Translated from the Italian by John Coates and Alessandro Di Mauro
At the end of December 2020, a tremendous storm surge hit the seafront of Naples. Waves of more than 30 feet, pushed by a wind that roared at nearly 55 miles an hour, slammed into the central coast of the Bay of Naples with a fearsome energy, driving the city to retreat inside. Pictures of that amazing event, taken from the balconies of apartment buildings or from the cars of the unfortunate people still on the street, made the rounds of the Internet and were reproduced by the main Italian news outlets.
Some days later, I drove the short distance to the center of Naples to give a copy of my just-published novel to a gentleman who had written a blurb for the back cover, a retired top editor of RAI, the Italian broadcasting company. We went for a walk along the Partenope sea drive because, as a good journalist, he wanted to show me the destruction that the waves had brought about. The street had been cleaned up, the wreckage removed, thus returning it to life with its usual traffic. But the sidewalk along the waterfront was still not passable, cordoned off by black-and-red caution tape. Only when we arrived at the point of greatest wave impact did I realize how violent that invasion of the sea into the city had been. The stone and concrete wall, about 20 inches thick, that separated the water from the street had been completely torn apart. Debris had been piled up like ruins from some ancient civilization.
Across the street, the metal structures of the bar and restaurant gazebos were piled one against the other, looking like skeletal bones. A few feet farther on, we were saddened to see the remains of the old stone Bourbon arch, one of the many landmarks emblematic of Naples, it too having collapsed from the wrath of the sea.
On the return home, I thought that the storm surge could be an apt metaphor for the calamity that has battered the whole of humanity since the beginning of 2020. Like the storm, Covid-19 overturned our very existence. Even virologists, referring to an increase in the rate of contagion, use the word surge. The virus has invaded our streets, causing us to barricade ourselves at home. To continue the metaphor, the seawall uprooted by the waves stood for the shelter that has made us feel safe, and for the separation between animal and humankind that the virus had breached. Finally, the collapse of the Bourbon arch symbolized our past, our history, and the people we held close—mostly the elderly—who have not survived.
I still remember the day when television news began to talk about the first Italian person infected; it was the end of February 2020. I was in my kitchen, and it was lunchtime. Friends from Puglia, a married couple, were houseguests. She was pregnant with their first child. We weren’t very worried, were optimistic really, because the virus had stopped in northern Italy. We were thinking that it would never make it to the south. And even though the problem seemed far away, I looked at my friend and thought that it must not be at all pleasant to face a pregnancy with this worry. The situation soon changed. At the beginning of March, the national government imposed a countrywide lockdown, putting the whole of Italy in a red zone. We were not allowed to leave home except for unavoidable circumstances, or to get together with relatives outside the same household. All shops were closed except those that sold basic necessities.
Even in the south we began to be afraid, although the emergency remained exclusively in northern Italy. Still, we were all convinced that the danger would soon be over.
Only on March 27 were we aware of the gravity of the situation. That dark and rainy Friday, terror took possession of our lives. Right outside Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, on a deserted square, Pope Francis pronounced on worldwide television his special benediction “Urbi et Orbi.” “Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets, and our cities,” the pope said. “Like the disciples in the Gospel, we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm.” Could it be that we were coming to the end of the world? Was the human race facing extinction?
I live in Cicciano, a little town that is equidistant from central Naples, Avellino, and Caserta, in a three-room apartment on the first floor of my parents’ house. The entire street has only 19 inhabitants, who live in five buildings no more than two stories tall. All of us are descendants of the same family, and because of that, our street is an extension of our homes. The house of my father’s brother, who died some months before the Covid outbreak, has a small open space outside the gate and a large courtyard opening onto the street. This little spot has always been the ideal place for seniors to pass the time and have a chat on a warm summer evening, seated on outdoor chairs arranged in a circle. My cousin had even built a wooden bench for the women who might be walking or bicycling by and want to stop for a bit to share a few words with whoever might be available. The bench was never empty; there was always someone taking a turn sitting there. And on that spot you would barter everything: salad greens in exchange for oranges, zucchini for figs, always promising to offer a new seasonal fruit with the next harvest. The only other sound heard in this little bit of the world, aside from the chirping of the birds, was the shouting of children running around, riding bicycles, or playing ball.
I used to think that only an atomic bomb could have wiped out all of this at once, annihilating in one second the life that was humming from sunrise to sunset in our little street. Instead, an invisible enemy has done that. Suddenly, the street emptied, the bench was left vacant, voices went silent. The boundaries outlined by our front gates have become the inviolable limits of our lives. For months we have been afraid even to look out over our balcony. The mobile phone has become a vitally important extension of ourselves. We have had to put on hold our plans, rethink our spaces, upend our habits.
My sister, having to switch to smart working (yes, this English phrase is what we call it in Italy) for the international company she works for, left her home in Rome and is now living upstairs with my father. Because of work or for study, she and others scattered here and there have given birth to a reverse-migration movement that has inspired another new expression: south working. Because of Covid, thousands of workers—and thousands of students who live outside the region to attend university—have emptied the northern and central cities to return en masse to their family homes.
