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I Barely Made It Out of Italy

After two months performing in the country, a Chicago musician, writing from self-quarantine, recounts its wildfire coronavirus outbreak.

The author poses in Rome.   Photo: Jennifer Polus

I’ve often wondered if I am a musician because I love weird adventures or if I end up in weird adventures because I love being a musician. Driving the pitch-black and empty country roads of Puglia, Italy, at 3:30 a.m. last Tuesday morning felt decisively more dissociative, like watching myself as a character in a movie, than any previous experience had prepared me for. Less than six hours earlier, Italy had announced a nationwide lockdown.

Of course, everyone here in the U.S. is quickly catching up to this surreal dissociation. All of it feels so sci-fi now: We’ve all seen the movies, but the shock of finding yourself in one of them quickly turns to exhaustion when you’re in it over and over all day. Trust me, I’ve already been there.

My wife Jen and I left for Italy on January 16th. We used credit card points to get one-way tickets. My cousin, who lives in Chicago, has a beautiful house sitting empty in a small town a half-hour outside of Lecce, the southernmost city of Puglia, Italy’s furthest southeast region, the heel of the boot. When we arrived we described it to friends as the Door County of the Middle East. It does not feel like Europe. Not just the palm trees and the light and the colors, but the tiered architecture — everything soft white stone. I couldn’t say what my cousin’s building looks like from the outside, folded as it is into the surrounding edifices. A neighbor guessed the building was 500 years old. The bakery across the street was a 10th-generation family business, the recipes for its sweets almost 300 years old.

We put our car and health insurance on hold and sublet our apartment. We have a band together, Goof Duck, and things had not been going as we’d hoped during the previous year — we weren’t getting the kinds of institutional support and invitations necessary to squeak by. So, faced with the decision of going back to day jobs we hated, depleting us of the energy required to do what we love, we took the bold step of moving to Italy indeterminately. We could get by there playing half a dozen concerts a month in a way that we can’t at home. Other working musicians all know that’s what we do, we follow the work.

We had concerts set up every other weekend and a two-week paid residency at a studio in Modena, just south of Milan, at a center analogous to local sound-art nonprofit Experimental Sound Studios. Italy isn’t exactly known for its contemporary music scene, but staying in this Mediterranean paradise would allow us to do what we love and make us more money than staying at home. And there were the dinners starting at 10 p.m., people sitting around and chatting over wine for hours, the whole town closing down for four-hour lunch breaks every day.

The author’s wife, Jennifer Polus, in Assisi Photo: Tim Kinsella

Soon after we arrived we were already trying to extend our visa beyond 90 days. We visited three different offices in three different cities to try to make it work. We had a job in Croatia in late May soundtracking a performance with a couple opera singers and some kids. We just wanted to stay until then — our plan was to come back to Chicago after Croatia, pack our apartment, and organize the paperwork so we could move for real. We were thrilled to have escaped the U.S.

When we arrived we had five days to settle in before our first weekend of shows: Lecce, Perugia, Milan. By the time we’d circled back south home from Milan, however, I felt the kindling of a different kind of flu than I ever had before. The first strange feeling, like I had a ball of fuzz stuck in my throat, like a dandelion puff.

Everyone in a band knows when you are on tour, as often as not, you are kinda sick. The schedule basically makes it unavoidable, however diligent your precautions. So after a few days off at home with body aches and a fever, the time came to go play the next shows. And when we met up again with Luna, our tour manager, at the first of these shows, we learned that she too had had a severe flu since Milan. And Luca, our booking agent, who had been traveling with us, had also caught it since Milan.

By night nine, after our show in Napoli — my voice diminished to a squeaky whisper — I was up all night with the nodes of my throat swollen to the size of golf balls. Every breath was a scorching strain. I imagined dying just from breathing. The next morning Jen and Luna insisted we cancel the final show of that run, and I couldn’t argue with them. This time we would have almost three weeks off before our residency up north.

That first day back in Galatina, the pain of breathing became so unbearable that I needed to go to the ER. They did chest X-rays and asked if I’d been to China recently, then sent me home and told me to stay in bed and take Ibuprofen. Bear in mind this is the first couple days of February; coronavirus wasn’t on anyone’s radar in Italy at that time. And with two to three days of actual rest, all my symptoms quickly subsided. But then, of course, Jen came down with it too.

