Life under Lockdown (contd.)

This week – our second in almost total lockdown – I have felt a little like Janus, the Roman god of duality and transitions, of the past and of the future, and who is usually depicted looking both ways at once.

By far the greater part of my week has been spent enclosed in a very twenty-first century online world. My only direct human contact has been with Mr Blue-Shirt and the brief exchanges I have had with a handful of shop assistants at the supermarket, the latter conducted from behind surgical masks. The rest of the time it has been by screen and keyboard, webcam and microphone, both for keeping up to date colleagues and teaching online lessons. Conversations have been dominated by uploads and backups, downloads and workarounds, screen sharing and embedding; by Facebook and WhatsApp, by Zoom and by Skype; by IWBs and VLEs, by 121s and F2Fs – along with quite a lot of FFSs and WTFs.

It has been by turns uplifting and frustrating, satisfying and confusing, entertaining and infuriating, comforting and overwhelming. It is not yet a world where I feel entirely at home, where I feel comfortable in my virtual skin. So when that niggling sense of disorientation and overload has become impossible to ignore, I’ve signed off, logged out and re-grounded myself in the comfort and familiarity of the physical, of the timeless and the permanent. I’ve tugged on my leggings and laced up my trainers and headed out into the fresh air to reconnect with the reality and timelessness of the natural world.

By the way, I know we are in quarantine, but along our quiet lanes, even should I catch sight of another person – invariably one of our neighbours working in their garden – there is no difficulty maintaining the obligatory one-metre’s social distancing. In fact, never mind a metre: it is seldom any less than just waving distance and barely close enough to call out a quick neighbourly greeting. So I remain content that in maintaining and protecting my own well-being, I am acting within the rules and putting no one else at risk.

Sooner or later almost every day I’ve found myself craving the sensation of the sun on my skin, the breeze in my hair; longing to drink in the sound of birdsong and the scent of new flowers, the sight of buds bursting and leaves unfurling. The significance of these unfailing, irrefutable, almost clichéd symbols of rebirth, regrowth, and recovery has seldom seemed greater in these fear-filled times of disease and death. As ever, when the world weighs heavily on my shoulders, it is going for a run that allows me to recalibrate, to restore balance and perspective. And running in the soothing Marchigian landscape brings an additional breadth to that perspective. For it is such a timeless landscape whose features have altered little for generations. These gentle hills and valleys, vineyards, fields and olive groves, the mighty mountains and even the glittering sea have all borne witness to drought and deluge, fire and famine, earthquake, war and occupation – and have withstood the lot. It is a landscape that has endured and recovered, that has provided food and sustained communities for centuries, that has continued to shift from past to present to future in an infinite cycle of renewal – and so that never fails to remind me that ‘this too shall pass’.

And it is this above all that eases my spirit and calms my mood and enables me to return to my other, virtual world, refreshed and restored and ready to confront the next wave of daily challenges that quarantine will bring.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (part 2)

Whereas yesterday it was all about ‘the worst of times’ in coronavirus-stricken Italy, today it is all about ‘the best of times’, for even under lockdown there have been many positives to hang onto amid the fear and gloom.

First of all, in a country where family and community mean everything, there is an almost palpable sense of solidarity and selflessness. While many Italians tend to regard the state with some degree of scepticism if not suspicion, there has been little opposition to or defiance of the government’s stringent quarantine measures. Indeed, a poll earlier this week indicated an 89% approval rating, and, more importantly, people are observing them with good grace.

In our local supermarket, for instance, customers diligently observe the required one-metre gap between people with sombre courtesy and patient stoicism, waiting until one shopper has finished at a particular shelf before approaching to make their choice, then beckoning the next shopper forward when they are done. There is no sense of panic, no over-filled trolleys, no empty shelves. Instead of the ‘every man for themselves’, ‘I’m all right, Jack’ attitude on display elsewhere, here the overriding sense is that ‘we are all in this together’, that ‘together we can crack this’.

