Coronavirus Reports from Our Guides in Europe — Week 6

Through the ongoing coronavirus crisis, we’re looking for bright spots. And one of the brightest comes in the form of updates from our tour guides around Europe. Hearing from our European friends is a great reminder that we are all in this together — and we will be together again, when the crisis is over.

Continuing our weekly series, here’s what we’ve been hearing from our guides this week:

In Athens, Filippos Kanakaris describes the Orthodox Easter celebration that took place in Greece earlier this week:

“In Greece, we have been on a very strict lockdown for the last four weeks, which includes a certain procedure in order to be allowed to go out. That includes specifying the reason (which you send in a text to a relevant authority) and always carrying a valid form of identification with you in case the police stops you in one of the very frequent random checks that are being performed on a daily basis. The whole country has gone into an eerie silent mode, and empty streets have turned the urban centers into ghost towns. I take some very empty photographs when I take my bike on authorized trips.

“Churches have also been closed to the public for weeks now, and for the first time in centuries, Easter celebrations were confined within the premises of our apartments without any guests allowed. This has been unthinkable for the Greeks, considering the intensity of Easter celebrations in the country — which include the consumption of a lot of traditional food such as lamb on a spit.

“Despite all these unusual times we all live in, the mayors of Athens and other large communities went ahead with the fireworks associated with the occasion. (Fireworks and loud noises represent the loud victory of life over death that happened through the resurrection of Jesus.) I’m not religious at all, but the experience of the fireworks was a rather spiritual one. It worked as a symbolic reinstatement of the belief that there is light somewhere at this end of this very long tunnel.”


In Switzerland, Mirjam Grob writes:

“In January, I moved to a very small village in the countryside of French-speaking Switzerland. Especially in these days, I am very happy to live here. The solidarity between people here is great: We take care of each other, check in regularly (especially with the elderly), and keep on singing and playing music together at safe distances and around campfires in the evening, so nobody becomes too isolated.

“I have also been busy taking care of my garden. Together with three other women of the little village, we garden almost every day. It is very likely that prices for vegetables will increase a lot this summer, as Swiss farmers were not able to get the farm workers from other countries as usual (who were paid far less than Swiss workers and made it possible to sell the vegetables for the lower prices we were used to during the past decades). As I also lost almost all my income — with museums being closed and translation work also becoming scarce — I am very happy that I will have at least a lot of vegetables from my garden!

“I also enclose a little pictures of my lovely cat, who is very happy to have me spending more time with him, sitting on one of the jigsaw puzzles that I have been doing a lot of recently.”

In France, Arnaud Servignat posted this musical video playing along with Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus — Cum Dederit”:

In Turkey, Lale Sürmen Aran wrote to tell us about the very important national celebration that took place earlier this week and how it was modified because of coronavirus concerns:

“April 23 is both Turkey’s national holiday and Children’s Day. In fact, this year was the 100th anniversary of the Turkish National Assembly. Under normal circumstances, every year, Turkey invites hundreds of children from around the world to celebrate with Turkish children. Children fill up stadiums and celebrate. There are parades and fireworks. This year, instead, we all went out to our balconies, or stood in front of open windows, and sang the national anthem exactly at 21:00. And to make up for the cancelled celebrations, they streamed a concert in which Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and important Turkish music, were performed in striking locations.”

Lale also wrote that her family had a scary week: Her 12-year-old son began running a fever of over 105 degrees. He was taken to the hospital, where hazmat-suited medical staff gave him tests for various diseases — including COVID-19 (all covered by the national healthcare system). Fortunately, he tested negative and is feeling better now. Lale notes that one big challenge was isolating him at home while they waited for results: “In Istanbul, isolation is not easy in the condominiums that most of us live in.” They were also contacted by members of the Ministry of Health’s “tracking crew” — contact tracers assigned with investigating possible COVID-19 cases.

In Italy, Susanna Perrucchini writes about another big celebration happening this week, which is causing her to re-evaluate an old holiday through new eyes:

“This Saturday, April 25th, is Italy’s Liberation Day — in fact, it’s the 75th anniversary of the liberation from Nazi occupation and the fascist regime. This year, that holiday is taking on a new importance. Today we are fighting a virus that is already decimating many of our older people — including those who were born before or during World War II. With them, we are losing parents, grandparents, dear loved ones, and our legacy…our link to a recent past.

“Only one year ago, many Italians would have celebrated this holiday by taking a few extra days off work to fare il ponte — ‘make a bridge’ between the April 25 and May 1 holidays. Many of us would have had a picnic or a day trip to the countryside or the sea. But instead we are all at home, feeling a sense of impotence and great tragedy. We are just starting to realize how our lives have been turned upside-down…just like that, almost in the blink of an eye.

“Because of the ‘Eternal Lockdown,’ our celebrations will be virtual, starting at 11:00 with the National Anthem (for details, see Reading about the celebrations, these words struck me: ‘On April 25, liberty is reborn. This year, on the 75th anniversary of the Liberation, we need, more than ever, to celebrate our freedom, to look at the future with hope and courage.’

“I don’t see these words as easy rhetoric. I see them, maybe for the first time in my life, with a strong need to go back to our deep roots and values. As Italians, we have never been very patriotic. Italy started World War II allied with Hitler and finished on the other side, with the winners — quite an achievement! We always felt a bit silly declaring our love and pride for our country. We believed that criticizing and blaming others (politicians, local authorities, public servants, you name it) was the only way to face our deep frustrations and anger for being born in a country that’s so beautiful and yet so inefficient and corrupt.

