March 11–12, Vienna–Rome via Brenner
It was an early thought: what this crisis doesn’t provide our attention cycles with is gratification. It gives us a slow, unbearably rising, apparently exploding curve. Our culture is so bent on catastrophe that the virus is our perfect anxiety incubator. Not unlike climate change, but on a wholly different time scale and with fewer options to hedge: Geography matters less, resources matter more. Friends send me nervous prepping messages from some of the richest cities on earth. Their fear is wrapped in excitement. They seem to be in awe because shit is finally coming apart. As if their lifestyle, their financial strategies, their broken love lives, their terribly bad consciousness had finally been debunked. The scale of this epidemic does allow for drastic, if belated, action. It is less patient with deniers.
I am on a train to Innsbruck. Within one hour, two of my flights from Vienna to Rome have been cancelled, then all flights from Austria to Italy. I had recently taken on a fellowship in Vienna, but wanted to rejoin my partner back at her residency in Rome. The Italian lockdown will become a European lockdown in no time and it’s better for us to be together. Italy is two, maybe four weeks in advance, people say. It took them six days from closing schools to prohibiting any unjustified movement inside the country.
On Monday and Tuesday, in streets and metros and parks and auditoriums in Vienna, nothing of that kind would have been imaginable. My partner had to self-isolate on Wednesday morning in Rome after she’d started showing flu-like symptoms in the night. It wasn’t the Roman health authorities who’d locked her in—the doctor she finally spoke to after several hours of calling the numeri verdi said her symptoms didn’t sound anything like COVID-19—the concierge of our residency had freaked out and forced her to stay put.
While I’m on the train, Austria is closing the Brenner Pass for all transportation except goods and homecoming Austrians. No one at the Austrian railway company’s hotline can tell me if I might get across the border on foot. In Innsbruck I buy snacks, Red Bull, and water. There are other travelers who take a local train to Steinach with me, then a bus to Gries, closer to the boarder, most of them are from South Tyrol. A red-haired guy from Brixen seems to know his way around, a few Italian students from Innsbruck follow, a woman from Trento and another one from Arezzo with a lot of bags and suitcases trail in their footsteps. Mi sento un profugo, the lady cries jokingly, she’s the only one wearing a mask. This is not exactly a sound comparison but she’s in a light mood and that’s a good thing. Locals drive by and joke: Raus kommt’s immer . . . Austria won’t hold us back. The taxi driver is chatty in his deep dialect, seven of us fit into his bus, it’s a 10 minutes’ drive.
The Brenner highway and border crossing are among the most strained in Europe. There is everything for cars and trucks, there is a massive shopping mall, a few BnBs. While Austrian officers are busy taking the temperature of incoming car passengers, we walk through an alley of closed stands with Tyrolian kitsch and into Italy. I had no time to check any news reporting today, there were too many travel routes to compare and friends and family to reassure. Some of them tell me stories about Italian police harassing anyone moving around without a justifiable motive (that’s on top of prison revolts, a death toll between 150 and 200 for several days in a row and random stuff like “Lufthansa cancelling 23,000 flights” . . . so much for yesterday’s news). It took me a few strenuous phone calls to get a stamped letter attesting I actually live in Rome, and have a legitimate reason to travel home. But it turns out I don’t need the letter here. The two police officers we walk by turn their backs. A local train to Bologna is departing in thirty minutes. We leave at least one row of free seats between one another and dive into our phones.
The day anxiety really kicked in for me was Monday, March 9. I started to feel that my Korean colleague was right. It is a thing you sense, like an animal. Numbers and research are important, but they never convey the urgency that physical human bodies produce upon each other when they interact in uncertainty. When you try to stay casual while your interlocutor is just dead scared. When slips of tongue and gauche gestures trigger second thoughts or mild paranoia. Fresh numbers like the 133 dead Italians on Sunday come in like a shock. Measures like the Lombardy lockdown on Saturday are impressive when you watch them unfold. Cries for help like the Tsunami letter of one Bergamo physician leave your mouth dry like viral content often does. Yet in order for yourself to feel panic, such shocks need to be ping-ponged between you and people you know.
