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View from Rome’s rooftops: Singing offers hope but it doesn’t hide fear and frustration

In the space of a few nights, 6pm has become my favourite time of day.

View from Rome's rooftops: Singing offers hope but it doesn't hide fear and frustration
Neighbours in Italy have been joining nightly singalongs to brighten up quarantine. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

That’s the time when my neighbours and I open our windows, step onto our balconies, climb up to our rooftops, and sing.

It all started on Friday morning, when messages started to circulate on social media calling for a “musical flashmob” that evening. At 6pm, said the notes on Facebook and WhatsApp, people should gather from their own homes and make some noise – sing the Italian national anthem, or simply sing.

READ ALSO: Fundraisers and singalongs: How Italians are rallying together amid the coronavirus crisis

I wasn’t sure what to expect that first night I climbed the six flights of stairs to my building’s roof terrace. Ducking under the shared laundry lines, I emerged to hear a chorus of ‘Ciao!’s: from the buildings opposite and behind, people were waving and saying hello.

As a Brit in Rome, in normal times I occasionally find myself exhausted by the sheer number of greetings I’m expected to exchange with strangers every day here. Two days into the nationwide quarantine, I found myself yelling ‘Hi!’ to everyone I could see, blinking back unexpected tears.

We grinned goofily at each other, slightly unsure what to do next. One family waved maracas; a surprising number of people produced tambourines.

Then a woman in an apartment opposite started it: Italy’s alternative national anthem, the partisan resistance song Bella Ciao.

People applauded, they whistled, they banged the ubiquitous tambourines. It sounded like someone was banging a frying pan like a drum.

It was a special moment, one of many that have followed since. Singing together awakened some kind of collective appetite for doing something together at a time when sharing a meal or drinks, even a coffee at the same bar, is forbidden.

As dusk fell, those of us reluctant to close ourselves back in the apartments where we now spend most of our time stayed out for a spontaneous dance party, DJed by an enthusiastic teenage girl on the fourth floor. Nonni who’d usually be threatening to call the police clapped along good-naturedly.

Eventually I returned downstairs, after one final wave to those who remained. “Buona notte!” they called, “a domani!” Good night. See you tomorrow.

We did see each other the next night, and the night after that. The following evening was Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, its chorus a version of what has become the unofficial slogan of Italy’s coronavirus quarantine: “Every little thing is gonna be alright”, andrà tutto bene.

By Sunday my teenage neighbour was taking requests, lining up local classics like Roma Capoccia – ‘Rome, capital of the world’. 

Each evening brings its own treasures, and a few heartbreaks.

There was the moment when a man holding a glass of red wine spotted an ambulance parked down the road and bellowed for us all to join in a burst of applause for its crew.

Then there was the song our DJ dedicated to all the 17 and 18 year olds in Italy who, like her, are in their final year of high school and unsure how or when they’ll graduate now they can no longer attend class.

6pm is just before sunset, when the light over Rome is at its most golden. It’s also the time when the day’s new coronavirus casualties are announced.

Last night they showed a record jump: 368 more deaths in a single day.

As the latest victims were added to the tally, now the largest in the world outside China, some of my neighbours interrupted their singing to call to the few pedestrians on the street below: “Andate a casa!” Go home.

READ ALSO: Your key questions answered about Italy’s coronavirus quarantine rules

Life under quarantine in Italy isn’t all community singalongs and Blitz spirit. There’s fear and frustration as the number of new cases continues to rise, creating perilous pressure on regional health services, especially worst-hit Lombardy.

There’s confusion over what constitutes “essential” grounds to go outside, and resentment of people perceived to be  interpreting the rules too liberally.

We’ve been told it will take at least two weeks before the lockdown starts to show results. Some authorities have indicated that they might resort to even stricter restrictions before then, including a curfew.

READ ALSO: 

For as long as I can’t go anywhere else, I’ll continue to go up to the rooftop, staying at least a metre away from any of my neighbours I find up there.

Our 6pm meetings don’t make up for the sacrifices all of us in Italy have to make during these strained weeks and months, or the far greater one being made by health workers on the frontline. They don’t compensate for the brutal cost this pandemic will exact on Italy’s people and economy.

But they do help make a fearful, lonely time just a little bit brighter. And that’s worth raising our voices for.

