I am quarantined with my husband and three cats in a 500 square meter apartment in Soriano nel Cimino, in the mountains north of Rome. We moved here four months ago and are not yet fluent in the language. We have no family here; the first time we set foot in this city was in February 2019, almost exactly one year before the start of the latest quarantine. Both our businesses – music performances and travel advice – were devastated by the national quarantine and we have no income. Every time we leave the apartment (and only one person can leave at a time, every few days), we have to fill out a form explaining why we are outside. The penalty for breaking the rules is about $3,300 or prison.
But I am not afraid for us – if you are reading this in the United States, I am afraid for you.
For the last 20 years, my husband Matt and I have worked together in a symphony orchestra. In 2002 I founded the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble; for the next 16 years I served as its artistic director, overseeing dozens of commissions for new music by American composers and four CD recordings, the first of which received a Grammy nomination. When we were not performing, we were traveling. In 2014, we founded a travel consulting company and published four travel guides that helped travelers create impressive and authentic itineraries in Italy and Ireland.
After dozens of trips here, we knew we wanted to live here, but had no idea how this would work financially or logistically. Last year, a bundle of pieces came together. We found an apartment that we liked, with a breathtaking view, that cost less than $30,000. We consulted an immigration lawyer who, based on our extensive experience as concert presenters and artists, advised us to apply for a visa to work as freelancers. These visas are incredibly difficult to obtain, but our visas were issued in October. We took a leap of faith and sold our house and almost everything in it, quit our stable orchestra jobs with good social benefits and moved to Italy with our herd of cats and a few boxes of personal belongings to start a new life here. Our plan was to earn our living by performing and organizing concerts, as well as continuing our travel advice and writing. Since we arrived in November, this plan has worked wonderfully.
That is, until this COVID 19 pandemic brought almost everything in the country to a standstill.
Soriano is a small but busy town with about 9,000 inhabitants, sitting on the shoulders of Monte Cimino, picturesque and full of history, but with few tourists. People gather in the town square every day and in the evening to chat, shop, have their coffee in the morning or have their aperitif in the afternoon. Everyone knows everyone. In the evening, walks are the rule, where people are greeted on their balconies or pass by on the street.
In August we spent two weeks here to get our apartment in order. (We hadn’t applied for the visas yet.) We didn’t know if we would live here permanently and at all or just come to visit whenever possible. We knew only a few people in the city, and not very well at all – we had only been here a few times. But something about this small town gave us the feeling that everything would be fine, that we would even be accepted as stranieri (foreigners).
Maybe it was our eight and a half year old neighbor from next door who immediately greeted us with the most incredible demonstrations of generosity, even though I knew that he didn’t know my (very unusual) name. During these two weeks he came by almost every day with treats from his farm in the country. “Matteo,” he shouted softly through our window. He never used the buzzer, he always just stood in front of the window until Matt opened the door. Then he gave us a bag of figs or a dozen eggs, a bunch of tomatoes or a sack of potatoes. Whatever we took, he always wanted us to take more. At some point we joked that we might never have to buy vegetables again.
In this small town we realized that this kind of generosity and community was not limited to our neighbor. Even though we have no family here and our primitive Italian with an American accent sometimes makes it difficult for our neighbors to understand us, we were hugged and welcomed.
Maybe this is the reason why we were welcomed in the face of