Texting is an excellent medium for this. I am in a couple of WhatsApp groups and am spending my day hammering out messages. “U alrite?” And you strike a couple lines: “Yep, D. no more symptoms” “we waiting taxi now” “yeah might have been the virus who knows” “yep maybe that was just it.” Speaking like this produces a particular kind of thrill. Text is a bouncy but ridiculously slow medium. It combines the gravitas and traceability of written language with the alertness of body-to-body interaction. It is exhausting and addictive, viral but one-on-one, without the scale effects a platform provides: I am telling multiple friends, acquaintances and family the exact same things all over, but in slightly different versions. Some Italian friends have self-quarantined, others have not. No one I know knows anyone who is sick. Friends in Berlin speak about symptoms, friends in Paris are like it’s basically the flu. A friend of a friend tries to arrange accommodation in Bologna.
Kim did wear gloves and wash his hands meticulously from the day he arrived in our office. He was anxious about coronavirus to the point of disinfecting packages of Italian pasta. At first, people including myself tried to reassure him, and for the better part of a week, it seemed to work. Then people slowly started to reassure themselves, like that German woman at a Monday opening who told me she had friends in Italy and that everybody knew how bad their health care system was, like “basically third world.” She really said that. She seemed to really believe it. She has probably hoarded toilet paper at home.
Trucks wanting to leave Italy are jammed until Brixen, our train has run for 45 minutes and I still see them standing in line (90 km of traffic jam, I read later). I am trying to wear the nitrile gloves I had bought in Vienna, but they give me sweaty, itching hands. When I finally open the news it’s like 1,300 new cases in Lombardy alone and the second oil price crash within days. WHO is declaring coronavirus a pandemic as if this was news.
Going online gives me a particular kind of stress relief. For a couple of days now, 18:15 is a stress peak because that’s when La Repubblica publishes the compiled numbers of the day. Tonight, the death toll is 196, with 2,300 new cases all over Italy. I bounce around the internet trying to understand what the reactions are, domestically and internationally, if there are new policies, if there are more desperate stories about Lombardian hospitals. There always are, you just have to let yourself glide towards them. Then I look at the worldometer. The global count is climbing but suddenly the total number looks manageable again. I raise my head, look at my fellow train travelers who don’t seem to be sick at all. I feel my own body and breath, and anxiety gets better.
Which might be a treacherous form of self-awareness, but one with personal validity nevertheless. German media talk about football and do their regular fare of personality reporting à la Die Krisenkanzlerin is back. It strikes me as frivolous, myopic, boring. Le Monde is just doing the news. The New York Times is providing basic instruction on hygiene. De Volksgrant reports on coronaschepen roaming the Caribbean unable to disembark. La Repubblica is heartbroken.
The train stops in Trento and it’s dark outside. A railway worker with a torch light is examining the exterior of our coach, as if to check that no one has gripped themselves to the bottom of the train, Spiderman style. Which is absurd, because people are stepping in through the door. Two young seasonal workers want to catch a night train to Bari from Bologna, the tourist season has been cancelled for a long while. I ask if they carry the self-declaration waiver everyone should produce at controls, I only have it in PDF. They give me a paper. But there are no controls. There is only a black man in an orange vest walking through the alley every 20 minutes and wiping the seat handles with a cloth.
Virality is also about exhaustion. I sink into the podcast of a German virologist who explains with admirable didactic skill what it takes to exhaust a pandemic virus. Later that night, Angela Merkel will state that 70 percent of Germans might get infected before the virus wanes. The math is simple: if every infected person infects three others, which is the current estimate, then two thirds of the population need to have acquired immunity before transmission rates can drop below one and the virus slowly dies. The virologist’s policy advice for today is somewhat middle of the road: protect the most vulnerable but preserve public life. Keep kindergartens and schools open, for otherwise parents, including nurses and doctors, can’t go to work. It sounds sweet and rational, and in a matter of days it will be obsolete.
