Photo above courtesy Lucy Leonardi www.whodoesthedishes.com
Each day we are waking up to the latest, heartbreaking news from around the world as the spread of Covid-19 continues. Countries are in lockdown, our economy is crashing, businesses risk losing everything. But the saddest part of all this is the human loss and the toll this is all taking on individuals, families, communities and countries. Sometimes in crisis situations it's hard to know what is really happening and what is media hype. Helena, a boutique tourist agency owner based in Bologna, Italy, explains what is really happening there at the moment. Unless you are there, it is hard to imagine what life is really like when your whole country has been placed into lockdown. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Italy and we hope you and your loved ones can stay healthy and positive.
Tell us a little about you
I grew up in London with a German mother and Greek Cypriot father and with Italian next door neighbours where I received my initiation into the food of Emilia Romagna. My Greek Cypriot grandfather was a teacher and from a very very early age, I had to go for Greek lessons at his house. When I didn’t do my homework, I was ‘banished’ to the kitchen as punishment, where I spent time with my grandmother who always cooked. I soon learnt that spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother was much more fun than learning about Greek grammar and so my ‘lessons’ were filled with all the delights that Greek grandmothers make - from all the delicious starters and dips, to meats and stews, to pulses and vegetables and sweets. This is my most powerful culinary memory and cooking for me, is paying homage to my Greek Cypriot granny.
Photos above courtesy Lucy Leonardi www.whodoesthedishes.com
I spent my younger years in London where I studied. I gained my degree in Modern Languages at King’s College, University of London and post-graduate diploma in Marketing & PR in London too. After University, my mother forced me to go to Secretarial College ‘“it will stand you in good stead”. I hated learning shorthand, but I learnt to type fast and do some accounting, but mum was right and it allowed me to find a great first permanent job as Executive Assistant to Julian Metcalfe, the then founder and chairman of Pret a Manger, an international chain of ’slow food’ sandwiches, salads, cakes, coffees. I started when there were only 8 shops and we were all cramped in the basement of one of the London stores. I loved that job - Julian was a true entrepreneur and allowed me utmost creativity in helping the business to grow. I was useless as a secretary, but brilliant as a marketeer and communicator. His words ;-) And so he gave me pretty much carte-blanche to develop and grow the marketing side of the business which was an incredible and exciting, if not challenging opportunity. After a few years at Pret, as it is called now, I was head-hunted by a Swiss company based on the shores of Lake Geneva to launch the marketing and communications side of a start up together with one of the world’s largest multinationals. Again, it was exciting and challenging, especially since my bosses entrusted me all things comms.
In 2000 I left Switzerland, moved to Bologna in Italy and was fortunate to find a job as International Event Manager for Lamborghini where I spent a total of 10 years. It was definitely a dream job, although it wasn’t very child friendly, so I eventually decided to leave and go freelance in order to enable me to manage my son who was 3 at the time.
How did Yummy Italy come about?
Yummy Italy came about by chance. After I left Lamborghini, I was organising events for foreign companies in Italy together with an ex-colleague. After the events in question, guests would contact me on a private basis and ask if I could organise bespoke experiences for them which I did. Slowly, slowly people spread the word about what I was doing and eventually the agency founded itself. I was also passionate about food and wine and started to carry out courses. One led to another and I now have a Sommelier Diploma, Parmigiano Reggiano Tasting Diploma, National Cheese Tasting Diploma, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Diploma as well as various certifications in coffee, chocolate, gelato and olive oil tasting. I am also a National Taste Judge and Taste Panel leader. All these certifications provide me with an opportunity to be truly credible in the services I offer, especially with people simply ‘inventing themselves’ without any proper background.
Tell us all about Yummy Italy.
