On Feb. 20, with the World Health Organization reporting three cases of Covid-19 in Italy and 15 in the United States, my family and friends boarded the No. 2 vaporetto, one of the many water buses where Venetians and tourists jam and jostle. It was the second week of Venice’s Carnivale, and some people’s faces were covered by spooky masks. My immediate neighbors wore gigantic hoop skirts that rubbed against my lower legs like playful dogs.

Our group of four adults and five offspring disembarked at San Marcuola to visit the former site of the Jewish ghetto. Some of us cared about its history. The teens and tweens overwhelmingly did not, even though three are Jewish and Venice’s ghetto is often considered the world’s first, and whence the word “ghetto” derives. In 1516, Doge Leonardo Loredan relocated the Venetian Jewish population to the site of an old ironworks (geto in Venetian dialect), where they were contained behind a stone wall, with gates that were locked at night. Had anyone been interested, I might have talked briefly about acts committed by states and city-states and basically just people driven by the fear of religious and cultural contamination by outsiders. Instead we found the arch where the gates once hung, and where we could see the indentations left by the old hinges.

On Feb. 21, with the W.H.O. still reporting three cases in Italy of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and 15 in the United States, we took a vaporetto to an island, beyond which ships with their entire crew used to anchor for 40 days (quaranta giorni) during illness outbreaks, a practice dating back to the 14th century’s Black Death. Venice, for centuries a maritime merchant society, was especially vulnerable to disease spread from distant lands via the comings and goings of ships (something that, given the seasonal megacruise invasions on the city, has changed little), which might explain why in Venice, and not in Paris, where we were days earlier, our temperatures were taken before we were allowed into the non-security-restricted area of Marco Polo Airport (which had become, inversely, the security-restricted area). Regardless, in addition to “ghetto,” the medieval Venetians are credited, etymologically, for introducing a second “containment” word to our vocabulary: “quarantine.”

On Feb. 22, with Italy reporting its first two deaths from Covid-19, we got on a plane to fly back to the United States. In Paris, where we changed flights and airlines, no one checked the temperatures of the passengers arriving from Italy’s outbreak hot spot. No one asked us, before we boarded our flight back to the United States, or when we disembarked in New York, at J.F.K., where we’d been.

Keep reading the novel on The New York Magazine website.

Heidi Julavits, "I’m a Calamity Obsessive. After My Trip to Italy, I Was the Calamity" in The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 2020.