That same spirit of togetherness and solidarity has characterised my working week as well. All my colleagues and I – an international team of some fifteen teachers – have been working remotely from home, going the extra mile to provide online lessons to our students. Learning to use unfamiliar software at breakneck speed has been a massive challenge for us all, but we have managed it – largely thanks to the entire team’s generosity, patience, support, friendship and good humour, which have truly been a shining light in these dark days.  And I am certain that we are just one of tens of thousands of companies across the country where this same spirit of cooperation is in evidence, with everyone pulling together to keep their respective ships afloat.

In fact, that spirit of solidarity, coupled with a kind of defiant optimism, is spreading throughout the country faster than the coronavirus itself. From Turin to Palermo, people have been combatting the isolation and boredom of quarantine by taking to their balconies and conducting spontaneous bursts of community singing. Folks songs, pop songs, patriotic songs – anything to lift the spirits that that everyone can join in with, even if that means using saucepan lids as cymbals or cooking pots as drums. Amateur DJs have set up their equipment on their balconies and blasted music across the rooftops for their neighbours to dance to in their sitting rooms. Elsewhere a lone trumpeter played the national anthem from his tiny balcony and ended up with his neighbours producing a rendition of the rousing Inno di Mameli as rowdy and impassioned as anything you are likely to hear on the terraces at San Siro or the Stadio Olimpico. And having realised the power of the flash mob, people are now harnessing it to raise funds for their embattled and under-resourced local hospitals, with sums of €50,000 being donated in a matter of hours in several locations in the south. But spreading more quickly than anything else, though, is the slogan “tutto andrà bene” – everything will be all right. Children from one end of the country are leaving it on sticky notes in windows, accompanying it with paintings of rainbows on posters taped to front doors, and decorated with love hearts and smileys on homemade banners hung from balconies.

And so in these fear-filled ‘worst of times,’ with all these simple yet powerful expressions of unity and hope, you can’t help feeling that it is somehow also ‘the best of times’.



Image courtesy of

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (part 1)

It is the opening line of Charles Dickens’ historical epic, The Tale of Two Cities. He was describing pre-revolutionary France, but it also perfectly sums up life in coronavirus-stricken Italy at the moment.

So let’s deal with the worst part first: after four days’ total quarantine, the statistics remain grim. Here in Le Marche, the number of fatalities now stands at 36, and the number of confirmed cases has risen to 899 (two-thirds of which are confined to the northernmost province of Pesaro Urbino), while in our province of Macerata, there are currently 58 confirmed cases, but mercifully few fatalities. Nationwide, meanwhile, confirmed cases stand at just shy of 15,000 (including about 1,100 people who have recovered) and slightly over 1,200 fatalities in total – with things widely expected to get worse before they get better. And of course, the hope of the entire nation is that the stringent quarantine measures brought in on Tuesday will enable things to get better; that the hardships we are currently enduring will be worth it.

With practically everything that is not essential for daily existence now closed, and everyone instructed to stay at home as far as humanly possible, this gregarious, noisy, exuberant and sociable country has fallen almost silent, which in itself is quite unnerving. Streets are deserted, roads empty, and shops stand shuttered and lifeless. The only pockets of relative busy-ness are around supermarkets, but it still feels rather like a scene from a dystopian survivalist drama. A line of customers snakes across the car park, each one obediently standing one metre behind the next, the officially decreed spacing marked out on the tarmac in yellow and black striped tape. They are all waiting for their turn to enter, for there is a strict ‘one in, one out’ policy in place to make sure that the obligatory one-metre gap can be maintained while people shop. Once inside, many customers and all of the staff are in gloves and masks. The checkout cashiers stand behind Perspex screens, while a couple of their colleagues wipe down trolley handles with disinfectant. The place is strangely quiet, partly because the masks impede conversation, but also because only one person per household is now permitted to go shopping. So there are no couples noisily debating which type of bread to buy, no small children scampering up and down the aisles while their parents queue for meat or fish, no clusters of chatty pensioners turning their weekly shop into a social outing. Just near-silent acceptance – and a hint of fear.

