Gregory T. Wilkins
Italy -- Days of Covid-19 (2020)
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
March 7 & 8, 2020 - Florence, Italy
I arrived to Florence, Italy exhausted. The plane from MSP to Paris was good; I just did not sleep well. The pain in my neck from my car accident kept me up, and I eventually crashed after dinner cocktails.
The one GREAT thing about my flight was Delta has significantly improved their food on international flights. For starters we were offered a peach ballini cocktail. For dinner I had caprese salad, chicken marsala with garlic mashed potatoes and veggies, bread with butter, and cookies and cream ice cream for desert plus a beverage of my choice. I had two Bombay G&Ts plus a Bailey's and Creme. Breakfast was a fruit medley and a warm cinammon roll.
The one boondoggle is the Charles De Gaulle Airport. You would think after 911 folks would be able to get people connected to their flights without drama. Oh no, not the French. After getting off the plane (mind you it took 20 minutes for a set of stairs to arrive) and following the signage to your connecting terminal, you have to go back through airline TSA to check for explosives. It makes no sense to me b/c we just went through it when we got the plane in the USA. What also doesn't make sense is the same bottle of water the plane gave you moments ago, you have to dispose of when connecting to another flight. To add insult to injury, you have to take all of your electronic equipment out of your backpack (phone, camera, tablet, computer, etc.) and set them into a bin, plus another bin for your toiletries and the tiny bag you brought it in has to be emptied and redone for the x-ray; the same bag that was fine in the USA for some reason is not in France, and yet another tray for your jacket and sweater, and a final one for your shoes. Ridiculous!
To top it off Coronavirus is making people bonkers. I was fortunate to have an empty seat next to me on the plane so I was able to spread out a bit. Some folks had face masks on while others tried using the onboard entertainment system with their knuckles versus having to touch the screens. (For the record, it did not work.)
Arriving into Florence, there are medical professionals taking every passengers temperature as they exit the terminal. The medical team are dressed from head to toe in safety gear resembling a nuclear fallout with a temperature gun in their hand. If your temperature is over 99, you are quarantined. The airport tram is right outside the airport. For 1.5 Euro it will take you from the airport to the center of the city (Utica). From there I tried to follow the directions Academy Hostel gave me. They were a complete mess b/c not all of the street signs are posted. Over time they have been knocked off and not replaced. I ended up "talking" to a vendor who sold snacks and newspapers/magazines on the street corner. Me, not speaking Italian well, and him (not speaking English), we were able to communicate between English, Spanish, Italian, and body/sign language. While I never got to the square that the hostel told me (or maybe I did but couldn't make it out correctly), what came into my vision was the mighty Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or the Florence Cathedral.
Florence Cathedral formally the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (English "Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower"). It was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style and was structurally completed by 1436 with the dome. The exterior of the dome is faced with polychrome marble in various shades of green and pink, bordered by white, and has an elaborate 19th-century Gothic Revival facade. It is HUGE. It encompasses the duomo, baptistry, and capanile. They are all three UNESCO. The brick dome remains the largest brick dome in the world. Sadly, with Coronavirus, the Italian President has closed it down. It was open earlier though will remain closed until the first week of April. The same presidential decree has now also closed most of the museums in Florence which a total disappointment b/c I was hoping to visit the Uffizini, Medici Palace, and the Academy. All the same, the surrounding architecture is lovely. I will have to find something more to do with my new found time as much of the art I was hoping to see will not be possible this trip.
$18 US - Landline bus from Mankato to MSP round trip $18 $588 - roundtrip airline ticket - MSP/Paris/Florence/Florence/Amsterdam/MSP 55 Euro - Swatch watch (lost my Casio digital even before reaching security at MSP) 1.5 Euro tram from Florence airport to Utica 7.78 Euro grocery - 2 packages of cookies, small jar of pickles, sandwich, bag of tangerines, carrots 12 Euro - USA to Europe converter 140 Euro - 6 bed hostel with breakfast -- was upgraded to 4 bed b/c of Coronavirus and refunded $20 Euro for breakfast; I am the only one here
March 9, 2020 - Florence, Italy -- Streets are Eerily Quiet As the ol' adage goes, "Beggars can't be choosers". I have walked one end of the city to the next (blisters to prove it) to collect scattered pieces of beauty. The major churches and museums have been forced to close by presidential decree until April 4, 2020. The government is doing whatever it can to stop the coronavirus. From time to time I may spot an open crevice by a church, and I manage to wiggle my way in to see what may dazzle my senses. Fortunately for me is that I have the place to myself. I inhale what I can of Firenze's beauty, sit a spell and admire, and then meander my way back through the streets and side alleyways.
