One year on – March 2021

When this journal was launched, in March 2020, it was an impulsive response to the closing of borders, most of us locked down into the minutiae of our lives.  I didn’t know if people would write in at all — when they did, my wildest hope was that they might keep doing so for a year.

Here we still are. To mark the specific moment of a year’s passage, we wrote to every past contributor and invited any who wished to share something from their daily lives now — perhaps a small ritual of life in the pandemic that has come to feel quite normal, perhaps something else that still does not. The responses we received were eclectic — some people zeroed in on a particular quirk of life, some took us for a walk outside, others shared how they were feeling more generally — not the stuff of a neat anniversary edition.  But more fitting perhaps to how we are all weathering this pandemic as we can, making of it what we can, even those of us low-down the hierarchy of weariness.

This story isn’t over, the journal stays open, please keep writing in.

The Editor

*

Most nights, I go on a long walk around the neighborhood, after dark. At some point in the summer, my children started joining me. Sometimes both come along, or just one, depending on whether they have moved their bodies at all that day. We have shorthand names for our various routes: ‘Up Down and Around,’ ‘Double Round Valley,’ ‘Loop Around the School,’ and if they’re both with me the choice must be carefully negotiated as we step out the door. We bring the dog, but she isn’t really the point. As we walk in the dark, the children spill the details of their days lived online with an ease they never exhibit at the dinner table. Sometimes my daughter asks challenging questions, or my son goes off on an improvisational riff, sometimes they just monologue about video games. We walk the empty streets, stretching our legs and filling our lungs with the night air, grateful for our still-functioning bodies and our acute senses of smell, grateful that we’ve survived another day.

Ruth McKee, Los Angeles, California, USA

*

One thing I keep noticing is how changed the soundscape is. I don’t get used to the absence of noise, reflecting the emptiness of the streets, cafes and bars that used to animate our neighbourhood. We live in what is referred to as ‘the hypercentre’, suggesting a dense hub of human activity.  Many students live around here; Friday and Saturday nights often meant partying into the early hours. I used to dread noisy nights and long for uninterrupted sleep. 

The sound of silence was most uncomfortable during complete lockdown. I would get tense at night, lying in bed, hearing a helicopter flying to the hospital, while no other sign of life could be heard. These days you can tell the time by just listening out. After curfew (which now starts at 7pm), only mopeds can be heard, driven by underpaid workers delivering fast food.

There are three schools around us, one in our block, one in each neighbouring block. Now that a new lockdown has been announced, I know I will miss the sound of children bursting into play during breaks or chattering on the way home. 

Blandine Chambost, Nantes, France

*

The regular Zoom calls didn’t stick. The garden workouts, the extra-curricular learning/ courses/activities didn’t stick. Nor commitments to new languages, TV shows, or the sourdough starter (which may have made a comeback, this remains to be seen). A year later and community has stuck. Actually, community, as I understand it now, was developed and learned. Possibly through daily meals, chats, debates, laughter. Or maybe something subtler than that, something intangible, demonstrated through notes left on the fridge, shared shopping lists and space to rant and vent when necessary. The constant has been the people found within these four walls, our semi-regular walks through our overly familiar area in the evenings – when the light is just perfect for peering into other people’s lives. Am I being over-sentimental? That wasn’t my intention.

Leah Kenny, London, UK

*

Can we please agree that the term ‘new normal’ is now passé? It is not new anymore.

Walking on the street, when two or more people approach, I don’t now have to squeeze past them on the pavement. I now can legitimately be antisocial and cross the street or stop and let them pass by. In the olden days, this would have been rude. I would have had to fake a smile or something.

I have not been to a social gathering – dressed up – for a year. And I do not miss it. I am not sure how it will be when I need to wear non-casual clothes again. This thought is causing me some anxiety.

Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston, Edinburgh, UK

*

I stand in front of my closet. I have long given up fashion but I still have so many clothes for so many different occasions, most of them donated by friends and family when they were clearing out their own closets. My work moved home in lockdown – all those jackets and trousers and silky shirts not needed anymore. My work shoes dry rotted. Dress-up clothes mildewed in the heavy rain of November 2020. Jeans weren’t able to keep up with the expanding and contracting waistline. What have I worn for a year? Three sleeping shirts. Underwear. One street outfit. One jumpsuit for seeing socially distanced, masked up friends. Three Zoom shirts, so people wouldn’t think I had only one. Exercise clothes. Very little to wash and take care of or, for that matter, care about. A reduced impact on workers and the ocean. Clothes for comfort and coverage alone. I find myself hoping a nearly empty clothes closet will remain part of my future.        

Diana McCaulay, Kingston, Jamaica

*

Though we feel like we are living in an era of great social transformation (which we seemingly are), most of our days in the past year were spent quietly indoors, seated or lying down in front of our screens. So much of our lives today happens while sitting down. There is not much else to do but talk or be entertained. 

Nazmi Anver, Colombo, Sri Lanka

*

The way we measure time is less in raw numbers and more in terms of what happened in that time. You think back on the year you’ve had and you think, ‘Yes, this happened in December, and that happened in June. And the thing that happened in December feels more recent and is more fresh in my mind than the thing that happened in June.’

But with 2020, it’s just been one event.

Sahir Avik D’Souza, Mumbai, India

*

I find myself watching more television than usual. One thing I can’t shake (maybe for the rest of my life) is the full-body cringe I experience when watching a movie where teens are sharing a drink or even a kiss. I want to shake them and yell, “GERMS!” Any scene with large crowds, causes me to shudder. A subway car and unmasked people shoved up against each other? Outrageous!

