42 Days Later

Pisa, Italy

Six weekends ago, we were celebrating a birthday. The highlight was a trip up the coast to Viareggio for carnevale. We wondered a bit about crowds and flu and whether we were being foolish:

The seafront, with its gorgeous Liberty style buildings, was crammed with life. Kids dressed as Elsa and Superman, thrilled that no one was rationing supplies of ice cream and traditional pieces of sweet fried dough. Teenagers hunting in packs or eating face in corners. Whole families strolling at their elderly relatives’ pace, basking in the sun. And the floats. Amazing feats of human creativity, many as high as the surrounding apartment buildings and hotels, where yet more people stood on balconies, packed in tight to watch the spectacle.

Three weekends ago, we were supposed to be at the football, watching Pisa trounce their arch-rivals Livorno. Think Arsenal versus Spurs, but with the rivalry stretching back to the 15th century when the Medici decided to build themselves a fancy new port, crashing the already ailing Pisan economy.

It had seemed like a bonus when my work trip to Beirut got cancelled because Lebanon shut its borders to Italians. There had been some suggestion that I get round this by flying to Cyprus first, which I nixed. But we ended up watching the game on a dodgy livestream after Serie B took the last minute decision to play behind closed doors. At least Pisa won (a lovely goal from Lisi in the 63rd minute, Livorno merda). We could hear the roars of delight echoing around the square outside.

Two days later, Italy closed down. Overnight, we and 60 million other people lost our freedom of movement and association. I started to get concerned messages from friends and family in the UK and other places around the world. Suddenly Italy, with its creaking economy, elderly population, and fast climbing infection rates, was on everyone’s mind.

I dialled into a meeting in London the day after our lockdown started. And that’s when I began to feel as if I was shouting and waving my arms from behind a thick pane of soundproofed, tinted glass. I’m on the board of a Multi Academy Trust that runs schools for children with a range of learning disabilities. Somehow, the meeting agenda looked like a normal agenda. People asked me if things were OK in Italy and cracked a few jokes. We didn’t talk about COVID-19 until we reached any other business. I cried afterwards out of frustration that we’d spent more time on GDPR than on what I was beginning to suspect might turn out to be a real-life disaster movie.

The next few days were a struggle. At home in Pisa, we were adjusting to a new way of living. Taking it in turns to go out for essentials. Painstakingly translating the government decrees that narrowed our lives further every day. Accepting that our plans to ride this out on our bikes in the spring countryside had been just a fantasy. Life was strange, but OK. For the first time in a decade, we were together. We had food. The sun was shining.

What was not OK was dealing with anyone else. I begged my 77-year old mother to stock up on food and then stay inside. She told me that she didn’t need to because the bistro in her block of flats for seniors would always stay open. A former colleague and dear friend in Pakistan kept telling me he was praying I’d be spared, even as I was panicking about his elderly mother, recently released from hospital. I had near daily WhatsApp conversations with my niece in Australia, in which she would worry about disruption to her planned diving trip, and I’d be trying to edge her towards getting on a flight home.

Work was surreal too. I would sit at my desk and start writing about how country X should plan to achieve the sustainable development goal on education by 2030. Or I’d get on the phone to someone I was coaching in country Y and talk to them about strategies for getting the health department to use their time more productively. Or I’d have a conversation about new development financing planned for country Z and how to structure it. And all the time, I’d be wondering how it was that no one else seemed to have noticed that none of this seemed to matter much anymore.

Sometimes the irritation in people’s voices or messages would be palpable after I’d banged on yet again about how important it was to be prepared and cautious. As the days slid by, I began to realise that however hard I tried, I couldn’t warn others about what’s coming before they were ready to hear it. And I came to understand that absolutely no-one wanted to hear me point out there was nothing special about what was happening in Italy.

Yesterday was the first time a friend called me from the UK to let me know another friend has been admitted to hospital and is on a ventilator. One of my sisters who’s now home-schooling her kids is trying to juggle three primary year groups in a weird version of a problem I am normally paid to worry about in other countries. The wonderful CEO of our Trust has worked tirelessly to make sure all our children are at home with as much support – from food to therapy – as she can put in place. People are listening now. The trouble is, I don’t think I have the next page of the script to share with them yet.

Tomorrow will mark the start of Week 4 of the Italian lockdown. It’s now second nature to carry my ID card plus a form explaining where I am going, in case I’m one of the 200,000 people the Italian police stop today. I disinfect the door handles and bannisters in our apartment building every morning and am happy my elderly neighbours are still healthy and yelling at one another from their windows. If I do go out to the baker or the fishmonger, I get a few minutes to practise my Italian again. At home, my vegetable seedlings are doing well, we’re working hard, and I am still eating delicious food three times a day. My world has got a lot smaller, if no less beautiful. I’d give almost anything to jump on my bike and go and celebrate in a big crowd in Viareggio again though.

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