes, their intimate movements.

Today, I reached out to Giorgia Lupi, 38, an Italian designer living in Brooklyn since 2012. She is a partner at Pentagram, the world’s largest independently owned design studio, and is an advocate for data humanism. She also draws … a lot.

Emiliano: Ciao, Giorgia! First of all, how are you?

Giorgia: Hello! Miss you Emi! I am okay, all considered, thank you!

E: How are your beloved people?

G: My mom is the only biological family I have left. She is at home in Italy doing well. I talk to her every day. Every now and again, we happen to also talk about something other than coronavirus. My friends are healthy as well, we are all connected and talk daily, sharing our anxieties, stresses and hopes, and also funny videos and jokes.

Infected

105,792

Deaths

12,428

(As of March 31 in Italy)

E: Are you afraid of being infected?

G: You know, I think yes … to a certain extent as many of us are. But I am trying to be as responsible as possible, and this is the only thing I can do.

E: Are you alone at home in this lockdown? Since when?

G: I am alone, yes. It’s also a particularly new condition for me, coming out very recently from a relationship that lasted 10 years. I used to spend all my awake time with the man I was living and also working with. Luckily, we are still incredibly close, but this isolation on my own is particularly strange and perhaps hard for me, especially not seeing the end of it in sight. It has been two weeks that New York has been in “lock down.”

E: Last time you got out?

G: I try to go out for a walk every few days. Here in New York exercising and going out for mental health is [still] allowed. I don’t live in a very crowded area, so I can still walk while easily respecting social distance measures.

E: Anything you miss?

G: Pretty much everything from the “before.” On a very abstract level: freedom, the feeling of moving toward the future, excitement for something in the near future. On a less abstract level: seeing (and touching!) the people I care about in person, my life at Pentagram, and drinking a beer at a bar’s counter!

E: And a partner?

G: What a direct question! Well, I am seeing someone. But it’s very new, and we are not seeing each other now. We FaceTime often, it’s a way different type of connection, and at times I am obviously worried that this forced isolation at the beginning of a relationship will ruin it. We will see! But yeah, I miss seeing him in person, and a hug!

E: Has your relationship with time changed?

G: It’s incredibly different. I used to spend pretty much all my time outside, evenings for me were all about seeing my friends in a bar or pub, or attending an event (a book reading, an art opening, a design show …). Now my free time is mostly for me at home, and the sense of time — as we all know — has shifted from a mostly planned and organized calendar for the future days and weeks, to an indefinite, uncertain and unplanned timeline. We are all hanging in there, and so am I.

E: Are you learning something during this quarantine?

G: I think for me this is an exercise in letting go of expectations, control and planning. Three big themes for that I am working on. Also, learning to be okay with not knowing, and with being alone with myself. SO HARD THOUGH! Journaling helps a lot.

E: Are you just waiting for this to be over, or are you starting to get used to it?

G: I am waiting to get used to it.

E: What impressed you most?

G: Obviously seeing the effects of this pandemic on human lives every day, multiple times a day through the news. It’s shocking and terrifying, and it’s still hard to believe that it’s happening. Perhaps many of us started this journey angry and mad at “why is this happening to ME?,” taking it personally. More and more, we’re all understanding we’re all in there as a community and society. And it’s heartwarming to see how many people are supporting and helping each other, and the humanity and kindness that is there in our communities.

E: Spring is coming! Do you want to be outside with a drink in your hand?

G: Da uno a dieci, centomila! (On a scale from one to 10: 100,000.)

E: When all this will be over, what is the first thing you are going to do?

G: At this point we all know that things will slowly get back to a semi-normal state, so there won’t be a sudden get back to our previous life. But if I have to picture a perfect day in the past, I would say it would start with a morning yoga class (not on Instagram live or Zoom), a long walk in Brooklyn during the day, perhaps with a friend; an art show in the afternoon and a nice evening out: maybe listening to some live music, jazz music, and then — why not — ending it with a DJ set or a dance party! … Which I know won’t happen for a while.

E: Do you want everything reverted to exactly as it was before the pandemic.

