I got the last plane out of Italy’s COVID-19 capital. It was ugly
"You can't sit that close to me," the lady behind me said with a rising panic to her voice. "You can't sit that close!"
She repeated her order to the neighbouring German man, who had the apathetic, half-lidded look of an ageing Saint Bernard. "We can't exactly move the plane seat over then, can we?" he drawled.
This joyfully absurd conversation came from the last plane out of Rome this week.
The late-night flight was a scene of barely-controlled panic: terse conversations about overhead baggage, hoarse mothers holding mask-clad toddlers to their chest, and yes - regular demands for someone to sit further away and to, for goodness sake, cough into your scarf if you must cough at all!
The whole thing was easily one of the strangest travel days I've ever had in my life. I was woken up early Monday morning by my partner with a strong cup of coffee and the news that Italy would be closing down all of its international airports later that day as part of a newly introduced nationwide travel ban. Once the buzz from the former began to wear off, the latter sunk in.
The announcement had come overnight from Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and if we were wanting to avoid being grounded in Italy for the foreseeable future we needed to leave, and fast. In just under an hour we had packed every worldly possession with us into our bags and hit the road to Rome.
The wobbly sense of reality that faced us during those three hours on the road to Rome were inescapably strange. The beautiful alpine scenery slid past unnoticed as I made call after frantic call, booking flights, finding accommodation and gathering whatever information we could about the evacuation, but we were completely unsure of what would meet us once we arrived at the airport.
Until the government's announcement, we had been enjoying a sabbatical in the small village of Rapino, on the east coast of Italy. Forty minutes from the nearest major town, we had planned to ride out the coronavirus bedlam from a centuries-old villa at the base of the Maella mountains where life had continued to go on as normal despite the global pandemic panic. Tourists visited. People went to work. Buses ran, garbage was collected, dogs were walked. Life simply cannot be permanently suspended in a state of emergency; it has to go on.
But due to a month of work commitments outside of Italy, my partner and I realised that we had a very limited window in which we could forseeably escape.
We had expected outright pandemonium at the airport, given that we were arriving less than 24 hours since Conte's announcement, but the state of calm and order was bizarre. It was just like any other airport on any other day: giggling couples gliding past tourists with luggage trolleys, slowly strolling captains and bright-faced hostesses. It was a serene dance of harmony and content.
And yet as the sun began to set and the strange day sunk into evening, a terseness started to creep in. Every second flight was suddenly being cancelled. Every third flight was delayed without explanation. Harried looking travellers clutched bits of paper as they frowned into their phones. No one wanted to panic, but no one wanted to get stuck, either. Flight staff who had shrugged casually just an hour before were now shouting at the same customers to move back, to not get too close, to cover their faces.
In times of crisis, a new normal is always invariably created. And in Rome's international airport on its last evening of travel, the new normal looked like this: holding conversations from six feet away; washing your hands so much they crack with dryness; crafting plans about how to escape the country if your flight didn't leave; becoming obsessive about every minute bodily sensation (do I feel hot? Cold? Sick? Healthy? Stressed? Dehydrated? Overhydrated?).
By the time our flight finally took off the bedlam we had expected had finally come to fruition.
An old woman almost took a tumble when the crowd pushed past her to get to their seats on the plane. People used luggage to block the seats either side of them. The "you can't sit here" conversation behind me was amusing, yes, but it was fuelled with very real fear. We were all in this together, and yet, we weren't.
It was every man and woman for themselves, and it was ugly.
Eventually, though, we made it safely to Berlin.
We won't be returning to the Italian town of Rapino. Not because of fear or a lack of desire to return, but as coronavirus builds into a tidal wave of cancellations and closed borders, we're essentially now forced to return to Australia as soon as we can. We are deeply disappointed - what plans we had! - but there is just no escaping this new normal. It doesn't matter how rich, clever, or cavalier you may be as a traveller - the world has changed overnight.
Even here in Germany, home of stoicism and sensibility, the streets feel empty and the locals glum. The ripple effect of coronavirus, across Europe at least, is very present and will be felt for a long time.
The daylong ordeal reminded me that in times of crisis, people are selfish. That panic eating is a thing. That money will either solve all of your problems or none at all. And that Italians, even amid the zombie apocalypse, will still find something to laugh at.
Ciao Italia, e grazie.
Maggie Kelly is a columnist for RendezView.com.au