How are you spending the time in quarantine in Italy? Get in touch and share your survival tips.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Northern cities may consistently top the 'quality of life' rankings, but the true pleasures of life in Italy can’t always be measured, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: If you want quality of life, choose Italy’s sunny south over the efficient north

Italy has a persistent dichotomy that strikes anyone who has travelled it extensively or lived here for a while.

There’s a huge gap between the quality of life as in efficient services, roads, good internet, and the ‘pleasures of life’, which come down to more immaterial and intangible aspects such as the hospitality and friendliness of locals, the beauty of surroundings, and overall cost of living.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns with the best (and worst) quality of life

All quality of life surveys usually rank more efficient, cleaner northern cities at the top, with sunny but less functional southern ones at the bottom – though on the other hand these have stunning beaches and cheaper services.

While it’s obviously not always so simple, there are differences which are clear to see.

To take two examples: in northern Bolzano you have punctuality, shiny roads, higher income levels, but also a bit of the stereotypical Teutonic cold, distant attitude. In Syracuse, Sicily, local food is more varied and most people are warm, open to strangers, but trains take ages to connect places, and the roads aren’t great either.

This makes it hard to say which towns are ‘best’ to live in because you just can’t have it all. It depends on what your expectations and lifestyle already are, or if you long for radical change.

READ ALSO: Why north-south stereotypes aren’t offensive to most Italians

I could never live in Turin, Milan or Venice – because of the weather, the crowds and the prices.

Were I to choose, I’ve always dreamt of relocating to a southern location to telework, either in Sicily (picturesque Palermo) or Puglia (gorgeous, Baroque Lecce). Even a tiny Sicilian island fascinates me, like Salina or Filicudi, but I might find too much isolation there as winters can get really solitary when the ferry boats don’t travel. 

I’ve always envied Sicilians who get to enjoy beach days and warm temperatures eight months a year, have a succulent cuisine and can eat the real ricotta-filled cannoli whenever they feel like it. 

Last time I visited Trapani and stayed there for a while the next door neighbor gave me a tray of pastries on the day of my departure. People welcome you in their homes and say ‘buongiorno’ when you meet them in the streets. 

Human warmth is almost tangible in the south whereas in the north, perhaps because there are bigger cities, you need to be in small towns or villages to find welcoming residents eager to help you or make you feel at home. 

READ ALSO: From coffee to haircuts: How the cost of living varies around Italy

The fact that the value of family is so important in the south, much more than in the north, explains why southerners are more open to outsiders and foreigners than in the north. 

Cities like Naples, Lecce and Palermo also have a more laid-back vibe, people are less frenetic than in Milan and seem to enjoy life more. This attitude affects the way visitors feel, too. 

People don’t just want clean roads, trains that run on time, efficient hospitals. A smile from a passer-by, a gift, or just a quick chat after a morning espresso can really make your day. Cities reflect the nature of their inhabitants. 

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

I remember once I was touring Sicily heading to Noto, we stopped for some water at a bar in the middle of the countryside and my friend tripped, falling down. In less than a second a bunch of elders who had seen the accident rushed to our side and helped my friend back on her feet, making sure I was okay too. 

Taxi rides can be quite enlightening. When you grab a taxi in Milan, Genoa or Trieste, don’t expect the driver to start talking to you unless it’s for specific information. But when I visited Naples and called a cabbie, he turned into my personal Virgil, sharing city secrets and taking me to see offbeat places along the coast. He sang and smiled, which he wasn’t required to do. It was a memorable ride. 

READ ALSO: Why are Italy’s disappearing dialects so important?

However, it’s hard to draw a line. I’m not saying that all northern cities have a poor ‘pleasure of life’ level and all southern ones rank low for life quality, but this is a general trend. 

And I believe Italy’s eternal north-south dilemma is here to stay. 

The European Union’s pandemic funds, partly aimed at reducing these regional gaps, might improve services in the south but they surely can’t turn a gloomy, stressed-out Milanese into a loud, cheerful Neapolitan.

The economic gap (which affects quality of life) between northern and southern cities will always persist. That’s what makes Italy such a rich, multifarious country.

Do you agree with the opinions expressed in this article? How did you choose between the north and south of Italy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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