Abbee Pratten still considers Arrowtown home, and where her heart is. Originally from the United Kingdom, during her six years in the Wakatipu she worked at Millbrook Resort. For the past five years she’s been living in Calabria, on Italy’s “big toe”, where she’s a teacher and director of studies at a language school
Four weeks ago, I had a relatively normal life.
As I sit here now, in southern Italy, that normal life seems like a distant memory.
For weeks we had heard about a virus spreading in China, then we read about and watched as a cluster of cases spread in the north of Italy.
Some towns in Lombardy were shut down and declared ‘red zones’.
Life here continued in the same, relaxed way it usually does – perhaps now people were washing their hands more frequently, or catching coughs and sneezes in tissues, but largely we were unaffected.
The shift came quickly.On Wednesday, March 4, I went to work normally in the morning.
I went home for lunch and while there started to receive messages from the UK that all schools in Italy had been ordered to close the following day.
Seemingly, we were not entirely in the frame of what was going on nationally.
One day you would hear of someone with mild symptoms, isolating at home.
Days later you would hear that person was in the intensive care unit.
We quickly had to realise not to take anything for granted – leave nothing unsaid, laugh freely and be kind.
We had no idea the scale of what was coming.
At that stage the optimists among us believed the closure would last only the initial week.
By that Sunday we learnt all of Italy was to be declared a ‘red zone’ until April 3.
It was an unprecedented move by the Italian government, and restrictions were implemented that had not been seen before in peace time.
But what is it actually like living in what has been, and remains, the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe?
If I could use one word to sum it up, I would use ‘surreal’.
The numbers speak for themselves as to how real the situation is here.
It isn’t the ‘potential scenario’ many other countries are speaking about.
It is real life.
The south of Italy has not, by any means, been hit as hard as the north, though I have just read many experts expect the “poor south” to suffer more in the coming weeks.
It is not only having a huge impact on everyone’s lives, but there is also the very real possibility of getting sick.
As the current government decree stands, I am able to go to the supermarket and the pharmacy.
Banks are open and available to customers by appointment.
Petrol stations and tobacco shops remain open.
I make a dreaded weekly trip to the supermarket on a Saturday.
There’s been no panic-buying here as, I’m ashamed to see, there has been in the UK. That’s possibly a nod to the laid-back Italian mentality, or the fact that our restrictions literally came in overnight, and no one had the chance to go loo roll-crazy prior to that.
Supermarkets limit the number of people who can go in at any one time – only one person per household should be going out to complete shopping, you are to remain one metre away from other shoppers at all time – which makes for some interesting trolley manoeuvres – and, largely, people wear masks.
I don’t have a mask because I haven’t been able to secure one, so I make do by wrapping a scarf around my head and face.
Many businesses have been forced to close and it is a sad fact that many may not open again.
The scale of the damage this will have on Italy’s already fragile economy is, at this stage, unfathomable.
I’m able to keep working – as a teacher I’m obviously not an essential worker like someone in the health sector, but I am considered “productive” (which is nice!).
I’m able to leave my house each day, scarf wrapped tightly around my face, and conduct online lessons from our empty school.
I have to carry specific documents to justify my reason for being out of the house, and my passport.
The day-to-day reality of living with this is, really, you just dig in and carry on.
I’ve made the decision to remain in Italy, rather than return to my family in the UK.
This is not a decision I’ve taken lightly.
In many ways, living this nightmare would be a lot easier in my homeland.
Consider a scary and uncertain time, where a lot of the relevant information you’re receiving is in a language you might decently understand, but is not your own, where you’re constantly second-guessing your translation of key points.
It’s far from comfortable.
I’m obviously concerned for my family and their well-being – the UK doesn’t seem to have responded quickly enough.
If Italy was not an example of how quickly this virus can move, and how extreme the consequences, I genuinely do not know what is.
No doubt all of you reading this will have seen at least one video on social media of Italians singing from balconies during the lockdown.
I’ve been proudly surprised by how well this, surely one of the most tactile of nations, has handled social distancing – albeit only once official sanctions were in place.
In my household we’re doing well, finding entertainment and humour in unexpected places and finding it often.
There’s a feeling of solidarity and positivity which makes each day of uncertainty much easier to bare.
The nation’s adopted a saying during all of this, widely used on social media, hung from balconies and in windows: ‘Andrà tutto bene’, which means ‘everything will be OK’.
That’s largely the attitude of people here.
We don’t know how long these restrictions will last.
Personally, I don’t know when I’ll see my family next.
In many places in the country things are really not OK, but it’s so important to believe in the not-so-distant future they will be.
I can’t wait to walk freely down the street.
To greet friends with a customary Italian kiss and hug.
I can’t wait to be frustrated by busy streets full of people moving painfully slowly, or by distracted shop assistants basically ignoring me, but without masks and gloves.
I can’t wait to go to a noisy bar with live music, to have a coffee before work and to teach to faces, not screens.
The internet’s a godsend during this time – I’ve reconnected with some people, and I’ve been able to keep in touch with all of those I love on a regular basis.
Without it, I don’t know what I’d do.
It makes me realise though, for all its wizardry, technology really is no substitute for physical interaction.
I do think, when this is all over, the world will have changed forever.
I think there’ll be some parts of social distancing that will be hard to break.
New Zealand has acted fast and its acted hard.
And I hope, sincerely, our reality will never reach your shores.
I hope you never have to read news of mass cremations, or death tallies of, essentially, the equivalent of one village per day.
I hope your doctors and nurses never have to make the heartbreaking decisions of who gets treatment and who doesn’t.
I’m not scared for myself.
I’m worried for the people who don’t take this seriously.
Because it is very serious.
So, New Zealand, my heart, my home, andrà tutto bene, kia kaha … and stay at home.