I am still adjusting to the time change. My body wants to sleep, and I try to force myself into the Italian time zone. Falling asleep is not a problem, it's keeping the body awake when it knows something different is the challenge. I venture back to my hostel for a quick nap which lasts significantly longer than it should. I ponder if I should wake between sleep and dreams and decide it's best to shake myself into reality as the duomo bells call me to this realm.
I decide to eat something. A bottle of baby pickles I purchased yesterday from the market calls my name as well as packaged baby carrots. What I thought were gerkins are mildly spiced pickles--not sweet at all. All the same, I am delighted to taste them on my palate after trying for five minutes to open them with my dominant, carpal tunnel hand. I was not going to allow injury from keeping me fed. And try as I may, destiny and hunger won over the lack of feeling in my hand and fingers. YEAH! The other disappointment was the carrots that I thought were raw were actually soft (cotte al vapore). They taste fine, just not what I was expecting when I bit into them. I got them yesterday at the market b/c they were 50% off written on their packaging (50% sconto all casse). Adventure lies everywhere--even the taste buds.
Romany women stay close to touristy locations, particularly around the duomo begging for money. Dressed in long, colorful skirts that go their ankles, the women sweep in and out of the crowd shaking their cup for small change. Head scarfs wrapped tightly around their single braided hair, they twist and turn as locals know this song and dance all too well and keep their hands in their pockets, never looking at the Romany (for locking eyes may cast a spell), and as the people hold purses and personal affects close. I am approached because of my backpack, and I too keep my distance.
Rather engaging with the Romany, when I find a church that is open, there are usually a handful of men sitting on the corner steps or side doorways to remain hidden, but not entirely, as their shadows dance into familiar recognition. Not to clutter the stairs for the well-to-do and to remain free from the priest's condemnation, they are permitted to remain, like the pigeons begging for scraps. And b/c the church is open, I say a small prayer and return to their location after entering to provide a small gesture of grace. Never giving money, I open my backpack before exiting the church, pulling out assundries; I offer a tangerine, a slice of handmade bread, and some cheese. It's not much, but the gift is welcomed and has never been turned away. (Wishing I could speak Italian, I would love to hear their story.) This reminds me of my Hindu doctor, Dr. Sharma, at Mayo Clinic in the U.S. who shared with me a saying, "A wise man always gives food to those in need b/c a full tummy never asks for more--while gifts of cars, money, and wealth always keeps the hand wanting more".
My goal this morning was to beat the crowds to see Bascilica di Santa Croce. There was an Italian tourist group being lectured at the steps of the building. I decided to wait and let them pass so that I could capture a picture without people in it. I was hoping the bascilica was going to be open only to find it too was closed like all the major religious spaces. I sigh.
I decided then to locate the Jewish temple, Tempio Israelitico or Tempio Maggiore; it is one of the largest in south central Europe. Zigzagging my way through the city streets, I caught a glimpse of the temple roof when I was resting in a neighborhood park nursing my blistered feet. Armed guards stood outside with machine guns at all the entrances. Trying to discover the front, I located a grocery instead.
I decided to pop in for a look and came out with fresh bread and cheese. Before entering, I saw a African refugee begging politely for food. When I returned, I offered him a quarter of my bread and two slices of cheese. He was delighted to receive them; I can only fathom how many have passed him by without even a greeting. I went onward with my journey to the Jewish temple. This led me to a small church that was open. I popped in for a moment to see the frescoes.
I found the front of the Jewish temple and cast iron gates were closed and school shuttered. There would be no entering...another sigh.
