COVID-19: Searching for our village

by Daniel Alexander

This blog post was written by Amizade-BCA Italy Site Director Juri Bottura in the face of COVID-19 quarantine in his country. Juri and his family live Trentino, in the Italian Alps, and witnessed friends, partners, and strangers self-distancing from each other in an attempt to stop the virus Italy. As of the publishing of this blog, Italy is the worst-hit country after China, with the total number of cases hitting nearly 25,000.

On Saturday, February 22nd we were celebrating the conclusion of the first Amizade program with students in the Alpine valley in Northern Italy that we call home. Fast forward twenty days, and we are living in a country that declared a month-long quarantine, shut down all non-essential services and asked its citizens to restrain from all social life, including visiting their closest relatives and friends. None of us was prepared fur such a sudden turn in our life, even if the threat of COVID-19 has been in the news at least since last January: but its hotbed was in an obscure region of China, allegedly far enough from the core of our most immediate interests.

Many facts and data dramatically changed in the span of three weeks: a handful of isolated cases of contagion in a couple of small towns down in the Po Plain, the densely populated geographical region of Milan and Venice, wildly turned into a national epidemic with 15,000 infected people and more than 1,000 casualties, including the first person in our province, Trentino. Not to mention the numbers of the pandemic worldwide, now that the majority of the countries across the continents are directly facing the emergency.

The sense-making crisis that the COVID-19 sparked is, for us who have the privilege of being in good health, even more disconcerting. We are educators who, after spending more than a decade abroad, decided to return home and offer transformative experiences to the widest possible spectrum of learners, from Harvard students to local preschool kids who live in remote mountain villages. We are members of a community that is certainly located in a privileged part of the world but also is – as most non-urban, peripheral areas – in a precarious balance between the handling of destabilizing, fast-moving global processes and the aspiration to a beneficial openness to the outer world. We are a family, in a society that is dangerously aging and stagnant, and in which raising children are not only a generic sign of confidence in the future but also a contribution to a much-needed renewal of our traditions and identities.

When a sudden, exogenous crisis forces you to switch to survival mode, the meaning and value of your choices are easy to obliterate. The current emergency, different from many other equally deadly ones, is uniquely powerful because its impact is immediate – here and now – but its dimensions are immeasurable: there is no easy mental escape to space or a time that is unaffected, given its rapid global spread and the uncertainties of its epidemiology.

As Italians, we also are in an uncomfortable and frightening position: we are ahead of the curve. From our point of observation, most of the world – other European countries and the USA, for instance – looks now in the position where we were a couple of weeks ago: it is an easy, painful prophecy to forecast a worsening of the health situation, a hardening of containment measures, and further disruption of people’s daily lives.

As educators, as community members and as a family, the conviction on which we have been building our projects and our lives is simple, but not obvious: even a pocket of land in a border Italian region nestled in the Alps retains an invaluable asset, which can only be cherished and perpetuated if people from distant places partake of it and if locals mingle and grow with them. That resource is made of people’s attachment to their places, pride in a shared cultural heritage, trust in sociability and neighbor relationships, and much more. Now all of this is undeniably challenged, when we are forced to stay isolated and literally apart from each other.

There is a word, in Italian, that we use to describe a condition of disorientation, lack of coordinates and direction, confusion about where we are and where we are going, physically or psychologically: spaesamento. It literally means “lack of a village” (or town, or country: paese, not without reason, has multiple meanings in our language). Now, when our points of references are (or are about to be) severely shaken, to resume the search for our “village” is a priority, and we are lucky enough to be in good company in the pursuit.

Thanks to the Amizade and BCA fellowship for the sympathy and the support in these challenging times, and best of luck to all and everyone for the demanding work that awaits us. It is truly worth it.