I arrived in Palermo in early February to begin a new job in the Sicilian wine-making industry. I had just accepted a press officer position for a family-run winery which promised to be a big shift away from my London job. Only three weeks after I arrived, as the coronavirus ravaged the north of the country, the government enforced a strictly policed lockdown across the whole Italian peninsula.
For eight weeks I was confined to my apartment, staring longingly from my balcony on the sixth floor at the city I could not visit without an immediate and justifiable purpose. On my weekly food shops, I spent hours queuing in the hot sun clutching my paper number in my sweaty plastic-glove-covered palms. The aisles were empty of flour, sugar and yeast in the days that followed the online rediscovery of baking.
Suspicion and fear seemed to pervade the sombre air of lockdown. There were signs of hostility in the supermarket when hearing my English accent. I could discern the questions in the faces of passers-by – was I a naïve tourist or a stranded Erasmus student?
All that changed on May 1 when the long-awaited Phase 2 began, in which we were allowed to go out for daily exercise beyond the immediate vicinity of our homes. The freedom was intoxicating. Emerging from an apartment into an unfamiliar city, I felt the anxiety that comes with reaching for my mask and compulsory declaration form to explain my movements. The streets were still eerily empty, after what felt more like a lifetime than a couple of months.
Fast-forward to June 15, and but for the glorious sunshine, it could almost be those first few weeks experiencing the city when I arrived. The evening stroll or passeggiata is back, as friends greet each other across the main shopping street and couples settle down for a drink at the dubiously spaced tables outside the now heaving bars and restaurants.
The supermarkets are now full of seasonal bounty: the snake-like long courgettes, succulent apricots and sweet doughnut peaches. The first few foreign voices are starting to trickle back, a French family relishing their first ice cream of the summer, a few Italian accents from further north.
Here, more than ever, there is a desperate need for tourists to come back, and cultural and hospitality initiatives have been rolled out to welcome them. In the early days of easing, parks ran a time-slot booking system and there were free tickets to museums and galleries. A health-tracking app for tourists now provides slightly creepy daily question alerts for visitors to the island, ‘Tell me, how are you feeling today?’
In my line of work, life in the vineyards continues, and the grapes for this year’s harvest are swelling on the vines.
My own experience in the wine industry has seen an acceleration in the adoption of so-called ‘smart working’ that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. In a society focused on personal interaction, wine businesses have had to reinvent themselves, turning to ecommerce and delivery schemes, where the ability to market, sell and deliver wine, at the correct temperature in as short a time as possible, has become the new model.
While here in Palermo there is a general sense of relief mixed with national pride in having survived such a strict lockdown, this is tinged by the constant need to disinfect hands and the ubiquitous wearing of masks. Everything has changed, and cannot ever be quite the same.
Birdsong has been replaced with the sounds of buskers, the streets now swarm with scooters and traffic. And yet I cannot help but feel a strange sense of nostalgia for those days in early May, when I had the privilege to glimpse the silent streets of a city whose eerie beauty I will never forget; a city left for a short while to the echoing memory of times and peoples past.