They stand at the bar to take their coffee, shoulder to shoulder as if sardines in a tin. This is how they like it, feeling the contents of each other’s days and contributing to the conviviality of things. This is what Italian people are known for, their sense of solidarity and philosophy of collective living.
Today, though, things appear differently: they still stand side by side at the bar, but there is more distance between them, and face masks are pulled up and down between sips of espresso. There is no doubt that Coronavirus is the new Queen of Italy, dictating the law of “social distancing” that would under normal circumstances be inconceivable; from language to food culture, life here relies on intimacy.
I visit the village bakery for my slice of chickpea pancake and collect ox-heart tomatoes at the local market. My daily routes are much the same, despite the noticeable closure of a previously frequented bar along the way. Between each conversation, there is a moment where we briefly pull our face masks down to reveal a full facial expression so that we can experience a moment of real connection. Admittedly, from time to time, you may receive a small kiss on the cheek from someone near to you – as if the compromise of a “little and brief” kiss is acceptable, and therefore allowed by Queen Coronavirus.
This is a culture adapting to new ways of connecting in a “new normal”. How can we still feel close to one another? How do we maintain connection? These are the questions that you feel in the atmosphere. You also feel a fierceness. Just as Italian people are known for their beautiful community collectiveness, equally they are known for their determination when facing adversity – the state and the people and fiercely evolving to adapt, to maintain their culture of closeness.
There is no doubt that society here has changed: military vehicles pass in the street affirming the Queen’s continued existence, the theatre is an experience of one actress instead of many, and bankcards are for the first time as widely accepted as cash.
But there is equally a palpable strength and determination to continue to live in solidarity and togetherness. I feel myself reflecting on the collectivist culture that is here, where the greatest importance is how they see themselves in relation to another (e.g. “I am a generous person,” rather than “I am self-reliant”). This tradition of collective culture is something that they will fight for with determination and belief. After all, these are people who select a single pizza topping and dedicate their entire meal to it; they don’t wish for “half and half” topping combinations or salad with their pizza. These are people of conviction.