COMMENT:

It is difficult to describe our life in Bologna, the medieval city in the north of Italy where I am living with my husband and four children, without explaining the before and after.

The "before" is, I guess, like any travelogue about Italy. There are ancient cobblestoned streets and laneways lined with little shops selling beautiful clothes and food and wine. There are fruit-and-vege vendors, and tortellini makers and soap-sellers and fishmongers, and couples kissing, and old ladies carrying bags of fresh produce, and students cycling – unhelmeted – in and out of the buses that fly through the narrow streets.

Along the steps that concertina from the main church, people sit and smoke, or drink an Aperol spritz, or eat prosciutto rolls. In the evenings, dressed up in their stylish best, they promenade with their dogs. Buskers are everywhere; cellists and pianists with portable keyboards and old men with piano accordions. Their music melds with the tolling from the local church bells, so that everything seems a glorious fusion of melody. The fabled golden Italian light blesses everything.

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It is simply beautiful.

And now, there is a distinct "after".

The "after", is of course, because of the coronavirus. It has cut a swathe through Italy. At first it was just a couple of cases, and in regions close – but not so near to us – and then it came closer, and now, everything has changed.

It started – as these things do – incrementally. First, our school was closed, as a precautionary measure. Because the virus can be carried by children, but primarily affects the elderly, this made sense. Italy, after all, with its aged population, is known as "a country of old people". They must be protected.

The initial school-closing decree was three weeks ago, when we were on holiday for "white week" in the Italian alps. Since our return, we have been homeschooling our four children, with tasks assigned to them daily by their teachers via Google classroom.

The streets became noticeably quieter. Friends from Australia suspended their plans to visit. Shopkeepers clustered to speak anxiously with each other, but we would still kiss when we saw friends. Anyone who had a sniffle would reassure each other with a hasty "senza virus", and everyone would give a wry smile. Bologna, we gleaned from the news, was not included in the hazardous "red zones". We would be okay.

Then, on Monday night, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gave a press conference to the nation. There would be no more Red Zones, he announced. Instead, there would be "Orange Zones", where travel would be restricted, gyms and cinemas and theatres would close, museums would be shut. Restaurants and bars were no longer allowed to open after 6pm.

The kicker was this: the whole country was declared to be in the orange zone.

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Effectively, the whole of Italy was being shut down. And we are now shut within it.

Since Monday, I have left the house only to buy groceries. My yoga class is cancelled, even though it consisted of three of us and a teacher. Our Italian language school, where 20 or so intrepid winter students wrestled with verbs, has closed. Our boys' basketball training is cancelled; as are their weekly games.

There are to be no weddings or funerals; no group gatherings of any kind. The shops are still full of produce but empty of customers. The streets are deserted, aside from the occasional shopper or apartment dweller carrying their organic rubbish down to the communal bins.

It is hard to imagine what will happen. The government has announced a suspension of mortgage payments – but what will this mean for banks? How will teachers survive, or shopkeepers, or restaurateurs? What will happen to our old Italian pen seller, who supplies us with cards and notebooks from his tiny little nook? Our Italian friends, all too aware of the way they are perceived by the rest of Europe (chaotic, disorganised, hopeless), are hurt and anxious. Parents are bickering on our class group chats. Our American neighbours, who were on holiday in Portugal, were told they were being flown back to the US by their company – without being allowed to come home first. They have simply gone.

Now, of course, people on the streets are wearing masks – although yesterday, in classic Italian style, I saw a lady who had co-ordinated her orange mask with the strap on her handbag and shoes. In the supermarket, you are not permitted to stand closer than a metre to another person. This is tricky, because the shops are small and mazelike, so there is some careful negotiating of space. At the checkout, they serve a customer at one end of the counter, then go to the other end to serve the next.

The atmosphere is suddenly reminiscent of what I imagine to be wartime. Faces on the street are grim. Strangers regard each other warily. Police patrol the entrances to the city. Gone are the musicians, the buskers, the beggars, the couples wheeling strollers. Should you venture out, you need to have your identity papers with you.

Cabin fever is nearly as much as a consideration as avoiding the virus. Long days inside without fresh air or sunlight are, of course, a guaranteed recipe for ill-health, and our children are restless. Yesterday my husband took our two younger sons for a bike ride. The three of them rode through the deserted streets up to the hills that skirt the ancient city, and pedalled past an old man, who yelled something at them. "Fiori!", he yelled. "You are not supposed to be outside."

Peter didn't think much of it. Only later, he realised, he should have said: "And neither are you."

Oh Italy. I hope you are going to be okay. I hope we all are.

Later, there was a new government decree issued. All shops are closed, except essential services: banks, post offices, food stores and pharmacies. And because Italy is still Italy – tobacconists.