The patrons of a bar in Rome can talk about history, gossip, culture, the weather – anything but coronavirus. Cristina Mattioli, owner of the aptly named Bar Feeling, banned all Covid chat after the mood became too heavy, spoiling the convivial atmosphere, especially over morning coffee.
She recently pinned two notices behind the bar. One of them reads: “Speaking about coronavirus is prohibited”, while giving examples such as prophesying over possible outcomes of the pandemic or what rules might be included in the next government decree. The sign next to it suggests alternative topics of conversation, including who will win this season’s Grande Fratello VIP, the Italian version of Big Brother.
“After nine months, it became too much,” Mattioli told the Observer. “Everyone had their theories about what would or wouldn’t happen… we are not virologists or part of a government that has to make important decisions. And while it’s important to follow the rules and be careful, it’s also important not to underestimate the psychological impact of this pandemic and so this was a playful way to say let’s not forget all the other subjects.”
The initiative has worked a treat. “Customers found it funny, with some saying they could finally have a coffee in peace,” Mattioli added. “They started to have other conversations. What was also lovely is that it gave a cue to customers who don’t know each other to start chatting. Yes, we have to maintain a physical distance, but we can still chat to each other.”
Rome is in the Lazio region, one of the few in Italy currently categorised in the yellow zone as part of the government’s tiered system of coronavirus restrictions. This means bars and restaurants can stay open until 6pm.
Bars in particular are woven into the fabric of Italian culture, with morning visits being an important ritual, not just for the coffee and pastries, but also to engage with others, even if fleetingly.
Mattioli, who lived in London for three years, said: “Italian bar culture is completely different. You don’t just walk in and walk out, or sit at a table with a laptop. It’s about conversation and being together.” Pre-Covid, the topics of football or politics would often dominate bar conversations.
Regulars at Bar Feeling, in the Ponte Galeria area of Rome, have appreciated Mattioli’s idea. “Cristina is great,” one told the news agency, Ansa. “All day she has to listen to the same people repeating the same things, every now and then you need a break.”
Others offered their own suggestion of alternative topics. “You can talk about the weather, or lovers or partners, you can talk about anything,” said one. “Coronavirus exists and that it has created problems as well as a lot of anxiety, for this reason we should try to let go of this anxiety and try to live with more simplicity.”