2020/21

It is the first morning of 2021 and I am sitting in bed drinking a cup of tea my wife made me and 2020 is done and I feel better for it.

Of course, there’s really no logic to my sense of relief. The period we called 2020 is, after all, just an arbitrarily chosen point in time. Millennia ago, some shaman determined that when the earth was in a particular position in its cycle around the sun, that the year had died, an end-date was formed, and it was deemed appropriate to celebrate the start of something new. The earth didn’t notice, of course, and just continued in its steady circle of the sun, but we living on earth thought it sounded like a good idea and have since continued the tradition of putting a full stop in our collective sentence every time the earth finds its way back to that same spot adjacent to the sun. It is random, arbitrary, and nothing really differs from 11:59, December 31st, 2020, to 00:00, January 1st, 2021. But it does help give us a sense of closure.

And, damn, but do we deserve a fictional but comforting sense of closure. The events of 2020 were anything but fictional, they were, in fact, painfully real. I won’t rehash them because we all know what they were, we all lived through them. We all watched the world close down, all read the countless news reports, watched the graphs and tallies as the number of cases grew, all closed our doors and settled in for the long wait, all obtained masks, and developed an intimate relationship with our sweatpants. 

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too. And it doesn’t matter if you’re reading this in a backyard in Melbourne, or an apartment in Vienna, or in bed in Beijing, because you went through it too. And as awful as the implications of that are, that this virus and its society-stopping impact managed to circumvent the world with frighteningly apparent ease, isn’t it remarkable that this goddamn year and all its weird and new and awful moments was a universally experienced phenomenon. 

I didn’t see my family this year. That is to say, I didn’t see them physically. For a full twelve months, for the entire rotation of the earth around the sun from an arbitrarily chosen point and back again, I was removed from the people who raised me. This has never happened before. I hope it never happens again. But, like the rest of the world, I adapted. I found creative ways to engage with my loved ones through digital means. I participated in video call parties, broke out of virtual escape rooms, and sat in my pyjamas at two in the morning, raising a glass of whiskey to my grandpa while attending his streamed funeral. 

It wasn’t the same, of course. Nothing can replicate the feel and warmth and comfort of a long tight hug. But it was something. It was still connection, and conversation, and laughter, and life shared, and while it’s easy to wish none of this had ever happened, instead I choose to be grateful that this all happened at a time when I could open a metal book, click a button, and see my family’s faces smiling back at me through pixels so small so as not to be seen. 

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

To say it was an emotional year is an understatement. I felt emotions I didn’t know could be felt. The casual boredom and anxiety of a lockdown. The quiet exhilaration of completing a workday in pyjamas. The eerie sensation of stepping onto a train platform and seeing only masked faces looking back at you. But the primary emotion I felt this year was frustration. 

I felt frustrated by the limitations of lockdown. I felt frustrated when an overwrought network failed and a call to my family froze. I felt frustrated trying to take a work call while my wife tried to take one too from half a metre away in our cobbled together home-office. I felt frustrated looking at the same four walls day in and day out. I felt frustrated every time I saw a nose poking over the top of someone’s mask. I felt frustrated every time I forgot to unmute myself. And I felt overwhelmingly frustrated every time there was news reports of people having parties in the middle of a lockdown, of people who knew they were infected but thought it was okay to pop into the shops, of morons claiming that wearing a piece of protective clothing was somehow impinging of their personal freedoms, of selfishness, and borders closing, and death tolls rising, and flights cancelled, and that day when I could return to my family stretching further and further into the future until it seemed to disappear over the horizon line altogether. 

I felt frustrated with a society I thought was better than this.

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

But focusing on this frustration is a choice, and a bad one. And that was something else I had to learn to adapt to in 2020, choosing where to direct my attention in a way that best served me. It was so easy to get sucked into the endless feed of headlines and the addictive horror that was the virus and its effects, and to believe the world was ending. But it wasn’t ending, only changing, and there are good parts to change if you look for them.

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year I got to spend every day with my wife and best friend. Rather than break us, being confined together taught us new ways to spend time together and new ways to give each other space. It made me more grateful than ever that I found a partner who I can literally spend every minute of my life with and still want more. 

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year I didn’t have to commute to work anymore and so had time to exercise. I started slow, and with short distances, but then ran longer, and faster. I ran in sweltering summer heat and pitch black winter evenings. I got fitter and felt better inside my own bones. 

