The Last Normal Day

I remember the the last normal day really well, because it coincided with a lovely day out hiking with friends. In fact, the juxtaposition couldn’t have been more dramatic if I’d planned it: a lovely Sunday out, long anticipated in my planner and so I can remember the exact date very easily. A good hike on a glorious sunny day in the hills, and a long, multi-course lunch of local traditional food — one of those types of lunches that movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun” will have you believe are an everyday occurrence when you live in Italy, but which are actually fairly rare. And then The News.

I want to take a few steps back, though, because when I think about it, it’s completely mindboggling how quickly things happened. We went from “oh man, poor China, that’s so crazy what’s happening over there” to completely disrupted lives literally in the space of days.

The week before

Of note: literally four days before life began to shut down, we had a Covid training session at the organization where I am a volunteer EMT. You could tell that it had been put together to assuage the fears of skittish volunteers, because the theme was very much “okay, here are the precautions to take if the coronavirus starts to spread in Italy, but that is extremely unlikely.” We were told that surgical masks would be made available to us in case we wanted to mask up when we were out on calls. We were informed that there was a goodly supply of hand gel at our disposal if we felt it was necessary.

And we were told very clearly by our medical director, an esteemed physician in the community and also just a lovely individual, that there were only two covid patients in Italy. They were in Rome and both had been isolated, and so the likelihood that covid would come up north to us was truly minimal. We wrapped up the meeting in good spirits, titillated by the dramatic situation but reassured that it was unlikely to affect us directly. Just close enough to make good conversation fodder, and honestly is anything more fun than talking in hushed tones about something dramatic that just doesn’t quite affect you personally? That’s exactly what we did as the meeting ended – over 100 of us crammed into a room with a capacity of probably half that, unmasked, practically on top of each other.

That was February 20, 2020, and we haven’t met in person since.

The very next day, my long-time (only remaining) private student came to my house as she usualy did on a Friday evening, this time all in a flutter. Did you see the news? There are some cases near Milan! It’s going to come here! I’m so scared that it’s going to come here.

Wait, I told her very earnestly. I just had a presentation at the Red Cross on this yesterday evening. It was super reassuring! Let me show you the slides – look: our medical director said it’s very unlikely to come here. She (rightfully) looked doubtful. I sent her off that evening with the most reassuring words and wishes for a good weekend that I could think of.

I haven’t seen her again since then. Her next lesson was scheduled for the following Monday, a mere three days later, but by then everything had already Started. Will I ever have a lesson with her again? It seems unlikely, since over a year has passed and my work and living situations have changed since then, but I hope I’ll at least be able to meet up with her for a coffee one day! She’s just a few years younger than me, and after years of one-to-one lessons, I think we were also friends.

That was February 21, 2020. I don’t actually remember the Saturday of that weekend, but the 23rd was our long-awaited hiking day! Over the years our little English-speaker friend group has fluctuated as some good friends have moved back to England/Australia/the US temporarily or permanently, and of the original crew, several of us have now brought Italian partners into the fold. We rarely all get together, though, and on this fine, sunny Sunday in the hills, we had managed to gather up seven of us, including one heavily pregnant couple! The hike was lovely, the food was amazing, and the mood as the heavily pregnant couple joined us for lunch was highly celebratory. Looking back, we couldn’t possibly have created a better last-hurrah event if we’d planned it, but I swear we didn’t know at the time.

Against this idyllic backdrop, though, the emails started to come in as we were wrapping up our meal with espresso: the university where I’m doing my master’s program suspended classes for a week. Then the other university where I teach English. The music school where I also teach. That snow day-esque “no school!” flutter came up instinctively, but it also felt very jarring. This is serious now, I thought. My student was right.

