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.
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.
My neighbours in Rome singing Bella Ciao ❤️?? pic.twitter.com/gu1NqNjlHQ
— Jessica Phelan (@JessicaLPhelan) March 13, 2020
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’.
Quanto sei bella, Roma ??❤️ pic.twitter.com/SvflbsbWJE
— Jessica Phelan (@JessicaLPhelan) March 15, 2020
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.
My favourite moment of the night: in between songs when someone spotted the ambulance parked on the square and suggested a round of applause for the crew ??? pic.twitter.com/FmG9GqDnSh
— Jessica Phelan (@JessicaLPhelan) March 15, 2020
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.
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.
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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.