Voices From Lockdown #1: Charles Lambert, Rome
With Covid-19 affecting us in different ways across the globe, we called upon some of our far-flung writers to give us an insight into their varying experiences of lockdown. In Voices from Lockdown, we hope to bring our readers more ‘stories with a sense of place’ and create a sense of optimism about the future of writing during this strange time. In this first piece, novelist Charles Lambert shares his experience of the quarantine in Rome.
On 1 March, Giuseppe and I went to a small theatre in a cellar near Piazza Navona in Rome. Crossing the deserted piazza, wandering along the empty streets, I found myself in the city I’d first seen forty years ago, before the centre was taken over by tourist restaurants and over-zealous waiters offering menus and samples of pizza. The theatre itself was filled with people in their sixties or seventies, friends of the two performers, or friends of friends. There was a fair amount of embracing and kissing as we greeted each other, and wry comments made about how we should really be knocking elbows. Leaving the theatre, we saw trattorie closing their shutters, hours before time. We passed by Pizzeria Baffetto, a Roman institution. Instead of the customary queue, a solitary waiter was leaning at the door, smoking a cigarette. At that time, 34 deaths had been recorded, all in the north of Italy. The threat seemed far away.
Six days later, 7 March, with 233 deaths recorded, we decided to leave Rome and head back to our house in Fondi. We bought train tickets, packed cases, sat down to watch the news and heard that a woman had died in Fondi after going to a Carnival party organized by a group of pensioners. We decided not to go. The irony of our evening at the theatre did not escape us. The following evening, with 366 deaths recorded, Italian PM Giuseppe Conte announced a series of restrictive measures. And so it began.
Eight weeks later, during which I’ve left the flat a dozen times to queue for food, I’ve made a series of discoveries, about myself, about the work I do and the city I live in. I’ve discovered a stoicism I’d never have imagined. When I read about people going stir crazy in houses, some of them with gardens, I’m genuinely bemused. All I can see from our single window is the wall of the building opposite and I can deal with it, and even get excited when I see a new face or a change of underwear on a clothes line. I tweeted a week or so ago that I could probably adapt to prison life as long as I loved my cellmate and had enough to eat, and I still hold to that.
About my work, as a teacher, I’ve learned how to use the platforms that have become part of all our daily lives. Zoom, Teams, Skype, those tiny, blurred windows in the monads of our imprisoned selves. But I’ve also discovered that to teach I need the thousand small signals provided by the physical presence of my students. Voices and faces no larger than fingernails are only the half of it. I feel myself becoming virtual, in their absence. As a writer, I’ve discovered that I don’t have the concentration to write fiction, nor to revise what I’ve written, and judging from my social media friends I’m not alone in that. But there will be time.
On the darker side, as a 66-year-old man, I’ve discovered that the governments of the richest countries in the world see me as expendable. I’ve discovered that numbers of deaths can become just that. Numbers. I’ve discovered that the price I pay for my daytime stoicism are nights of vivid, unsettling dreams. I’m holding the door against an angry horde and I wake up with my hands pressed hard against the wall. I’m shouting at people standing too close to each other, but I can’t separate them because I would have to get too close as well. I’m mobbed by shoppers crawling over each other for discount biscuits. I’ve absorbed the harsh terms of this quarantine into the very core of me.
Perhaps most surprisingly, I’ve discovered that Romans, notoriously disobedient, can become compliant when it’s required of them. I never imagined that I would see the inhabitants of this extraordinary, chaotic, eternally disordered city stand patiently in line outside their local supermarket. It’s a reminder that the streets where double parking is the rule rather than the exception are the descendants of those consular highways that once connected most of the known world in one great empire. Just as the virus itself is a reminder of how fragile that, and every other empire, really is.
Charles Lambert is the author of several novels, short stories, and the memoir With a Zero at its Heart, voted one of The Guardian readers’ Ten Best Books of the Year in 2014. His novel Prodigal was shortlisted for the 2019 Polari Prize. Born in England, Charles has lived in central Italy since 1980.