Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 20

We have experienced our first, and god, please, let it be the last, isolation Easter. And, given that this day of rebirth and new life was conducted from the confines of our apartment, locked away from the rest of humanity, it was pretty good. 

Even from the encapsulation of our rabbit den (pun definitely intended), we were able to observe the day’s rites. We awoke and hunted throughout our surroundings for hidden Easter goods, we gathered the offerings into baskets, eyes growing wider as our collection amassed, and we ensured that the first food to pass through our lips was chocolate. We are very devout like that.

The morning started with a scroll through the family group chat to watch our beautiful niece and nephews get all kinds of excited over the discovery of sweet snacks. Photos of our younger nephews, Eli and Callum, faces smeared with chocolate like lions whose snouts were decorated with the blood of their latest kill, brought a smile to my lips and warmth to my heart. 

Alex was up and out of bed before me which meant that the honour of the first hunt went to me. Anyone who’s been following this blog series will be aware that our apartment isn’t all that cavernous, so I was confident I would round up my treats rather quickly. After the first ten minutes of foraging, I had found four of the five goodie bags she had hidden, but felt my confidence fall away by pieces as the fifth eluded me. As stated, the place just isn’t that big and in a short amount of time I had simply run out of rooms to look through, and so quickly transitioned from a cocky swagger to a pathetic shuffle as I approached my wife and asked for a hint. Alex was quietly proud of herself, by which I mean she was laughing, jumping up and down, and clapping her hands. She eventually relented and we played hot or cold until I found it behind a pot plant. The pot plant, in my defence, had the exact same proportions as the goodie bag. The girl knew what she was doing; It was a damn good hiding spot.

Knowing in advance that I couldn’t compete with my wife’s subterfuge, I went in a different direction and instead planned a treasure hunt, equipped with rhyming clues written on burnt and aged paper. My philosophy is and always has been, if you’re going to do a treasure hunt, you do the damn thing right.

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Except for the first clue, Alex whipped through the rest in about ten minutes. Apparently my rhyming riddles were not as enigmatic as I had thought. Still, I went to the effort of lighting things on fire, risking sending our tiny apartment up in flames, to give the clues that authentic look, so I get bonus points for that.

Then, as is traditional, we proceed to eat a dangerous amount of food. We feasted on savoury waffles with scrambled eggs and bacon, complemented, of course, with a sampling of chocolates. One of the treats that I scored was a box of chocolate bananas, which technically does exist in Australia, but the Austrian variety are very different and I like them much more. I like the Easter edition of these chocolate bananas the most, however, because, while they are in fact identical to the regular chocolate bananas, the packaging features one of the most sexually suggestive cartoons that I have ever seen. How this made it onto a candy designed for children, I will never know. 

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In the lead up to Easter, Alex made a huge batch of Easter cookies to distribute to family and friends because she is, I’m convinced, an angel in a human suit. On Good Friday, we made it our mission to visit the recipients of these baked goods and bring a little jubilation to their isolation, albeit from a distance of a least two metres away. One of our deliveries was to Kerstin and Thomas, Alex’s cousin and her partner, who have been isolating with their two month old son and who is too damn cute to accurately describe with the written word. While we couldn’t squeeze the little ball of adorableness as we would have liked, we did set up a system wherein we perched on their front lawn while they set up camp just inside their house, and we waved to the cute little man and had a much needed catch up with our friends. 

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The four-day religious retreat also had us video chatting with an allsorts of family, facebook calling with my folks on Saturday, zooming with our party people on Monday morning (Damo, Holly, Dom, and Nikki), and skyping with Alex’s sister and her family and Alex’s folks on the Monday afternoon. It meant that, even with the global hibernation hampering the holiday, we still managed to feel like we had the requisite familial recharge.

However your isolation Easter was spent, I hope you managed to experience the thrill of the egg hunt, chat with someone you love, eat your weight in chocolate, and that a giant man-sized bunny broke into your house and hid food in inconvenient places.

Tomorrow: Sleep.

(P.S. For those of you playing at home, the answer to the pictured clue was the space in the couch where we keep the spare blankets and pillows. If you got it right, you have my permission to reward yourself with some chocolate, regardless of the time and location in which you may be reading this. Happy Easter.)