Lisa Owens, Weatherford, Texas, USA

*

Now that it’s been a year, we’ve all had one of those lockdown birthdays. My daughter is always more excited about my birthday than I am. Her one highlight each year is counting out the candles to put on a cake, lighting them one by one (with some adult help from my partner), and then making the room dark while she walks in holding the cake and singing “happy birthday,” the louder and the better!

My salted caramel cake this year had A LOT of candles, but as usual, I stood beside her as she gently lowered her head with me and we both let out a joint long puff, extinguishing all the candles at once. We then cut the cake, and each had a piece!


Birthdays, especially children’s birthdays, will never be the same. Standing so close to one another, singing together, throwing your breath out to douse candles on a cake, all carry such high risk of spreading COVID that I lament for our collective future, candle-less birthday celebrations, with singing replaced by Spotify.

Revati Chawla, Brighton, UK

*

I miss those spontaneous kisses and hugs with which we friends and relatives greeted each other.  I miss reaching out and touching people who need comforting.  I miss happy smiles.  I can no longer tell what people are feeling unless I’m ‘close’ enough to peer into their eyes.  I don’t want to have to say happy birthday in a muffled voice reaching out to signal that hug I so want to give with my arms.  I don’t want to have to stop myself from patting that gurgling baby or chatting with an excited little child eager to express themselves. I want to be able to shake my students’ hands and congratulate them.  I fear I might see someone I’ve been yearning to meet and pass them by on the street.

Neloma Wijesinghe, Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka

*

Here we are a year on – still in lockdown. Staying at home, protecting the NHS, saving lives. Stuck in a perpetual cycle of hope and despair.

While nothing has changed, everything is different. Our world has become smaller. What were normal, sometimes daily, habits feel strange and unfamiliar. Venturing out anywhere away from home creates a strange mix of excitement and anxiety.

I worry for my three year old daughter. What will be the long-term impact of a year in isolation, away from peers and new experiences? She has adapted amazingly but I feel sad that this shrunken, less colourful version of her life is now normal to her.

I miss my family. I miss spontaneous trips to see them. I miss hugging them. I miss all of us being able to get together. I feel robbed of precious time with my elderly parents. I’m upset that they are missing out on seeing their granddaughter change and grow.

I hope the next time I write that things have moved on. But I am cautiously skeptical. Although the vaccine has given us a much-needed lifeline, it still feels like we are constantly on a knife edge. I don’t even want to return to normal anymore. That seems impossible. Just somewhere near will do for now.

Rachel Smyth, Worcestershire, UK

*

Today our two children go back to school and I can’t help but feeling nervous. Not only are schools re-opening  but also many of the kids’ activities such as outdoor soccer practice, face-to-face piano lessons and after-school day care are re-starting all at once, not to mention the various shops that are allowed to re-open.  As much as we have all been longing for our normal routines, I am surprised by how uncomfortable I feel now that the transition is actually happening. There is of course the discomfort and worry caused by rising infection numbers and the fear that we are transitioning out of shutdown too early. But I realise that something else is bothering me on a more personal level: I am struggling with the constant need of having to adapt to changing realities – and that very quickly. The short notice announcement of schools closing and schools re-opening that have become common in our continued COVID reality are tiring me. It feels like the moment we have adapted to new routines as a family, we face yet another change and need to adapt all over again. However, I also realise that we can adapt to new circumstances quickly and moreover, be content in scenarios deemed unimaginable before.

Susanne Wieners, Heddesheim, Germany

*

The sanitizer I carry is an arm sized bottle, and the label has almost peeled off. Seeing it on my desk, a colleague snarked that it looked like a water bottle, and knowing us, someone may drink from it. Would they know immediately and sputter, as you do when, accustomed to storing water in old booze bottles, you find yourself with a mouthful of vodka? Can someone die from drinking sanitizer? I have read a lot of forwards about hands catching fire when people used sanitizer and went near a gas flame to cook – but death by sanitizer? I quickly put the bottle inside my bag, and keep it handy.

Sruthi Krishnan, Bangalore, India

*

Mumbai is getting worse, struggling with night and weekend lockdowns. Bangalore citizens seem just a bit luckier. Almost everyone has started talking about the COVID vaccine. The option to take the vaccine has been thrown open to those above 45 (earlier it was 60 or below 60 if you had co-morbidities) and life revolves around deciding whether or not to take it, where it is to be taken, how it is to be taken, what are the after effects ? For one thing, one has to have the internet access and savvy to register oneself on an online portal.  Everybody who can has FOMO, no-one wants to miss out on something fundamentally important that others are experiencing.  Grandchildren are taking their grandparents for vaccination.

So do I take the vaccine or not? I do want to put a photograph with the nurse inoculating me on social media, like so many have already done, I do want to feel protected from COVID, to feel free, to travel wherever and whenever I please. Oh how I miss the good old days!

Priyan R Naik, Bangalore, India

*

On Sunday I took a walk. I met a friend at Waterloo and she and I walked on through St James’s Park and Green Park, into Hyde Park. We walked around the Serpentine and then made our way back. There was early Spring sunshine. Blossom is appearing and the daffodils were brilliantly yellow. Colours in abundance, much missed over the winter months, but what I noticed was something intangible. Mood. I cannot tell how many thousands of people I saw in three to four hours outside, but London felt busy. What I noticed, though, was not the numbers of people, unusual as that has become, but the fact that the most downbeat of them seemed to look satisfied, many looked contented, some looked really happy and several handfuls looked joyful. Some were happy couples, some were towing children on scooters and small bikes with stabilisers. Others were exercising and laughing as dogs jumped up playfully. We read the papers and scroll social media and watch some television and we think that everyone is polarised. We are in-groups and out-groups. Vaccines, masks, Brexit (still), something called wokeism, so-called ‘culture wars’. It is easy to think conflict is our constant, our perpetual state. All I saw was evidence to the contrary. A year on, spirits are sunnier than I expected, much like the March weather. It was quite a tonic. 

