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Italy reopens: dodging police, the mafiosi, and coronavirus

Phase one of lockdown may have been lifted, but those of a certain age are still being cautious, reports Paddy Agnew

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Our man in Italy Paddy Agnew enjoys an ice cream under blue skies

Our man in Italy Paddy Agnew enjoys an ice cream under blue skies

Our man in Italy Paddy Agnew enjoys an ice cream under blue skies

So there I was last Tuesday afternoon, back in the centre of the village for the first time in two months, enjoying my first ice cream of the season. Like thousands of Italians, I was benefiting from the fact phase one of lockdown was officially lifted last Monday.

Bars, in this case, the splendid Ermete's bar in the very centre of Trevignano, 50km north of Rome, had reopened. That is to say, you could buy coffees, ice creams and other goodies, essentially on an immediate "takeaway and no loitering" basis.

So, we gleefully took our "coppe" over to the lawned area in the centre of the piazza and sat down on a bench. At that point, one of our local policemen came over. Oh no, I thought, he is going to move us on.

Well, no, in fact. He had reservations about where certain parties had parked their car and wanted it removed. But finish your ice cream first, folks, he added genially.

As we sat there, another familiar face walked past. With a big grin, he greeted us warmly, saying: "Look at us, it is as if we have all just been let out of prison... it's great."

Down the road at the cemetery just outside the village, there were cars parked for the first time in two months. Massimo, the village council's long-serving fixer, present at every key moment in village life, stood outside the open cemetery gates, checking the flow of visitors. A visit to the cemetery, a visit to departed loved ones, remains an important moment in the village where, inevitably, the older folk outnumber the young.

Timidly, normal life was cranking back into gear. In Italy, be it in the villages or in the large urban centres, normal life means being out in the piazza, walking around and, much more importantly, being seen to walk around. Going out for a coffee to your favourite bar is not just about the coffee, although that matters to many of us, it is also about the social exchanges, the big hellos, the gossip, the who-is-doing-what-to-whom among your fellow citizenry.

Remember, for the last two months and more, everything bar banks, post offices, news kiosks, petrol stations and, of course, supermarkets have been closed. The lockdown has meant lockdown.

When I watch a British Sky TV news report these days, all I see are suburban streets and town parks crowded with joggers, cyclists, people walking dogs and generally hanging out.

A friend who lives in the south London suburbs, told me last week he has given up trying to walk every day to his allotment because of the crowds on the paths up to the park.

In Italy, by and large, the lockdown has been stricter - no jogging, no cycling and no visiting granny (if, of course, she is not already under the same roof, as she often is). Early in the lockdown, out together on a quiet road beside the house with the dogs, we got stopped by carabinieri who pointed out that only one person per household is allowed to walk dogs. And, by the way, can we see your printed "autocertificazione" (a sort of teacher's note which you write yourself),please?

For a densely populated nation of much high-rise living, this has not been easy. Traffic jams at open-air McDonald's in Rome and crowds swarming around the popular canal-side Navigli area in Milan last week indicated the younger among us have had just about enough.

However, such is the fear of lifting the lockdown too early, prompting a revival of the plague, that those of a certain age are more careful. Roads and streets are still relatively quiet while the majority of the three million who went back to work on Monday preferred to use their own cars rather than potentially contagious public transport.

Inevitably, everyone is worried about the post-Covid future. Last Wednesday afternoon, 58-year-old Antonio Nogaro, owner of a small building company in Naples, employing six people, committed suicide. Italian media coverage suggested worries about the post-Covid restart prompted him to take his own life.

Be that as it may, what is sure is that the post-Covid moment is going to be especially hard for the under-performing Italian economy, one that has recorded a zero or minimal growth rate for most of the last 20 years.

There are some meagre moments of consolation. The tightly controlled entry system at the post office means that you can get in and out and pay your bills, all in an unheard-of nine minutes.

Then, too, Covid-19 has ironically been good for some mafia godfathers. Right now, Minister for Justice Alfonso Bonafede finds himself at the centre of a blazing row, with the opposition calling for his resignation after it emerged that 376 mafiosi had been transferred from prison detention to house arrest.

Someone apparently decided they risked contracting Covid-19 if they continued to be held in Italy's overcrowded prisons. Hardly surprisingly, critics point out, that once back out, they will obviously resume normal organised crime business.

When a reporter from Rome daily La Repubblica visited the apartment block in Palermo to where one of these godfathers under "house arrest" had just returned, he was in for a surprise. At the condominium door, he met a woman who angrily pronounced herself "totally outraged".

Is that because the mafia godfather, Francesco Bonura, has been allowed to return home, he asked?

"No, no, I'm outraged by that old people's home on the seventh floor... there are ambulance personnel coming and going all the time, there are even undertakers turning up..."

For once in Italy, there is something that frightens people even more than Cosa Nostra. Call it Covid Nostra, if you like.

Sunday Independent