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 18

I think it’s only natural, four weeks into self isolation, to feel the boredom creeping in a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife’s company and the activities we do together in our home, but the conversation about what you did that day grows a little stale when what you did was spend every waking moment within a three metre radius of each other. It’s hard to regale my wife with a funny story about the day’s events when her response is, inevitably, “I know, I was there.” Even worse is when you find yourself telling a story that she told to you only yesterday, and that you told to her the week before, and you realise you’re trapped in an endless feedback loop of story swapping that is likely to drive you both mad. The upside being, if we were to go mad, that at least we’d have something new to talk about.

The recycling of stories all comes down to a lack of stimulus. With social interactions being whittled down to the bare minimum, there’s no longer any fuel to keep the fires of interesting anecdotes burning. It’s gotten so bad that I find myself longing for the days when I would use public transport, when mentally unstable men would approach me and ask if they could light my hair on fire or when drunk chicks would vomit on the carriage floor only for the neighbouring passenger’s dog to start lapping it up (both true stories), because then at least I would have something to talk about.

The other day I found myself alone in the living room and I realised that if Alex were to walk in at that moment and ask what I was doing, the only honest answer I could give her was “I am standing in a sunbeam”. 

The day before that, a man was walking past our apartment with a young puppy and I watched that puppy like a stalker whose object of his obsession just strolled into binocular range. And when the man and his dog eventually ambled out of my field of view, a part of me mourned the loss.

Just yesterday, Alex suggested that we take down and wash the scrim that hangs in front of our windows and I was excited, excited, at the suggestion. Ladies and gentlemen, no one should be excited by the prospect of washing scrim. Surely, the early signs of insanity are talking to yourself and getting a small thrill when considering putting your gauze curtains through a gentle spin cycle.

The obvious solution to this boredom, and to staving off insanity, is to entertain yourself, but given our resources are limited to what is currently on our properties, that means getting creative.

My father is waiting out the end of the world on a five acre block of land on the outskirts of Traralgon. He has decided to combat his boredom by revitalising his veggie patch and, much to his joy, while doing so he discovered some potatoes had managed to grow despite any active cultivation on his behalf. In what can only be assumed was an effort to keep his mind stimulated and himself entertained, Dad then proceeded to make a potato man from his findings, starting with a simple mock-up before deciding that features were required and adding eyes and facial hair.

Now while some may claim that making a small friend from fresh produce is, in fact, a sign that his sanity has already slipped, I instead choose to see it as an effort on my father’s part to bring some levity into the lull. Of course, he did then proceed to dismember his new friend and boil him in oil, so that does make it tough to make an argument for his mental faculties.

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Photo credit: Peter Robb

Please note that the eyes are still present, as if my father wanted to be able to lock gazes with his tiny friend one last time while he fried. Another strike against his stability.

One of the methods my wife and I are using to combat the boredom is to set up small competitions with one another. With the Olympic Games being cancelled, it’s now up to us to fuel the spirit of competitiveness and in that vein we are currently in the middle of a battle to see who will use up the last of the toothpaste. The rivalry is waged silently, unspoken, with each of us stepping up to the line every time we go to brush our teeth. There will be no awards, just a sense of shame for the loser who is unable to wring a final blob of paste from the tube, and a sense of victory for the winner who discovers a new tube the next time they attend to their dental hygiene. 

Toothpaste Olympics

Whatever strategies you’re using to beat away the boredom and to cling desperately to your sanity, I suggest getting creative, find merriment in the mundane and excitement in the everyday, and if you do happen to make a little friend along the way, do your best not to eat them. As the poet said, “That way madness lies” (King Lear Act 3, scene 4, 21).

Tomorrow: Introvert vs Extrovert.

(P.S. For those of you wondering, our scrim looks great now.)

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 17

I’ve talked on here before about using creativity and art as an outlet and a form of meditation during these trying times, and I’m now going to do it some more because this is my blog and you can’t stop me.

For me, the act of creating something is one that gives purpose to the day. If I have made something, been artistic in some way, then it’s as if I have permission to sign off the previous twenty-four hours as productive, useful, and not just me sitting around eating chips in sweatpants and watching The Office for the twelfth time. Don’t get me wrong, I will still use my day like this, but if I’ve slipped some creativity into the mix then I don’t feel so guilty about it. 

There is something very fundamental about the joy of creation. Of making something tangible and stepping back from it and looking at it and thinking “I did that”. Of putting something new into the world that didn’t exist before. 

