Italy and COVID-19: Redefining Culture, Language and Lifestyle

Chances are you might be a little like me these days, vicariously living out a dream of la dolce vita through social media.

We stood by and watched as Italy quietly shrugged off the restrictions imposed during the first COVID-19 wave. As the trend goes, Italy now finds itself blanketed by a new set of social-distancing restrictions, brought upon by its devastating second wave. Italy, usually divided by its twenty regions, is now further segmented into coloured 'risk' zones. 

Despite knowing that travel is simply impossible at the moment, I'm feeling Italy's gravitational pull now more than ever. My passport may be gathering an unfamiliar film of dust, but I know it's for the best -for now: two little words that bring much relief and soothe the stirring in this traveller's soul.

I can't help but wonder how current-COVID-19 Italy's culture and way of life are changing. In order to explore these phenomena I spoke with Jasmine Mah, teacher and author of the book 'Wander(lust): Letters From aWanderer'. Jasmine, originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, now lives with her Italian husband Massimiliano in Bergamo, Lombardy, one of the worst hitCOVID-19 zones in Italy.

I asked Jasmine if she had noticed any changes in the Italian people since the first devastating wave of COVID-19. She responds, 'An astounding spirit of adaptability that was not so evident in day-to-day life prior to COVID-19. I know that Italians are often revered from outside of Italy for what is perceived to be a very "go with the flow" approach to things, but in truth, I've found most Italians to be very attached to their ways and to "how things have always been done". After the peak, this all changed and I was surprised to see how the people of my adopted town accepted everything with grace and an even stronger sense of community really came through.'

Physical closeness is deeply rooted in the Italian spirit; kisses, embraces, living life at a constant close proximity. So, what does that mean for Italians in this new emerging culture? 'Greeting friends and family with kisses on each cheek was a norm pre-COVID, something that obviously can no longer be done, at least for the moment,' Jasmine says. 'The physical aspect is one thing; just getting up close and personal and having people in your personal space, squeezing through the crowd to order a coffee at the bar, or just bumping elbows with someone as you eat a pizza slice together. The Italian way of life was really hit hard by this because it's all about being together, eating together, just all about a certain togetherness.'

The descent of COVID-19 upon Italy brought with it an influx of new terminology and language anxieties. 'As the virus took hold here, its rapid spread in a short amount of time resulted in a sudden influx of English words into the daily lexicon of Italian speakers,' Jasmine explains. 'There was also widespread use of the English word "“lockdown", which I often heard much more than the Italian word quarantena.'Beyond the insertion of English words in the Italian language, grammatical doubts were quickly raised. Jasmine says, 'It took weeks and weeks before the genders of coronavirus and the acronym COVID-19 were established, it fluctuated between il and la and I'm personally still unsure of which is which.' The issues of language appropriation also reached the Accademia della Crusca, the world's leading Italian language research institute, who wrote an article on the issue,Jasmine tells me.

Challenge, to any degree, often brings great change. Jasmine says that the lockdown period has made her more appreciative of the Italian way of life and for having the opportunity to live where she does. Despite this, she's concerned about Italy's economic state; the closure of small local businesses, such as bars and restaurants, as well as those working in tourism."“I hope for a sense of optimism as well as we move forward, although it's hard to think that way at the moment. So many people experienced a loss of some kind and I think the general feeling is a feeling of both sadness and uncertainty, and rightly so.'

I will be keeping a keen eye on Italy's emerging cultures in the months and years to come. TheItalian mantra andràƒ tutto bene (It will all be ok) seems the ultimate consolation for now; steadfast, self-assured and confident -much like the Italians themselves.