I had to cover Italy’s coronavirus outbreak. All I had was a ski mask.
On the afternoon of Feb. 23, I was driving with my family and a photographer to the Italian Alps for an assignment about the impact of global warming, and for some days of vacation in a ski lodge. The kids giddily noticed patches of white snow. I made reservations at a fondue spot. The phone rang.
An editor told me the number of coronavirus infections in the northern Italian region of Lombardy had erupted to 150 cases. I had to get to the area around Milan as soon as possible.
As I drove the few remaining miles to drop my family off at the lodge, I alternated between apologizing to my wife, Claudia, and asking her to read out loud Italian news reports.
Outside the lodge it was incredibly quiet and white. As Claudia checked in, and the photographer waited anxiously in the car, I dug through the luggage, and grabbed some essentials. I kissed my family goodbye and left them under the Matterhorn. It was the last time I’d touch them for a month.
Speeding south for hours, I typed the names of the closest centers of infection into Google Maps. I spelled the town of Casalpusterlengo wrong over and over.
It got dark and desperation set in. Then, I noticed it, flashing off an approaching highway exit like Gatsby’s green light. It was the blue siren of a police checkpoint. We had reached the outbreak.
That initial cluster of cases has since spread across Italy, infecting tens of thousands, killing thousands and keeping a population of 60 million people essentially in lockdown. So far, I’ve been lucky. I am not sick. My family in Rome is not sick either.
Friends and family back in the United States or around Europe check in with me, asking how we’re doing. They sign off “Stay safe” — the “Sincerely” of the coronavirus age. But in some notes I detect a hint of appeal, a search for insights and instructions from my experience reporting on the front line of a crisis that is coming to them.
Our editors in London immediately got us a supply of masks and hand sanitizer and over the next dozen days, as the crisis intensified and fear spread across Italy, the photographer Andrea Mantovani, my Rome bureau colleague Emma Bubola and I reported across the Lombardy region.
For much of it I was dressed for a ski trip.
After listening to old men blithely tell us about how their buddies slipped out of quarantine over old country roads to join them for a drink, I returned to Milan. There, I went to a mostly shuttered Chinatown, where my favorite dumpling place had a sign reading “Donate to China.”
I bumped into a friend there coming back from work. He recognized me despite my mask and shook my hand. He invited me over for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine but I told him better next time. We parted and he went home to his new baby.
A few minutes later I frantically wrote him insisting he wash his hands.
Throughout the hectic days up north, I ricocheted between extreme caution — wearing the masks, washing my hands like Lady Macbeth — and letting my guard down. Milan was emptied out, but those who remained lived life like normal. Complacency is also contagious and hardly anyone wore masks.
Sometimes the three of us reporting on the crisis did wear masks. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we sat at a table together. And sometimes we sat anxious and apart, like three solitary dental hygienists.
The photo gallery of my phone echoed the dissonance. Pictures I took of a child waving to me from behind the quarantined lines of the Red Zone sat in a tile next to pictures Claudia sent me of my two kids, Luca and Elena, making snow angels or skiing down their first bunny slope. Calamity and normalcy rubbed shoulders, just as did the regions with and without the mass infections. Officials didn’t exactly give a clear message of how to behave.
On the 36th floor of the Lombardy region’s government offices, I listened to aides to the regional president, Attilio Fontana, tell me that the mask the photographer was wearing was useless as she took Mr. Fontana’s portrait in front of vast views of the Milan cityscape.
At the end of my interview with Mr. Fontana, during which I apologized for my ski clothes, I shook his hand and left. Two days later, he was on Facebook, clumsily putting a mask over his face after one of his close aides had tested positive for coronavirus.
The regional leader didn’t have the virus, but the time Andrea and I had spent in his office alarmed our editors. We called the company’s health consultants, who told us the risk was minimal and we could continue working.
But there was another variable. My children’s school had sent out a letter requiring the reporting “of any travel within the immediate family” during the recent week off to hot spots including Casalpusterlengo, which I now could spell all too well. Cas-al-pus-ter-lengo. I said it with spite.
If I came right home to Rome, there was no way the school would let my children back into class. On March 4, the government temporarily bailed me out by canceling schools across the country, but I developed a slight cough, which, along with the incident with Lombardy’s president, led the health consultants to suggest two weeks of preventive quarantine.
