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MARIE PENMAN: When in Rome… What our holiday in Italy taught me about living with Covid

Marie Penman and family went to Italy, where Covid restrictions are still in place.
Marie Penman and family went to Italy, where Covid restrictions are still in place.

The easing-up of laws on masks in public places marks our next tentative step towards a post-pandemic existence in Scotland.

But I took a much bigger leap last week when I went on my first trip abroad since 2019.

Foreign travel is certainly a changed experience. There was no need for Covid passports or passenger locator forms the last time I went overseas.

And there was also the sad realisation that we can no longer glide through passport control and must now, post-Brexit, queue under the “non-EU country” sign.

But this trip was different in another way, too.

Whereas previous holidays have been either quick city breaks with my husband, or more lengthy expeditions that involved dragging our four children around the campsites of Europe (they’ll look back on those experiences fondly one day), this time, we were going multi-generational.

That meant me, my husband, our 19-year-old daughter and my mother-in-law heading off together.

We decided on Rome, mainly because none of us had been before, but also because we had all fallen in love with Italy after watching the Stanley Tucci series currently showing on BBC iPlayer.

Truth be told, we’d kind of fallen in love with Stanley himself (my husband included) and, inspired by him, we booked flights and a hotel.

Penmans on tour, with Marie in the centre, at the Spanish Steps in Rome.
Penmans on tour, with Marie in the centre, at the Spanish Steps in Rome.

And so it was that we headed into a busy city in Italy – a country still living under Covid restrictions – with a teenager, a pensioner and an inability to speak the language.

What could possibly go wrong?

Italy is glorious – even as Covid lingers

Actually, nothing.

Rome lives up to all the hype.

It’s like walking through a huge museum that combines the glorious architecture of the Roman empire with the grandeur and wealth of the Catholic Church.

There really is something to see around every corner.

And there are lots of corners. The ancient heart of the city is full of winding alleyways and cobbled streets.

A posse of Penmans: Marie's mum-In-law Helen, daughter Clare and husband Alan at the Vatican.
A posse of Penmans: Marie’s mum-In-law Helen, daughter Clare and husband Alan at the Vatican.

It’s perfect for wandering around, though not always easy to navigate.

Which is where we played our trump card. A teenager, who could guide us quickly and effortlessly anywhere using the sat-nav on her phone.

We older members of the family regarded her in awe as she led us from place to place, scanning QR codes and dropping historical facts from Wikipedia into her chat like a tour guide.

It turns out teenagers are a must-have on a city break. Although after a couple of days, her requests to Google maps did move on from “How far to the Colosseum?” to “Where is the nearest Zara store?”.

‘Slut-shamed by God’

The age gap between us showed up most obviously in our refreshment breaks when the main dilemma was whether to go for a nice cup of tea or an espresso martini.

Full disclosure: as we got further into the holiday, the answer was found more often in a glass than a cup.

There are many churches in Rome, all stunning and lots of them with queues of people waiting to visit.

Nice outfit Clare. Unless you plan on visiting any churches.

My daughter was bemused by our interest in these ancient places of worship. “Not being funny, Dad, but you haven’t set foot in a church in decades.”

And when we pointed out that one of the churches had been designed by Michelangelo, her response was a very teenage “Like, who even is he?”.

However, she also provided the funniest moment of the trip when she was refused entry to a church because of her “unsuitable clothing” and stomped out in disgust, muttering about the embarrassment of being “slut-shamed by God”.

Italy dealt with Covid early, and continues to take it seriously

So based on what we saw, how is Italy handling Covid these days, compared to the UK?

I kept thinking back to those early images from the start of 2020.

Remember, when Italy became the first European country to be hit hard by the terrifying new virus?

All I could picture were the rows of coffins lined up at funerals. And the shock and grief on the faces of those affected.

Back then, we had no idea what was about to hit us, and the images from Italy were terrifying.

Bearing that in mind, it made sense to me to see how this pandemic is still being treated in Rome.

The wearing of face masks is rigorously enforced.

Security guards in stores turn customers away if their faces aren’t covered.

Restaurant staff check Covid passports and refuse entry to customers who don’t have the necessary proof of vaccine.

Now I’m back home in Scotland where the Covid rules have been swept aside in favour of a hope that people will continue to do the sensible thing.

And I can’t help thinking we could probably all learn a thing or two from the Romans.

These are the people who built an empire that lasted for centuries after all.

And I wonder if we should follow their lead here before we rush into casting off those safety measures that have protected us from Covid.

Because if history teaches us anything, it’s that we must learn from what went before.

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