Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 21

A fun little fact about me: I often suffer from insomnia (maybe fun was overselling it). Not every night, and not so severely that I’m so exhausted during the day that I end up in wacky situations wherein I’m on a date and fall asleep face first into my soup bowl and come up sputtering, my date asking if I’m okay, and I deliver some witty line like “Sorry about that. It just smelt so good, I couldn’t resist”. Look guiltily to camera B. Cue the canned laughter. But it happens enough for it to be a thing.

Alex and I have a pretty set pre-bed routine: do the dishes, read for a bit, lights off, snuggle down and watch an episode of a comedy show until we feel sufficiently drowsy to commit to another night of rest, asleep by ten. Winning at life.

But about once a week we’ll go through this procedure, Alex will whisper a goodnight, roll over, be asleep in approximately four seconds, and I will lay there in the dark quietly resenting my sleeping wife, already knowing that the sandman has overlooked me yet again. Now, I’m not a great sleeper on the best of nights, but usually if I wait it out for about an hour my body gets the message that I’m not just killing time here and I’ll pass out. But on an insomnia night, it’s as if my ability to transition into unconsciousness has been turned off. And the worst of it is, I don’t really know why. 

The easy solution would be to blame the ol’ ball and chain for stealing all the blankets, but the Austrians are a sly people and have gotten ahead of this problem by agreeing as a culture that everyone gets their own doona. As such, Alex curls up all cosy in hers and I burrito myself in mine and nobody wages a silent tugging war for major territory rights over the duvet.


Another go-to explanation could be that I have nagging doubts and anxieties keeping me awake, only I’m not really all that anxious a person. I have considered that perhaps I have squished and crammed my anxieties deep into my subconsciousness where they are bubbling away beneath my notice, robbing me of sleep when attempting to slip into that altered state of consciousness, but if that is true, and all it costs to have anxiety-free days is a little lost sleep, then I am reluctant to rock that boat.

So, rather than deep and profound dives into my subconsciousness to challenge the foundations of my id, I play rain sounds on my mobile phone. A duct-tape solution, maybe, but it works like fifty percent of the time. 

I figure that with everyone holed up inside watching endless news cycles about the growing number of cases and deaths, and given that the future is an unknown entity and the ability to make plans and feel secure has been robbed from us, I’m probably not the only one losing a little sleep at the moment. I’m not one for bragging, but I’ve been struggling with sleep for years now and have put in my 10,000 hours, which makes me something of an expert. As such, I will happily walk you through a few techniques I use to wrestle my way into dreamland.

  1. Make it rain! As mentioned, I use an app on my phone to simulate the sound of rain. Having a consistent noise to focus on can stop the inward focus of cyclical thoughts, of replaying your to-do list, or reliving that time in 7th grade when your crush caught you picking your nose and you told her you were only scratching it and tried to prove it by putting your finger up there again and this time all her friends saw too and you realised you made a terrible mistake only it was too late, far too late.
    Instead, your focus turns outwards to the peaceful pattering of rain.
    Of course, it doesn’t have to be rain. Some people enjoy the sounds of a babbling brook, crashing waves, whale song, or the wind. Some also claim to enjoy falling asleep to the sound of radio static, but these people are clearly psychopaths. Don’t trust those people.
  2. Mattress mathematics. People have stated that maths puts them to sleep, so why not turn that to your advantage! The classic option is to count sheep, but having an endless queue of livestock marching through my imagination isn’t a particularly restful image for me, so I count my breaths. This also helps me focus on taking long deep breaths, which has been shown to help bring on sleep. Doubling this up with the rain sounds will help as the noise from your app will drown out the sound of your deep breathing in case you share your bed with someone who is just straight up mental about breathing sounds coughAlexcoughcoughIamdefintelytalkingaboutAlex. Cough.
  3. Have fun with futility! Lay awake staring at the ceiling and consider the enormity of the universe and the scale of time that has passed before you winked into existence, and hold in your head for just a fraction of a second how infinitesimally minute and short-lived your life is against the backdrop of everything. Once full comprehension of how small and powerless you are is achieved, a sense of peace will wash over you and you’ll be snoozing like a baby in no time! (Disclaimer: This technique can have the opposite effect on some individuals and result in lying awake in a cold sweat until the sun comes up. Use with discretion.) 

Losing sleep at a time like this is a completely normal, some might say even logical, reaction to life in the time of COVID. It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety wave of statistics and uncertainty and to just get dragged under. For some, the slowing down of life has opened up pockets of time that didn’t exist in their previous hectic routines, providing space to contemplate fears and scenarios that were normally buried under the next item on their to-do list.

