Turin at sunrise

“Unreal City,” T. S. Eliot called post World War I London in his famous poem “The Waste Land”. And similarly unreal seems my own city of Turin these days. One week ago we were living our lives as usual, business as usual, with our agendas full of things to do and people to meet. Now we are experiencing an entirely alien atmosphere.

It is slightly similar to mid-August, when nobody is in sight, everything is closed and time seems to be suspended. But there is none of the cheerfulness of summer, of the idea that either you’re on holiday or are soon going to be; it is as if the “pause” button had been switched on in our lives.

On Friday the first cases of COVID-19 started to appear here and there in the Peninsula. On Sunday, we were told that schools, universities and the Conservatory where I teach would remain closed for the whole week. Many had already planned a holiday for Mardi Gras, so at first it did not look that odd; but then, when Mardi Gras arrived and passed, with no carnival masks but plenty of protective masks, we definitely noticed the difference.

When I take a walk in the neighborhood, there are very few people about. This was true even yesterday, when we had an exceptionally warm weather, clear sky and the first spring flowers starting to blossom. The roads are almost empty, with about one fourth of the cars one usually sees on weekdays; the supermarkets are systematically assaulted by people buying antiseptic gels, soap (!), and, of course, tons of pasta – as if the average Italian would not already have a few tons of pasta at home, just in case.

Yesterday the religious services were discontinued; I am used to going to daily Mass, and now there is none. Even the funerals and the (rarer) weddings must be celebrated privately, with just the closest family members, and no friends or acquaintances. Today it was Ash Wednesday, and I believe it was the first one in my life when I did not attend church. My mother and I did watch a Mass streamed on Facebook and it was a beautiful and touching moment in its own way.

In other zones of Italy the situation is much worse; in the villages where, as it seems, the infection appeared first, the inhabitants cannot leave the “red zone” and the borders of the area are patrolled by the police and military. On the other hand, in Southern Italy life goes on at its usual pace, effectively creating a hiatus between the two poles of our peninsula.

The bad thing about a disease such as Coronavirus is that it seems (at least to me) not to create solidarity or stronger bonds; rather, it divides people. One is driven to see in his or her neighbor a virtual bearer of the disease, one who may (unwillingly, of course) threaten our own families, or our very lives. We long for those bear hugs which we Italians are so used to, for the merry meeting of friends, for the careless enjoyment of sociability.

All this will come back, of course; and our beautiful – superbly beautiful – country awaits all those who wish to experience a living wonder: our splendid art, gorgeous nature, delicious cuisine and warm-hearted people. But, right now, we feel quite lonely.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com