A Prayer for Bergamo: How Will Coronavirus Change Italians and Their Car Culture?

Hang a hard right east out of Milan and zip past the Monza racetrack, and you will encounter the charming Italian hill town of Bergamo. The Citta Alta retains its ancient cobblestone streets and Venetian walls from the time of Julius Caesar; the upper district’s narrow alleys reveal a maze of storefronts and restaurants, each one more intriguing than the last. Families have lived in their same houses for generations. It’s a place better visited on foot than in a car.

The people of Bergamo are warm and generous and kind, and they will forgive your halting attempts to speak Italian. Every night the bell tower of the Campanone o Torre Civica rings 100 bells at 10 p.m. to let the townspeople know everything is safe and that it is time for bed. The soccer team plays in a stadium smaller than those of some Texas high schools, yet Atalanta are the terrors of Serie A and the UEFA Champions League.

I have a personal connection to this wondrous city—one of the first places outside China besieged by coronavirus.

During the late ’90s, my sister Erica (also a writer) and her family lived in Bergamo when my brother-in-law Ben was a senior engineer scientist for HP Italia. The people of Bergamo welcomed this young American family with open arms. The waiters at Da Mimmo, their favorite neighborhood restaurant, were charmed when my nephew, the youngest and most fluent Italian speaker of the four, ordered for the family.

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When my wife and I visited Bergamo, Erica and Ben’s daughter dragged us to her favorite gelato place in Citta Alta upon our arrival in an effort to fend off jet lag. From my family’s introduction, Bergamo entranced me in such a way that I have sought it out three further times on my journeys, to experience that wonder once again.

As we’ve grown to know, viruses don’t care for family, nationality, or how lovely your town and people are. Bergamo has become the epicenter for coronavirus in Europe. With hundreds of thousands of the Italian population suffering during this pandemic, it’s hard to imagine that vision of Italy—of the best sandwich of your life purchased at an Agip gas station, of the dashing train conductor who gives a quiet click of the tongue and tilt of the head to provide the proper direction out of the station, of the automobiles and motorcycles that stir the soul like none other.

The possibility of Italy losing that passionate spirit and artistic sensibility fills my heart with anguish. Then again, this is a country that has survived centuries of war, famine, and even plague, and has rebuilt time after time.

What hits me hardest is wondering how this pandemic will change the way we as a global society live our lives, how we work, and make our travel plans—including how we drive our cars. Is there a lesson to be learned from these life-altering events? I wonder if Mother Earth has fired a warning shot across humanity’s bow.

What we can hope is that we can band together and survive this urgent challenge with some grace, restraint, and love. That we can rebuild once again. Pray for Bergamo. Pray for the world.

Editor’s Note: This column was written on March 24 for the June cover-date issue of MotorTrend magazine, so please forgive if more recent events have proven this column to be outdated. It is difficult to prognosticate when circumstances and developments are changing daily.

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