When I checked out of the Milan hotel, the receptionist told a colleague to close off my floor. I had been the only guest on it.
For my quarantine in Rome, I picked an Airbnb down the block from my home. The apartment had a small balcony — about the size of a Twister mat — off the bedroom above an internal courtyard. It looked onto pastel Art Nouveau apartment buildings, two lamp posts and parked cars. Behind me, if I craned my neck, I could see a slice of the Aurelian Walls. At night, dogs barked and circling seagulls sounded like crying babies.
I unpacked a bag my wife had assembled and pulled out the copy of “Crime and Punishment” that I had asked her to put in and that I had been meaning to read for 25 years. She also slipped in an exercise mat and a deflated exercise ball.
I promptly inflated it — potentially with the coronavirus — and found YouTube clips of trainers screaming “Get it!”
Things started well. On Friday morning, I buzzed in Claudia and the children into the building’s courtyard. They could not come into the apartment, so from the balcony above, I made bad wherefore art thou jokes and, in the absence of school, asked the kids, at a safe distance below, about their ski lessons back at the Matterhorn.
Luca asked me to read to him. All I had was Dostoyevsky’s novel. “He had been in an irritable and tense state, resembling hypochondria,” I read. “He was so immersed in himself and had isolated himself so much from everyone.”
It was topical.
After a bit they got bored and started talking among themselves. I stood on my balcony, feeling like Scrooge being taught a lesson by the Ghost of Quarantine Present, allowed to observe but not engage.
On Sunday at 2 a.m., my third day of quarantine, I watched Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announce that he would restrict movement in the north of Italy. I put aside “Crime and Punishment.” The exercise mat became something to step over. I gave up on “Get it.”
The next weeks became a blur as Italy descended into a crisis not seen since the Second World War. After chasing the virus around the north I’d now have to report — with the help of my colleagues — from a single room, my computer perched on a bedroom vanity.
I took short breaks when my family stopped by, dropping off olives or eggs on the doorstep. (“Away,” Elena said, shooing me back.)
In the light rain, I looked down on the kids spinning umbrellas. In the sun, they dribbled a basketball and shot it at the wall. Once, while I waited for a virologist to call me back, we played “Red Light, Green Light 1, 2, 3” with me turning around on the balcony and them running toward a wall in the courtyard. From the street, I looked like a masked American madman screaming colors and numbers at nothing.
My wife was worried. Home schooling was hard. The piano teacher bailed. The government wasn’t being clear about whether or not people could go to the park. Also, she thought maybe we were all going to die?
She talked about escaping to the Tuscan hills, “Decameron” style, where her parents had a house, but decided to stay put, and responded with the fortitude of other Italians. She stayed home. She taught handwriting and multiplication tables. She stocked up. She drank a glass of wine with friends during a FaceTime aperitivo.
I got updates about their life during our live-streamed dinners. I listened to cereal sliding out of the box, ceramic bowls clanking, the oven door closing. Elena practiced piano. I told her how good it was coming along.
“Wait, where are you?” she said
“I’m in my jail!” I said.
“No, I mean where’s the phone,” she said.
I had become a disembodied voice. Face-timed flesh.
After midnight, when my stories were put to bed, I’d call back to my parents in New York. My father had a not-minor surgery planned this week and there was no way I could go back home now. They were precisely the age of people I had been quarantined to protect. Still, my mother was weighing whether or not to bring my father to see “Riverdance.” (“Riverdance!”)
Small dry coughs caused me to freeze. I took my temperature a lot. Sometimes I wore my mask alone.As Italy tightened its lockdown, hardly anyone walked on my street and those who did wore masks. When I wasn’t on the phone, all I heard were birds, distant car door slams and conversations from open windows. When even those sounds faded, the city was as quiet as that Alpine mountainside.
As I prepare to leave quarantine, everyone is taking precautions. Claudia and the kids have started wearing masks on the walk over to see me. My mother gave up “Riverdance” and could not visit my father in the recovery room. People all over the world are staying inside.
“I am a prisoner at home,” former Prime Minister Romano Prodi wrote me chirpily as we corresponded for a story. Neither of our circumstances seemed so special anymore.