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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 23

Given that all hairdressers and barbers are closed along with the rest of the world, and that I am sheltering away from humanity like a mole person, I had mentally committed during this time to taking on the hairstyle and grooming habits of prehistoric man. However, my wife and quarantine roommate made it very clear that, as she has to cohabitate with me, spend the majority of her day looking at me, and is associated with me during those few times we mingle with the public, a long matted beard and head of hair would not be the look of the season and that basic self care still applies in the time of COVID.

I am one of those men who, despite approaching his mid-thirties, is lucky enough to still sport a full head of hair. Or, as my mother so lovingly stated to my wife the other day, “You got the hairy one.” Thanks, Mum. You always know how to sell me.

But being of the hirsute persuasion does raise the question: what does one do when all professional groomers are closed? When Alex raised this question, my answer was joyous and exclamatory “You could cut it!”. 

To comprehend the exuberance behind my reaction, you have to first understand that I am someone who does not enjoy going to the hairdressers. I don’t know if it’s the intimacy of a stranger running their hands over my head, or the way they sharply angle my head from side to side and up and down, or the forced efforts of holding a conversation while my head is being jerked in various directions by a violent puppeteer. Regardless of the reason, I dread having to go for a haircut and usually delay until the point that I look like a sheep that has been lost in the wilderness for the past year. 

sheep

As such, for the past five years I have been hinting to Alex that I would be more than fine if she wanted to have a swing at trimming the follicles, you know, if that were something that might interest her, no pressure. Despite my subtle efforts at incepting the idea into her subconsciousness of her becoming my resident hairdresser, Alex has declined all such invitations and I have had to go to the barber like a proper adult. But the closing of the door that is the world shutting down due to a pandemic has opened the window of my wife attempting a home haircut. It’s all about looking for that silver lining. 

After spending the last few weeks suggesting that now would be the ideal time for her to take up the new hobby of hairdressing, what with all access to professional trimmers being denied and with all socialisation being forbidden, meaning no one would see her efforts were they less than satisfactory, Alex eventually capitulated and agreed to cut my hair. Her only stipulation was that she do so after her birthday. Given that she wanted to avoid people looking at birthday snaps and saying “You look great, but who is that homeless man who has apparently been wrestling with an active lawnmower?”, that seemed more than reasonable. Alex turned twenty-nine on Thursday and so on Saturday this guy got a haircut.

For those of you playing at home, here is what my hair looked like pre-snip:

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Alex approached the task with some trepidation, due in part to her complete lack of practical experience, her desire to not destroy my self-confidence by making me look like a toddler who just figured out how scissors worked, and because, rather than a set of professional hairdressing implements, the tools at our disposal were a beard trimmer and some kitchen scissors. I reassured her that she should just give it a shot, that it would grow back, that currently very few people would see it anyway, and that my self-confidence was not wrapped up in my looks. It is wrapped up in her constant approval, but given that Alex is locked inside with me 24 hours a day, I currently have that in spades. Swish.

We set ourselves up in our tiny bathroom, clicked on the beard shears, and got to work. We had some music playing from our bluetooth speaker, hair was falling around my feet like rose petals, and Alex was far gentler with the head angling than previous hairdressers, so I was feeling pretty good. This was until I heard a soft “Oh-no” from my wife. My concern deepened when I asked her what had happened and was met by a long beat of silence followed by what can only be described as maniacal laughter. 

Thankfully, it was only a closer than expected shave and by no means disastrous. She persevered and after a few breaks to allow the beard trimmer to recharge (poor thing wasn’t used to tackling a whole head), my hairs had all been cut. Alex even went so far as to change heads on the shears and make the back and sides a little shorter so my hair had a bit of shape and style rather than just looking like a cue tip (not a fault of my wife, more the shape of my head and my hairs’ propensity to stick straight up and out when short).

The end result was better than I had dared to dream, to the point that I am proud to peacock about and show my face in public (of course I can’t, what with the need to wear a mask, but I would if I could).

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These are strange times and things that we have always taken as a staple, such as the ability to go out and get your hair styled, are no longer available. But some good can come out of these restrictions. We are being forced to adapt and get creative, and along the way people from all over the world are learning new skill sets. People are in their kitchens discovering the joys of baking their own bread. Others are playing and inventing new games with their kids. And in our house, my wife has unearthed a talent for trimming that may mean I will never have to go to the hairdressers ever again. It is a weird, surprising, and sometimes fortuitous time to be alive.