By the time we got back down from the hills and home, I had a week completely off work. The radio informed us that the prime minister had closed schools nationally for the week. The sunset was pink and orange but with a yellow-grey tinge that was probably smog but made it feel all the more apocalyptic. I remember kicking off my hiking shoes and thinking, I always fantasize about putting my life on pause for a week to catch up and then be super organized… and now I have it but it’s super weird. (Spoiler alert: if you can take a week off and actually catch up on your life and always be super organized thereafter, well done. You are a more efficient person than I.)

The week after

On the first day, I flittered and fidgeted around restlessly. Sure, I caught up on some things. I also went grocery shopping and acquired the following stockpile:

Based on the photos on my phone, I apparently had decided that making a ragù (Bolognese pasta sauce, to the uninitiated) would help, and that the essentials included a measley four rolls of toilet paper and some extra gummy candies? (PS guys, the gummy candies pictured are vegan and they’re freaking amazing. As you can imagine from the Bolognese sauce, I am not personally vegan but those vegan gummies are something else.)

The next day I knocked a long-standing item off my to-do list: clean the first two floors of the stairwell in my apartment building. (Not my responsibility technically, but it hadn’t been done and it had annoyed me for a while.) I popped in my earbuds to catch up on The Daily (another thing I had been meaning to do for a while; excellent!) and within moments the deceptively calm voice of a covid expert was comparing covid to the Spanish flu and informing me that, worst-case-scenario, 1 in 6 people might die. Everyone would know someone who died. Imagine that. I did, and burst into tears. Did you listen to that episode too? Did you also try to line up all the people of your acquaintanceship in your head and imagine 1 in 6 of them disappearing? I bet lots of people did, and I was no exception. I have a very vivid memory of weeping over the kitchen sink while rinsing a sponge.

Cancelled trips – the first casualty: I was scheduled to go see my mother and grandmother in Paris (where the former is from and where the latter still lives) the last weekend of February. After considerable agonizing, I cancelled that trip. Mom, maybe I can come over there for Easter break instead! Or maybe I can even come to America then, if you’re back there, I remember telling her. Ha.

On the third day, I drove out to meet up with the very pregnant friend for a mid-morning coffee. We were almost giddy about it – she was newly on maternity leave and I was on this bizarre week-long reprieve from work.

On the fourth day, I did an EMT shift – me as team lead, my boyfriend as the driver. A lucky, favorite combination. (It’s how we met, actually.) Lots of fluttering about packing the ambulances full of protective smocks and caps and masks and stuff. A whole bunch of black surgical masks had been donated, so we tried them on along with the new protective goggles. We even took selfies.

There are quite a few volunteers who are also teachers, and lots of them were signed up for shifts that unexpected free week. Someone made lunch at the start of the shift and we all sat around the long table eating together (it may have been the last time – we don’t do that anymore) and speculating: do you think the schools will be closed again next week? Two weeks?! How crazy would that be! Our volunteer coordinator is an experienced middle school teacher and she was there, too. Our principal says thinks that the schools won’t open again this year, she said. A chill went down my spine. The rest of the academic year?!

She was right. That could never happen, I thought. But it did. I have been back in a classroom precisely once since then (a short-lived hybrid experiment).

A second week of closures was confirmed. I signed up for some more ambulance shifts. I made more bizarre, totally disorganized grocery store trips because buying things at least felt like I was doing something. I saw my best friend for a walk, and the very pregnant friend for another coffee.

The case numbers bubbled up in Lombardy. My best friend, who has some autoimmune issues, told me that if things went on like this, she might prefer not to see me in person for a while, because of the EMT volunteering. I thought that was wise.

The first week of March

In the part of northern Italy where I live, medium/little cities are strung along the highway like beads on a string that runs from Milan to Bologna and then the Adriatic coast. The highway actually runs along an old roman road – the Via Emilia – so it’s like this kind of on purpose. That week, cases started to march down that road, cropping up in all of the beads along that string. My stomach dropped so many times that week: when cases were reported in the city one bead up from us, and then one bead down from us. The first time we drove the ambulance up to the ER and everyone in triage was suited up: masks, visors and smocks. The first time I got to my shift and was informed that now we needed to wear masks for the entire shift, not just when we went out on calls. The implication was like a punch in the stomach: we didn’t only need to fear exposure from our patients, but from each other. We still wore surgical masks then (those cool black ones if you could find one!) and I hated it those first few shifts. Now we wear N95s or K94s instead and I barely notice it.

