Ballyshannon woman Roberta McIntyre who now lives in the Italian town of Prato
Roberta McIntyre is originally from Ballyshannon but has lived and worked in northern Italy for the past 12 years.
Her world has been turned upside down since the coronavirus pandemic and she finds herself living in a country where Covid-19 has taken a massive grip.
Here she tells how Covid-19 has impacted on her and her family and she offers a series of thoughts and observations which are hugely relevant to us all.
A daughter of John and Eileen McIntyre, she worked as the assistant art director at Hotpress magazine and ran her own graphic design studio in Ballyshannon for five years. Now fluent in Italian, she lives in the city of Prato with her partner and their 11-year-old son.
She shares valuable insights into her experiences and hopes they can help readers understand what is ahead of us here in Ireland.
She encourages all her Donegal friends and family to adopt a motto which has become hugely popular for her and millions of people resident in Italy - “Andrà tutto bene” - which translates to “Everything will be ok”.
There is no denying the seriousness of the situation in Italy. As of Sunday March 15, over 1,800 have died so far in Italy, the worst-hit country after China, with a total number of cases hitting nearly 25,000. Italy on Sunday reported 368 new deaths from the coronavirus outbreak as the country's death toll hit 1,809 while the number of positive cases rose to 24,747 from 21,157 on Saturday, the country's civil protection authority said.
It’s estimated that the spread of the virus in Italy is at least two or three weeks ahead of what we are experiencing in Ireland and many of the things she describes will resonate with people here.
She insists that people must understand the importance of self-isolating: “If we don't self isolate now the virus will keep spreading and more and more people will need medical attention. There will be no beds left in the hospitals, doctors and nurses will get sick and then what?
“If someone has a heart attack or an accident there will be no ambulances available to go to them. Stay at home and stop this spreading more.”
Roberta outside her apartment in Prato on Monday wearing a facemask which is commonplace in Italy now
If anyone doubts how dangerous Covid-19 is, Roberta offered this sobering fact from a popular newspaper that circulates where she lives - “On February 9 the newspaper carried one and a half pages of obituaries, on March 12 the obituaries ran to ten pages. I think that statistic alone should encourage us all to take this virus very seriously. It’s not my intention to scare people, but I am anxious myself, there’s no point pretending.
“This is a very serious, worrying time, whether you live in Italy or Ireland.”
She admits that she has good days and bad days, it is an anxious time for everyone: “I try to take each day as it comes, try to confront the situation calmly, I have my moments too, every night I say to myself ‘that’s another day down, what will tomorrow bring?’”
An English language teacher, Roberta lives in the city of Prato, in the stunning region that is Tuscany, some 20 kilometres from Florence.
Tuscany is largely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful places in the world, never mind in Italy and has always attracted artists and tourists. Roberta, and this should come as no surprise to those who know her, having completed her degree in graphic design in Limerick, was drawn to the place.
Six weeks ago life for Roberta, her partner Lohengrin and their son Gabriel Meoni was pretty close to perfect. Busy, sure, but from afar pretty damn good and something most of us would enjoy.
Prato, famous for its textile industry, offered Roberta and her family very much everything you would expect.
It ticks all the boxes - museums, galleries, theatres, clusters of fantastic restaurants and bars, busy cobbled streets, noisy with the sounds of cars, vespas and fast talking Italians who tend to be heard before they are seen.
From now until October there’s also warm weather, welcoming people and sunny, long days where visits to the stunning countryside or days spent at the beach are taken as the norm.
But six weeks ago that began to change. The spread of coronavirus was initially more-or-less ignored by all, something that wouldn’t visit their door (sound familiar?).
But, as the numbers contracting the disease multiplied by the hour in northern Italy, Roberta and her family quickly realized that their idyllic life was at best going to have to go on hold, or at worst (and how bad it can get in Italy is still to be determined) going to change beyond all recognition.
She picks up her own story back in early February: “I work part-time in a primary school and also work in a privately run English language school.
“In Prato we have a very large Chinese community. When I started working in the school 12 years ago there were no Chinese children in the school, now they represent close to 85% of the school population.
“I noticed that a lot of them stopped coming to school after they took a break to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Many of the families went back to China to celebrate - roughly mid January.
“There was some talk about Covid-19 here at that stage and I noticed very few of the smaller children in particular were no longer coming to our school, so I asked why.
“I was told by some of the parents that many of the families, having been back in China and seen first hand what was happening there, decided to self-isolate on their return or opted to stay in China.
“Other parents who had remained in Italy, said they had kept their children at home because they feared their children would be racially abused for what was happening with Covid-19.”
She added that apart from that, many Italians in Prato noticed that most of the Chinese restaurants in the city’s substantial China Quarter were closing down and locals were asking - “do the Chinese know something we don’t?”.
From that point on Roberta says “to an extent paranoia took hold for many and we really began to take notice. We were still doing our work, but almost 90% of the Chinese students were no longer attending our school, so that’s a very significant number not at school.”
Roberta made a short trip home to Ballyshannon in early February to see her parents John and Eileen and her family.
While things in Italy were not in lockdown or anywhere near it at that stage, she was amazed at how different, how laid-back the approach was in Ireland; it was very relaxed by comparison to Italy: “As I left Prato things were ramping up. I was personally very anxious and people generally were taking precautions, but the State hadn’t intervened at that stage.
“I remember sanitising my seat on the Ryanair plane and taking personal precautions. But when I landed in Dublin no one seemed one bit bothered. I wasn’t stopped or asked any questions, no masks, no hand-washing.
