Holed up with his family in their Parma flat, our writer tells of the eerie atmosphere in a country usually known for sociability, chaos and fun

Since the whole of Italy was put in quarantine last Monday, it has been surreal here in the northern city of Parma. When you wander around the alleys and squares, you begin to feel like the protagonist of a post-apocalyptic film, constantly asking yourself, “Where is everyone?”

If you do see a solitary human, their reaction is diffidence, if not alarm: they adjust their face mask and move away. The habitual warmth of Italians has been replaced by self-preserving coolness. A very touchy-feely country is now obsessed by personal space.

That eerie sense of living in the end times only increases when you watch the news. Prison riots erupted across the country last week. There was a mass break-out in Foggia (six inmates are still at large). At Milan’s San Vittore prison, black smoke was seen gushing from the windows, and seven inmates died in violence in Modena. The police patrols and blockades only make things feel more ominous.

Free movement within a borderless Europe already seems like a distant memory: there were 90km queues on the Brenner pass (into Austria) last week, and Slovenia has blocked its roads with Italy. It is understandable that Italy, the country with the highest rate of coronavirus infections outside China, should be isolated, but to Italians it feels as if the country is being left to rot. Italy has received more aid from China than from the US or the EU.

Every day the numbers of Italy’s infections and deaths leap by 20% or 30%. Parma is in the Emilia-Romagna region, where so far more than 2,000 people have tested positive and more than 200 have died. In the province of Parma there have been more than 518 cases. One of those, Giovanna, is a close family friend. It feels as if the darkness just keeps getting closer.

The intensive care units are now all full. Hospital wards are spilling out into corridors, tents, car parks, gardens and commercial warehouses. We are hearing words – like “triage” – which are usually associated with warfare. Medics and nurses are having to make decisions on which patients to prioritise. Some doctors have died, and others have compared the numbers of admissions to dealing with “an earthquake every day”.

Part of the weirdness comes from that fact that you can’t go anywhere. Museums, gyms, schools, cinemas and libraries are all closed. Your instinct is to hunker down with the wider family, but all the advice is to stay away from the older generation, who are the most vulnerable to infection. You can’t gather round those who, like Giovanna, are ill. Not even her ailing husband is allowed close to her. You can’t go to church because they, too, are now closed. I would like to head to my mother-in-law’s house in the hills, but we’re not allowed out of the city.

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The Duomo and Battistero in Parma illuminated at dusk. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s amazing how quickly you become used to new habits: not getting in the lift with other people or standing well apart in a queue (normally we’re bunched tight to foil the queue-bargers). When you ask a shopkeeper for a loaf of bread, they put it on the counter then step away. You pick it up, pay and step away. They put your change out and move back as you move forward. You feel like repelling magnets.

Some friends are fretful, washing their hands every half-hour or putting on surgical gloves to open doors. It’s hard not to begin to doubt your own sanity and wonder whether it’s rational to be following all these restrictions and rituals.

Then, last Wednesday night, another emergency decree ramped up the restrictions: all shops, except chemists and food stores, were ordered to remain closed. If you want to leave the house, you now have to print off a document to explain to police your timing, destination and motive.

In some ways it feels a little as you might imagine the Middle Ages. It’s as if we’re inside a city with metaphorical walls where rumours abound: that a friend, Marco, has a rasping cough; that politician Silvio Berlusconi has tested positive; that our kids will have to attend school throughout Italy’s baking summer. And Parma feels medieval because it is so quiet. I’ve never known it so safe to cycle around an Italian city. It’s as if the cars, as well as the humans, are keeping their distance.

So everything feels softer somehow. I never knew there was someone in the next block of flats who played the guitar. You can hear them strumming late at night. The natural world – all the turtle doves and cherry blossom – seems brighter or emboldened. That quietness extends to the football. Watching Juventus v Inter Milan the other night (before Serie A, too, was suspended) you could hear, in the absence of the crowds, almost everything from the actual game: the laces on leather, the players’ groans, shouts and insults. It made them seem mortal, like Sunday league players. Now, of course, several players – Juventus’s Daniele Rugani and the former Southampton (now Sampdoria) striker Manolo Gabbiadini – have tested positive.

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Players from Parma vs Spal prepare to play without spectators in early March, before Serie A was suspended. Photograph: Elisabetta Baracchi/EPA

What’s intriguing is that all the adjectives you might normally use to describe Italy (sociable, excitable, chaotic, undisciplined, polemical, fun and – despite all its troubles – somehow optimistic) have become redundant. It feels completely the opposite: isolated, calm, orderly, obedient, cowed, dour and pessimistic. It’s as if the country has suddenly discovered a different, maybe deeper, side. It’s a sterner, more serious place.

It’s sombre, of course, because there have now been more than 1,200 deaths from Covid-19 in Italy. There’s bafflement at the fact that the mortality rate here is (at time of writing) 7.17% compared with 0.05% in Sweden and 0.2% in Germany. We don’t understand why we’ve got it so bad, whether it’s related to hospital capacity, superbugs, a very aged population, a high proportion of smokers or something else entirely. Nor do we understand why the contagion has spread so fast in Italy: the cases per million of the population is, at 250, far higher than anywhere else in the world: Iran stands at 120, China at 56.

There are also well-founded fears about the Italian economy, which was in deep trouble even before this crisis. The Milan stock market plunged 11% last Monday, then plummeted another 17% on the Thursday. With shops and businesses at a standstill, the government has promised a moratorium on mortgage payments, childcare vouchers for working parents and a suspension of tax payments. The costs of unemployment benefit (the country’s cassa integrazione) is likely to spike. Those measures will cost the treasury an estimated €25bn.

