Hamburg Day Off in the Time of Corona: Took the Ferry…

Well, before I took the ferry, I actually took the subway to get to the ferry. This is big. In fact, it’s enormous, or it certainly feels that way. I haven’t been on ANY kind of public transport since March. We were sent off to work from home, accompanied by regular reading of recommendations on the news of what not to do. Since I was lucky enough to be able to walk where I needed to in those months, for the first time ever in now over 11 years, I completely stayed away from what had been a constant companion in my Hamburg life, the local transportation network.

I’ve always been a walker and I’m incredibly fortunate in how Hamburg is built as a city in that respect. But this week the thought of getting on a train kept popping up, and finally I just knew I had to try it again. The main reasons are winning back my daily courage day by day and hopefully contributing to not being completely overwhelmed once it’s possible to travel safely again, whenever that may be. That said, it’s important to remember that in cases like these this is all a voluntary choice and you really have to listen to your feelings, sometimes even on the day, planning or no planning. Everyone is different. For some it’s no big deal. You just go. It’s not really so different from going grocery shopping, is it? Some didn’t get to choose. Still, for me, it’s definitely a leap.

Contrary to my expectations, my tension didn’t mount as I set off. In fact, the preliminary stage of deciding and waiting had been more intense, but once I was on my way, the process just got divided into tasks as I used to do during my travels. Walk down the street, put mask on before entering the train station. Notice with relief after careful scanning of the platform that everyone is standing at a distance and wearing masks with full nose and mouth coverage. Mentally pat myself for successful post-morning-rush timing. Get on the train. Reminders to keep the mask on during the whole ride are played on the loudspeaker at every stop. In German and English. Notice, incensed, the woman opposite reading a book with her mask pulled down from her nose. NO.

Get off at the Landungsbrücken station in the Port of Hamburg. Stare, because the station is cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. The usually present construction barriers are gone. Go down to the dock and board the local ferry, which basically also acts as a bus and is part of the city transport. Again gratefully notice that it’s not busy and people are following rules. Get a seat on a row on the outside deck and no one else sits there, hallelujah. Then see a group of six middle-aged men confidently making their way to the front of the deck, all of them laughing, clearly convinced of their coolness. The leader is wearing a leather jacket. They stop to take group selfies, which is when I see that leather jacket isn’t wearing a mask. Immediately a severe female voice demands he put one on, “…also for taking pictures”, or else he can disembark.

It’s wonderful to feel the wind from the Elbe river again and see the familiar landmarks along the way. My original tentative plan was to get out at Neumühlen/ Övelgönne and walk a while, but big rain clouds roll in and soon it starts to drizzle insistently. OK, that answers that question, though basically at that point it simply felt like a bit much to do. As we say in the family, not everything at once (не всё сразу in Russian). Somewhat reluctantly I change spaces to take shelter on the lower inside deck, where there’s still plenty of room. I just stay seated at the end stop. After a few minutes the ferry turns around and heads back to Landungsbrücken, so this is a great (and cheap!) alternative to booking an actual harbour boat trip with a company. It’s not raining anymore and the sun is shining again, so I gratefully go back up and once again get a good seat.

Even in these times, or precisely because, humans will still exhibit strange behavior. The maybe ten-year-old girl also sitting downstairs at first jumps up after the rain stopped, runs past me…and I notice she’s barefoot. She stays barefoot until we dock and, despite my optimistic hopes, disembarks still sockless and shoeless. I don’t see her anymore afterwards, because I concentrate on keeping my distance and making my way back to the subway.

That’s enough adventures for one day.

 

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Diary Note #3

This time last year I was packing for a long weekend near Paris with family. It was a free weekday evening and I was laying out my stuff, enjoying the fact that I could still fit everything I needed in my smallest suitcase, including presents for the little ones. Summer had settled both in Hamburg and Paris, so I stuffed a spare T-shirt into my backpack, because if I got on the train after exiting the huge airport without freshening up, I would melt before reaching my destination. It was already hot in the apartment as I packed.

This evening of packing was framed by meeting up with friends for an after-work bite during the rest of the week, celebrating a birthday, all while leisurely choosing among Hamburg’s many cafés. Sometimes, gasp, we would even decide on a location an hour before leaving work, despite that fact that I share my love of planning with a few other people. If the evening stayed warm, we would round off the rest of it with a long walk before dispersing to our respective buses or trains, savoring the summer night, listening to conversations around us coming from people doing the same thing, maybe stop for a final drink before going back home with a smile and that carefree, relaxed parting call, “This was lovely, let’s do this again soon.”

These are all precious memories for various reasons.

Fast forward to today and I’ve done so much reading of all the news on which European countries fully opened their borders, how they correspond to each other or not, which still require quarantine and which don’t, what’s the deal with social distancing, confirmed corona cases status, I could probably fill multiple hours talking just about that. It is a day I’ve been waiting for a long time and I’d like to think it’s a positive sign. I feel it’s a positive sign, it has to be. Now, after waiting, phase two, which I partially knew would come, as much as I could, has begun. So much is still listed under a question mark and this is not a case of waiting for the sprint start signal to fire. Because the fact is, I can’t just go anywhere I want, in Europe at least, virtually without thinking, like I used to. “So, when are you going to *insert country here* ?” isn’t a question I can answer with an estimate these days. Can anyone?

I have to think, just differently than I did. I have to think beyond the habits that became ingrained during the last decades, all those things that are still on autopilot: remember to get travel-sized shampoo, toiletries go in a sealed transparent bag, put on the nice socks in case I have to take my shoes off and have a spare pair ready in my backpack, have a scarf ready in case of a chill from the air conditioning in the plane, empty my water bottle before going through security, get another water bottle after security and try to find a brand that supports a good charity to justify the price. Researching a destination now obviously goes beyond deciding where to stay or what to see. Or are you supposed to just “switch off” and go ahead? Again, can anyone?

