It is fair to say that my love of travel began before I was even born. My mother was expecting me when my parents flew to Italy on holiday - quite an adventure back in the late 60s. My first ever beach holiday photo is of a somewhat chubby cheeked 6-month-old, sitting on a beach bed with a local Italian girl with the biggest ever grin on her face.

Throughout my life, Italy has been very much in my soul and has been the source of many life decisions.  It was therefore no great surprise that working in the travel industry was a natural fit for me. The friendships formed over the many, many years on the golden sandy beaches of this nation gave me purpose and a thirst to learn foreign languages at school; to then later continue my knowledge and fluency by becoming an au-pair in the hometowns of those friends. My appetite for learning and wanting to gain insight into other countries and cultures, all started with Italy. 

Very little has changed over the 50 plus years since that first photo was taken and not a single year has passed that I have not visited Italy. So, when in early 2020, I started to see the reports on the news about the pandemic figures climbing daily, posts on Facebook from local friends caught in the endless months of very strict lockdown rules, my heart sank and a part of me cried with them.

Thanks to social media and modern communications, I was able to follow and talk to friends all over Italy - from Sicily in the far South, to Rome, Emilia- Romagna (where I used to live) through to friends in the very North around Milan and the Trentino-Alto Adige areas. Everyone affected, everyone fearful of the virus, many knowing at least someone who had passed away, many turning to their faith for comfort or humour to get them through the difficult times - but everyone, nonetheless, defiant and still hopeful for better days to return. I had feared that the heart and soul of this nation would be changed forever.

My parents (now in their late 70s) drove to Italy in July as soon as they were permitted by the FCDO to travel and all land border crossings were open. Under strict instructions from me about “no huggy huggy, kissy kissy” with their many local friends and “make sure you wear your masks” they have spent their summer in the sunshine and in a far safer environment than had they stayed back in the UK. So, with holiday leave still owing, I decided at the last minute to bite the bullet and go to join them and see for myself just how the Italians are adapting to this “new normal”.

Heathrow Terminal 5 at 06:00 was not as busy as in previous years, with some hospitality outlets still closed but many trading with new guidelines in place. Hand sanitation stations, mask wearing, temperature checking gadgets and spaced out seating are certainly now the norm. Staggered check-in/baggage drop for each flight has been introduced on the information boards which is a sensible new addition and worked really well. My British Airways flight was also professionally handled - landing forms handed out by ground staff, boarding in row blocks - and upon landing the same for disembarkation. Only those travelling together were seated together as a full row, otherwise the middle seat was left empty between strangers. Clear instructions were given regarding onboard safety, mask wearing, feeling unwell and asking for assistance.  A sanitation pack was given to each passenger at the door.  Small refreshments were still provided in pre-packed plastic bags. In line with Italian local policy, coats and any clothing were not allowed in the overhead lockers.

Once inside Bologna Airport, similar precautions to Heathrow were evident - temperature monitoring, usage of ePassport gates for passport control, floor markings, one way systems, sanitation stations, but EVERYONE was wearing masks - even little children from school age upwards. The airport bus - although not having seating restrictions - provided hand gel and had a strict door entry/exit usage policy in place. This continued on board the local train too. Announcements on board the train were frequently made in both Italian and English reminding people to wear their masks, for their nose and mouth to always be covered. Failure to do so could result in rail staff handing you over to the authorities at the next available station where you would be subject to a fine. On my return journey, the local station platform staff approached and monitored each and every passenger with a hand temperature scanner before boarding. Apart from those having a quick snack or drink, over 95% of the rail passengers complied. I even witnessed people telling others off for non-compliance and literally moving away from that person. Their fear is real here and still somewhat raw after what they had experienced earlier this year, especially in the former Red Zone areas.

After 10 hours of wearing various masks for my journey to Heathrow by taxi, through to eventually arriving at the local train station, I was finally able to breathe the fresh sea air and feel I was once again “home” and free to wander.

Out of season any tourist town will experience the usual shop and hotel closures. Having lived in the region, I had seen this town in November and January before, so I knew what to expect. However, cycling around my normal haunts, something had indeed changed. Yes, there was a slight sense of limbo… the waiting for whatever is coming next, but this soon passes as you join in with the everyday life here. 