G: Part of me would say yes, but we all have to learn personally and as a society from this moment in time, as from all crises. So I am looking forward to seeing how life will be after, and we all know it will be different, it’s hard to predict how.

E: What is a habit you have picked up and like?

G: Checking in on my friends more often.

E: Did you find a new object you have a special relationship with? (Computers and cellphones don’t count, as they are vital.)

G: It’s actually a new one. A bike I bought right before this all started here. I used to ride my bike often in the beginning, and it was pretty much the only thing that gave me a sense of freedom and control. But honestly now I am becoming pretty scared of hurting myself — and generally not feeling a lot safe out there — so for now she is sitting here in my studio close to my piano, which I should play more often.

E: Is this lockdown therapeutic or torture?

G: A mix of both.

E: Do you spend time at the window?

G: I am pretty much working all the time these days, and when I am not working I am talking to the people I care about over the phone or FaceTime. I am incredibly lucky that windows are all around my apartment so, in a way, I am always looking out the window.

E: If you look out of the window, to the horizon, what do you wish to see a year from now?

G: A New York that is back on its feet, fully running, with the energy and the forward-looking spirit we all love it for.

E: Grazie mille. Stay safe.


(For The Washington Post)

March 30

I’m very curious about biographies: the lives of other people, their thoughts, processes, their intimate movements. I reached out to three amazing Italian women whom I admire, locked down alone in three big cities: New York, Paris and Milan. I wanted to explore how they are living in this particular moment.

Francesca Bianchi, 50, has been living in Paris for the past 15 years. Her small apartment is in Montmartre, where she has been in lockdown for two weeks. She is the personal assistant of the well-known architect Renzo Piano. “Cinema is my religion, and I go to the movies at least 3 times a week. I also had a cinema blog for many years, Le Blog de Zazie, where I shared the films I loved,” she said.

Emiliano: Ciao, Francesca! First of all, how are you?

Francesca: I'm fine, thanks.

E: How are your beloved people?

Infected

101,739

Deaths

11,591

(As of March 30 in Italy)

F: Luckily enough, my parents (who live in the outskirts of Milan) and my brother and his husband (who live in the city center) are all okay. One of the my best friends, who’s a nurse in a Milan hospital, had the virus and she is still positive, but she is doing fine.

E: Are you afraid of being infected?

F: Yes, as everybody else, I guess. The more the days are passing, though, the more I hope I won’t get it. … But who can be sure of that? We live in hope!

E: Three things you miss badly?

F: Besides the obvious — spending time with my family and friends — the things I miss most are the ones I love most: going to the movies, traveling and dancing the Lindy Hop. And, I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I really miss my job and my colleagues.

E: And a partner?

F: I’ve been single for 12 years, and I’m so used to facing any situation by myself that I don’t particularly miss a man in this moment. I mean, I miss very much not having somebody who loves me and that I love back, but in general, it’s not related to this event.

E: Are you learning something during this quarantine?

F: More than learning things, I had some confirmations, like the fact that I really hate physical exercise — I love to have a good excuse not to make any now! — and that I have the most wonderful collection of books and movies, and I was right to spend money on them.

E: Are you just waiting for this to be over, or are you starting get to used to it?

F: I got used to lockdown pretty fast. When things in Italy started to go really badly I was shocked by the attitude of French people: They were seriously thinking that they won't have to face the same ordeal. Sadly enough, reality is proving the opposite.

E: Spring is coming! Do you want to be outside with a drink in your hand?

F: From 1 to 10? 100!!!

E: When all this will be over, what is the first thing you are going to do?

F: Take a plane and go to Milan to see my family.

E: And the second?

F: Run to the Cinéma des Cinéastes, my favorite cinema in Paris, and see whatever movie they're showing.

E: Do you want everything reverted to exactly as it was before the pandemic?

F: Oh, yes, I want my life back. I really loved it! But I don’t really think we can get out of this as we enter it. There will be changes. There will be consequences. But I want I do want is more kindness, in every domain.

E: What is a habit you have picked up and like?

