The pandemic and me: the story of an Italian au pair

Italian au pair Camilla Ferri is out there anew, taking kids to school and therapy while trying to avoid the virus. Frightened by what happened in her country, she warned about the dangers of carelessness at the outset and she’s weary about them now, as Denmark’s economy comes off the ventilator and begins to breathe on its own again

Camilla Ferri in London, her previous home
May 1st, 2020 6:00 pm| by Soma Biró
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I took the train the Saturday before the hairdressers opened – in the early afternoon. As it made its way through cities like Ringsted and Roskilde, it got pretty packed – there were at least two people sitting less than two metres away from me, another breathing with slight difficulty just a little beyond that famous distance. She was 16 maybe, so she probably won’t die, or need a ventilator, but perhaps she passes it on to the guy in front of her, who in turn has a father who contracts the virus and dies. After all, a 36-year-old man passed away recently without any known diseases whatsoever.

We’re reopening and you can get a tattoo, but eight people still died today in Denmark with the coronavirus.

So, with all the fuss about the great projections and opening Denmark up again, this might be a good time to remember what some call yesterday’s news, others are tired of hearing about, and what we’ve all discussed so much already: the ongoing tragedy in the US, Spain and Italy.

Corruption and distrust
More than 27,000 people have been killed by the coronavirus in Italy so far and, though the country is already thinking about opening up again, 464 died only a week ago on April 23. I talked to Camilla Ferri, a 20-year-old Italian expat in Copenhagen, about the outbreak and everything that has followed:

“I think Italy’s problem is related to corruption and to the Italian attitude to not follow the rules. If people had followed the lockdown’s red area guidelines at the very beginning of the story, the situation would be so much different now. This attitude is very rooted in our culture. People don’t trust the political system too much,” she contended.

I asked Ferri what she meant by corruption: “Before the prime minister revealed the decision to place northern Italy under a lockdown and quarantine residents, people already knew about it. Many went crazy, trying to catch the last train from the north to the south of Italy. So, many basically escaped the lockdown because someone leaked the prime minister’s initiative to the press. Some of these people have already been infected and thus spread the virus to southern Italy as well,” she explained.

“So, was this a corruption issue? Someone leaked the info for money?” I inquired.

“It might have been. This is something I assumed. It’s hard to say, but corruption is always there. But even if it wasn’t corruption, it was at least irresponsibility by politicians.”

“Dear foreign friends, I am writing this post because…”
During the dawn of the crisis in Denmark, Ferri posted a message on the Expats in Copenhagen Facebook forum, warning people to avoid the situation her country found itself in: “The entire health system is collapsing, there are simply too many people in need of intensive care,” she wrote. “In some hospitals, they are forced to decide who to assist based purely on a patient’s chances of survival.” This was on March 14, the day after Mette Frederiksen announced the closure of Denmark’s borders.

“I never ever post anything on Facebook. But I was wondering about the way people were reacting to the Danish government’s actions and I felt they were reacting exactly the same way as my Italian friends did in Italy a few weeks before. So I thought: ‘This is crazy; we’ve been through this before in Italy and we ended up in the chaos we are in. And we can prevent this in other countries, but we can only do that if we look at places like Italy, where everything has gone wrong, much worse than in Denmark, and try to learn something.’”

Some kept the distance, some … not quite (April 9)

 

They just don’t really get it
“I talked to Danish and foreign friends at the time and I had this feeling that they were not willing to stay home during the weekend or to reduce social interaction.”

“So they were not taking it seriously enough?”

“No. Though Denmark doesn’t have the Italian problem of citizen distrust in the government, they were underestimating the problem basically.”

After all the government initiatives, things changed slightly during the strictest period of the lockdown, but Ferri still didn’t feel that the gravity of the situation has quite been able to sink in as it should have: “I think they have changed their habits not so much because they’ve understood the situation but because they were forced to do so. They followed the rules, it’s what they had to do.”

“I have heard people saying things like: ‘Only old people can die from this virus’ and that not going out on weekends is ridiculous and too extreme,” her Facebook post continued. “First of all, I would like you to think of how inconsiderate this thought is and, secondly, I want to remind you of all those young people whose immune systems are weaker than others (i.e those who have cancer, autoimmune diseases, etc).”