“But I decided that today I want to be optimistic, because we need that now more than ever. This epidemic may give us all a chance for personal growth, and maybe for a new global awareness of our true needs as human beings. I never longed so much for a walk in a park, with trees and flowers and fresh air. Being confined in my flat, I feel I am losing my inner balance — and being close to the sea, countryside, or nature is the best medicine.

“I looked at those black-and-white pictures of April 25th, 1945, and I saw cheering crowds in the streets of Italy: men and women hugging, kissing, and dancing with wide smiles on their faces. War was over, and so was death, hunger, and misery. They needed to believe they were facing the dawn of a new, bright era with no starvation and violence.

“Those images will help me remember that losing hope is the worst we can all do. Seventy-five years ago, from the ruins, rubble, and debris of the past, they started to build — stone by stone, brick by brick — a new country. Endurance and resilience are needed. And we can look at our recent past to find them in our people.”

And finally, from Naples, Alfredo Cafasso Vitale offers this essay, which he calls “Pane e Camorra” (loosely translated as “Bread and the local Mafia family”):

The baskets shown in the picture below — called panaro solidale, ‘supportive basket’ — have been posted, tweeted, shared, and printed all over the world. Stars like Madonna have chosen to share these images, to highlight to their followers how good-hearted and creative the Italians can be in moments of need. This spontaneous initiative by two locals, living along the Spaccanapoli, is however, only one of many in Naples, and its people have initiated to fight the increasing poverty and distress occurring to families during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“The sign reading Chi può metta, chi non può prenda (‘If you can, put in something; if you need, take something out’) is a wonderful motto created by a doctor, Giuseppe Moscati (sainted by Pope John Paul II in 1987), who used to cure poor Neapolitans for free in the early 1900s. In these days of COVID-19, when doctors and health-care personnel are on the front line of the fight against this deadly virus, the motto resonates perfectly.

“Apart from the obvious humanitarian response to assist those in desperate need, there is another underlying need for these initiatives: to counter the efforts of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, which is trying to take advantage of people’s distress.

“In the words of judge Catello Maresca, who coordinated the capture of the Camorra boss Michele Zagaria in 2011 and today is heading one of the food distribution initiatives: ‘They pretend to be your friend, lending money to people in need, or buying them food or other primary needs. But tomorrow, once the emergency over, they will hand them a heavy bill. When they will ask a housewife or a retired person to hide drugs in their homes, who will be able to refuse?’

“Some might have heard of the caffè sospeso (‘spended coffee’), which is a unique Neapolitan feature.  A customer in a bar will take a coffee, but will sometimes pay for two. This coffee ‘credit’ can then be passed on to someone who cannot afford to pay for one. The COVID-19 version of this feature is now spesa sospesa — ‘suspended shopping.’ When shopping in a neighborhood grocery, butcher or bakery, one can pay for something to leave for people in need, on the same principle as the coffee.

“The familiar hum and whine of scooters is an integral part of the noise of life in the central historic neighborhoods as anything else. Silenced at the beginning of the lockdown, these scooters have now found another function: distributing food boxes, prepared both from the municipalities and from associations (like the evangelical Tabita Onlus). The Red Cross has also distributed more than three thousand food boxes during these lockdown weeks.

“Other initiatives involving citizens, municipalities, the Catholic Church, and NGOs include food vouchers, tables outside buildings collecting food, distribution of free books, and all kinds of other services offered to the those in need, in a network of solidarity unseen  in the last decades of globalized economy.

“Napoli has a unique mixture of social, economic, and cultural classes, all sharing the same spaces, which are mainly, but not exclusively in the historic center of the city — neighborhoods like Quartieri Spagnoli, Vergini, Sanità, and Pallonetto a Santa Lucia.

“The ground floors of the (ancient) buildings, called palazzi, are made up of bassi, the one-room, ground floor apartments where the poorest inhabitants live. The higher floors house the more spacious apartments of the signori, the much wealthier citizens live. These two diverse groups of people continue to share the same building in an everyday dynamic unknown in any other city in the world.

“The streets of the Quartieri used to be the domain of the scugnizzi, the poor and aggressive yet sweet-hearted street kids, who are part of the iconography of Neapolitan art and cinema.

“Today, a more varied population — made up of Neapolitans and immigrants from African, Asian, and Eastern European countries — shares life in the bassi, and today’s signori are mostly Neapolitan intellectuals and young professionals that find here beautiful, historic apartments, often with breathtaking views, at reasonable prices.

“The people of the bassi and the signori share more than just housing. They share, in fact, everyday life, with the same open-air markets, and the difficulties of living in a city where often legal and illegal practices live side by side.

“Naples is indubitably a complex and contradictory city, and, as a result, it has generated a series of misconceptions: It is not easy to distinguish the traits of the Neapolitan identity from the stereotypes, and it is difficult for non-Neapolitans to fully grasp the delicate balance between legality and what here is called arte di arrangiarsi — ‘the art of making do’ — that often collides with the Camorra and for sure with a parallel, untaxed economical system.”

It’s clear that each country and region — and each individual — is dealing with their own challenges during this time. And yet, it’s also clear that we are all in this together.