The vibration of a mobile phone breaks the silence of a motionless Milan night. At a dinner table set for one, Giulio clears his voice before answering. Lorenzo, his Tinder date, appears on Giulio’s cracked iPhone screen wearing a black hoodie and a black earring – he seems to be smiling behind his thick beard but there is silence on the line. Perhaps he’s embarrassed, thinks Giulio, or maybe it’s the poor internet connection. A moment passes, then Lorenzo breaks the silence. “Hey ciao,” he says, “Sorry I’m late.” “It’s okay,” says Giulio, “I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Giulio considers himself a master of dating in ordinary life, but for now he has to settle for on-screen flirting. He misses the warmth of a handshake or the electric feeling of a kiss, he told me when we spoke, though one thing has become easier about meeting new people: finding an ice-breaker is not a problem. He listens as Lorenzo describes his days in quarantine: alarm at 8am, push-ups in the living room at 9am, remote working until 6pm, a nightly chat with parents, then an episode of Netflix crime drama “Ozark” before bed. Lorenzo launches into a description of his third day under quarantine when Giulio interrupts: it’s all starting to sound a bit repetitive.
If there is a positive side to the lockdown, Giulio thinks, it’s that it has paradoxically broken down barriers: everyone is stuck in the same situation, living the same emotions, having the same thoughts, asking the same questions. He wants to see Lorenzo again, but chooses not tell him when, for now. After an hour-long video call, they hang up with a hasty “talk to you soon.” Giulio – with slicked back hair, white shirt, pyjama pants, furry slippers and wearing Gucci perfume no one will smell – rises to stretch his legs. The lights of Milan wink at him through the window. In the deserted street a pharmacy clock reads 22.52. There is plenty of time for a cigarette before his next date of the evening.
Italy was the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, banning public gatherings and closing schools and universities in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Lombardy, which has been quarantined since March 8th, is the hardest-hit region. It has recorded around 14,000 cases of infection and over 2,000 deaths so far. Milan, a city of 1.3m (and over 1,700 cases of infection), is in the heart of it. On March 11th, as the death toll rose dramatically across the country, a government decree imposed the closure of businesses, restaurants and bars and placed severe restrictions on people’s movement, allowing them to travel only for “essential” reasons. As Giulio put it to me when we talked about his online date: “Che sbatti!”– Milanese slang for “It sucks!” But life – and love – goes on.
I have not seen my friends since the first day of lockdown, so I decided to arrange an “aperichat”. Aperitivo via Skype has become Milanese’s first antidote to abstinence from social life and, of course, from beer: groups of friends meet on video calls to drink and chat as if they were sitting around a bar table. It’s not a date and my friends and I don’t need to break the ice, yet the conversation always begins in the same way: “Well, how’s the lockdown going?”
Federico, a psychologist with an unrequited passion for guitar, tells us about his attempt to emulate those who, in the last few days, have been singing songs together on balconies all over Italy. “Yesterday I went out on my balcony and started to play Guccini,” he says (Francesco Guccini is one of Italy’s most popular songwriters), “but the only reaction I got came from an old neighbour who pulled down the shutter. I pictured her thinking: ‘Wasn’t coronavirus enough? What have I done to deserve such a punishment?’” Mirko, a freshly married salesman, tries to push Edoardo and his girlfriend to tie the knot: “Now that you’re sitting around the house, you can finally propose,” he says on the screen. Edoardo blushes and tilts his curly head until it is out of the Skype frame. Federico runs to his rescue: “You’re lucky you can’t go out and buy an engagement ring.” The quarantine is putting many relationships under strain (lawyers have said they expect a spike in divorces after the crisis is over) but despite being trapped 24/7 with their partners for the first time, so far my friends are proving the strength of their bonds.
Isolation has pushed many Milanese to dust off their dormant romanticismo. Unlike the rest of Italy, which has a reputation for passion, in Milan people are not well known for their warmth. It’s a hectic city. Residents barely have time to see each other. The quarantine is forcing them to slow down from the hustle – causing an uncharacteristic jump in affectionate behaviour. “This lockdown has emptied not only the streets, but also people’s days,” says Giulio. “People are not used to being alone, especially in a city like Milan, and dating is the easiest way to fill this loneliness.” Giulio tells me he has received “tons of requests” for sexting or “cuddling” on webcam, though admits this isn’t his thing. Others are meeting up for sex despite the restrictions. Again, this is not for Giulio. “I haven’t left the house for two weeks,” he says, “but if I were to do it, I’d rather meet my family and friends than a stranger.”
