Birthday in Lockdown Italy
In lieu of travel, my birthday was lunch and dreams and praying for a vaccine
Since moving to Rome in 2014, birthdays have never been dates of dread. I don’t see them as another year older. At my age, 65, they blend together, like cards in an ever-growing deck. Instead, birthdays in Rome are dates for adventure. Every birthday, on or around March 29, Marina and I head off to a destination of my choice. Rome is in the geographic middle of one of the most interesting regions in the world. We’re a three-hour flight from Scandinavia, one hour and 15 minutes from Tunisia, 2:40 from Istanbul.
Every birthday, I do the obligatory inventory of my moving parts then we fly to a birthday holiday. Lisbon. Beirut. Sicily twice. Before dating Marina, I spent my 59th birthday in Delhi. We do the same on Marina’s birthday in June. Berlin. Oslo. Nice. Menorca. Why hate birthdays when you use them as an excuse to eat seafood by the Mediterranean, lay on a beach in Spain or smoke a hookah with some cool Lebanese? Beats sitting home and blowing out enough fiery candles to scare off high-flying condors.
But having a birthday in lockdown Italy is different. Here in Italy we can’t go anywhere. Oh, we can. We can fly to other European Union countries with minimal restrictions. But we soon must quarantine for five days upon return and, like Italy, nearly every EU country is in some form of lockdown. If I’m going to Paris for the weekend, I’m not sitting in my hotel room eating a baguette.
My birthday fell on Monday. Rome’s Lazio region was red, the highest level of restrictions. All bars and restaurants are closed except for takeout or delivery. No travel outside your neighborhood except for “essential reasons.” One must carry a self-auto declaration form stating your contact information and reason for leaving home.
Try celebrating a birthday alone in a city that attracts 9 million tourists a year and a global pandemic has reduced it to a scene from “Mad Max.”
Last year’s birthday arrived when Italy became the first country in the world to go into lockdown. I sat on my couch alone and drank a bottle of Barolo while toasting on a Whatsapp video call with Marina sitting home five miles away. I never drink at home alone. For me, drinking always represented a celebration, of either a good day’s work done, the company of good friends or, of course, birthdays. After getting quietly shitfaced by myself last year, I have taken a more firm grasp on that policy, like never leave the stove on after cooking greasy sausage.
This second lockdown is different. Rome residents are getting used to them. We know how to get around the rules. Maybe we’re fed up with being cooped up, but we’re willing to take more chances with the 400-1,000 euro fines for violating the restrictions. Traffic is normal. Public transportation is crowded.
Marina and I even manage to see each other. One of the “essential reasons” for leaving your neighborhood is health. So when we visit, we carry a bottle of Tachipirina, Italy’s Excedrin and its best pain killer. If a cop stops us, as one did Marina, we tell them that our partner hurt his/her leg and can’t make it to the pharmacy. We’re bringing medicine.
So for a week before lockdown I practiced my limp.
We did the same Monday. On a beautiful, sunny, 65-degree spring day in Rome, I took the train to Marina’s. She called Primi Subito, a little food store near her that only does take away. She ordered cheesy lasagna and lean prosciutto with bufala mozzarella, the juicy white balls of cheese shipped up that morning from a sheep farm near Naples. I paid. It’s Italian tradition for the person celebrating to pay for food. That’s why Italian birthday celebrations attract more people than some lower-division soccer matches.
I splurged and bought a 45-euro bottle of Barolo, the one wine I’d drink the night before I get executed. We sat at her tiny, beautifully decorated table next to her big picture window and celebrated our health.
During this pandemic in Italy, that’s not a cliche. This third wave of Covid-19, spiked by the new strain that snuck in from the United Kingdom, has killed more than 108,000 people in Italy. We have the ninth highest per capita death rate in the world, even higher than the U.S. Since Covid hit Italy like a hurricane last March, Marina and I haven’t had a single symptom.
But unlike in the U.S., vaccinations here have been chaos. I can’t blame Italy’s normally bungling bureaucracy. It’s all over Europe. Italy became one of 11 EU countries to block AstraZeneca. Then the EU’s health officials studied it further and declared it safe. By the time Italy renewed the supply lines, 200,000 people missed their vaccinations.
I’ve spent the past two or three months reading about my American friends’ reactions to the vaccine. I have no clue when I’m getting mine. My doctor is my same age and he doesn’t know, either. He estimates that since we’re 65 and over, we’re due for the AstraZeneca sometime in April. The Local, Italy’s lone source of English-based news, reported Monday that Johnson & Johnson will send more than 26.5 million doses of vaccine to Italy, including 7.3 million which should arrive between April and June.
Marina and I didn’t discuss vaccinations Monday. Instead we ate a dessert of Sachertorta, the Austrian chocolate sponge that Marina adores, and continued our daily discussion of future travel. The Maldives. Asturias, Spain. Skiathos, our favorite island in Greece. I brought up Venice, which the pandemic has left more empty and quiet — and cleaner — than it has since maybe before the Venetian Republic.
Right now, they’re still dreams. This current lockdown has our curves heading down but ICU units are getting full. We have a long way to go before our lives aren’t determined by that day’s color code. Tuesday we went to orange, meaning we can travel to other parts of Rome without the self-declaration form. We can have up to two visitors in our homes. But then for Easter weekend Saturday and Sunday all of Italy goes red.
Every two weeks we get new guidelines. It’s like getting new marching orders in a war in which we rarely leave the house.
But I’m healthy and happy with a new bright red A.S. Roma bathrobe to keep me warm. I’m another year older yet don’t feel it. Even if I am limping around my home alone.