MILAN — Hanging from the wall opposite the main entrance of Red Red Wine, a blackboard reads: "Tasting of indigenous grapes of Southern Italy. Reservation required."

The words are scribbled in colored chalk and advertise an event that took place more than a year ago — on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. The board is a time capsule, in that sense, like a broken clock that stopped ticking, from one day to the next, right around the moment when everything in Italy came to a halt, when time suddenly stood still.

As long as the pandemic raged out there, the blackboard remained.

Red Red Wine is my go-to place for aperitivo in Milan, the city where I was born but had been away from for a few years. When I returned, at the end of 2019, I came here to get reacquainted with the life I had before leaving: The wine bar is close to my parents' place, serves Italian wines, and is owned by a former schoolmate.

I'd only been frequenting the place for a few months when, in March 2020, it closed. That was when the pandemic first flared up in Italy, when the government imposed the West's first lockdown and forced all wine bars and nightlife venues to shut their doors.

The owner, Marco, made a conscious choice to keep that last event on the blackboard, a sign of the arrested life inside the venue.

Even as I visited last summer, when restrictions were briefly relaxed, the board became a powerful symbol of how the virus remained among us, preventing us from carrying on with our lives — or doing stuff that once seemed so simple, like having a glass of wine. As long as the pandemic raged out there, the blackboard remained there to remind us that no, we had not gone back to normal.

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People are impatient to savor their social lives again. — Photo: Alessandro Serrano/Avalon/ZUMA

Countless bars, restaurants and shop owners across Italy suffered similarly. But in the past two weeks, the country has now finally begun reopening, allowing proprietors to once again start serving outdoor tables. In the next month, if new infections keep dropping, the country will reopen outdoor swimming pools, beach resorts, and indoor bars and restaurants will also get the green light.

A new energy has taken over Italian cities; people are impatient to savor their social lives again. Pictures of life reappearing in the streets of Milan and Rome have made the rounds on social media, showing locals sit down for a cappuccino or a glass of wine. Restaurants book out days ahead of the weekends: Customers have begun to make weekend reservations on Mondays and Tuesdays.

This Italian reopening is also accompanied by a lingering state of anxiety.

Cities are still less vital than they used to be, but they seem certainly eager to recover their past form and finally put the pandemic behind them — and it's a joy to watch. But this Italian reopening is also accompanied by a lingering state of anxiety. After all, venues briefly reopened last summer too, only for the first wave to give way to the second, then the third.

The newsweekly L'Espresso reports that most of Italy's bars and restaurants are already "on the edge of the abyss," that "one misstep and they'll end up bankrupt." Will this reopening last past the summer? Will vaccines rid us of the virus for good? Will our lives go back to normal, and what happens if not — one more year of restrictions?

I've tried to go back to Red Red Wine twice to celebrate the fleeting joy of reopening. I haven't managed to get an outdoor table yet. But when I do, and I'm finally able to sit down for that sweet, long-anticipated first sip, I'll make sure to glance inside. I wonder if my glass of wine will be a sign we're finally inching back to normal, or if the blackboard will remind me that it's another mirage.


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