Perhaps this is how God felt when he tinkered around with heaven and earth. Maybe he stopped to savour the whole formation of reality thing and got the same flush of pride I do when I sketch a cute animal. Happy with his progress, he cobbled together some light and firmament and got into the meat of it all, what with the plants, and the moon and the stars. Then, seeing as he was on a roll, he also sketched some cute animals. Only, you know, using flesh instead of a grey-lead pencil. Finally, wanting someone to whom he could look at, nod in the direction of all existence, and casually say “I did that”, he slapped some clay together and made humans. He might have gone a bit too far with that one. A good artist really needs to know when the work is done.

Of course, I can’t know the mind of a god, what with not being one or even being convinced that such a thing exists, but I do know that when I draw a picture or write a goofy blog and I make something, it feels good. 

I’m not the only one who’s been taking advantage of this surplus of home time in order to make and create. An artistic bent runs in my family and I’m proud to say the next generation has absorbed this genetic trait and are already whipping up masterpieces of their own. My niece and nephew, Ella and Harry, six and four respectively, are currently out of school and daycare and bearing up rather well under the homeban, all things considered. It helps that their parents have broken down the days into hour blocks of subjects and activities, and that a lot of those blocks include self-expressive electives.

Most recently, using the medium of chalk, they transformed their driveway into an explosion of art so grand it rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (if not in technique, then at least in passion). 

Rainbow

Callum, my youngest nephew, is also pictured, but to my knowledge his input was more that of emotional support and encouragement than actual drawing. He hasn’t quite got the fine motor skills needed to wield the jumbo chalk. 

The father of these adorable children, a man I am proud to call brother, or just Matt, that works too, only recently discovered his own creative outlet after watching the always inspiring and always soothing Bob Ross. Having YouTubed countless Bob Ross painting videos, Matt eventually decided to pick up a brush and give it a go himself. Depicted below is his third attempt and, I love the man, but I hate him a bit too. His third attempt! Show off.

Mountains

 

The brother of this adorable man, a man I also call brother, or Damo, or womb companion (were twins, it’s not weird), is also of the artistic bent and about ten years ago decided he wanted to teach himself photography. These days, it’s as if he can’t help but take a glorious photo every time he clicks the button. It makes holidaying with him a challenge because, even though I know we’re both pointing our cameras at the same thing, his always has the habit of coming out as masterpieces and mine come out as happy snaps. Thankfully, we share all shots over Google photos, so I just pretend all his photos are mine.

His own method of fighting the frustrations of self isolation with artistry has been to post a photo a day to instagram displaying the beauty that can still be found even when your field of inspiration has shrunk down to your home and small excursions to the surrounding area.

Below is a sample of the work he is producing.

You can see more of his work on his instagram account. His username is damian.robb.

Finally, you were promised cute animals, you came here for cute animals, all anyone really wants to see on the internet is cute animals, so here is my latest work-in-progress. 

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God damn, but is he cute. Good pup.

I sketch with a Faber Castell TK9400 3mm 4B Clutch Pencil, which is a fancy way of saying a grey-lead pencil that comes in a metal casing rather than a wooden one. I draw because it’s an outlet. Because it makes me focus on one thing and forget about the stress of everything else. Because putting something new into the world feels good, even if I’m the only one who ever sees it.

Whatever your art is, be it crochet, or cookie baking, or hair cutting, or fingernail art, or home improvement, or soap making, or sowing, or tailoring little outfits for your cats, or origami, or music, or writing blogs to try and make people laugh, go do some of it. Make something. Make anything. It will feel good, I promise.

But I don’t need to come up with the words to convince you because a cleverer writer than me already has. Neil Gaiman gave this commencement address at the Philadelphia University of the Arts in May 2012 and his words are as powerful now as they were when first delivered.

Tomorrow: Boredom.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 15

Well, here we are in the fourth week of social isolation and despite the utter weirdness of it all, despite saying a thousand times to just about everyone I encounter “it’s just so weird”, the human ability to habituate to a situation is kicking in and it’s all starting to feel…normal. Which only makes sense, in a way, as this is now, on a global level, the new normal. 

It’s starting to feel normal to be in my apartment for twenty-three hours a day, every day, conducting all facets of my life from this vantage point like a spider in its web. Only, you know, without all the creepy cocooning and liquifying insects thing. 

It feels normal to have an office station set up where our dining-room table used to be and to eat every meal from our laps on the couch (to be fair, eating on the couch was a pretty regular occurrence in our house, so that bit didn’t take quite so much adjustment). 