F: A friend of mine, knowing how passionate I am about cinema, asked me to make a list of unmissable movies to watch during the quarantine. I had the idea of making a small video every other day for my Italian friends, talking about a film, and it has become a very nice habit, which also obliges me to get dressed and put some makeup on!

E: Did you find a new object you have a special relationship with? (Computers and cellphones don’t count, as they are vital.)

F: It wasn’t a real discovery because I’ve always cherished them, but I have a small collection of vintage objects in my kitchen, and every day I enjoy using a new one, just for the pleasure of thinking about the foreign city where I bought it. It is so nice to have all these beautiful memories brought back to me simply by looking at a cup or a glass.

E: Is this lockdown therapeutic or torture?

F: I guess I should answer to this only when the lockdown will be actually over, but for the time being, I think I’ll consider it more therapeutic than torture.

E: If you look out of the window, to the horizon, what do you wish to see a year from now?

F: It would be really nice if in one year, this same day, I’d get together with my neighbors and we’d celebrate in our small courtyard the anniversary of the lockdown with food, wine and laughter. It would mean that the world is free of this virus and that we have understood to be more friendly and more attentive to one another. It’s a small dream, but it could hide a bigger one!

E: Thanks, stay safe.


(For The Washington Post)

March 28

“I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture:

“… Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrongdoing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of men or women, bonded or free.”

The Hippocratic oath is an ancient Greek medical text from the 4th century B.C., defining the ethics in the relationship between physician and patients. Every doctor in Italy has to declare a more modern version of this oath before starting the profession.

Infected

92,472

Deaths

10,023

(As of March 28 in Italy)

Physicians, paramedics, nurses and all health-care workers are doing more than what they pledged in their oaths: They’ve doubled their shifts, taken care of patients because no family members can access hospitals, informed media, gotten sick and put their own families in danger. And they are dying, because of exposure to high quantities of the virus, for many hours, without having enough medical protections.

Sadly, all their sacrifices cannot stop the toll from mounting. On Friday, we had the highest number of deaths in one day: 919.

We are receiving help from foreign countries: Cuba, Russia and China are sending doctors and medical equipment, but masks and ventilators are not enough and are not the only issue. Intensive care units can’t be built in a day or in a week. Health-care system funds have been reduced along the course of the years and not just in Italy.

How it is possible that we reached the point where the law of profit become more important than the right to live in good health and be cared for when ill? I’m not referring only to my country. The majority of governments delayed in taking strong measures to contain the virus, even when it was clear that their country was next in line to be hit as the pandemic escalated.

I’m not that naive. I know that there are many forces involved in a lockdown of a country: business, industries, lobbies, debts, promises, unemployment, propaganda, or — in one word — money.

Economically speaking, the world at the end of this will be so shattered that a call to change rules and reconsider the economic model we have is going to be crucial.

Locked down in our houses, we all are thinking more than before, and perhaps taking stock of our lives. For governments, it could be a great chance, too. Make a list of priorities and place human beings at the center.

Perhaps we will have these opportunities in the future.

In Italy, the chrysanthemum represents sorrow and grief. And I think of that flower as we continue to tally cases, count bodies and mourn.


(For The Washington Post)

March 25

“Honey, I’m home!”

“Hi, you have to try this new recipe, ribs and vegetables stewed together! You are going to love it!”

That was one week ago, when I still used to go to the studio. My wife started working from home three weeks before me and, wisely, started staying at home from the office when it wasn’t a rule already. I felt as if I were living in some ’50s TV show, when the housewife waits the whole day for the husband to come back from work. Then she wants to update him with all the amazing things that happened during another boring day, and the husband just wants to take off his shoes and chill.

Infected

74,386

Deaths

7,503

(As of March 25 in Italy)

We eat out very often, for lunch and dinner … well, we used to before quarantine. Cooking was an exception when friends came for dinner.

Home is not just a couch to watch TV or read or a bed to sleep in. It’s not just a pause between one working day and the other. Not anymore.

Staying home is enforcing the relationship with the house itself, a renovated bonding with walls, rooms, furniture and possibilities.

And not just the pots. Three years ago, I received a piano for my birthday. I had mentioned to my wife that I would have loved to learn to play. I tried once, the night of my birthday, and then never touched it again.

