Enjoying Carnival in Venice when the Coronavirus got real…
It had been a difficult and very challenging few months for me. Family worries, the death of a close friend, I was shattered. I was desperate for a bit of a lift, some happiness to lift my depression. So I was very much looking forward to my trip to Venice to celebrate Carnival. And with things in my life the way they were, the trip almost didn’t happen. Thankfully the early morning flight was on time, I had set it up to be met at the airport by the hotel. Everything began on a good note and I didn’t have to worry about a thing. Taking the boat across the lagoon towards Venice -always a treat to arrive this way- I was finally, after so long, relaxing, smiling, excited.
Looking back I guess I should have been more concerned than I was when the flight went through Passport Control. We were greeted with temperature checks. Coronavirus was just starting to be in the daily conversation but as yet, not a pandemic, or a fear. Our world leaders worried about other world problems. I do remember thinking I had just read that symptoms might not show themselves for days so a temperature check might not necessarily be indicative of anyone having it or not, but I was not worried given it was early days.
My plans were for a long weekend on the last few days of the Carnival. I had been there before and knew what to expect, and this was all about a bit of fun and keeping things easy. Getting lost in the winding streets, taking endless pictures, and stopping for a glass of wine now and again. There were plenty of people but there were comments how there were less than previous years. Honestly it usually depends what part of the calendar lent falls on so the population always varies, less if it happened mid February, more if into March. To me it felt like a big enough crowd though I had seen it much busier on a previous visit. I had also seen it a lot quieter, so it did not stand out. And there was still lots of pushing and shoving and a queue to get into Caffe Florian so really, this was normal.
I had a fabulous time for 3 days of my 5 day stay. Venice looked beautiful, there was a festive vibe, and my sadness was easing. At night the twinkle lights added to the magic of Venice and illuminated the parade of costumed and masked revelers. But as the last Sunday of Carnival began, I remember walking towards St. Mark’s Square for the festivities when I noticed the police were all wearing medical masks on their face. At that point Milan was experiencing a full on outbreak but at that time had stayed in that region for the most part. But now seeing the Venice police in masks was alarming. Luckily I am not a person who likes or feels comfortable in crowds so I headed into Caffe Florian -before the long queue- and got set up in one of the quieter back rooms to enjoy a coffee, then Bellini as I didn’t want to rush back out into the crowds. Most people were outside to see the events that mid morning so I was relaxed inside. When things calmed down a bit, I got back outside and enjoyed the rest of the day, did a bit of shopping at smaller local businesses and even did a bit of grappa tasting. But then… It felt almost like the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. As I shuffled through the streets there was suddenly this shift in the air. You could really feel it. People were walking a bit more hushed and a little bit dazed. Then it all began, Coronavirus had hit Venice and Carnival was being shut down, ending two days early,
Its a strange thing when you hear something like that. At first you don’t know what you should do. Should I keep walking around or would I catch the virus? Sit for a coffee and get out of the way of all the people? Have a drink and try to regroup my thoughts? I walked around aimlessly for a while before returning to my nice hotel where I was reassured by the kind desk staff all was fine. Well in those days we all thought it was going to be, naive as to what was about to come. I asked if my restaurant was still open for dinner -seeing that Carnival was shutting down and Coronavirus had hit the city. “Of course madam, everything is normal!” And they really did mean it. I went and had a lovely meal at one of the best restaurants in Venice but it was definitely overshadowed by this feeling of dread and well, everyone was talking about it. Tourists whether they should change their plans, some were adamant about leaving and were calling the airlines, while others listed other places they were planning to go. I too was thinking about what my next move should be. I was set to go to Florence for a couple of days and I was really looking forward to that. And if I did go to Florence should I leave Venice a day early? I still had another day planned in Venice but given the circumstances… ? After much back and forth and discussions with every Venetian I encountered who told me they did not fear for their lives, I decided to leave my plans as they stood and spent that last day in Venice. But if I thought the day before felt strange, this day was even more unsettling, simply because Venice was quiet. Not quite empty but given what had been the days before, definitely still. For me it was hard to really engage and make the most of it. Looking back on it now I wish I had taken more photos of Venice without all the crowds which I had always longed for but I was uneasy and a bit scared.
Late afternoon in a very quiet Venice…
The next day when I took the train to Florence, which at that point didn’t have any outbreak yet, I have to admit I was relieved to go, and I am usually a person with near tears in my eyes to have to leave La Serenissima. I didn’t have my usual last coffee at Florian before departure, something I always do, and in fact took an earlier train. On the train ride I started to really obsess with contamination, and cleanliness of everything. Cleaning my hands all the time, thinking back to all the times in the past few days I might have inadvertently touched something with the virus. How close had I gotten to people on the vaporetto? What about the crush of people all breathing on me in the queue outside of Florian?
Arrival in Florence didn’t make me feel any calmer. Even Florence was not herself either as the news grew more and more serious and panic was spreading. Though at that time Italians were more concerned about the economic impact this was all having on tourism. Jokes were made about how the world thought Italy was crying when really they were enjoying life. With a lot of hand sanitizer lets be honest. Digs at the foreign media for alarming people away, especially given that Italy was weeks away to kicking off its tourist season. Then all the American students in Florence were pulled out of classes and sent back home in a hurry which at the time was looked upon as extreme though a couple weeks later everyone would learn that there would be no going back. For anyone. Life as we knew it would be changed and all those things we took for granted like sitting in cafes with friends or a walk in the sun would become a luxury we would have to wait to do again. We were beginning to stop ourselves from kissing and hugging which in Italy is just awful.
After a couple of surreal, very careful and silent days in Florence I left to go back to England, wondering what to expect when I landed home. The news was now including the UK in its list of countries to have the virus, many from people returning from Italy. I wore a mask on the plane home. I was only then starting to realise that everything was really about to change and that the past few days were the end of the innocence of what was about to come.