Editor’s note: On March 13, the Frieds left Italy for the United States with hope that they’ll be able to return in the coming months. Upon arrival in the States, they will self-quarantine for two weeks.
As told to Summer Moore Batte
Bay Area alums Josh, ’01, and Amanda Kahn Fried, ’03, landed in Milan, Italy, on January 2, 2020, for a seven-month adventure with their young daughters. They took sabbaticals from their respective jobs at Waze and with the City of San Francisco, enrolled the girls in a bilingual school, and embarked on a whirlwind of sightseeing, Italian-language classes and weekend trips.
They got more adventure than they bargained for. Within weeks, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Italy. On March 2, schools closed, leaving the couple to manage daily online classes and hours of homework—half of which were in Italian. By March 8, all of Italy was on lockdown. Two days later, they shared with us how it feels to be in Italy, and what they think the rest of us should prepare for.
How Lockdown Unfolded
Josh: We’ll tell you what the future feels like. Sorry if there’s some background noise. It’s just a very loud Italian dishwasher.
Amanda: When did we last talk to you? Friday? Right. A lot has changed since Friday, which kind of sums up what this feels like. I think we were feeling like, OK, school is closed. This is kind of weird and scary, but we all have health care here. Life is good. It’s going to be OK. We were with family—we planned a trip to go see cousins in Sicily, and we were supposed to leave on Sunday [March 8]. On Saturday, we went two hours north of the city to this small little mountain town with some family, and we went on a beautiful hike. We had the most amazing day in the wilderness.
‘The thing that’s been really weird is the gradual loss of freedoms. I think if it had been sudden lockdown—you can’t leave your apartment building—that actually might have been easier to swallow in some ways. Because you’d know that they’re taking the most direct action possible.’
And then we’re having dinner after and I get this text from my Italian tutor—who only texts me in Italian because she’s my Italian tutor. And I didn’t quite understand it. It was some article and I’m trying to read it and it’s saying, “red zone, red zone, Milan.” I show it to the guy next to me and I was like, What does this mean? He said, “Oh my God.” It was a draft order to shut down our whole region and make it red zone, and it got leaked. And so the first draft we were looking at was a mess; it made no sense; it was contradictory. No one knew what was happening. No one knew when they were going to vote on it.
So “Can we go to Sicily tomorrow?” was our initial question. We have this trip; we’re so excited. We don’t want to get stuck here. How long are we going to be stuck here? So we basically had a 12-hour period of, you know, I would just say, like—
Amanda: Do we go back to the United States, do we go to Sicily, should we escape?
Josh: As we were driving back from this mountain town to Milan, people were rushing to the train station and the bus station to try to get on the last southbound trains or buses out of the city. And it turns out those people now have to register with the country and say that they came from Lombardy. They have to self-quarantine wherever they ended up for two weeks.
Amanda: The thing that’s amazing is just to reflect on how quickly this all changed. It went from being, OK, there are some cases of COVID-19, but we’re traveling around Tuscany happy as can be. And then school is closed. That sucks, but OK, we can deal with that; there are worse things. Every day it seems to get a little bit stricter. You can’t leave Lombardy, the region. And then very quickly, you actually can’t leave Milan, your community.
I went to the pharmacy today because we don’t have a thermometer. The pharmacies here are more like clinics. So they would only allow four people, total, in the store: Three would be talking to pharmacists and one person looking at the merchandise. And then they had physical barriers so that you couldn’t get within a meter of the pharmacists, and of course they’re all masked and wearing gloves. That was pretty intense.
Josh: To Amanda’s point, the thing that’s been really weird is the gradual loss of freedoms. I think if it had been sudden lockdown—you can’t leave your apartment building—that actually might have been easier to swallow in some ways. Because you’d know that they’re taking the most direct action possible. You’d know that it’s going to be over as quickly as possible.
If a politician had come out and said, “Italy. We’re a very social people. Kiss, kiss; hug, hug; everybody hangs out with Grandma and Grandpa; family dinner Sunday night. This is going to be really painful, but we’re going to put the country on lockdown for two weeks or four weeks, and at the end of that everything’s going to be better,” I think a lot of people could have swallowed it. But it was the hemming and hawing, and a lot of politicians just not wanting to disturb the cultural norms and Italy’s way of life.
Amanda: It takes a while for people to come around to the severity of the situation, and I think we’re perfect examples. You’re reading about China and you’re like, OK, it doesn’t really affect young healthy people and so you can be selfish for a while. I had to read a lot to be like, OK, no. I care about the world, and I don’t want to be responsible for spreading this. But it wasn’t easy to get there. And I don’t feel like the steps that Italy took helped accelerate that for us until they really started to shut down.
