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Diary of a Milanese girl under the coronavirus lockdown

For a single woman under quarantine in Italy, surviving without espresso is only the start of her worries

A man playing his guitar from the balcony of his home as neighbours look on.
A man playing his guitar from the balcony of his home as neighbours look on.

This morning, I woke up and realized: I am running out of coffee. This kind of thought has never really bothered me before. Yet, as a single woman self-isolating herself in an apartment in Milan, I am now worried about my black coffee. It’s a cliché, I know, but freedom does lie in small things. I am one of 60 million Italians under quarantine in the attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

After weeks, I miss the freedom of stepping out of my house to buy a pack of coffee powder without having to wear gloves and mask, or not waiting in line for half an hour in the rain while keeping a rigorous 1m distance from the person in front of me (damn, how far is 1m? Is this enough?). The moment you are in the shop, you have limited time: It’s like being part of a game show, just not fun at all. Yes, I can still buy food online, but the requests are so many that the first free slot is two weeks later. I cannot survive for so long without espresso.

Like many others, I have tried to respect the government’s pleas to stay home as much as possible. Since earlier this month, religious services have been suspended; timings of bars and restaurants were regulated; and schools, museums, gyms, and theatres were closed. As the situation worsened, on 8 March, Milanese (and a few days later, all Italians) were asked not to leave home except for work, food shopping or bringing assistance to the elderly.

We are facing a huge problem with respect to senior citizens. Around 23% of the Italian population is above the age of 65 and that is the group most likely to get seriously sick from the virus. Yet, mamma mia, they are so undisciplined. These days it is easier to find a protective mask than to convince your parents (not to mention grandparents) that, no, some “fresh air outside" is not healthy and yes, chatting with the doorman is risky too. Any grandma would reply that Milan never shut down, neither during the mid-1970s terrorism era, nor during World War II. Is this a war? nonna will debate. The truth is, it’s not just them. Videos of cheerful Italians singing in their balconies might have been going viral on the internet but the truth is none of us know how to isolate ourselves and cope with it.

We are embracing the unfamiliar and uncertain, stepping out of our comfort zone. Literally: A few days ago, I heard someone chatting loudly near the elevator. Never in my life have I spied through the peephole of my apartment door. I was curious, and worried—we are advised not to meet in common areas now, unless it’s an emergency. I discovered that my neighbour went to the grocer for the elderly woman living next door. I would never have thought that the tall man I have always seen rushing out of his door with his branded briefcase or a gym bag would do this. Many millennials are volunteering, even though social services are working full-time (Italian public healthcare is largely free of charge). Something quite unseen in a city of singles and narcissists. The fact is, while fighting the sense of loneliness and seclusion, you are forced to open your soul, and mind.

Food for thought is not lacking. Telecommunications companies are giving free internet packages, smart-working software and streaming services. Media companies are gifting online access to magazines and audiobooks. Writers are sharing readings, psychologists are offering consultations (“relationship strategies for 24/7 togetherness" are much in demand). All online. Trainers and yoga instructors organize daily e-lessons on social media. Teachers are popping up with new ideas to keep students motivated during e-schooling, and e-learning companies are sharing their network of courses.

Yet, it’s not easy. My female friends are juggling smart-working and housework (no maids, of course), children at home and hypochondriac husbands—I am with you girls, still I am so happy to actually not be with you now. I mean, we now e-meet more than ever thanks to e-aperitifs, during which we laugh, drink and eat like no one is watching, which is exactly the situation (read on Instagram: “We will get through this. Obese, but will get through").

The Milanese spirit is getting digital, rediscovering apps, like Houseparty, and planning e-work, e-meeting, e-aperitifs, e-dinner. All around Italy, social media is sharing instances of residents singing or playing the national anthem and classic songs like Volare from their balconies—we have been elegantly listening to trumpet players, La Scala theatre’s opera sopranos, and talented pianists performing live from their homes.

It seems there is a flautist in my building. As he started playing, I stepped into my balcony to find myself staring at the girl living next door, smiling with her blow-dried brown hair and bright lipstick. If we were not all listening, I would have shouted: “How the hell did you do it?" Colouring hair to hide the grey is a huge problem at a time when hairdressers are shut and you are asked to have Skype or Zoom meetings daily—“We should make hair caps compulsory, not just masks," a girl petitioned on a Milanese women’s forum.

You share jokes to fix anxiety. You are aware that the daily fatality rate consists of loved people, real people around you.

It’s scary. You know why you are doing this: to protect society, as much as possible. You understand that from now on, there will be a before and after. This isolation is changing us. It is not just that I have never read, watched and learnt so much in such a short period of time. I have realized that I don’t actually miss red wine or sushi delivery, but I do miss my mother’s gnocchi. I really don’t care about the lack of events and parties, I just wish I could hug my family and my best friends, now. Once free, I won’t drive to the beach or go skiing, I will first take a long walk around the streets of my childhood.

I have always considered myself an independent Milan-based freelancer with Indian origins. I have family and friends all around the globe, my daily life is digital. Yet what I really deeply desire, in this moment, is the privilege of a random, hyperlocal human touch. This, and a bar’s espresso.

Cristina Piotti is an Indo-Italian journalist based in Milan

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