Sleep and mental health are a tied knot, so do try and take some measures to ensure you’re able to switch off at night. Meditate before bed, keep a normal schedule, try and exercise throughout the day, and, if necessary, do what the Austrians do and get two blankets for the bed. It may seem like a sacrifice of intimacy with your spouse, but you won’t care when bundled up like a burrito and sleeping like a baby.

And if all that fails, then at least lay back, relax, and listen to the rain.

On Friday: Celebrations. (Tomorrow is Alex’s birthday, so I will be dedicating the whole day to fulfilling my husbandly duties towards the birthday girl).

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 16

Here in Vienna, Spring is descending on us like a soothing balm. The days are getting longer, the temperature is getting warmer, birds are singing, flowers blooming, and we are stuck inside looking out, resenting all of it.

When the restrictions started, the weather was still cold and we had a week of icy winds and intermittent rain. We all smirked to ourselves and laid back on our couches, thinking “Stay inside all day? Okay, government, if you insist”. But now that the world has spun a little further along its orbit and the season is changing, this deal we struck is no longer sitting quite so comfortably.

With society stuck sitting in a timeout and the tempting outside and all the things we used to enjoy about it being denied to us, to me it comes down to how we use what we still have. It’s all about maximising on The Great Indoors. 

Alex and I share a one-bedroom, 65m2 apartment, equipped with the usual kitchen, bathroom, toilet, living room, and, to ensure we can still have a taste of fresh air and don’t go mad and attack each other after succumbing to claustrophobia, a balcony. But, when viewed from the right perspective, it can become so much more. Let me take you on a tour.

Let’s start with the couch. Ours is a three-person grey chaise lounge, which, should the situation call for it, can be converted into a bed. This situation arises when we have international guests staying with us for a stretch or we feel like being extra snuggly. Since the start of the lockdown, we have discovered just how versatile this seemingly simple piece of furniture can be. For the past three weeks our couch has functioned as a restaurant, La Patate de Canapé (it just translates to the Couch Potato, but sounds a lot classier in French). Here we dine on the most exquisite of foods, enjoying the comfortable homey atmosphere and sparkling conversation. The only downside is that this restaurant insists you cook your own food and clean up after you’re done. Fricken meta restaurants. 

The couch is also our theatre, where we sip on wine and indulge in the finest cinema that Netflix has to offer. It is an intellectual salon where we discuss and debate such hotbed topics as the global financial situation, America’s healthcare system, and whether I should shave off my beard (Alex is the most passionate about the latter and is strongly opposed). And, when necessary, the couch acts as a place where Alex can nod off for a spell. These power naps of hers can last anywhere between ten minutes and two hours. She never knows going in, so it’s always a gamble.


But the functionality of our limited space doesn’t begin and end with the couch, we also have an entire living room floor which can transmogrify into an array of locations. This section of flooring, whose purpose is normally only to create enough distance from ourselves and the television, has become our morning yoga studio where our bodies stretch and bend (or don’t, depending on the pose). It acts as our gaming centre where we pit our word skills against one another across the arena of the scrabble board. I win about fifty percent of the time. I try not to let the fact that Alex speaks English as a second language ruin those victories. (We also used to play the card game “Spit” in our games centre, but it turns out I have a preternatural ability to win that game and that Alex has the preternatural ability to summon the rage of a berserker when losing, so we don’t talk about that game in our house anymore.) 

The floor can also be a massage parlour, a dance floor, and, when necessary, it acts as a place where Alex can nod off for a spell. Girl really loves her naps.


Let me now take you through to the water closet, and on this part of the tour I must ask that you refrain from using flash photography. The porcelain throne is a wonderful place to get some me-time, offering a quiet getaway where one can delve into a book, catch up on the rest of the world with a good scroll through instagram, finally answer those messages from friends and family you’ve been meaning to get to, or just sit in the silence with your thoughts for a while. And, if the situation calls for it, eliminate bodily waste. 


With a little creativity, the right perspective, and a dash of quarantine-induced madness, our humble abode has the potential to become anything we need it to be. I recommend you take the time to explore the mysteries and see the sights of your own Great Indoors while we all wait for the world to spin a little further in its orbit to that point in the future where we are free to roam outside again together.


