In October of this year, we left for Italy. Our last trip there was scheduled for March of 2020. I think about that a lot – about the alternate reality in which that trip was still possible. I remember the date of our departure approaching, and my concern about this new flu spreading across Europe. I remember Rand finally cancelling our tickets, that mixture of relief and worry.
“What if we ended up cancelling them for no reason?” I asked.
“I don’t think we’ll regret it,” he said.
This time around, whether or not we’d go remained a question until our actual departure. The hope I’d felt this past summer was gone as quickly as it came, the rates of the Delta variant rising. I kept asking Rand if it was safe, if it was responsible. Italy’s caseloads were lower than ours. They were taking precautions – demanding proof of vaccination – that only a few states had started instituting.
The day of departure arrived; we decided to go. There were about 30 people on our transatlantic flight.
I kept expecting something to happen when we landed, that someone would look at our documentation and tell us that we’d done something wrong, that we couldn’t actually enter Italy. I had everything we were told we needed: passenger locator forms for the EU and the UK (we were transiting through Heathrow), proof of vaccination, and a negative Covid result taken within 72 hours prior to our arrival.
Still, I was convinced there’d be a delay or a miscommunication, something we’d overlooked, or worse, perhaps, something that the agent we were talking to simply didn’t accept. I imagined us in a quarantine, or simply sent back on the plane we flew in on. But instead, we walked through passport control, and I looked out over the rooftops from our hotel, and neither of us could quite believe it.
I don’t really remember that first dinner, jetlagged and exhausted. Apparently I had something with porcini and Rand had fritto misto, and we ate inside, nervously, for the first time in a very long while.
To eat indoors, or to go to many museums and indoor facilities, you have show a government-issued Green Pass – a scannable QR code on your phone, that proves your vaccination status. It’s only available to EU citizens, and there’s no electronic equivalency or pass that you can get as a visitor, so we carried our vaccine cards with us, in little plastic sleeves. They worked everywhere, though sometimes I had to explain what they were. The more touristy an area, the more familiar they were with our cards. In our entire time in Italy, we had no problems with our paper cards at all, except once (a cafe owner in Bari refused to serve us without a QR code, and demanded we leave immediately regardless of our vaccination status).
What stunned me was how normal Italy felt. Lombardy, where Milan is, had been hit hard by the pandemic – not many more cases than King County, but they happened early on, before anyone knew what the Covid was, or how it was spread, and so the death count was much higher. Bergamo – where we’d visited years before – was devastated by the virus. Thousands dead in only a few weeks. I asked our friends and family what the last few years had been like. They told us about the lockdowns, about how their growing toddlers had learned to walk inside their apartments and had never seen grass. How no one could leave their homes – one person from every household was allowed to go shopping once every few weeks. If you had a dog you could venture 200 meters from your house. The streets were empty and silent, they said, except for the sound of ambulance sirens.
Now the country’s vaccination rates are now among the highest in Europe, ticking up even further as the government instituted workplace vaccination mandates that are among the strictest in the world. And the Green Pass requirements for eating in bars and cafes and museums and gyms has bumped this number further up as well.
People still wore masks everywhere – indoors and on the street. But life felt so … normal. The mandates have helped restrict the spread of Delta, which can lead to breakthrough cases even among the vaccinated, and is currently responsible for millions of cases worldwide (with the U.S. at the helm). People were out, socializing, and going to cafes and restaurants again.
There was a moment, Rand told me, in the height of Covid, when he wasn’t sure if we’d ever make it back to Italy or my family again. I kept telling him it wasn’t a possibility, mostly because I didn’t want to think about it. But walking through the streets, it was safe to admit: I’d felt the same way. We ate too much pasta and we hugged my family and we cried. Everything was new again, and everything was magical, the way it used to be, when travel was new to us; an appreciation for a place that comes only when you think you’ll never see it again. I promised myself I’d hold onto it for as long as I could.