From the City of London to the medieval streets of Padova this third ‘Letter from Europe’ offers direct reports from England and Italy. Two important cities separated by a distance of 1500 kilometres. Both important centres of learning with renowned universities. Each city has a vibrant cultural and artistic sector which has effectively been closed down over the last year as Europe has battled with the impact of Covid-19. However, little by little, things are coming back to life. Shops are re-opening and bars and cafes are back in business (albeit with outdoor dining only). Museums and galleries are set to reopen in June. We are all learning to love the fresh air!
If we look back over the centuries we soon see that the plague is nothing new in Europe. The Black Death darkened the doors of many towns and cities repeatedly over the centuries. In the 1340s the cities of Venice, Padova and Florence were engulfed by the plague. A year or so later it reached London. In Florence poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the ‘Decameron’ about a group of young people retreating to a villa outside the city to survive the plague. They passed the time telling stories – I’ve written about their adventures here: Italy – enchanted gardens story-telling and survival…
Two centuries later in England the life of William Shakespeare was defined by the plague. The Globe and other London playhouses (theatres) were closed on numerous occasions during his most prolific writing period (1606-1610). This was the time when he wrote Macbeth, Anthony & Cleopatra, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Recent research suggests that London playhouses were open for just nine months in total, during that five year plague-ravaged period.
Padua as the English called Padova was well known in educated circles. Galileo was teaching Maths and Astronomy at the university in the 1590s. At about the same time William Harvey a young English student was studying medicine and discovered the circulation of the blood around the human body. When he returned to England he became the most famous doctor of his generation and was appointed Physician to King James I. It seems appropriate to me that our next report from Europe should come from the city of Padova with its long history of medical research.
PADOVA, ITALY – in the words of my lovely friend Katharine Dyne……
‘I have been happily living in Padova since the autumn of 2017 after moving from Cheshire, UK. Padova is a city in the Veneto region located in the north eastern part of Italy, and close to Venice, Verona and Vicenza. A stylish, lively city with arcaded streets, elegant piazzas and cafes. The city where Aperol spritz was invented, and indeed from late morning till evening the piazzas and outdoor cafes are normally teeming with people sitting in the sunshine sipping spritz and nibbling olives. A city famous for Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel and the Basilica of Saint Anthony, patron saint of the town. A city where Galileo Galilei lived and taught Mathematics at the University, and where the architect Andrea Palladio was born. There’s so much history and so many interesting things to see and do. Waterways and canals crisscross the city, creating shaded walk ways along the banks of the romantically named rivieras. Padova is a delightful city to call home.
Well, we have just had a third lock down in Italy, since the first one started last March 2020. Since then we have been in and out of varyingly strict ‘lockdowns’. The third one, was this last Easter when President Draghi proclaimed the whole of Italy was to be ‘nella zona rossa’ from the beginning of April to after Easter. ‘Zona rossa’ (red zone) is the strictest lockdown and means that when you leave your home you have to wear a face mask and carry a self-certification form stating where you are going and why, with limits of how far you can move from your own home. The penalty for not carrying a certificate is a 400 euro fine. You cannot leave your local area (which means for us we are unable to leave Padova), unless for reasons of work or emergency or, perhaps bizarrely, you have a second home else where in Italy. Schools, cafes, hairdressers, restaurants, museums , sports grounds , swimming pools etc are shut. The piazzas, normally crowded with people sitting out enjoying coffee and spritzes, are empty. The restaurants are shut and you can only order a take away meal. It’s just not the same though. There is a curfew from 10 pm to 5 am, although there is nothing to go out for anyway, so one may as well stay home. Sadly, some smaller shops and bars have shut down, perhaps forever. One of our favourite summertime alfresco dining restaurants has sadly closed, the owner having returned home to Sardinia.
Notwithstanding the difficulties the pandemic has brought, the Paduans have been extraordinarily compliant in following the lockdown rules. Everyone wears the obligatory face covering and waits patiently in line to enter a shop, bakery, or the bank. However, this third time round it is evident that people, especially the young, are feeling the strain. The vaccination programme started late compared to that in the UK, but once it was initiated it was quite well organized. I am fortunate in that I have a part time post at the University, so I was vaccinated along with other University staff in early March. To date just under 15 million people have had at least one dose of the vaccine in Italy and in Veneto 1.3 million people have been vaccinated. It is hoped that the vaccination program, which has been beset by problems with vaccine delivery, and then the panic about Astra Zeneca’s rare side effects, will continue so that the numbers of affected individuals continue to decline.
A few days ago we re-entered the slightly less restrictive ‘zona arancio’ (orange zone) which means we can leave home without the dreaded self-certification, although masks are still mandatory. We can grab a coffee at a bar or café, although its ‘take away’ only in a cardboard cup, but shops and, importantly, hairdressers are open. The worst thing has been not being able to socialize unless you happen to meet a friend for a walk and keep a distance. I have not invited friends round for dinner or a glass of wine for many many months now! Many of my friends live just outside Padua and cannot come into town without a valid reason. Luckily, a few of us who live in town manage to meet regularly for a walk along the riviera so we can have a natter and a take away coffee. A little normality to our lives at the moment. We are longing for outdoor restaurants to open. Living in a country with a café and restaurant culture, it has been hard to have to eat at home all the time. We are all fed up with cooking! Luckily restaurants have been providing take away menus and there are plenty of local ‘rosticcerias’ preparing delicious ready-made food so I have a rule of ‘no-cook’ Friday and Saturday since we cannot eat out.
