An empty road, left, and a police officer at the Genoa central station. Temporary barriers have been set up, guiding people toward a checkpoint manned by masked policemen and soldiers. János Chialá

'Like a Zombie Movie': My Nightmare Trip Home Across Italy Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

It’s time to go home, you realize, even if home is in southern Italy, and the only flight from Israel you can find is to France. You must now travel more than 1,200 kilometers through the pandemic

Like every toxic relationship, the one you are having with the coronavirus grew in stages, from the occasional to the very intimate. One month ago, the virus was just an interesting piece of distant news you used in conversation every now and then, to look like the informed journalist you supposedly are. Then, over recent weeks, as the virus spread through your own country like wildfire and panic gripped the entire world, it took over your life, trapping you in a process in which each stage seemed unbearable – and yet you missed it once time passed and you entered a new, more oppressive one.

Just a few days ago you were partying on Purim, drinking arak and wearing a mask over your eyes, and now you are frantically running around Jerusalem, buying hand sanitizer and going from shop to shop in search of a surgical mask, something that all of a sudden has become a fundamental need. The Israeli authorities are telling tourists to leave, even as flights are being canceled one after the other, borders are being closed, and even here in Israel a total general lockdown is imminent.

It’s time to go home, you realize, even if your home is in Italy, and the only flight you can find is to France, while your parents live in Puglia, in the south of the country, which means you will have to travel more than 1,200 kilometers, through the center of a global pandemic.

As people scramble to prepare for what’s coming, you do your last round of good-byes, walking the streets of Musrara, and wondering when you’ll be able to do so again. “Don’t think about that,” you tell yourself, “just deal with one problem at a time” – with saying goodbye to the people you love, with your fear of flying, with the border that everybody tells you might be closed soon, with the long journey across Italy, with the risk of getting infected by the virus and passing it on to your parents, with two weeks of strict isolation – and only then with the possibility that the world as you know it might be about to end.

Or maybe it has already ended, and you have been living in an irresponsible bubble of Purim-obsessed, Jerusalemite artists – your friends, from whom you are about to part for the foreseeable future.

You rush through the empty Jerusalem train station, admiring its bunker-like beauty, and during the ride you see a woman putting on a pair of gloves, on top of yet another pair. You arrive at Ben-Gurion airport, and notice the lack of security at the entrance, apparently due to the lack of passengers. “What is the world coming to,” you ask yourself as you walk into the deserted departures hall.

In the check-in line, a young woman is shaking her head and muttering something, looking like she’s about to cry. You drop off your backpack, have your carry-on bag searched, and finally get on the bus that will take you to the plane.

János Chialá

As you climb the stairs to board, you turn back and notice the young woman you saw at check-in, standing alone on the tarmac, appearing absolutely terrified. Maybe she’s afraid of flying, you think, and you retrace your steps and go to her, to ask her if she’s all right. She bursts into tears, and tells you that she’s scared, that her father is in Africa, her mother is somewhere else, and that she doesn’t know where to go once she is back in Europe. You tell her everything is going to be fine, and then you take her hand and walk up the stairs, together.

Almost all the seats are empty, so you sit next to the young woman, who is in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. You try to make her talk about her time in Israel, only to learn that she arrived two weeks ago and spent the whole time quarantined in a hostel. The plane takes off, and the sight of Tel Aviv beneath the clouds lifts both your moods, so the conversation switches to climate change and how this is all just a taste of what’s to come, which somehow feels like a comforting thought.

After landing at the Nice airport, you’re joined by someone else from the flight – a young man who was working in a hostel and having a great time in Israel, until everything shut down and he too finally realized it was time to go home, which for him is a long train journey away from where you are now. You point out how strange it is that you all came to the same conclusion – to return home – on the same day, and then realize that maybe it’s really just the three of you, and that everybody else was more responsible and returned home weeks ago while you left it to the last possible day.

After failing to find a bus out of the airport, you decide to walk to the train station in the center of town, which is just a few kilometers away. It’s cold outside, and it’s midnight.

