The coffee machine is hissing, the smell of ground beans is filling up the small café while the piazza outside is slowly coming to life. We are enjoying the view of Udine on an autumn afternoon, a group of teenagers is playing cards, locals meet for drinks after work. The guy next to us has an animated discussion with the bartender about the upcoming soccer game. We chose a spot by the window, on bar stools with a view to the narrow lane leading to one of the main squares of the town. It is a gloomy afternoon, but it seems that the locals do not mind. When our coffees arrive, the group outside of the café waves at us through the window and lifts their Aperol Spritz to say cheers. We decided to celebrate with gianduia and fior di latte gelato.
Located in Northern Italy, just about an hour from the Austrian border, Udine is a popular destination to escape Austria, enjoy Italian food and do some shopping. Already as a child I loved crossing the borders from Carinthia to Italy. When we approached the border, my parents always switched to the Italian radio as soon as possible. Right after the border checkpoint, the landscape immediately looks different. There are waterfalls and rugged rock faces. The houses are painted in the terracotta colour palette with the typical Italian roofs which are flatter than their Austrian counterparts.
It has not been an easy year for Italy. As one of the countries hit hardest by Covid-19, many tourists decided to spend their summer holidays elsewhere. Even though there are some tourists, the streets of Udine are relatively empty compared to before the pandemic. Even though Udine is not ranking high on the typical tourist bucket lists, the crowds of American and Asian tour groups are definitely missing. The travel bans are still in place and commercial air travel is rare. In most of the shops we are the only customers. Sometimes, there are some locals or the odd Austrian. The fall/winter collections have arrived but they still share the space with most items from the summer collection sold at big discounts. Italian shop assistants are always very helpful and friendly. But this year, it feels that they work even harder.
Everybody wears masks. It seems that there is no question about their necessity. When entering shops, we are asked to disinfect our hands. The hotel room, the restaurants and the shops smell of disinfectant. I have the feeling that Italians are more disciplined than Austrians. Probably because they have experienced the effects of Covid while we have been lucky so far. There is just no way to make silly excuses and say the pandemic is not real. In the evening, the streets are a bit busier. The bars are lively outside. Nevertheless, compared to an Italian piazza before Covid, it is relatively calm.
But it would not be Italy, if the people did not try and make the best out of it. It was a tough year, but it seems that Italy just wants to move on. There is a lot of laughter, a lot of joy. Strangers start some small talk with us. Students dance at the piazza. Groups of women meet to catch up and exchange the latest gossip. Right next to us, there is a beautiful blonde woman in a navy dress, opaque tights and high heels. She pulls her laptop out of her Kelly bag and starts working on emails. The waiter seems to know her and they talk about their families when he brings her an espresso. A little girl rushes to hug her dad after school and excitedly shows him her new T-shirt with sparkles matching her big pink school bag. In one of the bars at the piazza a group of stylishly dressed men meets for drinks. This could also be pre-corona. Italians definitely teach us to never stop being positive, keep going and enjoy the small things in life.
I am happy for this glimpse into life in Italy. Throughout the past months I have often thought about my friends scattered across the country. I keep my fingers crossed that Italy can come back to normal – or at least as close to normal as possible.
Mando un abbraccio ai miei amici in Italia – resta forte e resta sano!