Oh how ambitious I was. So full of plans, goals and dreams for 2020. So bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. So adamant that this would be the year that I put my business goals into action and work with Sicilian tour companies in order to give this European hidden gem the love and attention that it deserves while establishing myself as an authority on Sicilian travel.
How excited I was to meet with some of them at the TBEX conference in Catania in mid-March, and show them that it is I, yes I, who am most suited to working with them due to the fact that I already have a tonne of Sicilian content and am LIVING IN SICILY.
How eager I was to begin property hunting, viewing apartments in Palermo with the intention to find one ASAP so that I can have my own little home base in this Mediterranean paradise that I can make some income on further down the line.
Everything was coming together. Every dream I’ve had, every skill I’ve honed, every penny I’ve saved, and every 4000-word blog post that I’ve slaved over were finally coming together into one fantastic bundle of OHMYGODTHISISAMAZING, and the best and most important year of my life so far was due to start on March 1 2020, when I boarded a one way flight to Sicily to set the plans in motion.
OH THE BEST LAID PLANS.
Italy, March 1-10
Like everyone, I’d heard about the coronavirus spreading to Italy, but like most people, I was secure in the knowledge that it was confined to a few small provinces in the North and didn’t look like it was spreading. The government was preventing any travel to and from the affected areas, and besides, Sicily is an entirely separate landmass to mainland Italy anyway.
In fact, while Palermo is 1494 KM from Bergamo, one of the main areas affected by the coronavirus, my home town of Manchester is only 1625 KM away – that’s a difference of only 131 KM! What’s more, as new instances of coronavirus were popping up everywhere, not only in Manchester, but the actual small town of Bury where I live, I figured that statistically, I was more at risk staying home than I would be going to Italy, and so I boarded my flight to Catania on March 1 without a second thought.
There was no way of predicting what would happen just 9 days later.
My time in Palermo started out great. I was renting a great apartment that my friend Davide found for me (his website is here if you’re interested), with a huge bedroom, fantastic location, and lovely housemates.
I spent the whole week catching up with old friends, feasting on aperitivo, partying on La Vucciria and drinking wine with my flatmates. I also rediscovered my favourite cafes, worked on my blog, and fell back in love with the slow pace of life in the Sicilian sunshine.
It was bliss.
At this point in time, life was not too different in Italy. Supermarkets were stocked full (with some shortages of coffee – Italians stockpile coffee like Brits stockpile toilet paper), restaurants were busy and nobody seemed particularly scared or on edge (aside from when I coughed on a bus – I almost gave the woman across from me a heart attack). Towards the end of the week, ‘organised events’ were banned, but ‘spontaneous meet-ups’ were still allowed, meaning that for the most part, people were still going about their business as usual, just refraining from creating Facebook events for any pub quizzes, DJ sets etc.
Exactly one week after I’d arrived back in Palermo I took a bus to the opposite side of Sicily to the city of Catania, where the TBEX conference was SUPPOSED to be being held, but due to the coronavirus, had been postponed. However, as disappointed as I was that the main event would not be going ahead, the organisers of TBEX had created an entire week of totally FREE events for those of us who were still planning on being in Catania at the time of the event (around 50 people).
On a selfish level, this actually worked out well for me – I would not only get to attend press trips and events, which would provide me with valuable content and connections in my industry, but I’d still get to attend the conference at a later date and make even more connections!
What’s more, I was BEYOND excited at the week’s agenda. We had, amongst other things, a 2-day trip to the Island of Panterrelia, a full-day food tour which included truffle hunting in the woods and a cookery show from one of the most famous Neopolitan pizza chefs, a sailing trip around Catania, a Segway tour of the city, a hiking trip to Mount Etna, and a 2-day trip to the commune of Piazza Armerina which included cooking shows, an opera performance, and a ‘Middle Ages’ party with actors, a fire show, jugglers and more!
Every single thing on this list, including accommodation and flights to Panterrelia and lodgings in Piazza Armerina, was going to be totally free of charge.
However, coronavirus had other ideas, and minute by minute, the situation in Italy was changing. Public gatherings were banned, schools were closing, and cinemas and other establishments were quickly following suit.