There is fear not only for the virus, though. Now that so many businesses are closed and staff laid off, people are also starting to fear for their jobs and their livelihoods, despite a wide-ranging programme of tax holidays and state-backed loan guarantees as well as financial support for the hardest hit sectors. But for any business teetering on the edge in Italy’s already fragile economy, these closures could well push them over the edge and a two-week lay-off could easily turn into redundancy. And with schools and universities already closed for fortnight, students are becoming concerned about their exams (which are in turmoil) and the likely effects on their future studies and career prospects. So this is very far from just an enforced holiday; this is not a time of idle pleasure, nor of unexpected relaxation.

And yet, it also has been ‘the season of Light’, as Dickens put it, not only ‘the season of Darkness’; there have still been positives to hang onto…




From amber to red in forty-eight hours

My phone started to go crazy just before 10pm yesterday evening. It was my colleagues on our WhatsApp teachers’ group letting everyone know that Prime Minister Conte was about to speak to the nation. Even before we’d turned on the TV, though, we knew it was not going to be good news. And sure enough, dark-suited, grey-faced and drawn, the Prime Minister announced in sombre tones that with the continued, relentless rise in fatalities and new cases of the virus, there was only one option left: close everything that is not essential for daily existence. But in an effort to put a more positive spin on the new restrictions, he stressed that the country was not becoming a red zone, but a ‘zona prottetta’ – a protected zone. Cruel to be kind. Tough love. For our own good.  And I think he’s probably right.

So for the next fortnight, it’s no bars, cafes or restaurants; no shops or markets, no pools or gyms or spas. No schools or universities, no museums, galleries, theatres or cinemas; no weddings, no funerals, no baptisms. No public gatherings, no sport, no gigs, no parties, no passegiate. Only travel beyond your comune if absolutely necessary – which effectively means just for work or medical reasons – and carry documentary proof of that need. Then remain far apart, touch no one and nothing. But best of all, stay at home, stay at home, stay at home. Essential services are guaranteed, though, and shopping for food and other necessities is permitted – although only one person per household, and always as close to home as possible. Supermarkets, pharmacies, newsagents and tobacconists can remain open, as can banks, petrol stations and garages. Firms and factories can still function, but with strict measures to protect their workforce in place.

It all feels slightly surreal. It is difficult to imagine that, especially on a glorious day like today, with blossom filling the hedgerows, trees bursting into leaf and the sound of birdsong filling the warm spring air and all looks well with the world, I would risk a fine or even arrest if I went out without good reason, or if I failed to provide acceptable auto-certification should I be stopped by the police, or if I was travelling with more than one person, or failed to maintain a safe distance from other people while I was out.

It will sink in soon, though, and it won’t be much fun. But Conte is right, I believe. He had no other choice. And it is only for two weeks (well, let’s hope it is). And if it works, it will be worth it: no pain, no gain. Conte put it better, though “Rimaniamo distanti oggi per abbracciarci tutti poi.” – Let’s remain at a distance today so that we can all embrace again later.

Life in the Amber Zone – Day 1

It came as no great surprise. In fact, there was almost an air of inevitability about it when the latest government decree was issued late on Monday evening. In an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus, the whole of Italy, from the Alps to Etna, is – to coin the media’s favourite term – under lockdown until 3rd April.

Here in Le Marche the first warning signs came at the end of February when all schools across the region were closed for a week. This affected me straight away as the language school I work for runs its own courses for adults and children, delivers course in companies, and does a lot of work in state schools. Consequently, just under half my timetable was cancelled at about 12 hours’ notice, although I was at least still able to deliver my company courses and individual lessons. Since there were no recorded cases at all in the region at the time, the immediate response to what looked suspiciously like a knee-jerk reaction was one mainly of dismay, especially since the region’s residents were given hardly notice of the closures. Indeed, there was similar dismay in Rome, but there it was because the national government reportedly felt that our regional government had exceeded its powers in issuing its decree unilaterally and some behind-closed-doors political argy-bargy ensued.

