We’ve been back in Berlin for two weeks now.

We left New York in a hurry. My original flight was supposed to be today – I’d planned to take a few days after my batch at the Recurse Center in NYC, figuring out what my time there had meant. I’d expected it to challenge my mentality around work, and art, and creativity, and my goals for my life, and thought some time for processing all of that and for saying goodbye would be nice.

Towards the end of February, people had started talking about Coronavirus like it was a real thing that could affect the lives of people I knew. But even then, it felt like precautions in the ‘just in case’ sense, not in the ‘help save a life’ sense.

Things started heating up real quick on Tuesday, the 10th of March. It first sunk in when I read that the number of presumptive cases in Massachusetts had spiked from 41 to 92 in a 24-hour period, at a time when they only had the capacity to perform 50 tests a day. They’d maxed out the scale; they had no way of knowing what the real number is.

We bought hand sanitiser on eBay.

The very next day, Recurse Center staff decided that they were shutting down the space, and moving online-only, which was a godsend in that it catalysed the decision. There wasn’t any point to being in New York anymore. Meanwhile, complaints that there weren’t enough tests expanded to New York.

On Thursday the 12th, we tried to rebook our flights. Rebooking was a mess, and in the midst of everything, I was fascinated by the issues that airline web portals were experiencing. Norwegian would show me a flight to Berlin that I could rebook, but only on 25% of page loads. If I selected it, I’d instantly get a charge and a refund on my credit card, and an error message in my browser. Lufthansa told Jackie that she could get a flight change free of charge, but their website wouldn’t allow that because she was on a budget fare, so she’d have to call in1.

Later that evening, the US Government enacted a travel ban from Europe. We booked a flight back to Berlin via Moscow.

For most of the weekend, we worried about the chance of our flights getting cancelled. But they didn’t, and on Sunday afternoon, we left.

Sitting in the sun in Moscow airport, waiting for our connection, I felt a headache come on. I’d started sweating profusely. And then, panicking:

What if this is a fever and what if it’s coronavirus and what if my blocked nose on Tuesday was actually something and what if somebody’s mum / dad / grandparent dies because I’m sitting here selfishly, desperately, trying to get home

And then at some point I realised that I was just really dehydrated, and whenever I pulled my mind away from the panic for a few minutes, got distracted by the 30-odd orthodox Jews praying at the sunrise, paused to study the light illuminating the building, I stopped sweating, and my head cleared, and I realised the whole thing was just anxiety.

Airport light, JFK.

Airport light, JFK.

We didn’t have a place to stay in Berlin – both our rooms had people in them – so we crashed in the apartment of some old friends who are newly pregnant. And it was so nice to crash-land into a reminder of continuity, and normality, and life-goes-on in amidst the chaos that was trying to keep up with the news and trying to stay inside mostly and where the fuck can you buy red lentils now, they’re sold out everywhere.

We spent 7 days on their couch. New York now has 67,000 cases, Berlin has 2500. Both cities are in a state approximating lockdown. I made a coronavirus out of perler beads. It… almost looks safe and squishy and adorable when you reduce it to this.

A Coronavirus made out of perler beads

Vaguely adorable?

But really, I don’t think I was ever afraid of the coronavirus, I think I was grieving the life that I thought lost.

To be clear – some of it is gone. No more hanging out at bars until 4am. No more reading books in cafes, no more sitting by the Landwehr Canal with a beer on a Tuesday evening. Summer will be weird. But the birds keep singing; sparrows hold their not-so-secret assemblies on the hedge across the street, and the canal was bright with the most yellow sunshine I’ve seen in months today. Spring is still inevitable, coronavirus or not.

The Landwehr Canal. The Polizei were patrolling there last weekend, telling people to go home.

The Landwehr Canal. The Polizei were patrolling there last weekend, telling people to go home.

I’m sad to have left before the magnolias bloomed in Prospect Park. I’d been waiting since I first noticed their fuzzy buds at the start of February and Jackie told me what they were. I was so excited about the spring coming, and thought I’d be able to watch it from a tiny apartment directly on the park.

I’m sad that the Berlin I know isn’t the Berlin I came back to. I mourn the plans I’d made, which were something like “live off your savings for another few months” and “take up German classes again, push through that awkward barrier that causes me to ask if people speak English when I can’t express myself”. “Spend lots of time in the forest; take my friends there”.

Magnolias almost in bloom in Prospect Park

Magnolias in Prospect Park

A friend said last week:

As wild as all this is, there are silver linings.

Yeah. She’s right.

Like, I experienced a real sense of community with some great friends in their three-room apartment for a week. We got to come home early, and we were both kinda ready for it. Coronavirus for me has strangely eroded boundaries, because now my Australia community and my Berlin community and my brand new New York community are all on an even footing; they’re all exactly a video call away. Everything across my various identities feels somehow more cohesive.

And there’s hope. Maybe this will be a thing that teaches the world that we can work together on the environment too, maybe it’s the thing that causes global financial reinvention, maybe it’s the crisis that makes us really evaluate what we want in our leaders, as a society. Maybe it’ll build community. It’s weird staying 6 feet away from everyone and somehow feeling like I’ve never had so much shared purpose with those people I’m keeping distance from.

This is a dynamic situation, and it’s far from over. But we’ll handle it, I guess.

  1. I’m sure that the programmer who was tasked with building this fare class just decided to hardcode it, and I wonder if they’re reflecting upon that decision now, as it creates increased load for their support teams. ↩︎