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Inspire Me

A Dispatch From Lockdown In Italy

Sheena asked me to write about life during lockdown and share my advice for readers who might be facing similar circumstances.

At first, I thought I would write a lighthearted “survival guide” to lockdown and share whimsical dreams of future travel. But as I stared at the blinking cursor on my screen and thought about what I wanted to say, it became increasingly clear that I can’t, at this moment, write anything lighthearted about the coronavirus epidemic. So I’ll start with this:

Anyone who tells you the coronavirus pandemic is being blown out of proportion is either lying or ignorant, or both.

I’m writing from Italy, where we’ve been on nationwide lockdown since March 9th. Schools and universities are closed, as are non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants. Pharmacies and grocery stores remain open, but the number of people allowed to enter at one time is limited. We’re told to stay indoors, leaving the house only to walk the dog or make absolutely necessary errands. If we have yards, balconies or patios, we can spend time on them. We’re at the end of week two of lockdown and there is currently talk that it will be extended for another 21 days—everyone seems to think this will be the case.

A little more than two weeks ago, this situation was nearly unimaginable to most Italians. Yes, schools across the country were already closed, but that seemed like a bit of an overreaction. We were a little worried about our elderly neighbours and relatives getting sick, but that still seemed like a remote possibility. While the coronavirus outbreak was sweeping through northern Italy, it still seemed far away from the rest of us, and we believed containment efforts in the north would work. They didn’t.

When the government issued a nationwide order to stay home and limited the hours of most businesses, including bars and restaurants, it felt a lot more real. Still, people didn’t listen, and they went out for dinner and drinks with friends, gathered in groups and certainly didn’t maintain the required 1-meter distance. Within days, the order was expanded such that bars and restaurants were closed, as were all non-essential businesses.

Italians were/are not permitted to leave their homes except for limited runs to the grocery store or pharmacy. When we do go out, we’re required to bring with us an “auto-certification” form that verifies the trip is necessary, or otherwise we risk a fine. More than 50,000 people across the country have been fined by local police. The urgent, deathly serious message: Stay home means stay home.

If you are living in one of the parts of the world that has just gone into lockdown, or “shelter in place” as they call it in California, I encourage you to take the orders seriously. They were not made lightly, but rather as an effort to unify people the world over to take this pandemic seriously and work together to stop or slow it.

If you are living in a part of the world where the coronavirus is just starting to hit and your local, state or national government has not yet issued lockdown orders, don’t wait for them to do so—take the initiative now, stock up the fridge and pantry, and stay home. Your life might not depend on it, but your grandmother’s might. You might catch coronavirus and never show symptoms, but you could infect the store clerk who has a child at home with a chronic illness, or who cares for her elderly father. There is absolutely no room for selfishness in this climate.

It may seem nonsensical for a travel magazine to advise its readers to stay home. But we are living through extraordinary times and I, for one, don’t believe there’s a person on the planet who knows when we’ll come out of it or quite what the world will look like when it’s all over. Yes, every person reading this is very likely to survive the pandemic as will, hopefully, all our friends and dear ones. But untold thousands will not, and it’s time for all of us to do our parts to keep those causalities as low as possible—it’s a responsibility that supersedes every other non-essential need in our lives right now.

I’ve had trips to Malta, South Africa and Australia cancelled or postponed to as-yet-to-be-determined dates. On a personal level (and a professional one, as I’m a travel writer), it’s crushingly disappointing. In the wider scheme of things, it’s utterly insignificant.

We will all, hopefully, be able to travel again to all the parts of the world we wish to see and experience. I hope that when we do, it’s with a gentler, less selfish approach, one that considers the fragility of our planet and the human and non-human life struggling to survive on it. With that, I make the following call to travellers planning their post-corona voyages:

  • If you must fly to your destination, purchase carbon offsets for your trip, and fly with airlines that are making a demonstrated commitment to reducing their carbon emissions.
  • If you can take a train instead of flying or driving, consider doing so, even if it takes a little longer to get there.
  • When you book lodging, book directly and, for the time being, at least, with small and/or independently owned hotels, resorts and B&Bs that don’t have the safety net of a large corporation behind them.
  • When you’re on the ground at your destination, spend your money with local businesses that are invested in their communities. If the choice is to grab a coffee at a tiny, locally owned bar or a vento latte from a large, multinational franchise, well, that’s a no-brainer.
  • Respect local laws and customs. If you’re not supposed to climb that rock or trample on that arctic tundra, don’t do it—no Instagram shot is worth the damage and disrespect.
  • Don’t engage in activities that use and exploit captive or wild animals. Just don’t.
  • Travel where your money is needed, to destinations dependent on tourism that have been the hardest hit. Italy, of course, comes to mind. If there’s to be any hope of the country bouncing back, she will need an influx of tourists who visit enthusiastically, responsibly and lovingly. And there will be many, many places in the world just like Italy, where your money, presence, patience, and kindness will be sorely needed.

This isn’t the essay I sat down to write. But it’s the only one I felt I could write, under the current, dire circumstances. The world will wait for us all. And when it is time to travel again, let’s do so with a new sense of appreciation of travel not as a way to tick items off a bucket list or chalk up “experiences” and lists of countries visited, but as a way to learn about, love, and help the world.


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