When I first read this coronavirus tale a friend wrote, I could hardly believe it. With his permission, I am sharing his true coronavirus saga, in his own words. This is from Peter Strom, owner of La Bella Vita, specializing in fine Italian ceramics and gifts, with locations in Cleveland’s Little Italy, and in a suburban mall, 10 miles east.
Here’s our coronavirus saga. It’s about a five minute read so to prepare, have a fresh cup of coffee or a glass of vino ready, depending on the time of day that you read this. The line Bill Shakespeare wrote for King Richard III pretty well sums it up: Such has been the winter of our discontent!
While our winter odyssey may not have lasted as long as that of Odysseus trying to make it home after the Trojan War, it sure felt that way.
The story begins with what was a great holiday season for the stores. Armed with a great “open-to-buy” report, we traveled to Atlanta for AmericasMart, a very significant trade show that we attend every year. Business at the show was brisk with many retailers checking in with good holiday seasons as well.
Because of the scheduling of this year’s show, we returned home on the third week of January (Monday the 20th), a week later than we typically do. Our return was actually even later because our flight was delayed which resulted in us getting home just after midnight on Tuesday.
This timing is significant because we only had one day (usually we have one week) at home before we were off to Italy for our other annual buying trip.
The first part of our trip requires our attendance at a home show in
Fiera Milano which boasts the largest exhibition facility in all of Europe. Fiera Milano is west of old Milano, about a 35 minute subway ride away.
We always arrive on Thursday, the day before the show starts, in order to get acclimated to the time change. We then attend the show on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But wait, there’s more.
This year’s show was actually divided into two separate entities, Home and Lifestyle, Jan 24-26, and then Fashion and Jewels three weeks later, Feb 14-16 (more on this later).
Upon our arrival at Milano’s Malpensa Airport, we were actually greeted by a driver holding up a small sign with our names on it! As Bob Uecker would say, “Looks like we’re sitting in the front row.”
We were whisked to a hotel in Pero, a small town near the exhibition center. The next morning, we were surprised at the large number of a contingent of Chinese nationals at the breakfast area. The hotel had even cordoned off a separate area for them to eat their breakfast.
Although their dining tables may have been in a separate area, they still went through the same buffet line. While I sat at our table relishing my cappuccino, I saw one of them cough in her hand before then grasping some tongs to put a roll on her plate.
I of course avoided those tongs, but looking back at it, I regret that I did not inform a server to remove the infected utensil to the dishwasher. It’s also interesting to note that the next day, the contingent was gone. But talk of the coronavirus was still nonexistent.
It wasn’t until we had finished the show and traveled to Florence to work with our Tuscan factories when we first heard talk about the virus. Our agent is in charge of a Tuscan artisan association’s initiative to promote Italian products in China at trade shows.
One morning (Thursday, Jan 30) when she picked us up from our
AirB&B in Arezzo, a city southeast of Florence, she was talking to Jeremy, a US expatriate living in Wuhan. Jeremy works with a similar trade association in China which helps promote trade shows, including the ones our agent organizes, to the Chinese people.
He was in his apartment on a lockdown. On his lone excursion outside to a market, he found bare shelves except for a kilo of cherries selling for 150 Euro. He showed a little panic in his voice.
The next day, Friday, January 31, we traveled by train from Florence back up to Milano where we board a bus to a hotel located at Terminal 2 of Malpensa Airport. Newspapers, handed out on the train, were now starting to report on the local implications of the virus in Italy.
Virus, first two cases ascertained in Italy. Two tourists from China, who landed at Malpensa on January 21, hospitalized in Rome. Prime Minister Conte blocks all flights from China.
This headline has what turns out to be a major under-estimation:
Virus, Italy affected. Conte says situation under control, civil protection ready.
Saturday morning, February 1, we took a shuttle bus to Malpensa’s Terminal 1 to board our return flight home. What we saw as we walked to our check-in area, although common now, was some what startling at the time. The vast area that houses row after row of counters for checking-in to Asian flights was completely deserted.
Our flight back home, with a layover in Newark, was delayed more than two hours. So the two hour window we had to clear customs and catch our connecting flight to Cleveland slammed shut. So instead of a 3:00 pm flight, we were rebooked on an 8:00 pm flight, and even that flight ended up being delayed!
By the time we got home, 24 hours after we had awakened at our hotel to catch our flight, Barb was feeling sick. We both thought it was just the lack of sleep and all would be ok the next morning.
Well, it wasn’t. Over the next 10 days, she could barely get out of bed. We now think she may have had the virus since she exhibited many of the symptoms. She had to rally though because she had to go back to Milano to attend the fashion and jewels show.
