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11th March 2020

Living in lockdown: Coronavirus and my year abroad

Versace face-masks and a ban on cheek kissing – UoM student Bella Jewell describes the impact of coronavirus on her Neapolitan Erasmus exchange
Living in lockdown: Coronavirus and my year abroad
A normally bustling square in Naples, now completely deserted. Photo: Jorge Guerrero

Erasmus placements are supposed to be one of the best years of your life. Before setting off you hear about the wild parties, the relaxed lifestyle, and the beauty of making friends from all over the world… Unfortunately, instead of living the dolce vita and attending lectures, we are all sitting indoors at home.

In the build up to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, current British Erasmus students are counting their blessings that they managed to squeeze into potentially one of the last year groups to benefit from the Erasmus programme and grant. The recent outbreak of COVID-19, however, has certainly thrown a spanner in the works for many Erasmus students, myself included. 

On the 9th of March, it was announced that the whole of Italy was going into ‘lockdown’; a terrifying prospect that immediately brings Chernobyl-like images to mind. Universities in Italy have already been sporadically closed since the 26th February for ‘deep cleaning’ purposes, however this latest measure taken by the Italian government sees educational institutions closed until the 3rd of April.

Sign on closed shop #wearestayingathome. Photo: Bella Jewell

This year the University of Manchester Italian Department sent a small cohort of students off on Erasmus exchange to a handful of universities in Italy; Bologna, Perugia, Naples, and Bergamo. The aim of the study abroad placement – like any – was to undertake lectures in Italian, and to gain a greater understanding of the Italian culture and language. But in reality, number of lectures attended: three. 

Having worked in France for the first semester during the general strike against pension reform, I was excited at the prospect of starting again, moving to the south of Italy to study in Naples, at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II.  

The first week of Naples was wonderful – I fully threw myself into the energy of the city, making the most of the world’s greatest pizza and one-euro glasses of Aperol Spritz (yes, really).

Those buzzing streets, packed bars, and lively evenings now seem like an alternate reality, as the few cafes and restaurants which are open as normal have imposed a ‘one meter apart’ rule, which obliges all clients to refrain from any physical proximity.

What’s more, as of March 11th, the Italian government has declared all shops and businesses be closed apart from pharmacies, food shops and petrol stations. Leaving the house for an ‘unnecessary activity’ is banned. This is a rapidly changing situation.

Joke sign for an ‘anti-corona virus’ fruit juice. Photo: Bella Jewell

One positive of the situation is the fun you can have people watching; the pantomime performance as Italians go in for a customary kiss on the cheek, then immediately remember the rules and lurch back to tap elbows, never gets old.

Perhaps my humour standards have been lowered due to my reduced access to civilisation, but I regularly find myself giggling at the inconsistencies of the Italian reaction to Coronavirus.

Back at the beginning of the epidemic, before the lockdown, I was alarmed to open the Erasmus office door to a surprised receptionist in a face mask. She crossly pointed at the sign by the door stating that only those with covered mouths could enter the office, so a friend and I sceptically wrapped a jumper and a scarf around our faces before crossing the threshold.

The next moment left me smirking into my scarf as I was handed the receptionist’s pen, from one ungloved hand to another, to sign some university paperwork. Two weeks later, I can confirm we did not infect each other… this time. 

Students forced to cover face in office. Photo: Bella Jewell

The human reaction to this epidemic is a fascinating thing to examine, I’ve seen people removing their protective mask to sneeze or smoke in public, people using funky patterned ties that they’ve bought from street stalls as a face cover, and even a ‘trendy’ kids clothing shop in which the mannequins in the window are sporting a rather edgy, branded face mask. Because in the land of Versace, why not make your protective gear more chic? 

“Coronavirus” can be heard on any street corner… One savvy Vespa driver in the historical centre has taken to screaming “Eyy I’ve got Coronavirus!” at pedestrians, so that they dodge out of the way of his vehicle. The words are inescapable, somehow even the toilet paper brand in my flat is called ‘Corona’! 

The scientists in the 60’s who came up with the term coronavirus have some serious questions to answer; the prospect of a flu pandemic is scary enough, without crowning it the King of all viruses by popping the Spanish word for ‘Crown’ in front of it.  

The reality of people living in Italy under this current quarantine is actually rather mundane. All residents are encouraged to stay at home unless they must leave for work, medical reasons, or emergencies.

Bars and restaurants are closed after 6pm, I’ve heard of students graduating via skype, and church services are either being cancelled, or worshippers are reduced to only two people per pew; a difficult rule for a very catholic country.

‘In the church only two people per pew.’ Photo: Bella Jewell

Recently it appears the situation is becoming more strict, with reports of police officers patrolling the streets demanding for justification from people who are outside. 

Many pharmacies, banks, and shops have cracked down on public interaction, adopting a one person at a time policy to limit infection risks. Makeshift signs stating that shops have run out of gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer can be spotted across the city, highlighting the level of public panic as stockpiling of such goods has exhausted supplies. 

Nobody could have expected a year abroad like this, however Italian universities are trying to adapt – in Naples they are currently working on an online learning platform, which is innovative stuff for an old-fashioned institution that relies on a paper-based system for almost everything. 

As I write this article quarantined in my bedroom, I am getting used to the eerie quiet of the street outside my window. The revving of mopeds and shouting of the neighbours has died down, apart from the occasional cry of “ROSARIA” – the name of a local lady who sells contraband cigarettes on demand by popping them in a basket lowered down from a client’s balcony to street level.

Whilst most bars and restaurants in the city have been hit hard by Coronavirus and the lockdown, it’s comforting to hear that at least Rosaria’s business is flourishing.

An empty Neapolitan shopping centre. Photo: Uras Balik
Deserted streets of Naples. Photo: Dorka Mezei

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