When a major crisis like the current pandemic happens and avid travellers like myself can no longer travel, we feel grateful for the trips already taken. My last one was to Iran. I had wanted to visit for a while, but due to family and work reasons, I could never find the time that suited us all. In the spur of the moment last October, worried that tension between Iran and the US may escalate further leading to a closing of borders, I book a last minute flight to Tehran for myself and my two sons aged 14 and 12. In retrospect it was a lucky move, or maybe an instinctive one. …

It was a shocking sight, one that we have not seen before and that goes against all our established ideas: white people begging in the streets of a city in Africa. It may not be politically correct to express it in those terms, but I find no other way to be so clear. We are used to seeing indigenous people begging in African cities, or homeless people in their own towns in Europe, or African migrants in the northern hemisphere, never before have we seen white people begging in Africa. I am talking about the Syrian refugees I saw in the streets of Addis Ababa last month just before the coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise. Single men, fathers with children, families who stopped cars in the hope of being given enough monies to go by the day. Knowing that Ethiopia ranks amongst the poorest countries in the world (in spite of fast urban growth in Addis Ababa), why would Syrian refugees choose to go there out of all places? Are they so desperate that they find no other destination? …

We have been confined for about three weeks now. A police state has been implemented with stricter movement control and more severe penalties, even if the numbers for new contamination have gone down, showing that the quarantine measures are working. On the self-certificate we have to carry with us, we now have to specify whether we have tested positive for COVID-19 or are under imposed quarantine (if we have been in contact with infected people). We can no longer move from one municipality to another under any circumstances except a major emergency. The objective is to have nobody outside anymore until the virus can be contained. I have been stopped by the police twice already, both times when I was out with my 12 year old son. The last time it happened in our village, when I was out shopping. The police insisted heavily on whether my residence was here, why I was out and where I was going, etc….They know we don’t live here full-time even though our house is here, during the week, we normally stay in Rome because of work and schools. Both my son and I were wearing a mask and surgical gloves, which probably helped our cause as after about five minutes of probing us they let us go. That episode made me anxious, and I bought twice as much food as I had planned to last for a few days without returning to the village. Seeing myself stocking up on food reminded me of a great-aunt of mine who experienced hunger as a young child during WW1 and remained traumatised for life. She always had too much food in her house, even in her old age, when she no longer needed to feed a family. We used to laugh about it, not understanding why she needed to keep two large freezers full of meat, fish and vegetables when our supermarkets were over abundant. Today, with the coronavirus epidemic, we revert to this kind of emergency mentality. Uncertain of what the future holds, we refocus on the essentials which is to eat, remain healthy and be with the people we love (if we can). Everything else becomes secondary. Being quarantined at home, we are faced with ourselves and our choice of life. Is it really the way we want to continue living? Did we make the right choice in the first place? We have to live 24/7 in an enclosed space as a family, when before we each had our own territory: work/office for the parents, school for the children and home for babies and toddlers. Now we have to share that space with a new dynamic, and that is when the truth of our life comes to the fore. Coming out of it, many of us may take drastic decisions to change the course of their life or maybe, we will find comfort in having made the right choice….in …

We left Rome last week to go to our house in the countryside. It was possible to do so under the conditions imposed by the Italian government since it is our domicile in Italy. When moving, we now need to carry a self-certificate to justify the reason for our move. It is allowed under four instances: work, health reason, shopping for basic goods and return to a place of residence or domicile. Even to go to the corner shop, we need to carry it with us, just like a laisser-passer in times of war.

Our house is in the middle of the fields. We have no water supply from the mains and no wi-fi, but we are connected to the electricity grid, which we did at our own expense. By coming here I left behind one set of problems -the strict confinement into a small urban space-, for another: the lack of infrastructure and to some extent the isolation. We are about five kilometres from the nearest village where there is a medium-size supermarket, a couple of butchers and bakeries, a fishmonger, and a deli for passing visitors in summer. The village is relatively small and its inhabitants, mainly farmers, are scattered around in a 20 km radius. Our nearest neighbours who own a livestock farm with mainly sheep, are at least 500 metres away, beyond a hill. We can’t visit them anymore because of the quarantine. I nevertheless offered to do some shopping for them if needed. They are over the age of 70, it is safer for them not to go into the village and be exposed to other people. They can’t even be visited by their own daughters who live in nearby towns. We now have to learn to live in total isolation from each other and use online devices to connect. I have a feeling that this crisis may have more repercussion on our lives than we are able to visualize just yet. …

Friday 13 March: a day in Rome in the time of the coronavirus

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Empty street of Rome near the Church of Sant’Andrea del Valle

8h00: wake-up

8h30: get out to Forno Roscioli (750 metres away according to Google map) to buy bread, pizza and pastry, together with my son P (age 14). Only one person at a time is allowed into the shop, everyone else has to wait outside, he waits outside too.

