By Juliane Schumacher
This morning, I got into a traffic jam. I was surprised – after the empty streets of the last weeks, I was not used to rush hour traffic on the ring road. But the lockdown still in place, it seems that things are changing slowly, and people, paralysed for weeks, have started to move again.
When I returned to Berlin from my hometown a few days ago, I came into a different city than the one I left. Before I left, I spent entire days in my flat and on the balcony, looking out at the deserted street and bald trees in front of the house. Two weeks later, the whole city is in spring mood. The trees have turned green, people pass through the streets, music is playing from open car windows. In the afternoon, the parks do not look very different from any other warm day, people running, skating, sitting on the grass, having a beer in the April sun.
A few weeks ago I was wondering that people kept the rules so strictly – people in Berlin are notorious for not caring about authorities and regulations. Now I am surprised how fast people seem to have forgotten their fears from only a short time ago.
In the news, virologists say that people don’t take the measurements seriously anymore, they warn of a second wave of infections worse than the first one. It will be difficult to convince people to stay at home again. Experts had predicted a rise in infections and a possible breakdown of the health system for April or May, but now numbers are declining and the TV reports empty hospitals, some sending their staff on vacation because there is not enough to do. The Green Party calls upon us to bring 1000 people from Italy to Germany for treatment. Merkel, the Chancellor, still refuses to emit common European bonds to save the countries most affected by the virus and the upcoming economic crisis. I feel ashamed every time I read about it. At night, when lying awake, I don’t think a lot about the virus but about the future of Europe, about emerging nationalisms worldwide, about peace and war and unrest. What will happen to the European Union? Will countries like Spain and Italy recover from this crisis if the rich countries refuse to support them? Will the borders re-open? We have become used to open borders in Europe, many of my friends choose to work abroad, expecting they will be able to travel back home any time they want. My cousin, working in Austria, now moved in temporarily with her partner in Germany. She will stay as long as she is allowed to work from home. Once this is over, they will not be able to see each other easily: They used to meet on week-ends, but now he is not allowed to enter Austria, and if she is coming back to Germany from abroad, she has to self-quarantine for fourteen days.
Yesterday, the first shops reopened, the first easing of lockdown measures after a heated political debate about how to continue. There are new regulations in place: just a limited number of persons allowed inside at the same time. Lines on the floor show where customers have to wait. Shopping has become a time-consuming activity. In front of our favourite bakery, the line extends to the next corner. But people are waiting patiently, and I realise that I kind of like this new rhythm. Things have slowed down, nobody’s in a hurry, and the cashiers do their work unhastily, having small chatw, wishing everyone a beautiful day, waiting until one person has packed everything before they signal the next one to enter.
I had stopped reading the news for some days, but then realised that regulations affecting me are changing every day, so I have to know. From Monday onwards it’s required to wear masks when using public transport, in shops and in some other places. I am wondering where to get a mask. For weeks, they have been sold out. There are young people now wearing self-made masks in the streets. The mask, my newspaper says, has become a statement, the new it-piece. A friend has sent me a manual on how to use them properly. But when I look around, people do not seem to know. Some just cover their mouths, they pull the mask on and off, touching it with their fingers.
I am not good at staying at home. While we are allowed to leave the house, it’s still recommended to stay home as much as possible. While I am not meeting people, I spend more time outside than before the crisis. Being allowed to leave the house, to feel the wind, the sun, has become a luxury that, I feel, could be taken away again at any moment. Having organised childcare for a few hours, I drive the car to my office to work for a few hours. I am almost alone in the building, with the strange familiarity of being here, the quietness of the room, the old trees in the garden surrounding the house. My life still feels like it is suspended. Working doesn’t make sense anymore, not knowing what the future will bring. But it distracts me, it gives me solid ground in the midst of all the insecurities around.
When I have finished, I go for a short walk. There is the intense smell of pines in the garden, the singing of the birds. Behind the house, a small path leads through kind of park, a meadow that once was home to a small creek. The soil under the grass is dry, a light wind lifts small clouds of dust. Spring is usually a rainy season, but this month has not seen any rain. And the sky is still cloudless, wide and clear blue over the grass in front of me, without signs of any plane.