The streets are absolutely empty, and a sign on the road flashes “Coronavirus: Limit your movements.” You notice three dark, hooded figures moving closer. “Oh, let’s hope these are hospitable locals,” says the young woman, with a hint of worry in her voice, before one of them asks if you are okay, and you realize they only came to help. The locals tell you the shortest way to the station, wish you good luck and disappear into the night.

Walking alongside the beach, next to the waves of the Mediterranean crashing beneath the stars, you all agree that this quite an experience, and that you feel like you have known each other for years.

“How old are you?” you ask the young woman. “Twenty-two,” she answers, “and I am scared. I feel I am too young to know what to do.”

János Chialá

You wonder who is old enough for this, and if there is anybody who knows what to do. You have never experienced anything like this, and your recall what your Greek friend wrote you a few days before, after telling you that the boat connection with Italy had been shut down just as you were about to buy a plane ticket to Athens: “We are sailing in uncharted waters, my friend, and I really don’t know how to handle this situation.”

You arrive at Nice’s central station, which is still closed, and you make a small camp outside, huddling on the young woman’s yoga mat and wrapped in your towels. “One day somebody will ask us how we met,” she says, “and we will have a good answer.”

Yes, it will be a damn good answer, and yet you have no idea of when you will meet again, or even of when you will be able to meet anybody, at all. The lockdown in Italy is supposed to last at least until April 3, today the Australian prime minister told his citizens to expect “serious disruption” for at least six months, and somewhere you heard someone say that this could go on for a year and a half.

The sun rises, and after many phone calls, the young woman finally manages to find a friend of her parents who’s willing to host her, in a small village in the French Alps. You walk her to the tram, and just as you are about to hug and say goodbye, a group of masked French riot police arrives, shouting orders to disperse and go home. The young woman jumps on the tram, and waves at you through the glass. Back in the station, your train finally arrives and you’re on your way out of France.

You fall asleep during the ride, and wake up in Ventimiglia, just across the border. Now you’re in Italy, and your relationship with the coronavirus is about to get really serious.

The percentage of people wearing masks has dramatically increased, and everywhere you turn there are signs telling you to keep a one-meter distance from others – something that is also announced by the loudspeakers, along with an endless litany of train cancellations, which are also meant to prevent people from moving about, meeting others and spreading the infection. This must be the “social distancing” everybody is talking about.

You can’t help but think about the kiss you shared with a friend just before leaving Jerusalem, and about how a 10-second kiss can exchange more than 80 million microorganisms.

János Chialá

You badly need a coffee, and to your delight you discover that the station’s bar is still open. Inside, a sign says it is forbidden to consume your drink at the bar, which in Italy is almost as strange as the lack of security at the entrance to Ben-Gurion is in Israel.

Back outside, a taxi driver is on the phone, talking about someone who died the day before, then about someone else who just went bankrupt, and then about the fact that the peak of the infection will come in a week, or maybe three. Another man passes by, a scarf wrapped around his face, talking about some new Japanese treatment for the disease, “which seems to be working.” The bells of a nearby church ring and it feels like the most normal thing you have ever heard in your life.

You finally manage to work out your travel itinerary, which will largely consist of short-distance regional trains, since most inter-city connections have been canceled and you want to avoid going through Milan, the center of the outbreak. Once onboard the first train, you notice that nearly everybody is either talking on their phone or looking at it, something that will accompany you throughout your entire journey home.

The beautiful landscapes of Liguria pass by your window, but you’re too busy looking at your own phone, reading the increasingly scary news updates, answering the endless stream of messages from friends and distant acquaintances alike, asking how and where you are, and arguing with people from home who care about you but tell you to go back where you came from and not bring the virus home.

On Italian Facebook, the public enemy of the day is people who insist on going running, which is one of the few reasons for which they are still allowed to go outside.

“I never saw you running in my life,” screams the mayor of some small town in a viral video, “and now you’re all athletes. Stay at home!”

You arrive at Genoa, whose train station is completely deserted except for a few other backpackers like you, looking equally lost. You sit down, next to a man who is shouting into his phone: “What do you want me to do? I am just going home!” Afterward, you ask him how he is, and he tells you that he just got fired from his job, and that he has no intention of staying in Genoa and paying for a hotel.