She started two weeks ago, using a learning app on an iPad one hour per day after work. She’s up to four or five hours on the weekend, instead of sauntering out to have our Aperol spritzes.

The first week, she played with the notes written on tape on top of the piano keys. And then without.

First, she played with one hand, and yesterday, both hands at the same time.

Having time she didn’t know she would have available, and then investing that time instead of waiting for all this to be over: This is a sliver of a silver lining of the crisis for her.

Online lessons of meditation with a Shaolin monk that her agency offers for all employees every morning at 8:30. Online Pilates that her gym offers to all members.

We know we are quite fortunate to have the money and freedom and flexibility with our work to explore these new experiences, with this bunch of new time we suddenly discovered. But having empty hours with no deadline also means boredom.

While I’m writing, she is playing with her brand New PlayStation 4 Pro that just arrived. At the age of 37, she is learning for the first time what key R or L means on the joypad.

Experimenting with all this brings some growth, alongside the tragedy. It means discovering new sides of our identity, making room for things we didn’t know we wanted to try or desire and, at the very end, it is giving us a fulfilling sensation to buoy us amid the sadness.


(For The Washington Post)

March 23

My friend Gianluigi loves kids. In fact, he has four. He has a daughter, Alma, from a previous relationship. And he has two sons, Gioele and Lev, with his current partner, and she has a daughter, Rada, from a previous relationship. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t.

Alma is eight and lives with her mother, but Gianluigi is used to seeing her every day. He drives her to school, brings her to check out books at the children’s library, and then they get ice cream. He is there for her in ways big and small, even if they don’t live under the same roof.

Infected

63,927

Deaths

6,077

(As of March 23 in Italy)

“Quarantine” and “contamination” are words that are newly commonplace in Italy. They bring heartbreak to blended families.

Quarantine is not just for the sick; it’s most important for everyone who changes location: country, city, home, workplace. Every environment we live in is made also by other people, and every move we make brings some potential contamination from the old place to the new one. To understand if a person shows signs of infection, he or she has to spend a certain number of days without changing risk factors or introducing different people. In Italy, this self-distancing is 14 days.

Alma will soon move with her mother into her grandmother’s house, with different people around. Before that, to be sure she is perfectly healthy, she has been quarantined. She can’t have close contacts with anyone but her mother, because they don’t want to infect her grandmother, of course.

So Gianluigi and Alma can only meet outside, in the street, with no physical contact, no kisses.

Alma has a dog, Tuo (“yours” in Italian), and he is a very good excuse to go outside without many questions by the police because dogs have their needs. The three of them walk under the beautiful arcades of the city of Turin. Tuo barks; the father and daughter chat.

This new reality she is embracing: the school lessons (only virtual), the impossibility to hang out with other kids, the use of the smartphone, forbidden until two weeks ago and now allowed to video call friends and relatives.

The length of Tuo’s leash, 3.5 feet, is exactly the security distance allowed by quarantine rules so that Alma can avoid potential contamination. That distance is the invisible bond between a father and her daughter.

Every tear on Alma’s face is a drop of love, a missed hug she holds for her father to the end of the isolation.


(For The Washington Post)

March 22

In the past few days, a picture circulated across the media of Pope Francis walking around Via del Corso in Rome to reach the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

He is 83 years old; what about the “stay at home” thing? Polemical talks started around the country.

But that’s not the point. I’m sure God will make an exception for him, and also the prime minister.

Infected

59,138

Deaths

5,476

(As of March 22 in Italy)

I remember my grandparents and the idea we had around the concept of wrinkles when we were kids. Getting old meant becoming wiser and having tons of stories to tell to grandchildren. It meant to have a past that tells who you are, what you built, all the sacrifices made to buy a house, to raise kids, to pay for their tuition.

The psychoanalysis called “undoing” is an unconscious defense mechanism, the act of removing thoughts too hard to think about. And back when life was normal, just a few months ago, death could be undone, ignored as somewhere down the line. Now, the wrinkles mark the old as those most at risk from dying of the coronavirus.

