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 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.
#earlytobedandearlytorisemakesamanhealthywealthandwise 

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.

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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 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 19

These days I happily identify as an introvert. Anyone who read my post where I described in intricate detail how I chose books over making new friends is probably thinking “Well, yeah”. But it wasn’t always so obvious for me (looking back, the book thing really should have tipped me off).

There were times growing up when I knew that I was operating on a slightly different wavelength from some of the other kids. In primary school, we used to go to the library once a week. We would sling our library bags over our shoulders and march off to the dimly lit, slightly musty aisles of the library, and I would do so with a spring in my step and excitement fluttering in my chest. Being given the time and space to hunt through the racks of books for my next read, my next exploration into new worlds and new ideas was as good as it got. When I heard other kids groaning about being bored, about wanting to go play, I was perplexed. All I could think was “What are you talking about, this is the best part of the week! We play outside every day. You want to play? Go play with some Roald Dahl, he’s the most playful author I know!”

This feedback was not appreciated by the other children.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Moving into highschool and university, this difference was acutely accentuated when it came to going out. As a young teen, I had heard about the nirvana that was the nightclub and couldn’t wait to get to that holy land of booze, music, and sexual opportunity. When the time finally came and I walked into that darkness broken by pulsing lights and strobing music, I was…utterly dismayed. It was so chaotic and drunk strangers were everywhere and all there was to do was drink and dance. Where’s the appeal in that? I would complain ceaselessly that the music was so loud that I couldn’t hear anyone talking. Friends would suggest I go try my luck getting a girl to kiss me and all I could think was, “How am I meant to do that, they won’t be able to hear me?” 

I failed to realise that the whole environment was designed so that talking wasn’t necessary, it was all down to being brash, letting go of inhibitions, and gyration. But as a happy little introvert, brashness, letting down my defences, and gyration were not in my wheelhouse. Words were my wheelhouse, sitting down to a one-on-one conversation where I could connect and be funny was my play, and that thumping, sweaty setup had robbed me of my weapons. Nightclubs were an extrovert’s arena.

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(Clearly I was not equipped with the tools for that environment)

I think my lack of self-identification came from early definitions used to describe introverts and extroverts. It boiled down to: introverts are shy and extroverts are confident. While I was quiet, I wasn’t shy. And I never felt that I was particularly lacking in confidence. Granted, I wasn’t thrusting my hand up and volunteering to sing and dance in front of people, but that had nothing to do with confidence and everything to do with that just sounding like a terrible idea.

It finally clicked into place when I heard an alternate way to outline what makes someone introverted or extroverted. It went like this: an extrovert is a person who recharges their batteries through social interaction and an introvert is someone who recharges their battery through quiet and solitude. And, inversely, an extrovert’s batteries are depleted when forced into silence and solitude for too long and an introvert’s batteries are depleted when forced into social interaction for too long. This is not to say that introverts don’t like a good party or that extroverts don’t like alone time, just that these things take energy from these people rather than giving it.

Suddenly, so much made sense. Choosing intimate drinks with friends over all-night raves or the peace and quiet of a library over the never-ending game of tag in the playground didn’t make me weird and anti-social; I was introverted.

And those kids huffing and puffing in the library about being bored, or happily spending their weekends squished between strangers, ears ringing from house music, weren’t confusing and obnoxious; they were extroverted (although, that anyone in their right mind would choose a nightclub over a library still mystifies me. And those haters out there who claim that there is nothing erotic about a library have clearly never experienced the sexual tension that radiates off librarians).

I am telling this long and boring story because normally the world is skewed in the favour of extroverts. Those that thrive by being brash and letting down their defences, and, yes, sometimes even gyrating, often come across more opportunities than the quiet achievers. It can be hard sometimes out there for an introvert.

But we are not in normal times and the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus have suddenly made this an introvert’s world. Stay at home all day in your bubble: Check! Work from home wearing cosy clothes: Check! Conduct all work communication via emails and skype chats: Check! Social interaction limited to intimate conversations with one or two people: Check! Feel no obligation of a weekend to go paint the town red: Check! Hang out with books rather than crowds of people: Check! And, to be honest, while so much of this situation is challenging and hard, it is a relief to be able to lean into an introvert’s strengths for a bit.

While we navigate these previously untrodden paths and redesign the world to fit the current handicaps, it’s worth a bit of self-reflection and deciding where you fit on this scale and identifying what recharges your batteries. Introverts, you can relax and enjoy society matching your pace for a change. Extroverts, you can acknowledge the hardship you’re facing and make plans to keep your source of fuel coming through upping the volume of video chats and phone calls.

And for those introverts out there like me, languishing in a surplus of home time, books, and soft conversation over cups of tea, take pity on your extroverted friends and give them a call. Their batteries will thank you.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and happy isolating this Easter.

On Tuesday: Easter. (I’m taking the long weekend off. Jesus would have wanted it that way.)

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.)