Expat Lowellian reports from Italy about coronavirus
Italy is second only to China in the total number of cases of coronavirus, with over 63,000 positive tests as of Monday, March 23, and Italy leads the world with most deaths from the virus. America is currently in third place for number of cases, but the virus is spreading rapidly here.
Coronavirus was first detected in Italy on Jan. 31, when two Chinese tourists tested positive in Rome. A week later, the third case was brought into the country by an Italian man returning from a trip to Wuhan, China. On Jan. 31, all flights into Italy from China were suspended and a countrywide state of emergency was declared. The first deaths from the disease in Italy took place on Feb. 22. The Italian government placed all of Italy in quarantine on March 10, and on March 11 almost all commerce except for supermarkets and pharmacies were closed, and further closings and travel restrictions were announced on March 21.
Tenley Ysseldyke, LHS class of 1983, has lived in Italy for the past eight years and has been maintaining a blog with a fascinating and humorous account of her experiences there during and before the pandemic.
Ysseldyke said she cherishes her memories of her time attending Lowell High School. Her family lived in the farthest reaches of the Lowell school district and she moved away to college immediately after finishing 12th grade. After attending Western Michigan University and Michigan State University, she lived and worked in Chicago from 1987 until 2012. Since then, Ysseldyke has been the only American residing in a remote town in the northern Italian province of Treviso, where she teaches English to native Italian speakers. She said that rural Italy is somewhat reminiscent of the Lowell area.
The official lockdown in Treviso began on March 9, but Ysseldyke has been in self-imposed exile since Feb. 23, the day she made her final excursion to the grocery store. She expressed concern that people in the States might not be taking this pandemic as seriously as they should.
“For me it was serious before it was serious for anyone else,” Ysseldyke said during an interview conducted via Skype on Monday, March 23. “I just talked to a friend in Chicago who said she is still out taking walks. I said, ‘Well, do you need groceries?’ And she said, ‘No, but I go every day or so.’ She’s 77 years old!”
By law, Ysseldyke’s travel is currently limited to a 200 meter radius around her home. Luckily the neighbors don’t mind if she hops the fence on the frequent walks she takes to stay active and pass the time.
“Today was the first day of my 200 meter restriction,” Ysseldyke said during the Skype interview. “I can only travel 200 meters from home. So I Googled it. I drew a little circle. I had to climb my neighbor’s fence. I asked him first if I could! I got in six and a half miles there, just going back and forth, back and forth.”
Her description of the early days of the outbreak in Italy sounded eerily like the past few weeks in Michigan. First jokes and bluster, then discomfort as the number of cases quickly increased.
“People said that if the virus ever really spread in Italy, we would be doomed,” Ysseldyke wrote in a post dated Feb. 24. “Jokes flew freely because Italy’s initial few cases and the cases in France and Germany had stopped increasing. On Friday afternoon, the 21st of February, we had four cases. With my usual obsessive check before bed I know the number was higher, but I can’t remember how much higher. That night, it still wasn’t alarming enough to count sheep.”
“At 10 am on Saturday, the 22nd of February there were 22 cases,” Ysseldyke wrote in a second Feb. 24 post. “At the same time the day before, there had been only four. […] [I] was shocked to see that the number was rising. At that time, the US had 35 cases and Italy was still below that. But as I approached home after a one-hour walk, we had hit 39. More cases in tiny little Italy than all of the United States.”
Her final trip for provisions was during the brief calm before the storm. The situation in Italy was escalating rapidly, but people were not yet in preparation mode.
“On Sunday, February 23 I had one thing on my mind, getting groceries before everyone else woke up,” Ysseldyke wrote on Feb. 26. “What do you buy when you don’t really know what’s happening? All I could think of were the photos I’d seen of Wuhan on lockdown. And the closed grocery stores. And the ghost towns. And I wondered if I was about to enter the same situation. I told myself that fresh produce wasn’t safe. Who had put it on the shelves? I didn’t even trust bags of lettuce. I checked to see what towns they came from and wondered how close they were to the ones that were already locked down. I decided cans were the safest and had the longest shelf life in case we continued following in China’s footsteps (more than a month.) I bought lots of rice and lots of pasta, but I’m embarrassed to tell you just how much. Three bottles of olive oil seemed like enough. My cart was filled with toilet paper and paper towels. I couldn’t find little bottles of hand sanitizer, that had already been sold out. So I went to the first aid section and bought five bottles of the stuff you put on fresh cuts to kill the bacteria. I bought five colorful bottles of pink alcohol to sterilize surfaces that needed sterilizing, lots of envelopes of soup like Mrs. Grass with the bouillon cube and three huge bags of individualized packs of soda crackers. I was afraid the bakeries would close and crackers seemed like a good substitute. The two giant bags of potatoes made me think of photos during the war that I’ve seen in museums and films. In addition to no hand sanitizer, there were also no masks. That’s proof that even though I was the only one filling up a cart with groceries on Sunday morning, I wasn’t the only one planning ahead. The cashiers had unmasked smiles and gloveless hands, but I wondered how long that would last. I, on the other hand, was bundled up with my high collared coat and favorite mittens, which I put in the laundry basket as soon as I got home.”
As she approached her home, Ysseldyke wrote that she was greeted with a disturbing sight.