It’s now feeling so normal to exclusively wear sweatpants that I am almost dreading the day when I will be asked to wear stiff slacks again that do not have happy and forgiving elastic in the waist.

Part of this readiness to accept the normality of it all is that there are perks amongst the sacrifices of a lockdown. I like being with my wife everyday. There’s a reason I picked her, beyond her mean culinary skills and cute butt, and that is because I like her. I like her company. She is my best friend and makes a great COVID buddy.

I also like not having to catch the U-Bahn every morning. Even before the threat of catching the coronavirus, squishing up to random members of the public was not a favourite pastime of mine. These days I can have a short lie in, slide into my well broken-in sweatpants, and walk down the hall to my place of work. The only person I have to squish up to is Alex and that is a favourite pastime of mine. 

I like talking to my family more. With everybody trapped indoors, they’re not out doing things away from their computers (like crazy people), which means the window where I can see and communicate with them is much wider. I have unfettered access to them, they have no excuse to decline, so it’s a win win!

Of course, a lot of aspects of our new normal are hard. While a video chat can scratch an itch, it’s no replacement for the real thing. This weekend, Alex’s friend Christina very kindly offered to swing by and deliver us some raspberry tiramisu that she had made (and ladies and gentlemen, it tasted as good as it sounds). We had been baking ourselves (another perk of living in the time of COVID: a surplus of home-made baked goods) and so we arranged for an exchange of merchandise. But, with restrictions in place, this exchange, of course, had to take place as carefully as possible.

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The sense that we were dealing drugs was stronger than ever (only better, because instead of drugs we got tiramisu). We buzzed Christina into the building while waiting behind the front door, watching through the peephole as she came and laid the product on our doormat. Once she had taken the required three steps back, we opened the door, snatched our score, and deposited our own goods to the mat before retreating into our hallway. Christina scanned the area, saw the coast was clear, and made the grab. We traded waves and greetings and then she was out of the building, off to deliver goods to her next customer. 

Now normally when Christina comes by we don’t leave her standing out in the hall like a leper begging for scraps, but instead invite her in, give kisses to cheeks, share a coffee, and generally behave like people who actually care about one another. But this is not normally, this is the new normal.

A recent aspect of the new normal that is proving hard to swallow is the latest measures announced by the Austrian government. As supermarkets are the last bastion of social interchange and, therefore, virus interchange, the government decided to do what they could to shore up this weakness without having to close them down all together. They have stated that only a limited number of customers will be allowed in supermarkets at any given time, that all surfaces and trolleys will be regularly disinfected, and, the pill that has the hardest time going down, everyone entering the store must be wearing a face mask.

To be clear, I admire the Austrian government for being proactive and doing what they can to demonstrate they are trying to care for their citizens. The challenging part of this situation is the sheer alienness of covering your face when in public and the apocalyptic feel that hits when everyone you see is decorated with personal protective equipment. 

The upside for Alex and I is that my mother-in-law is a whizz with the sewing machine, so, given we had to dress like it was the end of days, at least we could do it in style.

Monika made the masks with offcuts from her husband’s shirts, and as Rupert wears very nice brand-name shirts, it’s comforting to know I’m walking around in a Hugo Boss mask. Even in these trying times, I’m a slave to fashion.

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The new normal is not always a comfortable fit and bedrock change is rarely something anyone welcomes with open arms. But while we are stuck in this alternate version of reality, it’s worth focusing on the perks, on the video chats with family, avoiding sweaty commutes, having intimate time with your partner, and wearing fashionable facial accessories. 

By tolerating the hardships and allowing ourselves to see the good amongst the bad, we can navigate our way through the new normal and back out into just normal.

Tomorrow: The Great Outdoors.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 10

Weekend number two of social distancing has been successfully survived, I haven’t had to lock the forks away out of my wife’s reach yet, and we’re starting the working week with a stash of stolen goods sure to do wonders for our posture. So far, week three of the COVID limbo is looking good.

We even managed to get out of the apartment and mingle with our community over the weekend, which did our socially-starved minds some good. I say mingle, I of course mean avoided at all costs and ran in the other direction if anyone looked like they were making a beeline for us, but it was still nice to see other people in the flesh, albeit from a distance or as a blurry retreating form as we fled as fast as we could. 

