The first time I went outside in the lockdown, the beauty took my breath away. A rosy spring sunset descended over the most beautiful city in the world, and I had it all to myself.
It is still almost impossible to believe that there is a destructive invisible enemy present among all this glory and gorgeousness. The terracotta, pink and ochre streets of the Tritone, from Piazza del Popolo to the tomb of Augustus, to the Colosseum, to the Spanish Steps are utterly empty; the fountains of Trevi, Navona and Quattro Fontane are tinkling audibly; the sound of birdsong is in the clear blue, crisp skies.
This bizarre turn of events started smack in the middle of the school holidays.
In a funny sort of way, this made things easier because we were out of our normal routine anyway.
Our two older children had been booked on a school skiing holiday in Trentino and we parents debated whether we should let them travel to the north. In the end it was decided that, as there were no cases in the area, the trip should go ahead, but the group would hire a coach as they were travelling through affected areas.
In retrospect I am so glad we allowed this last sporty, sunny jolly.
The children left on March 1st and by the time they returned on the 7th, sunkissed and oxygenated from the mountains, it had been announced that school was closed, and the parents would be sent homeschooling information daily. Now most of us expect our children will not return to school before September.
Looking back, I realise that the first signs that our lives were changing were that from the beginning of March there were hardly any tourists trudging the sightseeing circuit: they seemed to disappear overnight.
Rome emptied out and it was just Rome for the Romans.
On Monday, March 9, the government announced that everyone should stay at home. People at risk more or less obeyed immediately, but there were still handfuls of younger people out and about. I had breakfast for three mornings in the sunshine at Canova café on Piazza del Popolo, a place I normally avoid thanks to its heaving numbers. There were fabulous-looking Roman women, with perfect blow-dried hair and impossibly high heels for the sanpietrini cobblestones, wearing latex gloves and drinking cappuccinos. A matrona romana with a small dog in her handbag talked volubly to her son about conspiracy theories. Then on Thursday, March 12, all cafes were ordered closed and the eeriness and emptiness began: Rome was deserted.
When our children returned from skiing, they all thought it was great that school was cancelled. That was until they realised that they would still need to do their work. More than that, the children miss their friends.
I started homeschooling three children, aged five, 10 and 12, with very different needs and temperaments. This requires quite a bit of vigilance. Sometimes Minecraft is being swiftly turned off as I come in to check on the older boys. My five-year-old runs away from his online educational videos at regular intervals even though I’m sitting beside him. We’ve managed to turn this into a joke.
The hardest thing for everyone is that the children are not allowed out at all. Can you imagine three small boys in an apartment day after day, possibly for months? Lucky for those who have terraces and gardens or who left the city in time. I am worried about vitamin D deficiency (not normally an issue in Rome). I have had to order a treadmill. I wish the people who live downstairs would permit me to get a trampoline, but, for obvious reasons, they would evict us.
The supermarkets are fully stocked and there’s no fighting for loo paper here. If you do a big shop they’ll deliver, but nobody comes into your house any more. The delivery man leaves your things in the lift and sends it up to you alone. There is no contact.
I’m friends with most of the neighbours in our building, but even the next-door neighbour’s five-year-old girl, who normally has daily playdates with our youngest son, no longer visits. We speak to each other occasionally from our doorsteps.
We have my elderly mother staying, who got stuck here after coming for a carnevale party to raise funds for the old people’s home. It seems more meaningful now as they’ll certainly need that money.
The danger of having my mother at home is that when I go out I must take extra-rigorous precautions to ensure I don’t infect her on my return. I immediately disinfect my hands and remove my outer clothes and put them in the wash. I leave my shoes and coat by the door.
I am feeding my mother and the children prebiotic, probiotic and high-vitamin fresh food, and have tried to remove all sugar from their diets. Not everyone, including my mother, is happy about this. The most important thing is a good immune system to better overcome the flu when it comes.
When I’ve gone outside to buy food I have bumped into a couple of friends. This isn’t London; it’s a small city in comparison to other capitals, and most of the people I know and whose children go to school with mine live within walking distance. One friend was wearing a full hazmat suit. I wish I’d photographed her because it looked so mad and funny, though I wonder if she’ll have the last laugh. Some people wear face masks; most don’t. Almost everyone is wearing latex gloves.
Meanwhile, the most touching project I have is that inspired by our three boys. They have always dreamt of contributing to a YouTube channel, which we prevented them from doing as we don’t do any social media. Now, suddenly, it seems there is a valid reason to share with the world the videos of a deserted Rome and a reduced life. We’ve taken my videos of the empty streets and added old-fashioned Italian songs. The channel is called “Rome under Lockdown”. The first thing we posted was a Perugino fresco of Christ giving the keys of heaven and earth to a kneeling St Peter, and our 12-year-old son added the caption: “Here are the keys to get out.”
Paola Frankopan, who is married to Lord Nicholas Windsor, lives in Rome
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.