Italy’s coronavirus lockdown for expats: Tears, loneliness and loved ones far away

Katy Terro of Beirut on her way to grocery shopping near her home in Rome.

The sidewalk cafes tempt you like the Sirens from a nearby shore. You can feel the sun’s warmth on your balcony but you can’t feel the sea. The last time you did the Italian double-cheek kiss was with your cat.

Welcome to Porto Quarantina. Life in Italian lockdown is harder than most places. We live in the most beautiful country in the world but feel no closer to it than if we were quarantined in Des Moines. Look but don’t touch; read but don’t experience.

It’s an adjustment 60 million Italian residents have made. Some, obviously, struggle more than others with health, death, finances. But one subset of us struggles in ways Italians can’t comprehend.

We expats are a long way from our roots. We can’t huddle with our families. The language is a daily challenge. Even if we can communicate, there are few people with whom to communicate. We all came here for adventure, for opportunity, for love. Every day we try to assimilate into a foreign society. Yet every day we drift farther into our own little worlds.

Coronavirus tougher in Italy

Yes, expats face the same all over the world. However, we in Italy are different. Italy was the first country to put an entire nation in lockdown. We locked March 9. Today is my Lockdown Day 44. I’m starting to put parmesan on cereal.

I recently reached out to some fellow expats and asked how they’re doing. We commiserated. We compared notes. We discussed hope. They come from all over. Beirut. Hong Kong. Austria. Canada. New Jersey. One came just for school and can’t get home. Another is pregnant with a husband stuck on a cruise ship off California.

Most have hit the wall.

Annamaria Borelli

“In the beginning, I was all positive,” said Annamaria Borelli, a 33-year-old teacher from Ocean Township, N.J. “Now I’ve had enough.”

Said Katy Terro, a 24-year-old student from Beirut: “It’s very depressing. I’ve had a really rough 10 days. I’m in the worst moods. I’m randomly crying. It just feels so much like a prison. But at least in prison you have some people to talk to.”

Distance is a huge part of the expats’ equation. It’s not a big factor for me. I left home in Eugene, Ore., in 1978 and never moved back. I traveled the world while working in Denver for 23 years. I retired to Rome for good in 2014. But for many, the family lifeline is as important as the daily cappuccino.

Borelli, whose grandparents came from Puglia and who grew up speaking Italian, moved to Rome in 2010 to attend John Cabot University and stayed. She teaches pre-school and is a jazz singer on the side. She’s not emotionally attached to Ocean Township — “I hate it,” she said. — but is attached to her family.

“Not having the opportunity to get back I feel trapped,” she said. “I like Italy and I like Rome. Anytime I need I can get a taxi, get on a plane and go home. Now with this crisis I can’t go home. Not having this option is really hard. I can’t get out of here. It makes it worse.”

Terro has been in Rome for only 17 months. She came to get a masters degree in food security and human development. The degree included an internship which required clerical work. She loved the job, the interaction with co-workers. But she had no intention of staying in Rome. Then the coronavirus hit.

After only two weeks at work, she was no longer allowed in the office.

“The first 20 days were OK,” she said. “It was fine. Ah, time to relax. I was doing a lot of productive things. I worked from home. I read books. I wrote in my blog. I learned to cook. I thought I’d be able to keep it up.

“Then I hit the wall. I started waking up very depressed. I had zero energy or will to do anything. I had books to read but no motivation.”

Lockdown in Italy through May 3

Because Italy was the first country to lock down, it’s one of the first to extend it, too. The latest extension is through May 3. Then we can move around the city more. But restaurants will remain closed until May 18. Fitness clubs May 31.

Travel? No one knows. Local officials told us to not make any summer travel plans. I’ve already cancelled trips to Spain, Puglia and Germany. Next on the batting tee: Greece in August. I’m not even counting on Finland for Christmas.

“It seems so hopeless,” Terro said. “It’s why I’m planning on leaving for home as soon as I can. It’s been 45 days home alone. Literally no human interaction.”

Alycia Reynolds of Nova Scotia at home in Puglia.

Some expats are not only a long ways from home, but a long ways from loved ones in Italy. Alycia Reynolds, 38, came to Italy from Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, a year ago and is living in her husband’s hometown of Molfetta, Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot. Her husband worked on a cruise ship off California during the coronavirus. He was expected to return two weeks ago but Pres. Trump blocked cruise ship crewmen to disembark for flights out of the U.S.

Everyone on the ship tested negative, she said, and they can only return if the cruise ship company charters a flight. However, it isn’t financially feasible.

She’s five months pregnant. Her prenatal appointments were cancelled for 11 weeks.

“This has been very worrisome as I was deemed high risk and have had no reassurance from my Drs that things are ok and my unborn child is healthy,” she wrote in an email. “Luckily I do have some family members that are Drs in Canada and they have helped me with any concerns I have had.”

With no husband, however, she must do everything alone. That includes standing for long lines at the supermarket.

“I have tried to go as soon as they open so I do not have to stand in line for too long as I once had to stand for more than an hour and a half,” she wrote. “With being pregnant this has caused issues since I am not allowed to exercise outside. I find it hard to breathe with the required masks on and had an incident last week where I almost fainted while waiting in line.”

Maria Seriakov at home during lockdown.