János Chialá

“I can understand that the authorities did not prepare for this, and now they just have to do what they have to do, but they left us a huge mess to deal with,” he says. “This morning my train got canceled, and it took me eight hours just to get here. I need to get home, I have to be with my kids, even if I won’t even be able to see them.”

While you talk, the station’s loudspeakers repeat their warnings to keep a meter away from other people and their litany of train cancellations, which are also flashing on the station’s notice boards. You wonder why they don’t just cancel the whole schedule, and simply announce the few trains that are still running.

Since the next train south is in a couple of hours, you walk toward the exit, hoping to get a glimpse of the city. Temporary barriers have been set up, guiding people toward a checkpoint manned by masked policemen and soldiers, who seem undecided between shouting orders from a distance and acting normally. Since the lockdown is in place, all people are required to carry an official form explaining the purpose of their being outside their homes.

Your train arrives, and in between all the Whatsapp conversations and arguments, you keep obsessively reading the news, partaking of what some refer to as the world’s first “info-demic” – a perfect storm of disaster, 24/7 news cycles, social media and fake news that bears a strange relationship to what is unfolding in front of your eyes.

The so-called Japanese cure you heard about at the station in Ventimiglia, for example, shows up on the homepage of The Guardian just a few hours later, with the article noting that the shares of the company that produces it “are soaring.”

You see another viral post by a biological researcher who says that since he is paid 1,400 euros a month and soccer players are paid millions, people should ask for a solution from people like Ronaldo and Messi. “The former is actually in isolation after another Juventus player tested positive,” reads one online comment. “At least in this regard we are all equal.”

You smile, before realizing that quarantine must be a very different experience for a millionaire and for a common person who just lost his job and for a woman stuck at home with an abusive husband.

János Chialá

Everybody likes to talk about the coronavirus epidemic as a collective global experience that could finally bring humanity together, but the reality is quite different.

Do you have a stable job that will keep paying you or are you a freelancer? Do you live alone in the countryside, and are therefore able to take a walk outside – or in a small urban apartment, with friends? Does your country even have decent hospitals? Each of these factors creates a different relationship between the virus and a certain person or a certain society.

Then you realize that while you were busy thinking about these things, you missed your station and that as a consequence, you will not be able to the take the last train to Rome for the day. The sun has set, and you find yourself in La Spezia, about 150 kilometers northwest of Florence.

“We are entering a new world,” says a man who agrees to talk to you, and you remember that you wrote exactly the same thing in one of your countless Whatsapp chats, just a few minutes earlier. “But I have a bad feeling about how long this is going to last, and usually I am right. Anyway, we still have to understand what this thing really is. Some say it came from a bat, but I am not sure; other people say it was because the Americans launched some rocket, and what about the Chinese research lab in Wuhan?”

You try to explain to him that there’s a new flu every year, that these things happen, and that anyway America is already affected too, but he remains unconvinced. “There is so much we don’t know about this virus,” he concludes.

You search for somebody who is prepared to talk about his personal experience with what is happening, and not about conspiracy theories. Another man smiles at you, the first person to do so on this journey, or maybe you notice because he’s simply not wearing a mask. You’re also not wearing yours at the moment, and therefore you can smile back.

He’s from Albania, he’s waiting for the same train to Pisa as you, and he offers you a cigarette. Then he laughs and says: “You know, I literally just got out of jail.” You laugh, too, and both agree that you are witnessing a historic moment.

János Chialá

“This is bigger than the fall of communism,” he says. He doesn’t have a phone, so you lend him yours and he finally manages to talk to his wife and two children, who are celebrating his release from jail back in Albania and are also under a total lockdown.

He tells you about prison life in the Time of Corona: “Inmates watch television, so we knew what was happening. Everybody was very worried, but the situation was more or less fine until the prison authorities suspended all visits from the outside.”

This drastic step was taken in order to prevent the infection from spreading to Italy’s overcrowded prisons, and yet it immediately sparked several riots. “We all understood why they did it, but when you’re in prison, a visit from your family is the only thing that keeps you sane,” he explains. “Once that was gone everybody went insane. In my prison they burned an entire wing, and one prisoner died.”

