Milan in the Time of Coronavirus: Back to Life, Back to a New Normality

The heavy footsteps of the secondino (prison guard) gradually grew louder. We waited tentatively as each plod brought him closer to the door. We heard the key turn once, turn twice and thrice as we clung together with baited breath. On the fourth turn, the door swung open. Hooray! We can all go out to play again.

Yes, on Monday 18th May, life went back to a new normality here in Milan.

Shops, restaurants and bars, hairdressers, beauty salons and barbers, churches, synagogues and mosques, have all been given the green light to reopen. Gyms and swimming pools are still under lock and key until May 25th, and cinemas and theatres until June 15th. I’m not clear on what the situation is with art galleries; while some of the smaller ones are by appointment only, most, such as Mudec and Fondazione Prada, remain shut, although I note Pirelli HangarBicocca opens on May 23rd. Museums, libraries, exhibition centres and archaeological sites are gradually opening as and when they see fit.

Giorgio Gori at the barbers

Giorgio Gori, Mayor of Bergamo Alta at the barbers on Monday 18th May

There’s a general sense of joy and trepidation. On one hand, the entire region is a wash with palpable pops of ecstasy as people make appointments with their hairdressers and barbers. Giorgio Gori, mayor of Bergamo Alta (the upper city of Bergamo) put before and after photos on his Instragam account and A, my Monday morning student, was positively beaming, talking about her hairdresser, “I know him, that’s why he’s given me an appointment on Wednesday morning”. I could feel her excitement through the screen, “I can give up anything,” she continued with fixed determination, “but my hairdresser, no”. Looking and feeling good is an integral part of life here.

On the other hand, shops and restaurants need to adapt to social distancing rules. This could involve anything from limiting parking spaces to control the number of shoppers in shopping malls, to using perspex dividers at dining tables in restaurants. Additionally, as one restaurant manager mentioned on the news on Monday, restaurants are tailoring their menus to be fast and affordable.

Personally, I’m not ready to eat in a restaurant yet or even go for an aperitivo (buffet style aperitivi aren’t allowed yet), although if I passed a good gelateria or pizzeria – both to take out – I’d succumb wholeheartedly, no worries at all. The palatable pleasure would soothe any paranoid thoughts I had.

In terms of work, I’m still teaching online via Zoom and Skype. I’d love this to be the case throughout the summer, mainly because I’d be able to travel and work simultaneously. Meanwhile, people used to traveling to work and spending the best part of their day in windowless rooms or looking over office dividers have already started settling into a new normality. Tech, pharma and financial employees – everyone is saying the same thing – a couple of days in the office and the rest at home please. I can only see this as a good thing. For the environment it would lead to less traffic and therefore less pollution; for staff, less transport fees, less stress and more time to get work done; for companies, less rent to pay for office space. Smart working (the English term used here to mean working from home, although the true sense of the word is slightly different) and hot desking  (sharing an office desk on a rota system) are all part of the new normality – let’s hope so anyway.

The Italian architect Stefano Boeri, well known for his eco-friendly Bosco Verticale or Vertical Forest (two skyscrapers comprised of residential apartments with 20,000 plants and 800 trees, which absorb 30 tons of C02 per year), said something very interesting recently. He said, “Returning to a normality, which, in and of itself, holds the causes of this tragedy, would be collective suicide.” and “we must do everything possible to avoid a peaceful return to a normality which produces the situation we now find ourselves in.” He refers to studies showing how air pollution and the quality of air in cities is one of the contributing factors that spread the virus. He’s right, simply whinging about the smog, noise pollution and stress of city living over a Starbucks coffee must be a thing of yesternormality. Today’s normality is about pioneering eco and human friendly methods of living in cities or, if you’re so inclined, moving to the country while maintaining your fast paced job. Quality living in the city, a city job in the country – it’s all possible, we just need to be imaginative and assertive.

Tomorrow I’m picking up a bike that N’s daughter is kindly lending me, it’s my new form of transport. I haven’t ridden a bike since 1994, when I was on holiday in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Yep, it’s back to life here, back to a new normality. And now, back to the board for a quick game of scrabble before my next lesson.





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