Pretty safe nonetheless
Despite what seems to Ferri like a lack of real understanding among some Copenhageners, she did feel much safer in Denmark than she would have in other countries, thanks to actions taken by the government: “I think the government acted quite promptly. Quicker than countries like France or Germany. I lived in London for a while, and if I would’ve been in London during the outbreak, I would not have felt safe at all due to the position that Boris Johnson originally took. He was too late – I heard of people still going to work and school long after much of Denmark was already closed down.”

 

But not as safe as it could be
According to an Aarhus University research project called ‘HOPE How Democracies Cope with Covid-19’, preventative behaviour in Denmark has been gradually falling in the past weeks regarding hand hygiene, the extent to which people avoid gatherings of more than ten and whether they have changed their behaviour in general. But even around the time such conduct was peaking, things weren’t as good as they should’ve been according to Ferri: “We could have done more. When I went out to the supermarket, I didn’t see any attention being paid to this. The cashier didn’t wear gloves; people didn’t really pay attention to the social distancing. And this is still the case.”

What she told me sounded very familiar, so I asked: “Do you think that the highly publicised stickers on the floor and the staggered queues are not of much help – since people already bump into each other so many times before they even get there?”

“Yeah, exactly. Also, sometimes when I went out, I saw so many people and, of course, I was one of them… but at least I was alone. Now I try to avoid crowded places. For example, I stopped going to The Lakes because there were so many people there.”

Nørrebrogade on March 20, close to the famous Lakes of Copenhagen

 

No pizza, grazie – just a sister and a friend
One of the first things Ferri did to reduce her own risk of getting and spreading the virus was to quit the pizza place she worked at – Da Aldo Pizzeria. She did this already before the restaurant was forced to close its doors after the March 17 press conference: “I was trying to reduce any interaction. So I told my boss I would rather stay home,” she told me.

She has been trying to limit herself on the social front as well: “I only saw my sister once and a friend of mine twice in 20 days basically. And I’ve decided to see only them because I know that they are passionate about keeping others safe and they don’t go out much. I also know who they see.”

“So how did you do it – did you keep the two metres distance or…?”

“It’s really hard to do …”

“I know,” I told her, remembering the times I broke the rule myself.

“But we don’t hug each other when we meet, you know – we try to keep some distance. And of course we don’t share anything. Like a bottle of water – anything.”

Family and friends in Italy
One of Ferri’s sisters studies in Denmark, but the rest of their family are pulling through in one of the countries that took the hardest blows from the pandemic: “Although, I come from Tuscany, which is not the worst part.” Ferri’s mother – who sells coffee beans and machines – is still allowed to go and deliver her products to customers. However, demand has more than halved since the outbreak and she is extremely worried about her livelihood: “She’s still going out – she still has customers – but if she couldn’t deliver the coffee, she couldn’t make a living. This is a very common feeling in Italy right now: people feel left alone as a result of the economic situation, which is completely different from the Danish one.”    

As for vulnerable acquaintances, Ferri has one friend who falls into that category: “He was born with a problem in his spine and he also had a lung issue a year ago. If he gets it, he might die. So his parents are extremely careful – they avoid going out and, when they do, it’s only to go to the supermarket. They also wear gloves and masks and everything.” This careful behaviour has paid off since Ferri’s friend is still corona-negative and doing well.

In Copenhagen with sisters Martina and Carolina (left) and best friend (middle right)

 

Grandma in the hospital
“My grandma is in the hospital though … well, because she broke her femur.” So yes, all is well with the Ferris across all generations, except for the odd broken bone: “She’s 89. The interesting thing related to coronavirus is that after this happened an ambulance was called and they didn’t allow my dad to go with my grandma – she was placed in a specific room and tested for Covid-19. Nobody could visit her. Once the test came back negative, they moved her to the ward where she was supposed to be.” Now people could visit, but only for a short while: one at a time and sporting masks.

But Ferri doesn’t want to go back to Italy as of yet: “I have Italian friends who live abroad and they decided to go home. I wouldn’t go. Because I know that I cannot make a difference if I go there – I would only bring more risk to my family. I would go if I were a healthcare professional, for example, but I cannot help.”

