Coronavirus in Naples: Solidarity food baskets hang from balconies to help those in need

Angelo Picone lowers a wicker basket full of food to the ground on a rope, leaning over his rustic balcony, verdant with pot plants.

Coronavirus in Naples: Solidarity food baskets hang from balconies to help those in need
Photos: AFP

“If you can, put something in. If you can't, take something out,” Picone, a Naples street artist, merrily hollers to bemused passersby in the alleyway below.

Picone's simple message is resonating in a country trying to feed a growing number of poor during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has officially killed nearly 200 in Naples and more than 15,000 across Italy in just over a month.

It has also shattered the country's economy and left millions at least temporarily unemployed.


This makes the hanging “solidarity baskets” and foldout tables laden with food — everything from bread and bananas to boxes of milk and tins of sardines, as well as hot dishes — all the more important at one of the most surreal moments in the city's history.

“This is a special sign of solidarity,” Picone says. “The basket is there. It ensures anonymity.”

For a song 

Yet Naples' unrepressed romance is in the spring air at even the dourest of times.

A slender young man wearing a black coat and a loose scarf breaks into song for no apparent reason.

A few smiling women on the nearby balconies of squat pastel buildings shout “bravo” and applaud after he finishes with a hand-waving flourish and takes a bow.

The young man then sticks his hand in the food basket and walks away with a cheeky bounce in his step.

The performance was his personal contribution in exchange for the food.

Free food on a table in a Naples street with a sign that reads “For you who doesn't have much, take this!”.

Picone speaks with nonchalance about how he drew his inspiration from a city doctor who did something very similar for the poor a century ago.

According to local legend, doctor Giuseppe Moscati held out his hat at the end of his consultations.

Patients were not obliged to pay and dropped in as many coins as they could afford.

The good doctor was canonised by the Catholic Church in 1987.

“We are fortunate that in Naples we feel like we need to help each other out,” says Gennaro, a street artist like Picone.

A person wearing a face mask pulls two bags of cookies from the wicker basket and holds them aloft in self-deprecating celebration.

Big heart, little money

“Naples is a city with a tremendous resilience to suffering,” Mayor Luigi de Magistris tells AFP.

EU statistics show about two out of five risked poverty in 2018 in the city of 2.2 million.

A UN study found that a third of the Naples' 15- to 29-years-olds either had no job or had dropped out of school that year.

The black market economy thrives, as well as the accompanying crime.

An estimated 3,500 Neapolitans have so far asked for food aid under a coronavirus relief programme launched last month.

The two street artists and others like English language tutor Teresa Cardo decided that something more substantial — possibly more personal and immediate — needed to be done.

They lowered their first baskets, explaining the idea in a little note.

“We started by putting a piece of bread, a bag of pasta, a box of peeled tomatoes,” Cardo says.

“And two hours later, the basket was completely full.”

The mayor is understandably proud. “Naples is a city with a big heart,” he says.

But he also laments the various social distancing measures designed to keep people away from each other as much as possible.

The mayor wants the old Naples back.

“I miss it very much, because in general for human beings but even more so for Neapolitans, it is absolutely against our nature not to hug, not to shake hands.”

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Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

From ear piercings to flu jabs, Italian ‘farmacie’ are among the most useful stores in the country, but they’re also very odd places. Here are our tips on getting through the pharmacy experience.

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

Italian pharmacies aren’t just stores selling prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

As a customer, you’ll find all sorts of natural remedies, basic health supplies and personal care items on their shelves. 

You’ll also be able to receive basic medical services (for instance, blood pressure checks, Covid tests and flu jabs) and some non-health-related ones (like getting your ears pierced!) in most branches. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get the flu vaccine in Italy? 

But, while being extremely useful stores, Italian farmacie (pronunciation available here) are also peculiar places and their set of unwritten rules and solidified traditions may well throw off newcomers.. 

So here are five tips that might help you complete your first expeditions to your local pharmacy without making a fool of yourself.

1 – Decipher your doctor’s scribbles before your trip

Much like some of their foreign colleagues, Italian GPs have a penchant for writing prescriptions that no one else is actually able to read. 

We might never find out why doctors seem so intent on making ancient hieroglyphs fashionable again, but their calligraphic efforts will surely get in the way of you trying to buy whatever medicine you need to survive. 

To avoid hiccups, make sure you know exactly what you need to get. If in doubt, reach out to your GP to confirm.

Don’t rely on pharmacists being able to figure out your doctor’s handwriting because they often have no clue either.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

Pharmacy in Codogno, near Milan

In most small towns and rural areas local pharmacies have very ‘thin’ opening hours. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

2 – Double-check the pharmacy’s opening times

If you’re from the UK or the US, you might be used to pharmacies being open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and having slightly reduced opening times over the weekend. 

You can forget about that in Italy. In big cities, most pharmacies will shut no later than 8pm on weekdays and will be closed on either Saturdays or Sundays.

READ ALSO: Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy 

As for small towns or villages, opening times will have a nice Middle Ages vibe to them, with local stores remaining shut on weekends and keeping their doors open from 9am to 12.30pm and then from 3.30pm to 7.30pm on weekdays. 

So always check your local pharmacy’s hours before leaving home and, should their times not be available online, call them up. An awkward phone conversation with the pharmacist is still preferable to a wasted trip.

3 – Get the ‘numerino

Some Italian pharmacies have a ticket-dispensing machine with the aim of regulating the queue – a concept which is still foreign to many across the country.

All customers are expected to get a numbered paper ticket (the famed ‘numerino’) from the above machine and wait for their number to be called to walk up to the pharmacist’s desk. 

Now, the law of the land categorically prohibits customers from getting within a five-metre radius of the desk without a numerino

Also, trying to break that rule may result in a number of disdainful sideways glances from local customers.

4 – You cannot escape the in-store conversations, so embrace them 

Pharmacies aren’t just stores. They’re a cornerstone of Italian life and locals do a good deal of socialising on the premises. 

After all, the waiting times are often a bit dispiriting, so how can you blame them for killing the time?

Small pharmacy in Italy

Pharmacies are an essential part of Italian life and culture. Photo by Marco SABADIN / AFP

You might think that locals won’t want to talk to you because you’re a foreigner or don’t know the language too well, but you’ll marvel at how chatty some are.

While chit-chat might not be your cup of tea, talking with locals might help you improve your Italian, so it’s worth a shot.

5 – “Vuoi scaricarlo?”

The pharmacist finally gets you what you need and you’re now thinking that your mission is over. Well, not yet.

Before charging you for the items in question, the pharmacist will ask you whether you’d like to ‘scaricarli’ (literally, ‘offload them’) or not, which, no matter how good your Italian is, will not make any sense to you.

What the pharmacist is actually asking you is whether you want to link the purchase to your codice fiscale (tax code). 

READ ALSO: Codice fiscale: How to get your Italian tax code (and why you need one)   

That’s because Italy offers residents a 19-percent discount on some health-related expenses, which can be claimed through one’s annual income declaration (dichiarazione dei redditi) by attaching the receipts of all the eligible payments.

Whether you want to scaricare or not, this is the last obstacle before you can make your way back home.