Fultonville native Peter Farina, founder of Amsterdam-based cultural heritage company italyMONDO!, is currently in lockdown in the city of Campobasso in the southern Italy region of Molise.
“This is the first time that a western country has been under lockdown since World War II, and I’m living in the middle of it,” he said. “I see the police in the streets. I hear the helicopters overhead. I see the empty streets with just a few people walking around with masks.”
Farina splits his time between the U.S. and Italy. His company, italyMONDO!, founded from a laptop at his grandmother’s house in Amsterdam’s South Side in 2006, has grown to $1 million in annual sales and 22 employees, half located in Campobasso, and half in a newly renovated office space in the Sanford Clock Tower in Amsterdam.
His mother, Rosalie Farina, runs the Amsterdam office and his wife, Filomena, runs the operation in Italy.
Farina said that just a few weeks ago the spread of coronavirus was just a news story he was vaguely aware of that was happening in northern Italy.
He said he wants his friends in the United States to know that things can change very quickly.
“In a span of two weeks, life went from absolutely normal to total lockdown,” he said.
“Before that, life was totally normal. There was just a few cases out of sight, out of mind, up north. The worst thing that was happening in Italy is some people chose to not eat at Chinese food stores in an unfortunate bit of racism. That very quickly turned to other countries being racist against Italians that were traveling, because now the Italians were viewed as the carriers, and that coin had quickly flipped.”
Farina said the situation became real to him on March 4 when Italy shut down its schools and day cares, requiring him to pull his 2 1/2-year-old son Nicholas out of nursery school. Shortly after that the government began issuing decrees for people to engage in social distancing, which was not a great fit for Italian culture.
“Italians are notorious for not following rules,” he said. “Italians are very gregarious and very social creatures, and they really love human contact, particularly in southern Italy. It’s really important, you know, to talk to your butcher, to talk to somebody in the piazza.”
Farina said in the beginning many Italians ignored curfews and rules requiring bars to close early, but the virus kept spreading and the number of cases multiplied, and hospitals started to become overwhelmed.
He said during the first few days of the new rules he attempted to remodel his Italian office space to give at least one meter of distance between workers, but ultimately abandoned that plan and let them work from home. He said multi-generational homes are typical in Italy, and many younger people are afraid of contracting the virus and spreading it to their parents and grandparents who live with them. He said the spread of the virus was fast, too fast for Italy’s healthcare system to absorb.
“The northern [Italy] health care system is on the brink of collapse,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why they impose these effectively wartime measures to control movement and try to contain the virus, because if it continued the way it was, the health care system would collapse, and if what happened up north happened down south, it would have been just a straight-out humanitarian crisis.”
Farina said on March 11 the Italian government initiated a lockdown, which included fines and even criminal charges for anyone leaving their city or region unless it’s for an “essential purpose.”
“They didn’t just put the entire Italy on quarantine, but they closed everything, absolutely everything,” he said. “Any store, basically all non-essential commercial businesses, with the exception of, supermarkets, pharmacies, tobacco shops, ironically, which were considered essential, and that’s actually the most Italian thing you can see: Italians walking around with surgical masks, then they pull them down, take a pull of their cigarettes and then put the surgical mask back on.”
Farina said now if he walks down a street and there’s someone walking toward him, that person often crosses to the other side of the street, a very un-Italian thing to do.
He said parts of his business have had to shut down due to President Donald Trump’s European travel ban. He said ItalyMONDO! offers three core services: heritage travel and heritage tours, mostly for Italian-Americans; family tree research conducted for Italian-Americans on-site in the Italian regions his customers’ ancestors immigrated from; and dual-citizenship services. Farina said he has canceled all of his upcoming tours without penalty to his customers, and luckily about 20 of his 22 employees are devoted entirely to dual-citizenship services, which accounts for the majority of the revenues of ItalyMONDO!
Farina said all Italian-American’s have the right to declare dual-citizenship with Italy “by right of blood,” based on their ancestor who traveled to the U.S., which is why the service is so popular.
He said being trapped in Italy, he has enough food, and there was no run on toiletries in Italy.
“Luckily here in Europe, we have bidets, so there’s no run on toilet paper,” he said.
Farina said he becomes angry when he hears some people refer to the COVID-19 coronavirus as “just the flu” or “just a cold.”
“It definitely isn’t,” he said. “People need to take this seriously. I would tell people to learn from Italy, or God forbid the U.S. could end up in a lockdown like we’re experiencing here.”