Ian Burns, London, UK

*

Our morning string hoppers are accompanied by a kiri hodi, our evening yellow rice with a dhal curry; all of which need half a teaspoon of turmeric. What to me is a household ingredient for cooking is for others also a perfume, a dye, a medicine and, most importantly in this pandemic, a disinfectant. My friends have started planting turmeric in their home gardens as its scarcity, in this time of COVID-19, has made it so costly. This golden spice now seems as valuable as gold itself.

Last weekend I visited the Good Market in Colombo, and spotted a few packets of turmeric. And at the McCurrie spice outlet, a few more. I was so happy to spot this basic spice. What had once been there in abundance on supermarket shelves, now seems so rare.  It made me happier still to pass on small packets to family and friends who had also been struggling to find turmeric and were as happy as I was to see it. It is now the simple things in life that matter.

Shalini Jayasinghe, Kohuwala, Sri Lanka

*

Lockdown has meant outdoor socialising in all seasons of the year.  As Londoners we are blessed with parks and heaths, reservoirs and canals, ponds and squares, streets and even woodlands; in all these I have walked and socialised, usually with just only one other person.  

In the depth of winter I eat dinner with a friend in the garden of a Highbury pub.  He is swaddled in a parka and other protective clothes so thoroughly that I hardly recognise him at first, both of us laughing to remember our spring and summer meetings in t-shirts and with beer and crisps and pork pies.  I shiver.  I blow on my fingers.  The cold means we do not stay late.  

Later, in spring and stricter lockdown, I walk with another friend from the brand-new Spurs stadium to Tottenham Marshes, blazing with blackthorn, then back into a street alongside a housing estate, with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on the pavement.  

A day later, it’s time to meet another friend and walk from Camden in a big arc west and south.  It starts with canals, the Regents and the Grand Union.  We have to dodge cyclists.   Coots, moorhens, grebes and geese and brilliantly coloured mandarin ducks are our companions – and we glimpse vignettes of the lives of the people that live on narrowboats.  On one road bridge over the canal, a café, with its splendid view over the water, is sadly empty of punters but the lovely staff plies us with takeaway Americanos and focaccia sandwiches.  As the Grand Union winds westward we and the canal are about to be cut off between a vast cemetery and a vast railway sidings.  We escape to a huge green space but this is a common – Wormwood Scrubs – flanked in the distance by a huge Victorian prison.  Further on, in Notting Hill, people are clustered on the pavements drinking coffee, willing the day when once more they will be able to sit outside, or even in, cafes.   This then has been an era of ‘taking the air’ to be with friends; and quite beautiful, in many ways, it has been. 

Charles Haviland, London, UK

*

I’ve discovered that my parents care about me beyond the elemental—work, money, food and the like. They started asking me about how it was living alone in an apartment during the pandemic, if it was difficult. I was disconcerted before I was moved; it’s the kind of reaching out I always wanted; a personal question, something more than being quizzed about my salary. Coming so long after I was resigned to it never happening, it was unexpected. Perhaps they always cared and I was too belligerent to notice. Or perhaps the pandemic has softened their outlooks, to see me less as the sum of my material circumstances. Now they advise me to take walks and in return I describe my routes to them, taking care not to give away where I live (that is a bridge to cross on another day). They tell me what teledramas are good to watch, so that I can “take my mind off things” and we discuss the merits of the daily, ‘mega’ teledramas versus the twice-a-week art-house ones. Perhaps we can keep this going for a while.

Pasan Jayasinghe, Colombo, Sri Lanka

*

We’ve started wasting food again – this time last year I would not have dreamed of throwing out an old carrot or letting an extra cucumber go soft. In the original lockdown, as we think of it now, we took care to make plans for every leaf or sheath of onion.  We imagined shortages ahead that in fact never reached the privileged.

We dared I think to hope the world would change, become less voracious. I remember my husband and I agreeing that if the crisis lasted a year — we even thought it might not — we could hope for a little change. What the hell were we thinking?  Why didn’t we predict instead that across the planet, existing forms of power, inequality and cruelty would only be intensified?  A year later, I am as lucky as I was before, but disappointed — trying to imagine the future, a little short of money and a little short of hope.

Often we get to the end of a day and realise how long it’s been since we’ve left the house.  There is about an hour between the children waking up from naps and our needing to sort out dinner, less after we’ve gathered ourselves. So we just go for a drive in central Colombo, a most uninspiring place.  We mean to make ourselves feel better but routinely I feel worse. We are watching the world through a window and it doesn’t feel like much of a world. Where there used to be trees, there are more storefronts, their pointlessness only more evident when they are closed and deserted.  Still, some multi-storey clothes shops throng with people.  We wonder what it is they need clothes for?  

Only the ocean, if you look away from the Port-City land reclamation, brings a little solace. We make plans for another of our rituals to feel better: to go on a picnic out of the city and immerse ourselves in that water.  We have done our best to be whole in ourselves, glad of each other, but we long for the world.

Sunila Galappatti, Colombo, Sri Lanka

*

The thing I still can’t get used to is the idea that we should socialise over Zoom. I never even liked the telephone – in my mind the hierarchy of communication is: In person contact; letter; text; phone call; video call. So the idea that after a day of seeing people on screens I would want to see people on screens is just insane to me, and I reject it on almost all occasions, except when someone has organised some kind of really bizarre game that distracts you from the facts.

