Coronavirus at Villa Ponti Bellavista, Lake Como, Italy

Mid-February 2020 – 3 cases in Italy

When my friend and business partner DJ suggested in mid-February that we should start thinking about how the coronavirus might affect our villa rentals this year, I rolled my eyes on the other end of the line. I didn’t give it another thought.

Friends DJ and his wife Jan and a New Zealand Italian speaking midwife, Chanel, and I were owners of the mid-Century villa in Lake Como Italy. It was bought in July 2017. After a year of gruelling renovations, costing four times the estimate, and losing my partner to the stress we now had to make it pay. This year, 2020, was to be its first full year with the pool, sauna and hot tub.

I’d read about SARS and MERS and it hadn’t touched my life at all. In any case, I’m someone who could, and has been, caught in an abundance of dangerous situations without batting an eye. I hitch hiked alone 1500km at 15 to run away. When everyone else was streaming out, I went into Cambodia weeks before it fell to the Khmer Rouge at 18, in1975. I rode a bicycle with my 18-month-old son on the back, tent and camping gear in panniers and rode 700km as a distraction from life’s difficulties. And blithely received death threats at 21 standing up for something I thought was important at the time. I’m not a worrier.

23 February – 157 CV cases in Italy

The partners and I speak about the virus in our weekly chat, me in Italy, they in Melbourne Australia, Chanel also in Italy south of Bologna, we all agree it’s no worse than the normal flu. There are only just over 300 cases compared to China’s In fact more people died of the flu each year and nobody reported that in the media. A former journalist, I knew how spin worked and how disaster sells. And in any case, it was mainly old people affected, who also passed away with the normal flu. It seemed no more serious than scourges that had plagued mankind for eternity – famine, drought, floods, fires, earthquakes.

You can’t worry about everything.

24 February – 229 cases

When Italy had its first case of CV in Rome on 31 January. I didn’t even hear about it. Three weeks later, on 21 February, with 16 cases in Lombardy, I was still barely aware and less concerned. I’d read about China, but little. I don’t have a TV or read newspapers so had only heard secondhand about the march of CV there. I’d seen no visuals yet.

The Italian government knew where cases were, and although a two hour drive from our villa, it seemed such small numbers. I thought nothing more than how inconvenient it for villa bookings.

In another partner chat, we spoke about how the perception of the virus was far worse than the reality. It would turn tourists away, not because it was dangerous, but because people thought .it would be dangerous.

I had just arrived back in Italy from India, where I’d stopped over for two weeks of yoga returning from Australia, before settling back into my last year of setting up and managing the villa. I’d done the previous year with Chanel, the NZ owner – our first full summer and the year we added pool, sauna and hot tub.

I arrived to a flurry of urgent jobs, having been away for four months. Things to fix, pool to clean, house sitters to meet and manage. I had no time to look up and see the tsunami heading my way.

29 February – 1128 cases

Still more concerned about villa bookings than a world calamity, the partners and I were, nevertheless, stunned to receive a month long villa booking from 1 March. The previous year, apart from the odd fashion shoot, our first booking wasn’t until May.

We were overjoyed. With heavy mortgages we needed every booking we could find for 2020. We were off to a good start, having just hosted our first company retreat the week before my arrival.

The guests were a Milanese family of 6 adults and four children. We scrambled to prepare, happy Airbnb couldn’t process their payment for another day because of credit card limits.. They booked the first two weeks through Airbnb and then we received contact details.

By then I’d become aware of what was happening in China. I saw from the photo and name, that the family who had booked the villa were Chinese! What to do.

I phoned to discover their Italian was much better than mine because they’d been living in Milan for more than 30 years. None of the family had recently been to or had any visits from family or friends in China. They were two brothers, their parents and their wives and children.

They had booked only for the month of March.

2 March – 2036 cases

Two house sitters help prepare the villa and the day the guests arrive one, a young Cambridge archaeology student, Ollie, who was born with a compromised immune system, went across Lake Como to Menaggio, to stay in an empty friend’s house. Scottish John and I moved down to the self-contained custodian’s apartment. John, an ex-policeman lived and worked in Hong Kong for decades, and his wife and daughters lived in various places around the globe.

There’s snow on San Primo, ten minutes from the villa! We take the hire car to head up there to show John and Ollie. Because it was snowing and we had no snow chains, we had to descend but took this gorgeous photo.

A view to the mountains

Like a landscape from a bygone era

9 March – 9172 cases

I can’t believe it’s all happened so quickly. In a week cases of CV have quadrupled. I’m now sitting in the world’s hot spot of CV watching as family and friends around the world transition through frustratingly slow phases of realisation I went through in the past weeks.

A couple of days after Italy announces a lockdown, Ollie receives a medical dispensation to leave the country and we drive him to the Swiss border an hour away.

On the way I stop to show him a rare farm cheese shop where the main cheese maker is a woman in her 90s who has been making cheese there since she was a young girl. She works their with her daughter in a place called Casasco D’Intelvi. The shop has barelychanged in 100 years, complete with fireplace and farm dog.

