Faculty on Rome campus still under lockdown

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Photo courtesy of Brendan Sweeney

While the curve of new coronavirus infections in Italy is slowly declining, the faculty members living on the University of Dallas Rome campus are still under strict lockdown.

After cases exploded in March, Italy became the hardest-hit country in Europe at the time with the novel coronavirus, the disease caused by COVID-19. As of last Sunday, over 23,000 people have died from the disease in Italy, according to the New York Times

The country took severe measures to combat the virus, first closing off the northern “red zone” of 11 towns on Feb. 23, and then enforcing a national lockdown on March 10, the Times said.

National lockdown entails forms that traveling persons must present to law enforcement, should they be stopped and questioned as to why they are driving. Lockdownalso closed schools and universities, banned all sporting events and outdoor gatherings, stopped jail visits and imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on bars. 

And although the number of new cases has declined over the past several weeks, Italians are still under strict quarantine.

“Sure, there is a sudden sense of relief but I don’t think we can be optimistic yet,” said Rome Program Director and Dean Dr. Peter Hatlie. “More than anything, I see that the Italians want to warn the world not to repeat the mistakes they made and model the very many things they did right.”

Philosophy professor Dr. Catherine Nolan, who lives on the Due Santi campus with her husband and two children, also expressed what she called a “cautious optimism.”

“From my own perspective, there is relief but also a sense of worry: the curve is flattening, but we still have the same number of active cases – it’s not like hospitals are getting emptier or doctors and nurses are able to take a much-needed break yet.  Also, I think it would be so easy for people to say “Great! We’ve solved it!” and go back to their Italian ways of having a big family gathering every weekend, which would start this all over again in any number of places all over the country,” said Nolan.

The Rome faculty rarely leave the beautiful Due Santi campus. But when they do make a trip to Top Supermercado, which is located less than a mile away from the campus, Brendan Sweeney, Nolan’s husband, said that it can take hours.  

First, one has to fill out a form with a name, passport number, place of residence, destination and reason for traveling. Anyone driving is liable to be stopped by the police and must present this paperwork, Sweeney said.

“That was something that really rankled me when I first heard about it, but I got over it,” said Sweeney. “The only time I saw a checkpoint was just after the roundabout in Albano, but I haven’t been to Albano in over a month now, and that was just to go to the ATM near Saints & Sinners; not even in town.”

Once Sweeney arrives at Top, he has to take a number and wait, or join a line that stretches around the parking lot. Only 20 people are allowed in the store at once, and the wait can be as long as two hours. 

Once inside, the store is relatively empty, and the Italians do not loiter as they shop.

“There’s no line at the deli/bakery counter, or if there is, there’s only one other person in line,” said Sweeney. “I have noticed a lot less general chatter going on. People aren’t as likely to strike up a conversation. It’s very focused on ‘Do your business and get out.’ The people at the checkout counter are generally very patient, though, and there are hardly any lines to pay; both good when you have a week’s worth of groceries for a family of five.”

Top Supermercado has been Sweeney’s only destination outside the Due Santi walls in recent weeks. If he can’t find something at Top, he has to go without it, as people are liable for fines if they are found shopping too far from their homes. 

Theology professor Dr. Ronnie Rombs worried that he was going to be fined as police stopped him on his way to the grocery store on Easter Monday. Unbeknownst to him, all grocery stores are closed on Easter Monday, and the police wondered where he was really going. 

“There were a couple moments when I was really nervous,” said Rombs. “But the Italian police could tell from my broken Italian that I clearly didn’t know. They immediately became very cordial and explained it all to me. They confirmed that I was going directly home–which I was more than happy to promise–and they wished me a ‘Buona Pasqua’ as I drove away. Their civility and genteelness in dealing with me was amazing. In other words, the Italians seem to be approaching this whole thing with a great deal of heart and humanitas.”

Rombs doesn’t live on the campus, and thus has not seen the other Rome faculty in person since the lockdown began. He and his family of six children live in a small apartment, and in their seclusion, Rombs has found an opportunity for contemplation.

“[T]ime seems to have stopped,” said Rombs. “One day blends into the next; one week is melded into the following. I’m sure everyone is experiencing this right now. Even though that has been challenging in certain ways (it’s made keeping to a schedule more difficult), it’s also meant that I could just stop for a moment–sometimes for long moments. Prayer begins in silence. The first great blessing for me during this period of existential silence, as it were, has been the renewal of a life of prayer. Our apartment is located on a small piece of land that includes an olive grove. It’s been a particularly rich blessing to get to walk in the olive garden and contemplate–especially during Holy Week–that Christ also seems to have enjoyed walking among olive trees in prayer.”

Living in such tight quarters has, however, presented some challenges to his online teaching.

“It’s a bit chaotic. In fact, it’s very hard to get online lectures recorded–you have no idea how many times I’ve had to stop and re-record segments because someone yells in the background,” said Rombs.

Nonetheless, Rombs said that the lockdown has been an opportunity for much grace in his family. 

“It has also been one of the richest times of our family’s life,” said Rombs. “Never before have we been together without any other distractions. You can’t go anywhere– there’s no soccer, no school, no parties, nothing. We’re all together, and it’s all we’ve got. It’s beautiful.”

On the Due Santi campus, the faculty’s families have also kept to themselves.

“We’ve all observed social distance rules carefully and therefore pretty much kept to ourselves,” Hatlie said. 

The vineyard and garden on campus have been places of refuge and reflection. 

“At any given time you can see someone walking in the vineyard, picking campus flowers in the gardens, or working in the collective vegetable garden,” said Hatlie. “We’re so fortunate to live in this gorgeous place.  I truly feel for all of those people who don’t have this opportunity for reflection and recreation.”

Nolan, who hasn’t left the campus in nearly two months, said that the gardens have doubled in size since the students left. Rather than being overwhelmed with the news, Nolan has found that narrowing her focus to her immediate life on campus helps her cope with the pandemic.

“I came to the realization a while ago that learning what was going on in every city here was just overwhelming and depressing and I wasn’t able to do anything about it anyway,” Nolan said. “It’s better for me personally to just focus on areas where I do make a difference: taking care of our kids, taking care of classes, and following the rules set for the lockdown.”

Rombs also described the grace of being attentive to one’s blessings rather than the overwhelming nature of the pandemic. 

“Obviously there are many anxieties during this time–economic, social, professional, etc,” Rombs said. “It would be easy to describe them. I think, though, that we have to look instead for the blessings God has for us in this situation. It may be harder to find them, but they’re there, and they are robust.”

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