9h00: back home for breakfast and coffee. My youngest son L (age 12) is awake, he has breakfast too.

9h30: P has to learn a poem for school. His brother L is a bit at a loose end, I ask him to choose a book to read to avoid reverting to video games to kill boredom. …

Rome is in shutdown. All the shops are closed except for food markets, supermarkets and pharmacies. Bars and restaurants were ordered to shutdown on Wednesday night, and people to stay at home as much as possible.

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Empty square at the Pantheon on 13 March 2020 (©D.Magada)

What is it like to live here? We limit our outings to shopping for food, which we can still find in abundance, walking dogs (if we have a dog) and the odd sanitary walk. The streets of Rome are empty, the shutters closed, the squares deserted, we can now cross Lungotevere without paying attention to the red pedestrian light, there is not a single car on the road. Teleworking has become the norm both for parents and school children. We are discovering a new way of life: that of living together with a slower pace. No longer are we exhausted parents rushing home to cook something fast while shouting at our kids to finish their homework and tidy up their room, we do it together. …

First time visitors to Iceland will be in awe at the same phenomenon: it never gets dark in summer. When experienced first hand, it is rather disorientating. My personal account of it was to wake up at 3am to open the door to my co-traveller who was arriving on a later flight, and finding that it was still light outside, not a midday brightness but a soft pre-dusk luminosity. Still light enough to spend an hour outside, me standing in my pyjamas, her talking and smoking incessantly.

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Midnight in Reykjavik

It was early June in Reykjavik, we were staying near the harbour, in a house owned by two single brothers, one who lived on the top floor and the other on the lower ground floor. We temporarily occupied the middle apartment, which must have been their grandmother’s flat judging by the late 19th century furniture style, and shared their kitchen and bathroom. Both brothers had the legendary Icelandic reserve; we exchanged no more than about ten words during our weekend stay. They showed us the house, pointing at the various cupboards with a parsimony of words that in another context, would have made us questioned their fluency in the English language. Their mother, who dealt with the online booking, was far more loquacious in her written messages. Throughout our stay, the two brothers made themselves invisible. Maybe, they felt slightly invaded by the presence of three lively mothers (an Italian, a Norwegian and a French), who, behaving like students while away from their family, systematically drank pre and post-dinner gin and tonic in their room. I realised later that the two brothers were friendlier than the local norm: in the next house I stayed, I encountered my host only once and on that occasion she didn’t bother getting up from her sofa to greet me, that involved too much social interaction. The logistics of checking-in had been done via messages and a key box. …

In the 1970s and 80s, it was fashionable for the youth of the western world to spend months in a kibbutz during time off college. It was the communal ideal that appealed to them, the collective spirit in opposition to the competitive individualism of western societies. They wanted to reconnect with nature and be able to produce themselves the food they consumed. At the time, a kibbutz was a collective entity where members worked the land and shared the proceeds according to their needs. Private property didn’t exist.

Today, even the kibbutz have not been able to resist the global call for privatisation. From the utopian ideal of a collective farming community a century ago, they have become well-run and efficient enterprises. The number of kibbutzim in Israel is estimated at around 270, most of them being secular organisations which account for about 40 percent of the country’s agricultural output. Their activities are no longer exclusively centered on agriculture, and kibbutz members no longer work the field themselves, as I found out when visiting friends in a kibbutz near Cesarea in northern Israel. They are now shareholders of a cooperative which employs workers, like any other business of the capitalist system. In my friends’ kibbutz, the workforce is mainly imported from Thailand. They told me that, being close to the Palestinian territories, they used to employ local Palestinians, but they stopped doing so a few years ago in fear of infiltration and terrorist attacks. …

Tel Aviv is a good city for walking about. The pavements are wide enough to stroll at leisure, the residential buildings (even if a little run down) are surrounded by attractive gardens, the beach is never too far and the sea breeze provides some respite from the desert heat. Little is remembered today, but that was part of the masterplan when Tel Aviv was created in the 1920s. Almost a century later, life in Tel Aviv seemed pleasantly uncomplicated just as the city had been designed for, at least that was my impression as a visiting outsider. I was staying in one of the 1930s Modernist buildings near Dizengoff circle, an area known as the White City and declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 2003 for its urbanism and period architecture. Travelling with my 12 year-old son, I was pleased to have found a room in this residential area close to the beach and full of good cafés and eating places, where we were welcomed by a friendly host and her lively shepherd dog. …

A major retrospective of British artist Anthony Gormley opened in September at the Royal Academy, being the first in the season of large-scale art exhibitions in London. Gormley, a mature artist with a career spanning over four decades, is best known for his outdoor installations, where man-made pieces work in harmony with the natural environment hosting them. …

About

Dominique Magada

Writer, author and journalist living across cultures, currently based in Rome

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