Casasco Farm Cheese shop

Casasco Farm Cheese shop

Ollie crosses and we have lunch in a small piazza in San Fidele d’Intelvi. The restaurant has tables outside a couple of metres apart, so we figure this is enough social distancing. Nobody, including us, are wearing gloves or masks.

10 March – 12,000 cases

Last night was the guest’s first full moon rising over the Grigna Mountain range opposite the villa. The moon is reflected in the expanse of Lake Como below the villa. The night was completely clear and still.

Full Moon

Guest’s first full moon over Grigna Mountain Range

I took several photos, but one of the guests took the best one shown above.

14 March – 21,157 cases

The village of Civenna has everything you need, a supermarket, fruit and veg shop, bakery, paper shop. AFter our Swiss border run with Ollie, the lockdown is in place and we don’t go anywhere outside the village.

I suggest guests take their children up to San Primo in the car – no need to get out or meet anyone – there are kids sledding up there!

Our guests had already self-isolated for 10 days before they arrived to us. They haven’t left the villa since the day they arrived on 2 March. They home-school the kids every morning, play soccer or some other game on the pool block in the afternoons. We see the adults, including the grandparents, doing exercises there often. They explore every inch of the rambling, isolated garden. They’re going through oranges like there’s no tomorrow. The compost bin fills up every day with orange shells from all the vitamin C they’re drinking to ward off the virus. The wife of one of the of the brothers tells me he does nothing but research CV all day. They give us high quality masks and gloves and ask us to wear them, even in the garden, because a cruise ship was found to have the virus on surfaces after 17 days. We begin wearing masks and gloves everywhere.

As the number of CV cases rise exponentially, I begin hearing from friends in France, UK and India about the dilemma they face in returning back to Australia. Is the crowded flight more of a risk that staying where we are? Won’t Australia get as bad as Europe eventually anyway. I begin to contemplate returning home where my only son lives.

18 March – 35,178 cases

I wake up several times each night and check where I’m tracking numbers – in Italy, USA, Australia, India, France, UK and Argentina. All places where I have friends.

We pay for a facebook promotion, advertising the villa as an isolated CV retreat. These mountain villages had long been havens from disease. Our village, and others on Lake Como, were founded by people from Milan escaping the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. Overnight we receive abusive messages accusing us of trying to profit from the virus and misleading people into thinking our place is safe. We take the post down immediately.

I spend my mornings doing Wim Hof breathing, cold shower, yoga and meditation, and afternoons finally working on my family tree after I’d done a DNA test four years ago and never had the time to study what it could tell me. I found my biological father after decades of searching!

After realizing that even if I or my son are sick in intensive care in Australia, if I return, we won’t be able to visit each other, I decide not to return. I see a news report online where they won’t let the camera crew in because everything must be disinfected. They say that even patients can’t have mobile phones to call their loved ones. A CV death is done completely alone. So whether I’m in Italy or Australia, nothing will change this devastating fact.

22 March- 53,578 cases

The local council issues an order saying anyone who doesn’t live in the council area has to leave within 72 hours. Our guests are terrified of their sick child and older parents being put at risk by having to move back to Milan. I say they will need to contact a lawyer and get a medical dispensation. I write to the local police explaining the situation. They came back with a resounding, harsh, NO EXCEPTIONS! The fine is thousands of euros, risk of imprisonment. And more importantly for us, a risk we can no longer operate a holiday rental if we breach it.

I spend hours on the phone to neighbours, lawyers, friends. I phone an Italian lawyer girlfriend, Anna, and she contacts an Administrative Law colleague who tells us things will probably change from the Federal Government within days.

Fortunately, she’s right. Within 24 hours, the Italian Government issues a decree over-riding the local one saying nobody can leave where they were currently. The guests and I are equally relieved.

The weather has been glorious. Warmish sunny days and aperitivo with views of the Lecco arm of Lake Como. And, the birds are back in force. Chanel, the other owner, often asked why there were so few birds – in her native NZ they make a racket! So now I notice the birdsong everywhere at all hours of the day.

24 March – 69,176 cases

Guests are becoming increasingly concerned about us leaving the villa for shopping. Once we went to a more distant town, half an hour from us, to shop. There the supermarket gave gloves to everyone who didn’t have them. All staff were wearing masks and gloves. But it was an exposure to perhaps a hundred people in an afternoon.

I agree, but also suggest to Luca, our head guest, that their supermarket shopping from a big chain, delivered via courier, could have been touched by many, many hands. He says they disinfect everything that enters the villa. We start doing the same.

I speak to friends spread in half a dozen countries around the world regularly, only to be frustrated by hearing them say the same things I said and felt just two short weeks ago. That it’s being blown out of proportion, it’s just like the flu – and more people die of that every year than have died of coronavirus. What I fail to convey adequately, is that the deaths are one thing. How people will die is a more relevant question. Dying because you can’t get a respirator, or a hospital bed, in an aisle in the hospital, or even in a queue outside it, is another thing entirely. Even I’m not so fussed about dying – you have to go some time – but I don’t want to die in pain, without seeing my loved ones, in a chaotic medical facility full of fear, anxiety and panic.