The temple was built after the death of the president of the Jewish community, David Levi, in 1870. He gifted his entire estate for it to be built and become a marvel worthy of Florence's other faith-based buildings. It was built between 1874 and 1882. The architects were Mariano Falcini, Professor Vincente Micheli, and Marco Treves, who were all Jewish. Their design integrated the architectural Italian tradition with the Moorish style used for the decoration. This style was once considered fit for a synagogue because it was never used for churches and, in the case of the new Synagogue of Florence, because it was built in the Sefardic style. This was considered because it would remind Jews of the origins of Sefardic Jewry in Berber Moorish Spain. The temple borrowed styles from the Hagia Sophia in Instanbul, Turkey -- arches and dome. Layers of travertine and granite alternate in the masonry, creating a striped effect. Over time the bold reds and beige have faded leaving a more subdued look. I am told that inside the temple every wall and curve is covered in Moorish patterns. I can only image its magnificence. Fortunately it survived World War II, even when the Nazi used it as a storage facility, as well as when Fascists tried to demolish it after the war with explosives. Approximately 1400 Jews remain in Florence today. Afterward, I found my way back to the bascilica. The Bascilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the principal Franciscan church in Florence and a minor bascilica of the Roman Catholic Church. The site at one time was in a marshland outside the city walls. The city has grown up around it and now paved and water free, accept for the Arno River. It is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and poet Foscolo, as well as the composer Rossini. With all of these italian VIPS, it is known as the Temple of the Italian Glories (Tempio dell'Itale Glorie). Fortune was on my side. I saw a sign that the bascilica was closed but open for prayer. Who can pass such an opportunity? While the church was closed to tourists, it was open for prayer in one of the side chapels. I was greeted at the door and provided directions. Any time is a good time for prayer, especially for this site starved traveler. I was the only one there. God is good to those who wait. While I may not have been to able to visit death's VIPS, I was able to get a taste of the bascilica's splendor. There is more to come to those who wait... March 10, 2020 -- Florence, Italy -- Covid-19 Has Swept Italy
Coronavirus has swept across Italy with the hardest hit in the north. Newspaper headlines draw the curious onlooker into newspaper stalls, if they had not yet seen it on the television news. Schools, churches, universities, museums, sport arenas, etc. have closed to the masses in order to alter the spread of Corvid-19. There is unprecedented awe as people speak about the virus -- with the greatest loss of life with the elderly. (I am told that 1/3 off the Italian population is elderly.) Panic swept in the north, grocery store shelves once abundant have been decimated--nothing but the most expensive cuts of meat remain in the refrigeration case. Pasta, rice, and canned food are the objects of choice.
Walking the streets of Florence, it feels like the zombie apocalypse. Stretches of street remain pedestrian free which is an oddity for this historical destination. Signs at shop and restaurant entrances read that they are closed until early April. Those with money and second homes, have left the city while others remain behind closed doors afraid to venture out. Every once in a while you will discover a store open, particularly the high end ones (Gucci, Ferragamo, Hermes, etc.). While staff are there with stylish gloves to prevent any contamination as well as the occasional face mask, the displays remain free of purchasers and onlookers. The fashion houses were recently scorned for selling high end face masks with logos for over $300 as they try to capitalize on this travesty, as the well-to-do looked down their noses and appear to have done little else to help the less fortunate. It feels like a Hollywood set-- posh on one end with crumbling infrastructure at the other.
Young people were scolded last night on the television by the ruling elite for partying in the squares and roof tops as the nation mourns the dead and dying. A decree stated that young people need to have decorum or will be picked up by the police. No late night parties and debauchery will be tolerated. Their risk to the virus is less, but dignity and care must be adhered to with strict consequences for those who defy authority. There are pictures of young people throwing their cares to the wind as they drink to excess and declare Earth's end; the Rapture is upon us (cue "It's the End of the World As We Know It by REM -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OyBtMPqpNY)
I continue to wake at early morning hours with my body exhausted by noon. All the same, I get outside and walk the streets to witness this historical moment. While many places are closed, I am fortunate to discover the occasional church open. I never hesitate to enter not knowing what may be behind the doors or even if it may close unexpectedly.
