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 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 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 13

Sometimes, of a weekend, when Alex and I have enjoyed a lie-in, I will come drowsily awake and roll over to face my wife. She will smile at me from her nest of blankets and I will smile back, and her first words of the day to me will be, “I need to eat.”

This is my way of explaining that, in our house, food is a very serious thing. 

In a sense, it’s ingrained into the culture over here. An Austrian tradition that takes place across the country every lunch time in every office building (back when people worked in office buildings) is the habit of saying “Mahlzeit!”. As we learnt yesterday, German is a very literal language, and literally translated Mahlzeit means “meal time”. 

Now, the convention of giving a pleasant greeting over a meal is not one unique to Austria, but this expression caught my attention as it isn’t solely used when someone spies you about to tuck in to your lunch, but is said broadly anytime from midday until about two pm every time anyone encounters anyone else. You could be catching a lift, heading to a meeting, or making a beeline for the bathroom, and along the way you will be met with a round of enthusiastic “Mahlzeit!” Just a whole nation walking around hallways and offices calling out “Meal time! Meal time!” like excited three year olds.

Food is very important to the Austrian people.

Given that restaurants, fast-food joints, cafes, and bars are all on a global hiatus, a lot of people are now finding themselves also having to care deeply about food and food preparation as they contemplate the prospect of opening their own eatery, also known as cooking at home. 

Luckily for me, my wife’s deep passion and concern for food has translated itself into her being an amazing cook. With a back-catalogue of delicious and traditional Austrian meals, she can step into the kitchen with a handful of ingredients and step back out with a hot and nutritious meal that is a delight to eat. The ten kilograms I’ve put on since moving here from London is a testament to how much I enjoy my wife’s cooking.

I have taken on the role of apprentice in the kitchen and am slowly learning her mysterious Austrian arts, and am proud to say I can now independently whip up a mean batch of Nockerl should the need call. I don’t want to brag, but Alex and I have even released our own cookbook.

Cookery the Austrian Way

The only physical copy of this book was gifted to Peter Robb for Christmas.

As a rule, we mostly cook at home, even when there’s not a worldwide pandemic on driving us into apartments like moles underground, and so far we haven’t had too hard a time adjusting to the new restrictions. We try our best to eat cleanly during the working week, having a small breakfast, small lunch, and a home-cooked dinner that usually incorporates a little of everything from the food pyramid. On Friday nights, however, having completed a full working week like good boys and girls deserving a treat, we indulge in a little takeaway.

Luckily, some restaurants are currently keeping their kitchens open and still doing delivery, so we are still able to sit back to some pizza, wine, and a movie at the end of the week. My thanks go out to these delivery men and women, these savoury-smelling saints, for ensuring I can still partake in my feast of grease and fat.

The deliveries themselves have gone from the friendly drop-off of an evening meal to something more akin to a drug deal. Last Friday, for instance, we received a call confirming the address and were told the delivery would take place in five minutes. We waited, palms a little sweaty with excited nerves, and each of us jumped when the doorbell rang. We checked the peep hole, saw the coast was clear, and opened the door to find our package waiting for us on the doormat. Glancing around, we spotted our delivery man slinking out the building’s doors and he threw us a sly wink and a smile before disappearing like a wraith into the night. We hurriedly collected our goods and retreated indoors to the couch for a hit of that sweet sweet junk food. 

On the weekends, we go for a two-meals-a-day system, which allows us to eat to our fill without feeling too guilty about it later. A big breakfast/brunch ties us over until a slightly more carb-heavy dinner than we would normally have during the working week. Last Saturday, I was feeling fancy and so whipped up a batch of crepes (crepes are really just flour, eggs, and milk, so not fancy at all, but they come from France so I let myself feel fancy when eating them).

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Snacks are also important, so we keep a collection of fruit in the house to tie us over between meals. And when an apple just won’t cut it, I find eating a handful of grated cheese straight from the bag when Alex isn’t looking really gives me the protein hit I need to get through to dinner. 

With no social outings on the calendar for the foreseeable future, mealtime is now the highlight of the day. So whatever you’re dining on during the time of COVID, I recommend a balance of something good and something good for you. Make sure you enjoy it. And make sure every day between 12 and 2 you shout “Meal time!” at anyone you see.

I also recommend a piece of my wife’s cake. If you sneak up to our back window, we’d be happy to slip you a piece as if it were a baggie of Mary Jane.

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Tomorrow: Literature.

P.S. If anyone was enticed and intrigued by Austrian cooking and our very professional cook book, you can download a pdf copy here: Cookery the Austrian Way.