Yummy Italy is a boutique agency organising artisan food and wine experiences for the gastronomically curious. All of the experiences I offer provide an opportunity for guests to experience the authentic Italy, meeting with small, artisan producers, seeing products made by hand in the way that they were often made hundreds of years ago and which have remained true to tradition. Yummy Italy’s aim is to share authenticity by avoiding mainstream tourist producers and locations and offer clients a taste of the real Italy in the company of someone like myself or one of my colleagues who can provide a historic context to the food products and dishes. Experiences include Wine Tours to tiny boutique producers, visits to small Parmigiano dairies, a 17th century flour mill, a family Traditional Balsamic Vinegar producer or a truffle hunt where we refuse to preplant truffles for tourist convenience. Yummy Italy caters to a food and wine traveler, rather than a tourist. We also organise skill focused cooking and specifically handmade pasta making classes both for professional and amateur chefs.
Where are you based?
Yummy Italy is based just outside Bologna, in the hills, in the midst of the vineyards and a stone’s throw from Mushroom and Truffle hunting areas, an artisan Parmigiano dairy, beekeeper, artisan charcuterie producers, organic butcher and 17th century stone mill. I am very fortunate.
There has been a lot of media hype here in Australia surrounding the coronavirus and northern Italy. Tell us what has been happening over the last few weeks.
Things have changed considerably over the last few weeks. While a month ago, many people including myself were fairly nonchalant about the situation, believing the virus to be little more than a bad flu, we are now fully aware of the severity of the situation and just how contagious this virus is. When all the media hype began in Italy, people went into a panic which is what we are seeing now in other countries. Facemasks, hand sanitizer, pasta, toilet paper and dietary staples all sold out and people became obsessive about hoarding. In the meantime, people have seen that supermarkets are now stocked, there are no food shortages and one can buy pretty much anything, provided that we only go to our local deli, bakery or supermarket. Schools have now been shut for 3 whole weeks and closure has entered the fourth week. My son who is 15 is having classes online in the mornings and has both tests and homework which is regularly checked by his teachers. However, schooling has certainly suffered as everyone was on standby, believing the closure to be a temporary measure of only a couple of weeks.
Outside my Municipal Building - The Protezione Civile - or forces who protect the community. They are checking people’s movements and making sure people have their certifications declaring where they are going and what they are doing.
I'm sure there are many people that have trips to Italy planned in the upcoming months, my daughter and I included. With news reported here that certain areas of northern Italy have now been 'quarantined', what is it really like there?
Since you first contacted me, not only Northern Italy has been quarantined, but the entire country is on lockdown. This means that we are unable to leave our homes except for shopping for basic necessities, doctor’s visits, the pharmacy, and walking your dog. Those of us who live in the countryside are fortunate to be able to go out for walks or a run in the surrounding forests or fields. However, those living in cities or towns need to have a valid excuse to leave the house and can only go out to walk their dog. Even parks have been closed. Everyone right now has to provide a certificate declaring where they are going and why and must have a valid reason for doing so. Some people are still moving about for work. However, with the exception of work or emergencies, nobody is allowed outside of their local borough or quarter. We are all subject to spot checks by the local police, state police or the military in larger cities. We are all completely confined / restricted to our homes. People are not allowed to move from region to region, town to town, or borough to borough.
Deserted Bologna street in the University Quarter which is normally heaving with people, especially students. What about the homeless? They have nowhere to stay. This man was photographed still sleeping under the porticoes :-(
How are these media reports affecting your tourism business and tourism in general in your area? With summer fast approaching, (your busiest time of the year), what impact do you think this is going to have?
Sadly, the media reports that were so extreme some weeks ago anticipated a huge loss of business, but the reality is that now, even if we wanted to host tourists, we couldn’t. Within the first few days of the international media reporting about the virus taking its toll on Northern Italy, I was receiving up to 5 -6 cancellations a day. I have lost pretty much all of my business until the autumn. So, not only have those who booked already cancelled, but obviously no new bookings are coming in which usually peaks in March, April and May.
I imagine all of this is taking its toll on everybody. How are the locals holding up to the media hype and government restrictions being placed?
At the beginning people were in shock and, honestly, in a state of disbelief. The younger generations were often seen out and about in parks and public spaces, but the police have now made regulations even more stringent. In the meantime, everyone has heard of someone they know who has been infected. Shopping takes time. We can stand for an hour or more in the queue outside to enter the supermarket, while they only let in four or five people at a time. Cash desks are putting through shopping slowly and waiting for one person to bag up and leave before they let the next person approach, put their goods on the conveyor belt. We see a lot of people wearing masks, even if they are not always necessary. Everyone is manically using hand sanitiser.