Today, I walked to see the Bascilica of San Lorenze and the Medici Chapels. While closed, I walked around the building. The Bascilica of San Maria Novella was also closed but was able to enter their very simple chapel for prayer. I also decided to pop over to the train station to inquire about the train to Florence as well as find the Sita bus station for my bus to Siena next week. (I want to have a plan just in case, and if all else fails, I will coordinate something else should the world combust in anticipation.)
The Bascilica di San Lorenzo is one of the largest churches of Firenze and is situated at the centre of the city’s main market district. From the outside it is very basic with a stone facade and not many windows. It is the burial home of all the principal members of the Medici family. It was consecrated in 393, at which time it stood outside the city walls. For three hundred years it was the city's cathedral. While plain on the outside, the interior is gorgeous. Connected to the bascilica is the Medici Chapels. It is one space I was hoping to see but will have to wait when I return to Italy in 2022. The Medici Chapels are two structures at the bascilica dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. The Sagrestia Nuova ("New Sacristy") was designed by Michelangelo. The larger Cappella dei Principi ("Chapel of the Princes"), though proposed in the 16th century, was not begun until the early 17th century. It is magnificent and will have to wait for another day.
While there were disappoints, I had blessings too. I was able to visit the Chiesa di Ognissanti, Church of All Saints. It was founded by a lay order of the Umiliati and dedicated to all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown. Originally built in 1250 it was reconstructed in the 1600s and is baroque and one of the first examples of this style. The space is beautifully painted with niches and side chapels adorned in color. The ceiling is of particular note drawing the viewer upward as angels and saints peer downward from their palace balconies. Some of the more priceless works are now in the Uffizi. An object of particular note I liked was the finely inlaid marble alter.
The Bascilica of Santa Maria Novella is situated opposite of the city's rail road station and around the corner from the Sita bus terminal. It is the first great basilica in Florence, and is the city's principal Dominican church. The vast interior is based on a basilica plan, designed as an Egyptian cross (T-shaped) and is divided into a nave, two aisles set with windows and a short transept. Stained glass windows for the 14th and 15th century adorn the walls. The exterior is made of marble, the upper part of the inlaid green marble of Prato, also called 'serpentino', contrasting with white marble. A wall embraces one side the church with relief sculptures.
2.72 E - focaccia and cheese 8.56 E - bag of tangerines, cheese, focaccia, prosciutto
I also got $200 Euro at the ATM to be on the safe side as there was a power outage a couple of days ago and don't want be stranded.
March 11, 2020 -- Silence of a City, Death is Apparent
Neighborhoods have makeshift emergency tents throughout the city's plazas to bring in Corvid-19 patients. Curious onlookers have all gone away because everyone knows the routine and curiosity has run dry -- no water in this well. Throughout the day, I hear emergency vehicles screech with their sirens across the cityscape as the sound echoes down Arno River; ambulances do not have to worry about traffic b/c the streets have more-or-less become extinct of humanity, as people glance out curtained windows to inspect Armageddon. Restaurants, particularly fastfood, have become the rage as immigrants on bicycles scurry to deliver hot, fresh food to shut-ins too afraid to venture out, and those that do, they are expected to stay a metre apart as caution tape is marked on the floor every 3 feet. Standing at attention, the people look like cows ready for slaughter. There is a heaviness in the air.
Yesterday a presidential decree went out stating that all non-essential travel would halt across Italy. Buses, trains, planes, and automobiles would not be allowed to move from town to town, city to city, unless you obtained a special permit designating why you were required to leave your town or city. This impacted me because today I was hoping to take the Sita bus to Lucca, an adorable Italian town famous for its intact Renaissance walled city as it remained steadfast during World War II. My colleague, Ryan Strelow's girlfriend, spent a semester there when she as an undergraduate studying dance, and I promised to see the place. (Some promises are out of your scope to be broken.) Founded by the Estruscans and part of the Italian silk trade, Lucca has a fascinating history of migration, conquest, and former Jewish life in the 8th and 10th centuries.
