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 #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!”

 

 

 

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Home Office

The first full day of doing the above is completed. A friend just texted me, asking how it was, and I honestly answered, it wasn’t strange for me to work, but it was strange to not be at work. I suppose mainly because the arrangement is due to a situation outside of our control and sensible decisions about staying inside truly do relate directly to being well. I’m certainly grateful for the option and it’s clear we just have to persevere for as long as necessary. For now. For a while. What’s the best phrase?

Keeping the hours was fine, I’ve been making lists and following them for years. Plus after more than a decade in Germany, sometimes you set yourself time frames and see if you can keep to them, just for kicks! Memories from studying for exams and writing term papers during my university years also come in handy. It turns out they are still very clear, though my levels of self-control and reflection were pretty different back then. I remember both my parents completing work from home, whether it was for an extra job in addition to the one they already had, because of staying home with my siblings and I while we were sick, or simply because it was too cold to go outside in winter. I’ve got something to fall back on, even if I never quite imagined doing it in such circumstances. After all, how can you? “OK, this might be useful for when a global pandemic puts the lid on daily life as we know it…”

Balancing discipline and concentration has proven to function and I don’t find myself distracted by the laundry drying to my left or all my favorite books being nearby. Communication, both professional and personal, has been going well, which helps.

That’s the other thing, the questions that pop up in your head. And we’re only on day one, folks! Am I becoming dependent on my phone? Should I really go out now, or not? When I sit down to write, will I be able to write about anything other than this? Do I feel like action or disaster for tonight’s movie choice? The Day After Tomorrow or Dante’s Peak? Does Dante’s Peak count as vintage? Don’t care either way, it’s so good. Will I look completely pasty when this is over? What will it feel like to come back to the real world?

This is the real world…

Hamburg in the Time of Corona: Part 2

So, here I am, set to do home office for two weeks. This morning the sun was shining and spring was clearly in the air. I felt warm during my walk to work, encouraged by my slightly heavier backpack, which I’d loaded with extra snacks and my own bowl for having soup in, some other necessities that seemed sensible in these times. The irony is that a few hours later I was walking back home in the now brilliant spring sunshine, additionally loaded down with stuff from my office desk.

I wasn’t the only one, of course. The development wasn’t entirely unexpected, considering what’s been happening in other European countries, and in Germany, stacking up day after day. It’s just we still didn’t know when exactly and if we’d have to switch our work MO around. That walk on Monday morning already felt a bit surreal, even as I was telling myself I’d be doing that regularly instead of taking the bus or the train, get fit for spring and all that stuff. And then later it was still strange, this joint effort made by many, but leading to this period of careful self-isolation.

What truly moves me, of course, is how people around me have been handling the situation in recent weeks. With calm honesty, humor and the ever-present German efficiency. No fuss, no hysteria, no blame. And no matter how many times it’s repeated, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the simple kindness of that phrase, “Stay safe and healthy.”

Now I’m one of those people reading articles online about how to not go crazy while working from home. In addition to that, I do worry, because I care, as many others do: about loved ones, the future, being able to deliver in these new working conditions and not losing my grip on what I do outside of work hours. I think one of the hardest parts is trying to stay in the now in combination with the unavoidable thoughts about the next days, because the uncertainty is there. But so are the facts. And these are…

Time to watch The Big Bang Theory again.

Hamburg in the Time of Corona

I took this picture this past weekend on an absolutely gorgeous sunny day in Hamburg. The blue sky was reflected in the Alster lake and it seemed like the whole city was outside, walking, smiling, laughing, even, because…well, why not, and what else were we supposed to do, really? You can only buy so much toilet paper these days.

A little over two weeks ago my daily life started to change day by day, as it did for everyone else. On that Friday the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported in Hamburg. Until then I had been reading the news about what was going on in other countries, in Europe as well as the world, and while I was certainly being attentive, watchful, obviously internal feelings change once something like this reaches your hometown. Things you read take on a new significance and you begin to wonder what will happen. Then some of what you were wondering about does happen, and all you can do is adjust along the way.

As of now Hamburg has introduced many preventive measures seen in other cities around the world to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Theaters, museums, clubs, bars, libraries, fitness studios have been closed. All public and private events have been cancelled or postponed. The company operating the swimming pools I go to has closed all its locations. Schools and daycare centers will be closed starting March 16. Universities have postponed the start of classes. Regional train frequency in northern Germany is being reduced due to lower passenger numbers.

It’s a daily trickle of various numbers and announcements, checking which has quickly become a natural habit one can’t avoid picking up. I can’t help thinking what it was like to try and get accurate information in other times, other decades, because this isn’t the first pandemic the world has seen, but it’s certainly happening at the height of the internet, mobile device usage and social media influence. While in many ways this is a relief, because we have quick ways of informing ourselves at our fingertips and therefore might end up feeling a little more in control of the situation, it also reinforces the constant challenge, even responsibility to ourselves in this day and age, namely being sensible when picking sources of information.

Another aspect, of course, is staying in touch with loved ones, friends and family. It’s an enormous blessing to be able to do this through the phone, video calls or texting, because not communicating at all or waiting for the next letter to arrive, like in the olden days, would be very hard indeed. It’s heartening that normal conversation does still happen.

“Social distancing” is a phrase I haven’t used before, but now I guess I won’t be able to forget it. I’ve only just realized my hug count has gone down dramatically, and it’s “only” been two weeks. It’s strange to think that I don’t know for sure how long it will be until I wrap my arms around someone, shake a hand or even just touch a friend’s arm while sharing a laugh. Even while my brain knows why, it’s almost as if not me, but someone else is stopping a few feet short of the person I need to talk to.

What’s certain, however, is that the desire to be healthy and safe is immediate, maybe even primal. On the other hand (no pun intended), I’ve been brought up to follow standard hygiene rules and cleaning surfaces has always been my thing, so that part I didn’t need to be reminded about, even though it’s always good to refresh that the basics are often the most important start to nip some things in the bud. Or at least diminish unpleasant developments.

Being an introvert and having many, many years of Siberian winters behind me, it’s familiar, amusing even, to read up on tips how to occupy yourself during longer periods spent at home. But I appreciate the attention, because it reinforces the feeling that everyone is thinking of the same things and trying to proceed as normally as possible. I’m also feeling thankful for my roots providing me with ultimately useful memories to fall back on.

It’s obvious now just how active we were only a few weeks ago, because even if you ended up spending a Saturday mostly at home, you didn’t have to think twice about popping out to a restaurant or the cinema. If you couldn’t make it to the gym, you’d plan for another day. Time for YouTube workouts! Looking up concerts and making Friday night plans was second nature, as was the certainty that there would always be something to choose from. This is one of the things Hamburg is loved for.

Times are different for now, and that’s just a fact. I don’t know if we’re talking weeks or months, but I can only hope for the best. Meanwhile, I’ll be busy making lists of stuff to do outside once this whole thing is over.