Giorgia’s dog Charlie won’t stop barking. She puts him on her knee to a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from her classmates. She holds the white Maltese terrier up, so they can see him via her webcam. My lessons frequently have these interruptions, whether it is a pet, or a younger sibling, or a confused parent. Giorgia is 21 and a second-year undergraduate at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Since the schools and universities were closed in Veneto on the 24th of February, she has been attending her lessons via Google Meet from her home in Dolo, a small town a forty-five-minute bus ride from the university. “I appreciate that the university has found a way to carry on with the lessons despite the quarantine, but I find it difficult to keep up with all the platforms from which we receive information,” Giorgia says, adding that she misses going into the city and seeing her classmates.
My lessons have been really important to me. I’ve taught in Italy now for over twenty years and my students have always been (with barely an exception) an inspiration to me. They keep me sane. Now, we’ve been home for almost four weeks, self-isolating for three of them, the lessons have taken on greater importance. Watching the UK and the USA slowly lumber into the same arrogant mistakes Italy made early on has been disheartening. Early on before this all went down, the governor of the Province of Veneto Luca Zaia blamed Chinese for eating dead mice and said that Italians wouldn’t have a problem with the virus because they washed more. But my students are resilient and hopeful, though some of them have been stuck away from home in empty student accommodation. And they helped me. Our lessons are full of suggestions on how to cope, and tips on making the most of isolation.
So I wanted to pay it forward as Kevin Spacey once said. Perhaps not the authority I want to invoke, but I have a feeling many of you in the UK and the USA are going to be in a similar situation to the one we have been in. Everyone’s situation will be different and the conditions on the ground will vary, but that said I wanted to offer my experience as a way of perhaps helping people understand and cope.
First of all, it is really important to maintain a routine. Get up at a set hour, shower and dress. In grown-up clothes. Try to include some exercise, or meditation, or yoga into your day at a set hour. Set an alarm on your phone so you do it every day.
Food becomes very important so it’s good to have a bit of imagination. You have time so you might as well get a little creative. In our situation there have been some shortages, but not that bad. Fresh food is important to get whenever you can. The trip to the supermarket might be the only time you get out of the house.
Toilet roll. Don’t worry about it. We use bidets in Italy so that’s never been an issue of panic. And if you do run out, have a shower and wash your bum. It’s right there next to the toilet. Plus – again – you have time.
Work. Working from home paradoxically can mean you end up doing more than you usually do. So you have to create demarcation lines. This includes emails and phone calls. Maybe use your exercise or meditation time to divide your workday from your free time. Or (if you’re allowed) go for a walk. Around the garden.
Books. Movies. Etc. You might think you have a wealth of choice but chances are you’ve probably already strip-mined your streaming services so maybe try and look for some free stuff on Dailymotion or Vimeo or Youtube. Lots of old movies and noirs are available. Also, maybe try and pick a bunch of films you’ve always meant to watch. Have your own film festival. Pick a theme, director, actor and watch everything they’ve done. Make sure you read that book you’ve been meaning to read. Break it up with listening to an album or two.
People. If you’re with your family, or friends, or just your partner, you’re going to rub each other up the wrong way fairly quickly so you have to make sure everyone has a part of the house to go to. Tasks should be divided up and everyone do their fair share. It’s a good opportunity for a spring clean, with the proviso that you might not be able to go to the dump for a while. It’s also important that you keep in contact via video chat. This also means friends who you might never interact with in this way. Even watching a movie together via Netflix party or playing RPGs or something. Time to dust off Dungeons and Dragons.
Ration the news. It’s fucking grim at the moment, and though you need to keep abreast, you won’t do anyone any good obsessing.
Obviously I’ve done none of these things. I’m sitting in my pyjamas having just woken up and I’m elbow-deep in a bucket of ice-cream watching CNN on a loop. But if this can help in any way then I hope it does.
Oh and remember if you are quarantined it only really works if everyone does it. It’s like a submarine. Either it’s watertight. Or it isn’t.