Not one to sit on my laurels and wait for life to be handed to me and knowing that my trip to Venice and Siena would come of nothing as well as not wanting to linger in Florence for another week, I decided it was best to find a way to return to the USA and call this adventure short. There will be more to explore when I return in 2022. I had flown Delta and her Skyteam partner KLM from MSP to Paris to Florence. Smart me travels with details galore in case drama takes center stage, and as a seasoned traveler I know there is always a bump in the road somewhere in the journey. My planning paid off -- or sorta. (Phone lines were backed up for 10 hours...EGADS!)
For starters, there is no team in Skyteam; they remind me of quarreling sisters bickering over who did what, when, and to whom. The older sister, Delta, at least responded to my inquiries even though she was of little use. She looked pretty on the sidelines, but her beauty was only skin deep. I provided Delta with all of my travel information, but because I had also flown with her sister, KLM, only she could resolve the matter. And KLM remained silent never speaking to me -- let alone glance in my direction. Her veil of solitude was concerning. It became this maddening dance of petticoats with no one wanting to commit, and yet even through silence, lack of action spoke volumes. Deaf ears hear all too well; I was going to have to resolve this alone.
In the end, I decided to go to sleep because the bewitching hour of 3 a.m. was only turning me into a short tempered toad. And I being a prince in disguise was not going to allow Cinderella's stepsisters to ruin my ball. And so, I went to sleep. To mix metaphor even more, this Sleeping Beauty rose and decided by royal decree -- ENOUGH! "Mirror, Mirror on the wall, whose the fairest of them all"? Bitch please! We all know it's me... so get over yourself.
I was able to convince the Florence Polizia that I needed to go to the Florence Airport so I could make travel arrangements to leave the country. I was asked if I tried this via the internet, and I told them it was of no use b/c Delta and KLM were unhelpful. I asked if I tried to do this via social networking, of which I replied that too was of no use, even the phone was of no use because you are placed on hold like a lady in waiting who is never waited on. Reluctantly and glad to rid themselves of one more "tourist", they admitted my travel on the tram to the airport after paying $1.50 for the ride.
Making my way to the airport, the place was deserted. I was the only person on the tram, and military with machine guns were spread through the parking lot. Tourists with facemasks and plastic wrapped luggage were cuing to leave to the country. I was asked to wait by the flight staff so that the Paris flight could load before anyone could be of assistance. I had brought all of my documents with me as well as frequent flier numbers and flight information. Back and forth from Italian to English on the phone the desk attendant tried to resolve my flight situation, meanwhile doing this all not one but at least two meters apart from the airline desk.
I would be asked for confirmation of my travel on March 20. I would open my backpack, the attendant would step away, as I would step across the line on the aisle to handover my documents. This went back and fourth with my U.S. passport, Delta info, KLM info, what place I was staying in Florence, etc.; this dance went on for another 3 to 5 minutes. And before exhaustion, the music stopped with a full dance card -- all flights were filled for March 11, March 12, and I was blessed to get the last seat for March 13. I would be leaving Italy early but with memories galore of silent streets, kindness of strangers, and moments of graciousness. All paper tickets were gone at the airline counter. They hand wrote me a ticket and told me it would suffice. Let's see what tomorrow may bring.
1.50 - tram from city to airport 8.50 - penis bottle with booze from Scott Clyde 2 - ice cream with sandwich from McD's (I never thought I would eat fastfood in Italy; never say never) March 12, 2020 - Florence, Italy -- Sad Farewell in Uncertain Times Coronavirus has swept the nation of Italy. In the north, the country is struggling. Each day the number of dead grows. A presidential decree has ended all travel via automobile, train, plane, boat, etc. You can't even go to the village next door without a government waiver inhand, as you will be stopped by the polizia or Italian military.
I truly don't believe folks in the United States have any clue what is happening over here versus the images they receive from the nightly news and the internet. When I share with them on Facebook that everything has halted, some think I am stretching the truth...far from it. (Hence, I shot some video for the record.) They actually question me, as if they are trying to trip me up on a lie. It makes you rethink who your Facebook "friends" are.
The wind blows, and yet, there is nothing for it to grab onto accept "thoughts and prayers".
