Lisa Marchese grew up in Seattle but now lives and works in Italy. She agreed to share some reflections about living through the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy.
(Note: This article initially appeared in KGW, an affiliate TV station of NBC in Seattle.)
Photo: Lisa Marchese
Published: 2:52 PM PDT March 24, 2020
Updated: 3:19 PM PDT March 24, 2020
CHAPTER 1 Leaving the U.S. for Italy
CHAPTER 2 The beginning of the outbreak
CHAPTER 3 Death and restrictions
CHAPTER 4 A different Italy
CHAPTER 5 Dante’s Inferno
MILANO, Italy — Editor’s note: Lisa Marchese is single. “I married my job several years ago,” she jokes. She is a recovering litigator who had a thriving law practice in the Northwest until one day she discovered she was burned out and wanted a change. She grew up in Seattle and attended Blanchet High School. That’s where she and KGW reporter Pat Dooris met. Recently, during social media discussions about their upcoming 40th high school reunion, Lisa mentioned she now lives and works in Italy. Pat asked if she would share some reflections about life there with the Coronavirus. This is the result.
Are you sick? Can you go outside? Are people singing from the balconies on your street? Do you have enough food? These are just some of the many questions I get now almost daily from family and friends back home.
I don’t mind the questions at all. In fact, they are comforting because I know they come from people who love and care about me. During these extraordinary times that is about the best gift anyone could receive.
I am an expatriate from Seattle, working in Italy. With a population of over 60 million, Italy is now the world’s epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Italy’s northern region of Lombardia, with over 10 million inhabitants, has been hit the hardest, by far. I live in Milano, the capital of Lombardia. I go to sleep every night at ground zero. Three weeks ago, I was upset that my gym had closed. Now I get up every morning and celebrate another day without flu-like symptoms.
These days, I, too, ask myself a lot of questions. Usually, they are the same ones and they pound at me all day long. What the f__ has happened? Why did this happen? What if I get sick? What if someone in my family gets sick back home? Will I ever go home again? What will it be like when this all ends? And the most difficult one of all: What happens when the person you are today leaves this world and meets the person you could have become? So far, I really do not like my answer to that question. Just as the world was not ready for the coronavirus pandemic, I am not ready for that imagined encounter.
As for the efficacy of all these questions and answers (the tools of my trade as a recovering trial lawyer), there is something else that bothers me too. It is hard to give honest answers to the people you love about what things are really like here at the epicenter. If I really told the truth about everything I have seen, experienced and how I feel about all of this, they would worry — especially my parents. I was raised in a traditional Italian Catholic family with a strong work ethic and an even stronger belief that you stand tall in the face of adversity. Above all, you protect your family and loved ones without condition, so much so that love and loyalty often get lost in each other. If you find yourself living in a hot war zone during the middle of a global pandemic, you tell them everything is just fine, even when it is not. Why upset people when you should protect them? Can I really protect them? Should I try? These questions race through my mind daily and they are exhausting. Cross examining adverse witnesses was a whole lot easier than this kind of self/cross examination.
I believe everything in our lives happens for a reason. Our challenge is to make sense of these events when they occur. I embrace my Catholic faith, even though I have many faults and failings. Like most everyone else these days, I pray. I ask for strength. I ask for healing. I ask for help. But I also I have a lot of anger and other destructive emotions that need an outlet, or they will continue to eat away at me from the inside out like acid. Then, somewhat out of the blue, an old high school friend contacted me and asked if I would write about my experiences. At first, I wasn’t very enthusiastic. Then, I thought about it a little more. Maybe the universe is inviting me to vent in a constructive way. After all, my red wine stash will only last so long.
Better still, maybe I have the chance to find the good in all of this and share a message of hope. It will be a challenge because what is happening in Italy is catastrophic, cataclysmic and unparalleled with anything I have ever experienced in my lifetime. None of us will ever go back to the lives we had before. We will all live in a new normal when it is over. But the tragedies we endure in our lives will either define us or destroy us. The choice is ours to make. I choose the former. I choose hope. Although this pandemic is life-changing for us all, I firmly believe in the end, “andrà tutto bene (everything will be alright).”
Having committed to tell the story, the undertaking gets a little harder. How do you describe the indescribable? History has recorded many devastating pandemics. It would certainly be easy to wax poetic about the Spanish Flu of 1918 which originated in Europe and wiped out about one-third of the world’s population. But the world was a different place then. There was no internet or 24-hour news cycle complete with social media generated hysteria. The world was far less connected and people were far more self-sufficient. For one thing, they didn’t feel the need to panic buy all the toilet paper in their local markets to ensure their survival.
