LESLIE MCBRIDE WILE
I realized yesterday that going to the supermarket makes me feel anxious. Going indoors almost anywhere except home makes my heart beat faster, my breath go tight and shallow. So I decide I won’t go to the supermarkets, only to the open air farmers’ markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Maybe the pharmacy or a small grocery where they serve one customer at a time. This morning I want a couple of things from the pharmacy; I can walk up to Piazza Maggiore.
A walk will do me good; I’m feeling very keyed-up and restless. My husband is on his way home, fleeing Africa for Europe before our borders close. He’s already embarked on the long, brutal journey: three flights and probably at least three trains. He is accustomed to rough travel but this trip will be extraordinarily long and uncomfortable.
I climb the steep little hill from our place to an asphalt road that leads to narrow, cobblestoned via Vico, where we lived our first year here. As I ascend slowly (it’s a very steep hill!) I breathe deeply of the sweet air; I begin to look around me. This nightmare of contagion and fear is unfolding at perhaps the most beautiful season of the year–it’s spring!
Apricot trees blossomed 10 days ago; now the pears and wild cherries are covering themselves in white flowers. The first leaves appear as a light haze of green hovering along branches, skies are high and blue, laundry flaps in the light breeze. The sun warms my back and I loosen my scarf, open my coat. Up in via Vico I see signs of Italian determination and resilience—flags fly from balconies and windows and a rainbow banner proclaims Tutto Andrà Bene. And with my husband on his way home, that seems truer than ever.
Numbers of new virus patients are rising; the numbers of dead in Italy are staggering and continue to mount here and elsewhere. I think about Europe and the Black Death. I know the virus is not the plague, but the news is literally dreadful.
Borders are closing; it’s hard even to keep up with the bulletins from France, Spain, Germany, the EU. Hungary sealed itself off without warning, jamming traffic and spreading panic. The Italian government issues a new decree daily, it seems, narrowing our lives further and making us more and more uneasy. The flow of humorous video and memes on WhatsApp increases frenetically as we struggle to maintain something like calm, patience, perspective.
Last Sunday a friend told me she’s heard Air Maroc has suspended all flights to Italy. My husband’s flight home on 30 March is cancelled. It’s time to look for an alternative.
My husband wants so very much to finish his work in Sierra Leone, the culmination of three years of excruciating toil and hard-won, incremental progress. He thinks perhaps he might be able to hang on, bring things to a rational and orderly conclusion or at least the African facsimile of one. But his employer is searching for air tickets and says if he doesn’t leave now he will have to ride out this pandemic in place. She encourages him to pack his bags, get out while he still can.
In the end it’s not an exit but an escape. He packs two bags on Monday night and goes to the office Tuesday morning as usual. We speak via Skype, he tells me the wheels are turning, he’s received his itinerary and must leave quickly to catch the ferry to the airport. He will fly from Freetown to Brussels, with the obligatory layover in Conakry, then to Geneva. From Geneva he will come the rest of the way by train, first to Milano, then Torino, finally to Mondovì. He says he’ll be in touch by text or phone when he reaches Europe.
Wednesday at 6 am I’m worried; it’s been almost 24 hours since we spoke. He replies immediately to my text—he’s just arrived Paris (Paris??), has an hour before his flight to Geneva. And so it goes for the next 24 hours. We text, we even speak by phone a couple of times. He sounds pretty relaxed and upbeat although I know he’s already exhausted. I’m online searching trains to Mondovì. He’ll arrive Torino too late for the last one, so I look for a hotel where he can spend the night. Miraculously I have two to choose from and I book a room for the night; he can get an 8:25 on Thursday morning.
At Torino things get a bit sticky. On arrival he’s questioned closely by a carabiniere: where is he going, where has he come from. The officer warns him of quarantine but finally lets him go to the hotel. The following morning, trains are being cancelled while he watches the Departures board, but not his train. He buys a ticket and takes his seat, after another encounter with a serious but compassionate carabiniere. The 8:25 pulls out on schedule, arrives Mondovì at 9:30. I collect him from the station and we go home. It feels almost normal; we’ve done this so many times over the last three years.
Tonight on the news we see that borders in some African nations are beginning to close as well.
We are at home together. We both feel well although we each need a haircut, a situation we’ll just have to endure. We are under auto-quarantena (self-quarantine) by order of the Ministry of Health. Since yesterday, anyone arriving in Italy from outside the country must report to the authorities. This morning I spoke by phone with a kind and helpful signora in our local healthcare network office. She asked a few questions about our health and told me the parameters we must follow. And that was it. If we feel unwell we should contact our doctor by phone. If we need help with shopping we may apply to the Red Cross (our neighbor has already offered to buy for us when she goes to the market). Today it all feels good: we are together in our home with every convenience and comfort at hand. After the anxieties of the past week we feel fortunate, even blessed.