“It was very relaxed by comparison with Italy and remember at this stage, things were pretty relaxed there too compared to what is happening now. I was very uneasy but after a day or two at home I began to think, maybe I am overreacting.”
On her return to Italy on February 10, her first encounter as she exited Galileo Galilei Airport in Pisa was a real eye-opener to how, in just four days, things had changed utterly: “We were met by two medics in hazmat suits checking our temperatures and from that point on it continued from there to where we are at now.”
Back in Prato she went back to work, but again it was very different: “We were told to continue to go to work, but the regime in terms of cleaning and sanitising at work was totally different.
“Between classes we would wash down tables and chairs, floors were sanitised and pens and pencils were all wiped. We had to keep our distance from the students and colleagues.”
Three weeks later the real lockdown began: “I was taken aside one day at school by the school coordinator and told that there would be an announcement that evening and the school would close. At 5.30pm on March 5, all schools, colleges and universities closed their doors, that was the first of it.
“Other restrictions soon followed and my son, who loves his football, and trains three times a week, was told that too was going to have to stop.
“Initially, when he heard school was closing, he was delighted, cheering and shouting, almost a party atmosphere, but that changed too, very quickly.
“But, for the first few days it was different to now, we did normal things, went to the shops, for walks and we went to spend time in the countryside with a friend of mine, it was, I thought, the best place to be, away from people and the city.
“The numbers of people contracting the virus grew and grew, the number of deaths too. Our city, for quite some time, didn’t lose anyone.
Florence had recorded 20 deaths and Prato none. A part of me felt it was going to stay away, we were thinking ‘Florence, Milan, Lombardy are far enough away’, but that changed very quickly and once the first death occurred in our city we realised this virus was not going to stay away from our doors.
Prato: "Once the first death occurred in our city we realised this virus was not going to stay away from our doors"
“As the number of cases jumped the restrictions became much more stringent, the authorities felt there was far too much movement of people. The president announced the latest changes, a complete lockdown, bars and restaurants had to close. Not having that evening aperitivo in your local cafe/bar is a big deal and a huge change in the way people live. Everyone got the message when that kicked in.”
Travel is carefully monitored and they have been issued with special forms they must fill out before they make any journey in their car.
“We have these forms and you have to fill them out before you go on your journey, they need to be timed and dated. You have to have a legitimate reason to be out and about - ‘going to see a girlfriend/boyfriend’ won’t cut it with the Carabinieri. People who break the rules are being fined - our news reported 50 such fines issued in one day - so they are enforcing the restrictions rigidly and people want it to be that way to protect us all.”
Roberta says the level of restrictions now in vogue basically means she and her family must spend the vast majority of their time in their apartment.
She has helped an elderly neighbour by getting some vital groceries, she rings her neighbour’s doorbell and leaves them at her door, there’s no contact other than the phone and she talks to another young neighbour from her balcony.
“She has a young child and normally we would be linking up, but you can’t, isolation is isolation and here we see the figures for those getting ill and passing away rising all the time. We know we have to stick to the rules.”
For Roberta and her family the restrictions are tough, make no mistake about it, particularly for her eleven-year-old-son Gabriel who loves his football. “He trains three times a week with his local club and that’s all gone now until April, no games to play and he can’t see his teammates and of course, like everyone here, he’s a big Fiorentina supporter and there’s no games, so it’s tough on him.”
Roberta's son Gabriel who misses out now on his beloved soccer until April
Her son, like school-going children here, is now getting used to learning online and the message that he’s not ‘on holidays’ has sunk in. “Gabriel is getting his work sent to him every day on a school app and that’s novel at the start but now he’s used to it and like everything else, we have to build that work into a daily routine. It’s no harm and it keeps him busy for part of each day,” she adds.
“I am trying to be positive, spending time with my son is precious time and I am happy about that. I hope we get to the other end of this long dark tunnel and have a big gelato together on the beach in the summer. It will be savoured more by everyone, that's for sure.”
With a great love for nature, she says one of the positives in her city is the new quietness: “With much less traffic in the city I have started to hear the bird’s singing again. We were in the apartment on Monday and for the first time in a very long time, I could hear birdsong. In Ballyshannon you take that for granted, but this is usually a busy city with lots of traffic and you don’t hear the birds, so in an odd way every cloud has a silver lining!”
She does her shopping for essentials at small local shops close to where she lives: “I avoid the big shops/supermarkets now and even in the smaller stores there are restrictions, there are yellow taped lines where you stand and keep your distance from the other shoppers.
“Most of the time I phone ahead with my order and the time spent in the shop or butchers is minimal, that’s the way they want it too, no queues, no close contact or waiting in long lines. They allow two people in the shop at a time, so it’s a very different environment for all.”
As an aside, she admits she finds the Irish craze for bulk-buying toilet roll bizarre: “We stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables, meat. We Have pasta to beat the band and lots of sauces, so we will be fine!
“There’s no big rush on toilet roll, I just don’t really understand that one.”
She says people have changed the way they live and advises us to do the same: “Everyone is baking their own bread, making biscuits, reading. We pass the time probably in a better way now, I and other teachers have organised art competitions and we have signs on our balconies with the words ‘Andrà tutto bene‘ - which translates to ‘Everything will be ok’.”
She spends lots of time on video chats to her folks back home and is keen to thank her mum Eileen for sending them face masks which "can't be got for love or money in Prato" at the moment.
For Roberta this is her mantra. She ticks off the days in isolation.
She longs for the warm Italian summer and a chance to go home too to the damper Irish version and spend time with loved ones.
Her final words are poignant and breathtakingly simple: “Follow the rules, use your head, help where you can, be patient and keep washing your hands. Covid-19 hates soap.”
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