While there are no shortages of historical parallels, our experiences with this pandemic are very different. We are much more technologically advanced. However, we are more interdependent and far more vulnerable. It is one thing to study the affairs of history. It is quite another to live through the events that become our history. The experience of living through this period is the story that should be told. Natalia Ginzburg, one of the greatest Italian authors of 20th Century once observed, “I think of a writer as a river. You reflect what passes before you.” As one of my favorite writers, I feel it is appropriate to draw upon Ginzburg’s wisdom now as I try to share my reflections from ground zero in Milano.
Leaving the U.S. for Italy
‘Italy, home to La Dolce Vita‘
In 2018, I left my law practice in Seattle to pursue a lifelong dream to live and work in Italy. I married my career years ago which means I am single. I had a fantastic career as a trial lawyer with a large client portfolio and a good reputation in the Northwest. I was a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. But by the end of 2017, I was feeling burned out by too much work and not enough adventure.
I remember one morning in late 2017, after a week of travel that included DC, Anchorage and back to Seattle, I woke up and for the first 3 minutes or so, I honestly did not know where I was. That really concerned me. So, I thought long and hard about what would make me happy and I have always been connected to Italy through my family. I always wanted to live and work here so I took the plunge and left my practice. Basically, I decided it was time for a divorce from life as a practicing commercial litigator. We still remain friends though. I had a great career — and now I am trying to build an even better one here with my consulting work.
At the time, many people thought I was crazy. After all, I am a creature of habit and generally I don’t like change. I am a to-do list kind of gal and I find disarray painful. I remember being traumatized as a child when I read “The Cat in the Hat.” I found the antics of Thing One and Thing Two to be vile, not funny. Moreover, I thought Dr. Seuss was gratuitously cruel for making us wait until the end before we learned that the mess in Sally’s house was finally cleaned up. I like to plan and I always look two weeks ahead on my work calendar. I am at the airport early for my flight and if we have a 9 a.m. meeting, I will arrive by 8:55.
2020 was off to a great start. Despite the change of scenery and my neurotic tendencies, I was really settling into life here with a joy I hadn’t felt for a long time. There were challenges but I could handle them in stride. Italy, home to “La Dolce Vita,” is known for many wonderful things. Order and organization, however, are not on the list. I didn’t mind because I was developing this amazing thing they call patience, which is a great coping mechanism, particularly for “Italian time.” Translated loosely, that means meetings don’t start here until at least 15 to 30 minutes after the time they are scheduled. I have a great job and I have fallen in love with my work and in Milano. It was nice to smile again.
The beginning of the outbreak
‘Sudden and unexpected silence‘
Up until about a month ago, the coronavirus outbreak in China was a blip on my radar screen. I saw the occasional news report of the horrific ground conditions in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province. To be honest, however, I didn’t think a whole lot more about it other than it was tragic. It was something happening far away from my world. My daily routine went on. I got up early, went to the gym, went to work and hung out with my friends. I was preoccupied with business projects, the weather forecast, my weekend plans, and when I would be able to leave for Puglia to spend Easter vacation with my family. If it was a sunny day, I could go for a run or take a walk. If I didn’t feel like cooking (which is most of the time), I could go out to eat. I had all the freedom I could ever want, yet I had no real appreciation of it.
Milano is a vibrant city and there is always something happening. You hear the most wonderful music and laughter when you walk through the heart of town. It is a collective and harmonious sound reminding you that people are alive and connected to each other in the moments of their lives. I didn’t quite appreciate how much of a comfort those sounds were until they were replaced with sudden and unexpected silence a few weeks ago. Now we are surrounded with a lot of silence here, so much so it is deafening.
There is one loud and persistent noise we hear every day with increasing frequency: ambulances. I never really paid much attention to ambulances before unless I was crossing the street they were on. Before, the sound of the sirens was just part of the city’s ambient static. Not anymore. I cant even begin to describe how unnerving it is to hear them now day in and day out. You know someone with coronavirus is in trouble. You know the health care system and its workers are stretched beyond capacity. You know the number of new infections and deaths are spiking daily. You try to determine if the ambulance is on a call near your home. Every blaring siren makes you feel like you are waiting in the wings with everyone else, wondering whether someday there will be a knock on your door because you have a date with the executioner.
Coronavirus struck Italy with a vengeance, seemingly out of nowhere. It first hit northern Italy and before we knew it, the entire region of Lombardia and 15 surrounding provinces — about one quarter of Italy’s population — were placed into lockdown. With limited exceptions, no could travel into or out of those areas. Within a matter of days, the entire country was shut down. The only stores that remain open are supermarkets, pharmacies and a limited list of essential businesses. Both actions were announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in press conferences that occurred at 2 a.m. local time. On each occasion, family or friends at home learned of the quarantines before I did since it was 5 p.m. back in Seattle when the stories broke.
