The Ballad of the Covid-19 Gaol, part one

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The Burial of the Dead

 April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

 T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

Part 1: It all began where the streets have no name – looking back at one month of quarantine

where the streets have no name

(Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Easter Sunday 2020)

It all began with a phone call from a friend in early March: “come up here, to the Dolomites, there is one meter of fresh snow and the weather is going to be sunny and cold at the weekend. There’s no one around, the foreigners have all left and the slope are almost empty. Perfect for skiing. And almost zero infection up here”. Information on the spreading of the virus around Italy was already coming through so I had a Hamletic dilemma whether it was nobler to go or not to go. There was already a virtual lockdown in Italy; schools and other institutions had been closed two weeks before but travelling was allowed and the consciousness of the danger was half-way through, influenced, I wrongly felt, by too many disaster Hollywood movies. So I went, the lure of one of the many paradises regained in my country was too strong for a person like me with chronic Ulysses syndrome.

On the long motorway lanes there was something strange. What was it? First of all there were no cars, the usual never-ending line vanished. I noticed this at a glance since I come from the capital of the Italian Motor Valley, home to Ferrari and other major automobile factories, where cars are sacred. Only trucks had remained on the highway, a unique queue to Brenner Pass and then to Mitteleuropa, as if nothing could stop commerce – an obvious statement that would bring an outrageous number of casualties a few days afterwards in the heart of the economic locomotive of the country, the city of Milan and its surrounding region, Lombardia. That lorries’ line reminded me of one of Beppe Grillo’s comic sketches, before he became the founder and guru of the pseudo-leftist populist Five Star Movement, now part of the government’s coalition. He used to wonder why German lorries went down to Sicily while Sicilian trucks went up to Germany permanently, bringing basically the same stuff: it was implied it was just for commercial reasons, without any respect for the climate problem he was one of the first public persons to denounce. I remember, and still laugh, when he sucked the exhausts of a hydrogen car like a baby sucking his mother’s milk. Then, in the stream of consciousness the wheel always brings me, one of the most interesting books I have read in recent years came back to me, Petit traité de la décroissance sereine  – Happy Degrowth – by the French philosopher G. Latouche. And, like a vision, the opportunity we were offered to put into practice some of his teachings took shape. The possibility to slow down our daily frenzy, to reconsider the paradox of infinite exploitation of non-infinite resources linked to the insane idea of permanent economic growth and competition, to reduce the working hours and dedicate that time to human relationships (alas, in this phase restricted to the family or to virtual gatherings), to clean the unbreathable air of the Pianura Padana where I live and to spend more time with culture – putting an end to living free time (a rare luxury nowadays) in the same distressing way as working time – was becoming a real possibility, a way to see the full half part of the glass by a pessimist like myself. After leaving the motorway, my ascent to the mountains in late winter bright sun, which enhanced  the pure white of the snow and the deep blue of the sky, cherished my mood, as if beauty, ‘a joy forever’, had cancelled the dystopian reality we were all about to enter. An hour later I was cross-country skiing near Passo San Pellegrino, alone in the silent snowy woods surrounded by the majestic granite rocks of the Dolomites, where ‘a poet could not but be gay in such a jocund company’. At dusk, tired but satisfied, I arrived at the hotel I usually stay at. Even if it was a familiar place, all of a sudden my mood changed, the pleasure of the wilderness gone, a strange anxiety taking its place. Has the virus already arrived in this place filled with guests from infected areas? Is it lurking in the dark, were we in an Alien-like situation? I found myself washing my hands a paranoid number of times before having dinner and going to bed: something was very wrong in the state of Denmark.

loneliness

Opening the window in the morning and watching the valley down below and the rocky mountains all around in the early hours’ crystal clear air were the best anti-anxiety drug. I went down to breakfast with a less suspicious mind and I managed to wash my hands just once. On my way up to the 2.000 meter high Passo di San Pellegrino again, I was ready for stunning views and downhill slopes perfectly prepared: almost no one around and virus-free open space. ‘In the mountains, there you feel free’ was the line I had in mind as I was driving through the piney trees covered with snow. But when I got up there I discovered that almost everyone had had the same idea: the place was as crowded as on Christmas holidays. As a result, my skiing day was very distressing, the avoidance of contact with other human beings much more difficult than the black slopes. Luckily I had a face mask in my pocket which I used for the scary ride inside the overcrowded cables. To be on the safe side, I even added a scarf to my face attire. At dinner we heard through the grapevine that Prime Minister Conte was about to declare that the whole of Italy would become a red zone. On Monday, March 9, the lockdown would begin, no one would be allowed to leave or enter his hometown. At the announcement a conceited discussion about what was going on among the guests began and it soon developed in an anxious argument. At midnight a grandfather, his son and grandson had already packed and were ready to leave, fearing they had to stay there until April 3, the first deadline. We were able to convince them to stay in the end. I wondered that the possibility to be forced to live up there, isolated from the world, for almost a month was not bad after all, a situation well familiar to Agatha Christie’s readers. The next day, Sunday, I went for another final cross-country skiing session amid the magic of the wild wood to skip the crowd of the slopes and then I said good-bye for good to the absolute freedom of the wilderness and drove back home to a captivity which even now, five weeks later, seems never-ending. Sometimes I wake up at night and still can’t believe it’s really happening. But it does, even if just a few weeks back this would have been totally unconceivable. Seeing the Pope on Easter Day saying mass in such a deserted Saint Peter’s Basilica that we could hear the echo of his voice made us believe it is all true. April is really the cruellest month this year, mixing memory and desire, indeed a month of burial of the dead in this world of ours, suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a wasteland. In these almost forty days of quarantine of mine many things have happened, most of them in the mind. This is going to be the subject of part 2.

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