Mamma mia — who counts as family in Italy? Residents wonder as coronavirus lockdown eases

Bianca Amodeo, 17, uses her tablet in her room at home in central Italy to chat with her boyfriend, who lives a 15-minute drive away.
(Domenico Stinellis / Associated Press)

When the Italian government announced that it would relax some parts of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, residents entering an eighth week of confinement found themselves reaching for their dictionaries.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that starting next Monday, people in Italy will be permitted to travel within their home regions for visits with “congiunti,” a formal Italian word that can mean either relatives, relations or kinsmen. Under lockdown, Italians have been able to leave home only for essential jobs or vital tasks such as grocery shopping.

The country’s cooped-up citizens needed clarification. Which relatives? What relation? Would a second cousin count? A brother-in-law? The additional freedom announced by the prime minister Sunday night seemed to rest on a clunky, archaic-sounding noun.

Don’t drink that espresso too close to me, and stay out of St. Peter’s Square. The Italians are living through the quarantine of the coronavirus.

The correct definition is more than a pedantic matter in Italy, a country where the generous concept of family embraces extended clans linked by blood or marriage. Whatever the government’s intent, congiunti would be part of what stitches much of Italian life together.


The next day, Conte sought to clear up the confusion, but instead created more. The premier allowed that congiunti is a “broad and generic formula.” What he meant, he said, was that Italians could pay visits to “relatives, and to those with whom they have relationships of steady affection.”

Godparents? Longtime lovers? Couples engaged for years but without a set wedding date, as is frequently the case in Italy?

An early-morning talk show on state radio tried to parse what ties of “steady” or “stable” affection mean. Calls and text messages poured in.

One guest, a lawyer who specializes in marriage law, said he has met couples who have been together only a week yet have more stable relationships than some spouses who have been married for years.

Europeans are starting to venture outside after weeks of pandemic-related confinement, but the rules look different in Madrid than they do in Berlin.

As for the issue of home regions, the show’s host raised the possibility that someone who lived, say, in eastern Sicily could drive hundreds of miles across the island to see relatives, but couldn’t visit a loved one just a few miles away in Calabria, a different region across the Strait of Messina.

For Bianca Amodeo, 17, who lives in the region of Marche, that host’s hypothetical scenario is a painful reality. Her boyfriend of one-and-a-half years — which for many adolescents equates to an exceedingly stable tie of affection — lives not far from her but just across the border in the region of Abruzzo.

Deepening Bianca’s anguish: She has friends with boyfriends who live farther away but within the same region, and they are excitedly planning to see their sweethearts next week.

“There’s a deep sense of injustice,” Bianca’s mother, Olga Anastasi, said.

“When a carabiniere [police officer] stops to ask where you are going, can he determine what’s a steady relationship?” added Anastasi, a lawyer who deals with divorce and juvenile matters.

Some see more serious inequality in the government’s policy. Same-sex marriages are not legal in Italy, so civil rights advocates worry that same-sex couples and their children may be excluded from the “stable affection” category.

When Italians finally determine whom they can visit, they’ll then have to puzzle out how to express affection when they arrive. The new measure requires all to wear masks and stay a safe distance apart when visiting.