Tomorrow: Art.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 9

When discussing worldwide pandemics, very few people interrupt the conversation to point out the positives that come from a sweeping global infection. It’s quite likely because, when weighed against all the sheer awfulness of a widespread contagion (sickness, death, economic collapse), those trying to make these points are promptly chased out of the room. With rocks. 

But as the bad media seem singularly motivated to drive the negativity of the moment down our throats until we are full and heavy and sad from it all, and as I am tucked in my apartment out of rock-throwing distance, I thought I’d highlight some of the unforeseen changes to the environment that have come about due to humanity hibernating for a spell.

As it is the place where we like to live, and the place where our food is farmed which we like to eat, and the place where the major production of carbon-dioxide into oxygen occurs which we like to breath, it’s not aggrandising to say the environment holds a certain special significance to us as a species. Unfortunately, as a species, we have the habit of treating the environment in the same way a teenager treats their room, which is to say the floor is littered with filth, the space is rife with noise pollution, and the air is not always safe to inhale. 

But amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly to those environmentalists who have been trying to convince the world of man-made climate change for the last few decades, once everyone turned off their toys, some of that damage started to become undone. 

The first story I heard that drove this home was a report of dolphins appearing in the canals of Venice due to the cessation of water vehicles for the first time in years. Sadly, this story, which is ready made for a Disney film, is not actually true. Dolphins were indeed spotted, only they were spotted in Sardinia, which is approximately 748 kms away from Venice. I’m sure the dolphins in Sardinia are also appreciating the reduction of boats in their waters, but are apparently not so energised as to make the trip to Venice. 

But, the good news is that, while apparently not good enough for dolphins too lazy to swim a few hundred miles, the waters of Venice are indeed cleaner than they have been in years, with locals shocked to see the liquid running clear. Let’s try not to focus on the tragedy of people shocked at seeing clean water and instead take it for the win it is.

Venice's clean canals

Photo credit: Marco Capovilla / Venezia Pulita

Air has also benefited from humanity’s downfall, which in a circular irony is actually our windfall as we can all, literally, breathe a little easier. Satellite photos taken from above Beijing depict the incredible reduction of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, a substance made famous as the pollution that spills from cars, trucks, and power plants.

Reduction of China's air pollution

Photo credit: NASA

There have also been numerous reports of animals taking to the streets after the desertion of mankind. Much like Kevin from Home Alone, these animals are wandering around the empty house, not sure where the grown ups are, but sure to make the most of it. I wish the cheeky little scamps the best of luck while we’re away.

Deer crossing

Photo credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images

But it is not only the external environment that has changed as a result of the COVID measures. Driven indoors and away from our offices filled with appropriately-sized desks and chairs that support the lower back, Alex and I were forced to go to some extreme lengths to reconfigure our internal environment to ensure we don’t emerge from the corona-confinement with the spines of an arthritic geriatric.

We knew the problem lay in a lack of suitable hardware and so set about rectifying the problem the only way bad-asses like us knew how: I’m talking about a raid, baby.

We hopped in the car, buckled ourselves in, took a moment to savour being outside of our apartment for the first time that day, and then pointed ourselves in the direction of Alex’s work. The place was lousy with office furniture and we were going to leave the place with a cache of our own if it killed us.

It turns out it didn’t kill us, nor was our doing somersaults through doorways and army-crawling down hallways at all necessary. The place was all but empty except for one of Alex’s colleagues who made polite small talk while we shoved monitors into an Ikea bag and wheeled away a couple of desk chairs. The colleague was supposedly in the office to get some work done, but the platter of bread, butter, and huge slab of bacon set up at his desk, plus the fact that we knew he had three children at home bouncing off the walls with the enforced isolation, said this was more of a place of escape than a place of work. 

We tipped our hat to him and his scam and he tipped his hat to us and ours, and then we got the hell out of there.

The result of our perfect heist is a living room/home office that acts as a site of productivity rather than the slow and incremental torture of our joints and ligaments. Sometimes the crime is worth the risk.

Vienna home office

Photo credit: Alexandra Robb-Hofer (Bonus “Where’s Jonathan?” for those who want to play)

I’ll finish off this entry and this week with an incredible video my mother-in-law shared with me which beautifully and eerily illustrates the impact this surreal moment in history has had on the city of Vienna.

Empty Vienna from Christian Haake on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Stay inside, video chat with someone you love, do a puzzle on your living room floor with a drink and some conversation, read a good book, eat your favourite food, make something, draw something, cook something, and let’s make the best out of what we still have. 

On Monday: Community.