The train arrives in Pisa, where the man’s brother is supposed to pick him up, if the police do not stop him on the way. “I will have to go into isolation now, but it was nice to be free for a few hours,” he says with a smile. You both walk outside the station, and as you are about to say goodbye, two policemen show up, shouting orders to disperse, and your Albanian friend quickly disappears into the night before you can say good-bye.

You begin to feel like you’re in a zombie movie: viruses, police and army everywhere, fear of physical contact, mutual suspicion, fear – and yet there are no zombies around you. There are only people trying to get back home, going to work, saving lives and working to keep a semblance of order in the middle of a global pandemic.

It’s getting late, and after having spent a night outside the train station of Nice, you’re afraid that another one in the cold will make you sick, regardless of the coronavirus. You try a few hotels, but they are closed. You finally find one with the lights on, and a man lets you in, apologizing for welcoming you while wearing a mask. You ask him how he is, and how business has been.

“I’m fine, but I have been involved with this hotel for more than 40 years, and I have never seen anything like this. You’re our only customer tonight,” he says, “and I have only one booking until May.”

As he talks, his phone buzzes with one notification after the other. “I am a coordinator of the local hoteliers’ federation, and everybody is on Whatsapp asking me what to do. We’re all going to be bankrupt if the government doesn’t do something soon.”

He has no idea how long he will be able to stay open: “I simply took out all the money from the hotel’s bank account, and shared it equally with all my employees. This is all I have, and then I wished them good luck,” he says.

You wake up late, not recognizing where you are at first. You check your phone, and for the first time since you embarked on this journey 36 hours ago, there are no new messages. You ask yourself if this is a good sign, and then walk down to the reception desk to drop off your key.

The television is on, and some expert is talking about the fact that Italian cheese is not infected and perfectly safe to consume. You walk across the square facing the Pisa station; there are only homeless and migrants around. You wonder what quarantine means for them, and if they are as scared as you, after experiencing catastrophe on a daily basis for much of their lives.

As soon as you enter the station, you hear the loudspeakers announcing train cancellations and reminding you to keep a meter’s distance from others, while the ticket machine warns you against pickpockets.

On the train to Rome, you find yourself surrounded by a large group of backpackers who are playing cards and sharing jokes as if on a school trip. Just a few weeks ago they had arrived in Ecuador, where they were meant to spend a year volunteering with disabled people and children at risk.

“It was the first time I experienced racism in my life,” one of them tells you. “People were shouting at us in the streets because we are Italians, saying we were infected. Then people started getting sick in Ecuador as well, and the Italian government brought us back to Italy.”

János Chialá

While you interview them, one of the young women receives a vocal message, and lets out a cry: “It’s a friend from home, she’s freaking me out!” She makes you listen to the message, which consists of a list of all the possible worst-case scenarios facing her should she get infected: “Unlucky as you are, and with the shitty immune system that you have, you are really at risk. You have to be careful!”

She shows you another message, in which a friend explains that this entire epidemic is a German plot to sabotage Italy’s trade agreement with China, and that Israel already has a vaccine and is keeping it from the rest of the world.

“I don’t understand how people can believe this stuff” the young woman says, before switching off her phone

The train enters Rome after about a four-hour trip. The sight of the city you were born in under lockdown gives you a strange feeling. You have been in the Termini station a thousand times, dashing through crowds of annoying tourists. Now it is nearly empty. You make your way to the bar, desperate for a coffee. The bartender cannot stop complaining about all the people still out in the streets: “The army, where is the army! We should do like in China, and shoot people on sight!”

You don’t know if anybody actually got shot in China, and it’s not the first time you heard people invoking harsher measures, or wishing we had “somebody like Putin in charge.”

A night in Termini is a tough experience under normal circumstances, so you decide to find another hotel. As you make your way out of the station, you realize that 24/7 supermarkets now close at 7 P.M., and you run to the one under the station just before it closes. At the entrance, an extremely polite worker tells you that it is now compulsory to wear gloves, at which point you realize that you haven’t been wearing yours since you-don’t-know-when. You usually touch your face a lot, you have spent most of the past 48 hours in train stations and public transport, and your bottle of hand sanitizer is still half full.