The thing that has become strangely normal is the shrunken world. The fact that this area now seems to be the whole world, and that the childcare bubble we share with two other families and our childminder is our entire social network of passing in corridors as we collect the children; our support network; our thing to lean on. So much so that for summer half term we seem to have organised a camping trip all together. At the exact point where we are free to see anyone, we somehow organised to go away with the only people we have been able to see for most of the year – and no one seemed to notice that was a strange choice. Which is heartening and moving, but also ridiculous.

Ivana MacKinnon, London, UK

*

Last week, I started crying while driving to work. “La Bamba” was playing on the radio. I used to take the train, before the pandemic.

Today the sun is shining brightly and the sky is a blue that seems to go on forever. Crocuses and snowdrops are blooming. The phlox and aquilegia are sending up new shoots. I used to resent our tiny garden. But last March, I started learning to weed, plant, and water. 

Katie Y, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

31 March, 2021 – Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

By Preeta Kuhad Balia

When the first brutal cessations of the COVID lockdown were declared, nearly a year ago in Jodhpur, we complained. The register of laments immediately around me, were for the most part centred on the cancellation of wedding celebrations, and other social gatherings. Whether a particular hotel agreed to refund booking deposits, and how much of it, was our dominant concern. Which establishments agreed to bear a part of the loss, in this cascading river of repercussions, decided how much love we promised to give back to them; give back, when we could go back to eating and dressing and congregating.

As a part of the small, homogenous community of traders, manufacturers, professionals and other such of relative economic prosperity, we are irrationally preoccupied with celebratory social gatherings. So the official notification of 21 March 21, 2020 in Rajasthan, banning all movement and communal gatherings, was a sentimental stop to our long-bred sense of selfhood and society. Who would you dress for? Why would one become inured to compulsive consumerism but for the need to show and share with others?

A year on, most lunch and dinner parties are fewer and further between, stymied by the hiccups of bureaucratic uncertainty about when the scale and surge of the virus will precipitate another phase of prohibitions and precautionary closures. We stand dithering, inviting our fellow men and women in smaller dispensations. And yet, while I go each week from one party to another, a little more appreciative than before of the delightfully rich dinner banquets, the reversion to our cherished floral decorations, showy clothes and jewellery, I squirm about a conspicuous iniquity.

With the opening of our worlds, mask became an indispensable accessory- silk and gold embroidered face masks for women, animation character prints for children who (reluctantly) agreed to don them, and purely functional N95s for the grey and black suited men folk. As the vaccine came to the over-65 population, face masks still persisted in public spaces, though with diminishing prominence.

I walk out of the house holding a mask in my purse of entitlements, for that ‘in case’ necessity that may arise —

In case the traffic police is standing watch;

In case of hob-nobbing with NRIs in a panic that they’ll contract the virus in this godforsaken dusty Jodhpur;

In case the white skinned superiority of a foreigner mandates it civil for me to do so.

Otherwise, I will skip wearing a mask. Most people around me will. Today, I can walk into a bistro or a party without a face mask. Looking at the pristine lipstick on the mouths of other women, I can tell that vanity is now a primary concern. People hug freely, squeeze palms reassuringly and, even though most of us haven’t been vaccinated, we keep our faces are naked. However, in a twisted subversion of rules, to favour the conveniences of the master, the mask wearing obligation is now grafted on to the servant.

Without exception, at all manners of events, it’s the domestic drivers, the nannies attached to the children, the food bearers and waiters, the doormen and security guards who have to keep their masks on. All evening, all day, these people who surround us, attending to our subtle and unsubtle needs — catching our eye or nod for another drink, making a quick call to bring the car to the hotel lobby  — these people continue wearing masks while we  ourselves freed of the dreary obligation.

I was at an all-night fortieth birthday celebration of a friend a few weeks ago when it hit me that amid the blaring sound systems and the incessant chatter of party guests, half-awake waiters moved with laden trays of food and drink, unable now even to say the few words they could in the past. They couldn’t smile or laugh to admit the gaiety of the evening as they might have done before. Now, they stared back with pale unsmiling eyes, sadder now, bereft of the most elementary forms expression and communication.  While in the past these men (because they are almost always only men) went about doing the same jobs, they had a small chance of establishing individuality. A server who ran to fetch paper napkins for the child who spilled her milkshake would take the liberty of kindly wiping the spillage from her dress or mopping it off her hands. Now he stands a foot away, in confused discomfiture, unable to decide how much touch is allowed.

A friend of mine confessed that while he has resumed his regular long drives to inspection sites for business, he has strictly ordered that his driver keep his mask on at all times in the car, saving himself the trouble to do so. The stipulations of service require that all staff at factories and eateries, for example, wear masks, but the rest of us casually forgive ourselves for not maintaining a harmless habit with documented, continuing benefits. The mask is transformed into a leitmotif, a construct of social segregation between the haves and have-nots.

In the waiting area of the dentist’s clinic, the attending staff wears masks in deference to their duty. The patients from nearby villages, perhaps careful of contemporary cultural norms, wear masks in diligent submission. The dentist himself wears one. But look around and the privileged who ignore waiting queues, we who make a few phone calls to arrange for a hospital bed: we keep our lipstick on, show our teeth, our snooty noses, flash our smiles in greeting. Unlike the others, watching the world with masks on, their eyes mutely communicating the emergence of another index of inequality.

30 March 2021 – Glasgow, Scotland

By Gayathri Warnasuriya

I am in another lockdown. This time, in Glasgow. Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I was in London at a conference and a weekend with friends. Many of the things we did, like chatting over loud music, squeezed together in a crowded bar, seem unimaginable now.  On the way back to Amman, I sat next to a woman in a Darth-Vader-like respirator mask and the other passengers and I looked askance at her. She was of course, ahead of her time.

