My Reflections on Our Time in Italy during Coronavirus

The village of Barolo, our home during our visit

The village of Barolo, our home during our visit

Betsy and I just spent two weeks in Barolo in the Piemonte region in Northwest Italy. When we arrived the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy was just beginning to make the news. I flew into Milan two days before Vice-president Pence announced a Level 4 travel advisory to that city and airlines started canceling flights to the airport.

I will admit at the time I thought the reaction was a bit much. I ran some numbers and the percentage of people diagnosed was well under one percent of the total population. With deaths from disease being only about two percent of that small number, I thought to myself, those were odds I could live with. 

Betsy flew out on February 25. On that day there were only 229 confirmed cases reported in Italy, with 6 deaths. I arrived in Italy on February 28. By that time it had risen to 650 cases and 17 deaths. I was still thinking it was all overblown and I felt safe.

A perfect afternoon at La Vite Turchese

A perfect afternoon at La Vite Turchese

I was more concerned about our friends we have made over the years in Italy. These include owners of bed and breakfasts and restaurants, bus drivers and wine makers, cheese producers and tour guides. All everyone was talking about was the Coronavirus and how it was going to affect their businesses. I felt very bad for them and posted something on Facebook essentially saying that things seemed pretty normal and don’t cancel any travel plans just yet.

Many Italians believed that one of the reasons the numbers were so high for their country was because the government was completely transparent, and they very aggressively tested and reported on the virus. More than one person told us they believed the numbers in surrounding countries like France, Germany, and Spain would be just as high if they were taking the same kind of stand as Italy. At the time they seemed to be blaming the government somewhat for the panic. 

By Sunday, March 1 there were over 1000 confirmed cases in Italy. Still the outbreaks seemed rather isolated. 11 villages and towns in the Lombardy region had been quarantined and completely shut down. Lombardy is home to Milan and the neighboring region to Piemonte.

That first weekend, Barolo seemed normal. It is definitely the off-season but the weekend found the village full of people visiting to stroll the medieval streets, enjoy a meal, and find a bottle or two of Barolo to take home. 

We were staying with our friends Daniela and Franco of La Giolitta Bed and Breakfast. The plan was to stay for a month, work on our Italian, help them with their English, and help a bit around the property. I was enjoying refinishing some beautiful doors and shutters and Betsy was helping with the English version of their website.

Locally the schools had been shut down in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. We observed families playing and picnicking together and even spending time in the vines. Our friends were commenting on how the time together with family was a positive thing but it was beginning to take its toll on working families. Grandparents and other family members were moving in to help watch the kids while parents worked.

We were very lucky to be included in Daniela and Franco’s life for a short time. We met and shared meals with friends who are local wine makers and business owners. The subject of the Coronavirus came up in every discussion. Still, we all seemed to be taking a “This too shall pass” attitude and hopefully things would return to normal sooner than later.

As the week progressed, more and more people were being diagnosed with the disease and still I had hope that it would all be contained and controlled. On Wednesday the government announced that all schools and universities across Italy would be closed until March 15. That later got moved to after Easter, and eventually, indefinitely.

Some of our favorite spots were closed because it was the off-season and the owners were taking some well-deserved time off. Our favorite wine shop, La Vite Turchese opened on Thursday and we enjoyed a glass of wine while catching up with Stefano and Elisabetta. They have a “Keep on Keeping on” attitude. We had planned on many more evenings there.

Betsy and I took advantage of our time in the area to hike nearly everyday. We love walking the rolling hills among the vines. In many of the fields, workers were pruning their vines getting ready for the new season. Several times the skies were clear enough to get good views of the Italian Alps to the west of us.

On Friday, March 7 we went with our hosts to the 10th anniversary of a local restaurant their friends run. When we arrived the place was beginning to fill up. We got some food and wine and headed upstairs to find a seat where we could talk. Some of Daniela and Franco’s friends found us and before we knew it we were surrounded by a group of people who had grown up in the area together. They were laughing and singing songs in Italian and the local dialect. People jokingly bumped elbows or hips in greeting before embracing and kissing on each cheek.

After a while this group of friends moved back to La Giolitta where we shared more food, wine, stories, and songs. It was a great night of camaraderie. In retrospect, it was the only “risky behavior” we engaged in during our trip. We talked briefly about it before we all decided to go but no one felt threatened. No local cases had been reported yet and we felt safe in the relatively isolated towns in the Langhe. That was about to change. 

We started to hear stories of the hospitals in the worst effected areas being over-capacity. Doctors and nurses were doing everything they could just to keep up with people who were experiencing the worst symptoms of the virus. Anyone else was turned away. People with other serious or ongoing conditions were sometimes also being turned away. There are now areas with wartime like triage situations where doctors have to make the awful decision of not treating people who have a low expectation of recovery. 

On Saturday night the government announced a shut down of much of Northern Italy. News leaked before the announcement and apparently in Milan hundreds of people rushed to train stations to catch the last trains to the south of the country.

Many people from the south of Italy come to Milan and the more wealthy regions in the north for work. This announcement caused many people to try to get home to their families. Some leaders from the southern regions asked the people not to return and spread the disease more widely. 