Bars remained open but with signs instructing every customer to be at least 1 metre apart from everyone (including those in the same group), and restaurant seats were rearranged to allow as much distance as possible between patrons.
Our agenda was also changing quickly. Restaurants that were hosting food tastings for us had to close, boat trips were now illegal and group tours were swiftly being chopped and changed to conform to the new regulations, with cancellations coming thick and fast.
While disappointing for us bloggers, it was a nightmare for the TBEX team to orchestrate, and all that I can say is God bless them for working against the odds to try and provide us with a wonderful experience.
The only trip that I got to attend that wasn’t cancelled was a day trip to the village of Militello, which is truly beautiful. We had a lovely lunch in the sunshine and got to explore numerous churches (as well as going down into the crypt of one!) and learn a lot about this off-the-beaten-path gem.
And then the unimaginable happened.
Although Sicily had been cracking down more and more, the island was still officially a yellow zone. Although there were cases of coronavirus in Sicily, the entire island had the same amount of cases as Greater Manchester – to put that into context, Greater Manchester is just 1,276 km², and the island of Sicily is 25,711 km². Greater Manchester also has just over half the population of Sicily (2.8 million to Sicily’s 5 million).
However, despite all this, the situation quickly changed.
While a group of us were enjoying dinner together, our Sicilian host Mario was listening intently to a live press conference. At around 10.30pm, he said something that made our hearts stop – “The whole nation of Italy has just been declared a red zone. You have to leave the country as soon as you can, before you are unable to. You have tomorrow to get out of Italy, otherwise you risk being trapped here. Not only that, but you will be unable to leave your accommodation for the foreseeable future. Police will stop you on the street if you are outside without a valid reason. This dinner that we are having is, as of this moment, illegal. You have to make arrangements to leave immediately.”
I was dumbfounded. Without a single extra case of coronavirus in Sicily, the entire island was now a red zone, the same category as Milan, Venice and Bergamo (I later found out that this was due to the fact that thousands of students from the North of Italy were travelling to Sicily to be with their relatives – do not get me started on my thoughts on those people).
My head was spinning.
As I don’t officially ‘live’ in Palermo, I do not have any proof of such, and so returning to Palermo from Catania may have posed a problem. If I DID manage to get to Palermo before the total lockdown, I would be unable to leave my apartment for what could potentially be a very long time (the lockdown has since been extended, proving that my initial concerns were warranted), with no idea of when I would be able to leave Italy.
In the more likely scenario that I DIDN’T make it back to Palermo, I would be stuck in Catania, totally alone, paying for a hotel for God knows how long. I also would not have the vast majority of my belongings (I’d left them in Palermo, bringing only the essentials with me to Catania).
Feeling sick, I realised that the most sensible option (and the option that would lose me the least money) was to just come home on the next flight back. As the clock crept closer to midnight, I furiously tried to book a flight back to the UK, but they were selling out so quickly that as soon as I hit the ‘pay now’ button, I would be told that the seat had been taken and that I would have to find another flight. With every second that passed, prices were increasing dramatically (with some flights going for upwards of €600), and so I was forced to take the cheapest one I could find (around €250), which had a 7 hour layover in Bergamo, epicentre of the outbreak.
It was past midnight by now, and if I was going to make my flight then I would have to set my alarm for 5am. Rushing back to the hostel, I frantically chucked all of my belongings into my bag in the pitch dark (I was sleeping in a shared dorm), spent an eternity trying to order a taxi to the airport, and proceeded to not sleep a wink the entire night due to my insane anxiety levels.
The next day was one of my most surreal travel days yet. I spent a total of 14 hours travelling and barely saw a soul. Bergamo airport was deserted – I sat in a McDonalds for over 4 hours and I saw 7 other diners during that time. I was the only person at the luggage drop-off. The only person going through security. I counted 12 other people on my flight back to Manchester. 12.
I felt like I was starring in my own zombie apocalypse movie.
Manchester, March 10 onwards…
And then…home. I’d just spent almost 4 months in Manchester, and now, not even two weeks later, I was back.
Despite UK cases of coronavirus rising rapidly, I was horrified to see that everybody still seemed to be going about their business as normal, with nightclubs jam packed, the parks full and very elderly people appearing to be everywhere I looked.