Polus at the hospital in Galatina Photo: Tim Kinsella

Luckily the worst of my sickness wound down by the time that hers intensified, so we traded caretaker roles. Being married and in a band together that travels a lot means we basically spend 24 hours a day around each other, and I had never seen her like this. The severity of her body aches and fever terrified me; two full days and two nightmare nights of sweating and writhing clenched in pain. We took her to the ER, exactly one week after I had been there. And everyone at the hospital was now wearing masks. She was prescribed antibiotics and, miraculously, felt better within 12 hours.

We did our best to go on with our lives. We’d made quite a number of friends pretty quickly, between our professional partners, the people we met at shows, and local businesses that my cousin recommended. Everyone we talked to, every conversation started with “Oh, you had it too? Something’s going around. It’s real bad.” We got very little done during the weeks we had planned on concentrating on our new record. We couldn’t believe how long the exhaustion lingered, how we were winded after every flight of stairs, how muddled our concentration was, how clenched our muscles were.

We were really only both back up on our feet for a day or two before heading into Lecce for dinner with friends. That afternoon, attempting to get ourselves psyched up to get back to work, we drove an astonishing stretch of two-lane highway winding along the Adriatic coast, listening to the instrumental rough mixes of our songs. It felt like a truly peak experience.

We didn’t think anything of it at the time — who knows what local manners might dictate — but for whatever reason our friends changed the dinner plans last minute, and instead of going out we headed to this guy Andrea’s house, someone we’d never met. We showed up before our friends and Andrea explained that he didn’t feel comfortable going out with “this coronavirus thing.” That was the first we heard about it, beyond a small-font headline about a crazy quarantine in China.

At some point after a relaxed dinner, we caught late-breaking news. We could see on the expressions of the Italians that it was not good. We called it a night more suddenly than it seemed we would otherwise. And that was our last normal night there.

There were still errands, though fewer and fewer of those each day. Our small malfunctioning fridge took on an unusually ominous character (what if it never got fixed?) as did the repairman’s visit (for fear of contracting the virus). The pharmacist scolded me when I tried to buy three packs of Ibuprofen — the legal limit was one pack of 36.

Those days voluntarily locked in are now newly familiar to people here in the states. We watched more TV per day than I’ve ever watched. We slept 11 hours a night. I’d wake up every hour or two to check the news, but we slept as long as possible to keep the days as short as possible. Every time we’d clear our throats or feel a slight chill, we’d panic.

Jen cooked ambitious meals:. We feasted on huge and beautiful lunches and dinners each day, things we missed most from home — mostly Mexican food. She invented amazing, creative substitutes for the spices just not available there. And then there were the hours each day when the panic was paralyzing. I had about 20 Xanax with me, but I sure wasn’t about to start depending on them before there was any end in sight.

The daily trip to the grocery store was the only time we’d leave the apartment. We’d go at slow hours, and it felt good and necessary to get out. Each day we filled our backpacks with nonperishables and two bags each of fresh food, enough to carry for the 15-minute walk home. The women at the grocery store chuckled at us, thinking us alarmist. With our very limited overlapping vocabularies it became a fun kind of camaraderie each day: “Yes, us anxious Americans, stockpiling pasta and canned goods.” We stacked nonperishables under the furniture, tucked into every corner of the room. With each day certain shelves at the store became newly empty. The cashiers started wearing masks. Their tones were no longer silly, but earnestly concerned when they’d ask us “Come stai?”

Then back at the apartment, the rigmarole of disinfecting: When do I wash my hands versus taking rubber gloves on and off, wiping down every object from the store that we bring into the house, stripping and going directly into the shower? The sequence to avoid cross-contamination was an exhausting logic puzzle.

Reading the news, we actually had all kinds of solid logical reasons why we felt safer in Galatina than we thought we would in the U.S. After all, Italy was taking active steps in a way the U.S. didn’t seem to be. It was our friends and family back here in Chicago that we were worried about, unable to wrap their heads around the severity of the situation and adapt their behavior. The women downstairs and others agreed: not a bad place to be.

And as the crisis intensified globally we found it oddly reassuring. We were not uniquely trapped in a hot zone. We’d reassure each other every half hour how lucky we were to be where we were, a basically empty resort town far from everything. We were next door to the police station, which in the U.S. I might find alarming, but here it felt like a Wes Anderson movie, these pokey little guys in their colorful outfits.