After months in lockdown in Amman, I arrived in Scotland during the summer, sun shining and restaurants full of people eating out to help out. As cases went up, and a more transmissible variant of Covid spread through the UK, we rose through the tiers and another lockdown began in early 2021. Now in late March, after a tragic second wave of illness and death, the rollout of the vaccine has allowed for the easing of restrictions. My daughter is back at school but, apart from shops selling food and medicine, everything else remains closed.

I am fortunate enough to be able to stay at home and, for the most part, protect myself from exposure to COVID. I’m not yet vaccinated and still fearful. Our home feels like a cocoon and I feel like a long-term prisoner about to be released, excited about life on the outside but also apprehensive. Amongst heavier things, I realise that my standards of dress have slipped. I haven’t purchased any new clothing and have been able to hide my comfortable yet scruffy attire during the school run, by throwing on a big winter coat. Yet winter has passed and it is most definitely spring. For today’s school run and shopping trip, I decide to wear a dress, pulled out of the recesses of my wardrobe for an interview. The dress inspires me to wear some make-up, maybe some eye-liner and a touch of lipstick, yet I can’t find any, not having worn make-up for months.

I step out feeling irrationally glamorous in my standard work-wear dress. I hear birdsong above the traffic. Crocuses and daffodils are blooming everywhere. Glasgow is a friendly place where people smile and say hello on the street. I am approaching the supermarket and have my mask on. I smile back. Even though my mouth is hidden I know that I have inherited my father’s crinkly-eyed smile and I hope my eyes are enough, even without make-up, to convey the joy of that fleeting moment of human interaction.

29 March, 2021 – Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Around the time last year when lockdown was imposed, I got unbridled time off office-work, perhaps for the first time in two decades. I slipped happily into my kaftan, picked up my brush and re-commenced my ritual of converting empty, discarded bottles into works of art. The kaftan provided comfort; the bottle became a daily habit of meditation. The result is a collection of two hundred plus painted bottles. My first ever exhibition will be at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur on 8 April, 2021 — Mugdha Sinha, photograph by Shyam Sundar

15 March 2021 – Berlin, Germany

By Juliane Schumacher

For a week we had snow. The city became a different world. It was like being on vacation, like exploring another place. Except that in this case, we had not travelled there, this place has come to us.

When in mid-February, in the middle of the second lockdown, the weather forecast warned of a snowstorm to come, I did not take it seriously. Our old neighbour, meeting my children in the courtyard, told them that when he was their age, they had snow as high as he was and school was cancelled because it was not possible to get anywhere. But the last time there was been a lot of snow in Berlin was more than ten years ago.

When it started snowing lightly on Sunday, I searched for the old red toboggan my siblings and I used to ride when we were children. My younger child sitting on it, we marched to the nearest park, enjoying the fine snowflakes swirling around us. The next morning we ran to the windows to look what the night has brought us. And we were not dissapointed: There was snow. Not more than a metre, as there had been in the stories of our neighbour, but at least 20, 30 centimetres. Enough to go to the emergency care in school and kindergarten by toboggan. Enough to make the next days special to us.

The whole city looked different. Everything was exciting, much lighter than in the dark winter weeks before. In the afternoons I went with the kids to a park close to our home, where a small slope attracted all the children of the neighbourhood. They went down the hill on toboggans or plastic bags, their cheeks red from the cold, laughing and running, for hours. After the first days, the sun came out, the white snow sparkling in the light. I met the other parents, many of whom I had not talked to for months, being everyone confined to their homes due to the ongoing contact restrictions.

We started to bring hot apple juice and home-baked cakes. On the small water course in the middle of the park, frozen now, my daughter was able to try out the new ice skates she had got as a Christmas present but had not been able to use so far, with all sports facilities closed. At the week-end we drove to Potsdam and had a walk through the park of the castle. Here, further away from the city, the snow was still high and untouched. Snow on the branches of the pine trees, snow on head and arms of the statues guarding the palaces, on the golden roof of the Dragon house. It looked like a place from a fairy tale.

It got cold. Very cold. The night before Monday saw – 15°C even in the city centre. In the morning, very early, I drove to the Tempelhofer Feld, the former airport turned into a park, which is close to our home. The air was so cold it seemed opaque, almost white. I was almost alone. The paths and meadows had disappeared, the field completely covered in snow, the footprints of previous visitors now frozen. I started walking over the vast empty space. The only sound was the crunching of snow under my feet. A few birds in the rare, naked trees, despite the cold. The wind still brought the smell of freshly baking from the Bahlsen factory, behind the embankment of the trains to the south.

Still now, when I pass there by bike, I remember how it looked, completely covered by snow.

Now, four weeks later, the snow has long gone, everyone has returned home and the city to its ugly late winter face. I wonder why I still think so often of this one week. Maybe because, in a way, it was the replacement of the vacation we had to cancel due to the travel bans still in place, the break that I was longing for — a break from life in lockdown, a lockdown now going on for more than four months and, in total, for more than a year, a lockdown that has left nothing except work and home work, nothing to look forward to, with cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, sport and cultural facilities all closed, being just allowed to meet a single other person beyond the members of one’s own household. A lockdown that seems not to come to an end.  Last year, I made notes in my agenda on to do during lockdown and, as I read them now, I see I expected it to take several weeks, or, at maximum, three months. Now I am not even able anymore to imagine how this all will end, if there will ever be a normal life again, whatever that means.

Everything is going wrong. Chaos around the vaccinations and tests, with websites and hotlines breaking down, less serum and fewer tests than expected so that appointments have to be cancelled. Institutions that do not have any valid data on the state of the pandemic, due to changes in testing strategies and capacities every few weeks. Politicians stepping down because they have used mask deals to enrich themselves. People talking of a third wave and calling for even stricter rules, others marching for an end to the lockdown. And the rest, like me, with fog in their head, just hoping that all this will be over one day.