So our elders can’t use the “undoing” defense, and they can’t even attend Mass to seek comfort because all functions are suspended. Italians are quite religious. Religion, especially for elderly people, is a strong support system not just for the warm sensation of being part of a strong community inside the church wall but also because the priest’s voice is a sign of trust. It keeps the faith alive with pride. That’s why Francis is still celebrating the Angelus on Sundays by live-streaming it.

My parents and my friends’ parents are in their 70s; and my empathy goes to them. They are locked down, feeling weak and at risk, hunted by an invisible enemy hidden like a tiger in the open lands of the savanna, waiting in the grasses for the next gazelle passing by.

But our elder population is smarter than gazelles. Their wrinkles taught them well.

You can’t fight the tiger; just stay downwind protected by the warm comfort of the house, because for sure the tiger will go away eventually.


(For The Washington Post)

March 20

“Il Sorpasso” is a popular Italian movie from 1962 by Dino Risi. Roberto, a young timid law student, meets Bruno, a 40-ish braggart and risk-taker. They set off on a gorgeous drive along the coasts of Tuscany and Lazio in Bruno’s convertible. It’s Ferragosto, the Aug. 15 national holiday.

After a crescendo of adventures and adrenaline experiences, the end is dramatic: Going faster and faster along a coastal freeway, Bruno tries to pass another car on a blind curve, and his Lancia sails off a rocky cliff, killing Roberto.

Infected

47,021

Deaths

4,032

(As of March 20 in Italy)

“Sorpasso” means overtake. We have just overtaken China in numbers of death from covid-19: 3,405 Italians and 3,253 Chinese. The per capita rate is even more incredible. China’s population is 1.3 billion; Italy has 60 million.

Reasons? Hard to tell. The average age population in China is lower than here. Our country is older, and we have a very low birthrate. China may have more resources. In Wuhan, the city where the virus started, China built a hospital in 10 days.

But I suspect our cultural attitudes as Italians have played the largest role. We live in an ego-referential Western world, where every rule can be discussed, disliked and ignored eventually.

The omnipotence of our own free will is a voice louder than rules, louder than God. We have lost the sense of civic obligation that builds strong communities with shared values.

I want to acknowledge that China had a one-child policy from 1980 to 2013. I’m not comparing a communist regime with our “Western” democracy. I mean that the Chinese are more respectful of rules in a country that crushes dissent. If the government says “stay at home,” that’s what they do.

The government here says to stay at home, and more than 43,000 people are reported for violating the prohibition for going out without an excuse. Hordes of people assaulted the Milano Central station to come back to the south of Italy. People were fined for picnicking in parks, for children playing ping-pong in the streets, or driving about just for fun. people found in parks for pick nicks, boys and girls playing ping-pong in the street in a small village, in Milano others driving around with no reasons.

A record 9,600 were fined Thursday alone, said the interior minister.

Sun Shuopeng, the vice president of the Chinese Red Cross who came here recently to help, said: “In Italy, too many people are in the street with no masks …. Increasing quarantine measures will help to find exposed people and treating them.”

This crazy situation won’t end before 18 months — the time estimated to find a vaccine. And we can’t come back to a normal life for a while. But I don’t want to be locked down my house as a prison with a drone yelling at me if I lay down the window. I don’t want more severe measures so fellow Italians could you for one damn time respecting rules PLEASE?!


(For The Washington Post)

March 19

All my illustrations are made by computer. After 20 years, I felt I missed something. I missed the mistakes made by the use of markers, brushes and paint.

So three months ago, we started in our studio a return to the original compulsory skill, mastering the human body, unadorned. We hired professional models to pose nude and brought out the pencils and acrylics.

And then, two weeks ago, we had to cancel our sessions, because the best way to prevent further spread of the coronavirus pandemic is to avoid the human body.

Infected

41,035

Deaths

3,405

(As of March 19 in Italy)

In Italy, the campaign #iorestoacasa (I’m staying home) has been implemented to its fullest. All commercial and cultural activities, including bars, restaurants, schools, cinemas and museums, are shut down.