In quarantine with a Danish family
So Ferri spent much of her lockdown with her host family in Copenhagen. As an au pair, she takes care of two children (ages eleven and eight) for about five hours each day – she helped them with their school activities during the lockdown, for example. She lives with the family, as au pairs do, receiving food and an allowance for the work she does. The family is half-Danish, half-Norwegian.

“When the schools were closed, everybody was home since the parents and the third, older child were all working from home. It was a bit challenging. We all had to make an effort. And it’s a small place so there isn’t much privacy. We don’t have a garden either. But I would go for a run or a walk every day. That’s what saved me. I felt a kind of pressure – the atmosphere was not the best. Before the virus, I would go out during the weekends and stay out, and they wouldn’t see me. But now, I’m always at home.”

“Has this got better now: did you guys get closer to each other as time went by?” I asked Ferri over the phone at a safe distance of several kilometres between us.

“Yeah, surprisingly. I had a conversation with the husband, and we both agreed that we actually adapted more easily than we thought we would. And now it’s going even better with the two small kids back in school – less pressure.”

 

Let the opening commence
On April 15, Denmark opened up for daycare centres, kindergartens and schools for the youngest children (grades 0-5) – and this includes the two kids Ferri takes care of as an au pair.

After all the slack behaviour she experienced out there, I was curious to hear what she thinks about the reopening: “Considering the curve and the numbers, it’s okay to start opening up again in my opinion. You can not keep this lockdown going forever. And they closed everything with the aim of slowing down the process of spreading, not to completely avoid it. That’s impossible. So it’s reasonable, but of course it’s risky. I can see at school they’re really trying to stick to social distancing measures, but the kids don’t follow them often.”

School’s back
In the host family’s school, one of these measures entails splitting up classes into groups of five, with a greater distance between students during lessons: “The kids have different schedules. So some kids in some grades meet at eight in the morning, others at nine. And they use all the entrances of the school, not just the main one. Parents are not allowed to go in and the kids have to stay in line with one metre between them.” To top it all off, the children are required to wash their hands every two hours.

But despite the measure, there are chinks in the armour: “When they walk together and talk to each other, they don’t keep the distance. It’s mostly during the lessons because they have to sit.”

The younger one of the kids has Down syndrome, so dealing with the virus is an even greater challenge for her right now: “She’s eight years old, but because of her condition, it’s like she’s a bit younger – five years old maybe. She doesn’t really get the virus thing yet.”

Being an au pair, Ferri’s level of exposure to social contact has increased significantly, but this doesn’t intimidate her much: “I’m not scared because I know that sooner or later I will get it, most likely. I think it’s quite unavoidable. But I’m trying to pay attention though.”

Occupational therapy and tattoos – but no face mask
Last week, hairdressers, dentists, tattooists, masseuses and physiotherapists were also allowed to return to work, among others.  “I think it’s very, very risky. They have started opening all these new places without waiting to see if the numbers spiked after they opened schools a week earlier. That leaves me a little bit concerned.”

“Do you fear a resurgence of infection numbers?” I asked Ferri.

“Kind of. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, so I don’t know, but in Italy everybody has to wear face masks and gloves, while in Denmark nobody has to do it. If you walk down the street you barely see anyone with a mask on.”

“This morning I took one of the children to an occupational therapist. They work very close to each other, because they have to do a kind of physical education with exercises, which involves a lot of contact. And she was not wearing a mask. I asked her about it and she told me she’s not required to.” According to Ferri, the only restrictions given to this occupational therapist are that they cannot use the common spaces in the office, are only allowed to use one specific room and have to clean up after each session. “But of course she cannot start cleaning up all the objects that the child has touched. And I would prefer to see her using a face mask.”

That mask
“Do you wear a face mask yourself sometimes?”

“No.”

“There’s a lot of unspoken peer pressure isn’t there – to not wear it?”

“Yes, there is. I have to say there is. All my friends and relatives in Italy tell me all the time to buy masks and wear them. But if you are the only one doing it … you feel like a weirdo. And I think it should be used when you are close to someone – like if you go and get a tattoo. But if you just go out and take a walk, you can avoid it as long as you pay attention to staying far from others, I think.”

Back to the usual?
“Now I’m going back to my normal routine. So even though I don’t go out with friends, I do interact with the teachers and with other parents. And my perspective changed a little bit: I think I’m less strict now.”