I have some photos of the loveliest sunrise over our headquarters from a morning shift during that time, and I remember the feeling very well. Masking up begrudgingly as I approached the door, and a flutter of nervousness in my belly. I still hadn’t been out on a covid call myself in that first week of March, and it all felt very like girding yourself for an attack from an unknown foe. You know that scene in Beauty and the Beast where the villagers are arming themselves against the beast? Through the mist, through the woods, through the darkness and the shadows, it’s a nightmare but it’s one exciting ride! I mean, okay, Gaston and the villagers were total ignorant monsters in that scene, but the minor key of that song sowing fear of the unknown in the villagers felt very apt. Arming ourselves, but against what? What would it look like? I’m being over-dramatic, but it was a very dramatic-feeling time.

I remember my first covid call vividly. It was just before lunchtime shift change, so one member of my team had already gone home and been replaced by a guy I had never even met. We were just introducing ourselves when the call came in: I remember nothing else about it except the words “sospetto covid”. A nervous laugh went up. Advice from those who’d already done their first, and encouraging looks from those who hadn’t — you could tell they didn’t envy us, which is funny now: there isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t been out on countless such calls since.

The first time actually putting on all the PPE was fairly comical and it took us ages – in retrospect, it was a godsent that the patient was not in particularly critical shape. The smock, the cap, double gloves, slipperly foot covers (I never wear those anymore, and opt to spray my boots down with bleach instead), these weird plastic sleeves to bridge the gap between the smocks and the gloves, double masks, goggles, and visors over the goggles. (I also don’t do goggles + visor anymore because you can’t see at all and I figure the risk of breaking my neck on someone’s stairs is also a valid concern.) We giggled as we put it all on, taking turns tying the smocks closed for each other. We both stopped giggling as we trudged up the man’s stairs breathlessly. Knocked. He opened the door with a hacking cough, sweaty and red with fever. I did probably the most inept patient interview ever, distracted by fear and the novelty of it and being completely out of breath from walking up the stairs double masked and with a visor (I still haven’t got used to that).

The shuffling, bumbling job of getting him down the stairs and into the ambulance – can people with covid walk? (Sometimes yes, sometimes no.) Am I making him worse by making him walk? Should I get the chair and roll him down the stairs? (These musings disappeared quickly in the following weeks as the calls started coming in hard and fast and we just hauled them out of their houses and into the ambulance as quickly as we could, never knowing when the next call waiting might be one who was already turning blue.) Anyway we got him and buckled up. I had never before been so aware of how close you have to get to someone in order to buckle their seatbelt for them. I sat down opposite him. Our eyes met. I’m not going to pretend I could read fear in his eyes although I feel that would be a good line here, but if fear can be read in eyes, I’m pretty sure my were filled with terror, for him and for myself.

I’ve completely lost count of how many covid calls I’ve done now, but even though the speed at which we’ve had to work has sometimes pushed that fear to the back, it has remained like an undercurrent to each call, each touch, each breath, each mouthful of food, and each time I’ve fought the urge to scratch an itch on my face, my eyelid, my neck… really anywhere not covered by PPE. I think that stomach-clenching what if I get it, what if I’m next, what if I’m one of those unlucky ones whose oxygen sats inexplicably plummet on the 10th day, what if I die, what if I never see my family again, what if I get that brain fog and never think straight again has only just faded a little recently, as I got my second vaccine dose.

There’s so much more to tell about that year, and it does feel important to preserve the memories, somehow, but I think I’ll stop here for now.

Photo: the view of a castle from our hike on that very last normal day.

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