During one of our last lunches outside, I had an idea: Why not keep the live modeling sessions, but with masks?

Art always has been a mirror of the times, a way to reflect on historic events and exorcise the troubles of life.

We got in touch with Open, an online magazine, and called on a group of Italian artists to interpret the classic line drawing in the era of coronavirus.

Beppe Giacobbe and Francesco Poroli are just a few of the artists involved in the show. (For The Washington Post)

The models posed nude, except for wearing several different kids of face protection, to portray the escalating threat experienced in Italy, where the military has been called in to carry away the caskets. The artists participated remotely by videoconference.

Our message is that “staying home” does not mean “staying still”: We can all do our bit even in such suspended times. Be it a message of hope, an expression of beauty, a meaningful help to society.

Our sketches are auctioned online and the bids will be donated to the Italian Red Cross, which is helping both the health authorities and the most vulnerable population to respond to the crisis.

We called it the “Covid Uncovered” experience and hope to raise $25,000 by April 3. That was the date set for the expiration of our country’s forced quarantine, although we know it is not likely to end then. And we hope our auction will spark a worldwide movement.

Even as the virus knows no barriers, neither does art. It has always been the human endeavor that nourishes the spirit when science fails.


(Emiliano Ponzi/For The Washington Post)

March 18

We can’t go outside. But we can. Truth is never black or white, so we embrace the shades of gray. We have a form for it: a self-declaration module from the government that is downloadable.

Beginning March 9, swamped by the dying, Italy clamped down on personal movement for its 60 million people, imposing a curfew and confusing rules for leaving the house that included carrying an “auto-certification” form. Penalty for violation: a hefty fine or three months in jail.

Infected

35,713

Deaths

2,978

(As of March 18 in Italy)

One the form, there are four boxes with reasons to be outside:

1. Work needs.

2. A situation of necessity.

3. Health reasons.

4. Coming back home.

Plus, there is a blank space.

Regarding this, I declare that:___________________________

The form offers some examples of reasons to be outside: “I work in this or that place; I’m coming back to my home (address required); I’m going to the doctor … other specific reasons.”

My wife has to walk our dog Las Vegas later, so she will write: “Vado a pisciare il cane,” which, loosely translated, means, “I have to take the dog out to pee.”

I saw a woman stopped by the police. She was carrying some bags from the grocery store, it appeared. They argued, and I wasn’t sure how it all ended. What you can prove of your rightful business to move about your neighborhood is limited by what the police officer is willing to believe.

Those on patrol seem to be doing their best to punish those violating the law, in the interest of limiting further spread of the virus, but they also seem to be indulgent with others.

And so I wonder: How can I prove that I have to walk five minutes to reach the studio? How can I prove that, in the studio, I have pencils and brushes and markers and an atmosphere that can’t be built from home but that is essential to make me function to produce artwork and pay the bills?

Is that an acceptable reason for leaving the house? I don’t know. I think that our habits sometimes keep us alive more than medicine. But still, I’m sure there is a way to reshape our daily routine, starting from scratch; spending a weekend with your in-laws whom you can’t stand isn’t going to do it.

This is our new “situation of necessity,” and it’s going to last a long time.


March 17

Milan is a ghost town, or perhaps better, a ghost metropolis of 1.3 million people. I can cross the streets without waiting for the pedestrian green light.

My house is a five-minute walk from my studio in one of the most popular areas, the Navigli, so named for the system of navigable and interconnected canals designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It is a district full of laughter and aperitivo, bars and restaurants, one after another stretching along both sides of the canals. Now it’s all gone — people, tables outside, neon lights, fragments of music and conversation floating by.

Infected

27,980

Deaths

2,158

(As of March 17 in Italy)

I walked back from the studio at 8:30 p.m. It made me think of the movie “The Omega Man” from 1971 or the 2007 remake with Will Smith, “I am Legend.” I wondered whether I should expect to see some zombies coming from the alley to attack me.

At the end of the canal, I saw a figure that looked familiar. It’s the drug dealer of the area I see quite often, going around with his gigantic Amstaff terrier.

