ROME – The city I have lived in for the last two decades has changed more in the last few days than it did during the more than 20 years that came before.
Everyone knows Rome is a beautiful place. It also has great food and unmatched cultural riches. But what I like most about it is that it feels like a one big, friendly neighborhood. You run into someone you know, kiss-kiss. A friendly hand on the shoulder. An arm around the back.
“Ciao bello,” someone says. “Un caffe? Come va?”
The city went under coronavirus lockdown Monday night and then rules were tightened Wednesday to a degree never seen in Europe during peacetime.
Soon after, piazzas that echoed laughter and the barking of dogs went silent. Tourists disappeared. Museums, restaurants, churches, archeological sites, schools, cinemas, coffee bars – all closed.
Sporting events canceled. Weddings and funerals outlawed. Nobody can leave their homes without a signed document saying they know the risks they are taking by being out. People who pass in the streets look down and give each other a wide berth. Rome is no longer Rome.
For me, a personal transformation started a few days earlier. When the news of the first lockdown hit I was already under self-quarantine on fears that I might have been infected by coronavirus.
That story started 300 miles to the north in Milan:
Wednesday, March 4
I was on my way back to Rome from Milan by train.
Milan is Italy’s vibrant economic capital, but when I was there the city was decimated. I spoke to business leaders about the impact the outbreak was going to have on their economy.
“This will pass,” shopkeeper Pietro Cerullo told me. “It’s tough now. People are scared. We just need to hunker down and get through it. Come back at the end of the month.”
The previous day, Italy’s Ministry of Health announced that 2,263 people in Italy had been infected with the coronavirus, an increase of nearly 500 from the day before. A total of 79 were dead. The vast majority of the infected cases were in or near Lombardy, the region that includes Milan, though Milan itself was largely spared.
Thursday, March 5
Back in Rome, I attended an informal diplomatic function. There, for the first time, I met someone – a ranking official with the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – who refused to shake anyone’s hand as a way to avoid infection. He tapped elbows instead, though after a few drinks he shook everyone’s hand before leaving.
Rome had been gearing up for a world-class exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Renaissance master painter Raphael set to open on this day. It would show off the largest single collection of his works ever collected. But the opening was postponed.
Friday, March 6
This was the first day that all 20 of Italy’s regions had at least a few cases of coronavirus. There were 3,916 infected people nationally. But Lazio, the region that includes Rome, had just 54 cases. The problems in Milan seemed far away.
I hadn’t slept much the previous few days and that morning I woke up with a bit of a sore throat and a slight fever. I took a couple of ibuprofen and went to my home office.
Saturday, March 7
Nicola Zingaretti, the 54-year-old president of the Lazio region and president of one of the country’s two largest political parties, reported he had been infected by coronavirus. “Well, it’s come to me,” Zingaretti said in a video posted to social media. He said he felt fine and would work from home.
That afternoon I had a phone interview with Massimo Galli, one of Italy’s top virologists. At the end of the interview, I asked whether Zingaretti was being overly cautious. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Anyone showing symptoms should be tested. This is serious.”
My sore throat had developed into a slight cough and my fever was a little more than a degree above normal. I mentioned it to Galli and he easily persuaded me to get tested.
The test itself is easy: a swab inside the mouth, a test of my blood pressure and temperature. I was out in 10 minutes. The doctor’s advice: Stay at home for two or three days until I could receive the results. The waiting is harder.
I had to debate whether or not to tell my mother, Nieves, back in Florida. She’s approaching 80 and originally from the Dominican Republic. I worried she might overreact. But I also complain to my family when they don’t tell me about their medical issues.
When I told her she began to cry, as if I’d received a death sentence. When I was an infant in the 1960s, my older brother died at the age of three. My mother gathered her strength and declared that God wouldn’t take two children from her. She decided to ask her church to pray for me the next day.
Sunday, March 8
Very early that morning, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte issued strict lockdown orders for a huge swath of northern Italy representing 16 million people – more than a quarter of the country’s population and nearly half of its economic output.
A few hours before the decree went into effect, word leaked and thousands of locals loaded up their cars or boarded trains to head south. One woman in Milan paid a taxi driver nearly $1,500 to be driven to Rome. Without a doubt many of those who left the north carried the coronavirus with them.
After church, my mother called and said people were praying for me in Florida and in the Dominican Republic. Her voice clearly trembled when she spoke, but she said her heart told her I’d be OK.
That evening riots broke out at 27 different prisons across Italy after officials halted visitation rights and delayed furloughs and parole hearings. By the time they concluded, 10 people were killed, buildings were burned, and guards were taken hostage. It was the most widespread prison unrest on record in Italy.
Monday, March 9
This was the first day I might have received my test results, but there was no word. My mother called me around 11 a.m. my time – 6 a.m. for her – and breathed out a frustrated sigh when I told her I wouldn’t know until at least the following day.
That morning I did an on-air interview from my home office with “Your Morning,” a television program in Canada. The host was more interested in what it felt like to be under quarantine than on the latest developments in the country.
The big news hit that night around 10 p.m. local time when Conte, the prime minister, announced a nationwide lockdown, effective the following morning. Restaurants and coffee bars would have to close by 6 p.m. local time.
But overall, the rules were vague: Would people be allowed to leave their houses at all? Would supermarkets be open? How would the rules be enforced?
I weighed my options and decided to leave the house and go to a 24-hour supermarket a few miles away to load up on supplies, despite my quarantine. There was a line when I got there: one worker played the role of a bouncer; we could only enter as others left. I stayed far from people in line and after an hour I was in.
Tuesday, March 10
Around 30 minutes before I was scheduled to go back on the air with “Your Morning” I called the hospital again. “Just a minute,” the nurse said. I could hear paper shuffling. “Letto, Livorno, Lupo, Luzzi. Ecco” – here it is – “Lyman. Do you want me to open it up? I did. “You’re OK,” she said after a moment. “You just have a cold.”
I had been calm since I took the test and could be relied on to tell my friends to be calm, but the good news hit me like a wave. I began to cry. It was the middle of the night in Florida, but after a minute I wanted my mother to see the good news as soon as she woke up. I wrote to her in Spanish: “I’m fine. They sent the results. I only have a cold.”
A moment later I got the call from “Your Morning” and went on air. Everyone I spoke to from the show – people I had never even talked to a day earlier – was relieved at the news of my test results. The interview went by in a flash.
While on air I got a text message, but I couldn’t look to read it. It was from my mother. My message arrived at 5:34 a.m. for her, but she was awake, waiting to hear from me. “Thank God everything turned out fine,” she wrote back, also in Spanish. “My heart wasn’t wrong. Keep taking care of yourself to get rid of that cold. I feel like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Speak later. I love you.”
“Oh, mom … get to sleep,” I wrote back. “I love you too.”
Thursday, March 12
The night before, Conte upped the ante, announcing an even stricter lockdown. Everything would be closed except for grocery stores, pharmacies, and, curiously, tobacco shops. Police would begin checking the documents of anyone in the streets.
By this day, the death toll from the virus in Italy reached four digits for the first time, at 1,016. Total infections were 12,839 and the number of cured was 1,258.
This was the first morning I couldn’t go to my neighborhood coffee bar. I took my dog for a walk, staying close to home. A woman I’d seen and said hello to for years waited for me to descend a wide staircase before she started her way up so as to avoid being near each other. When I got to the bottom I said hello, but she looked away.
By then I was already mourning the disappearance of the city I knew for more than 20 years.