I have been lucky in that I work from home so the pandemic has not affected me workwise. My husband spent a few months last year at the start of the pandemic working from home rather than going to his University department , but he has returned to work now as usual taking all recommended precautions and everyone in his lab has now been vaccinated. Apart from not seeing as many people as I would have liked to, and not being able to travel freely to the UK (where our son and my family are) and the US (where our daughter lives), I have been fine. Work has kept me busy and telephone and zoom calls have kept me sane. We have a second home in Le Marche so were able to travel there over Easter. Although Le Marche was in lockdown too, we had lovely walks in the hills and on the beach. The one positive thing (for me anyway and at the risk of my sounding middle aged!) is the relative silence at night. Normally there are people walking in the street through to the early hours and some are extremely noisy, but since the curfew has been in place, I always manage to have a wonderful night’s sleep. There is less traffic too and none at night. Less traffic means you can hear birdsong in the mornings and the air is cleaner. So, let us hope we return to normal as soon as possible, but in the meantime, be grateful for small mercies.
LONDON – From our correspondent Andrew Simmonds (a reliable source)….
…’I travelled to London last week, from our new home in Cheshire, for my first face-to-face client meetings since the start of the pandemic. I was curious to see the extent to which life was returning to the City, now that restrictions are starting to be lifted here in the UK.
My journey started at Crewe Railway Station, one of the UK’s busiest and most historically significant railway hubs, which normally handles 3.5 million passengers a year. Today it was very quiet. There were perhaps a dozen passengers on the cold, windy platforms and the cafes and waiting rooms were closed. An outdoor kiosk served coffee and sausage rolls to keep us warm. By happy coincidence, a colleague was travelling to London on the same train. We found seats together and used the two-hour journey to prepare for the following day’s meetings. The train was at about 5% capacity, with socially distanced seating and everyone fully masked-up in accordance with the rules.
We arrived at London’s main Euston terminus which was eerily quiet. The normally packed concourse had a few dozen travellers watching the departure board. The passenger lounges and most of the cafes were closed. Unsurprisingly, there was no queue for the taxis and we were quickly on our way into the City. Our destination was Bank junction, near the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England. Here, in the financial heart of the City, everyone has been working from home for more than a year, only now starting to return to their offices and only in very small numbers. The streets were empty. I really hope more people return soon. There are so many businesses here that depend on them. We spent the afternoon in the office preparing for the following day’s board meeting. We had the entire floor to ourselves.
Later, I walked the empty streets to The Ned, the only hotel I’d been able to find in the area that was actually open. Hotels have been closed during lockdown. They are now allowed to open for people travelling for work purposes but, in practice, most of the good hotels remain closed. Without the tourists, there just isn’t enough business. This was The Ned’s first night reopening. It’s a grand building with a lavish ground floor café, bar and restaurant area, very popular with bankers and financiers. However, under current restrictions these public areas were all closed and the only people in this vast semi-lit cavern were me and the receptionist.
When I checked out the following morning, I encountered the only other guest I saw during my stay. We shared a lift down to reception after I assured him it was OK to join me in the confined space. I think we are having to re-learn how to behave around each other in public. It was brilliant to spend the day working with colleagues. After more than a year of videoconferencing, the many small social pleasures of being physically present with other people have been greatly missed.
After work we headed to a roof-top restaurant in Finsbury Square for dinner as it’s not yet permitted for diners to be seated indoors. Naturally, we did what only the British would do: we sat in the bitterly cold wind on the top of a building, drinking gin and tonics, as the watery sun set and took with it the last residue of the days limited warmth. My first post-lockdown business trip to London ended with a lonely taxi ride and train journey back to Cheshire. I may have been the only passenger on the 9:11 from Euston to Crewe.
With the coming of spring and the easing of covid-restrictions, there’s a palpable sense of renewal here in the UK. There’s a long way to go before the City returns to former levels of activity, but it was lovely to be there again and to see things starting to come back to life. Many people will continue to work from home, at least part of the time. However, the pleasures of working alongside friends and colleagues are a huge incentive and may prove to be the secret-sauce we need. I really hope so...’
Discussing the streets of London and Padova with Katharine and Andrew make me realise that restrictions are gradually being lifted in cities across Europe. However this is by no means the end of the story. Governments across the globe are determined to keep infection rates as low as possible. The minute there is an increase in cases, restrictions will come into force again. So in Europe it’s essential to wear a face mask in any kind of enclosed area or when you are less than two metres from another person. Social distancing is the new normal. People are encouraged to work from home wherever possible.
It’s hard to know what will happen to the travel industry. In theory British citizens can take holidays overseas from mid-May although the logistics of this will be a nightmare. Talk of vaccine passports and negative Covid tests fill the air, whilst our airports are empty and operating at less than 5% capacity. There are almost no aircraft in the sky. It seems to me that the next issue to deal with will be confidence. Many people will take a ‘wait and see’ approach to leisure travel in the coming months. Against a backdrop of negative propaganda and endless government guidelines it’s hard to remain optimistic and to seize the moment, and yet, ironically ‘carpe diem’ is exactly what we’ve got to do.
- You may also enjoy: Letter from Europe #1 March 2021
- Letter from Europe #2 April 2021
- Venice is no stranger to plague and quarantine: Venice – Health, Quarantine and Santa Maria della Salute
- The Feast of Redentore, Venice celebrates surviving the plague: Redentore, Venezia: July 2020
- An ingenious solution to vaccine delivery: Venice – Vaccine by vaporetto
- The History of Medicine in Venice was recently the subject of an exhibition at Ospedale di Venezia…
- Venice – from cradle to grave
- Excellent article in The New Yorker about Shakespeare and the plague: https://bit.ly/32St6II
- The Decameron (Boccaccio) Florence – 14th century: Italy – enchanted gardens story-telling and survival…
- A Cheery Footnote: The wine windows of Florence (necessity is the mother of invention)
28th April, 2021