There are three thousand, five hundred and ninety inhabitants – two of whom are Mr Blue-Shirt and me – officially resident in the municipality (comune) of Montelupone. And it is a number that has afforded us a precious degree of freedom during the latest period of lockdown that began last autumn.
That was when the decree that introduced Italy’s system of yellow, orange and red zones came into force. And as with the first lockdown last spring, the rules on movement from one place to another within and between the different zones were based on municipal, provincial and regional boundaries, along with a few rules that applied nationwide, such as the curfew from 10pm to 5am, restrictions on visitors, and the continued closures of schools, theatres, cinemas, gyms and swimming pools. So if your region was in a red zone, for example, movement beyond your home municipality was banned (with a limited range of exceptions) and practically everything was closed apart from essential services. By contrast, if you were lucky enough to live in a region in the yellow zone – as we were initially – shops could open, but shopping centres had to close at weekends, bars and restaurants were allowed to offer table service until 6pm, and you were also permitted to move freely both within the whole of the region and also even between yellow zone regions. Although that only lasted until the post-Christmas, ‘strengthened’ yellow zone rules came into force and inter-regional movement was halted again. A deeper shade of yellow, if you like.
The rules for regions in the orange zone, which after Christmas meant most of the country and by then included Le Marche, unsurprisingly fell somewhere between these two extremes. The rules for shops were the same as in the zona gialla rafforzata (strengthened yellow zone), while bars and restaurants were permitted to offer only takeaway or home delivery services, and still only until 6pm, and, other than for work and health reasons, people were confined to their comune of residence. However, there was a new and crucial exception: those resident in a comune with fewer than five thousand inhabitants were permitted to travel up to 30 kilometres beyond their comune boundaries, and not only for work or health reasons, although travelling to provincial capitals, no matter how close to your home comune, remained forbidden. So a slightly paler shade of orange, if you like.
I suspect that when regional presidents were given a greater role in coronavirus-related decision-making last autumn, metropolitan, Rome-based ministers were reminded that despite technically all having the same role in the administrative hierarchy, there is a huge disparity in the size and population of the country’s 8000 or so comuni so the local impact of rules governing them was bound to vary hugely – and lead to significant inequality. Rome, with a population in excess of 2.5 million squashed into about 1300 square kilometres, is Italy’s largest comune, while Morterone, tucked in an Alpine valley 50 kilometres north-east of Milan, is the smallest with a population of just 32 scattered across an area of slightly over 13 square kilometres. So under the old rules that applied to all comuni equally, the Monteronesi might have had access to just about enough services to keep body and soul together, while the Romani would have had access to everything from focaccia to a Ferrari, from vino to Versace. And we Monteluponesi would have been able to put food on the table, do a few jobs in the garden, buy a newspaper, get a haircut and get a takeaway coffee, but that would have been more or less it.
This ministerial burst of pragmatism and fairness, however, made a huge difference to our quality of life as the 30-kilometre rule put the bright lights of Civitanova Marche within our reach and allowed us to move a little closer to normality. Our dining choices were extended beyond simply the ‘take it or leave it’ options available in the village supermarket, Mr Blue-Shirt was able to get hold of everything he needed to start work on completely revamping the downstairs loo, and we were even able to do deliciously mundane things like get a new watch battery and a pair of shoes re-heeled. But just as important was the ability simply to have a change of view, to go and to be somewhere else, to be (masked and socially-distanced, of course) among people: to see other faces (well, their eyes, at least) and hear other voices. More valuable still, though, was the ability to take a walk from one end to the other of the almost deserted, driftwood-strewn and wave-sculpted beach, to crunch through the deep drifts of shingle, all the way from the stadium and the shooting range at the southern end, past all the dormant beachfront restaurants, and on to the fishing port and the sailing club at the northern end; to enjoy the warmth of the sun on our backs and the tang of salt in the crisp, clean air; to take in the view of the distant, forested bulk of the Cònero peninsula, and look out across the sparkling, teal-blue sea towards the laser-sharp horizon – and the big wide world beyond…
Then as we walked down the promenade back towards the stadium the other Friday afternoon, we became aware of the first stirrings of life in several of those hibernating restaurants: people sweeping terraces and mopping floors, smoothing out fresh white tablecloths and polishing wine glasses and cutlery. Were the rumours and conjecture true, then? For the previous week, the local press had been speculating that with all our metrics heading steadily and unequivocally in the right direction, Le Marche, along with most other regions, would be back in the yellow zone that weekend – a good two weeks earlier than originally anticipated. Did these restaurateurs know something that we didn’t? Surely they wouldn’t be going to all this effort just for everything to gather dust for another fortnight at least? We returned home with a gentle spring in our step and a flutter of hope in our hearts.
Sure enough, in that evening’s news the rumours were confirmed: at midnight on Sunday, we would be shifting back from pale orange to deep yellow. And from Monday morning that small but significant change of shade really did seem to make the world a slightly brighter place. On our next walk along the promenade, restaurant doors stood open, menus proudly displayed on pavement stands, and the aromas of garlic, fresh bread and grilled fish wafted from kitchen windows. The lights glowed, soft music played and a hum of conversation could be heard above the muffled clatter of dishes and sizzle of hot pans as teams of waiters in neat black trousers and matching masks placed plates of steaming-hot food in front of smiling diners with what looked like an almost celebratory flourish. As far as this absolutely fundamental facet of Italian cultural life was concerned, something approaching normal service had been resumed.
Now we just needed to decide where to book a table that weekend…
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