“We have guests who have come all the way here from New York. Los Angeles. Boston. Paris. Toronto. Riyadh. London. San Francisco. Montreal. Milan.” The man on the microphone, he had read the list of where we had traveled from. He had only wanted to emphasize how far we had traveled to Dubai for the bride and groom. But when he said Milan, the crowd went a bit silent, unless I imagined it. “…Tehran. Wuhan,” he continued, and when bundled with the two other epicenters with major incidences of Covid19, Milan seemed to be a joke to which everybody laughed. It was not, I had just come from there.
I had considered cancelling my trip to that wedding on multiple occasions but I eventually did not. “When you get there, don’t mention you live in Italy,” a friend — well-meaning — had told me before leaving. I had been travelling from my hometown Beirut, where I had stopped for a few days. I was about to face the passport control of one of the world’s superpowers and I hardly thought I had to open my mouth for them to know the city where I am resident. Some passport entry and exit stamps are modest and muted. You wouldn’t know what airport they were stamped in unless you looked real close, but not Milan Malpensa. The city name is spelled out in capital letters and is difficult to miss. Right before going to bed on the night before the flight, I flipped through my passport twice to see how frequently that stamp would show up and how far apart and distinguished it was from others. Would it pop out to a civil servant who is more or less only scouting non-ally stamps? Yes, it would considering Malpensa comprised a good fifty percent of my passport and it was, as of a week prior, one of the three cities on the national Covid19 watchlist.
On the flight to Dubai, I cleaned my seat, the armrest and the seatback screen with a Dettol wipe — not because I was worried about coming into contact with the virus but because I had wanted to give my seat neighbor a good impression of my hygiene; we had a decent amount of time sitting side-by-side and their facemask and easy-access hand sanitizer only indicated that it well mattered to them how clean I was.
Right outside the flight’s aerobridge was a makeshift examination room, previously a boarding area. My heart fluttered. I was aware coming here that there was a good chance that I would be placed on fourteen-day quarantine. I was so convinced that I brought my laptop and two extra books just in case they locked me up and I had little to do. Seven Emirati men seated evenly-spaced on a table and dressed in full antivirus attire were ready to welcome the over-300 passengers that had gotten off my flight. I thought of the series Black Mirror, and how, under that white airport light, that scene would have looked for their cinematography — very nicely. There was a long line before me and I observed how they dealt with each person. I fixated on their exchanges and saw that passports were being requested, then I timed the browsing. After a good hour, I finally heard my next. The employee — I am not sure what his career had been before the Covid19 outbreak — asked for my passport and flipped through it quickly inputting data, including my seat number, 36F, into his computer. “Weird world, isn’t it?”. I attempted to converse with him, trying, to the best of my capacity, to appear to be a coronavirus outsider and to distract him from observing every page of my passport. He placed a polka-dotted sticker on my passport but ignored both my Malpensa stamps and my conversation and handed over a test tube in a plastic bag, stamped with a large biohazard symbol, my name and document number. Next I entered an area closed off with a room divider where a woman sat me down and with full aggression and little permission thrusted a swab into my nostril and high upwards. She assured me it would not be painful but it hurt enough that I took two Advils afterwards to alleviate the migraine that it had caused. I laughed it off not wanting to come off as nervous, that would be suspicious. I left that examination area smiling — in the clear, at least for the night. Results would be out within six hours but they only track those that are positive.
In the city my week was more than pleasurable; I attended a yacht party, a skyline-roofed bar and a wedding while my friends back in Milan were stocking up on canned tuna and dry pasta, respecting a 6pm curfew, and maintaining one meter apart per the ad hoc laws. “Why don’t you tell your cousin to come to the wedding?,” the bride asked me. About fifty had cancelled on attending the wedding on short notice and there was a newfound excess of room, food and wine. She had been stressed about the situation. In an effort to make her feel better we convinced her that the situation might eventually be in some ways memorable years in retrospect. Like in Thomas Mann’s Death of Venice. Or Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. It was Love in the Time of Coronavirus, the name of the Whatsapp group that brought together all wedding guests who would later detail their airport experiences flying back to their home cities.
In Italy travel from North to South was berated and a national campaign encouraged northern residents to stay put and to avoid infecting the villages. “Get off at the first train station, don’t take planes to Bari and Brindisi, go back by car, get off the bus at the next stop,” the President of the Apulia Region in Southern Italy had asked his citizens in the north. Travelling southwards was now shameful. It was associated with a greed for comfort. Though I had not traveled within Italy I had left the ‘Red Zone’ that included Milan during the quarantine period and so was not exempt. I was fully aware that my desire to travel outwards would appear to be selfish though I did not believe it was. I found the numbers of Covid19 being reported in Italy to be random, unreasonable and disproportionate to reality and no one could convince me that I would be a threat outside of the country, though I could certainly be mistaken. These numbers opened up a debate where most stand on the side opposing mine. “Patient zero is amongst us,” friends had joked. A friend’s mother told her to be careful around me. I was concerned my presence would end up being negative and to defend myself I continued to bring up the nasal swab from the airport, confirming that I was negative. “I was tested and no one knocked on my door.” I asked my friend if my being at her wedding would make her uncomfortable and was thankful when she said no.
This was possibly the first time a city like Milan, Northern, wealthy and correlated to luxury fashion, picks up a negative connotation at the airport. Previously shame during travel was reserved to those from countries in distress; from the Middle East, from Africa, from South America. Border control has been historically and increasingly difficult for emigrants and immigrants with urgent needs for travel — certainly not pleasure and hedonism. I had panicked leaving for Dubai to attend a wedding at the Four Seasons, an entitlement that I hope is now subdued.
Italy is on lockdown for the next twenty-three days. I had found out when I woke up to the message “I don’t think you can come back.” I will spend time with my parents in Beirut where unprecedented economic distress has the streets empty and the city’s spirit, once boisterous beyond belief, had been muted for the past year. I continue to ask those around me if they believe it might be the end of the world because human behavior in the two cities I primarily call home, ‘infected’ Milan and struggling Beirut — paranoid, empty, careful and questionable of the average other — simultaneously and all at once, seem alien to me and very far from what I have been comfortable waking up to. It is an outlook that I had not previously encountered.