Food & Culture

Stories from Seattle: Italian Dream Vacation Cut Short by Coronavirus

La dolce vita in the Umbrian hills, followed by self-quarantine in Seattle

By AJ Rathbun April 6, 2020


This is part of a series of personal essays we’re calling Stories from Seattle, contributed by our community and designed to show how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the lives of Seattleites. Want to share your story, coping mechanisms, wildest ideas? We’d love to hear. Please email: [email protected].

My wife and I left Seattle in early December—jobs quit (hers as a nanny, mine as Electronic Arts’ copy chief and Seattle magazine cocktail writer) to follow a lifelong dream of spending four months living in Italy. Following long discussions and a lot of money saving, we packed our suitcases to bursting and headed to a renovated old miller’s house rented in the north Umbrian hills. 

On Friday, March 13, we found our adventure cut dramatically short. Within 24 hours, we went from optimistically planning the rest of our trip to boarding a flight back to Seattle, after being subjected to gallons of hand sanitizer, two temperature scans, and gloved attendants who checked and rechecked our health and travel forms at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport.

In those first few weeks, the virus was barely a whisper in international news. We ate up the locals-only Italian winter holiday season, sipping hot Vin Brulé while viewing artists’ nativity scenes and meandering ancient stone streets decked for Christmas. We devoured delights like gorgonzola and pear risotto, pizza quattro formaggi con cipolla, and earthy mountains of truffle-covered pasta, and spent mornings sipping cappuccinos and chatting with old and new friends at affable neighborhood bar, Lo Spaccio. I even discovered Italian gins and was nearly bowled over one night by a 400-pound cinghiale (wild boar).

It was la dolce vita trip desired, far from normal stresses—with a few wrinkles, of course. Our lovely hill house was in the country, and where do all those bugs come from? But these were laughable concerns, shushed quickly by a glass from our fantastic local winery. As time marched on, the virus expanding in China came up, but as so many, we ignored it, far away in the unexpected Italian winter sun.

The first coronavirus case north of us in the Lombardy province was, dishearteningly, diagnosed February 14. That day we were on a side-trip into the U.K. We weren’t thinking about the virus, just that we’d be back on March 1, with 81-year-old mother and her friend arriving a few days after.

We continued to think that our area would be fine, even as the case number rose. By Sunday, March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte quarantined Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces as we savored an unforgettable three-hour lunch at north Umbria’s finest restaurant, Calagrana. (I still dream of the Souffle di Pecorino with fresh herbs from the garden.) That Monday, the quarantine included all of Italy. Measures that seemed fictionally draconian were now in place. In retrospect, I wish the quarantine had come earlier and spread farther—spread globally.

Even still, we planned to stay through April as originally planned. Tuesday, however, we realized Mom and friend should definitely rebook flights—we spent hours at the bar waiting, sipping prosecco and eating tomato-and-mozzarella sandwiches provided by bar-owner, Ceci. Wednesday had us at the train station packing them off to Rome, after presenting required travel documents to armed polizia. Luckily, Ceci helped us ensure they were correct. Driving back, our full trip still seemed feasible, with two bags of fresh vegetables (oh, for the big bunches of chicory never eaten) grabbed at a surprisingly open street market in the small town of Mercatale. The next morning, Conte closed everything, even the bars, and the U.S. announced increased restrictions for those traveling on European flights. We decided it was unfortunately time to head back to Seattle.

In hindsight, that decision seems obvious—that day, it was just a blur. We booked a flight out of Rome—other airports closed—as quickly as possible; three and a half months of packing and house cleaning occurred in three hours. Left: the half-consumed bottle of intriguing olive oil liqueur. Packed: museum maps, village guides, restaurant cards. One night at the Hilton Rome Airport, and our flight left Italy behind.

Here, our self-quarantining on doctor’s advice has made being home mostly just weird. No happy hours with friends and family, telling tales over dishes at favorite spots. No catching up with work pals to get ideas on next jobs. No cocktail chatting with Seattle magazine editor Chelsea Lin on newest hotspots. It feels like a line from the poet Ed Skoog, “a narrative set sideways.” I can’t believe we got to take an epically tasty multi-month vacation. I can’t believe how it ended—and I can’t really imagine what’s next. But I feel I might be glad about all that gained pasta weight.

Pasta with shaved truffles remains a highlight of the trip. Image credit: AJ Rathbun

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