Whatever the finer constitutional points of the matter, the upshot was that the decree was lifted early and schools re-opened three days sooner than originally stated – only to be closed again three days later for a further five days, accompanied by general, common sense (if not blindingly obvious) advice about covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and keeping away from anyone infected. This apparent indecision only added to people’s growing concern and provided little reassurance that the regional government actually knew what it was doing. Meanwhile, the number of cases in the north continued to grow.

Before Le Marche’s second five-day closure finished, however, the national government in Rome asserted its authority and on 4th March, with confirmed cases in all 20 regions, it decided to close every school, college and university across the whole country until 15th March. At the same time, it tightened restrictions further in the very worst hit areas in the north of the country – the ‘red zones’ – and added a longer, stricter list of do’s and don’ts for everyone. By this stage, there were a couple of dozen cases in Le Marche and one or two fatalities, all of them in the northernmost province of the region – ie that bordering Emilia-Romagna, one of the areas badly hit by the virus. It was getting closer. In practice, even at this point, though, things had changed very little for us personally.

As he effectively works from home anyway, Mr Blue-Shirt still carried on exactly as normal with his lengthy programme of work on the house. And while all lessons in state schools and group lessons in our own school premises were cancelled, I still carried on with my stripped-back timetable of a fortnight earlier. Only by now, the staff in the toll booths on the motorways were wearing latex gloves, as were increasing numbers of checkout staff in supermarkets. No masks in evidence, though, and no empty shelves, no panic buying. And the only reason queues seemed slightly longer was that people were just starting to stand a little further apart from one another.

Then over the weekend came the big spike both in confirmed cases and fatalities within the red zones, and increased numbers of cases across the rest of the country. The existing containment measures clearly weren’t working, and few people harboured much hope of things returning to normal on 15th March. And so, late yesterday evening, people’s worst expectations were confirmed. With a single flourish of his pen (and a very heavy heart, I suspect), Prime Minister Conte put the whole of the rest of the country – now officially the ‘amber zone’ – into quarantine, complete with a catchy hashtag to capture the essence of the stringent measures that have been put in place: ‘#iorestoacasa – I’m staying at home’.

So here I obediently sit. Instead of preparing lessons for ‘real’ classes, I have spent much of the day getting to grips with my school’s online platform for delivering virtual lessons wherever possible, emailing homework to students, and drawing comfort in this challenging teaching environment from the lovely bunch of people I work with. Beyond the confines of my virtual community, things are quiet; very quiet – even by the standards of the country road we live on. But life is continuing reasonably normally. Mr Blue-Shirt can report that as of today, there are good stocks of loo paper and pasta (and everything else) at the supermarket where Perspex screens have now been added the cash desks to protect checkout staff, and business almost as usual (and certainly as slow as usual) at the post office where people now have to queue outside. Our fridge, freezer and cupboards are full, we have wood for the fire, family and friends at our fingertips, and we are both feeling as fit and healthy as ever.

So day 1 in the amber zone? Strange, and slightly unnerving – but no real hardship as yet.

Another piece of the jigsaw

“That flat area outside the sitting room is just crying out to be turned into a terrace,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “It’s the obvious place to have a table and chairs. It must get loads of sun – and just look at that incredible view!” Even in the murky grey of a November afternoon, the view was sensational: a broad, olive tree and vine filled valley, framed by two hill-top villages, that sloped down to a tantalising triangle of slate-blue sea in the distance. “Mmm,” I answered absently, as images ran through my mind of long, languid lunches enjoyed beneath a rose covered pergola on a sunny terrace edged with terracotta pots from which tumbled a mass of vivid red geraniums and crimson petunias.