I remember a painful conversation with my mother the morning Italy was shut down completely. Like a good Italian mom, she has no respect for time zones or her daughter’s love of sleeping in on the weekends, particularly when she needs to ask me something. When I answered the phone that Sunday morning, the first thing my mom wanted to know was whether I had enough food in my apartment (of course that is the first thing). Then, she was insistent that I stay inside. At first, I was a little irritated by these seemingly ridiculous questions. The conversation got worse before it got better. After a few rounds of our usual verbal jousting, I figured out what had occurred, apologized profusely for my congenital “bad attitude” and we declared a truce. I still find it odd, though, that my mother in Seattle, over 5,000 miles away, knew what was happening in my own neighborhood before I did. There isn’t much that is familiar anymore.
At the start of the quarantine, things were manageable. With the internet, a cell phone and videoconferencing, I could work from home. I could take a break midday and go outside for a run or take a walk. We just had to make sure we maintained a minimum distance of one meter from others in public. We could go to the supermarket to get food and essentials. It was a little over a week ago when I convinced myself that this new routine was only temporary and everything would be okay. Unfortunately, that thought didn’t age well.
Death and restrictions
‘My apartment feels like a crypt‘
Despite the government’s nationwide containment restrictions, the number of new infections and deaths has continued to rise at an alarming rate, with the bulk of them in Lombardia. With 5,000 deaths, Italy has the most coronavirus related fatalities in the world (editor’s note: the number is now above 6,000). Almost 65% of them have been in Lombardia. The town of Bergamo has the greatest number of reported cases, as well as the highest death toll. They have been using churches as temporary mortuaries. Burials occur every 30 minutes, with no funerals, ceremonies or loved ones in attendance to say goodbye. Yesterday, the military had to transport almost 100 bodies from Bergamo because they ran out of space.
When I think about the loved ones I have lost in my life, I remember how important their funerals and memorial services were. These events let us honor their lives and they gave us the opportunity to say goodbye. I was very close to my aunt who died of cancer several years ago. Although it was one of the worst things I have ever seen, I am so grateful that I was there to hold her hand when she passed. Now, my heart breaks into a million pieces for the families and the loved ones of those who have died. Their pain must be unbearable. Not only has coronavirus murdered innocent victims with impunity; it has also robbed their loved ones of the opportunity to say goodbye. All of this is happening in a town about 36 miles away from where I live.
This week the government issued yet another round of restrictions to keep people from leaving their homes for almost any reason. Under the first set of emergency rules, you could leave your home freely to take a walk, go for a run or go to the store, provided you were maintaining one meter of distance from others in public. If you needed to travel a greater distance, for example, to see a doctor or go to work, you had to fill out a self-authorization form indicating the purpose of your trip, where you lived and when you would return.
Now, there is a new authorization form and you need to have it on your person anytime you go outside, regardless of the reason. The form also requires you to affirm you have not tested positive for COVID-19 and you are not currently in a 14-day quarantine. Anyone stopped without this form faces stiff fines and penalties. We have a pretty significant police presence in the streets to enforce these rules. Quite frankly, the thought of walking out my front door to get food has me a little stressed out, even though the grocery store is only about 200 meters away. I spend entire days at home without leaving, so much so that my apartment feels like a crypt.
The isolation that comes with life in quarantine is a challenge. When this is all over, I need to do two things without fail. First, I have got to paint the walls a different color. Next, I need to figure out how to take a vacation from myself. We have spent far too much time with each other. I really need a break.
A different Italy
‘Everyone has disengaged‘
Through this isolation, I have realized that one of the things I love most about Italy is how kind and welcoming the people are. They greet one another with a smile that fills you up with a warmth that is indescribable. Whether out for a run, a walk or in the store, I really enjoyed the greetings and the smiles. It made me feel connected to a world that I love. Sadly, like so many other things, I didn’t really appreciate how wonderful this was until it stopped.
Everything is different. When we are out in public now, everyone avoids one another as much as possible. People run to opposite ends of an empty street in desperation as they pass each other. I understand the reason, but it is unsettling, nonetheless. Instead of that wonderful sense of connection, everyone has disengaged. People are even afraid to make eye contact, as though the virus will be spread by a mere glance of fear or anxiety.
In the grocery stores, there are markings on the floor to help you comply with the one meter of distance rule. The concept is a good one; however, some people’s reaction to it is not. About a week ago, before the latest restrictions were imposed, I was standing in line to pay for my groceries. The woman in front of me realized she needed an item on a shelf next to where I was standing. She instinctively took a step toward me to reach for the item. Then, she stopped suddenly and snapped into hysteria, apologizing profusely for encroaching into my space. I handed her the item and assured her that everything was OK, and “ce la faremo” (everything will be alright), a viral phrase we are all clinging to like a life preserver. It seems like a trivial incident, but I cannot get the look of terror that was in her eyes out of my mind.