The streets are quiet, far too quiet...like the avenues of a cemetery, but instead of mausoleums there are magnificent apartment buildings and palazzos lining the streets and alleyways. Nothing stirs accept for the occasional Vespa, as it spits and spatters to the pharmacy to get grandma's medication. (--even my hostel comrade has remained at home today. I was given the keys to the place and wished well.) Firenze feels like a vacant Hollywood set, and I stand on the corner ready for the director to yell, "ACTION"! And yet, there are no cues. It's like having the personal knowledge that everyone is on a joke and I have been kept from hearing the punch line.
I stroll across the Arno and into the hills to witness from afar the silence of Firenze. Looking deeply, as if I was peering into a crystal ball not knowing what destiny or fortune might bestow me, it feels dream-like... accept I am very awake, as I feel the chill of the air creep down my ribbed, turtleneck sweater. I pull the collar of my jacket upward, while giving thanks; I am indeed alive and have all of my senses.
In the distance a church door is open. I enter and squeeze my way through the worn, wood vestibule. The brass plate reads, "Spingere" as I gently push my way through and the squeak of the hinge echoes through the sanctuary. A priest sits waiting for confession. No one is there but me. I nod and sit in the back pew questioning if he will address me or leave me to my thoughts. He acknowledges my presence but remains silent. The red, velvet, confessional curtain remains open -- no one is there. He places his hands to his face and murmurs a silent prayer. The church bells overhead strike the top of the hour, and a bell chimes. His time has come to an end, and he allows me to sit for a spell before I rise and depart down the chiseled, stone steps. I say, "Grazie, signore", as he stands by the door and whispers to me softly, "Prego, prego".
I continue to walk for miles down the Arno. I am witnessing history as the road leads me forward... but where? There is nothing, absolutely nothing, but cobble stone streets with empty stores and cafes boarded up. It's eerie, indeed. What will tomorrow bring?
I return to my hostel, enter the gate, and walk up the centuries old stairs to my apartment. I am alone, very alone. I am strangely unafraid. I am strangely at peace. I feel good about my choices and delighted to know I did the right thing and getting to the airport yesterday for a flight back to the states. I turn on my computer to download my pictures and unload videos. I go to Facebook and receive news from Anne Sweeney that Donald Trump is closing the U.S. border to all flights beginning at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 13, the same day I am to leave Italy. He states he is closing all access to the country for 30 days.
I scramble to find my revised flight itinerary with the hand sprawled information from the flight attendant from the day before. Will I get back in time before the doors of the arc close? If all goes as planned, I leave Italy at 12:45 p.m. and arrive to Amsterdam at 3 p.m. with another flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. If there are no flight complications, I should be able to make the window. If it fails, I will call Europe home for 30 days. Who wants a house guest?
I open my other email account and find a message from the U.S. embassy in Rome. It states...
Health Alert – U.S. Embassy Rome, Italy – March 12, 2020 Location: Italy
Event: Due to reduced staffing that went into effect March 11, only emergency American Citizen Services and emergency visa services are available at the U.S. Embassy in Rome and Consulates General Milan, Naples, and Florence. On March 11, the U.S. Government issued a proclamation that suspends the entry of immigrants or nonimmigrants who were physically present within the Schengen Area (including Italy) during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States. The proclamation does not apply to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, spouses of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, diplomatic and official travelers, air and sea crew members, members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their spouses and children, and certain other categories of travelers. The proclamation is effective at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (U.S. time) on March 13. The proclamation does not apply to persons aboard a flight scheduled to arrive in the United States that departed prior to 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (U.S. time) on March 13. Travelers should check with their airlines or cruise lines regarding any updated information about their travel plans and/or restrictions. For the full text of the proclamation, see https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/. On March 11, the Italian government issued a decree https://bit.ly/2U1cDNg that further prohibits movement in public places except for justifiable work reasons (commuting, public and commercial transport is allowed), basic necessities (i.e., food shopping), and health