Palermo, Sicily – Wednesday, March 11, 2020 – 8:45 am
Monday was an especially lively day in Palermo, where I’m spending the month of March to escape Chiang Mai’s smoky season. My fourth-floor flat is in the heart of Palermo, in the Al Capo neighborhood–a populare or family neighborhood whose center is the vibrant, crowded, and noisy Mercado del Capo, or Capo Street Market, below. There are children all over the place. And dogs who belong to no one and are cared for by all.
Having been here for one week, I’d grown accustomed to the early-morning sounds from below as vendors set up their stalls. The view from my rooftop terrace was a sea of red awnings, for which the market is known.
Running the length of Via Sant’Agostino–a walking street–the market is a seething mass of colourful activity during the day, with vendors peddling fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish, souvenirs, and even household goods. Cafes and restaurants, too. And a barbership, where I’ve been getting my hair washed for four euros.
Mid-morning, I noticed unusual sounds coming from a different direction and ran to a window to investigate. To my astonishment, a film crew was shooting in the courtyard below, in front of a beautiful church.
Neighbors were gathered in windows and on terraces and belconies to view the excitement. The director yelled “Azione!” and “Cut!” It was great fun and I watched from the window, hungrily snapping photos and trying to get the perfect video. That’s when I noticed it. Several members of the film crew were wearing masks–a sight I hadn’t seen in Sicily since arriving in late January. Masks! They must be from out of town, I thought. Nobody wears those here.
I woke up yesterday, Tuesday, to the news that all of Italy was on lockdown. I didn’t really understand what that meant for me, my fellow travelers, and for Italians, and I definitely didn’t see it coming. I have little access to news in English so, after sending an email to the U.S. Consular Agency in Palermo, asking for an appointment, I decided to go out for a cappuccino, pick up some fresh produce at the market, and stop by the grocery store for the provisions I’ve seen others talking about online. Masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, wipes, and, yes, toilet paper.
No longer crowded, noisy, and teeming with people, the market had only a handfull of customers. About half the people I saw were wearing masks and many vendors wore gloves, as well. Some fashioned masks from scarves and turtleneck sweaters. I was astonished to see some of the vendors breaking down their stalls early.
It was only mid-morning. When I got to the grocery store, there was a queue on the sidewalk and they only allowed two people in at a time. Masks and wipes were sold out. The pharmacy was sold out, too. “Finished,” they said. I started to get the picture.
When I got back to the apartment, the Swiss couple next door rang my doorbell to introduce themselves and say they were cutting their trip short and going home today. I was still waiting to find out whether I could leave so there was my answer.
Today – 8:45 am
I knew something was wrong as soon as I woke up. It was quiet.
Looking down from the terrace, I could see the familiar sea of red awningswas was gone. Hurrying downstairs, I was relieved to see that some stalls were open. The vendor nearest my front door was gone. Leaving nothing but the frame of his once-lively stall.
But there were no customers. Where were the customers? The tourists? The locals?
As I continued up Via Sant’Agostino towards the entrance to the market, I noticed a policeman. Then two. Then three. I couldn’t understand the words they were speaking but their meaning was obvious. Every vendor in the market was packing up, their faces ashen–etched with worry.
Today – 9:15 am
Several police cars, blue lights flashing, were parked at the entrance to the market and men loitered on nearby street corners, standing the required one meter apart, staring in disbelief, as it sank in. This is what “lockdown” looks like.
Thanks for reading. Please pray for Italy.