Interview: An Australian in Italy Details What Life is Like During Lockdown


As Australia is beginning to feel the full effects of the coronavirus pandemic, there are many communities around the world who have been dealing with the virus for a lot longer.

Like many Australians, I have been keeping up to date with our global community via Facebook, and joined a group on Facebook called The Kindness Pandemic (which I highly recommend you join.)

The group has all sorts of posts with people doing amazing things for one another, and most importantly, spreading kindness and love in a world of uncertainty.

It was here that I came across an Australian living in Italy, who shared her story.

55-year-old artist, writer and editor, Felicity Griffin Clark, is currently living in Rome with her husband William and dog, Poppy.

Taking to the group, Griffin Clark decided to share what life is currently like in Italy — a country, which at the time of publication has 59,138 coronavirus cases and 5,476 deaths.

The post garnered more than 34k likes and 16k shares in 24 hours and prompted her to start her own Facebook page called Lockdown Letters – living in Rome during the quarantine.

Griffin Clark spoke with me to give us some more insight into life in Rome, which has seen a dramatic change in the past few months.

Rome. Supplied.

Anita Lyons: Ciao Felicity! Thank you for sharing your story. Firstly, why did you move to Rome?

Felicity Griffin Clark: We came here at the end of 2016. My husband is English and had been away for a long time. He was ready to move back to Europe.

We both love Rome and every time we visited we would do the usual tourist thing and imagine what it would be like to live here. That slowly turned into a plan to make it happen and then the Brexit referendum happened which sped up the whole process. It was now or never!

So we decided to just do it. We arrived at the end of 2016 and had the first exhibition in our gallery, Counterweave Arts in July 2017.

AL: What was life like in Rome before the virus?

FGC: Life in Italy really good! It is an easy place to live. The food is fantastic and cheap, and the cost of living is lower than in Australia. It’s also easy and cheap to travel within Europe and even stepping outside the apartment you are instantly surrounded by beautiful things.

It helps that Italians are very friendly, very kind and welcoming. They are very forgiving of people trying to learn the language and will gently and encouragingly correct your mistakes.

As an artist I love it. I love that art is an everyday part of life here. It’s not separate or elite.

AL: When did you first hear about the virus in Italy and what were your initial thoughts?

FGC: We were aware of the virus when it hit China and even when it appeared in Italy, like most people, we thought it sounded like a particularly bad flu. We just weren’t that concerned. It wasn’t a bad winter for flu in Italy and neither of us and been sick. It wasn’t until the scale of the catastrophe in the north became clear that we changed our minds.

AL: Italy is currently in lockdown, what does that mean for you? What is allowed and what is not allowed?  

FGC: The Italian government acted quickly and responsibly as soon as it became clear how serious and virulent this virus is.

Lockdown means you must stay at home as much as possible. You are allowed to go out for essential trips like buying food or medicine, for exercise or to walk the dog. You can’t socialise with friends but you are allowed to check in on elderly relatives and take them food.

When you leave the house you must carry your identity documents and a signed form saying that you are not infected with the virus, and what your business is being outside. Police and soldiers are patrolling the streets checking people’s papers and encouraging them not to stay too long away from home. You’re supposed to stay in your neighbourhood unless you have a good reason to leave it. We’re not allowed to leave Rome.

Shops, restaurants and cafes are all closed. Only food shops, pharmacies and essential services are still open. Only a few people are allowed inside at one time and everyone must queue a metre apart out on the pavement.

Parks, museums and archaeological sites are all closed.

AL: With the news getting worse and worse each day, how are you feeling about it?

FGC: Of course people here are scared. We have good days and weepy days when it feels overwhelming and just too much to bear. I’m trying to balance reading enough daily news to stay informed (especially about the lockdown) but not so much that you fall into an anxiety spiral. Because that helps no one.

AL: How are you staying well and staying sane indoors?

FGC: I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have checked in to see how we are. I’ve had messages from people I haven’t seen in ages and I talk to my family almost every day and let them know how things are.

We’re doing all we can to stay well. We’re eating good fresh food and trying to sleep — although that isn’t easy. And we get out of the apartment a couple of times a day.