How quickly my perception has changed: Two weeks ago, I noticed him among hundreds of young people hanging out at night, and it was disturbing, a discordant note in an harmonic melody. Now I feel relieved by his presence, somehow. Seeing him still here lends a sense of belonging.

Like this is still the same place, we are still here, it’s the same reality, we are still alive, no zombies yet … breathe.

What you need to know about the coronavirus


March 16

“Hi, Mum. How are you?”

“I’m good. … And you? Do you have enough food in the fridge?”

My mother was born three years after World War II ended, in a village in the south of Italy. Her generation grew up amid the wreckage of bombed buildings and the anxiety of hunger. For them, food is precious like little else.

When I was a teenager, we had a stash to last for months. I remember that our basement was packed with jars of tomatoes and eggplants, dozens of bottles of wine, any kind of supply. I remember my father was upset every time we threw half a plate of pasta in the garbage because we were full. “Don’t waste food!” he would say.

Infected

24,747

Deaths

1,809

(As of March 16 in Italy)

I’m sure this started as a genuine concern because of his survival heritage. And I’m also pretty sure this became an excuse for him to eat what me and my sister left on the plate.

My parents don’t live in Milan but in a small town about 200 miles from here. For my mother’s 72nd birthday, we gave her and my father tickets to hear a famous singer from their generation. The concert was to take place in Milan on March 3. But by the middle of February, the virus had spread and it became dangerous for older people to use trains and gather in crowds. We decided to cancel their trip.

Italian mothers are exactly as you imagine them: caring and overprotective. Sometimes, it’s hard to have distance because your mother will regard you as her child even if your beard is white. And a mother who grew up after the war will always want to feed you because fat means healthy and skinny means sick.

We are not at war. Seeing people assaulting supermarkets here and in the United States is insane; we won’t starve. The food industry is still producing way more than we need.

But I thought about our country’s past and my mother’s childhood when I went to the supermarket and found a line today. The new law imposes limits on how many people can be in the supermarket at once: 10, to maintain social distance.

So people spend 15 minutes in the line outside just to buy a salad or a sandwich for lunch, or an orange juice. Automatic doors no longer swing open; there is an employee with a mask letting one customer in as soon another walks out.

She says good morning to everyone, but the tone of her voice says something else — probably it’s not going to be a good morning and not even a good day. Just another day in this bubble, without your mother’s jars of eggplants in the cellar.


(For The Washington Post)

March 14

I am Emiliano Ponzi. I’m an illustrator and author who lives in Milan, a place lately described as the wealthy economic engine of our country and a place also lately unrecognizable to me and my fellow Italians.

The escalation of infections in our country from the novel coronavirus forced our government to severely restrict our personal freedoms. It is a plan to save 60 million of us by pushing us apart. It is as if we have been suddenly cast in some surreal movie that affects our daily routine, the way we relate to other people and our interior dialogues. Each day, a small but startling bite of our personal freedoms.

Infected

17,660

Deaths

1,266

(As of March 14 in Italy)

Right now, I’m in my studio. It’s 7:34 a.m., and I have this impulse to stand up and go to the coffee shop around the corner, where every morning I eat a handmade chocolate croissant still warm. Habits are hard to kill.

But all the coffee shops and restaurants were forced to close yesterday. The whole country of 60 million went to “Red Zone” on March 9, locked down to the outside, prohibited from travel between cities. By March 12, when 1,266 already had died and more than 17,000 already were infected, daily life shut down, and people were told to stay at home.

None of this is in our nature as Italians, as humans. “I have been thinking of what my friend Umberto, screenwriter of “The Great Beauty,” a 2014 Academy Award-winning movie, told me about how screenwriting had changed.

“We don’t write in advance all scenes as we used to,” he said. Now “we write the scenes as we shoot them … in order to have a more dynamic film.”

This column is an illustrated chronicle of Italy now, sketches and observations about the good actors we need to become as we improvise the new screenplay being written each day.

Emiliano Ponzi has created artwork for The Washington Post, the New York Times, Le Monde, the New Yorker, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Moma NY, Hermes and Der Spiegel. His latest book, “American West,” was published in 2019.

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