I refrained from going out or seeing my friends, not officially quarantining, but y’know, pretty much.
Then, last week, a nationwide lockdown was announced. I’d already decided that in the event of a lockdown I’d be temporarily moving in with my boyfriend to wait it out, and so here we are, day 9 of lockdown and nobody has been murdered.
Honestly, it hasn’t been that bad. I’ve been using the extra time to read, practice Italian, work on behind-the-scenes blog stuff and play aggressive games of Monopoly Deal. I signed up to Skillshare (more on that in a minute) and I’ve discovered some really good SEO workshops that have been keeping me busy. There’s also been the obligatory Netflix-bingeing, a lot of wine drinking, and daily walks by the canal to feed the geese (I am the self-proclaimed goose whisperer).
Read more – 30 Things to Do at Home to Keep Your Sanity at Bay
Watching, Reading, Buying
Just like the rest of the population right now, I am bingeing on Tiger King, a Netflix series that involves cults, polygamy, murder for hire, mysterious disappearances, meth, politics, boob jobs, arson and tigers. Lots of tigers. If you are in lockdown and want something totally off the wall to watch, I highly recommend Tiger King. Oh, and personally? I’m blaming Carole Baskin for the coronavirus. If you know you know.
I also got well and truly addicted to 60 Days In, a trashy reality show that sees 7 members of the public enter into a jail as inmates to see how they fare over 60 days with the general population. As well as having all the hallmarks of classic reality television (lots of drama, cliffhangers and foreshadowing), the show is actually very heartwarming in parts, and I found myself genuinely rooting for some of the participants. 60 Days In is also available to watch on Netflix.
The Platform was another Netflix watch, this time a film. The Platform is set in a dystopian future where inmates in a prison are only fed once per day…the leftovers of those in the ‘levels’ above them. However, the levels change every few weeks, so those who find themselves at the top feasting on lavish banquets can find themselves at the bottom of the pile living off scraps just a few days later. I found the concept of this film interesting, and the cinematography was beautiful, but ultimately it was a little too pretentious for me. Maybe I’m not cultured enough.
The Pharmacist was the final Netflix series I finished. It documents the story of a pharmacist who, after losing his son to a drug-related shooting, begins to see crooked doctors over-prescribing opioids and makes it his mission to end the corruption once and for all. I really enjoyed this series.
The books that I finished in March were Woman on the Edge, The Obsession and The Woman Inside. All were thrillers and all were very enjoyable. Just click on the links to read the Amazon reviews and descriptions!
I also joined Skillshare, who are offering a free 2 month trial at the moment if you use my link! Skillshare has tutorials and courses on absolutely everything you can imagine. Just some of the things I’ve seen on Skillshare include: yoga, productivity tips, marketing, SEO, playing musical instruments, astrology, Tarot, knitting, flower arranging, painting, life drawing, meditation, photography, graphic design, web development, languages, chess and more. Click this link to claim your free 2 months of Skillshare.
Final thoughts on March 2020
The thing that really stings about this month is that this was supposed to be the biggest year of my life, starting from March. I know that SO many people are struggling right now, and so I am trying to keep perspective on this, but I can’t help but feel like the wind has been knocked out of my sails a little.
I was supposed to buy an apartment this year. No. Scratch that. I was supposed to buy a place this MONTH. By the end of April, my goal was to make an offer on my first ever property. That isn’t happening now, and God knows how long it will be before it does.
I was also supposed to be turning this blog into a real life, functioning business. I’ve been a hobby blogger for years, and only in the last 8 months have I actually worked on this blog, investing everything that I have into it. My goal for 2020 was to work hand in hand with Sicilian tourism boards, discovering every corner of this beautiful little island and helping others discover it too. That has all gone out of the window.
My blog traffic, which had gone from just a couple of thousand pageviews a month in June to more than 40,000 per month has tanked.
Of course, I know that in the great scheme of things, none of this matters. People have lost their LIVES to this illness, and will continue to do so. Countless people have been made redundant as a result of this, and thousands of companies will go out of business. I know that my problems are minor.
Not only minor, but temporary. Everything will eventually fall into place, even if it takes a while.
But for now, as of right this moment, I’m feeling a little deflated, and I can’t pretend otherwise.