This is the fourth installment in a series on Country Day alumni around the world during the pandemic. Tiernan Cutler, ’04, and her husband, Leonardo, work for a student tour operator in Florence, Italy. As of May 30, Italy had 33,340 deaths from COVID-19, the third-most in the world.

Q: Before the quarantine order came in Florence, what was the atmosphere like?

A: When the cases started in Italy, it was very concentrated up north near Milan, so down in Florence we were not very worried. Like the rest of the world, the original messaging from both the Italian and the American government was very downplayed, saying, “It’s just a bad flu only affecting the sick and elderly,” so many people weren’t too worried. 

Q: When did you realize it was getting serious? 

A: I work for a student tour operator that works predominantly with American study abroad students in Europe. NYU was the first university in Europe to close its abroad program and send students home. Many programs kept operating as usual for another week believing that NYU was overreacting to the situation, but then when the U.S. travel advisory bumped Italy up to level 3, all other schools and programs had no choice but to close and evacuate students. This was decided late on Friday night, Feb. 28, and we had several tours out in Switzerland, Hungary and Morocco. Early Saturday morning, we held a management meeting and decided to pull all of our tour buses back home. That was the day we realized, OK, this is getting very real.

Q: Have you been tested for the coronavirus? 

A: No.

Q: Do you know anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus or died of COVID-19? 

A: I play on a semi-professional soccer team here in Florence, and our team’s president’s mother passed away from COVID-19, unfortunately. However, that is the only person I personally know who was affected by it in Italy.

Q: How prepared were you for the quarantine?

A: For us in Italy, there was very little time to prepare for the quarantine. We were in the office and out in cafes one day and then told to stay home the next. 

Luckily, my husband and I work remotely for the majority of our day, with our headquarters being in Switzerland and our teams spread around Europe, so we have a great home office set up that allowed us to continue to work with little interruption. 

Cutler’s husband, Leonardo, and son, Luca, FaceTime with family on the balcony at home.

Q: Have you been able to get everything you need, such as groceries and toilet paper?

A: There was only one day of shopping hysteria when they announced the lockdown. For that day, there was a shortage of eggs, flour, pasta and espresso, but then people quickly realized that stores would remain open as usual, and everyone calmed down.  

Q: What has Italy’s reaction and response to this pandemic been like? 

A: At first, it was communicated to us to stay calm — life will continue as normal, as the cases were isolated in the north, and it shouldn’t affect cities south of Bologna. However, when cases started to spread into other regions, the government started implementing social distancing, closing small businesses and enforcing curfews with all bars and restaurants having to close at 6 p.m. 

Every two days, there seem to be new restrictions enforced, but then when they proclaimed Milan a “red zone” and they would be closing borders and enforcing lockdown for all residents within 24 hours, there was a mass exodus from the north. Realizing that this action backfired, the government then declared all of Italy a “red zone,” and that is when the nationwide lockdown began on March 9. 

Since then, we have had our quarantine extended twice. We were originally supposed to be released on March 23, then they pushed that to April 3 and then May 3. Every night there is a press conference where they release the medical statistics of the day and any new information. (Restrictions were eased beginning May 4.)

Q: What was it like living in Italy in March and April? 

A: It was very quiet. The streets of downtown Florence, even in low season, are usually bustling with tour groups, international students and locals. But they were abandoned. It was eerie to watch the drone videos circulating on social media; it felt like we were living in a bad movie. 

To go outside, we needed to carry government papers stating our reason for leaving our house. You were only allowed to leave to go to the grocery store or for medical reasons. If you have a dog, you could bring them outside, but you needed to stay within 200 meters of your front door, so we couldn’t even go for a run or a nice long walk. If you violated these rules, you could be fined up to 3,000 euros and receive jail time. 

When you left your house, you had to wear a mask, and before entering the grocery store, you had to put on gloves and have your temperature taken. They allowed only a few people into the store at a time, so depending on the time of day, you could wait up to two hours just to get in the store. 

Q: How has COVID-19 changed the atmosphere of Italy?

A: It sounds cliche, but family is the most important thing in Italy, and having to isolate from each other has been very hard for people. Italians used to gather for big dinners or Sunday lunches, having up to four generations sitting around a table for several hours, but we had to resort to lots of WhatsApp group calls to see everyone. 

The “piazza lifestyle” is also a very large part of the culture here. Meeting friends in the early evening for aperitivo (drinks) in various piazzas around the city has always been a big part of the daily life here in Italy, so people were definitely going stir crazy and looking forward to getting outside again!

Q: How did this change your day-to-day life?

A: For my family, we were not able to go downtown to our office, so we worked from home. Most of our work halted completely, as there were no tours that allowed to operate, nor were there any students remaining to fill them. 

However, we used this time to plan for the upcoming semesters in the hopes that we can run with at least 50% capacity this fall. My husband and I traded off working and watching our 6-month-old son, Luca, we worked out once a day doing home videos, and we spent most of our free time on our balcony just to get fresh air.

Q: In the big picture, how has this changed your life?

A: It feels surreal. Our life just feels like we have hit the pause button. With work being almost nonexistent for us, we are just trying to focus on the positive aspects of this: getting to stay home with Luca and doing all the projects we have always talked about doing but never have enough time for. We also live on FaceTime with our family, and actually I have been able to speak with my family back in California much more often than usual! 

Q: What has surprised you about Italy during the pandemic? 

A: The sense of national pride. The singing from the balconies in the early days was fun to witness. That didn’t last too long, but since then it’s been interesting to see how much friendlier people are than usual. With everyone having to stay home, when they did pass strangers on the street taking out the trash or in line for the grocery store, people were so much nicer. During the quarantine, we got to know our neighbors in the palazzos (big buildings) next door, and we all went outside for aperitivo on our balconies in the early evenings just to have some human interaction outside of our immediate family.

—By Emily Asperger

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