Last night when I went to bed I asked my wife what day it was. She remained silent for a few seconds, counting. The lockdown here in Rome started a little later than in parts of northern Italy, but we are now in the third week and the weather has already changed in consistency – it has softened and collapsed slowly to pieces.
But not with regard to work. In fact, after the first days of confusion, the pace of work has intensified, in the form of conference calls, Skype and Zoom meetings and an endless stream of WhatsApp chats.
Without the confines that normally limit its influence, work has invaded every waking hour. Productivity is the one thing that we seem really unable to stop, our shared craze – and it is not by chance one of the sources of this crisis. But now it’s productivity for productivity. I work because I don’t know what else to do.
I mostly write endlessly, but I also reopened some computer programs that I hadn’t watched in my years as a particle physicist. I use them to try to understand the figures of the contagion. I thought I left mathematics when I first became a novelist, but it came back to me in the most unexpected way.
My brain no longer knows when to start or stop, so that I sleep very little at night and during the day, I remain in a state of physical fatigue, despite the pedometer on my smartphone which signals a new historic low.
At least I started following a fitness program on YouTube. I moved the sofa to have enough space to spread one arm at a time. There are four of us in an apartment really built for three – and we are the lucky ones.
Only two of us take it in turns to do the grocery shopping and take out the trash, equipped with the latest version of the self-certification form, as prescribed by the Ministry of the Interior: have you tested positive? Why are you going out? Where are you from and where are you going? It is more prudent to always bring out the same people; in Italy right now, the greatest caution applies to everything we do.
So I never leave the house. The last time, about 10 days ago, it was still allowed to run alone – in the park closest to your home -. To get there, I had to descend a section of Foro Imperiale, next to the Colosseum, the most touristy promenade in the world. There was no one there.
I could say that seeing these places freed from the usual crowd gave me a sense of wonder, but I would be lying: all I could feel was anxiety. And the discomfort. The carabinieri cars drove slowly along the street and a patrol honked my horn to report me, pressing me along. I felt so incongruous in my running gear, trying to fulfill a little desire to stretch my legs on a sunny morning, that I went back right away. I haven’t left the apartment since.
I live in Rome, but it’s like I’m not here anymore. The city we all live in is now more extensive and much more ethereal, with our emotional center of gravity tilting to the north of the country – a new geography made up of red areas that continue to expand on the contagion map, and from the conversation shows that we watch it every night.
I finally have the opportunity to rediscover all these films that I have wanted to watch for years, and yet I cannot watch anything other than talk shows, until late at night, until I am completely exhausted .
The epidemic has invaded everything: the home pages of the newspapers, the conversations around dinner, the beauty of Rome, which is just waiting, but who now feels cold and unable to offer consolation. Above all, the epidemic has taken time. He interrupted the illusion of a rigid, structured and manageable calendar and gave us that sticky porridge in return.
In the first afternoon of detention, people gathered at 6 p.m. to sing from their windows. I guess these videos have been shared all over the world. Italy resists. Italy in solidarity. Italy still sings. Very picturesque.
It didn’t last long. Now, 6 p.m. is a time exclusively devoted to the bulletin of the Civil Protection Agency, the moment when we listen to the latest figures, when we count the dead and assess the “trend”, when we send SMS to the same people, those we chose as confidential during the crisis: “The Veneto is doing well thanks to their extensive tests”; “Have you seen the curve in Lazio?”; “Spain is growing faster than us.”
There is this strange feeling – for a country that prides itself on its ancient history – of being in the future: 10 days or 15 or 20, it varies, but always in the future of the pandemic. Nothing to brag about; we would have done without it.
There may be non-accidental reasons why we came first in the rankings, but for now they don’t really matter. Instead, we must all understand – everyone, everywhere – that we are at different points in the same story; that in this pandemic, we share the same chronology: some are a little more advanced, some a little more remote.
Not understanding the weather has been our mistake from the very beginning. Italy has not looked closely at China; Milan did not look at its provinces; southern Italy does not look north; and the rest of Europe did not take what was happening here seriously enough. Meanwhile, between delays and prejudices, we slipped together on the same chronology.
Apparently, during the Italian shutdown, there was an increase in the consumption of yeast and flour, the basic ingredients for pizza and cakes. I do it too: I knead and cook more than ever before in my life. This is a typically Italian thing and should reassure those who from afar want to keep thinking about our balconies overflowing with flowers and our tables set up for a feast, not this previously unknown, silent and worried Italian version behind their masks.
But I barely touched the cakes I brew. I just want to knead: give shape to a messy material, flatten it, unroll it, make it homogeneous, then roll it again, spread it a second time. I just need to be able to control something – anything – when the structure of space and time seems to have eluded me.
In this world without us, the ducks returned to the fountain in Piazza di Spagna. Peaceful. I do not know if it is a sign of hope or a rather ominous omen. Even beauty becomes questionable in the pandemic. Anyway, no matter how close the ducks are, I won’t be able to see them. I’m going to have to settle for the photo that circulates on Instagram. By the time I am finally able to return to the square, they will have already flown away.
Olo How Contagion Works ’by Paolo Giordano is now available in electronic and paperback. His novel “Heaven and Earth” is published in June
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