Lost in Translation
Josh: It’s really hard for us because of the language barrier. Like maybe people are saying the right thing, and we just can’t understand that because we’re not watching TV or listening to the radio as much as we should or can.
Amanda’s reading a lot online, but a lot of it is Google Translate and there are funny weird things that happen. For example, the word that is “to swab your nose” Google Translate translated as “tampon.”
How the Bay Area Looks from Italy
Amanda: Part of what freaks me out about the Bay Area is—and I’m pretty involved politically—a lot of people on social media are saying go support your local businesses, which is exactly what we saw here. And quite frankly, we thought we were doing a good thing: We’re going to go to that restaurant that no one else is going to, because they’re really hurting right now. And I totally get that, but that’s a problem for another day. When that day comes, we should focus on it, but right now it’s truly life or death.
We were very much like, we don’t want to be in on this fearmongering; it’s going to be OK. And that’s actually not true. I mean, when you read about it, isolation and the bigger restrictions matter. You can’t just go about your day.
‘Part of what freaks me out about the Bay Area is—and I’m pretty involved politically—a lot of people on social media are saying go support your local businesses, which is exactly what we saw here. And I totally get that, but that’s a problem for another day. Right now it’s truly life or death.’
My mom is a complete wreck about us. But she’s the one in danger. I had to really lay it out for her today: You need to stay home. You have to stock up on food. You have to get medicine. She has her PhD. She is a smart person, and she is very aware of what’s happening in Italy, and until today she really took no precautions.
Josh: I kept saying to Amanda over and over and over again, our kids are safe; our kids are fine; there’s no threat to them. But the threat is that our kids could be carriers, not exhibit any symptoms, and then infect an old person and kill them.
Avoiding the Hospital
Amanda: We went to a little park that had a skate park, and our cousin said, “Maybe the kids want to take their scooters in there.” And I was like, no, thank you, a broken bone is really not OK right now.
Josh: If you needed to go to the hospital in Lombardy for something like that right now, they might turn you away. They’re turning wings of the hospital that had nothing to do with respiratory illnesses into triage.
How the Kids Are Handling This
Josh: One of them was actually feeling really nice about life because we’d had a weeklong break from school and then we’re like, guess what? You’re not going back to school; you’re going to homeschool. She’s like, OK, I could get used to this.
Amanda: She’s also the kind of kid that likes to stay home, that you kind of have to pull out of the house on the weekend. So she’s pretty excited to have a fully loaded Kindle and a lot of time on her hands.
Josh: However, she just got a lead in the school play, and she may be coming to grips with the fact that the play may not happen. They’re still doing rehearsals and teleconferencing with the drama teacher, but I think it’s crushing her a little bit that this might not go as planned.
The other child has boundless energy and thrives on interacting with other children. She’s having a hard time. On Sunday, we went to hang out with my cousin. They have two kids.
Amanda: And they don’t speak the same language. And she was thrilled.
Josh: We’re still going to lunch for about an hour, in our neighborhood—walkable, you know. Both times we’ve gone to lunch, the restaurants have been mostly empty. I don’t know how much longer we will be able to do that.
I have to get out of the house, so hopefully we’ll continue that. If not, then we’ll just be taking basically exercise walks. There’s a park nearby. The girls can take their scooters. We just ordered a soccer ball and some other sports equipment on Amazon.
‘Think about how you will keep your brain sharp. Like, we wish we had a keyboard or piano or instruments. Think about things that will actually keep your mind focused during this, because I think it’s coming for everyone.’
Amanda: Everyone approaches this differently, but I would definitely advise people to look at what’s happening in Italy now, and imagine that in 10 days you’re likely to be faced with the same situation. Think about what you need in your house beyond toilet paper. I don’t really understand the hoarding of toilet paper.
Josh: Yeah, we have bidets. We don’t need toilet paper!
Amanda: Think about how you will keep your brain sharp. Like, we wish we had a keyboard or piano or instruments. Think about things that will actually keep your mind focused during this, because I think it’s coming for everyone.
Josh: I think a lot of people are going to be faced with these circumstances where they’re at home, they’re unable to really work because they’re basically monitoring their children, and they’re going to feel very anxious and unproductive. And I think that’s a dangerous combination.
People need to think about what things they can do every day—if they really can’t leave their home that much—that keep them feeling valuable and productive.
Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Stanfordmag.org.