“So you’re loosening your grip a little yourself?”

“Yeah. But it’s only a matter of how I think – if I look at my habits, they’re exactly the same, I wash my hands, I use hand sanitiser, it’s all the same, but it’s just that I’m more relaxed.”

“Is it because we’ve been in this for so long that your mental state of emergency cannot keep peaking anymore?”

“Yeah, exactly. And if you look at the data, it’s okay. Of course the number is increasing and it will be like this for months, but it’s not increasing too fast.”

Despite this slight change in mentality, Ferri’s actions are still guided by caution. A good example is a decision she made regarding Da Aldo, the Copenhagen pizza place she used to work at: “One of the two Italian brothers who own the place texted me a few days ago writing that, if I want, I can go back and work, although they are still only doing takeaway. I guess things are going better now … but I decided to take a little more time to see how things go. Especially with the kids back in school.”

At a concert in Italy with sister Carolina – it’ll be some time before crowds like this can happen again

 

Meanwhile in Italy
Ferri’s family are not entirely at ease with developments in her new country: “They think that we might risk having to close up again. They cannot believe that we’re already opening hairdressers and tattoo salons.”

As for Italy, though the numbers are still terrible, it’s gradually becoming less severe and the country is looking to begin the process of opening up very soon. I asked Ferri: “I’m wondering whether you see any loosening in your friends – in their behaviour or the way they think?”

“No. But they hope they can go out in May, because they really need to do something now. They’ve been at home in quarantine since March 8.”

“So there’s no taking it less seriously in Italy yet?”

“No, no, no.”

Camilla Ferri


If you know me, you know we ain’t done yet. There’s a whole life story to be told in this fact box – Camilla Ferri pre-virus. We’ll switch it up a little and plunge into her relationship with Denmark – why Ferri found herself in this small Scandinavian country, what adversities she’s faced so far and what her future might look like – before learning more about her background: growing up in a tiny, close-knit, mountainous municipality in Italy.

Camilla Ferri moved to Copenhagen last August after an unexpected turn of events: “Once I finished high school, I went to London and started working as an au pair for the same family my older sister used to work for before she moved to Denmark to study global humanities at RUC. But then my host family also decided to move back to Copenhagen, so we all ended up here. Nobody expected it, nobody planned it. The dad is Danish. They just asked me and I didn’t have any reason to refuse.”

I asked her about socialising in Denmark after relocation and she told me she hasn’t encountered many obstacles yet. She met some students thanks to her sister and she also reached out to others through an au pair Facebook page, which eventually lead to a 40+ WhatsApp girl-group for internationals: “It’s huge. We sometimes meet up and, although, of course, I haven’t had the chance to get to know all of them, we’re pretty close with some. In London it was much harder, partly due to logistic reasons – it’s far easier to meet up here in Copenhagen.”

As for Danes, she doesn’t know many other than her sister’s flatmate: “I have been out with him, met a friend of his. I don’t know any others, except for the dad in my host family, but I think that the assumption many have that they’re cold and that they don’t really want to interact with foreigners is more of a stereotype.”

“So you don’t think Italians are more open to foreigners?”

“We are definitely warmer, more welcoming … louder also. But it’s only on the surface. In the end we are all the same.”

Language and xenophobia
After hearing her positive attitude to Denmark and its inhabitants, I was surprised to discover the level of hostility that Ferri and her sister have already encountered during their short history with Denmark. And, surely to no one’s surprise, it all started with Danish: “The language might be a problem for me. I’m still working on my English and learning Danish is not one of my priorities right now. It’s very hard and Danes care a lot about it. A few times, when I was working at the pizza place, I’ve been asked why I don’t speak Danish. A few asked me out of curiosity, while others were a little rude, expecting me to know it. I know other foreigners who had the same experience.”

“Why don’t you speak Danish? Of course you don’t. I should stop asking this question,” went one of the guys who confronted Ferri.

“But my sister had the same. She was working on Fanø, and a customer once refused to be served by her.”

“What the fuck?” I uttered in anger and support.

“It’s crazy, yeah. Very offensive.”

A future in Denmark
Though Denmark might have some more adversity in store for her (with more than ten years in this country, that would be my guess), Ferri is planning on staying for the long haul: “The next step is to apply for university in 2021. But I need to get everything ready first, and pass some exams.”