Anyway, OK, then my list of autopilot habits just becomes longer for the future, most likely to include a mask, hand sanitizer (which I always had on me anyway) and extra attention to make sure I see how things are done in airports, where to stop at a distance etc. And trust me, sitting down in a restaurant is the last thing on my mind right now.

It’s staggering to think how much freedom of movement, literally, freedom of mind I had before. Remember that oft-repeated sentiment that if you’re flying somewhere, as the plane takes off and you watch the view below fall away and expand at the same time, before it becomes sky and clouds, any cares or worries you had fall away with it all? I suppose I do wonder what it will be like now, as we hopefully move forward.

But I’m a fan of starting small, so after all this sentimental musing, the next step is seeing whether public transport pops up in my near future. Not in a hurry.

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Diary Note #2

“Get out of your comfort zone! Do something this weekend that you’re too lazy to do or that you don’t trust yourself to do.” This was the energetic suggestion, in German, on the tear-off calendar a lovely friend gave me. The thing has 365 ideas for 2020. Since March, I’ve smiled at some of them, sighed wistfully at others and filed away a few in hopes of a future where it might be possible to do more again.

I’d say we’re very fortunate in Hamburg with the freedom we do have, knock on wood, and even if it isn’t always easy, especially mentally and emotionally, I’m prepared to wait things out and follow social distancing rules if they are prolonged. Like many, I hope we won’t have to wait too long, though at the same time it’s just not possible to predict. Still, it seems a small price to pay for not only reaching a point where no new corona infections are reported, but to be able to hug loved ones.

I don’t know if the comfort zone exists any more, these days at least. But doing things I haven’t trusted myself to do for a long time? Heck yeah, where do I start? Maybe I should get on the bus again? On the subway? Push it and pass two stops instead of one? Touch a door handle with my bare hands? Stop repeating to colleagues and friends that I’ve “just washed my hands” if I give them something?

To be honest, while I’ve stopped feeling scared and exposed when going grocery shopping, the process is still plenty outside of my comfort zone, enhanced by the mask element, though I occasionally forget and just wear it on autopilot. The thing is, what I don’t trust myself to do now are things I used to do before, they just have to wait due to external circumstances. At least I don’t go, “Wow, real people!” anymore when I go outside. Progress.

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Diary Note #1

The ringing of my mobile phone woke me shortly after 7 AM. This was, on the one hand, fine, even timely, because the dream I was having was really weird. On the other hand, it was completely unexpected. A slightly unfocused glance at the screen confirmed it was my dentist’s office…and I just let it ring. Because I didn’t know why they would be calling at that hour.

A little while and one voice message machine later ( “We planned an hour for you, please call back, thank you,” said someone in a disgruntled voice who had clearly gotten up very early to be there on time), I called back and managed to backtrack and untangle the mystery. Sometime in April, when new coronavirus cases were still popping up in Hamburg like mushrooms and the social distancing was in full swing, the practice was abstaining from its usual opening hours, politely requesting patients to call if they needed to come in after all. I assumed, somewhat happily, I confess, that my upcoming 7 AM appointment was cancelled and went about my business. “But no, that notice was for other procedures,” I was told. We rescheduled and remained friends.

Yes, I know they work with masks and sanitize their hands anyway. But three weeks ago I still couldn’t imagine going there, unless I absolutely have to. I had been waiting whether Germany’s contact ban (in effect, the social distancing measures) would still be in place after June 5, the day the government planned to discuss yay or nay. They were prolonged until June 29. There is progress, however, for me. Today I was in that dentist’s chair like no time had passed at all. Had it? “Do you work in an office?” the assistant politely asked, nodding at my skirt.

Why yes, I do, yes. No longer from home for about a month now. Working in pajamas, like actually for my job, isn’t something I can do. It takes away the special quality of pajamas for me, the sundayness (just freestyling here) of spending time at home immersed in a creative project. At the same time, not to make this all about clothes, but there were items I hadn’t worn for a long time: skirts, dresses, heels. Putting them on again felt like recognizing someone after previously seeing her only from a distance (no puns intended).

The security guy I’d gotten used to in my local supermarket isn’t there anymore, disinfecting shopping cart handles and then wheeling the cart over to you. Now you take one yourself, disinfecting either with the travel-sized sanitizer you made a habit of carrying in your pocket or the napkins provided by the store. I still smile at staff underneath my mask if I catch someone’s eye and the last time I was finally able to shop without remembering why all these regulations are in place. Two door handles were touched with a bare hand, now that was a big one for me. Wash hands at home, unload groceries, wash hands again, disinfect the handles I touched, wipe down the kitchen table, and I don’t even go through the list in my head anymore.

The movements at work come naturally to me now. I’m finally able to let my mind wander a bit longer somewhere else before sitting down at my desk. Dump stuff, wash hands, clean desk, keep a distance, hope for the best, feel grateful for simple politeness and consideration when people ask if it’s OK to get on the elevator with you or step aside to let you pass in a narrower space.

It should be so simple, right? You get up, brush your teeth, get dressed, head out, walk a familiar route, greet familiar people. So why does it take so long to connect yourself mentally, emotionally to all this? Probably because it might take the same amount of time to readjust as the time spent working from home. Simple things have taken on a new kind of significance after not being able to do them for a while. They do say it’s the little things. Otherwise, I might have to pull a Kindergarten Cop on myself.  “Stop whining!” “There is no bathroom!”