The Quarantine Diaries — 2. The city of men without men

We’ve been isolated for a few days: from everything, from everyone.

Birds

I usually hear the birds singing around 3 AM in the morning. Tonight they were singing at half past midnight, maybe a little later. Maybe they do it all the time, I just never noticed that because there were other noises covering them, someone talking on the street below, cars passing by, the fountain.

I haven’t been listening to anyone talking for the last weeks anymore, very few cars pass by, the fountain doesn’t work anymore, I don’t know if it still works. Maybe it should work, it would be an important gesture on the part of the city, it says that the urban structure and civilization continue, that there is someone who thinks about it, the institutions still exist. Let’s assume that it works even though I’m not sure I can hear it anymore. I want it to work.

We’ve been in quarantine for a few days now, even though it’s not a quarantine. At least not in medical terms. We’re confined to our homes, all of us, all of Italy. We can only go out shopping or to go to work if we can’t do it from home, for those who still have a job. The measures have followed one another at a pressing pace: first they increased the controls at the airports, then they closed schools after finding the first infected, then dead people and infected increased to such an extent — while respecting what we would have found to be a very predictable and expected mathematical curve — that there was nothing else to do but force everyone to stay at home, to prevent the virus from going out with us and infecting others. Or infect us. Who knows if we already have it in the house or on a dress or already inside us, it’s a thought that you do when you don’t really want to think about it, more than anything else.

No generation still alive had ever experienced anything like this. Quarantine was something an animal do if you brought it from a foreign country, or they made you do it if you went to some foreign country and there was some disease in your country but it was a limited thing, it was about one people at a time, it was an exotic story that you heard told by someone, it would never happen to you.
But it did happen to all of us at the same time.

To tens of millions of people who from one day to the next disappeared from the streets and retreated to their homes. Now you look out the window and you see the empty city and you look to another window in front of you and you know that there is someone doing the same thing you are doing: you look out the empty city and you think that there is someone looking at it like you. But you don’t see him, you just think he’s there.
Now we’re 60 million people at the window pretending all day long that being at home is a normal thing we’ve done thousands of times (and it’s true) only now we can’t go out in the street when we want to, because we must have a reason to do it and then the police might stop us and ask and want to know why we’re around, we’re supposed to stay at home, we’ll have a good reason not to be there, sure, right? No, I don’t want to hear those questions. I’ve been home for days, I pretend it’s normal to be there and then after a few days you don’t want to go out anymore, you’re afraid that the virus is out there waiting for you, it’s just waiting for you, you deluded yourself that a walk wouldn’t do anything to you, now you’ll see.
Better stay at home.

Where is everybody?

When I look at the empty city I don’t think of it the way it was before, when there were cars and people. I’ve often wanted to photograph it without anyone, even without cars. Only spaces and voids, without those objects that only indicate that there are humans around. I wanted to take pictures of the city of men, without men. Here it is, now I see it and it makes a certain impression on me.
It’s not easy to describe exactly what kind of impression. It’s not nostalgia (the men will come back and the cars will come back too, the screams will come back and the children as well and I won’t hear the birds anymore). It’s something different and more disturbing: I thought that the city I saw without humans is a city that doesn’t even need humans. That square is swaggering, those streets are cheeky: they say they don’t need us. We created you and now you exist without us.

The city can still be a city without us, and the city is a metaphor for reality. The world can live without us, perhaps it is much better off without us.

Space and time

After a few days confined in the house you no longer know exactly what day it is. You have to try a little harder to remember if it’s Friday or Saturday. Not because every day is the same, but because it changes your perception of time. Above all, it changes the spaces that are now limited, finished, not extensible. A walk is a luxury and indeed you cannot have it (it is dangerous) and the corridor is your new sidewalk.

Space and time, finally reunited in their physical connection. Contemporaneity allowed us to be in one place and a hundred others (the multidimensional space) and we could reach one place or another in a short time, if it was a mental place you could overcome any distance instantly. Now you are imploded into yourself, the space is limited, at certain times it coincides with your skin, with your envelope. Time is always the same, so it is indifferent.

Time is then made of a present and a reasonable future projection. Not anymore. We know how long this quarantine will last (I keep calling it like that because it looks very much like that, but it isn’t, and yet it is) but we don’t know if it will be enough or if it will be extended. When you think about it, time has always been beyond our domain, but under normal conditions we are under the illusion that it is not, that we can control it. Now the cards are revealed: we don’t have any power.

Space is cancelled, time decides for itself and doesn’t consider you.

After a few days in quarantine, you no longer know what space and time are. You’ve been used to it all your life and now you don’t recognize them. You took so many things for granted and now there’s nothing granted anymore.

Finally, there is another thing caused by the quarantine, and it is in the word itself or in its concept. You had it coming, but you don’t know until you try it. The fact that I don’t see people any more and that I can’t cross their glances has reset all my connections. You no longer know what people do, what they think. Until recently you could exchange a look with people you met on the street, you could imagine the life of a woman in your own subway car. Not anymore. Now you only look at yourself, you look in the mirror, you tell yourself that you have to maintain decorum, tomorrow you’ll be shaving, maybe you’ll put a clean shirt on, tomorrow we’ll pretend to be reassuringly normal even if we don’t leave our houses afterwards. We’ll always be inside, but in our shirts.

Normality is no longer a set of automatic and unconscious processes (I wake up, have breakfast, get ready, go out, work, etc.) but a conscious sequence, an actor’s rehearsal: it’s not being normal but pretending to be normal.
Not seeing anyone on the street anymore, not being able to tell yourself a made-up story about him, not being able to read the joy or the worry or even the nothingness in his eyes leaves you a little lost and only with yourself. You can only look in the mirror and maybe start to get to know yourself.

Hi, I’m you, let’s get to know each other. I have neglected you, I am not sure I want to know you but I have nothing else to do, I have no other stories to tell, to invent, to read in the eyes of a stranger.

I don’t know if there’s anything sinister about the quarantine because it deprives you of freedom until yesterday or rather because it forces you to look in the mirror and decide who you are. To finally figure it out.

Who are you? Are you afraid? When is this going to end? You’ve evaded so many questions but now you have time, let’s stop talking about it. The city doesn’t need you, the others don’t exist anymore and you can’t feel better or worse than anyone else. You are not physically alone, you see other people behind the window panes, but you only see yourself reflected on the window pane. When you look out the window you no longer see the empty city, you no longer see other lives, you no longer see a projection or denial of yourself. Now you see yourself reflected on a glass.

What time is it? I don’t hear birds anymore, everything is silent again, damn silent and I’m alone with myself, again. Maybe it’s time to introduce myself. I guess this quarantine is a way for me to meet myself. Or tell me at least, since the story I can tell now is only that of my life, now, in quarantine. Silently, still, in a space that is suddenly very limited.

In quarantine, you are alone with yourself. How’s it going?

Architect, photographer, illustrator, writer. L’Indice Totale, The Fluxus and I Love Podcasts, co-founder @ RunLovers | -> http://www.martinopietropoli.com

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