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Locked down like the rest of Italy, a poet draws his country close - by phone

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ROME - The poet was stuck in his house like everybody else in Italy, sleeping too little, buzzed with a sense of emergency and listlessness, and wondering how to fill the time. So over the weekend, he published his cellphone number on social media. He was an "old hypochondriac," he said, and was willing to talk. Anybody could call him up.

"I am available every morning from nine until noon," Franco Arminio wrote.

In the days since, in one phone call after the next, Arminio has received an intimate portrait of Italy under coronavirus lockdown - of a nation that is bored, afraid, antsy, thinking about everything from quiet daily beauty to death. People have talked to him about books, and loneliness, and trees. A beekeeper said birds are "quietly singing in the countryside." A factory worker said his plant had closed down. An engineer said he had rediscovered the pleasure of being with his two children.

Armino's phone rang.

"Hello," he said.

The caller introduced herself as Luisa.

"I am living right in front of the hospital of Varese," she said. "I wake up to the sound of helicopters every morning."

More than 100 calls have come in, from all across Italy. But they could be from any part of the world where people are seeing the virus disassemble their lives, forcing them indoors, forcing them apart from those they care about. One person told Arminio, "It is weird to see the mistrust in people's eyes." Another said, "In these days, I am learning how to live with myself." A student in Rome said, "We don't know when we will be able to hug our parents again."

"Some people feel alone, scared, and they know I am scared too," Arminio, 60, told The Washington Post. "It's as if they want to shiver a bit together."

In Italy alone, the coronavirus has killed more than 3,400 and sickened tens of thousands more. For the remaining millions, there's a feeling of being forced to wait, maybe for worse to come. People care for kids, cook, watch the news and wonder: Is the virus only at the beginning of disrupting lives?

"There are no preprogrammed solutions," Arminio said. "I have tried phone calls."

As a poet, he was well-known enough to have a regular speaking tour, but it stopped with the outbreak. Twenty-five days on the road every month became zero, and he found himself back home in the southern village of Bisaccia, staring at the nut trees in his backyard, reading Kafka, feeling stir-crazy. He found himself thinking more and more about the topic that had long defined his poetry: the fear of death.

Three decades earlier, he had seen an 8-year-old die of a cerebral aneurysm - an event that led to a panic attack and a sensation, on a day when he was sitting in a barber chair, that he, too, was dying. He was physically healthy, of course, but in the years that followed, he came to think of the rest of the world as too carefree, too quick to brush off the dangers.

This time, though, it was Italy and the whole world that seemed to be burning, and though Arminio felt terrified, he also felt an odd, communal energy - as if more people might be starting to see things his way.

"Being distant is no punishment," he wrote one day on his Instagram page, "but a chance to feel intensely closer, as we're sharing the same threat."

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Then it was Wednesday morning, and his phone rang started ringing.

First was Tommaso from Treviso, who said he worked for a multinational company that had frozen its production and was considering layoffs. Next was Francesco from Milan, who tried to imagine with Arminio how the world might now change.

Then came the third call: Rosa from Elba, the northern island where Napoleon was exiled two centuries ago.

"How are you feeling?" Arminio asked.

"I'm OK," Rosa said. "What about you?"

Arminio said he'd been "tired and sad" a day earlier, but now he was fine.

"I need to talk with people, touch them, physically share the moment - you get this?" Rosa said soon after.

"This is fundamental," Arminio said. "And in these days we are not allowed to do this. It is weird."

They talked more about the island, and how his phone calls had been going. Rosa said her main problem was being forced to stay home. She was a "free spirit," she said, even at age 76.

"I am a widow, and lately something is happening to me that I had never considered before - the idea of having another man with me," Rosa said. "And in these days where they are telling us that we cannot hug one another, that we cannot kiss each other, I really want to kiss a man."

She laughed, and Arminio said it was a beautiful wish.

"But the truth is that I am very choosy," she continued. "It is not just the kiss that I want. It's the kiss from a man that I like."

"Let's save these kisses for better times," Arminio said. "I am sending you a big kiss from here."

"Thank you," Rosa said.

"Call me when you kiss someone," Arminio said. "And tell me everything is back to normal."

More calls came in: from an airport rental car worker whose office had closed; from a medical student who was being rushed into the field without taking her exams; from a man who said that the beautiful weather was making it harder to stay indoors.

Arminio says the conversations have given him creative energy; he's posted brief summaries on Instagram.

He had planned to keep taking the calls until April 3, the scheduled end of Italy's lockdown, but it has looked increasingly as if the restrictions will be needed for longer. Arminio has come to think that even in a few weeks, the conversations could take on a more desperate tone. Each day had the weight of an entire era, he said, with social media, anxiety, seclusion. His own guidance for making it through include turning off the phone after 10 p.m.

"After four or five days of seclusion, people are already asking what the [heck] will happen," he said. "I'm very worried."

"Italy is not equipped," he said. "Neither economically nor from the point of view of tension."

His sense was that whenever the country eased its severe restrictions on movement, there would be another period - a "gray phase," he called it - where the risk will be reduced but not gone, and where people will still be worried, and still need somebody to talk to.

"We are brothers in bewilderment," Arminio said. "Some of these people, I am convinced, will call me back."

- - -

The Washington Post's Claudia Cavaliere in Milan contributed to this report.

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