Holiday plans and annual getaways to favourite boltholes in Europe and across the world have been thrown into a tailspin amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Airbridges have become drawbridges and can be removed without warning. Bolaji Babafemi’s reportage and travelogue explores a decades-long relationship with Italy and a friendship that has survived and thrived during the darkest months of lockdowns, closed borders and quarantines.
Giovanni Ragusa had that film star look, resembling a young Al Pacino in the Godfather with slicked-back pomaded jet-black hair, a dazzling smile and a warm, magnetic personality. In the summer of 1996 I found myself in Totness, Devon, cooped up in a strange house with total strangers from all over Europe on one of the EU’s language exchange programmes that sprouted throughout the 90s. I had always been fascinated about Italy and its culture and the itinerary offered a language taster, with all expenses paid. Wild nights out on the town was compulsory as were the language classes when we became sober enough, but meeting Gianni and his then girlfriend Ornella had been the real icing on the cake.
After several nights of debauchery and painting the town red we said our goodbyes and reluctantly returned to reality. I never imagined I would ever hear again from Gianni, but he called me in London and wanted to meet again before continuing to his hometown of Livorno, an Italian port city on the west coast of Tuscany. Our friendship has blossomed over three decades where his family, nieces and nephews have treated me like a long-lost son and welcomed me with generosity and open arms at family weddings and summer holidays in Tuscany and across Italy.
Livorno to Chiantishire
Britons are known for their love of Tuscany and the Chianti region celebrated for its wine and vineyards. It has even been renamed Chiantishire due to its popularity with British expats. But Livorno is a different kettle of fish lapping on the edges of the Tyrrhenian sea. The perfect base for exploring Tuscany’s archipelago and coastal jewels like Isola d’Elba, Piombino, Isola di Gorgona, Isola di Giglio, Grosseto, Capri, Portoferraio and Sardinia. Think of glistening aquamarine waters and bikini-clad sun worshippers lounging on the decks of yachts from a Slim Aarons portrait.
It is also well-placed for more inland forays into Tuscany’s picturesque landscape of undulating cypress fields and vineyards from Sienna, Pisa, Florence, Pistoia, Lucca, Cortona to San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Suvereto, Volterra, Monteriggioni, Pitigliano, Barga and Fosdinovo.
Livorno’s cachet is as a port on the west coast of Tuscany which offers a direct route to the region’s coastal jewels. It is renowned for having Italy’s best seafood, renaissance-era fortifications and the immaculate Italian Naval Academy founded in 1881. Its central Terrazza Mascagni, a waterside promenade with its signature checkerboard paving, is the city’s prime spot for viewing some of the most stunning sunsets on the Med. A bewitching and dazzling golden beam that burns brightly across the water. It is also the birthplace of figurative painter Amedeo Modigliani and artist Leonetto Cappiello is regarded as the father of the modern advertising poster.
Gianni never tired professing his love for Londra and was always practising his English at every opportunity. He credits his policeman father Antonio for sparking his interest in the language after teaching him as a child. He was never deterred even when he stayed with me in my decrepit bedsit in Hackney. On his first night he drew my attention to a little mouse that continuously sped across the room as if practising for the 100-metre dash. Gianni named him ‘Tommy’, after ‘Tom and Jerry’ in the cartoon series. An evening stroll was interrupted by a whirring chopper overhead late into the night. That was in the days before Hackney cleaned up its act, supplanted by the Cereal Killer cafe and overrun by hipsters.
He loved London and would sing her praise to high heavens, he loved the pubs, the shops, Camden Market, its parks, and its throbbing nightlife. He even loved those dodgy hot dogs sold from mobile counters around Leicester Square, he was just so smitten by/with the city and was eager to forgive all its imperfections. He nicknamed a ubiquitous London tramp ‘Big foot’ because erm … he was swaddled in polythene, black bin liners and newspapers looking like a reincarnated Michelin man.
He nearly drove me crazy trying to find bella casa at yet another viewing for rented accommodation. He always had something for his ‘own’ private bathroom. London never lived up to the lofty standards in his native Toscana and he would joke that London’s lettings agents, renowned for their price gouging reputation, could sell you tinned air if they were allowed to get away with it. But that never ruined his enjoyment of the city and all the nightlife London had to offer.
From Quarantena to Lockdown
We began to correspond in late February shortly after Codogno in the Lombardy region in the northern Italy became the country’s hotbed for coronavirus infections. I could sense his anxiety about his concern for his 85-year-old mother, a retired seamstress who specialised in designing the latest fashion attires and bridal gowns for the city’s creme-de-la-creme. He described the stress of taking extra care not to bring the virus home as “psychological terrorism”. He told me: “The situation is really crazy … panic everywhere because of the coronavirus.
The real problem is that this virus can be asymptomatic and very contagious. For me living with my mother is not easy at the moment
“The real problem is that this virus can be asymptomatic and very contagious. For me living with my mother is not easy at the moment. I avoid contacts with everyone and when I go out I stay outside. I do not take coffee or drink in a pub. I do sports outside. I do not go to a restaurant or gym. It’s the only way to help my mother.” He limited the household groceries shopping to once a week, cleaning his hands with alcohol sanitisers before returning home. He avoided speaking too close to his mother or sneezing anywhere near her. He concluded: “I hope my advice can help someone.” On 9 March 2020, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte declared Europe’s most stringent lockdown confining the entire country of 60 million inhabitants to their homes.
