April 3rd, 2020 – (see update on April 15th, 2020 below)

It is without a doubt that we’re all living through a very hard time, but the truth is that we are living through it as a community. As Italy is struggling and mourning its losses just as China did a few weeks ago, there’s another aspect of the story which is emerging to the worldwide attention thanks in part to national news, but mostly to social media. It’s a story of resistance, rediscovered empathy and fraternity. Here are a few pieces of happy news, in case you missed them:

The Italian People Rise Up

Many Italian celebrities started fundraising or donated a generous amount of money to support the public health system. Above all, instagram influencer Chiara Ferragni and her husband, the Italian singer Fedez, managed to raise more than 4 million euro for the construction of a new intensive care ward at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, which was built in only 12 days. From politicians to actors and actresses, from singers to football teams and individual players, from sports stars to big fashion names like Armani, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino Rossi, and even the Fondazione Andrea Bocelli, all have played their part in supporting their home country.

What is even more heart-warming are the ways that common people have come up with to help one another. As soon as the lockdown started on March 9th, notes and signs appeared in apartment buildings, with younger people volunteering to bring groceries to those who had been advised to stay inside at all costs. Charities, religious associations, and even local shops themselves have arranged an extensive delivery service so that people can avoid going out and queueing too long to buy necessities.

When not working from home, people spend several hours online and on the phone keeping in touch with friends and family who live all over the country. Having video-call aperitifs and dinners can keep people both keep busy and stay happy! Social media live dance and gym classes and book readings, online cooking tutorials, and other communications can help people find beauty in such a dark period. There have even been online virtual tours of museums, open source libraries, and online concerts filling the web with culture and beauty. And, of course, singing and playing music from windows and balconies is quickly becoming a popular trend for people in isolation all over Europe, with Irish musicians performing traditional music from pub rooftops, to Germans sending a big virtual hug to their ‘amici italiani’ by singing Bella Ciao. 

Solidarity and Support for Medical Professionals

The Italian people are also doing their best to help doctors and medical personnel in any way they can. Even though restaurants and bars have been closed since March 11th, owners of pizzerias and bakeries all over Italy have decided to remain in operation with a reduced staff (often their own families) to provide hospital workers with free pizza or cornetti, sometimes with donations from other citizens who help them buy the raw material. Upholsterers and seamstresses are crafting new breathing masks for both health personnel and fellow citizens alike, trying where possible to make them as colorful as they can, to lift spirits up.

On a more technical level, people are rising to other kinds of challenges. For example, following an online plea for low-running medical materials, engineers Cristian Fracassi and  and their team succeeded in designing and 3D-printing valves for intensive care machines that are now being produced on small scale, filling critical gaps in supplies and saving the lives of patients hospitalized in Chiari, Lombardy. In Emilia Romagna, Marco Ranieri (professor at the Department of Medical and Surgical Studies at the University of Bologna), together with his colleagues and a local company, designed a ventilator machine which can provide oxygen to two patients once. The machine has already been tested at Sant’Orsola Hospital in Bologna, and arrangements are being made to start a wider production.

The Environmental Effects

A welcome side effect of Italy’s newfound stillness, and one that will hopefully inspire a constructive debate once this is all over, is the environmental one. Videos and pictures document how nature is stepping back in the scene. Day by day, satellites are showing the pollution rate dropping significantly, ducks came back to populate Rome’s famous fountains, dolphins have been spotted in Cagliari Port in Sardinia, and people are amazed at seeing Venice’s canals as clean as they’ve been in ages, a happy thought in such difficult times.

We Will Get Through This

What Italy has demonstrated is a strong will to react to an unprecedented crisis, a fierce attachment to life, and a renewed sense of community. This too shall pass, and we can’t wait to be the first to welcome you to our beautiful country, once everything is over.

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UPDATE: April 15th, 2020

It has now been six weeks since Italy began its national lockdown. What began as encouragement and inspiring acts of community and solidarity has turned into a deeper and heavier realization of the reality of the situation, and what will have to happen before the lockdown is lifted. We’re sure our American friends may understand this feeling. 

What is noteworthy, however, are the ways in which those initial reactions made space for quieter, more organized, resistant and long-term ones.

When a call for medical staff was sounded, hundreds of people volunteered; funds were raised on large and small scales, and volunteers kept working to provide elderly people and those in need with essential goods. Mayors committed fiercely to the safety of their own cities (you may have heard of Mr. De Luca!). The relief funds that the government allocated for families and freelancers started to arrive today after only two weeks.

The Curve is Flattening

We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s faint, but it’s all we need for the strength to keep going and stick it out until the end of the lockdown and prepare for our future in the light, hopefully sooner than later. This week, experts have declared that the curve is finally flattening: the number of people checking into intensive care continues to decline, and, on Easter Sunday, Italy saw the lowest number of deaths since March 19th. Umbria, the region where the Ciao Andiamo Italy office is located, reported only one new case today; together with Sardinia and a few others, it is among the regions that are getting closer to the zero-new-cases goal.

