The role of balconies in overcoming isolation
Author: Rosa Maria Radogna, PhD student at Doctoral School of Sociology, University of Bucharest. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy is one of the worst-hit countries in the world.
Since the number of deaths has started to increase, the Italian government has adopted measures to contain the spread of contagion.
In the beginning, only three towns in northern Italy, which were then considered to be the main site of the illness, were isolated. Then it was the entire region of Lombardy.
Afterwards, on the 9th March, all the measures previously adopted by regional authorities were then extended to the whole country.
As a consequence, all social activities that imply gathering in public spaces have been banned and social isolation was imposed on the population. That means nobody can leave their home, except for work, health-related reasons or groceries.
Starting with that moment, social life in the country came to a complete stop. It is easy to find footage of big Italian cities online which shows silent and empty streets where there usually would have been a crowd of people.
So, no more aperitivo (happy hour) after work, no more meals with friends and family, no more cinema, no walks in the park, no more elderly people gathering to play cards or pursue other hobbies.
Social life has almost been shut down. Almost. Because, of course, in our era, we have the opportunity to fight against isolation through the internet, using social apps or programs to communicate with our friends and relatives, making distances feel shorter.
In Italy, in addition to these strategies, there have been other very creative ways to maintain socialisation activities – these have the balcony as the main protagonist.
For Italians, balconies have always been places for many activities. There, you can hang the laundry, take care of plants, spend your spare time reading or you can just sit and watch what happens in the streets or talk to neighbours and keep updated about the news in the neighbourhood, in the town, or in the world.
During the first few weeks of lockdown, many people, whether they lived in the north or in the south of the country, went out onto their balconies to sing together with their neighbours. The national anthem, popular songs or traditional songs related to a specific area or region have been the most sung. Also, musicians and singers played and sang for their neighbours, often giving quite touching performances.
All these initiatives had their roots in an invite sent out by the members of a street band from Rome, called Fanfaroma, who distributed this via their Facebook page. They created a Facebook event which took place on 13th March at 6 pm, inviting people to play an instrument, sing or even play music with their cookware. The idea was to break the silence and use the music to heal the public’s souls and as a connector even at a distance.
After that event, and in the following days, people all over Italy continued singing and playing music on their balconies. This phenomenon gradually lessened. Starting on the 17th March, the main newspapers in the country published news articles and images which shocked the entire country. In Bergamo, one of the worst-hit cities, there was a long line of military trucks transporting corpses of people killed by the virus to other regions of the country, because the local morgue and the crematorium could not cope anymore. From that moment, a debate about flash mobs began. Some people considered these disrespectful towards the dead, referring to the people from Bergamo and other areas of the country who had been killed by the virus.
But balconies have been also the place where Italians express their gratitude and support for healthcare workers in the first place. Italians also express support for other key worker categories who are continuing to work during the emergency, such as law enforcement, or retail workers. An event called Applaudiamo l’Italia (Let’s clap for Italy), took place at noon on the 14th of March. Everybody was invited to go out on the balcony and applaud the workers that offering essential services during the pandemic.
Italian balconies are also a place for solidarity towards excluded and poor people. Since the pandemic has caused so many to lose their jobs, a Neapolitan couple decided to launch an initiative called Panaro solidale (solidarity basket). This is linked to an ancient tradition practised in Napoli ‘s old city centre. In order to avoid going downstairs to pick up groceries or other things, Neapolitan women used a basket lowered from their balconies onto the ground to carry things upstairs. Nowadays, you can still spot panari hanging at the balconies in the old city centre.
So, this couple decided to hang from their balcony a basket with food for people in need. The basket also contained a message: “Chi ha metta, chi non ha prenda”, that means whoever has the possibility to do so is invited to put something in the basket, while people in need can take whatever they need.
After that, many solidarity baskets have appeared all over the city and also in other Italian cities from the north to the south of Italy.
Every year, on 25th April, Italians celebrate the country’s liberation from fascism and Nazi occupation. Usually, there are street parades all over the country and other events such as documentary screenings, exhibitions, public meetings and debates with partisans. It is a moment of recollection about one of the darkest periods in the country’s history, which led to the insurrection of Italian people. The annual celebration wants to keep the memory alive and celebrate the democratic values which were born from that experience and that are now the foundation of Italian democracy.
Because of the pandemic, of course, this year many events have been moved online. But, in order to keep the spirit of the celebration alive, ANPI (the National Association of Italian Partisans) encouraged the public to take part in a flashmob called Bella ciao in ogni casa (Bella ciao in every home) at 3 pm. The time chosen is not coincidental. 3 pm is when the big national parade in Milan starts every year. To replace this, the Italians have been invited to play music and sing the song Bella ciao on their balconies – a song which symbolises the partisan fight.
One of the many social activities affected by the emergency is going to the cinema. The international film festival Alice nella città has been promoting the initiative Cinema da casa (Cinema at home). This started in some neighbourhoods in Rome but then spread in other cities.
Using a projector, cult movies from the past are projected onto the building across the street from a balcony, in a sort of open-air cinema and neighbours can watch the movie from their windows and balconies.
Many other activities happened on the balconies during the pandemic. For example, two neighbours found a solution to having lunch together, connecting their balconies with a wooden board and using it as a table to share food.
Another group of neighbours decided to have a toast on Easter Sunday, using long sticks to clink the glasses from their balconies.
All these experiences show that even in a very complex situation, people find solutions to overcome isolation in creative ways.
The online medium surely helps shorten distances and makes people feel closer to one another, but all the events described above show that people also look for solutions that enable them to share social experiences in person and outside the online medium.
The balcony seems to be the place where people can meet and participate in collective events and be supportive, maintaining social distancing to avoid the virus spreading further.