Italians Are Learning How To Love During The Coronavirus Lockdown. Americans Might Have To One Day Soon Too.

“I know this could’ve been even worse if social media didn’t exist. But no way you can compare FaceTime to a real hug.”

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CATANIA, Italy — When Rita Grosso went shopping for her boyfriend’s birthday gifts on the morning of March 9, she didn’t know her plans to celebrate the day together as a couple would never happen.

Later that night, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, lasting at least until the start of April.

Within a matter of hours, Italians saw their freedom to leave their homes restricted to only work or health-related emergencies and to buy essential supplies. Grosso hasn’t seen her boyfriend, Marco Bianco, since.

Today, Conte said he was considering extending the lockdown restrictions. Similar measures have also been taken in other countries in Europe, including Spain, France, and Germany.

Almost two weeks into lockdown life, Grosso, 24, said that social distancing has put her love life on hold. “Technology helps, but it’s never going to be the same thing. I know this could’ve been even worse if social media didn’t exist. But no way you can compare FaceTime to a real hug,” she told BuzzFeed News via a WhatsApp call.

Grosso and Bianco, originally from the city of Treviso in Veneto, one of the first and hardest-hit regions, used to see each other every day, although since Feb. 21, when the first case was reported in the nearby region of Lombardy, they had already begun limiting their social interactions with friends in crowded places.

Italy has been hit extremely hard by the coronavirus pandemic, of which the World Health Organization has announced the new epicenter is Europe. It was the first country in Europe to go into lockdown, and as of March 19 had reported 41,035 cases of the virus and 3,405 deaths, overtaking even China in terms of deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News

Total deaths in China vs. other countries.

Grosso described herself as sentimental, never realizing how much physical contact was part of Italian daily life. When all this is eventually over, she said she will never take for granted the privilege of spontaneously hugging or kissing her partner.

“We don’t even live that far from each other, just 5km away. And I think that’s what makes it even harder: realizing that normally I could just bike to his house. If it was a longer distance I think I’d get over it more easily.”

On March 15, Bianco turned 24. Grosso and Bianco spent it video-chatting. She had bought him a bunch of gifts — six shirts and some socks — but hadn’t been able to give them to him before they went into lockdown. So she ended up unwrapping them herself while Bianco watched on his phone.

“She didn’t know when she’d be able to show them to me in real life, so she couldn’t wait until then. It was a bittersweet moment for me,” he said.

Bianco said confinement has been a test for their relationship. “It’s in times of crisis that you understand if a person really loves you. It’ll be our second anniversary in early April, and we still aren’t sure if we’ll be able to celebrate it together. But I know she will do everything possible to make it special despite the distance,” Bianco said.

Young Italians are no different than anyone else, social life with partners, relatives and friends is a main part of their daily routine. The sudden forced isolation for many meant alienation and uncertainty.

For Laura Diolosà a 22-year-old dietician and master’s degree student at the University of Florence in Tuscany, being forcibly separated from her family in such a stressful time has meant anxiety and depression. “On day one, I couldn’t even get myself motivated enough to open the books and study. Life has suddenly become so uncertain I couldn’t even see the point, since my final exams will likely be canceled,” she said in a phone interview.

Diolosà had a flight booked for March 10, the day after the lockdown enforcement, and would have been able to travel, as under the terms of the lockdown, Italians were allowed to return to their official residence. She had planned and saved for months to return to Catania in Sicily, Italy’s southernmost region, to belatedly celebrate her birthday. But after watching the Italian prime minister’s speech on TV, she decided to cancel in order to not put her whole family at risk.

Since the announcement of the lockdown, more than 20,000 people — mostly students and workers with roots in Italy’s south but living in the richer regions of northern Italy — registered their return to Sicily. Local authorities have warned this could turn into a threat for people vulnerable to the coronavirus — the more than 1 million elderly people living there, as well as those with preexisting health conditions — and the underfunded health infrastructure in southern Italy.

Despite missing and worrying for her family, Diolosà is trying to stay positive for her own mental health. “At the beginning I was anxious. I’d wake up in the morning and think, Oh no, what am I going to do today?” she said, shocked by the sudden routine change.

Then came the acceptance: Diolosà said she initially felt pressure to be productive during the quarantine, and the fact that she didn’t have the energy to do anything made her feel guilty.

“But now I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to cultivate the hobbies and friendships I hadn’t had time for because of this crazy lifestyle we all follow,” she said.

She now spends her days practicing yoga, writing her thoughts in a journal, and keeping up with Netflix series with her flatmate, commenting on them from separate rooms for safety reasons, through texting or shouting. “I also video-call my parents. But not too much, otherwise I get sad. It’s a normal human instinct in hard times wanting to be next to your loved ones. But we have to limit travel to limit the damage.”

While Diolosà remains trapped in the north, Beatrice Gornati is in the opposite situation. Originally from Milan, she moved to Catania, Sicily, with her husband a year ago.

Her parents were supposed to visit them in March to see their 8-month-old granddaughter. Now Gornati, a 31-year-old human rights consultant, is unsure when they’ll be able to meet again. “[My parents] are already seeing my daughter growing up via Skype, a postponed trip to Sicily for them means a lost opportunity to keep up with her growth,” she said via phone.

“My husband is more positive, but I highly doubt things will go back to normal at 12:59 a.m. on April 3,” she said. “Even if we’re lucky enough to have a garden, it’s not the same thing as taking a stroll to unwind your stress.”

Back in Treviso, Grosso patiently waits for the moment it’ll be safe to roam the streets of her hometown again, holding her boyfriend’s hand. “If we go outside now to have fun and then we get sick, there’ll be no more life to enjoy. So it’s better to wait inside. And when we’ll be able to go out again, I think we’ll appreciate life’s little joys even more.”●

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