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 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. 

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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.)