Some other major news is that Italy is slowly starting to reopen activities! Although the recommendation for caution remains and some counties are further postponing the deadline, not only are more and more restaurants and bars opening for home deliveries, but this week has also seen establishments such as bookstores, children’s clothing stores, and some others reopen, respecting a limited schedule and social-distancing rules. 

Updated measures should progressively arrive as we get closer to the last-set lockdown deadline on May 3rd. Whatever they will be, we trust that #andràtuttobene (everything will be alright).

 

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Italy is often summarized as the country of food, wine, history, and nature. But even more than any of these, family is everything in Italy. I had never known this to be more true than during the months that my team and I worked on a special trip to Italy for Joseph and Irene.

Knowing barely a sentence of Italian and hailing from upstate New York, Irene and Joseph, 85 years young, reached out to Ciao Andiamo to help connect them to their Italian heritage. Joseph’s parents had been born in the late 19th century in Italy, outside of Bari, Puglia. Although Joseph and Irene had visited Italy a number of times, they had never before been to the place of Joseph’s roots.

Joseph decided that now was the time to seek out his family history, to track down the place where his parents had grown up and perhaps even find some living relatives from their hometown.

Uncovering Joseph’s Italian Heritage

After hearing their story, we designed a two-week-long trip down the Adriatic coast, spanning the regions of Abruzzo and Puglia, and concluding near the town of Bari, where we hoped to help Joseph discover pieces of his ancestry.

Working with our incredible Italy team and genealogy experts based in southern Italy, we began our search. We weren’t armed with much: rough birth year estimates of Joseph’s parents, a surname whose spelling had changed after Joseph’s parents had immigrated to America, and the name of a hometown somewhere near Bari – which, as we would soon find out, was incorrect.

But after weeks of hard work, we were able to track down something quite special.

Finding More Than We Expected

First, we found the official birthplace of Joseph’s father, in the small town of Toritto. We started tracking down birth certificates and names of a couple of living cousins.

We found that one of the cousins, whose grandfather had been the brother of Joseph’s father, was still living in Toritto, and he had a brother who was also alive and well living in Canada. The cousins were overjoyed to learn about their American relatives, but we decided to keep the news quiet from Joseph and Irene for now, until we could be sure it was true.

We continued our research and met with more and more local residents in Toritto. Toritto is the kind of small Italian town where everyone knows everyone, and we were amazed to witness the whole town start to become abuzz with news of Joseph and Irene and their planned visit mere months away in the early fall.

A Touching (and Memorable) Reunion

October finally arrived, and Joseph and Irene set off on their journey to southern Italy. After a number of days relaxing and exploring different coastal and countryside towns, they spent two days at a local masseria, a farmhouse, near the historic center of Toritto. It was here that their Italian family would come to meet Joseph and Irene for the very first time.

I had the incredible fortune to be part of this meeting at the masseria. I arrived with our local partner Max to assist with translation and logistics and photographer Ksenija to document the reunion. We were incredibly honored to be included in such a special experience and were, of course, delighted to continue to help.

Excitement mixed with nervousness. We weren’t sure how the events of the family reunion would play out. Would the one cousin we had spoken with even show up? Would he bring along one or two other relatives as well? How long would they want to stay and visit, and what would they say?

On the day of the event, something amazing happened. Not one, not two, but 27 family members would show up at the masseria throughout the course of the evening, in what would turn into a beautiful six-hour-long reunion full of hugs and stories, laughter and emotion.

As you might imagine, the conversations were loud, animated, and at times confusing – deciphering all the intricacies of the family tree and translating between the English spoken by Joseph and Irene and the Italian dialect spoken by everyone else. But somehow, magically, the evening worked, and they were truly united as a family.

Celebrating La Famiglia

Since we had never imagined that so many people would be joining, the owners of the small masseria were only prepared for a dinner of 5-8 people. But when you invite guests over in southern Italy, you invite them, and we would need to find a way to pull together enough food and wine to accommodate a celebration for over 20 guests.

Incredibly, the owners and their small staff managed to whip up a huge feast in the kitchen, and we dined and drank wine into the wee hours of the morning.

Joseph, beaming from ear to ear throughout the night, made no fewer than three toasts to his new-found Italian family and those who helped make the evening possible.

The next day, we took Irene and Joseph to the historic center of Toritto, showed them the street where Joseph’s father was born, and dropped them off at Joseph’s cousin’s house, as the family had insisted that they join them the next day for lunch for a part two of the family reunion.

I am so incredibly grateful that I had the chance to lend a hand in writing such a beautiful story of Italian family, and to help create an experience that a teary-eyed Joseph told me he will always remember. I know I certainly will.

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