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.


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.


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.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-22 at 19.45.12

Tomorrow: Vacationing.

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. 


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. 


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 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.


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.


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

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

Tomorrow: The Great Outdoors.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear Hunt

Photo credit: Julie Marsden-Sayce

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

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

Party time

Photo credit: Holly Robb

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Music.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 9

When discussing worldwide pandemics, very few people interrupt the conversation to point out the positives that come from a sweeping global infection. It’s quite likely because, when weighed against all the sheer awfulness of a widespread contagion (sickness, death, economic collapse), those trying to make these points are promptly chased out of the room. With rocks. 

But as the bad media seem singularly motivated to drive the negativity of the moment down our throats until we are full and heavy and sad from it all, and as I am tucked in my apartment out of rock-throwing distance, I thought I’d highlight some of the unforeseen changes to the environment that have come about due to humanity hibernating for a spell.

As it is the place where we like to live, and the place where our food is farmed which we like to eat, and the place where the major production of carbon-dioxide into oxygen occurs which we like to breath, it’s not aggrandising to say the environment holds a certain special significance to us as a species. Unfortunately, as a species, we have the habit of treating the environment in the same way a teenager treats their room, which is to say the floor is littered with filth, the space is rife with noise pollution, and the air is not always safe to inhale. 

But amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly to those environmentalists who have been trying to convince the world of man-made climate change for the last few decades, once everyone turned off their toys, some of that damage started to become undone. 

The first story I heard that drove this home was a report of dolphins appearing in the canals of Venice due to the cessation of water vehicles for the first time in years. Sadly, this story, which is ready made for a Disney film, is not actually true. Dolphins were indeed spotted, only they were spotted in Sardinia, which is approximately 748 kms away from Venice. I’m sure the dolphins in Sardinia are also appreciating the reduction of boats in their waters, but are apparently not so energised as to make the trip to Venice. 

But, the good news is that, while apparently not good enough for dolphins too lazy to swim a few hundred miles, the waters of Venice are indeed cleaner than they have been in years, with locals shocked to see the liquid running clear. Let’s try not to focus on the tragedy of people shocked at seeing clean water and instead take it for the win it is.

Venice's clean canals

Photo credit: Marco Capovilla / Venezia Pulita

Air has also benefited from humanity’s downfall, which in a circular irony is actually our windfall as we can all, literally, breathe a little easier. Satellite photos taken from above Beijing depict the incredible reduction of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, a substance made famous as the pollution that spills from cars, trucks, and power plants.

Reduction of China's air pollution

Photo credit: NASA

There have also been numerous reports of animals taking to the streets after the desertion of mankind. Much like Kevin from Home Alone, these animals are wandering around the empty house, not sure where the grown ups are, but sure to make the most of it. I wish the cheeky little scamps the best of luck while we’re away.

Deer crossing

Photo credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images

But it is not only the external environment that has changed as a result of the COVID measures. Driven indoors and away from our offices filled with appropriately-sized desks and chairs that support the lower back, Alex and I were forced to go to some extreme lengths to reconfigure our internal environment to ensure we don’t emerge from the corona-confinement with the spines of an arthritic geriatric.

We knew the problem lay in a lack of suitable hardware and so set about rectifying the problem the only way bad-asses like us knew how: I’m talking about a raid, baby.

We hopped in the car, buckled ourselves in, took a moment to savour being outside of our apartment for the first time that day, and then pointed ourselves in the direction of Alex’s work. The place was lousy with office furniture and we were going to leave the place with a cache of our own if it killed us.

It turns out it didn’t kill us, nor was our doing somersaults through doorways and army-crawling down hallways at all necessary. The place was all but empty except for one of Alex’s colleagues who made polite small talk while we shoved monitors into an Ikea bag and wheeled away a couple of desk chairs. The colleague was supposedly in the office to get some work done, but the platter of bread, butter, and huge slab of bacon set up at his desk, plus the fact that we knew he had three children at home bouncing off the walls with the enforced isolation, said this was more of a place of escape than a place of work. 

We tipped our hat to him and his scam and he tipped his hat to us and ours, and then we got the hell out of there.

The result of our perfect heist is a living room/home office that acts as a site of productivity rather than the slow and incremental torture of our joints and ligaments. Sometimes the crime is worth the risk.

Vienna home office

Photo credit: Alexandra Robb-Hofer (Bonus “Where’s Jonathan?” for those who want to play)

I’ll finish off this entry and this week with an incredible video my mother-in-law shared with me which beautifully and eerily illustrates the impact this surreal moment in history has had on the city of Vienna.

Empty Vienna from Christian Haake on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Stay inside, video chat with someone you love, do a puzzle on your living room floor with a drink and some conversation, read a good book, eat your favourite food, make something, draw something, cook something, and let’s make the best out of what we still have. 

On Monday: Community.