However, people understand how critical the situation is and most are respecting the rules and staying at home. There is a great sense of solidarity with people gathering on their balconies in the evening to sing or play an instrument together. This keeps people’s morale up.
Mortgage and debt payments have been temporarily suspended and tax payments have been postponed until further notice so as to not put any further financial pressure on people. This helps, especially those of us who are literally out of a job.
I am fortunate. I go for walks with friends while keeping at least two or three metres distance. Some people are offering online live meditation or an emotional support service. Most people are making the most of their time to spend it with family, watching Netflix or catching up on cleaning and tidying.
Supermarket queues - They only let a few people in at a time and people have to wait at a safe distance. One person comes out, one person is allowed in.
Are there adequate safety precautions in place for locals and tourists?
The safety precautions currently being adopted are ’stay at home’. Right now, there is no tourism and it would be reckless for people to visit. Museums and tourist sites are all closed. All places where people gather are closed, including sports centres, sports events, cinemas, theatres, city parks, restaurants, bars. Many restaurants are wearing masks and gloves to prepare food and can only provide a take-out service
Are there adequate resources and medical supplies and services available for locals and tourists?
The most important medical supplies are masks which are not available. Within the healthcare system which is on its knees, at the time of writing over 23,000 cases tested positive. However, this isn’t a realistic statistic, as only those with extreme symptoms are now being tested, despite a total of almost 150,000 tests having been carried out from the beginning. Hospitals are dedicated to caring for those with the pneumonia and extreme symptoms and there are no more beds with ventilators. Medical staff are exhausted and other, pressing health emergencies are suffering due to the vast scale of people infected and manifesting extreme symptoms. Resources are limited and pushed to breaking point.
People who are dying literally cannot even have their hand held by a loved one during their final hours. Funerals are not possible, so as to avoid people gathering. The situation is devastating.
Is there any advice you would pass on to anyone planning to visit Italy in the near future?
Quite, simply, don’t because they won’t be able to. Postpone your trip to later on in the year or next year. I am sure that service providers like myself are only too happy to keep your payments or deposits open for the future. People can also support businesses like mine by booking in advance and taking advantage of discounts, or booking online classes or experiences. So they don’t need to come to Italy. Italy can come to them.
How do people find out about you and your amazing tours?
Website - www.yummy-italy.com It is currently being revamped but we should have a live version soon
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Helena is in the process of creating an online pasta masterclass where she will be offering video handmade pasta masterclasses for a monthly or yearly membership fee with continuous content. As soon as this is live, I will let you everyone know. Helena has lost all of her business for the next 6-9 months at least and is looking for ways to support herself and her son. If you love cooking and would like to support Helena, please watch out for this. I'm sure it will be advertised on her website also. I know she will appreciate all of your support.
In times like this, supporting small business owners in any way we can is one way we can help each other. Let's focus on being there for each other, come together as one and show the best side of human nature. With kindness, support and solidarity, the world will get through this and be better for it.
UPDATE THIS MORNING FROM HELENA: (A beautiful message from the heart that we should all remember)
Yes, the situation is bad in Italy right now. They did say that this weekend would be the peak of infections, so we will see what the next couple of weeks will bring with everyone staying at home. I really did underestimate how serious this was at the beginning, but all I can say is that everyone abroad should really take heed and follow Italy’s example.
I am generally positive about all of this. I honestly believe this has come at a time when we need to reconsider a whole new world order and ways of saving the environment, as well as understanding what we, truly, as a human race need. The longer we stay at home, the longer we are unable to do the things we normally do, the more we realise what is truly necessary in our lives. I think it is a wake up call. Sadly, the weakest will suffer, but as a human race we need to think not only of ourselves but also of others.
REMEMBER: After all of this is over, businesses such as Helena's will need our support. Booking experiences such as these helps to keep individuals in business. Let's show our support and while we can't travel at present, we can start planning where we would like to go and what we would like to do when things are safe again. I personally can't wait to join Helena on one of her Food Experiences, they look simply amazing!