emergencies. The decree also cancels sporting events and public gatherings and closes restaurants, bars and pubs, and recreational facilities through March 25. Schools and universities are closed until April 3. Pharmacies remain open. The Italian government has stated the new decree does not prevent travelers from departing Italy. The Italian government has announced that law enforcement authorities would establish checkpoints at airports and train stations to collect self-declaration forms from travelers specifying the purpose of their movement and their destination. Italian officials have also noted that checkpoints may established on highways to collect these forms. In areas of Italy with large numbers of COVID-19 cases, the local healthcare system is under significant strain. Public transportation including airlines, trains, and buses continue to operate, but with reduced frequency. Travelers should check carrier schedules for the latest updates and work directly with the carrier or travel agent to arrange or reschedule travel. Travelers should be prepared for the possibility of additional travel restrictions to be implemented with little or no advance notice. Assistance: · U.S. Consulate General Florence +39 055-266-951 USCitizensFlorence@state.gov ********************************************** Do I know how to throw a party or what? Like I always say, "Go BIG, or go home"! I definitely went BIG this time around, and yet, it will be good to get home. Yes, I am cutting my travel in half...Corona happens. The good thing is, I know this town pretty well. When I return, and I will return, I look forward to venturing into the haunts I never got to see behind their closed doors. If it's anything like the other surprises behind the curtain, I know I am going to be instore for D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S-N-E-S-S! So hold onto your "biancheria intima", I look forward to strutting in grand style upon my return with hopeful 2022 intentions. Arrivederci, Italia! Tomorrow is around the corner.
2.48 - sandwich and cookies 6.48 - tuna sandwich, 4 tarts, and a Coke (it's adds life or so says the commercial) 1.50 for tram tomorrow's departure to the airport
March 13, 2020 - Return to the USA, Convid-19 Pandemic is Across Earth I woke from slumber ready to pounce on my departure from Florence to the United States. As William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet in the 2nd act, "parting is such sweet sorrow". Her beauty will never be forgotten, graceful and beguiling. I look forward to visiting her again in better days when the tinge of poison has been wiped from her lover's lip. To that, I raise my glass, take my multi-vitamin, and prepare for departure.
I packed my bags and rechecked my hostel storage locker to insure I was not leaving anything behind. To aid the staff when they return (who knows when), I stripped the bedsheets, blanket, and pillowcase along with my gently used towel and placed them in a folded pile on the metal, luggage rack. Rolling my 21.5" x 13.5" x 10" bag and my handheld backpack as my personal item, I exited my room and made my way to the front reception.
I was alone, very alone. It has been like this for far too long, and I was going to say goodbye to no one because the place was empty. Writing a note to Koli, the desk attendant that was so gracious to check-in from time to time during the Covid-19 scare, I placed it on desk with two baked tarts not knowing if they would still be good upon his return. I told myself, "hospitality, it's the thought that counts". Pulling the ring of the building keys from my pocket, I stretch each key outward radiating across the void. It's time to go.
I make my way down the stairs and into the inner courtyard. No one stirs. I push the button to the grand, electric gate, and it slowly welcomes me to an empty street. I venture into the city. I glance backward momentarily, as the gate slowly closes.
I am the only one in the streets. I walk strangely alone. My boots echo down haunted corridors and alleyways, as I pass boarded buildings with windows latched and signs on doors hinting of doom while announcing the Italian president's decree that all will remain closed until April 3.
I am able to get on Tram 2 at the Utica station with direct route to the airport without any military or polizia intervention. I pay $1.5 Euro, punch my card in the tram reader, and the doors close behind me. Even in the train car, I am alone. The only sound is the pre-recorded voice of a woman announcing each stop along the line and of course my bated breath. Arriving to the airport, military men with machine guns in tanks have blocked the entrance to the parking lot. I wheel my bag, and I enter the station. Men and women in hazmet suits wave me forward as I show them my paper with my plans for departure. I don't have a ticket, but it's obvious I belong.
The waiting area has sectioned off seats to socially distance people in the terminal. Seat, then no two seats, then seat, then no two seats, etc., etc. It looks like a work of art or patchwork quilt that goes on as far as the eye can see.