In Bologna the ambiance is heavier, murkier. A surprising number of travelers pour out of my train and disappear into the night, most of them wearing masks. It’s 22:45 and my plan was to take the fast train to Rome next thing in the morning, except that my bed and breakfast cancelled just 30 minutes after confirming reservation. The host informs me that “in this period of restricted movement we cannot go out at this time of day.” In other words, it’s too late for him to leave his house and hand me the keys. Maybe this is a pretext, maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s true. There is a night train to Rome at 3:02, I might just as well sit at the station and wait. Who knows which trains will really be running tomorrow.
I buy vitamin cocktails, propolis spray, and hand disinfectant at the pharmacy. There are two or three other clients tiptoeing around, and I avoid eye contact and keep maximum distance. I spend over 40 euros in this pharmacy, wondering if I have allowed a paramilitary mindset to take me over (a Dutch friend is texting his survival shopping list of Albert Heijn products, it’s getting weirder by the minute; take vitamins, he insists). I pull a can of Coke and chocolates at a vending machine; needless to say that every bar or restaurant in Bologna is closed. Gloves don’t do it for me, so I rub my fingers in disinfectant whose peach scent I find obscene.
The polizia ferroviaria and military have put up a stand in the main hall. Although my Bologna contact strongly advised avoiding them, I walk over, ready to plead my case. When they see my filled waiver, they don’t ask any more questions. Buon viaggio, signore. They prefer to chat with their colleagues and a bunch of security contractors who don’t have much to do.
I have been to Bologna station a couple times, always in summer, always in extreme heat. Now I have to kill a couple of hours here. A lonely man with a noisy machine is sterilizing every inch of a Venchi storefront. A distracted women screams across the piazza and is scolded by a security contractor. A man in a signal vest is emptying trash bags. The cleaners, the railway workers, the homeless, the weirdos always share such spaces at night and will be here during corona too. Protecting the most vulnerable in the common mind means protecting everybody’s lovely grandmother, never these people. At midnight it occurs to me that all the travelers still waiting in the hall are male, and all but two of them are black. A handful of local trains for the night and next morning are still on display, the last freccia rossa to Milan left illuminated but empty.
I want to take a piss but I can’t: since all bars are closed, public bathrooms are shut down too, the police officer says. Peeing only on trains. Is the virus bad around here? Not so much, he says, his mask pulled down under his beard. The northern part of this region, Emilia Romagna, has many more cases. He explains to me that my train’s arrival is scheduled 2 hours before its departure, I will be able to pee.
Rolling towards Rome I see Trump’s speech. He makes a U-turn, going full unprecedented threat. He is scapegoating the EU and courting the UK, bragging about America’s talent and incredible economy, about his own lifesaving early action against the “foreign virus.” There will be a tremendous amount of “how dare he” in the European press tomorrow, but politically, Trump is just saving his ass.
Nobody checked me on this train. Not my ticket, not my papers, not my waiver. I had a compartment for myself—a necessity now, if you want to respect safety distances. I did rub my hands in the peachy disinfectant frequently, but I got sleepy and had to make myself comfortable too. More podcasts, less news. I touched surfaces often, I couldn’t avoid rubbing my nose. I didn’t see anyone on this train and I don’t know how many people were on it. It took me to Rome like a moveable piece of Italy that was working just fine.
When I stepped out at Roma Termini on Thursday morning, the station was crowded with tourists who wanted to get to Fiumicino airport and people who looked like they were heading to work. A lot of police and security, people with printed, laminated waivers. Back at the residency, there was confusion as to whether I’d have to self-quarantine because I travelled through “dangerous zones.” The concierge wants to lock me up for 15 days, of course, but the local health authority states it’s enough to fill out an online form and respect additional safety measures like taking one’s temperature twice per day and wearing a mask when in closed rooms with other people. But I don’t have a mask, and, anyway, who’d want to leave the house?