An American’s Unintentional Travel Through COVID Italy

Italy in October COVID

It was time to leave Iceland. I had 30 more days left on my Schengen Zone visa but David had two weeks before having to pay Icelandic taxes. As he lived and worked in America but had unintentionally spent a great deal of time in his home country, he wasn’t keen on paying the price.

We were meant to head for Croatia, the only European country to accept Americans and outside of the Schengen Zone. But flights from Reykavik to anywhere in Croatia were hard to come by. Due to flight schedules, David would have to take a day off for travel and we’d have to go through London and change airports, meaning quarantine issues… and changing airports in London is a pricey and time-consuming pain.

But there was a nonstop flight to Milan and Italy was accepting any passport holders who had been in Schengen longer than fourteen days. Meaning, my American passport wouldn’t be a deterrent… we hoped. The language surrounding COVID travel restrictions was tricky to comprehend.

From Reykjavik to Milan

David and I printed out at least ten pages of proof that I’d been in Iceland the last two months, as well as my letter that had allowed me through in the first place. I even printed a screenshot of my Icelandic COVID app simply stating that both tests came back negative.

The flight to Milan was surprisingly full and, as we began our descent over the alps, we both had our fingers crossed for my ability to enter the country. If not, I could figure out another way to meet him in Croatia, we figured.

I clutched my small pamphlet of papers as I moved closer to the immigration booth but as I got there… no check, no care in the world, they took my passport, stamped it and I was through.

No questions asked.

Florence, Italy During COVID

We went back and forth on flights to Croatia but ultimately decided to spend some time in Italy. David was swamped with work and the flight schedule, once again, wasn’t working out from Milan though from Rome, we found some great options.

The Semi Empty Streets of Florence

I hadn’t been since 2013 and even then remember how terrible the crowds were in Florence. Why not give Italy some tourist dollars and enjoy the empty October streets? We made our way from Milan to Florence, visiting the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia, all of the sights David hadn’t seen before and all with only a handful of tourists. From Florence, we drove through Tuscany, the fog sitting low in the Tuscan hills as we wove down the narrow lanes. We spent a week in each location, enjoying them on the weekends or evenings off. The favorite was Tuscany as we’d found an amazing Airbnb / artist residence on an old family estate next to a vineyard owned by an extension of the same family.

We spent an evening talking to the man that ran the family art residence. Acceptably socially distanced, we talked out near the olive orchard, petting his family’s adorable donkeys. He explained that, unfortunately, the mafia had taken advantage of the pandemic and the people’s struggles to offer them money.

COVID in Tuscany Trip

“Yes, it’s too bad. The Mafia have been around, offering envelopes of money to the small businesses, even families in need, all over the country, even here. They depend on them now. It will be a difficult knot to untie when the pandemic is finished.”

Protests & Italy’s Second Lockdown

By the time we left Tuscany, it was announced that certain regions in Italy would be shut. At the end of our week in Rome, the lines outside of the hospitals had begun to grow. A mandated shutdown of the city was announced on the evening we were set to leave. We had been to the Vatican the second day after arriving, fairly empty with appropriately distanced visitors hummed throughout the Sistine Chapel. It was a gift to have seen it for the third time, this time in more of a gentle silence with only thirty or so people in the entire room.

Coming from Iceland, it is easy to see how Scandinavian countries have fared better. In Italy, I’d wander into a cafe and watch friends and neighbors kiss one another, one wearing a mask as they were standing at the bar, the other mask free as they were seated at a table for coffee. The wonderful thing about Italy is how sociable and family-oriented they are but it also led to the quick spike in cases by the end of October.

Without being able to take a COVID test to enter Croatia, (getting a test in Rome was becoming increasingly difficult if you didn’t have symptoms) I decided that the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival would be just fine with me.

Traveling During COVID & Flimsy Entry Rules

Once more, upon arrival, I waited in line during passport check and was stamped through then stood, bewildered on the other side. Nothing. I may have an American passport, but it hadn’t damned me during COVID. No mandatory quarantine was placed on me, I was free to travel in Croatia as any other European would be.

The only issue came when leaving Rome. At the airport, the man at check in said something I wonder if I’ll ever hear again:

“You’re not allowed to be here. The borders are shut. How did you get into this country?” I was ready to be thrown out of Italy, detained, and sent on a plane back to the US but I handed him my permission granted by the Icelandic government. He made a phone call, spoke in rapid Italian, pacing about, then hung up, shrugged, put back on his warm, welcoming smile, and gave us our tickets.

The travel through Europe or, really, anywhere in the world doesn’t seem to make any real sense. Nationals of European nations can travel back from the US without the need for quarantine in many countries and can cross borders without COVID tests. I understand not letting Americans in or those of other high-risk areas but it seems as though tests and quarantines should be demanded regardless of nationality. The passport one holds shouldn’t be the deciding factor. But perhaps that’s a simplistic view and the EU nations have a more complicated relationship.

The Potential Fallout: Italy’s Mafia & the COVID Pandemic

After we left, Italy’s shutdown became as stringent as it had been in March. I recall walking around Rome in the evening of our last night in Italy. It was the first night restaurants were closed and all the shop owners were standing about, still having come to their establishments but with nothing to do but watch the people and traffic. Perhaps they were gathering their unused supplies, I’m not sure, but it was a terribly sad sight. The Italian people rely quite heavily on tourism and having this year-long slow bleed to their storefronts is an awful sight.

Milan Italy During COVID

I had read about Nicola Gratteri, the chief prosecutor who had grown up in the Calabria region of Italy and had made it his mission in life to fight the mafia’s hold on Italy. He had spent his life living in a sort of fortress home, protecting his family by never mentioning them, concealing their identity for their protection, and working long, dangerous hours for the greater good of his country. What would happen with his lifelong battle against the mafia after the COVID pandemic, after the much-needed money was accepted by innocent, desperate hands now indebted to the ‘Ndrangheta? 

Back in the spring, I sat on my bed in Brooklyn, watching Instagram videos of China’s strict lockdown. I was amused by the videos circulating not because I believed it to be an extreme idea, but because of how well it was deployed. It would never work in Western nations as an immediate rebellion would take place against civil liberties.

Just the other day, a woman David works with told him she’d grown up in the Soviet Union and all of these continued restrictions make her uneasy, wondering what else the government is capable of if it forces businesses to shut and landlords to put a pause on pay periods. David and I discussed it. I told him that perhaps it was easier for him to see her point of view as it was put in a more meaningful light as a child of the Soviet Union. The coastal elite and the US media constantly make fun of, belittle, and imply racism and ignorance to the displays of American anti-COVID rallies while reporting on without opinion similar protests taking place in Italy and Argentina, at war with their own lockdowns. All of it comes from the same place, that of being unable to pay for their next meal.

While I understand the fear of civil liberties being taken away, I believe we are worse off for walking a tight rope rather than plunging into strict lockdown. In theory, I wonder how different our world would have looked if in March no one was able to leave their homes. If essential workers delivered food, nurses took care of the ill, and no cars aside from emergency and police vehicles were allowed on the street. If people were fined for stepping outside… would the world have recovered yet? Would people’s wallets and health have suffered less?

For me personally, I would have been just fine never boarding that plane for Iceland, or the one for Italy… or the one to Croatia. I went four months without seeing David. We kept up video chatting on Marco Polo and really, things were okay.

In any case, I think of Italy during this time. I was happy to have returned and given the country some of my tourist money but hope that Nicola Gratteri’s efforts and all the prosecutors who work so hard against the mafia’s hold on the country, are helpful for the Italian people post-pandemic.