By Saturday, March 8, the number of confirmed cases in Italy had risen to almost 6000 with 234 deaths. The next day there was a dramatic rise with nearly 1500 newly reported cases and 132 new deaths.

Betsy and Franco in the Alta Langa

Betsy and Franco in the Alta Langa

On that day we took a long hike in the Alta Langa, the higher hills to the east of the wine producing area. It was a great day, but our last bit of comfort on this trip.

On Monday the government locked down the whole country. No travel around the country. All schools closed. Restaurants only open until 6:00 pm with customers needing to keep a two-meter distance from each other. All cinemas closed. People urged to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

Franco, who works for an elevator maintenance company, was sent home and put on call for the foreseeable future.

Several people told us this lock down by the government was a reaction to the Italian people who spent the weekend traveling around the country. In spite of all the warnings, apparently many people from heavily populated areas in the north spent the unusually nice weekend traveling to the Ligurian coast or up to the mountains to ski.

And the numbers just kept climbing. On Monday it was announced that nearly 1800 new cases had been reported bringing the total number to 9172 with 463 deaths. 

On Tuesday, Betsy and I made the difficult decision to leave Italy. In the two weeks from when we started our trip, the number of confirmed cases had risen from 229 on February 25 to over 10,000. The number of people who had died rose from 6 to 631. Today those numbers are 21,157 and 1441 respectively.

We were supposed to spend April in Geneva visiting one of our good friends from Canada who lives there now. We were still hoping to visit and dog sit for her while she traveled with her mom. But she wasn’t expecting us until the beginning of April and already had a house full of guests. 

Our home in France for a couple days

Our home in France for a couple days

Luckily she has a college friend who has an organic farm in France where we spent a few days waiting for her place to open up.

Then came Wednesday night. Chelsea called us at about 2:30 AM our time to tell us that President Trump had announced a travel ban for all people coming from Europe. He forgot to mention this didn’t include US residents. We didn’t find that out until the next day.

Now in panic mode ourselves, we spent the wee hours of the morning trying to find a flight back home. Flights jumped up in price and sold out quickly as soon as he made the announcement. Chelsea tried to call Aer Lingus for us from the States because we couldn’t get through from France. She was cut off after 1.5 hours. We searched on Skyscanner and Kayak to try to find something that would work. We finally found flights on Saturday from Paris to Dublin to Chicago. We weren’t sure the flights would operate as scheduled or even if we would be allowed into the country for sure, but it is all we could find.

On Thursday we were able to unravel some of the President’s comments and felt somewhat more assured that we could make it home.

Thursday night we listened to President Macron address the French people in a call for unity across the country and all of Europe to work together to combat the spread of this disease. His address was inspirational and comforting. 

On Friday we took the train to Charles de Gaulle airport and stayed in our hotel room and watched movies.

Some ironic messaging at our citizenM hotel at Charles de Gaulle Airport

Some ironic messaging at our citizenM hotel at Charles de Gaulle Airport

Normally if we had 24 hours in Paris we would have spent the day wandering the streets, visiting museums, perusing markets, and taking in the sights. This time we just felt more comfortable quarantined in our room.

On the way home we went through Customs and Border Control proceedings in Dublin where the US has a prescreening facility. For five hours we stood in line with hundreds of other passengers as we went through security and passport control. After three hours a representative finally explained that each passenger had to be OK’d through the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the only way this could be done was by phone. 

When we finally reached passport control we were asked what countries we had visited. As soon as we said Italy and France we were ushered into an even smaller, more crowded room to wait for our names to be called again. This time we were asked a more precise schedule of our trip and if we had been sick at all or been around anyone who was sick.

Then we waited more. Finally we were called up and told we could go to our plane. The plane was held for four hours while passengers worked their way through the process. 

To be clear, there were no medical professionals on site. No one took our temperatures. We were just forced into close quarters with people who had been traveling all over Europe. Forced into exactly the situation we have been told repeatedly to avoid. We were not even instructed to self-quarantine when we got home.

No social distancing at Border Control at the Dublin Airport

No social distancing at Border Control at the Dublin Airport

We are now self-quarantined at home. Chelsea and Sam have been planning for our return and the house is full of food so we don’t have to leave. Sam is working from home and we have our binge watching planned for the next two weeks.

When we were Italy I wanted to write a blog to tell people it was still OK to travel. I started three times but the numbers and situation changed so fast nothing was valid by the time I would have posted. We are now advising our customers and friends to stay home, starting immediately. Don’t wait for a lockdown. We have to stop the spread of this virus. Staying home seems to be a way to help do just that.

I’ve heard it said that we are two weeks behind Italy. I’m not sure how accurate that really is but I am positive things will change drastically in the next two weeks. I urge you to stay home as much as possible. Maybe we can learn something from Italy and Europe and keep the spread of the Coronavirus somewhat controlled in this country. 

Italy took pretty aggressive steps early on but not everyone listened to the advice medical professionals and scientists were recommending. I’m sure the numbers in the US will rise dramatically as we test more people. Our son David lives in Brooklyn. One of his roommates was just diagnosed with Coronavirus. David is in quarantine and we are anxiously waiting to see if he is OK. He is unable to be tested unless he starts showing symptoms. He is also unable to work his 2 jobs that allow him to pay rent and support his life as an active actor and musician. 