I feel I am in need of a future, a sign that there will be a life after lockdown, that we will overcome all this isolation, be able to go out again, to visit each other, celebrate. Will we still be able to enjoy being among many others? Or will the unease stay with us that now overcomes me every time I get close to more than a few people?

In spite of all the uncertainty, my cousin and I decide to have a birthday party in the summer. We make the reservation at a location outside the city, with a terrace and a playground for the children, we make invitations and send them out. Will it ever take place? Or become one more in the long list of suspended events? We will just know a few weeks before.   

10 March, 2021 – Santo Estevão, Portugal

By Philippa Harland

For me, the boundaries between days and nights, sleeping and waking, are beginning to melt and warp in a way that is slightly concerning.

I had heard stories about lockdown dreams — reports of people’s dreams becoming more like fever or cheese dreams than the usual jumble of instantly forgettable scenarios. But I did not see any changes in my dreams until the last few months.

Maybe it has been the series of family bereavements we have experienced, or just the fact that this lockdown seems to have lasted an eternity with a barrage of bad news banging on our doors. So many tales of illness, bad politics and injustice across the world on top of the never ending reports of collapsing medical institutions and persistent death rate levels.  My brain is evidently working overtime to compensate for this with dreams of lavish society get-togethers. This has been surprising and delightful but, as I say, disturbing, as it is getting me to the point of desiring bed and slumber much more than the dull yet stressful reality of every day.

And my dreams are getting wilder. Nearly every night I spend with people from my past and present (both the living and deceased) — relatives, friends, and celebrities I have never met. The locations are always interesting, sometimes even exotic. There have been parties, banquets and even a full on costume ball in a crumbling marble mansion (which a fellow guest informed me was located in the heart of Brooklyn NYC).

Recently I found myself at a smaller, al fresco affair in an Italian marketplace. I could feel the warm night air and hear a small jazz band in the background. A few tables were dotted between market stalls selling delicious food and wine.  I met a friend who, dead these last ten years, offered me a twist of paper filled with warm salted walnuts and insisted I try one. As I popped it into my mouth I woke up and, like Caliban in the Tempest, “when I waked I cried to dream again’. The taste of the walnut still echoed in my mouth.

I turn sixty years old in April, as does my husband later this month. Our last birthdays were in lockdown when we made do with home crafted gifts and a small meal à deux. Last summer we had started to plan a huge get together, inviting friends and family to Portugal for a joint celebratory barbeque. Currently, the Portuguese government is looking at keeping all restaurants and bars closed until Easter or even the end of April, which means we have given up on planning anything other than staying at home. Even trying to plan a future summer celebration has become depressing as there seems no point in looking at spurious timelines for the lifting of travel restrictions and ever changing isolation laws.

At least I have my dreams to give me the social life I no longer experience when awake. I just hope that I do not get too hooked on this private dream world and start staying longer and longer in bed. If this is the case, you are all cordially invited to attend my extravagant sixtieth birthday party – just get your pyjamas on and close your eyes.

28 February – 1 March, 2021, Travelling from Kent, UK to Kalutara, Sri Lanka

By Jerry Smith

Almost a year ago I wrote a piece for this journal describing our journey from Sri Lanka to England at the end of March. We – my wife Sally and I – live in Sri Lanka as foreign residents but had decided we needed to be nearer our family as the pandemic unfolded. What was intended as a visit of maybe three months until things started to return to normal ended as an eleven month stay.  We were finally able to board a repatriation flight from Heathrow to Colombo on 28th February.

Check-in at Heathrow was fine – our paperwork was efficiently checked (Fit to Fly certificates, a permission-to-land letter from the Sri Lankan High Commission as well as tickets and passports), though the guy on the Sri Lankan Airlines desk had evidently not been briefed about the difference between tourists and repatriates and insisted that we show him our hotel reservations. Eventually his supervisor turned up and all was OK. 

The flight was a mixed experience. Sri Lankan Flight UL504, usually our favourite way of getting to Sri Lanka, is in these times but a pale shadow of its former self.   We were on a smaller plane – an ancient A330 – with non-functioning entertainment consoles. The cabin crew were generous with the wine and provided each passenger with a litre of water, but the food was dire. There were 75 passengers on the flight – the current maximum capacity for purposes of social distancing. So when we climbed aboard we were surprised that all of us were herded into the rear compartment, sitting very close to one another, while the entire central section remained empty. When we asked a member of the cabin crew, she explained that this was due to balancing the plane as all the cargo was in the central section. This would have been fine but for the repeated droning messages about how vital social distancing was while in the air.

 We were asked not to move from our seats during the eleven-hour flight ‘except in an emergency’ (presumably needing a wee counted as an emergency). All previous health and safety in the air notices about walking up and down and avoiding deep vein thrombosis are hereby declared null and void. Of course, only COVID counts these days, as my now very swollen feet would testify, if they could talk. No menu choices, very limited options for drinks, either alcoholic or not, no ice; all of which were presented as somehow related to the pandemic and being measures introduced ‘for the safety of our valued customers’. If only the management had said: ‘We are facing financial meltdown right now, so we have had to cut costs and this unfortunately limits your choices. We hope to return to our previous high levels of customer service as soon as circumstances permit.’ Now that would have been as refreshing as an iced G&T.