And, ironically in a time when the normal communal bonds have been all but outlawed, the sense of community is actually pretty strong. There’s the unspoken understanding that we’re all in this together. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the isolation measures are a two way street; a way to protect yourself but also a way to protect everyone else. So seeing someone making the effort, be it stepping to the side of the path to allow a child on a bike to go past, moving out of the way at the shopping aisle when you see someone eyeing off some goods, or desperately wanting to pet someone’s dog in the park but restraining yourself with trembling self-control, is met with a silent nod of approval and slight smile of appreciation as we all continue on in our bubbles of segregation.

In Austria, amongst a host of other nations, new cultures have arisen from this time that buoy this sense of community. Each evening at six, police cars cruise through the neighbourhoods with their lights on and their loudspeakers broadcasting the song “I am from Austria” (which, for those of you not in the know, is a song celebrating the fact that Austrians are from Austria. Confusingly, the main motif of the song is sung in English, not German, but it’s not my place to tell them how to practice their patriotism).

Also at this time, you can hear a round of spread out applause echoing up from backyards and balconies as the people demonstrate their appreciation to the health care workers slaving away through this difficult period. While the hardest thing the rest of us are asked to do is stay away from loved ones while wearing sweatpants, the healthcare workers are asked to work longer and harder than ever to meet the demands of COVID cases, all while putting themselves at risk of exposure. This act of clapping probably isn’t heard by most health care workers, who are in hospitals doing their essential work, but it still moves me to see a community doing what they can to collectively acknowledge the sacrifice being made by this selfless demographic of our society.

In Australia, a new tradition has started of putting teddy bears in windows. This act is a way of supporting the equally hard-working parents in their own hour of need, parents who are putting themselves at risk by electively trapping themselves indoors with bored kids, hyped up from the endless episodes of Peppa Pig and sugary snacks used to try and bribe them into complying with the corona restrictions. The bears are a sign of solidarity to these silent warriors waging their indoors wars, hopefully providing a small respite for the parents who have escaped outdoors for a spell with their kids by supplying a game for the stimulus-deprived children wherein they can go for a “bear hunt”, gleefully pointing out the bears they spot to their rung-out progenitors.

Bear Hunt

Photo credit: Julie Marsden-Sayce

What is equally important to me during this lockdown is my own private community. I am lucky enough to have a circle of family and friends (many members of which are both my family and my friends) who, through equal measures of love, thoughtfulness, and downright silliness, are supporting me in these weird times. One of those who falls in the middle of the Venn diagram of family and friends is my sister-in-law, Holly, who had the misfortune on Saturday of having her birthday in a time when the government won’t let anyone come to your party. But luckily, her added year has made her crafty like a fox and she found a way around governmental restrictions by simply moving that party online. Through an app called Houseparty, we all sat around, had drinks, played games, laughed at each other’s dumb jokes, and properly celebrated the anniversary of our friend’s birth. 

After a brief adjustment period, I soon forgot that my favourite people were actually thousands of miles away and lost myself in the fun and joviality I always find when hanging with that particular collection of people. The fact that I was drinking beer at ten in the morning may have helped with that. (I just realised that not everyone reading this would be aware that, besides Alex and myself, the rest of the party people were in Australia, in a different time zone, which happened to be their evening, hence the party and hopefully explaining away my alcohol intake with an answer that isn’t “he has a terrible drinking problem.”)

Party time

Photo credit: Holly Robb

After partying away the morning, Alex and I ventured outside for some sunshine and fresh air, and so I could sober up a little, and went for a walk. Spring apparently didn’t get the memo that the whole world’s on pause at the moment and Vienna put on a fine day to get out and into our community. We were accompanied by my friend and my wife’s best friend, Natalie, who we had to greet with a limp wave from a space of two metres away instead of the usual kiss to each cheek. It felt impersonal and cold to give such a half-hearted greeting, but as the alternative was to risk infecting a dear friend with a horrible virus, or to have her infect us, we accepted our wave as the lesser of two evils.

The walk was beautiful and the company just as satisfying, and we were upstanding role models of the community as all conversation was conducted from either side of the walking path or with Natalie trailing behind like some sort of terrible stalker who doesn’t know enough to stay out of sight. See photos below as evidence of our commitment to do our part for social distancing.

This interaction with my community, done with no physical interaction whatsoever, recharged that battery within myself that needs that sort of energy and, ironically, gave me the strength to continue to stay the hell away from these people that I love. At least for long enough for the storm to pass and I can once again greet them in a fashion more befitting the affection I feel for them.

Tomorrow: Music.