Salerno: From my balcony I am overlooking a city under siege

"Yes, I am on the balcony, to applaud. But I do not sing, just because I cannot", writes Giovanni Filatrella, a professor in physics who lives in Salerno, Southern Italy. "I would have never expected it would have happened to me, but these days who can say: I anticipated it would go like this?"

Why am I here on my balcony, out of tune? Usually, I do not fit with the people you imagine to find here. I simply do not belong to the picturesque postcard of southern Italy. Of course, I am Italian, from the south. But I was born in the inland, where the hills are. Far away from the sea. In my childhood, a period of my life which I have left behind me a while ago, women would only sing to put their children to sleep. Men would, if they had been drinking too much. Still, I am up here on my balcony, sheepish but convinced, and you need to be a little patient to understand how I ended up here.

View from Giovanni's balcony

I live now with my family in a medium-sized town in the outskirts of Naples. We moved a few years ago from a small village in the inland to this working class neighbourhood. We live in a condominium where the doorkeeper greets me and reminds me to bring an umbrella on cloudy days. I enjoy a comfortable parquet to avoid the cold of the tiles that comes during the few months that they call winter here. From the top floor of my apartment I can only see a glimpse of the Mediterranean sea.

'We live in a condominium where the doorkeeper greets me and reminds me to bring an umbrella on cloudy days'

I used to like living here, among these boisterous and outspoken people. Can you picture how the street looks which I can see from my balcony? Have you ever been to Italy? Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? It is exactly how you imagine it, either based on your own experience or movies.

On a regular day, the street is crowded with people gesticulating and speaking loudly. The roads have two lanes, cars honk their horns without any apparent reason. Trivial as it might sound, sometimes I also meet a street vendor selling ice cream in the street.

Long before I knew that such a thing as working from home existed, I enjoyed to spend time on my balcony in the sun. Even in winter, which is spring for the people north of the Alps, I would go there to grade essays or to chat over the phone with friends about what I used to call “troublesome” problems: work nuisances about promotions, the queue at the doctor to check my eyesight, or the troubles that come from having a teenage son.

I used to enjoy to observe people from this high place. Ladies leaving the hairdresser, with curlers in, chatting over their phones: what do they have to tell that is that urgent? I have spent hours admiring the gentleness with which the glass artisans of the small shop down the road load their small truck. Flocks of bird that punctually fly by at 7AM to land on the trees nearby my home. I overlook a school, where there is a basketball court. During school hours, the students have their gymnastic classes there. In the afternoon, after the school has closed, kids climb over the fence to play. Not to play basketball this time, but soccer; while the girls pretended to look at their smartphone while eying, the boys play a match.

These days, the traffic in the streets has disappeared. Shops are closed. The glassmakers work quietly for a few hours, they probably have very few orders left. The Chinese restaurant closed early, about to two weeks ago, now there is a sign saying: “We have closed for the moment, we will be back soon with new recipes”. The hairdresser has closed too, leaving the ladies, who see their hair grow, with nowhere else to go. Only the groceries shops are still open.

'These days, the traffic in the streets has disappeared. Shops are closed'

However, they only allow one customer at a time. The customers queue on the street, at a good distance from one another, watching each other from behind face masks. Wearing those, you will suddenly get the feeling that you breath heavily. Few of us wander around the town, we can only leave our doors with a sworn statement declaring that we want to see a doctor, buy food or purchase a newspaper. Similar to war time, news has become a primary necessity. An old Russian colleague told me that in Leningrad, during its famous siege, they would accept any privation, except for their radio, which they kept on, even during the harshest moments.

Yes, the war. It visited this place. A couple of kilometers from this balcony, the first allied forces landed in continental Europe. They arrived on the beaches in the shadow of temples more ancient than the Parthenon. So it is war we use as a paradigm to understand what is happening today. We follow the news as if it was coming from the frontline, with the skepticism of people that know that generals may lie for the greater good. We read about the virus victims as if they are fallen soldiers. We call them heroes if they are doctors, others we call innocent casualties. Similar to war times, we follow the commands without criticism. We should do what they ask us to do to minimise the risk, and woe those who do not obey.

In towns under siege, we look at the walls and ask each one another: are they high enough? We have now incorporated that question, as if our bodies are towns: “Will I be hit?” or as a collective question: “Shall we stand?”.

Photo by Giovanni Filatrella

At this point, even a society of individualists has been become an assembly. The besieged are now longing to shout at the invisible enemy that it will not get us. We should not fight each other, to prevent it from breaking through our walls. The silence became too much at some point. People started to open their windows. A neighbour of mine has put a loudspeaker on his balcony. The children have also found their way to the balconies, pretending as if they know the lyrics of the Italian anthem.

The past few days, the most surreal conversations have started. The lady living on the fourth floor spread the rumour that someone in the neighbourhood fell ill. The retired clerk of the third floor has been lecturing people about how infected people should be treated. Another neighbour has given up hope: “Even the Brits have acknowledged it: there is nothing we can do, the virus will strike and at least 300,000 of us will die.”

'The past few days, the most surreal conversations have started'

Some believe that doctors at the hospital of Naples have found a vaccine. Other believe the Americans will be the ones to successfully develop a vaccine. While many are wondering whether they should travel to the US to get vaccinated, the retired headmaster of the second floor tried to silence everyone by stating: “The Germans will take care of it, if they are in need of a vaccine, they will produce it in a week”. Having reached this final part of my story, I have lost track of the narrators:

“And the Chinese? Aren't the Chinese the ones who produce everything today?”

“No, the cleverest are the Japanese.”

“No, the Japanese are good at copying, they do not invent anything.”

“No, that's the Chinese”,

“Who cares about who invents, we'll ask the camorra to steal it!”,

“The Sicily mafia is better than that, they probably have it already, that’s why important people are going there” (NB: this information is true, the first mobility of sick people outside Northern Italy was by a military airplane, the virus was carried by two guys from Milano to Palermo).

“But our doctors are the best in the world, I prefer to be treated by an Italian doctor.”

“No, the best doctors are the Swiss!”,

“Yes, but the Swiss kill you if they think you are suffering too much.”

“Isn't that better?”

“No Signora, it might be better for you, but I want to suffer if it makes me survive.”

“I do not”,

“Then please go to Switzerland.”

It is getting dark. I look at the sea, the sunset, and now it is my turn to share a banality:

Look at the sunset! “Rosso di sera, bel tempo si spera!” (An Italian saying: “Red in the evening, good weather is in sight!”)

What an awful sentence, nobody will understand this metaphor. Fortunately, my neighbour plays another song from his balcony:

Napoli is one thousand colors | Napoli is one thousands fears | Napoli is the voice of the children | That slowly raises and raises | And you know that you are not alone.

And then, we all applauded from our balconies.

This story was shared by Giovanni Filatrella, a Physics professor at Università del Sannio in southern Italy. He lives in Salerno, some 50 kilometers from Naples.

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