What Italy’s Reopening Feels Like

In 58 days, I left my gate twice.

People walk along Milan's canals, some pushing bikes and most wearing masks.
Milan on Friday. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images.

On Sunday evening, there was a strange atmosphere around the house. It felt a bit like the evening before going back to school after summer vacation, or like walking down the hall the first day at a new job: exciting, but also scary. In Italy, Sunday, May 3, was the last day of lockdown after almost two months of total closure of the country, after 30,000 deaths and the worst recession since the Second World War that is gnawing at the fabric of an already crumbling state, despite being the third largest economy in Europe. We, who had the sad trophy of inaugurating the dance of imprisonment in the West, have also had the honor of being among the first—along with Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark—to poke our heads out of our homes.

The lockdown was pretty hard for us. Leaving home was only allowed for essential needs or work, nonessential gatherings were prohibited, schools and nonessential businesses were closed, and so were bars, restaurants, parks, and beaches. There were no quarantine walks here. To go grocery shopping, we needed a self-certification, a paper explaining the motivation of our travel, under penalty of hefty fines. In 58 days, I left my gate twice. We stayed in for real.

On Sunday evening, our thoughts were divided between an unstoppable desire for freedom and the fear of doing something stupid. We had a pulsing need to drink our first cappuccino (for take-away, though, as we are still not allowed to go inside the coffee shops), to meet again with our parents, to see the faces of those who live two or three streets away. We wanted to breathe fresh air and not feel caged up anymore. But on the other hand, there were towers of anxiety building up in our subconscious that were difficult to overcome. What if, like in the worst turns in the game of Life, we found ourselves going back to the start? Going backward, in this case, means going back to 900 deaths a day. How do you live with that fear? Will we get used to this semi-freedom? The curve has lowered, but it can go up again; the virus has not disappeared and continues to kill. We dig, and dig, and dig, to get somewhere else, but we end up always at the same spot: What if I or someone I love gets sick?

To these huge questions, in our chats and phone calls to friends, we added more futile and less dramatic ones: After nearly two months of leggings and striped T-shirts, we went back to asking, “What shall I wear tomorrow?” It’s hard to explain how good it felt to ask ourselves those kinds of questions again.

We talked a lot about how May 4 would have been, a day so highly anticipated and sought after that I believe it has every right to become a national holiday. And then it arrived. The long-awaited phase two began, which on Twitter many ironically called phase 1.5, given the array of restrictions. Over 4 million people have returned to work; now we are allowed to visit the congiunti, people who had almost become mythological creatures in our imagination. The Italian government, led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, explained that by congiunti they mean family members and people with whom we have an “established emotional bond,” a definition that has created many controversies—boyfriends are allowed, but friends are not. It is mandatory to wear masks on public transportation and in closed public spaces, parks are open, people can play sports even far from home, but social gatherings are still banned. Restrictions on funerals have been relaxed, with a maximum of 15 mourners allowed to attend, but Masses and weddings have to wait. Restaurants, bars, and hair salons will only be allowed to reopen on June 1 if things keep going well.

On March 8, we closed the front door wearing wool sweaters. Now we are ready to go out in short sleeves to rediscover a city decorated in spring. On the first day of “freedom,” many people took the opportunity to take a walk, and that’s what I did too. I live in a small town a few kilometers from Milan. Walking my streets again became a strange experience. It was as if every single place regained meaning, a meaning that I had forgotten: I had my first kiss here, I used to skate there, that was the house of my dreams. A friend texted me a photo of Milan Cathedral downtown, and he wrote that he felt like he was on vacation. Another friend told me that when she finally left her house, she had a panic attack. She could not explain why, but outside of her place, she felt overwhelmed and afraid.

In Lombardy, the region in Italy most affected by COVID-19, which is also where I live, wearing masks outside is mandatory. It is strange to see the streets invaded by half-covered faces and curious eyes that seek other eyes to say even a “hello” from afar. There is a hunger for socializing, and I have noticed that everyone greets each other now, even strangers. Of course, children have a hard time following social distancing rules, especially with their peers, and it only takes a second for so-called gatherings to be formed. Children also greatly struggle to keep their masks on, and parents spend half of their time shouting “pull it up,” “don’t touch it with your hands,” and so on. But I haven’t seen them this happy for months.

One of the most beautiful memories from my first day of “freedom” was when my parents and my daughters met. They had not seen one another since the beginning of the pandemic, except through a screen. My oldest was very excited, but the youngest, who is 2½ years old, ran as fast as she could toward her grandmother, jumping around her neck. She embraced her and kissed her while I screamed, “Noooo, don’t kiss her!” Containing that happiness was impossible.

I admit it is strange to hear the noise of traffic and repopulated streets. I realize I will miss the slow and silent times of confinement. It’s amazing how human beings tend to get used to everything, even an unexpected lockdown.

I have the feeling that the new normal will soon just be normal, the masks will become fashionable—we are already seeing them in magazines. Some think that we will forget everything and fall back into our usual life, that nobody will take this opportunity to learn from this experience. I don’t think I’ve changed, beyond being more tired than before; working and managing a family 24/7 can be a nightmare at times. We will all continue to be what we have always been, probably. I have noticed one thing: The sirens from the ambulances have diminished a lot. But every time I hear one, for a few seconds, I fall back to two months ago, when it all started.