Meanwhile, Maria Seriakov, a Bulgarian-raised Austrian citizen who’s a consultant for Biotech, came to Rome to work on a second home which she and her husband bought in September. When the lockdown hit, her husband was stuck in Austria. Their daughter in Berlin ran out of money. Sariakov, 54, has a visual lunch with her husband every day. She last kissed him Feb. 29.

“Life alone is both a blessing and a curse,” she wrote. “Staying in contact with everybody indeed and still having this weird feeling that something is very wrong. For a couple of hours every day. People are telling me that I am lucky as the distance helps my husband and myself avoid the inevitable conflicts that most of the couples have to deal with.

“And yet.”

In the meantime, we have a lot of time to kill. I miss my gym but also tired of my own cooking which isn’t a bad combination. Some, such as Seriakov, can work from home. Borelli does a few English lessons online.

But it’s not the same.

“I try to get up late to make the day shorter,” Borelli said. “Today I got up at 9. I clean my room, a deep clean. I go out and exercise. I eat lunch. The problem with me is at 4 o’clock I crash. I’m depressed. I can’t do anything. It’s the same thing every day.”

Katy Terro longs to see the Colosseum again.

Terro’s is similar. She wakes up, checks her phone, is on her laptop for a couple of hours and she cleans around the house. She exercises.

“I go to my terrace to pretend I’m outside the house,” she said. “At the beginning you’re fooling your brain in thinking, ‘Ah, this is going to be good. It’ll be fine. I need to relax.’ Then you notice how much food you eat and that starts to get to you. You’re in quarantine. You can’t move. You’re gaining weight. That’s more mental disturbance you don’t need.”

Reynolds can relate, tenfold.

Finding positives possible

“I have been trying to find positive things each day. Yet I am finding it harder and harder,” she wrote. “Walking is the best exercise for pregnancy and since I am unable to do so my joints and muscles are having a hard time adjusting to my growing belly, even with what I am able to do inside. Also, since the lockdown has started I have grown out of my regular clothes. Not only are there no stores open, but it is getting harder and harder to find places online that are delivering to our location.

“Very soon I will have nothing other than my husband’s PJs that fit me.”

Is the lockdown too much? Must we really wait until May 4 to unlock our chains, another month before we can sit down at a restaurant? The curves for positive cases and deaths in Italy are beginning to flatten. However, scientists maintain the public numbers aren’t as high as the reality, considering many with the virus haven’t been tested and others have died at home without getting tested.

Eva St. Onge, a 10-year Rome resident from Hong Kong, is a science teacher at an international school who has a more learned outlook on it than most. She doesn’t believe the lockdown should end too soon or we’re “just going to have a second wave of the outbreak.” I asked her what she thinks of the way Italy has dealt with the pandemic.

“Italy has handled this the best they can,” she said. “I like the fact that they’re sneakily but also smartly phasing in all these restrictions.”

It has been a long six weeks, however, Last week I managed to walk around Centro Storico and found it more beautiful than ever. The streets were so clean you could eat off them. The sky, with little traffic, looked like what I see in Scandinavia. It was haunting but knowing that my fellow Roman citizens had adhered to the edict and stayed inside encouraged me.

Recently Borelli went to the emergency room then took a taxi through the city.

“It was so beautiful at night, so clean,” she said. “It was quiet and it was sad. At the same thing it was positive seeing Rome clean. It’s like a woman you haven’t seen for a long time and she’s lost 40 pounds: ‘What happened to you? You look great?’ Where am I? It was like ‘The Twilight Zone.’”

Eva St. Onge used the lockdown to paint her stairs.

Positives can be found inside the home as well. For St. Onge, 48, loneliness isn’t a problem. She has a roommate and online interaction with her students.

The lockdown has given her a break from life.

“With more free time, it frees up some space in my brain,” said St. Onge who added she has not experienced any racism for being Chinese. “We don’t have to deal with traffic and going to work. The fact is I can’t go anywhere. It just makes us stay very focused where we are. For me, that’s wonderful. That’s something I’ve never done before. I’m forced to do this. But I see how great it is.”

She has time to do projects she has long put off. She bought a house near the Colosseum seven years ago and has wanted to paint the stairs ever since. She bought paint and a brush and never touched them again.

Until now.

“It took almost a good half hour of stirring to mix up the paint again but I did start painting it,” she said. “Painting the stairs is an interesting example because we do have to go through the stairs to get out of the house. So now we’re stuck in the house and not being allowed to go outside gives me the motivation to finally paint it.”

People have found more importance in relationships, friendships. Stock in Zoom, Skype and Whatsapp must be skyrocketing. Even neighbors are meeting each other for the first time.

Terro was tanning on her terrace when three young female neighbors asked her if they could tan with her. In exchange they offered her a glass of sangria.

“No one had looked at me, ever,” she said. “I had no eye contact with anyone on the street. If they see you talking, police jump on you. They offered me a drink. ‘Thank you so much!’ It was 40 days all by myself. It was so sad, it made me cry.”

Said Seriakov: “I learned a lot during the quarantine, how wonderful and human people are, how much comfort they can give you, even from the balcony. On Saturday night my neighbors sent me a lovely Easter cake. I cried.

“No matter how tough the quarantine is, Rome and the Romans are giving me a lot. And the wisdom that came along with the difficult time is nothing one can buy with money.”