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year we all got crafty. We baked sourdoughs, and banana breads, and all the comfort food we needed to get through the long days. We picked up knitting needles, pencils, paintbrushes, and tools, and we made things. We took photographs and made videos, and wrote things, and read things. We found new hobbies and new ways to enjoy our time. 

And you know exactly what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

I know nothing really differs from 11:59, December 31st, 2020, to 00:00, January 1st, 2021. I know it’s all arbitrary. But, dammit, I am still hopeful for this coming allotment of time. Not because some past shaman was right and something has died only for something new to be born, and not because the slate magically becomes clean just because we add an extra digit to the end of the calendar, but because in these last twelve months we have all adapted. We have been through an ordeal and we have learnt from it.

My hope is that we will take the collective lessons into the new year, the major groundbreaking discoveries and the intimate personal revelations. My hope is that 2021 is the year the vaccine works and we contain the virus. My hope is that 2021 is the year I get to hug my family again. But whatever 2021 brings, my hope is that I continue to grow and adapt and find new ways to connect and enjoy my time. 

And I am comforted by the knowledge that you will know what I’m talking about because you will be there, living through it too.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 27

Today marks the end of the sixth week that I have been writing this blog series. Six weeks! That is six weeks of spending 23 and a half hours a day inside my apartment, six weeks of having physical contact with only my wife, six weeks of sweatpants, and trips to the supermarket that feel like heists, and yoga in the morning, and working from my dining table, and social isolation. 

Only it hasn’t felt overtly isolating. Some of that is because we live in the future where I can literally talk to my magic handheld computer and instruct it to let me view and speak to my brother and it does! But another big part is because of this, what you’re reading right now, these words, this act of writing. 

Because, while technology is definitely an act of magic and I’m sure my laptop is just full of tiny wizards making it all work, there is an older magic at play here. Writing is magic and reading is magic. I sit here alone in my room in Vienna and put down a string of words to represent a ridiculous thought I’ve had, maybe about how Austrians like to scream “meal time!” at each other, or how an old tortilla will do if you’re out of toilet paper, or how my wife wants to stab people with a fork from time to time, and I express these images through a series of squiggles, and then you in your home maybe a thousand miles away from mine open up a page and decipher these squiggles until you too are picturing screaming Austrians, or sanitary tortillas, or a fork-wielding Alex. We have communicated, from my mind to yours. Magic.

Writing this blog and having this magical communication has helped me tremendously during this surreal and abstract, and any other art movement that applies (expressionist?), time. I have been able to funnel my anxiety and nervous energy, my questions and thoughts and actions and stupid jokes into this medium, and by doing so get them out of my head where they can breathe a little, see the sun a little, and not feel all pent up inside my skull where they would endlessly bounce around (much as I image kids are doing during this quarantine. Those poor, poor parents). 

Writing is a crystallising process. Putting words down forces me to reach into the fog of fragmented thoughts and hazy half ideas and decide how I really think and feel about a thing, to put it into a sentence that I can read back on and think “Oh yeah, that’s how it is”. And because I have formed it into a single clear statement, it’s as if I have permission to stop chewing over it, to let it go, to know it’s there if I need it, in black and white, and move on feeling a little lighter because of it. Magic.

As I have been doing this process for the past six weeks, the good/bad news (depending on if you’ve enjoyed these blogs or not, and if not, nobody made you keep reading them, that’s on you, friend) is that I have nothing left to say. All current concerns and questions, quibbles and queries about life in the time of COVID have been expunged onto the page and shared and communicated with you lovely people. The brain tank is currently clean and empty, and ready to be refilled. 

To all those who have read along, my deepest thanks goes out to you for taking this time to be with me, to communicate with me, for keeping me company and removing some of the isolation from my social isolation. These have been and continue to be strange times, but I am incredibly proud of how we as a community are getting through it together even while being forced to remain apart. That is another kind of magic.

I am sure there is more weirdness to come, more challenges and more adaptation, and so I’m sure it won’t be long until new perspectives and observations and silly jokes begin circling in my head, needing to be written down and shared with all of you. As such, this is not goodbye, instead let me just say, as is said in German, auf Wiedersehen (literal translation = on seeing again. I told you that language was literal!).

Until next time.