In the north and central areas of the Italian peninsula, this phenomenon has accentuated the crisis in all those sectors that profit from the presence of southerners, like the owners of rental properties, restaurants, bars, and shops. As a result, what has happened in the south has triggered a positive cycle that is feeding the local economy, since the employees of the companies headquartered in big cities like Rome and Milan, now smart working in the south, spend their earnings here. Furthermore, the tuition of the students who have left the old universities, or who intended to study away from home, is replenishing the coffers of the universities in their own regions.
A year has passed since all this began, and one still cannot see a way out. We are at the mercy of the surges that cyclically—after tentative periods of easing—plunge us back into terror. At present in my town the figures are these: 145 tested positive, added to a total of just about 600 contagions and three people dead since the beginning of the pandemic. We number about 13,000 inhabitants living in an area just over seven square kilometers. People in Cicciano were accustomed to gathering in the town square, strolling on the streets, stopping to chat in the supermarket aisles, visiting one another at home for a cup of coffee. In small towns, the bonds of family and friends are very strong. It’s as if everyone were connected, even without knowing one another personally. For this reason, it is difficult to isolate the virus. Despite the restrictions and the ever-growing number of infections—even though in a little town like this, one knows either personally or indirectly everyone who has contracted the virus—many people continue to act as if the problem had nothing to do with their lives.
As one moves closer to the capital of Campania, the situation worsens. Naples is the city where it is most dramatic. Its population is close to one million, and the population density is about 8,000 people per square kilometer. Naples is a metropolis starving for space and normality, and a city that tends to be anarchic. Most of its inhabitants comply with the rules imposed by the national government for containing the infection. As in other cities in Italy and around the world, however, many people defy both the danger and the authorities (their defiance made easier by the relative absence of policing) because they long for relationships and do not want to give up their freedom of movement, or simply because it is difficult to loosen the threads of familial bonds.
Naples also has difficulty containing the number of infections because of its crowded public transport system. Every day, subway trains are stormed by commuters anxious to arrive on time at work. It is impossible to maintain anti-Covid social distancing.
Fortunately, up to now the region’s healthcare system has held up, against all odds, even though many doctors and nurses have contracted the virus, and we have watched helplessly as ambulances have lined up outside emergency rooms. The foreign press has reported on the excellence of Cotugno Hospital in Naples, which specializes in infectious diseases and has reported only one infection among its nursing staff. Even if this hospital is the exception, almost all hospitals have been set up with Covid wards, and other centers dedicated to the specific emergency have been assembled from scratch. But the latest news, unfortunately, is about the total lack of beds available for intensive and sub-intensive therapy in the main Neapolitan hospitals because of the increase in symptomatic patients.
As for the psychological effects of this lengthy emergency, in addition to the elderly who are paying a tremendous price because of the isolation, school-age children here, as elsewhere in the world, face being confined at home with enormous distress and hardship. During such an important phase of their lives, children and youths have had to give up all physical interaction with their peers, and must do their schoolwork at home via distance learning using electronic devices. This prolonged exclusion from social interactions has resulted in psychophysical distress that has repercussions on the family as a whole. In the communities adjacent to mine, cases of teenage suicide and suicide attempts have been reported.
Teachers, who are generally women (many of them seniors), have had to take on the material and moral burden of ensuring the continuity of the educational offerings of the schools. They had to become familiar overnight with tools and methodology little used in the past, if not totally unknown. The small towns, especially, pay the price for an inadequate network of computer connections. My aunt, for example, who teaches English in a middle school, has recently moved to an apartment located in an area without the infrastructure that would allow her to hook up to the Internet. Therefore, she is forced to make do with mobile devices, paying out of her own pocket for services just to do her job.
As I am writing, Italy is facing a third surge of the pandemic, even though isolated areas are breathing a sigh of relief. Where I live, we are still in a red zone, but the situation going forward is impossible to predict. One expert statistician has put Campania on the list of regions to keep an eye on because one of his algorithms has forecast a spike in infections within the next few weeks.
Personally, I am living now in limbo. I think once more of a photograph I took in early 2020, of a lone boat skimming across the Bay of Naples toward Capri, and I see myself stranded on the high seas, waiting to make my way to land. I have a hard time imagining what life can be like after this terrible experience, but I hope to see my street pulsing again, along with all the streets of the world.
The experts don’t rule out—in fact, they are convinced—that other pandemics will threaten the existence of humanity. Mother Nature will continue to try to take back her own spaces, the same Mother Nature that in this dark time has represented our lifeline, making us reconnect to her with, at least, our thoughts. I hope that this longing for the sea, for trees, for open spaces, which continues to affect us in the stale air of our homes, can finally make us understand that we must respect and protect the planet on which we live, so that Mother Nature might stop attacking us as if we were invaders to be annihilated.
The light at the end of this very dark tunnel is still a far-off glimmer, but I know that one day we will be able to recount, as the venerable poet Dante Alighieri did in the last verse of the Inferno of the Divine Comedy, how “we ascended into the shining world … to see the stars once again.”
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