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Milan under lockdown – diary of a silent city

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Socialising at the time of coronavirus - a video call with our friends Francesca and Giancarlo over dinner to feel less lonely
Socialising at the time of coronavirus - a video call with our friends Francesca and Giancarlo over dinner to feel less lonely   -   Copyright  Marina Spironetti
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Freelance journalist and photographer Marina Spironetti lives in Milan, at the heart of a severe COVID-19 outbreak.

The entire region of Lombardy has been under lockdown since 8 March, as well as 14 more provinces of northern Italy, to try to contain the spread of the virus. One day later, the emergency measures were extended to the entire country. On 12 March, more restrictive measures were announced – most shops and businesses are closed except pharmacies and food stores. People are strongly advised to stay at home.

Marina lives in a flat with her boyfriend. For the past few weeks, she has kept a diary. She shares her thoughts with Euronews.

Marina Spironetti
Photojournalist Marina Spironetti and boyfriend Andrea Azzarelli at home in their Milan flat during the lockdown.Marina Spironetti

'A brand new concept of time and space'

When asked “where do you live?” I usually reply that “I pay my bills in Milan”. I moved to my one-bedroom flat almost seven years ago – being joined by my partner one year later – but all this time I never felt like I really lived there.

Both of us spend very little time there. It is a safe harbour to go back to after my assignments around the world, it is the place where I would unpack my suitcase, do the laundry and pack again.

Now, all of a sudden, having lost two months of solid work in a matter of a few days, I am faced with a brand-new concept of time and space.

When a cluster of cases suddenly emerged in Codogno, southeast of Milan, I was travelling. On average, I spend three to eight days at home per month. The new year had started as usual, with only five days at home. February was supposed to look pretty much the same.

'Before I knew it, it was my turn'

My boyfriend and I arrived in Milan two days before the first lockdown was announced. At that point, we both knew it was time to stay at home – regardless of any government decision. One of the reasons behind my self-imposed quarantine was to be able to travel to central Italy to check on my 80-year old mother. She is self-sufficient and in great spirit, but she will need support should the situation become any worse.

On our way home, we stocked up on food – our fridge is empty most of the time. We were able to find everything we were looking for, no pasta or toilet paper shortage. I guess it depends on where you live, though. I heard very different accounts from friends - and saw their photos of empty shelves.

The thought of being self-confined at home had been at the back of my mind since Wuhan went on lockdown. I used to wonder what it could be like. I was reading any first-hand account of what seemed to me like a surreal experience. Before I knew it, it was my turn. I wondered if I was ready for it – can you ever be, after all? Still, I was one of those people who had the privilege to stay at home. Some of my friends still have to go to work every day. Not to mention doctors and paramedics.

Marina Spironetti
The view from my kitchen window. I stopped to take a quick mobile picture of this wonderful scene before closing the door behind me. This is how my lockdown began.Marina Spironetti

'Absorbed by news'

When the lockdown came into force, I thought I’d have plenty of it to dedicate to those long-neglected activities like reading or baking a cake. Nothing further away from reality – besides normal house chores, most of my time was absorbed by the news. I found myself compulsively reading anything about the virus – looking for answers, I guess. I lived in a bubble of idleness for the first couple of days. Also, I slept a lot – it gave me the illusion days could go by faster that way.

'The silence is broken by the ambulance sirens'

Space, on the other hand, is limited to a 50m2 flat – our kitchen overlooks a garden and a local church, a beautiful 1900s Lombard-style brick building with a clock tower. The silence from my balcony is unreal, especially at night. I can hear the bells of far-away churches and birds seem to be louder than usual, now that traffic is gone. Our bedroom is above one of the ring roads that go around the city centre. There, the silence is broken by the ambulance sirens. I cannot tell whether there are more than usual around – but every time I hear one, it sends shivers down my spine.

Marina Spironetti
Viale Tibaldi, one of the ring roads that go around the centre of Milan, as seen from my bedroom windown on Sunday 15 March, completely traffic-free.Marina Spironetti

Social life under lockdown

Our social life has been limited to two brief encounters with the delivery guys dropping our online purchases at a safe distance, and to our frequent conversations with Oreste, our neighbour.

We live in one of those so-called case di ringhiera – former popular housing where flats share the same balcony with iron railings. The balconies run the whole length of the building, providing access to the houses and facing an inner courtyard, so tenants are able to see most of their neighbours from their flats. We talk from our respective doorways, sharing fears and jokes and wondering when all this will finally be over. Today, Sunday, we had our first open-air aperitivo – at the safety distance, but together.

Marina Spironetti
Socializing at the time of coronavirus - aperitivo at a safety distance with our neighbor OresteMarina Spironetti

Virtual dinners?

The virtual world also provides some alternatives – on Friday, we were on a video call with friends over dinner. It was one of the most beautiful dinners I’ve had in a while, although I’ve never been a fan of Facetime and the likes.

Marina Spironetti
Socialising at the time of coronavirus - a video call with our friends Francesca and Giancarlo over dinner to feel less lonelyMarina Spironetti

It is a surreal world – shops are closed but call centres still ring you up. On Thursday, somebody tried to sell me some financial services over the phone – we ended up having a chat about the current situation instead. Consumerism still winks at you from the billboards but the streets are almost deserted. I am still not familiar with this new reality, but it seems to be full of contrasts.

Marina Spironetti
A man delivering food is riding his bike along an empty avenue in Milan on Sunday 15 March.Marina Spironetti

Not in the mood for a singalong

That same day, we had our first large-scale flash mob. People were asked to open their windows at 6 p.m. and sing or play the national anthem – a form of self-empowerment and a way to make people feel united in quarantine. I watched some moving videos of people all over the country singing and dancing on their balconies. Nothing happened on my street, though – I could hear the sound of a distant trumpet, few blocks away, but that was it. I have to say I don’t feel like singing that much. In this dystopian reality, 6 p.m. is also the time when Civil Protection hold a daily press conference and announce the latest figures of the epidemic. On Friday alone, 250 people died.

Finding answers in the experience of others

I started to keep a diary – as I write, Spain orders a nationwide lockdown, the French are going to vote and the US are panic buying amid coronavirus fears. China, on the other hand, finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

On Facebook, my friends who live abroad are quick to argue over the same things we talked about two or three weeks ago – swinging between panicking and underestimating the problem.

During these weeks, I learnt that it takes time for people to acknowledge a dramatic situation – most people often prefer to live in denial until the very last minute. It’s human nature, like it or not, and it affects everyone.

Marina Spironetti
Bus no 90, which goes around the outskirts of Milan, as seen from my bedroom window on Sunday 15 March. As of today, buses and metro lines are still operating in the city.Marina Spironetti

Fast-moving coronavirus might well have invaded the world, but it feels like we are in different “time zones” that change according to the stage of the epidemic. To somebody from France or Spain, Italy is the future – just like China is to us. Most of the answers to our questions are already there, in the experience of those who got through it before us. With patience and strength, we’ll get through this.