IMG-20200424-WA0001

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 26

With the days warming up over here, Summer is knocking on the back door, waiting to get in, which means all Europeans’ minds are turning towards one thing: the holidays. While things are improving in Austria in regards to the COVID restrictions — shops are reopening with strict guidelines in place regarding masks and the number of customers allowed inside at one time (it’s progress!) — the idea of being able to go on the usual beach holiday is still pretty much out of the question. As a consolation prize, the Austrian government has announced that travel to Germany and the Czech Republic may be allowed, but given that these locations are basically cookie cutter countries to Austria, at least in terms of topography and landscape, this is not proving to be a particularly exciting prospect for many Austrians. I imagine it’s a bit akin to booking an AirBnB only to find out it’s your neighbour’s house. It’d be interesting for a day, and for sure you’d snoop through their stuff for a while, but then you’re just staring at the same scenery from a slightly different perspective. 

More and more this holiday season, it’s looking like any vacation will have to be of the internal variety. But maybe, with a bit of imagination, it’s still possible to replicate the travel experience from the comfort of your own home. Let’s see what we’re working with:

THE JOURNEY

In order to truly capture the thrill of the flight, my first suggestion would be to find the most uncomfortable chair in your house, the one you keep in the basement or shed and every time you look at it you think “I should really throw that out” before closing the door and leaving it there forever. Set this chair up facing a wall or directly behind where your partner is sitting; the key component is to ensure there is only so much space between yourself and the object/person in front of you that your legs remain constantly bent at a 45 degree angle. 

For the next twenty-four hours, give yourself that real jetsetter experience by remaining in the chair at all times and doing nothing but eating reheated food and watching a collection of movies that never really interested you before, but will do to pass the time. 

For additional authenticity, every time you get up to go to the bathroom, spin yourself around a few times. This will ensure you get that genuine dizzy and slightly disoriented feeling whenever you’re sitting on the toilet. Bonus points for anyone who props up a mirror on the back of their toilet door so they can watch themselves as they do their business and consider how terrible they look. 

IMG_20180628_113530

THE BEACH HOLIDAY

As a landlocked country, the beach getaway is an important pilgrimage for the Austrian people, and while there’s no replacing the real deal, it is possible to create a poor facsimile of the real deal. Begin by coating the floor of your bathroom with fine-grained white sand, the type that feels soft and warm beneath the soles of your feet and pressing up between your toes. If your access to sand is limited, cat litter is readily available at most supermarkets.

Set up an electric heater in the room to simulate the tropical warmth you are used to finding at the beach. A tan is essential to ensure you look and feel the part, so sit as close as you can tolerate to the heater until you can feel your skin literally baking. When it is the colour of a freshly cooked spit roast pig, you’ll know you’re ready to strut your stuff.

Next, fill the bathtub with lukewarm to cold water and tip in as much salt as is available in your home. You’ll want enough to ensure that the fashionable second degree burn you have just acquired will sear upon contact with the water and that you will emerge with eyes as red as your skin. For additional authenticity, throw in strips of the slightly sludgy lettuce you forgot was in your crisper, as well as any old plastic bottles or bandaids you have in the trash.

IMG_0811

THE WILDERNESS GETAWAY

For many of us, a holiday is all about communing with nature. This experience can be replicated in the home with just a little effort. Begin by surrounding yourself with any and all house plants that you may own and try sparking up a conversation. Congratulations, you are now communing with nature. If you continue to the point that the plants begin to talk back, you have gone too far.  

Exposure to wildlife is also a big part of a wilderness getaway. Alex and I have taken up the pastime of attempting to lure the local cats up onto our balcony or in through the front door. While your neighbours may view this as the kidnapping of their beloved pets, you’ll know you are just doing your part to love and support the native fauna. If you start seeing “missing pet” signs being hung around your apartment block, you have gone too far.

A picnic on the bed is a great way to enjoy some rustic eating. Buy some bread and dips, some cheese and meat, be sure to remove any cats you may have trapped in the bedroom, and tuck into some wholesome food. If you can’t remember the last time you ate anywhere except the bed and wake up with salami slices stuck to your skin and ants in the bedding, you have gone too far.

IMG_1649

Those essential elements to a vacation are obtainable with a little out-of-the-box thinking, at least enough to fool that internal travel bug long enough until the world is once again open for business. And if all that fails, pop up any and all of your travel shots as a slideshow on your television, sit as close as possible, and get drunk off home-made cocktails. Before too long, you’ll forget where you are entirely and fall asleep to views of the beach. Just like on a real holiday.