Everyone is on their mobile phone or laptop computer. The voice in the sky on loudspeakers warns passengers of Covid-19, recent presidential decrees, and the importance of staying away from one another while reminding people to wash their hands and to not touch their face. People look exhausted but keenly aware of their surroundings.
Not knowing if the airport was going to be a sign of Armageddon, I arrive almost 5 hours early. I sit and wait away from people. I find a place to plug in my converter, log into the computer to update my Facebook location and status, and read the news. This is just the beginning -- not even 7 a.m.
We begin boarding the plane for our flight from Florence to Amsterdam. We will be on the ground after take off in two hours. (Images of getting hit by an Iranian rocket flash through my brain; I blame it on PTSD and too much news.) We are to go from the terminal to the plane via buses. This time however instead of cramming everyone on like sardines the way we did coming to Florence, things will be different. Families with children and pregnant women are given priority. Last time we did it all on one bus. With social distancing it took 4. Once out of the bus, social distancing was cast away because every seat was booked on KLM.
Arriving to Amsterdam, things felt very different. Social distancing was throw out. People were on top of people, no announcements about Corvid-19 were heard overhead, and it felt "normal". However, the one not normal thing was how many college and university students there were filling the waiting areas. Youth from everywhere had descended on Amsterdam b/c their study abroad programs had closed due to the virus. Everyone had a story.
Some students were in tears. Some were angry. Some were in disbelief. I sat and listened for two hours to their feelings, as we waited for our flight from Europe to the United States. Seeing these youth with bags in hand in a sense of confusion reminded me of what it must have been like when the children in WWII were placed on trains and sent to villages to keep them out of harms way. Our war was a virus; our history was collectively unfolding. March 14, 2020 -- USA, What a Mess
While Iran, China, and Italy have severe fatalities from Covid-19, the citizens of the United States are going bonkers over toilet paper. Incredible! Italy was calm, cool, and collected; the United States has literally gone to the shits. I am in dismay. It was the first thing I heard about as I was standing in line at U.S. Customs. I couldn't believe my ears. I expect more from the "Land of Opportunity".
I was able to get into the U.S. before the 11:59 p.m. shut-off which Trump mandated two days before. All U.S. citizens would be able to return; all others (other than diplomats) would be excluded. After that point, all international travel would be directed to 13 airports -- John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York; Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Illinois; San Francisco International Airport (SFO), California; Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), Washington; Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL), Hawaii; Los Angeles International Airport, (LAX), California; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Georgia; Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD), Virginia; Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), New Jersey; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), Texas; Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), Michigan; Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), Massachusetts; and Miami International Airport (MIA), Florida. Thank goodness I was able to beat the chaos that I can guarantee is going to ensue in the days to come.
The rules forcing American travelers to land in certain airports apply to those who “recently traveled from, or otherwise been present within” the countries within 14 days of the date of their arrival in the U.S. if they have traveled to the Schengen Area, which includes Austria, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy, among other countries. I would be one of those candidates. I am blessed to have return via MSP before having to suffer their the headaches/nightmare of what is to come.
International friends of mine were not so fortunate. They were stranded at airports abroad and would return to their home countries. I trust that they will be well, but I will not know their outcome until I get access to the internet and Facebook.
Before leaving the U.S. to Italy, I had registered for Global Entry. This would allow me to not have to wait at TSA security. Upon returning to the U.S. I would be interviewed at U.S. Customs. Knowing I had already missed my bus connection from the airport to Mankato, I decided I would finish the Global Entry process and interview then and there...a stitch in time saves nine.
U.S. Customs had concerns with how much I had traveled in the last five years. It came up as a warning on their computer screen. They confirmed what I did for a living. I told them about my job at the university and my recent sabbatical to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, and Bangladesh as well as other excursions to Slovakia, Austria, Germany, Prague, Morocco, Chile, and Argentina among others. They observed that I had seen over 1/3 of the Earth, and I confirmed their observation. They were satisfied with my explanation. A picture plus handprints from my left and right hand, I was approved on the spot. WINNING!
My body was weary, as I was on Italian time. I pushed through my exhaustion. I had gotten this far and was now on home territory. My head began to nod. I was ready for sleep.