You’re not taking this seriously, you tell yourself as you buy some food and a yogurt drink whose label claims that it boost one’s immune system. The hotel isn’t so bad after all, and from the window overlooking the courtyard you overhear the TV news: The number of new cases is rising, and hundreds of people are dying every day.

János Chialá

You are definitely not taking this seriously enough.

The next train going south is at 5:30 A.M. so it’s still dark when you leave the hotel. The streets are completely empty except for another lone traveler; the station’s bar is still closed so you’re not going to get any coffee. Once onboard, the loudspeakers announce that by order of the judiciary authorities, this train will not stop today in the town of Fondi, which is experiencing a serious outbreak of the virus and has been cordoned off by the army. One of the backpacking volunteers you met the day before had said she was from Fondi, and you wonder if she’ll be okay.

You find a seat, and without even noticing it, you are scrolling through your Facebook feed. A journalist you know just posted a link to an article mentioning that Fondi has Europe’s second-largest vegetable wholesale market, and how this is probably connected to the outbreak. Another passenger is talking on the phone, explaining how people will keep wearing masks once this is over, just like they are doing in China and Japan.

The train races through the countryside as the dawn breaks, and the fields are wrapped in the morning mist. A friend writes to inquire how you are, and tells you that everything is still fine in Jerusalem, at which point you notice that you received dozens of messages after you fell asleep the night before. One friend has sent you a series of questions: When will she be able to see her boyfriend who lives abroad? Will there be any democracy left in Israel after this? And mainly: WTF?

You get off in Naples and are welcomed by the usual loudspeaker announcements. At the checkpoint between the terminal and the train platforms, the policemen look tired and are in a bad mood. You ask for the form you need to have, explaining the purpose of your being outside your home, and fill it out quickly in your terrible handwriting. Will anybody ever be able to read this? The policemen you hand it to obviously cannot, and angrily asks where you’re coming from. You tell him all about your long journey and then he asks you what your final destination is. You tell him you are going to your village, Cisternino, and he gets really angry. “So why were you on this train?” You realize that he simply has no idea where your village is. He brushes you off, and tells you to get out of there.

You begin to understand what a certain people go through on a daily basis.

A good friend lives literally 200 meters from the station, but you cannot go visit her. Your next train – your seventh – departs for Salerno from the underground station, and you get there just as commuters are getting off another local train. People are still going to work, you tell yourself. The train departs, and the station goes totally silent. You look around, and all the people you see are staring at their phones. Was it always like this? You don’t remember.

János Chialá

The first item on the homepage of La Repubblica, Italy’s main newspaper, is a spike in new cases of the coronavirus in your region, Puglia, which includes “several” parents of students who had returned home from northern Italy. At first it was the Chinese, “who eat dogs,” then it was the Italian businessman who came back from China and went to too many dinners, infecting everybody he ate with, then the people who go jogging, and now it’s the 20-something students who fled to their parents’ homes.

Who’s next, you ask yourself, and then you envision a scenario in which there is an outbreak in your village a few days after you come back.

On the train, an old lady tells you about the images she saw on TV, about the rows of coffins and the army convoys collecting the bodies. Her voice breaks and tears come streaming down on her face. “Enough,” she says. “I am too sad to talk about this, it makes me want to die.” You wonder about the role of the media in this crisis as the train pulls in at the Salerno station.

You walk into another police checkpoint, and once again explain your journey. The policeman hands you the form while keeping his distance, so you actually have to lean in to take it. He tells you to stay away, yet he’s not wearing a mask. They probably didn’t give him one, you tell yourself; it’s not like he choose to be there anyway.

You walk out into the sun, looking for food. An old guy calmly smoking a cigar gives you directions to the closest grocery shop, which turns out to be a proper Italian alimentari, the small food shops that are a central element of Italian identity, and of your childhood. As hummus fades into a distant memory, you order a sandwich with mozzarella di bufala, and then another one.

The lady at the cash register is taking an order for home delivery, and as soon as she hangs up she begins to gossip mercilessly about the woman she just talked to. Even in the middle of a pandemic, one still has to be very careful about keeping up appearances in southern Italy.

The bus from Naples to Taranto passes through some of Italy’s most beautiful mountains, the Dolomites of the south, where you and your ex-girlfriend first became a couple. Now she lives somewhere far away, in a place where the new cases of infection from the virus are climbing rapidly. You wonder if she is okay, and then lose yourself in the landscape until the bus stops in Potenza.