“Come on. Let’s look round the back,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “I’m getting cold.” My mind snapped back to reality and I trudged off in pursuit of Mr Blue-Shirt as he disappeared into the gloom. We had just finished viewing the inside of the house that just a couple of months later was to become our forever-home. Within minutes of stepping into the spacious, recently converted farmhouse we were smitten, and almost instantly could see the rooms filled with our furniture, see how we would use each of the airy rooms, see ourselves living there and fulfilling our long-cherished dream of la dolce vita. In an effort to apply the brakes to our enthusiasm and get our heads back in control of our hearts, however, we were now poking around the outside of the property to get a truer measure of the level of work required to turn this undeniably ugly duckling into the elegant swan we had been dreaming of for so long.

Although the ‘heavy lifting’ of the conversion from traditional marchigian farmhouse to modern, open-plan, four-bed, two-bath home had been completed – and in a way that chimed precisely with our needs and our taste – the outside of the property had barely been touched. Back then the area immediately surrounding the house still bore the heavy scars of all the building work that had been undertaken. The driveway consisted of little more than flattened builders’ rubble, and weeds were now growing from the piles of unused hardcore and gravel around its edge. The unfinished terrace to the northern side at that time was a sorry jumble of rough concrete, crooked breeze blocks, downpipes and drain covers, although the two shrink-wrapped pallets of terracotta tiles standing in front of the house like tired sentries hinted at grander ambitions now abandoned. To the southern side, the lake of weed-strewn rubble still lapped right up to the house, and on the eastern side, the doors from the sitting room opened straight onto a reasonably flat area of coarse and clumpy grass. The evenly-spaced patches of bare clay soil from which the grass had been worn away suggested that the then owners had at least seen the same potential as we had in this spot, which had surely been the most likely destination for those unused tiles.

I recalled that murky November afternoon as I stood on the very same spot on a curiously similar February afternoon a couple of weeks ago; the spot where we and our friends and family had by then spent three summers eating, drinking, talking, laughing and lounging – and repeatedly re-positioning the table to try and stop it wobbling back and forth and spilling our drinks, and constantly tripping on the thick knots of grass or twisting our ankles in the numerous dips and cracks that peppered our proposed site for a proper terrace. Now, though, I was watching Mr Blue-Shirt finally starting to turn our fantasy of some forty months earlier into reality.

It had taken us months to decide on the shape and the size of the terrace: we wanted it to be generous – we weren’t short of space, after all, but proportional – not just big for the sake of it; and we didn’t want just a stark, rectangular slab. So after several rounds of drawing, measuring, pacing, pegging and stringing, we eventually settled on a broadly rectangular shape that linked the northern and southern stretches together, but with the edges steeply stepped in at various points to create a more interesting and less severe shape. This, along with a single step down onto the grass where the ground fell away more sharply along its longest side, would help lead the eye down the garden towards that marvellous view.

We had complete faith in our design, but even with his famously ‘can-do’ spirit, Mr Blue-Shirt was slightly daunted by the amount of work it would involve – which, of course, would be compounded by his ‘never knowingly under-engineered’ approach to all such undertakings. But he also loves a challenge, so with the grout between the tiles on the north terrace barely dry, he launched straight into the first of what would turn out to be no fewer than fourteen separate phases in creating will surely become his thirty-eight square metre magnum opus. And so here he was, once more aboard his favourite rented digger, happily clawing away at the tatty grass and carefully digging out the heavy clay soil to form the narrow trench for the concrete foundations of the low brick wall that would support the whole structure.

Standing in the chilly mist, that image from three years earlier flashed back into my mind.  But now I could also almost smell the wood smoke rising from our first barbecue and hear the clink of glasses and the sound of laughter drifting down the valley on the gentle breeze. Not long now…

Out on the tiles

Spring is in the air and Mr Blue-Shirt has got his mojo back.

Following the sudden deaths of both his parents within just seven weeks of each other, all work on the house and garden came to an abrupt halt last autumn. First there were the four gruelling trips to the UK that put paid to his schedule of works for the winter. Then there was the bone-aching exhaustion and sleeplessness that accompanies grief to deal with, as well as the matter of actually processing the enormity of the loss he had suffered.