The plague ship duly docked at Katunayake Airport early afternoon and things began to improve, though only perhaps because our expectations were so low, having read of others’ experiences on the Facebook Sri Lanka repatriation forum.  We’d been led to expect a march across the tarmac to a tented structure in which we’d be penned for about four hours and sprayed from head to toe with disinfectant (we’d dressed in old clothes ready for this eventuality) and given roughly-administered PCR tests at $50 each before being led onto a bus where we’d wait another two or three hours, followed by a trip of up to six hours to whichever hotel the army had chosen for our quarantine. But we were bussed straight into the terminal and passed efficiently through the various procedures. These mostly involved handing in what was essentially the same form but with a different heading in about five separate locations, ending in the vast Arrivals Hall.

We were eventually ushered onto a bus with about twenty others. Another hour sitting on the bus, but with the AC on, so not too bad, and then we pulled away from the airport. About halfway down the expressway I realised that we were tailing an army escort van, an otherwise unmarked white van with its hazard lights continually flashing. I imagined this was the kind of van used in the past for ‘disappearing’ awkward journalists and political activists. Once we left the expressway things got decidedly more interesting. For one thing, we were reacquainted with the Sri Lanka of kades, roadside advertising, a jumble of traffic, fish and vegetable stalls, wandering livestock, flowers and trees – all very good indeed for my starved soul. But secondly, our military escort began to earn its crust. Flashing, honking and gesticulation combined to strike terror into the hearts of even bus drivers, who normally regard themselves as kings of the road. For a moment I found myself thinking ‘So this is what it must feel like to be President’ but soon came down to earth, realising that this was what it must feel like to be a tanker full of nuclear waste. On the final narrow approach road to the quarantine hotel, a lorry had brought down an overhead cable, creating a temporary logjam that taxed even the army’s powers.  But we made our relentless progress, vans and wagons being forced to reverse into gateways to let us past and, soon afterwards, the plague bus pulled up outside the hotel reception.

And what a reception! Coming off the bus felt like we’d accidentally wandered onto the set of Doctor Who. Cybermen everywhere, holding weapons of various kinds (actually temperature pistols and disinfectant sprayers). But they only sprayed our luggage – irrelevant but inoffensive – took our temperatures and ushered us into the reception area. Three Cybermen (Cyberpersons, I believe some of them may have been female) stood at desks behind an improvised screen of heavy-duty plastic, with a mic stand to their right. Once we and our luggage were all assembled, one Cyberman moved over to the mic and began a welcome address in Martian. A combination of his clothing, mask, a distorting sound system and loud background music rendered the content impenetrable. Twenty pairs of ears strained to follow whatever it was he was trying to explain to us about the rules we had to follow for the next two weeks. After much gesticulating from us and some others, the mood music was turned off and we could make at least some sense of what we were being told. Fortunately, it was all set out in writing in our rooms.

So here we are in Room 228 (or should it be 101?), with a large, comfortable bed, a balcony with a sea view (though northwards up the coast, so we don’t get the sunsets), a brilliant shower, working TV and wifi and, now, enough flat space to write, eat and play board games. A sunset cacophony of giant fruit bats. Tropical birdsong to wake us up. Palm trees and palm squirrels. A bit of a change from the screeching seagulls and the monotone cooing of Kent pigeons. The staff have been beyond helpful and one gets the impression that they don’t much enjoy having to treat their guests as hazardous waste.

28 December, London, UK

By Ian Burns

Facebook sent me one of those ‘A Year Ago…’ prompts this morning. In it I am travelling in the US, taking a train to Princeton. I took a photograph of a bust of Einstein when I had the privilege of being a guest in the library at the Institute for Advanced Study. It is sobering to think about our pre-pandemic freedoms, and to think about the power of ideas and the importance of study and education. In less than a year, attitudes to travel, to broadening the mind and to the joy of ideas have all been profoundly affected.

So, Christmas is over. Our government is celebrating a trade deal which is unlikely to get much scrutiny from Parliament. The predictable jingoism is evident in the usual newspapers but generally, as the country looks at rises in hospitalisation, deaths and thinks about a ‘new variant’, the pandemic is uppermost in minds. The pre-Christmas introduction of a new level of restriction on movement, tier 4, and the post-Christmas widening of the areas to which it applies, leaves a certain feeling of heaviness.

I have never been very observant when it comes to faith and I am a very rare attender of churches. I am sure that Christmas was largely unaffected for those who think more about Jesus’s birth than about shopping, present-giving and heavy food and alcohol consumption. For many others, though, it has been a difficult time. Plans were forced to be changed in the very last few days and it led to many more having to spend Christmas alone.

I was incredibly blessed. The changes meant that two of my children, who were planning to leave London to spend Christmas with their partners’ families in Sussex and Yorkshire, became tied to London. My son was staying with me. I had intended to spend Christmas alone, but instead I had company and we made sure we cooked a good lunch and consumed some lovely wines. I would not have shopped at Borough Market for my Christmas lunch or broken open an old case of Grand-Puy Ducasse, had my son’s plans not altered.

Before the tier 4 restrictions, I was able to travel to Ascot to see my parents and to catch up with my brother. Mindful of the best guidance, we went for a walk through the forest nearby and discussed our relationship, after I had highlighted to my brother the pleasures of a podcast called I wish I was an only child! We trod some new ground literally and metaphorically, as we walked. Many of my London-based friends are European and have either not been able to get home, or took the decision that it would be more prudent to not travel. One made it to eastern Europe because both of her parents had contracted COVID. Mercifully, her parents appear to have seen it off, despite other health conditions, but her mother had a time in intensive care. To see the strain in my friend’s face was to see a reflection of a much wider-spread traumatic response to the events of the year now closing.

