Italian Life in a Dark Hour

A country shuttered by pandemic. What’s needed? Steady nerves, and perhaps a great glass of wine
Italian Life in a Dark Hour
Just days before all of Italy was locked down, Verona's Piazza delle Erbe had few tourists, but locals were still going out to eat and drink, trying to lead somewhat normal lives. (REUTERS/Newscom/Alberto Lingria)
Mar 12, 2020

Three weekends ago, Verona was a riotous blast.

The city’s annual Carnevale celebration peaked on Feb. 21—the annual Venerdì Gnocolar (Gnocchi Friday). White-bearded, robed men dressed as Papà del Gnoco, a 500-year-old tradition, led a big, loud parade of outrageous, goofy and gaudy floats, pulled through town by tractors and trailed by marching bands, pom-pom girls, middle-aged pom-pom guys with paunches and locals costumed like Halloween on steroids. Throngs of revelers packed bars, trattorias and the medieval streets, eating gnocchi until the wee hours and washing them down with seas of wine.

This was my fifth Carnevale in Verona. I love the surreal, let-loose atmosphere it brings to the end of winter.

Now, in mid-March, the word “surreal” applies to a far different reality across all of Italy: barren streets and shuttered stores, as the country is under lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

It all came so fast—beginning with a dizzying roller coaster of emotions: denial, anger, hope and fear.

The Monday after Carnevale weekend hit like a painful hangover. Across northern Italy, including in Verona, schools, gyms and other public places were closed. Soccer matches were canceled. In neighboring Lombardy, a red zone of towns was locked down. Venice’s Carnevale was cut short. Soon Italy was viewed by American authorities as a no-go zone right up there with Iran, as airlines canceled flights to Milan and Venice.

Yet, still, at the end of that week, there was talk of getting “life back to normal”—as if somehow continuing to hang out in the public square would keep us safe. In the iconic Piazza delle Erbe, people enjoyed rays of sun with a drink. On Friday and Saturday nights, bar crowds still spilled outdoors.

Friends texted maps showing the spread of the virus—which miraculously stayed outside of Verona, at least for a while. As of today, the city remains relatively spared from tragedy, with 150 cases of COVID-19 and 11 patients in intensive care.

By the end of February, Verona’s usually active local and tourist life was for the most part dead. Restaurants lost more than three quarters of their reservations. Stores were empty. All the while, the virus spread.

At a local greengrocer, one woman bemoaned to her friend, the business' owner, that she’d had enough of staying indoors. “Last night I drank two bottles of wine!” she confessed. “When this coronavirus is over, they are going to discover we are all alcoholics!”

It was black humor to be sure. But I do think these times merit opening some of those great bottles you’ve been saving. Take it from me: Drink now. You can replenish later.

On March 6, I drove out of Verona to France for a planned time with my wife and son in the village in which our son grew up. Within less than a week, Italy shut behind me. The whole country is now on lockdown: bars, restaurants and stores were ordered shut in what approximates martial law. The only thing left open are the essentials: foodsellers, pharmacies, newsstands and (no kidding) tobacconists.

I feel like I am in limbo in France. Here, as elsewhere in Europe and the world, there are signs the virus is coming. Of course, we have no way of knowing how this all will play out.

But for now, it seems like an invisible bomb has dropped on Italy. In these weeks, I have observed that our minds just aren’t wired for this kind of disruption. As crisis sinks in, what we crave most is to go “back to normal.”

Italy will of course rebound, but I hope Italians will aim for something greater than back to “normal”—which in Italy has meant a kind of charming chaos that glides from one calamity to the next. Italy has some of the world’s most creative minds and best craftspeople. It can do better. Through the ages, the Italian peninsula has rebounded from invasions, plagues, world wars, earthquakes and mass exoduses. It has managed to pick itself up with a smile in its darkest moments.

With respect to wine, consider how Italian producers reacted to their country’s 1986 scandal, in which a handful of bulk-wine producers were found to be adding methanol to low-quality wines, causing Italian wine exports to plummet. They didn’t return to “normal,” but spawned a revolution in quality winemaking.

Now it seems it’s time to call up those muses and find light in darkness one more time. The world will soon need inspiration. Italy needs to tap into its well of imagination and creativity and can help show the way. And emergency or no, it is always better to drink and eat well.

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