Tomorrow: Writing.

P.S. For a, possibly, more enjoyable virtual vacation, check out Sir David Attenborough’s interactive tour of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: http://attenboroughsreef.com/

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 25

Over the past five years I have lived a rather mobile life. In many ways, I maintained three places of residence: London, Vienna, and Melbourne. Granted, my time in Melbourne was far less than that of the other two locations, but given that all my junk still fills a bedroom in my brother’s house, that some of my mail is still delivered there, and that Damian and Holly still refer to the room as “Jono’s room” despite the fact that they live there alone and have done so for five years now, I claim squatter’s rights. 

Unsurprisingly when attempting to stretch oneself between three countries of habitation, I have become very familiar with the various modes of transportation available in this modern age. Between long haul international flights to and from Australia and Europe, and regular smaller flights skipping across from London to Vienna, I have mastered the process of moving through an airport while allowing for time to drop off luggage, get through passport control and customs with some minutes allotted for a good frisking should the need arise, have myself a sneaky coffee and a sandwich, and locate my gate with just enough time for a quick dash to the toilet before boarding my plane. To date, I have yet to miss a flight, however there was one close call that had me sprinting through an airport praying to a god I don’t believe in. In this instance, I joined the tailend of the boarding queue and collapsed into my seat, relief and sweat pouring out of me. A win for me but not so much for the passenger beside me breathing in the byproduct of my relief and sweat.

IMG_1224

While district nursing across all the compass points of London, I learned to navigate the spider web of bus, tram, and train routes, and got to see the city from this variety of perspectives, as well as to meet and mingle with the people of London, including but not limited to that one gentleman who asked if he could light my hair on fire (I declined his invitation, for anyone wondering). To date, I have absolutely missed buses, and trains, and trams, and gotten myself so horrendously lost that I found myself wandering through industrial and distinctly creepy parts of London in the very early hours of the morning (for a full accounting of this occasion, please refer to LIFE IN LONDON #01).

The past few years has bred in me a distinct animosity towards these various modes of transportation, of being crammed in with strangers, the delays and cancellations, and of being herded here and there like cattle, the chewing habits of my co-commuters helping to complete this image. But, as is always the way when a viral pandemic sweeps across the world, now that the object of my disdain has been taken away from me, I find myself longing for those earlier golden days. Much like after a break up, I catch myself romanticising those elements that previously drove me mad. Oh, to be back in that train carriage, the moist armpit of an overweight passenger crammed in beside me hovering centimeters from my face, wavering ever closer as people attempt to push in despite the fact that there’s scarcely room to breath as it is. Not that I was breathing all that deeply, what with the armpit. Oh, the glory of moving with my community.

One of the highlights of my train trip into work used to be as the U2 trundled across the Danube River. I would look up from the meditative trance I had put myself in in order to pretend that I was in a quiet rainforest instead of squeezed in next to all the other morning commuters, and soak in the view of the winding water reflecting the colours of the rising sun and bracketed by the city of Vienna and the mountains perched behind it. It made me feel lucky to live in this city. I miss that.

Vienna

As an expatriate, the other thing I miss about transportation since the worldwide lock down is access to said world. It’s not always easy to be the one whose homeland it isn’t, to not get the references everyone else around you grew up with, to not always know the culturally appropriate thing to say (I have learned that Australians come on strong with the niceness and it can be confusing and unnerving to Europeans when we talk to a stranger like they’re already our mate), to miss your own country, and family, and in-jokes, and landscapes, and food, and friends. It was a comfort to know that, technically, if it all got too much, I could board the next plane out and be back amongst all the things and people I miss within twenty-four hours. I mean, super expensive buying a ticket that last minute, but technically possible.

Knowing that that option is no longer there is scary. For the first time since moving overseas, I truly feel cut off from my family. Already, trips away to see them have had to be cancelled and the reality is, I don’t know when I’ll next see them in person. In a time of uncertainties, that uncertainty is proving to be the hardest to live with.

So I’m just taking it one day at a time. Thinking about the unknown quantity of time between now and a future reunion doesn’t do me any good, so instead I just focus on the next twenty-four hours. I keep eating overnight oats and doing yoga with my wife. I keep writing silly blogs and going for strolls in the evening, thankful to have Alex in all of this. I keep messaging and video calling and sharing photos with my family so I can feel them close even if they are, in fact, far away. 