Luckily I’m used to working at home. My studio is in the apartment and I do all the gallery work here too. It’s odd not being able to just pop out to the shops or a museum or to see friends. It’s really strange not to have an aperitivo, a meal or a coffee out when you feel like it.

I’m trying to follow my normal routine and I have a long-term art project to focus on. I make sure to get dressed, wear makeup and try to live as normal as life as possible.

And playing a lot of indoor soccer with the dog to make up for the walks she’s missing! Usually, she has three or four walks a day but that’s been cut down to two.

Felicity Griffin Clark. Supplied.

AL: When you go outside for walks and to get groceries, do you wear a mask?

FGC: Our masks only arrived today so I’m still getting the hang of wearing mine and being able to make myself understood to the dog as it has a bit of a muffling effect. Even though it’s not required to wear a mask, it feels like an act of solidarity to wear one now.

AL: What is your biggest concern about the virus?

FGC: Of course I’m worried that we might get sick or that my family will get sick or worse and I won’t be able to get back to Australia. But so much of that is out of my control.

And apart from the tragic deaths that are happening, I am worried about the effect on the health system. Italy has a fantastic public health system. Doctors here are incredibly thorough and dedicated. But the number of people needing serious levels of care is becoming too much for the system to bear.

I’m also worried about the economic impact as Italy is very dependent on the tourist dollar and the streets are bare.

AL: I know there is a huge sense of community at the moment — what can you tell me about that?

FGC: There is an incredible community spirit in Italy. I didn’t know such solidarity was possible.

No one is panicking, no one is stockpiling. People wait quietly in line to go into supermarkets and pharmacies. The supermarket shelves look pretty much as they always do.

There is great pride in being Italian and of having survived worse than this. Italy suffered terribly during and after World War II which is still fresh in people’s memories. The high density of apartments means everyone knows each other. At midday, people come to the windows and balconies and applaud the medical staff. At 6pm they come back to sing and play music and for a little while be together. I saw a video of a neighbourhood singing happy birthday to a little boy who couldn’t have a birthday party.

Led by the Prime Minister there is a huge campaign across the country to look after and encourage each other through this. Everyone is sharing the slogan “Andrà Tutto bene'” which means: “everything will be fine”.

Flags, homemade banners and posters with Andrà tutto bene’ hang from windows.

People are checking on each other and offering a virtual shoulder to cry on and encouraging words to keep going. A friend has started a lockdown book club and we’re meeting by Skype once a week to share what we’re reading.

“No one is panicking, no one is stockpiling. People wait quietly in line to go into supermarkets and pharmacies. The supermarket shelves look pretty much as they always do.”

AL: What are you grateful for at the moment and is there a silver lining?

FGC: Even though I get homesick, I’m grateful to be in a country where people are kind and the government is taking clear, firm action and keeping us informed every day of what’s going on.

I’m grateful to have so many family and friends who are being incredibly supportive. It’s also great to have modern technology where I can stay in touch with people and easily stay informed.

I have also been really surprised by the speed with which nature is retaking the city. We live right near the Colosseum and the Forum and I walk Poppy down Via Fiori every day. Instead of crowds of tourists and buskers, the street is almost empty. For the first few days, it was silent. Now all you can hear is birdsong. There are butterflies and more bees than I have seen for a long time. The air is clean. You can smell warm grass, the blossom on the bay trees and even parsley!

Poppy. Supplied.

AL: What message do you have for everyone back home?

FGC: My main message is to remember that you have a choice in how to act at this time. You can choose every minute of every day if you’re going to be calm or freaking out; if you’re going to be selfish or kind. You can choose to give in to despair or not.

Things can change quickly — what you think you know, the way you experience in your life today can suddenly be turned upside down.

AL: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

FGC: We’re ok. The virus hasn’t hit Rome as badly yet but that could change any day. It’s OK to be scared, we’re all scared. But we are not giving in to despair.

Andrà tutto bene!

Felicity Griffin Clark is an artist, writer and editor and runs a small gallery in Rome called Counterweave Arts.

The current health crisis is evolving rapidly. If you suspect you or a family member has coronavirus you should call (not visit) your GP or ring the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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