“When I arrived at my street I saw the ambulance boat parked at the dock,” Ysseldyke wrote on Feb. 24. “All of my neighbors were out by the lagoon whispering and looking down my calle (that’s what you call a street in Venice). I stopped, a little wobbly, to sit on the wall alone. I’m not one for ambulances - even if they’re boats. A neighbor came over and explained what was happening. The family that lived next door to me was being tested for the coronavirus. I waited with the others. When I saw them leaving my calle I looked away. But not before seeing the medical team in their lime green suits with gloves and glasses and masks carrying a plastic garbage can back to their boat. I really didn’t even look, but the quick glimpse is an image that won’t fade.”
Ysseldyke’s job as a private English teacher means she has lessons in her home, in coffee shops, offices, anywhere that is convenient for her clients. Before it got out of hand, Ysseldyke said she observed that many had overconfident, blasé attitudes about the pandemic, a sentiment that may sound familiar to many Americans.
“The past couple of days that the coronavirus has been running around northern Italy, I’ve received a whole lot of messages that say this: ‘I’m not afraid of the coronavirus,’” Ysseldyke wrote on Feb. 27. “And when I sent a message to cancel English lessons a few of them wrote, ‘For the virus?! Oh, okay Tenley. See you next week.’ They seemed to be saying that I was the dumb one here.”
On Wednesday, March 25, all 60 million residents of Italy will have been on lockdown for 15 days. The official lockdown in Ysseldyke’s province of Treviso began one day before that, and her self-imposed quarantine began two weeks earlier. It’s scheduled to end on April 3, but that deadline is likely to be extended.
“On March 10 at 9:40 pm the Prime Minister gave a live update of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy,” Ysseldyke wrote on March 12. “Instead of a list of everything that’s closed, it’s much easier to tell you what’s still open. Grocery stores. Post offices. Banks. Pharmacies.”
Because of drastic restrictions on commerce and travel, Ysseldyke is among those whose source of income has been curtailed or eliminated. She still does some lessons electronically, but not nearly as many as before the pandemic.
“I can’t have any more English lessons,” Ysseldyke wrote on March 10. “First, because all forms of private lessons must be stopped immediately. And secondly, because most of my students live in the province next door where I’m no longer welcome. The only people that can move between locked down and non-locked down provinces are commuters. If they’re stopped, they have to show proof of their place of employment. And if they have no proof, they’ll be fined. Schools and universities are closed. All events are canceled. Pools and gyms are closed. I’m not so sure about public transportation. Funerals and weddings can be attended only by close family.”
Even during strict lockdown rules, there are still some selfish, inconsiderate souls who refuse to do their part to impede the spread of the virus.
“The current rule in Italy during the coronavirus lockdown is that only one person in the family is allowed to shop [...] and that one person can only shop for articles of the utmost necessity,” Ysseldyke wrote on March 17. “That’s why it’s hard for me to understand why some of my friends feel the need to grocery shop again and again. I went 22 days ago and I haven’t been back. I don’t really like much of what I’m eating, but I eat. [...] These rule-breaking friends make me mad, both angry and crazy. My initial frustration came out of concern for them. They shouldn’t be out so much, they shouldn’t touch the dirty shopping cart and then accidentally touch their mouth or eyes, they shouldn’t be in a place where they might be sneezed on. But this frustration has since turned to anger because I don’t think they’re doing their part. For the moment, I have enough food to avoid the grocery store. But one of these days I’ll have to go because I’ll have run out of canned peas and pasta.”
“I’ve learned how to make do,” Ysseldyke said on Skype. “But I don’t have fresh vegetables, I don’t have lettuce, I don’t have fruit, and I would rather go without all that than go to the grocery store. I know, I won’t die if I go to the grocery store! When I finally don’t have any more stuff, I’ll go. But for now, I don’t have to. For me, it just doesn’t make sense. I know that I don’t have [coronavirus] because I haven’t been anywhere.”
Ysseldyke said she was already “a worrywart” before this, so dealing with the isolation, paranoia and insecurity of the coronavirus pandemic has put her through a tremendous amount of stress.
“My fear of the coronavirus in Italy has brought on a handful of new habits,” wrote on March 19. “Opening doors, turning on faucets, checking the fridge, turning on lights, pulling out chairs, opening the fireplace, sweeping, opening the door, turning on the shower (well, I guess I’m sleeveless at that point, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t stand there perplexed for a second) are all done with my sleeves. The undoing of these tasks is done with my sleeves, too.”
To help cope with some of the stress, Ysseldyke said she always brings a “coronavirus emergency kit” along with whenever she leaves the house, containing items like a pen, plastic gloves, paper towels and alcohol. She also spends time writing - especially on her blog - taking frequent walks around the countryside and working on “a million projects.”
We will continue to check in with Ysseldyke in upcoming editions of the Lowell Ledger. To keep up with Ysseldyke’s blog entries, visit http://10leaves.blogspot.com.
“The rapid spread of the coronavirus is the dangerous part,” wrote on March 17. “The spread is why there aren’t enough test kits or hospital beds. It’s essential to learn from the first unfortunate countries that had no guidelines and stop the spread now.”
One of Ysseldyke’s blog entries is printed on page 4 of this week's Lowell Ledger, on newsstands Wednesday, March 25.