“As of tomorrow, anyone returning from Croatia will be required to undergo a Covid-19 test within forty-eight hours of their return to Italy, and to inform the Ministry of Health of their trip…” I picked up the news driving home from the hairdressers, barely twenty-four hours before we were to leave for the holiday we never thought would happen – to Croatia. After a brief but blind panic and a couple of hours’ frantic searching online and a hasty exchange of messages with our GP, I had confirmed what the rules were, found out how the procedure would work, bookmarked the relevant webpage, and knew exactly how, where and when to book our tests.
So in between exploring pretty medieval towns, visiting secluded beaches, and taking a tiny motorboat out to the mini-archipelago of small islands along the craggy, unspoiled coast of the island of Korčula, I contacted our local health authority as advised a few days before we were due to return home. All it took was a brief message to a dedicated email address with our names, date of birth, municipality of residence, contact phone number and codice fiscale (the key to every bureaucratic door in Italy) along with where and when we were returning to Italy.
The next morning, I got a call from the health authority, inviting us to attend a test centre about ten kilometres from home in Macerata – the day before we arrived back in Italy. But at least I knew we were successfully in the system and the onus was now on the health authority to find us a suitable date. A day later, the same kindly-sounding woman called back with two new appointments at the same testing centre, this time the day after our return, with strict instructions to self-isolate at home until then. We were in. The chattering rats’ nest of gloomy ‘what-ifs’ that had been gnawing away at my peace of mind finally dispersed and left me in peace for the rest of the holiday.
We spent most of the last day of our trip aboard a small ferry that had threaded its way up through the southern end of the Dalmatian archipelago before arriving in the bustling port of Split in time for us to catch the night crossing back to Italy. We were instantly thrust into the hurly-burly of hundreds of vehicles trying to find the right queue for the right ferry, but by sheer chance, we had rolled off the island-hopper ferry right next to where we needed to check in for the ferry to Ancona. Along with boarding passes, we were each issued with a pre-printed copy of a self-declaration form (the English version of the one I had downloaded before our departure, in fact) that we were to complete before boarding and then hand in at the purser’s desk. It was effectively a written commitment to undergo a Covid-19 test within forty-eight hours of our return, and an acknowledgement that we would accept the legal consequences of not doing so – together with all our usual personal details for contact tracing purposes.
While queuing for passport control in Ancona the next morning, we were once again reminded of the regulations with a bi-lingual flyer that neatly summarised the rules for various categories of passengers: those resident in Italy and going home, those just passing through, those entering for other purposes, and for truck drivers in transit. It all seemed very thorough, very joined-up.
We had stopped to buy a few supplies to see us through our brief period of self-isolation on our way across Korčula to catch the ferry up to Split, so we headed straight home to wait for our tests the next day. During the afternoon, I got another call from the kindly-sounding woman to tell me our test location had changed, and we were now booked in at a drive-through centre at an outpatients clinic in Civitanova Marche. Then there was a brief hiccup when I got a further call – this time from a kindly-sounding man – who wanted to check my codice fiscale as they couldn’t find me on the system, and also to query the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt and I both had the same surname but obviously couldn’t be father and daughter or mother and son (shortly after World War II most married women in Italy stopped taking their husband’s name once it ceased to be obligatory). Once I had dictated the long, alpha-numeric code a couple more times and filled the chap in on British social norms, he was satisfied that all was well and so he re-confirmed the appointments given to us by the kindly-sounding woman. The thoroughness was as reassuring as it was impressive.
At 8.15 sharp the next morning we joined the short queue of vehicles forming outside the collection of gazebos that had been erected behind the outpatients clinic while anonymous figures in hazmat suits, visors, masks and gloves moved back and forth between the gazebos and the cars, test kits in their gloved hands. When we reached the front of the queue – at exactly the appointed time – we showed our codice fiscale cards through the car window to a figure with a clipboard who ticked our names off the list and seconds later two more figures holding pre-labelled test kits appeared – one of whom turned out to be the kindly-sounding woman who had called me to make the appointment. To say it was painful would not be true. But having nasal and throat swabs taken was certainly one of the more uncomfortable medical procedures I’ve experienced for a very long time. I repeatedly retched against the throat swab (which felt about the size of a tennis ball) and the nasal swab made my eyes stream furiously as time and again I had to suppress an almost irresistible urge to sneeze.
The next afternoon, following little over twenty-four hours in the limbo of self-isolation I got a call from the local health authority. I was surprised to find how nervous I felt as a different kindly-sounding woman checked our details before telling me that my test had come back negative – and breathe – but that Mr Blue-Shirt’s was ‘indeterminato’: inconclusive. Somebody else would call with an appointment for him to come for a second test, and in the meantime we would need to isolate ourselves from one another at home as, in the absence of the negative result, he could theoretically be positive.
Before we had even had a chance to process what ‘indeterminato’ actually meant, the next call came. Mr Blue-Shirt’s second test would be early the next morning at another testing station in Macerata, and the results should be back within twenty-four hours, even though it was the weekend. So at least we would have only thirty-six hours of uncertainty and anxiety – and ‘domiciliary self-isolation’ to deal with. While feeling vaguely shell-shocked, we reasoned that there must have been something wrong with the test, which we decided was analogous to a pregnancy test in that you can’t be ‘borderline’ pregnant: either you are or you aren’t, so any uncertainty must relate to the test, not the person being tested. We further concluded that the chances of one of us being positive and the other negative were infinitesimally small: throughout our holiday, we had spent no longer than about fifteen minutes a day apart when Mr Blue-Shirt went to buy bread for breakfast, and we had been very conscientious about masks, hands and space. Added to which, we had travelled in our own car and had stayed in a self-catering apartment. All of a sudden, however, a massive ‘what-if’ was now roaring inside both our heads, not just mine: what if he’s positive?
On Saturday morning, Mr Blue-Shirt found the test centre without difficulty – an airless container in the car park of a small hospital in Macerata – and as before, the test-kit was ready and waiting, already labelled with his name and codice fiscale. To his huge relief, the nurse performing the test confirmed that there had been something wrong with the first one – and as if to prove the point, conducted this one with such vigour that poor Mr Blue-Shirt feared the throat swab would come up dipped in the coffee he had drunk for breakfast and that the nasal swab would dislodge his glasses, it was inserted so far up his nasal cavity.
There followed an unsettling and nerve-wracking thirty-six hours which we spent watching TV from separate sofas, having dinner at opposite ends of our eight-seater dining table, using separate bathrooms, sleeping in separate bedrooms – and suddenly hyper-aware of how many things we normally both handled, even just in the course of making a pot of coffee or unloading the dishwasher.
It was late on Sunday afternoon when my phone jangled into life and flashed up the now all-too-familiar number of the health authority. We leapt from our respective sofas, suddenly dry-mouthed and sweaty-palmed. Another kindly-sounding woman calmly ran through the identity checks again (sending our heart rates through the roof) before uttering the magic word: negativo.