And I’ll keep doing this until enough days have passed that I can once again be herded like livestock through the maze of an airport, be packed in with all the noisy and smelly passengers, sit in those cramped seats and eat that crappy food, and do it all with a smile on my face, grateful for the miracle that is transportation, and ready to see my family at the other end.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-22 at 19.45.12

Tomorrow: Vacationing.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 24

I was not a sporty child. Or, to put it another way, I never understood why someone would sit back and watch a game when the latest Harry Potter book had just come out. Why put yourself through the tedium of a ball being kicked back and forth when you could lose yourself in Ron, Hermione, and Harry’s magical exploits? This perspective did not win me as many friends as you might think.

But I was raised right and when it came to AFL (the Australian Football League for any non-Australians reading), I knew I supported the Hawthorn Hawks. When the attributes of my team were questioned, I knew to parrot back lines I had learned to defend the honour of my team.

“No, [insert opposition team here] are worse at playing the game.” Got him.

Hawthorn Hawks

My father and older brother were passionate supporters and observing their excitement made me want to get into the sport in the same way. From the outside, watching them watching a match was like seeing someone riding a rollercoaster, pulled along on the exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows. But every time I settled into the beanbag on our living room floor, determined to enjoy the game in the same fashion, I would watch the kick and catch of the ball, hear the referee’s whistle and then wait for game play to resume, and after ten minutes would find my interest wandering and, invariably, I’d be asleep by the second quarter. 

In my defence, you couldn’t really find a better source of white noise. The muted roar of the crowd, the drone of the commentators, mutterings of “You bloody goose” from my father and the odd screech of “Kick it! Kick it!” from my nerve-wracked mother all wove together to hypnotise me into sedation. Maybe that was the origin of my need for rain sounds in order to fall asleep? I’m sure if I could go back in time and make a recording of our living room of a Saturday night, I would never have a problem getting a good night’s sleep again.

My parents reasoned that perhaps what was missing was the immediacy of the sport, the smell of the crowd, the dazzle of the flood lights, and the slap of skin as two players collided, and so we regularly drove down to Waverley Park to watch the mighty Hawthorn Hawks in action. I would proudly adorn a beanie and scarf bearing my team’s colours (brown and gold, definitely not yellow, and definitely not the colours of the human digestive and urinary systems as many of my classmates not-so subtly insinuated), and would take my place amongst the sea of supporters also decked out in our noble colours. 

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

And, to be fair, I loved the experience. The hot pies with sauce, the cans of soft drink, bags of chips, and sitting with Damo and making each other laugh all combined to make these matches incredibly memorable. The game I mostly ignored, but sitting in that grandstand, I got some of the best reading done of my life. When driving home, Dad would ask if we’d enjoyed ourselves and we’d all chorus “Yes!” and he’d look satisfied until I’d elaborate by telling him what a great book I’d read during the match, and then I’d see a disappointment come into his gaze that I never quite understood. Maybe he was wishing he’d taken the opportunity to read a good book too?

But having grown up, I now see the value in sport. It’s not just a game of kicking a leather ball between sticks (again, for any non-Australians, that is the primary objective of AFL), it’s about the competition, the community that grows around that competition, and the chance for a community to get a win now and then. Sport can be a distraction in the best way as it allows a person to switch off from their intimate worries and care about something bigger than them and yet something that doesn’t ask a lot from them. 

Right now, for the first time in my lifetime, there is no sport to watch, no victories to tally, no team for a community to get behind. At a time when we could all use the distraction of sport more than ever, we have been deprived of it, and I know for those people who used it to vent and switch off, they are feeling its absence. 

There is no easy fix for this. The sacrifice of sport is done to ensure the safety of the very community that supports it. My only suggestion would be to transfer that passion and that pride to those who are still out there, working hard and playing the game until our world can return to normal. Instead of your sports club, cheer on the teachers, and the supermarket workers, and the delivery men and women, and the healthcare workers. Applause when you see the number of cases drop and cheer when the recovered return home. These are the wins we can get behind and celebrate, and we can do so knowing that each victory brings us closer to the day when we can return to our sports where the stakes aren’t so high. 

Tomorrow: Transportation.