Love in the Time of Corona: An American Traveler Survives Italian Lockdown, and Finds True Love
In November 2019, I saw my immediate future as I had known it for several years: after working for 10 months, stashing away some money, it was time to travel the world.
But the times were changing, and as it was with Bilbo Baggins, warning his nephew in Lord of the Rings, so it was with me: “You step out onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.”
Arriving in Namibia in December to trek among the dunes, I met an intriguing Italian woman always with three young black children flitting about her. It was for their diversion that one morning on the beaches of the city of Swakopmund, she asked if I would have dinner with the four of them. This dinner consisted of a bizarre cast of characters, and led to a strange enough little game of flirtation between she and I that I eventually followed the four of them back to the capital of Windhoek.
The woman, Mara, began visiting Namibia after she became a sponsor, contributing money for school and living expenses, through a remote adoption program 4 years prior. She had been making annual visits there to visit the kids, Barack, Augusto, and Otilie.
There was a strength in the way she cared for those children — who were not hers and whom she saw so irregularly. It drew me to her, such that when she invited me to visit her in Italy she had only to wait 37 hours before a picture of my flight receipt arrived in our WhatsApp chat.
Northern Italy – and a rumor from China
The story of Mara and I will always remain indelibly linked to the now-infamous virus for several important reasons, but when I arrived in the Milan airport on January the 15th, the rumor of a new SARS epidemic in China could not have been less-interesting to me. More interesting was the fact that Mara, a disciplined Italian lawyer, welcomed a vagabonding American writer wearing jungle clothes, whose boots hung by their laces from his rucksack, where he stowed souvenirs from Ghana (and unbeknownst to him at the time, an overly-ripe, exploded mango).
This recipe for relationship disaster took a turn for the even-less advisable when they immediately moved in together in a studio apartment in a small village around 45 minutes from Milan.
Things progressed tentatively until they planned a spontaneous trip to Venice, arriving on the 28th of February—the opening day of Carnival, the theme of which was “Love, Games, and Folly,” strangely enough.
As colored barges floated fire and acrobats down the canals, I felt like 2020 would be a really amazing year. And then COVID-19 hit…
A group of tourists had just arrived from China in the famous city carrying SARS-CoV-2 which torched a devastating pandemic that spread throughout Italy like a California wildfire.
My friends, neighbors, and Mara’s family, all went through several stages of denial, noting that most of those dead were very old people or those with cancer — my neighbor Carlo added that the average age of patients who died from COVID-19 was higher than the average age of death among Italians.
But, it became worse and worse, and slowly the reality sunk in that this was not something the old, dysfunctional, indebted Italian bureaucracy was capable of containing. And so some of the strictest quarantine measures on earth came down upon us, right as my tourist visa was expiring.
Too unnerved by tales of a 3.4% mortality rate to buy a plane ticket home, I remained in Italy until it got so bad that, even in the countryside, we were prohibited from going 200 meters beyond our front door — Bilbo would be appalled — while masks were required at all times, even in the middle of an open field.
The best worst year ever
Our proximity forced us to learn to understand one another. But, I remember one monumental fight where I was certain that it was over, only to open my laptop and discover I could not continue my travels — I could go nowhere, since nowhere was operating flights to and from Italy.
The storm would eventually pass, but, meanwhile, Mara and I, unlike many of her civil clients who had sought divorce during the lockdowns, had grown closer. What was required when trapped all day at home during a quarantine isn’t so different from what is required to forge a healthy marriage, I reckon.
COVID-19 created and enforced the conditions for our love to grow into a partnership that is now pending international recognition.
At the time of this writing, an uptick of summer holidaying across the country, specifically the reopening of nightclubs, brought about a small outbreak in Sardinia of around 270 cases which swelled the national number of new cases to around 1,500 per day, but little else in the country of 60 million. The once-empty streets of places like Verona, Naples, and Milan, are bustling with shoppers, diners, and travelers from all across Europe. Life has returned to normal.
Mara and I got married in her hometown on the August 31st and—with airline tickets ready to visit my Virginia home for my brother’s wedding in October, and again at Christmas—2020 will be, for me personally, a year that will be very hard to beat.