The locals all kept reassuring us — “It’s all the media,” or, “Italians are always so crazy and overreact.” Within days the first quarantined zones were announced, which included Luna’s town — not where we’d be doing the residency the following week, but right next to it, the town we’d be staying in. They told us, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine by next week. Everything actually feels very normal besides the fact we can’t leave.” I saw firsthand how people cling to normalcy. This was my big takeaway: watching not how a virus slowly moves through a population, but how the new reality slowly gets accepted.

The organizers were disappointed, but understanding, when we told them we would be cancelling the residency in Modena. Then came the cancelation of another eight to 10 shows up north. At first our booker was disappointed in our decision, but within three or four days all of these places were closed down. There went two-thirds of the income we were counting on while there.

Within days, by the same time we were supposed to be up in Modena, one minute to the next late at night, the red zone expanded to cover the whole region, from 50,000 people to 16 million. And by morning there were reports of thousands of people from the quarantined zone fleeing south. On social media, the locals bared their teeth in a way totally unfamiliar to us — shocking compared to the warmth we’d grown accustomed to — threatening the people from up north not to come down there. There would be consequences.

This was when I finally convinced Jen that it was worth putting $5000 on our credit card to get home ASAP. It was last Sunday afternoon. We bought tickets for Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. At 10 p.m. on Monday night, 36 hours after we’d purchased our tickets, five hours before we were to leave for the airport, it was announced that, effective immediately, the red zone would expand to include the whole country.

And then the prison riots: 27 prisons across the country at the same time. In our region there were reports that 50 inmates escaped but only 30 had been found. Be on the lookout. This was on my mind as we raced across those country roads, no other cars out at 3:30 a.m.

If I was a 25-year-old junkie I’d be thrilled to sunbathe on a Mediterranean rooftop while all the fissures in American society come to a head without me. Rationally, when I put it that way, I am still not sure if maybe we shouldn’t have waited it out there.

It was three flights: Brindisi to Rome, Rome to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Chicago. With each one, we didn’t know if we’d be allowed to board, if it would take off, if we would be held somewhere.

Arriving at Brindisi Airport, we had a rental car to drop off, but had to be careful to not leave the key or park the car anywhere we couldn’t retrieve it, in case we were not allowed to board. We had rubber gloves, but the workers did not when handling our passports and our tickets. Signing with a communal pen and touching the luggage carts made us queasy. We had so much luggage, even though we left behind most of our clothes and a dozen books in favor of our gear. The airport was vacant. The flight was on time and maybe 15 passengers total, everyone leaving five or more rows empty between the next passenger.

Boarding at Brindisi airport Photo: Tim Kinsella

In Rome the layover was quick, only about an hour. Again, the airport was eerily empty. There was highly coveted hand sanitizer in the duty free shop, but we were so hurried we didn’t even have time to run back and get it. They were taking temperatures before you could board, and we were terrified: What if one or the other of us happens to be running hot, and then one of us gets whisked away to some dystopian barracks and the other is stuck at the airport?

But we were fine. Everyone had to fill out a very short questionnaire. Our Philadelphia layover was supposed to be six hours, but I noticed an earlier flight from Philadelphia to Chicago and asked the woman at the desk if we could change to that. She quickly and happily obliged. The news had been announced that all international flights to and from Italy would all be going out of Rome, and I asked her how many of these flights there were. She shrugged and admitted, “Honestly, there’s this one today and then that’s it until April 24. Haven’t announced it yet.” The flight was one-third full, at most.

I don’t remember a minute of the 10-hour flight; landing, facing customs, again our anxiety bubbled up. But immigration and customs were empty. While the immigration officer stamped my passport I cleared my throat. And he chuckled at me, “Careful with that coming from Italy.” It makes me feel crazy to consider these things seriously, but they are real: rationing, quarantine, checkpoints.

Now it’s eight weeks since we first arrived to Italy. We are feeling good, showing no symptoms. But out of an abundance of caution, having traveled from a hot spot, we are self-quarantined in Wisconsin, near Jen’s parents.

My mom lives 10 minutes from O’Hare. My car has been in her garage. We took a taxi van there from the airport, rolled the windows all the way down and sat way in the back. It felt very good at midnight to wave hello from six feet away.

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