Postcard from Rome

26 September 2020. Updated 27 September 2020.

by Guy de la Bédoyère

Disembarking our Ryanair flight from Stansted at Rome Ciampino on September 21st began with us not disembarking. We were told that we had to stay seated and only leave the aircraft by rows. It reminded me of being a teacher at kicking-out time. This of course was completely ignored by some of the passengers whose infractions were also ignored by the cabin crew. This was our first Italian experience of the schizophrenia of Covid-Land where the rules are mere wraiths that float in the background.

Several times before we flew to Rome emails arrived from Ryanair to remind us of the vital Italian documentation that would need to be filled in and submitted on arrival. For some reason there seemed to be two versions of the laboriously arcane declaration we’d have to make about where we’d been, our reason for being in Italy, our health and so on. I printed them both out and filled them in, adding some blank spares, and dutifully carried them with us.

On arrival at Ciampino Airport the most conspicuous feature was the total lack of anyone interested in any such piece of paper or any mention of it. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say if that there is a competition in Italy for the airport with the most institutionalised lack of interest in any such paperwork, then Ciampino stands a very good chance of winning.

The only unusual experience was discovering that my brand-new Brexit police phone-box coloured passport did not entitle me to use the automatic EU passport entry gates. I had to line up at the ones normally mobbed by vast numbers of tourists from the rest of the world. This time the Covid-Bonus was a complete lack of any of them. The security official was put out that I didn’t have a mask on. I had removed it on the instructions at the automatic gates and assumed when I transferred over that the humanoid would want to compare my face with the one in the passport. That evidently was an imposition.

We had to walk through Termini Station on arrival. The vast concourse is divided into two – of course – to create a one-way system. And naturally enough everyone behaved like cats, walking any way they wanted. And if there was anyone on hand to stop them – well, we didn’t see them. Unlike London there don’t seem to be any Covid marshals.

In the famous H.G. Wells story The Time Machine the remote future is a dystopian world. After a horrific war humanity divided into two: those who took shelter underground and those who took their chances in the sun. By the time Wells’s Time Traveller arrives they have evolved into two species. Those who stayed on the surface have become the passive and indolent cattle known as the Eloi. They are farmed by the hideous troglodyte Morlocks who lurk in their caverns with machines they use for processing the Eloi whom they harvest and eat.

This all came back to me as we wandered in a blissfully quiet Rome, but in a reverse form. In our dystopian future the Morlocks are those who cower at home, by choice or under the government heel, while the rest of us enjoy the sunlit uplands. In short, in a really strange sort of way all the Covid precautions have made life better for those prepared to take their chances and live a little. Perhaps we should keep them on after all.

We have been visiting Rome since 1975 and never before have we walked straight into St Peter’s with no more than a cursory bag check. The great basilica was no busier than a large parish church in a country town on a desolate weekday afternoon. We had Michelangelo’s Pieta to ourselves. It was busy around the Colosseum but not by normal standards. We spent a day in the ruined Roman port at Ostia Antica, wandering around the remains of streets, apartment blocks, houses and temples. I suppose we must have seen a couple of dozen other people but that was all. The Spanish Steps had almost no-one on them. We were only in Rome for three days so didn’t bother with museums as that would have meant more time wearing masks. But I don’t doubt that they are equally empty.

Public transport ran as usual. Alternate seats on the Metro were blanked off, pointlessly increasing the numbers of those who had to stand but since the trains were far from full it didn’t matter much. Road traffic was down but not by much once out of the centre. Shops and restaurants were mostly open.

The Italians all wear masks most of the time. In many places we went into, including St Peter’s restaurants, we had our temperature checked but we were never shown the results so perhaps it was all for show. Oddly, that didn’t happen in the airport either on arrival or departure. Our hotel was running at below 20% capacity and that reflected our experience almost everywhere we went. Obviously, this is hopelessly unsustainable, but I have to say that for the moment the advantages for those who don’t want to spend their lives gibbering behind their front doors are plain to see.

Part of the reason Italy is operating fairly normally is because by some miraculous chance the variety of COVID-19 circulating there is impotent at distances of more than one metre. How unfortunate we have been to have the more potent two-metre version here.

In the end the sheer stupidity of it all was highlighted when we boarded the bus to the aircraft to fly home. We had been told to enter the aircraft by the front door or back depending on seat row. The bus pulled up and we all fell out from the three bus doors to walk in chaotic diagonals past each other to board. Chris Whitty would have passed out at the sight.

As for the UK, we dutifully filled out the Passenger Locator Form less than 48 hours before our return to the UK. We downloaded it, according to the threatening instructions which say, and I quote:

You’ll need to show this document when you arrive in the UK. Border Force officers will scan the QR code at the top of this document to check you have completed the form successfully.

Back at Stansted we had our phones at the ready. The electronic passport gates were manned by one or two Border Force officers who waved us languidly towards a vacant gate. We scanned our passports, walked through and straight back to the car. No-one spoke to us, asked for the form, looked as if they wanted the form or even had a QR scanner to hand. Evidently, they’ve all entered the same contest as the staff at Ciampino.

What a joy it was to hear the roar of aircraft engines once again, to loaf in departure lounges, and walk around one of the world’s greatest cities in peace and quiet. It was almost like living again. Perhaps all is not lost after all.

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