December became a time to be and not to do; a time to mourn, to rest, and slowly to begin the healing. With the new year came faint stirrings of renewed vigour along with a growing need for activity and forward motion. So January saw Mr Blue-Shirt doggedly working his way through the heart-wrenching task of clearing his mother’s flat of every last teaspoon and biro to prepare it for sale, then sorting out his parents’ estates, cancelling subscriptions and closing bank accounts. Step by step he found himself erasing the minutiae of their worldly existence until all that was left of them in any material form were the two matching urns of ashes that sit on his sister’s window sill.

As I know from my own experience, finding ‘closure’ is a necessary part of the grieving process. But to make progress in that direction, there is much that must be dismantled, deleted, disposed of and destroyed and Mr Blue-Shirt soon began to long for something more positive; for growth, rebirth and renewal, which for him invariably means planning, doing and making,  So to satisfy his need to leave the shadows behind and focus once more on creating something new and whole and good, he set about tiling the remaining section of the terrace he built last summer.

It was in the lazy days at the end of summer after the pigsty had gone that he tiled the first section of the newly built terrace on the north side of the house. The final section, the part immediately outside the back door that became an impromptu breakfast terrace the instant the concrete had set, had been number one on autumn’s abandoned job list. It was unfinished business, and consequently the obvious start-point for Mr Blue-Shirt’s return to the building fray.

Before he could make a start on the tiling, though, he needed to render and paint the sections of low breeze block wall that enclose the western end of the terrace. Mr Blue-Shirt has tried his hand at most practical trades over the years, but rendering was a first even for him. Never one to be put off by anything so trivial as a lack of experience, however, he dived straight in with his customary battle cry of “How difficult can it be?” And of course, for probably the most practical person I have ever met, it was not remotely difficult. Within just a couple of days, the layers of tatty, dismal grey had disappeared behind a smooth, crisp layer of render, finished with a coat of vanilla-coloured paint to match the house. Mr Blue-Shirt was back on form.

So with the warm-up job complete, it was on to the main event. And little by little, the irregular rectangle of pale grey concrete behind the house turned to terracotta as, row by laborious row, Mr Blue-Shirt meticulously measured, cut, cemented and laid one tile after another. He spent day after day hunkered down on his hands and knees in the howling winds that lashed the area for the first half of February. While his freshly rendered walls provided him with some shelter, he still had to keep leaping to his feet to chase after a succession buckets, drawings and tools that the wind repeatedly whipped up and flung down the garden.

What Mr Blue-Shirt found far more frustrating than the weather, however, was the house’s almost total absence of anything that is straight, symmetrical or perpendicular. The northern side of the modern extension to the eastern end of the house that forms our sitting room and bedroom is at a slight angle to the original house, so the terrace has a matching kink in it; the walls along the western edge are not parallel to the house; the steps that lead up to the knoll where the pigsty used to stand are not in line with the back step, which isn’t in line with the back door; and the drain covers that dot the terrace are not in line with anything at all. Oh, and the whole thing also sloped in towards the house until the concrete was laid. All of which not only offended Mr Blue-Shirt’s laser-like eye for accuracy, but also meant much more time spent measuring, cutting and checking, and, of course, resulted in an annoyingly high number of wedge-shaped sections of tile rather than the expanse of perfect squares that Mr Blue-Shirt had dreamt of. “Rustic charm!” I would chirrup whenever he lost patience with another fiddly bit of the jigsaw, or “We always wanted quirky, though,” when he measured a five-metre run of tiles and with anguish in his voice proclaimed “But it’s 2.2mm out!”

Now that it’s finished, of course, none of the quirks or kinks is apparent – or even of concern – to any normal mortal. For normal mortals (ie anyone other than a former army engineer), it is now simply a lovely cool and shady space to enjoy breakfast in the height of summer, to sip a cup of tea in the mellow, late afternoon sun, and all year round to drink in the far-reaching views from a slightly different angle.

So with the terraces to the north side and the south side now complete, that only leaves Mr Blue-Shirt with the main terrace to the east to build. How difficult can it be?