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.
March 31, 2021 @ 9:14 am
Happy Birthday fellow Arian! Mine is in 11 days (the big 4-0 ). I had my first Pfizer vaccine March 9th and my second is in 6 days. My 67 yo mother just recently received her second vaccine as well. We bought flights from Denver to Memphis to go visit my sister and nephew. It will be my mother’s first time traveling and seeing her grand child again since the Pandemic started. It’s a shame about the vaccine rollout in E.U., but you could be in worse places during a lockdown!
March 31, 2021 @ 9:17 am
Sounds like a great celebration nonetheless! Just had my 50th a couple weeks ago….only good thing- eligible for and received vaccine yesterday here in Denver. I’m sorry for the delay for you and all the others in Italy and EU who should be getting it before me.
Love the bathrobe!! If I ever get over there I’ll take you to a match on me!
Jane Harris Nellams
March 31, 2021 @ 11:32 am
I have to find a bottle of that wine!
March 31, 2021 @ 12:25 pm
Buon compleanno un po tarde.
Per coincidenza i nostri compleannos sono il stesso giorno, Marzo 29.
I have frequently travelled for 20 yrs to Italy. I decided on Alicante, Spain to retire. Arrived in mid Dec 2020 and am enjoying it as well as trying to get with the culture, though i didnt come wearing rose colored glasses.
I have enjoyed your travelogues
And hope to continue to follow you, hopefully soon. We are better off here than you guys sorry to say. All the best, health and happiness in the coming year. I hope to maybe meet you guys when i get back to Rome.
March 31, 2021 @ 8:46 pm
Buon compleanno John! As much as I adore Rome, I don’t envy you right now. What a mess! The vaccines are rolling out nicely here in the States. I got both doses over a month ago – not a single side effect. Now even teens can get them and I checked with my high school students today and several have already gotten their first dose. I pray the world gets vaccinated and opens up soon and am glad to hear you were able to still celebrate your birthday. P.S. Love the robe!
April 1, 2021 @ 12:09 am
Tanti auguri, John! Keep up the good spirit. My husband and I want to meet you when we’re next in Rome…. God willing, sometime this year.
We’ll toast to your health, and to Italia on Sunday with a nice bottle of Barolo! Salute!
April 1, 2021 @ 11:55 am
Happy Birthday, John. Glad you and Marina are well and hope you both get the vaccine soon. I turned 64 on March 9, and am fully vaccinated, which should keep those-high flying condors at bay a while longer. I bet the Barolo helps cure your “limp” better than the Tachipirina!
April 2, 2021 @ 10:36 am
Happy Birthday, John! I too will be celebrating 65 this month and receiving my first vaccination felt like a birthday present. Thanks for sharing all that you do. I found your blog when my daughter announced she and her boyfriend would be teaching at the International School in Rome for the year. You have given me an honest insight as to what you all are experiencing which has given me some comfort. Despite the restrictions, she and her boyfriend have made the best of their time this year. Since they were unable to travel as planned, they have signed up for one more year. Hopefully the vaccines are distributed soon to make it possible! All the best to you and Marina!
April 5, 2021 @ 3:05 am
Tanti Auguri John,
Perfect lockdown birthday celebrations. You and Marina certainly know how to celebrate in style. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
I found your birthday Barolo at a wine merchant in Melbourne and am looking forward to presenting it to my Barolo loving husband.
Greetings from the Mornington Peninsula. Here we are surrounded by vineyards and beaches and crossing our fingers we don’t have to face anymore lockdowns.
Thinking of you all….fingers crossed for the vaccine roll out.
April 5, 2021 @ 1:25 pm
Happy Birthday John! I hope you can get the vaccine soon. I just received my second Pfizer shot on Friday.