Tomorrow: Sport.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 22

Yesterday was the anniversary of my wife’s birth, an occasion that requires the utmost of fanfare, obviously, but fanfare in the time of COVID is a tricky thing to come by. There can be no gathering of Alex’s adoring public, no party with a chorus line of handshakes and warm embraces. Luckily, Alex and I share everything, including microorganisms, so I could distribute the warm embraces on everyone’s behalf without the risk of being infected. It took up the better part of the day, to be honest. She’s a popular girl.

Given that restrictions dropped into place in Vienna almost a month ago, I had some time to prepare and make sure isolation didn’t get in the way of a proper celebration. Firstly, it’s important for you to know that my wife’s glee in birthdays hasn’t diminished over the years like the rest of us cynic adults, but rather she will bounce up and down and tremble all over at the mere mention of her birthday like a puppy who just heard the word “park”. As such, there is no such thing as overdoing it when it comes to birthday decorations, which is why I was out of bed at 6:45 to ensure our living room looked like the inside of a clown car. 

The first step was to deconstruct our home office as Alex had made it very clear that monitors and office equipment do not set a birthday mood. The next was to coat the walls and roof with every possible decoration we had. As this is not my first rodeo, I had some already prepared, but had intended to buy some more up until the world went into lockdown and my access to party supply stores became severely limited. But, dredging up memories of making Christmas decorations in primary school at that time of the year when the teacher has all but given up and will use any time-killing activity at their disposal, I set about making some of my own. I had scissors, sticky tape, wrapping paper, and a whole lot of time on my hands, and from this collection spun out some of the best paper chains the world has ever seen. 

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The birthday cake is often the lynchpin to a birthday celebration, so I approached the task of baking with some trepidation. My apprehension was doubled as my wife is an amazing baker of cakes, both in flavour and appearance, and tripled as cakes hold great importance to the Austrian people. Coffee and cake is to the Austrians what tea and biscuits is to the British, or what vegemite toast and milo is to the Australians. Needless to say, the pressure was on. Fortunately for me, my wife is very direct when it comes to matters of food, so when it was time to select the variety of cake to make, she said “I want that one” and no further research was necessary. The result was a lemon sponge with raspberry cream, with a ratio of one part cake to two parts cream. This is a ratio I fully support. 

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Once cake and decorations were unveiled to a reaction of happy foot taps from Alex, which immediately made all efforts worthwhile, it was onto the real deal. The present giving. Being a creative guy, I normally like to make something by hand to give the gift that personal touch. But after five years together, Alex has about all the paintings, drawings, crocheted beanies, and pieces of writing that any sane person would need, so this year I went in a different direction and just spent as much money as I could to compensate. The gift was a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones that I had intuited that Alex might want after picking up on subtle clues, such as her stating “I really want those”. She planned to buy them herself with any and all birthday money she received, not thinking I had budgeted to buy her such a gift, but she severely underestimated how far I would go to buy her love. 

The noise-cancelling headphones were originally intended to be used when flying to exotic destinations, but the whole global pandemic resulting in all planes being grounded really put a wrench in the gears of that plan (thanks COVID). But a new and better use for them has arisen in the meantime, one which could see an improvement to our time in quarantine, and even, in the long term, our marriage: Alex can wear them to avoid hearing me eat.

I no longer have to live in fear of getting a fork to my baby-soft skin every time I go to eat an apple. Sometimes things just work out for the best.

In addition to this gift, I also lashed out and got her the most luxurious birthday card that money could buy.

The rest of the day was made up of video chats, socially distant visits from friends, cake, walks in the glorious Spring weather, phone calls, cake, a socially isolated trip to the people responsible for Alex’s birth in the first place (her parents), different cake, and then crashing early to lie in bed and try to digest all the cake we had eaten.

My wife is an incredible, generous, considerate, loving person (see Easter post Re: “Angel in a human suit”) whom I love to bursting, and it pained me that someone who so loves their birthday would have to spend one in isolation from the people in her life. My heartfelt thanks goes out to all the beautiful people who texted, phoned, video chatted, sent photos, and voicemails, and videos, sung happy birthday, left Facebook posts, who sent cards, and presents, and flowers, and made pasta salad, and showed their love à la Love Actually, and made Alex feel as unisolated and as special as these times will allow.

Rather than it being a birthday that was forgotten, you all made it a birthday she will never forget. Thank you.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and whatever else you do with these days, make sure you eat some cake. I know I will.

On Monday: Grooming.