Home. Home. Home.
What is home?
I left my home when I was barely eighteen-year-old. My home became another city, country, different people from the ones I grew up around. I changed a lot of different homes. From London all the way to Los Angeles. Each homemade me discover a new way of feeling at home, flavors I never tasted before, comfort I never felt on my skin before, and serenity I thought I’d never find again. But I did. Over and over. The way I so easily adapt and make myself feel at home almost scares me. It makes me feel like I have no home at all. I’m half Colombian and half Italian and in America, where communities are so defined and, in a way, divided, I’m really quite sure where I belong in all of this chaos, we call world. Whenever I feel this way, when I feel like I don’t belong anywhere, I try to visualize my motherland and the home where my mother gave birth to me… and the thought of that, calms me. That home, my first home, instantly, becomes the safest place on earth. Knowing I have a safe place that I can call home helps me live my life away from my family and my roots in peace. With peace.
The first deaths in Italy caused by the coronavirus happened back in early February. All my friends and family back home were sure this is was all a big misunderstanding. “It’s just a flu,” they assure me but, really, themselves. “We must let the world know this isn’t the plague. Italy is a country that lives, eats, breathes on tourism and the show must go on.”
Everyone started sharing Instagram posts charged with anger, talking about the injustice Italy was subject to. Thousands of hotel rooms and flights canceled on a daily basis. International celebrities writing melancholic posts about Italy as if they were sending my country and my home to the grave. But, worst of all, were the people trying to convince me, Italy was overreacting. That I was overreacting.
With time, came more and more deaths and more and more fear. A fear that reached my home away from home, on the other side of the world, in Los Angeles. A fear that was raw, undigested, and unchewed. I had people trying to calm me down, while, others found pleasure in alimenting the corona-fear speculating on unfound scientific predictions. No matter what my lovely American friends tried to make of me, everything they said only made me more anxious and nervous. My country was bleeding, and I was bleeding with it, from miles and miles away. Being surrounded by jokes about the coronavirus when, every morning, my mother would call me from Italy in tears because younger individuals her age were starting to crowd up the hospitals that were already about to collapse and a friend of a friend who she got drinks with weeks before was in the hospital and now she felt like she had a soar throat. All I could do from afar was to say, “I’m sure it’s your brain making you feel this way. I’m sure you’re fine. Keep measuring your temperature, and don’t worry until you really have to.”
And, then, the lockdown. My home was in lockdown.
I felt like I was galaxies away from my home.
I couldn’t help but cry.
As the fear of a lockdown was approaching America as well, a friend of mine from New York claimed she rather had a lot of people be contaminated and, eventually, die from the virus rather than having the entire country in a lockdown. Because, in her opinion, the latter, could be what will cause truly horrible things to happen as a result of panic. The more I tried to express why a lockdown was inevitable at this time and one can be alert without panicking, the more she kept insisting that there cannot be alert without panic. A lockdown that is not being fueled with panic is, simply, unrealistic. She argued the virus didn’t scare her, but the panic did. I bought a box of plastic gloves for the house and, before she flew back to NYC from LA, I insisted she wore a pair and to take a bunch with her. She refused with a frown. Looking down on me and my offer. Looking down on my fear.
Fear became more shameful than the illness itself.
Because, as soon as you give in to fear, you’re labeled as lost.
Fear cannot be rational?
Fear cannot be precautionary?
Fear cannot be lucid?
Is chaos the word that hides, for most people, behind fear?
This fear of fear is what I fear the most. The fear of being judged for giving into your own fears, own feeling, your own vulnerability. Because, from my understanding, if we’re vulnerable, we automatically become out of control? As long as our mental paper house is standing up straight, we are considered sane. But, as soon as it shakes or quakes a little, then we must be considered insane. Just like that.
“Come home, please. Just come home,” begged my mother over the phone.
The connection in L.A. is usually very bad. I had to call her ten times, over and over, to gather what she was trying to say—what she was trying to ask me, her daughter living abroad. The thought on not being allowed back into the U.S. for God knows how long, scared me. However, being locked out of my country, my home, for, again, God knows how long, scared me even more. I eventually decided to fly back to Italy, a place which, little before then, I considered the safest place on earth, that was now considered the most dangerous piece of land on the planet. My home. I packed my clothes, my medicines, my food, and my fear, and I left for the airport the next day.