Nevertheless, sometimes there are glorious sunny days here, and John and I sit at our little cast iron table and chairs, with a glass of Italian wine, and watch the rays of the setting sun on the Grigan Mountains opposite – still covered in snow.

A view of the mountains

27 March – 86,498 cases

I ride my electric bike down to Bellagio for fresh air and fresh fish, 7km down the hill, on Lake Como. After buying a 6kg whole salmon for the guests and fresh pesto for us, I take off my plastic gloves and put on my warm riding winter gloves. Riding up the hill, I get a call from our neighbour to tell us about the first CV case in our village. I think about how clumsily I’d taken off my gloves. Touching my potentially contaminated right glove with my by then bare left hand. Thus, potentially, having virus from the right hand plastic glove which had been in the supermarket, now on my left hand. I have to think not to touch my face until I get home.

A quarter of the way back up the hill, my bike battery runs out. I ring the guests and, since I’ve been shopping for them, ask if they can at least come to collect the very heavy shopping. They regretfully refuse. They don’t want to risk leaving the villa. I hitch a ride with one of the couriers, who all know me from two years of ordering almost everything in the villa online (because we live in a tiny island-like peninsular and to shop anywhere large requires an hour driving). Luca gives me a bottle of wine and brings down some expertly filleted salmon for us as a kind of apology for not being able to help me.

29 March- 97,689 cases

Some mornings, tired from waking several times to check the data, I lie in bed, neglecting my morning exercise and breathing routine. Then I read an article from an astronaut who spent a year in space, saying how important routine is for maintaining a positive state of mind in isolation. I begin more religiously following my two-hour morning ritual. I have my good days, and bad days!

I learn from my artist neighbour, Gabriele, that the village CV case came from a Milanese family who had arrived 10 days early. We’re not sure how this happened since the country was in lockdown. They own a holiday apartment in the village. An elderly wife and man with their adult son to care for them. The elderly man wandered around the village shops. The day before I was told about the death, he had been found by police walking up the steep hill to another town. When asked where he was going, he said to Milan, more than an hour’s drive away. Concerned about him, they took him to hospital where he later died of a heart attached. Then was tested positive for CV.

This is the day I begin leaving everything at the door, including outer clothing, shoes, bags and shopping, and showering, including washing hair, and putting on clean clothes every time I came home. And I went out much less. Local shops delivered food. I paid by bank transfer instead of risking handing over cash and touching hands.

1 March – 110,554 cases

Every day around 6pm when the Italian CV figures come out, we wait for the posting. Figures have been flattening over the past two weeks. We’ve seen them go down before, only to rise again. But now, after no daily numbers of new cases exceeding the maximum of around 6500 for the past week, we’re cautiously optimistic.

But there’s a distinct feeling in the village of resentment about Milanese coming to infect the town. Nobody says anything to them, but nobody wants people from Milan here. Even though all the businesses rely on these and other tourists to make a living. Villas and apartments here are empty, except for ours. At least the village knows our guests arrived before the lockdown and never leave the villa.

There are now hundreds of cases of CV in the largest Lake Como towns of Lecco and Como, both roughly an hour from us by car. Before there had been no known cases near us.

3 April – 119,827 cases

We have to start taking self-isolation guests more seriously. They have more composting needs than weekly guests who normally eat at nearby restaurants. So, we buy two Bokashi composting bins and a much larger compost bin with handle to turn it to make it mature faster. The saw dust for mulch ing we buy because we have decided to start a vegie garden. Despite the numbers flattening, who knows if this virus will come back. Nobody knows what’s going to happen with food in the future. At least we have space. John, the Scottish Hong Kong ex-policeman, organises the compost and vegie garden over a few days.

We and the family settle into a neighbourly relationship. They owned a fusion restaurant in Milan for five years and when they make fresh pasta, they give us some. We prepare the old trampoline for the kids to use. I go out to the pharmacy to buy cigarettes for one of the brothers so they don’t have to leave the villa. They continue giving us fresh masks and gloves.

4 April – 124,632 cases

Authorities are careful about saying it, but our curve seems to not only have flattened, but it is in a downturn. We all hope and pray. For the first time, the number of intensive care beds needed has dropped. Although more than 60 doctors have died and more than 7000 medical staff have the virus, the chart has turned to an unmistakably downward curve.

15 April – 150,000 cases

The original relaxing date of the lockdown scheduled for 13 April came and went. Now revised to 3 May.

Just after Easter, I rode my bike to Bellagio for shopping and continued on to one of the most popular terrace cafes on Lake Como, dripping with wisteria that looks like a fairytale paradise from the ferries on the water. Now it was completely deserted. Police stopped me just as I finished taking the video below, and told me to go straight home after shopping.

20 April – 178,972 cases

I’ve started a veggie garden

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