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 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.

Vienna

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 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Couch

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

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

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

Toilet

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

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Tomorrow: Art.

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.