We would have cancelled, but we would have been charged a $2,000 penalty by the event’s organizers since they pay her airfare and hotel. She also felt well enough that she thought she would be ok.
She had one good day at the fair. The organizers even interviewed her for a video that they plan to use to promote attendance from an international audience for future events.
Over the next two days though, she could only make it for about four hours before taking a cab back to the hotel. When it was time to go home, she bypassed public transportation to get to the airport and opted for a 100 Euro cab ride instead. She was then wheelchair assisted both at Malpensa and in Newark when she arrived back in the country.
Ok, quite a story, but our odyssey is not done yet.
Five days later after, we both boarded an airplane to New Jersey to watch our grand kids for 10 days while their parents, our son Chris and his wife, Elisa, went on their first vacation in six years. Now try to guess the destination of this vacation? If you said Italy, you would be right!
They thought about canceling, but they would have lost all of their hotel deposits and airline fare. Remember, at the time (February 24), the virus was thought to be contained in the north with only an isolated case in Rome and two in Tuscany.
We helped them switch the Venice part of their trip to Umbria (south of Tuscany and no reported cases) where they were hosted by the owners of a ceramic factory that we do business with in Deruta.
During the first few days of March, news of the virus, both in Italy and the U.S., grew exponentially. A student at Yeshiva University in upper Manhattan was the first known reported case in New York City.
His father, an attorney who would commute to the city from New Rochelle, was the source of the infection and had been hospitalized himself, but his condition was not yet diagnosed as Covid-19. So now, not only did the university close down, but you might remember that New York’s National Guard was dispatched to New Rochelle to monitor traffic in and out of the town.
There was now talk about the U.S. shutting down flights from not only Italy but all of Europe. Chris and Elisa decided to move their return trip up one day from Friday, March 6, to Thursday, March 5. They were still able to enjoy their excursion to Umbria and were ready to come home on a high note. But then the other shoe was about to drop.
The night before they were to come home, Chris got a call from the
CEO of the organization that he works for. The news at Yeshiva University had prompted companies to impose strict guidelines for employees who had traveled out of the country to control the spread of the virus. Chris was told that he would have to quarantine for 14 days before he could return to work.
As they relayed the news to us from their hotel room near the Rome airport, a sinking feeling came over us. We had all been excited about them coming home, the kiddos could hardly wait to get hugs and Barb and I would go back home to tend to our stores.
Now, with the news of this quarantine, a realization came over both of us. We would have to watch the grandkiddos for two more weeks while Chris and Elisa went into quarantine!
So I’ll wrap this up with a few bullet points of additional information or else I’ll never finish this note.
*Chris and Elisa rented a car and drove to our house in Shaker Heights to quarantine.
*The kids continued to go to school for the first week, but not the second as the schools were closed down.
*With schools closed, we had to home school the second week. Barb took on Emma, I took care of Ben.
*These two weeks taught us that God’s divine plan for the young to bear and care for the children is genius!
*Chris and Elisa returned their rental car in Cleveland and then drove our truck out to New Jersey after quarantine on March 19.
*It was a great reunion, but we did not linger. We drove home the next day, Friday, March 20, putting a merciful end to our winter odyssey but now here is a postscript.
Our stores, one in Cleveland’s Little Italy and the other in a suburban boutique mall 10 miles east, were both closed due to the state’s coronavirus order. Then there was the matter of our orders that we placed on our trip.
We still had to coordinate 23 different orders from factories in all corners of Italy, from Bari to South Tyrol to Piedmont to Sicily. Many orders are from towns in Tuscany, including Montelupo, Montespertoli, Buggiano, Fornacette, Sesto, Monsummano, Siena and Torrita di Siena.
We also work with three factories in Deruta (Umbria) and two in Bassano del Grappa (Veneto). Other orders include ceramics from Rome and glass from Venice.
Factories were able to work in February and through March 11th when the Italian government shut down the country. Business owners could apply for special permits to travel to work, but even those became increasingly difficult to get approved.
In every other year, our product is consolidated in a shipping warehouse in Prato (west of Florence) by April 1st. The cartons that are not palletized are combined on additional pallets, adding up to 20 or 21 total. All are then loaded into a container that is trucked to a port city (Livorno, La Spezia or Genoa) where it is loaded onto a container ship that sets sail around April 15th.
In our coronavirus infected world this year, everything has been delayed, but, incredibly, only for a month. We just got word that our container will be on the water by May 15th!
I met Peter during a visit to Little Italy in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. His shop took me right back to Italy. You might be interested to read about it in a blog post I wrote about that Little Italy visit: A Visit to Little Italy
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Grazie and Ciao