If you own a bar or a hairdresser - you were certainly still doing reasonably well. Italians will never stop drinking coffee or socialising - it is literally part of their DNA. Hairdressers and looking good are also high up there on the list of priorities of many Italians - as, of course, is eating.

Some big brand shops like Armani and other fashion labels had gone from the main shopping area. Signs could be seen on shutters elsewhere stating that the independent businesses were still trading but with new amended hours; notes about holiday leave with a promise of imminent reopening; change of premise’s address or simple invitations to visit their online shop until they could safely return. Every business, still working through the pandemic and into the autumn/winter, were keen to keep the locals informed of their status. Some, as in the UK, had chosen to close for good or their owners had decided to retire early. Restaurants showed signs of their attempts to adapt to the new social distancing - spare tables and chairs stacked neatly away with remaining tables set up in a more socially accepting way whilst retaining a degree of cosiness and hospitality. Hand sanitiser and posters inviting people to try their new takeaway services, colour coordinated masks to match uniforms and visors to ensure that their warm hospitality was to be seen and not just heard, were very much evident.

Reminders to wear masks are on every door of every business and more gel sanitation points than I have seen at home. In typical Italian fashion - the young in particular - have even come up with a “trendy” way to have their masks on them at all times - just pop it around your elbow when not in use! Although this region has not yet imposed wearing masks when away from home and generally outdoors, as soon as a street or area becomes busy, people will wear them. The local market - very much a weekly must in many parts of Italy for fruit and veg, clothing and household items - was a prime example. Those not wearing a mask here whilst shopping, were certainly in the minority. Safety measures, especially around stalls handling food, have changed and the art of adapting their customer service seems to be a skill the stall owners have mastered. The local butchers, bakers, fishmongers and chemists all being supported by the locals - so much so that they had even learned to queue in an orderly fashion, quite unheard of previously. The supermarkets, by contrast, were not as busy - people were choosing to support local businesses and to buy local produce instead. People are going back to basics - saving their pennies and looking after their health as best they can by eating as well as possible. There certainly seemed to be a distinct reduction in smoking in public too.

The school run, the return to university or office - all had been adapted to accommodate the new guidelines. The police are happy to remind you of the rules if you forget and will even impose fines where necessary.

Yet, despite the constant news media coverage of facts, figures and detailed data (so much so, it is almost an obsession) there is still one constant - hope and appreciation of life and all that it has to offer. The locals try not to let the news dampen their spirits and have modified their way of thinking and life - ever grateful that they can do so. There were sporting events taking place during my stay - masks worn by the spectators, stewards and police. Spirits were high and families were enjoying their day out. I certainly know which country I would rather be in at the moment.

The Italian people have suffered in the past and together with their wartime spirit and tenacity they are determined for this pandemic not to get the better of them this time either. They are not the world’s greatest at following rules - however, this time, they know the rules are there for a very good reason and, for once, there is more compliance than ever before. There is certainly no complacency about dealing with this virus - they have experienced a very difficult period together. Young and old alike have a renewed respect and sense of awareness and community and for caring for those around them. Their warmth and hospitality still shines through and although they can’t physically embrace you or shake your hand, their words, generosity and actions can. One shopkeeper, learning that I was buying something to take back to England for my husband, gave me an extra item as a free gift and thanked me from the bottom of her heart for buying in Italy and for supporting her and her country.  

Do not be afraid to visit this lovely country. They will still welcome you with open arms. The Italian people have simply learned to smile at you with their eyes from behind their masks! 

 

Alison

By Alison Garrard

2nd October 2020



Talk to our The Azores expert

Alison
Alison Garrard

Alison joined the Sunvil team in 2019 but has long been an extended member of our family, having sold our holidays as a travel agent for 25 years! Sunvil is more than a business, our approach to travel - introducing visitor to lesser-known places and placing them among the locals, is a concept that our staff buy into and feel passionate about. Our holidays are those that we ourselves enjoy and would recommend for our friends and family. Alison is no exception having chosen a Sunvil trip to the Azores for her honeymoon and having recently returned from Veneto.

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