We tried to order him some groceries to be delivered. This was Monday. They are so backed up, Saturday was the earliest delivery time we could find.

If you’ve tried to order from Amazon lately, their normally quick delivery schedule is dramatically slower.

This is drastically going to affect the economies of nations worldwide. All of us are so interconnected that nearly all industries are going to feel the effects. And I believe we are a long way from this being over.

But I also believe we are not over-reacting. Yes, the hoarding of toilet paper and other commodities is ridiculous. But if we just go on with life as normal, it will get even worse. This is just not going to go away on its own.

We need to do our part. Listen to what the professionals say, and act accordingly. We are hoping to return to Barolo in October when we are scheduled to lead two trips to this area we love so much. We want to share the food, wine, history, landscape, and people of this region that means so much to us.

We want others to travel and enrich their lives by experiencing other cultures. We really believe these kinds of experiences can lead to a more peaceful future.

So what are my take aways from all this? Here are some of my thoughts, ideas, and opinions. You don’t have to agree with me but here they are.

We are nowhere near the end of this. It is going to get worse for many weeks. We need to listen to the experts and do what we can to help mitigate the circumstances.

Remember these measures are not only to keep you safe but to help keeping the spread to people who are more vulnerable than you.

The media is not blowing this out of proportion. Early on I thought people were overreacting, but after witnessing the developments in Italy in just the past two weeks, I have changed my attitude. This is a worldwide event that will have lasting ramifications on all of us. This is the top story in nearly every country in the world. The draconian measures we will be asked to take in the coming weeks are not new. These are practices that have worked successfully in other parts of the world.

This is almost an unprecedented event. World leaders are trying the best they can to make the right decisions. Mistakes have been and will be made. Have some compassion on them as we all work our way through this. That said, hold them to a high standard. Expect them to lead us through this crisis. 

I am quite impressed by some of the big companies and sports organizations that have taken protective measures before the government encouraged it. The NBA, NCAA, Masters Golf Tournament and more stand to lose millions, but have done it for the greater good.

The biggest threat to us is not the number of people contracting the illness, but the potential for hospitals to be overwhelmed in areas where the outbreak blooms. When this happens, it affects the whole heath system in that area.

The livelihood of people in the travel industry, those in food service, musicians, actors, retail employees and workers in other service industries are going to be devastated in the weeks to come. These are some of my favorite people. Do what you can to help them out.

Medical professionals are going to be overwhelmed. Please give them as much support as you can.

The economy as a whole is going to be hit hard and will take a long time to recover.

I have noticed over the years that many of us are adverse to change – any kind of change. I think this has the potential to change quite a few things in our lives. Even in the short term, I hope we can all look at what we are asked to sacrifice and do it for the common good. I believe a lot of the resistance to taking this seriously is our reluctance to change.

We are lucky enough to have friends all over the world. As I prepared to write this I reached out to many of them to see how they are coping.

I have a former student who is teaching in Seoul, South Korea. His school has been teaching online for weeks. He is a band director, teaching online. He says the Koreans just follow advice. Everyone is staying home. They have their groceries delivered. If they do need to go out, they wear masks and keep at least a 6-foot distance from one another. None of this is mandated; the people just do it. And it has kept the disease relatively controlled.

We have another friend living in Barcelona, Spain. When I first contacted him a couple weeks back, people were more concerned about a mumps outbreak on his campus. He tells me that almost overnight it went from being told to wash their hands, to schools closing, to an entire nation being shut down.

Our friends in Paris said Sunday was a beautiful day and everyone came out in the streets to enjoy the day. In response on Monday, Macron put tighter restrictions on businesses and chastised the French people for not taking things seriously. 

We have friends from Canada who have a travel company that specializes in tours to the Galapagos. They had to cut their last tour short and use pretty extreme measures to get their clients home, as nations in South America started to shut down.

So this is what it is like to experience a pandemic. Please stay safe. Wash your hands and practice social distancing. Keep in touch with your friends and make sure everyone is all right. We can still support one another without direct contact.

We can’t wait to return to the Piedmont region of Italy

We can’t wait to return to the Piedmont region of Italy

In the meantime, we will monitor the situation. If you have questions about travel in the future or our recent experiences let us know. Until we can travel again, we will keep dreaming about it!

One last thing, many of our friends involved in the travel and leisure industry are going to be dramatically affected by all this. When we are able to travel again I’d encourage you visit them on your next trip.

La Giolitta Bed and Breakfast – Our favorite place to stay in Barolo

La Vite Turchese – The place to taste and learn about wine in Barolo

Ristorante Daria – Our favorite restaurant in the Val d’Orcia, Tuscany

Podere il Casale – An amazing organic sheep cheese maker and restaurant near Pienza

Maroni Bus – Leo is the best driver in Tuscany

CNH Tours – Heather and Marc can help you plan an amazing trip to the Galapagos

Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, the UK and all of Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. We also book European cruises! Feel free to reach out via email — We’re always available to talk about travel! 

 

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