The neighbourhood where Giulio lives, north of Loreto, is known as NoLo and usually bustles with young Milanese gathered outside bars, chatting and laughing until late. It’s the perfect spot for a first date. Now that the movida (party) has temporarily shut down, even those who aren’t particularly keen on online dating are rediscovering it, seeking comfort and connection during a vulnerable and uncertain time. Dating apps such as Once (a French app also popular in Italy), reported a 30% increase in active users during the first week of the lockdown. Chiara, an architecture student at the Politecnico, tells me that she hadn’t opened a dating app in two months. On day five of the quarantine, she thought: “Why not?” She describes opening the Corriere della Sera, or watching Italian news channel Sky TG24 and only absorbing bad news. “Staying home alone doesn’t help,” she says. “Even if you’re on your couch, isolated from the outside world, what happens out there affects you. And if you can share the burden with someone, well, that’s a small relief.” The mindset informed her choice of date. “I didn’t choose the prettiest, but the most reassuring guy,” she says. “That’s what I need at a time like this.”
Chiara settled on Marco. Wearing a navy-blue polo shirt under a green sweater and sporting a “good-boy” haircut, he meets her on a sunny Thursday afternoon at the entrance of the Indro Montanelli Gardens. Chiara immediately recognises him – there is no one else around. Together they cross the park, keeping one-metre apart: the distance recommended by the authorities to prevent transmission of the virus. Sitting at opposite ends of a bench, they shoot glances at each other. Marco finally breaks the ice: “Well, how’s the lockdown going?” Chiara shrugs. She describes days in quarantine spent on the phone with her parents, longtime friends, college mates. “And then there’s my sister’s story...”
Chiara’s sister works for a well-known Italian multinational company. She lives in Milan, but she travels on business to Rome twice a week. “In Rome she met this guy...” Chiara tells Marco, “they dated for seven months, until the lockdown. Now she’s stuck in Milan, while he’s in Rome.” Every day, explains Chiara, the couple set their alarm clock at the same time and have colazione (breakfast) together over video call. Chiara grimaces at the thought: “They’re way too sappy!”
Young Milanese couples still living with their parents struggle to stay in touch, too. Andrea and Lucia, both aged 22, have been dating since high school. Andrea doesn’t feel like going out, even with a face mask. Restrictions are there for a reason, he thinks. There’s no way he’s going to unlock his armoured door as long as the virus is out there. Every night Lucia rings the bell at his house, he leans over the balcony, and they talk under the glare of a streetlight, like a 21st-century Romeo and Juliet.
After my aperichat, I go out for a nighttime walk around the block. Currently we are permitted to leave our homes only for work or health reasons, or to go to the supermarket or pharmacy. My sister and her boyfriend now take their weekly capoeira lesson remotely, along with 13 others, all sweating in front of a screen and trying to replicate the instructor’s moves in tiny living rooms while hoping not to break anything. Thankfully, we can still go for a walk or run in the vicinity of our home. For all these trips we have to bring an auto-certification form with us, checking the “reasons of necessity” box. In recent days, the police have stepped up patrols of the streets to enforce the curfew. Despite the atmosphere, the air smells like spring and trees are starting to blossom. My footsteps echo in the quiet of the neighbourhood, accompanied only by the distant siren of an ambulance. I slalom through a long line of cars resting on the roadside. In the middle of the intersection, a traffic light flashes to an empty street. A gangly jogger wearing a fluorescent jumpsuit passes by, while reassuring his mother on FaceTime. “Sì mamma,” he says, gasping for air as he holds his phone in front of him, “I’ve eaten. Yeah, yeah, the fridge is full.”
In quarantined Milan, filling the fridge has become a priority for many citizens, frightened by apocalyptic-like scenarios in which food supplies run out. Supermarkets allow customers to enter only in small groups, with a limit of one per family, to avoid crowds. Dozens of people in gloves and face masks queue along the pavements, waiting their turn for up to an hour at a time while keeping a safe distance from each other.
These queues have become the perfect habitat for young Milanese trying to keep their social lives active outside their home. Chiara and Marco make their second date via WhatsApp: “Let’s catch up at 4pm in front of the Esselunga.” When Chiara arrives at the supermarket, it’s the first time in her life she has felt happy to see such a long queue.
A few blocks away, I am queuing too. I need to buy a bottle of beer for the next aperichat. People enter the supermarket three or four at a time. Those who come out have the face of a survivor. In front of me, two men in their 20s are taking a selfie wearing face masks. One of them posts the picture on Instagram with the caption: “‘Ci vediamo in fila al supermercato’ is the new ‘aperitivo sui Navigli’” (“Meet you in line at the supermarket” is the new “aperitivo on the Navigli”). When the first heart pops up on screen, he slips his phone into his pocket, takes off his face mask and lights a cigarette: “Well,” he says, turning to his friend, “how’s the lockdown going?”