Italians are kind, generous and resilient. They sing from balconies and they look out for their neighbors. I have seen countless acts of kindness and selflessness from so many Italians during this crisis. It makes me so very proud, especially as an Italian American. But the truth is, we are all scared and it is the kind of fear that can be paralyzing.
My new daily routine isn’t one I like very much. I try to work. I try to exercise. I try to connect with my family and friends at home to let them know I am OK. Then I battle the demons that come with fear and isolation. Truth be told, I think about giving up every day and that thought alone scares me even more.
Don’t worry, I don’t mean anything drastic like suicide. I mean giving up as in letting go of hope and resigning myself to a fate that this will end badly and it is just a matter of time. Giving up as in not trying, letting go of the little things that keep me connected to everyday life like cleaning my apartment, doing laundry, doing a 30-minute workout. Giving up the fight to make the best of a bad situation. I know once I give up that fight, I give up hope.
At 6 p.m. every night there is a dreaded ritual. That is when the Minister of Health holds his nightly press conference to announce the numbers. He announces the number of new cases, the number of newly deceased, the number of patients who are hospitalized and in intensive care and the number who have recovered. It is chilling and disheartening but for some reason I can’t stop myself from watching. I listen for good news, but I come away even more depressed.
The numbers are staggering. I don’t know what I will do if I get sick. The hospitals are beyond capacity and the health care system is on the brink of collapse. I am on my own if the worst happens and I live with that reality every day. The anxiety these thoughts generate is gut wrenching and it drives me to my knees at least a dozen times a day. But I refuse to give up.
‘I, too, want to see the stars again’
It is curious that the coronavirus outbreak in Italy has coincided with Lent. Churches here have been closed since the week of Ash Wednesday. There are no masses, something I find a bit disheartening. Mass in Italian is beautiful, and I enjoy going each week, especially during Lent, the one season in the Liturgical calendar that you really shouldn’t screw up being Catholic. The significance of Lent during this extraordinary time is not lost on me. It is a time of preparation, penance and self-sacrifice. Above all, it is a time of hope.
Lent is a time I like to re-read one of the greatest epic poems ever written, Dante’s Inferno. It has special meaning during this time period because Dante’s allegorical journey into Hell began on Holy Thursday and ended when he emerged the morning of Easter Sunday. Many critics reduce the Inferno to a brutal story of harsh biblical justice. I suppose that is one way to look at it; however, I see things differently.
As Dante descends through the nine circles of Hell, he describes his encounters with those he meets by their sins in life and their corresponding punishments in Hell. This concept, known as “contrapasso” means that the nature of a person’s sin in life dictates his punishment in Hell. As I watch news of all the panic buying and fighting back home, I am reminded of Dante’s encounter with the sinners in the 4th Circle, home to the spenders and hoarders.
The spenders are forced to carry enormous weight and hoarders have nothing. Each wants what the other has but will never get it. In life, spenders never valued what they had so they just kept buying more and more. Now they are stuck with the eternal burden of carrying that weight. Hoarders always wanted more in life but in Hell, they will never have anything again. Maybe those among us today who feel compelled to fight for every last roll of toilet paper or case of bottled water should think long and hard about what they have and what they truly need. We are all in this together and we need to take care of each other.
The point of the Inferno is one of hope, not despair. Contrapasso gives us an opportunity to understand the consequences of our conduct while we are still living. It gives us the opportunity to choose a better path. It encourages us to change for the better. That is how I read the Inferno. It is how I choose to view this pandemic and all its horrors as it envelops our world here at ground zero.
I have gone on my own allegorical journey of sorts within the confines of my small one-bedroom apartment in quarantine. What have I really done with my life that matters? I am not talking about money or career success. Have I told the people in my life I care about that I love them? Have I given more to the world than I ever took? How many times did I look the other way when someone needed help? Have I apologized for all the hurtful things I have said to people in anger? Have I forgiven those who have wronged me? These have been very difficult questions for me. But every morning that I wake up is one more day, one more opportunity to find better answers. In the end, I hope this experience will make me a better daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, colleague, friend and neighbor. I hope it inspires an end to the hateful, destructive rhetoric that divides us all.
Someday, hopefully soon, this pandemic will subside. We will return to our offices, our gyms, our favorite stores and restaurants. We will go out with our friends and attend parties. We will hear laughter and music again. As for me, I will still live by my calendar, arrive to meetings early and hold steadfast to the belief that “The Cat in the Hat” is a book unsuitable for children. But I hope I will have a deeper love for the world I live in, a better understanding of the needs of my neighbors, family and friends. I hope I will have a more profound appreciation of both the goodness and fragility of life.
At the end of the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgilio climb out of the darkness of Hell and return to a world illuminated by God’s light and love: “And so we emerged — once more — to see the stars.” [Inf., 34.139]. I, too, want to see the stars again.