I was early. I usually leave my house almost four hours before my flight, afraid I won’t make it due to dense traffic. Driving into LAX that day was like speeding down an empty slope. It took me ten minutes to check-in and pass security. I was wearing gloves, a mask, and glasses. Some were looking at me weird; others took pictures, few even laughed in my face. It was interesting to see how many people felt the need to let me know where they stood in this whole dispute. Not being able to see my mouth or my nose or my eyes might have given them the freedom to express their feelings about me, about the corona-fear. While the other passengers at the airport made me feel like a criminal, the staff was very respectful. Never once was I asked to lower my mask, although I did anyway when showing my passport. When I was in line for a coffee at Starbucks, my mother called me. I started talking in Italian and few people around me took a step backwards… I hung up. All of a sudden, I felt like Italy itself. I felt the terror, I felt the hostility, I felt the unknown. I smiled, with my mask sitting tight around my cheeks and nose. No one saw I smiled. My smile saved me many times in my life. I don’t have a perfect smile, but, I do have a charming one. I was forgiven many times solely thanks to my smile. Now, I was smile-less.
I didn’t sleep on the plane as I was too scared to remove my mask. No one really slept, we were all sitting there, one next to the other, hugging ourselves.
I finally arrive in London where I met with my sister and, together, we decide to leave for Verona, Italy. Home. A direct flight wasn’t an option.
Arriving in Venice was like arriving in a warzone. Only one airport per region is left open with the sole purpose to welcome the Italians who are being repatriated. Italians like my sister and I. We walked fast from the plane to the main entrance where we were allowed in one by one. First stop was measuring our temperature. Pass. Phew.
I walked further down towards the military force, who asked to see my passport and my repatriation document. Pass. Phew.
We proceeded through the glass doors and to the baggage claim.
Here, everyone was wearing a mask and gloves. I wondered around to check whether my suitcase had arrived– people move away to let me through. They all stood carefully one meter away from each other, one meter away from possible contamination, from possible death.
Am I carrying death?
I might not be a victim, but can I cause a lot of victims?
This is a power no one should have.
It scares me. I hug myself once again, trying to contain all my germs. I barely breathe.
Even though, here in Italy fear is more palpable, I feel safer amongst people that aren’t afraid to show themselves and their fears. Not feeling anything, absolutely anything, not even fear, makes you bizarre. Possibly even dangerous. As soon as I turned on my phone, my screen got bombarded with messages from my foreign friends, “are you crazy? Why did you fly back to Italy? So dangerous!”
I turned it off, again.
As soon as we arrived home, my mother was waiting for my sister and me in front of our home. She smiled but didn’t hug us. I didn’t try to hug her. For a moment, I wondered if she was mad at me, then, I remembered… For all I know, I could be the end of her.
Time and space are lost in these days locked up in the attic with my dear sister. Days go by fast, faster than ever before. I wonder how I even managed to get so many things done around town in one day during my life before the virus. It feels absolutely impossible now, now that it takes me over an hour to eat breakfast and another half an hour to wash the dishes. We talk to our relatives from the window in the attic; we shout but can barely hear what each other has to say. We smile and pretend we understood one another. We talk about futile matters:
“How did you sleep?”
“Are you finishing that puzzle?”
“I’ve seen a cool Netflix series last night!”
Then, a moment of silence.
We don’t know what else to say to fill in the screeching silence that too often takes over. So, one of us, throws in a Corona-update. No one asked for it but it’s really all we want to hear, hoping its good news. Hoping it’s getting better. Hoping to hear our country, our home, is recovering. But, it’s never such. It’s always worse and worse. When you think it cannot get worse than that, you wake up in the morning and see videos on social media of the military taking corpses outside Bergamo city because there isn’t enough space anymore. And it hurts, it hurts thinking many of us are losing dear loved ones and are deprived from the chance to say goodbye, because the bodies must be burnt straight away. So, you spend the rest of your day floating in a fake existence made of funny tik-toks videos, movies, and books, waiting until 6 in the afternoon, when the updated number of deaths for the day is communicated, with hope that grows inside your chest… Only to feel hopeless, all over again.
But, after all this sorrow and emotional exhaustion, I think about where I would want to be and realize, I am exactly where I should be in this fearful moment of my life: home… And that feeling of confusion and not belonging, disappears. Because the truth is, there still isn’t a safer place than home.
Vittoria Rizzardi Penalosa is a young Italo-Colombian writer, screenwriter, and director. She graduated from an MFA program in screenwriting at the University of Southern California last year, now, she lives and works in between Europe and Los Angeles. She wrote and directed short films that screened and won awards at film festivals around the world: The London Independent Film Festival, The New York City International Film Festival, and Cannes Film Festival to name a few. She is currently in development of her debut feature film and her first novel written in the Italian language.