“So you fell in love with Denmark a little?”

“Not with the weather, but with the system, yes. I think everything works so great here and I can study for free, which means a lot to me. It’s an international city, very culturally active and young, much smaller than London – the British capital was a bit overwhelming at times for me, while I feel a greater sense of community here.”

“So you think you might stay for good? Have a family here maybe?”

“Yeah, who knows …”

For now, Ferri is learning some Danish using Duolingo. So the next time someone demands the language from her, she can simply reply “Fuck af, din idiot.”

Part 2:

Life before moving abroad
“I grew up in a very, very small village in Italy. It’s part of a municipality made up of 11 little villages. The one where my dad lives has about 30 residents. They altogether consist of about 2,500 people. So it’s a big community where you know everybody. Many places don’t even have a train station and it’s up in the mountains. So it’s an uncommon place even for Italians. Piazza al Serchio is the name of the municipality.”

A big difference between her experiences in Denmark and growing up in Italy concerns the sense of family and community: “I think it’s an Italian thing first of all, but also it’s because I come from a small place. There’s a powerful sense of community and I have friends that I’ve known all my life. It’s a strong thing. But it has disadvantages as well. Sometimes it was too much: they knew too much about me. And they talk a lot – sometimes they would invent stories about someone and spread rumours. Some people had a hard time because of this.”

Piazza al Serchio curiosities
“How else is Piazza al Serchio different?” I asked Ferri, looking for something new. And of course it does have its unique traditions, one of which is to be found on December 24, Christmas Eve – a calm time for most (depending on the nature of your family, of course) but less so where Ferri comes from: “You go out with your friends for lunch and you have these fantastic lunches – you eat a lot and drink a lot and then go party all day. Then, in the evening, you go and have dinner with your parents and your relatives while you’re wasted. You can imagine how the situation unfolds. This is how you start the Christmas break. I think it’s quite a regional thing, but I’m not sure. But it’s not common in Italy.”

They also have these small fairs throughout the municipality, each dedicated to a certain type of food. “We call them sagre – festivals.” Contea del Farro and Della Porchetta (‘of the pork’) are two of them. For Ferri, dish supreme is farro: “It looks like rice but it isn’t. You can cook it like risotto, make it a warm dish or a cold dish, and it’s very summery as well.”

A new world
“So I was not used to living in a big city and then I found myself in London when I was 18. It was strange to go back to my hometown for the first time – it’s a bit rude to say, but I felt like I was different while everybody else was still the same. But even though we are different, we are still friends. There are some things we have shared and so I can’t cut contact with them. They are part of my childhood, my youth.”

“What are these things that changed in you?”

“Judging people, for example. If I see someone who looks different from me, regarding style or whatever, I don’t really mind and I don’t even notice it anymore, but when I’m back in my town, everybody talks. There’s this tendency to judge everything and everybody, and I don’t get it. Also, they often think in stereotypes, while I don’t – because I got used to so many different cultures that I don’t really judge a person based on where they come from.”

Against the grain and into uncertainty
Ferri told me she was seen as a little crazy, a little naive for making the choice not to start university as soon as most others do in Italy. It’s an uncommon story in Denmark, but very common in many other countries: “I was a good student, let’s say, not exceptional, but I have always studied and I didn’t have a problem at school. So my family and friends expected me to start university straightaway after high school. That’s what Italians do. It doesn’t matter if you need to clear up your mind because you don’t know what you want to do yet, you just have to start somewhere and you can always change half-way. That’s the attitude. But I prefer to take my time and get some other experiences and start university when I feel ready to do it. Everybody told me if I do this, I will never actually continue my studies: once I become economically independent, I’ll get caught up in chasing money … and all these kinds of stories. So people’s perception of time, the need for settling down and making a career are very narrow in Italy, I think.”

Having taken the jump, Ferri told me there was a period she felt she didn’t belong anywhere: “I didn’t fit in at home and I haven’t found my place abroad either.” It’s a feeling well known by many expats. But, as her experiences multiply, her worries diminish: “Now it’s better because by talking to other people I understood that it’s common. It’s common because I’m young and I don’t have any stability yet and everything is constantly changing. After all, I moved to two different countries after Italy and this meant leaving behind a lot of people and a lot of things.”