The trouble is that the cupboard is bare. If banks are not receiving mortgage repayments, nor the government its usual tax revenue in spite of soaring expenditure, there will suddenly be a liquidity crisis. The ruthless markets know that: the yields on Italy’s 10-year bonds (a clear indication of the cost of government borrowing) rose more in one day last week than ever before – 50 basis points. Shares in some of Italy’s biggest banks – Intesa and Unicredit – saw double-digit falls. Hence the fury in Italy when the European Central Bank offered no assistance to the country. The response from Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, was close to institutional incandescence. “We need solidarity, not impediments to our actions,” he seethed.

Many of us feel deeply melancholic at the suffering Italy is going through. For all my frustrations with this country, I’m an Italian patriot, obsessed by the underdog heroics of the Risorgimento in the mid-late 19th century, when Giuseppe Garibaldi’s guerrillas fought for Italian reunification against the European super-powers. When they were younger, my kids used to salute Garibaldi every time they passed his statue in Parma’s main square, and I would repeat my favourite Garibaldi line: “Italy will never be wholly without sons [and daughters, I added] who can astound the world.”

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The statue of Garibaldi in Parma’s main square. Photograph: Alamy

So I, too, felt offended at the latest international media coverage. There was a discernible glee in some quarters that the “silly Eye-ties” had messed things up again. “They’ll never follow the rules,” said some.

Prejudices about Italy – assuming that problem was the country itself, and not coronavirus – meant that few people abroad took note when, for weeks, Italian leaders, epidemiologists and journalists urged similarly decisive action across Europe. Even as this slow-motion, medical tsunami was moving towards the UK, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, was sneering at the need for “draconian” measures. We watched in disbelief as thousands of people travelled to watch horse racing in Cheltenham and 3,500 gathered in Paris dressed as smurfs just to break a world record.

From our lockdown in Italy, it seemed at that time as if the world’s addiction to sport, partying and frivolity was blinding it to the most serious pandemic in our lifetimes.

Because actually Italians are very well-informed (some might even say obsessive) about personal health. They learn about plague and contagion at school because two of the classics of Italy’s literary canon – Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, deal with precisely those themes. Italians, on the whole, know far more about hygiene and medicine than their European counterparts. Now that so many other countries are following Italy’s lead – closing schools, universities and sports events – we feel, at least, somewhat vindicated.

Meanwhile, the five of us are all holed up at home. This is the third week our kids have not been to school with, at least, another three to go. They are sent homework by their teachers through the school websites. There are endless technical hitches and there’s barely enough work to fill a morning. Benedetta attends her ballet school online, using a chair as the bar and dancing around her (neither tidy nor spacious) bedroom.

We’re fortunate that we all get along and that Francesca and I both work flexibly or from home. But some families, and couples, are really struggling with being cooped up, and as well as a spike in birth rates later this year, one suspects divorce rates may also rise.

Even for us, this forced time together is subtly shifting the way we all rub along and who does what. With their usual, frenetic hobbies cancelled, the children have a lot of spare time, so we’re shamelessly giving them domestic chores. They’re cleaning the fridge and the windows, mopping the floors and hanging out laundry. I’m also setting them daily challenges with a didactic dad’s earnestness: if they want to watch TV they have to learn the Nato phonetic alphabet (three passes), the names and dates of the Plantagenet monarchs (two passes), how to tie knots (three passes) or a Shakespeare soliloquy (only one pass). I’m learning quite a lot myself.

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The Jones family; Francesca, Emma, Benedetta and Leonardo; play cards at home during the lockdown.
Photograph: Tobias Jones

But you do wonder what’s going through their minds. Quite apart from the fear, they’re dealing with disappointments which, at their age, must seem huge. Benedetta had won, along with her dance troupe, an international ballet competition, the prize for which was to dance in New York in April. That won’t now happen. Emma, Mozart-obsessed, was due to go with her grandmother to the opera house in Giuseppe Verdi’s birthplace, Busseto, to see The Marriage of Figaro. That, too, has been cancelled. She has started playing melancholic Chopin instead of playful Mozart. Leonardo, like me, just longs to be able to play football again. In our manic matches of indoor one-aside, we’ve accidentally pruned the Victoria spiderworts and smashed the odd lightbulb.

They’re finding new passions too. They love playing euchre and blackjack, betting with matchsticks. Leo is teaching himself Spanish and now calls me el padre or hombre. Benedetta is sewing, she says from behind her bedroom door, a suit jacket. Emma is pretending to get fit. It’s all fairly wholesome in a Waltons kind of way. But they are, like us, getting cabin fever. We don’t know when this is going to end or what the outside world will look like when it does.

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There have been eight deaths so far in Parma and, we assume, there will be many more. Parma is a small city. With more than 518 cases, almost everyone has a friend or friend-of-a-friend who is ill. It’s less important, perhaps, but many businesses, too, will go under.

Everyone is trying to be resilient. Children across the country are hanging out paintings on balconies saying andrà tutto bene (everything will be fine). There have been many goosebump moments, like the spontaneous singing of whole streets, the voices joining in complex harmonies through the open windows. There have been laughs: one Roman market stallholder wore a wide, plywood doughnut to guarantee personal distance. But it feels like gallows humour and the songs sound mournful.

Since we’ve been in lockdown, spring has erupted. You can see pinky-white bursts of magnolias lining the empty roads. Daises, primroses and dandelions are suddenly brightening the grass. It even smells like spring. The Parma air is, for once, so clean you can see the snow-capped Apennines from my study. It only makes you keener to get out.

But until this emergency lockdown ends, we will – except for rare excursions – experience the world like prisoners, from the windows of our cells.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. He is the author of Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football

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