Quarantena, derived from the Italian word quaranta giorni (40 days), heralded the practice of quarantine as we know it today. It began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from being overrun by plague epidemics. Vessels arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. From the onset of the Black Death in 1347-48, Italian cities implemented a complex health defence system, which was an example to other European countries. These health protocols were underpinned by quarantines, sanitary cordons, lazaretto (quarantine stations), disinfection and social regulation of the population at risk.
The pandemic has since swept both countries, upending the lives of millions resulting in a huge death toll; Italy with 35,000 and UK 45,000. Life is gradually returning to a new normal in Italy, hitherto the epicentre of Europe’s outbreak. Tourists are a major lifeblood of its economy and the country has declared itself ready to receive visitors again with no quarantine policy. Italy is one of the top five holiday destinations visited by five million Britons annually. England and the rest of the UK have cobbled together a list of safe countries and holiday destinations exempt from a quarantine policy.
“Nobody cares about the risk of a second wave, I mean it’s not sure it will come again. Tourists come without any problems, no quarantena for anybody.” He is full of praise for Italians for pulling through the worst of the crisis. He says: “For two months everyone stayed at home and only went out to buy food with all the precautions. You couldn’t go out at all for any other reason otherwise police would have arrested you or imposed a €500 fine, you could only go to the hospital in an emergency.”
But Gianni now watches his mother like a hawk after losing his father to dementia some years ago. Antonio and Ada were married for over 50 years and were inseparable. He lavishes praise on them: “They have been the greatest parents I could have. What can I say, I have been lucky to have special parents like that.
“I always take care about my parents when they get old because they have given me all their support in my life. if I am the person I am now it is thanks to them. They teach me all the best values in life and now I want to repay everything they did for me.”
I think Boris when he said ‘people need to be prepared to lose their parents’ has been the worst human being in the world
He diplomatically sidesteps questions about how Italians rate UK’s pandemic performance. The former croupier who once dealt the cards at the world’s oldest casino, Casino de Venezia, takes aim at the country’s prime minister Boris Johnson and No 10’s rumoured herd immunity strategy that many critics now blame for the delayed lockdown later attributed to excess Covid-19 deaths estimated at 15,000.
“I think Boris when he said ‘people need to be prepared to lose their parents’ has been the worst human being in the world. His intention to fight Covid with immunity was crazy. When he contracted the virus maybe he understood the bad thing he said.” Johnson has in recent interviews claimed nobody knew the virus could be transmitted asymptomatically.
I’m afraid you are starting to see in some places the signs of a second wave of the pandemic
After a recent spike in infections across Europe the PM has warned of a “second wave” of coronavirus, as he defended a 14-day quarantine on travellers from Spain. The PM said the government had to be “swift”, hinting at further action against other countries if necessary.
It comes after the Spanish prime minister branded the UK’s decision to remove Spain from a list of safe countries “unjust”. Pedro Sánchez said tourists in most regions in Spain would be safer from being infected than in the UK.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all non-essential travel to Spain, including the Balearic and Canary Islands. It also removed Spain and its islands from the list of countries exempt from the 14-day quarantine rule. Johnson said it was up to individuals to decide whether they wanted to take the risk of travelling during the pandemic. “These are decisions for families, for individuals, about where they want to go,” he said.
The PM added: “What we have to do is take swift and decisive action where we think that the risks are starting to bubble up again.
“Let’s be absolutely clear about what’s happening in Europe, amongst some of our European friends, I’m afraid you are starting to see in some places the signs of a second wave of the pandemic.”
It came as the UK reported a further 119 coronavirus deaths taking the official death toll to 45,878.
Going to Gavinana
“Of course, London is in my heart forever, it’s the only place in the world I feel at home. I love London and I am waiting for Covid to disappear and come there for one month,” Gianni says of his desire to visit the capital again. However one destination we both agreed would be perfect for a complete detox and reset was the Tuscan mountain village of Gavinana, a hidden gem off the beaten tracks at an altitude of 820 metres above sea level where the air you breathe is as exhilarating as the views. Set in the Pistoiese Apennines, the town’s main claim to fame is as the site of the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1530, and you can visit a town museum dedicated to the event.
Gavinana is popular with walkers, and there are some pleasant trails through the forested slopes and rural villages. Just two miles from the village, you can cross the suspended Bridge of Mamiano, which once won a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest suspension footbridge in the world (it’s now a worthy second). It is 220m in length and 40m above the river level, and the exhilarating crossing on the metre-wide iron grid walkway is free. I spent a memorable holiday in the mountain-top retreat with Gianni’s family.
He has been visiting since he was a boy with his brother Paolo and parents. He remembers the excellent food in September. And visiting the woods to forage for porcini mushrooms which he explained was a delicacy which complemented various dishes. It was also the blackberry season and he would spend days picking them up and afterwards his mother made delicious jam out of their harvest. I felt on top of the world at Gavinana and it would be the perfect spot for a reunion when all this turbulence is over. Until then, I say ciao to Ada, Paolo, Gianni, Tommaso, Jonathan, Ilio, Rita and all my amicis. We will surely meet again.
Giovanni Ragusa is a fashion accessories designer and contributed to this feature.