It was a cold but bright March day in the Upper City of Bergamo in Lombardy when I first met Michele and Serena, huddled together in big coats and scarves sitting on the steps of the magnificent library in the equally magnificent main square of the town.
This was in the midst of the Italian coronavirus lockdown.
The beautiful cobblestone streets of this medieval city, once the western most point of the Venetian empire, were almost completely deserted. There was utter silence except for the chimes of the church clocks every half an hour.
We hadn’t seen a total lockdown before.
The UK was still grappling with the whole concept in a half-hearted manner.
But here the pandemic was already overwhelming some of the most sophisticated hospitals in the world.
Within a few days of meeting the couple we had been allowed inside the main hospital in Bergamo and we filed a story that gave the world a glimpse of what a virus storm was going to look like when it hit.
In those early moments with Michele and Serena, neither they nor us knew what was happening just a mile or so away in the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital; but even without that knowledge this couple in their 70s knew they had to isolate.
They only came out to get supplies and the local paper for Michele.
They never left each other.
We had arrived to have a look and to see if we could talk to someone. It was a bit of old school journalism. The whole trip was. We didn’t know what to expect so we decided to go and see.
The streets were empty. We knew the town was full but nobody was coming outside unless they had to.
I saw the pair, both aged 73, and thought we should ask them a few questions.
Both were initially nervous, although they were always friendly.
At one point I moved forward to hear Michele speak but they both raised their arms and motioned that I should move back.
It’s common now – it wasn’t then. It was that early in the pandemic.
What struck me was how calm they were but also how scared they were.
They knew they were at the top of the list of the most vulnerable. They had no idea how long the lockdown would last but they knew they would have to tough it out together.
It was a magical interview in its own way and when I returned to Milan to write my story I shed a few tears. In a way, to me, they represented all the elderly people of the world who were scared and cut off. My parents are long dead and I am glad they didn’t live to see this pandemic, to live in fear like Michele and Serena.
From Italy, our reporting took us to the nightmare virus outbreaks in Mexico and Brazil, but we always felt the need to return to Bergamo and Northern Italy to see how this society coped and survived as the lockdown rules were relaxed.
As one might expect, we decided that we should try and meet everyone we had interviewed at that time.
Through Simone, our local producer, we made contact with everyone. In hospitals, in towns, anyone we had randomly met. But we could not find Michele and Serena. They had disappeared.
Throughout our return to Bergamo with interviews and filming to do I had a constant nagging that we just had to find this couple. We didn’t say it but we were all scared that maybe they hadn’t made it. We just wanted to find them and make sure they were okay.
Armed with a printed black and white photograph of the pair we had taken at the time, and colour photos on our phones, we returned to the Upper City and to the place we had met them. We went from shop to shop.
The shop keepers would stare and look and say they didn’t recognise them. We stopped people in the street, we called people into the huddles looking at the picture. Nothing.
We left a small supermarket beginning to think we had failed.
As we walked away we heard a shout and one of the shopkeepers waved for us to come back.
She told me to try in a small delicatessen up the street.
“The owner is quite old,” she said.
“If anyone knows them, he will.”
Through hanging hams and salami I spotted an elderly gentleman working at a preparation table.
We got out the photograph. Angelo Mangili put his glasses on and squinted at our print.
“I can’t make them out because of their masks,” he said.
“But I think I know them… YES, I know them!”
I felt the tears run down my cheeks. Covering this story is frankly emotional. We have seen so many people die, have reported on so many deaths, now finally something may be nice.
He gave us directions. Trust me it’s complicated in a medieval city. Think Game Of Thrones.
We realised their street was not more than one from where we are staying.
We followed a winding alleyway past a church. The shopkeeper said they lived 20 meters past it.
We started checking the names of people on their door bells.
Then finally we saw it: S Longaretti and M Guadalupi.
We rang the doorbell and a voice answered.
“Hello, we are looking for Michele and Serena. We are from Sky News,” Simone said into the intercom.
“Hi!” said Michele, entirely surprised, “I’ll come down.”
He opened the door and welcomed us inside a beautiful, ancient, but immaculately presented home, and ushered us up winding stair cases to a series of open balconies – and to Serena.
I wanted to hug them but we couldn’t.
After these dreadful months, the lockdowns, the death, we had found them alive and very well.
Michele was dispatched to get champagne and together, masks and all, we sat on their terrace and talked like old friends.
“At the beginning, when we met you, it was the initial phase and there was astonishment and unawareness,” Serena said thinking back on the day.
“And as I said before, your story helped us understand what was really happening, and then in the next weeks cases rose, fear rose, worry rose…”
Michele interrupts: “We were reading the newspaper Eco di Bergamo which every day had 13, 14 pages of obituaries, and that really scared us a lot.”
“The scariest thing about looking at the obituaries were the posts of husbands and wives who died together, 24 hours apart,” Serena continued Michele’s thought.
“We could see the photos of husbands and wives together died one after the other. That really gave us the idea on how we had to be very careful. It was really something…”
Watching them together, laughing and finishing each other’s sentences, I realised that even though we had met once for a few minutes, the bond of shared experience will stay with us and them for the rest of our lives.
Not much good has come from this awful virus. It is still killing and dividing countries and communities. The politicisation of a disease still leaves me utterly appalled.
But in this instance of genuine affection – when all that mattered to us was that an elderly couple we met for a few minutes survived – somehow makes it all worth while.
It makes me want to go on reporting, and that I owe to Michele and Serena and our chance meeting on a cold bright day in March.