János Chialá

The bus driver walks with you to the bar, and seems to be in a good mood. Inside, chairs wrapped in red tape keep people away bar. While you drink your cappuccino, the bus driver tells the bartender to cheer up, and points at a handmade sign that says “#everythingwillbefine.”

“Tell that to the four employees I had to fire yesterday,” answers the bartender, and an icy silence falls on the room.

The bus departs for Puglia, and on the way it stops in several small villages. In each of them, a police car is waiting and the driver has to explain that all the passengers have had their documents checked before departure. The roads are completely empty, except for the occasional truck.

“So many people are still working in the middle of all this,” you think. It is thanks to them that the supermarkets are still full of food, and that the country continues to function. You try to interview other passengers, but nobody has any intention of talking to a potentially infected stranger. You go back your phone, and begin chatting with a friend who lives in Bologna, but make one coronavirus joke too many and she doesn’t find it funny. She’s been under lockdown for weeks and explains that corona jokes are funny until they’re not.

The bus finally arrives in Taranto, and home is just a few kilometers away. As you get off, you manage to convince another passenger to let you take his picture, and he tells you his story.

“I live in the area where the outbreak began, so we were immediately put under lockdown. After two weeks I fled to a friend’s house somewhere else, and had to be quarantined for two more weeks because of where I came from. Now I’m out of money, so I am going back to my parents, and I will have to spend another two weeks in quarantine,” he says. You ask how he feels about all this.

“I am really scared, especially of infecting my parents. People of all ages are dying, and there is already an outbreak in my hometown. It was a doctor who went to Milano, and when he came back he didn’t go into isolation and then infected several of his patients. What an idiot!”

You wonder what life will be like for people like that doctor after this is over. Will people forgive them? The man continues to talk, listing people who died and their ages as if he were talking about soccer players on his favorite team. “3,500 people died already, 3,500! When was the last time so many people died in Italy?” During the war, you answer. “Yes, and this is also a war. A war against a ghost.”

János Chialá

You make your way to the bus station. The ticket office lady says you look very tired, and asks where you are coming from. “From Jerusalem, and it took me three days to get here.” She smiles and hands you your ticket. “You did a reverse pilgrimage, didn’t you? Welcome back!”

The bus arrives, and the first person you see onboard is wearing a gas mask. You try to not sit near anybody, and then feel you’re about to start coughing. As you drink water to prevent that from happening and potentially setting off a lynch mob, the radio announces the casualty figures for the previous day: over 600 dead. You begin to feel sick.

The bus finally arrives at Martina, a town where you went to school for three years and which you never liked. The sight of its empty streets and shuttered shops fills with you sadness. The feeling you began to experience in Rome grows stronger: This is really no longer a piece of distant news, this is happening to you, and this is your life now. You get off the bus and walk out of the town, descending into the countryside on your way to your parents’ farm.

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the trees are blooming. People are working in the fields, and dogs bark as you pass by. Someone is playing very loud trap music, to which you dance for a while, alone and surrounded by the countryside in spring. You phone keeps buzzing with Whatsapp messages. “Are you okay?” “Did you make it home?” “Dude, where the hell are you?”

After a long walk in the sunshine, you finally see your parents’ farm. You take a photo of your favorite olive tree, and then your father calls your name. You take a selfie to send to your friends and then the phone battery dies.

But now it doesn’t matter anymore.

As your parents are having dinner later on inside, you sit down on your new bed in the small wooden hut outside where you will spend your quarantine, and write the last page of your travel diary.

“We might be living in the time of the coronavirus, but I was out there and saw it with my own eyes: Tomorrow morning people will wake up, get out of bed and, whatever their circumstances, they will keep on doing what they have been doing since the day they were born, with all their failings, all their fears and all their contradictions: being human.”

János Chialá is a freelance journalist and photographer from southern Italy. He used to live in Jerusalem, and hopes to move back there one day.

skip all comments

Comments

Sign in to join the conversation.

Required field
Required field

By adding a comment, I agree to this site’s Terms of use

  1. 1