If I started the year thinking about travel and horizons, ideas and study, I am ending it thinking about how the journeys have been made but differently: 2020 may have given us some things as it took others away. I am not the only person who has (re)discovered an enthusiasm for walking. I know my home city better than at any time in my fifty plus years and it has yielded up many pleasant surprises. Walking encourages thinking. Walking in company encourages conversation.

As we converse, we talk about how the events of the year have affected us. How they have made us feel. I find amongst friends a willingness to share thoughts and experiences that might have not been there before, because now conversations have time to develop depth. Travelling differently includes travelling within our minds and our imaginations. There is heartening evidence that book buying has surged this year.

My father introduced me to Singin’ in the Rain, many years ago, to marvel at the dance scenes and because he identified himself as a ‘legs man’ and he assured me that Cyd Charisse represented the apogee of feminine leggy beauty. This year I watched it with my son who had yet to see it. Ultimately, for all the awesome choreography and great numbers, it is about a girl who is not dazzled by the film star and woos him with her selflessness to ‘save’ his and his co-star’s careers. We watched “Grease” too, another joyful celebration of the girl who wins the guy, and does not allow herself to be knocked by teasing and bullying, but transforms herself to eclipse all around her.

Just as my father introduced me to many films, so this period allowed me to introduce my son to some. He had never seen the peerless Linklater pair of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Happily, he now shares my high opinion of them. In a way, they combine the themes of this year for me. Although the films are about physical travel – they meet in Vienna and in Paris – they are about walking, talking, philosophising and truly getting to know someone, through listening and reading non-verbal signals. As with Grease and Singin’, they are about good things coming to those who wait.

I think 2020 has been good for me. Even as I met a friend in the street today, and he noted how rapidly the virus is spreading around Tower Hamlets, where we live, and spoke about the death of a friend of his last month, we had some blessings to count.

19 December, Berlin, Germany

By Juliane Schumacher

A few days left till Christmas, and I am still not getting into the mood for it. Maybe because it is too warm – this morning in the park, the sun shining bright from a clear sky, it almost felt like spring. And maybe it is because of this crazy year that comes to an end without any sign if things will be better in the next one. Usually I love the weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, as we call it.  It used to be I did a lot of things I didn’t find the time for the rest of the year: decorating the flat, baking, doing handicrafts with my kids. We’d light candles, make hot chocolate in the afternoon, spend more time inside. But none of this feels special this year. It is what we are have been doing most of the year.  

The season of lockdowns has started again. A ‘lockdown-light’ was announced beginning of November, and at first, I thought I would not be affected too much by it. Bars, restaurants and sport facilities had to close, but shops, schools and daycare facilities stayed open – too bad had been the experience with school closures in spring. My older sons have missed almost a year of Maths and English, and there is still no plan of how to catch this up.  We went swimming on the last Sunday before the new lockdown started. It was not very crowded and the atmosphere was very relaxed, all the families knowing that this would be their last visit to a swimming pool for a long time.  

The next day, when the ‘lockdown’ started, I had the feeling I couldn’t breathe. I was exhausted when I just took the few stairs up to our flat, felt too tired to work. When it did not get better after a few days, I went to the doctor. She examined me, made some tests and finally told me that everything was fine. I have a lot of people with these symptoms at the moment, the doctor told me, mostly young women. It’s the situation, all this insecurity.  

When I was back home I thought she might be right. I always considered myself a very flexible person, able to accommodate fast to changing conditions and unforeseen circumstances. But now I am longing for the ability to plan, to know what I will have to expect. Will infections numbers continue to rise? Will schools and kindergartens close within the next weeks? Will I be able to conduct fieldwork next year? Will my scholarship, ending in summer, be prolonged under these conditions? When will I be able to meet family, friends and colleagues again? What if friends or family members get infected? When will all this be over?  

A few days later, I was quite sure that the ‘lockdown light’ would not work. Unlike in spring, there were no deserted streets, no silence or birdsong in the city-center. People went to work, went shopping, met friends. At noon, workers were sitting on banks outside, eating their lunch in boxes from take-away restaurants. Just in the evening, it became unusually quiet in our street. With the bars and restaurants closed there was no reason to be outside in the dark November nights.  

I wondered why people were behaving differently this time. Was it because the government was reluctant to impose stricter measures? There have been demonstrations against the lockdown measures, movements of ‘Corona-deniers’ who believe the virus is just an invention of ill-meaning politicians or digital tycoons in their attempt to take over the world. But their presence in the media, it seems to me, is much bigger than their actual influence. I don’t know anybody who thinks the virus is just an invention. Still, people seem not to follow the rules as strictly as the last time.  Gradually, I reflected that in spring, people were not reducing their contacts because because the state told them to do so, but because they were afraid. The virus was completely new, nobody knew exactly how dangerous it was. Now we know more:  it is not less dangerous than half a year ago, but people have got used to it. It is one risk among others that people take every day, like the risk of having an accident when driving a car or a bike. People were willing not to meet their friends or family for a few weeks, but they are not willing – or able – to do so for months or years. It’s somehow human. We are social beings, not made for a life in isolation.    

Infection numbers stabilised for two weeks, then they started rising again. The representatives of the regional governments met again. Ten days before Christmas, they closed schools, kindergartens and shops. For the shops this was a catastrophe – they make one-third of their total sales of the year in the time around Christmas, up to one billion euro a day. Nobody knows how many of the shops will be gone when the lockdown is be lifted. And nobody knows when this will be. No one honestly believes it will end on the 10th of January, as has been said up to now.  

Still, there were no big complaints, not even by the shop owners. Everyone seemed to understand that something had to be done. Many hospitals operate at their limit – not because they don’t have enough beds, but because there is not enough staff. In some cases, half of the staff has to stay at home, either because they are ill or in quarantine. In the nine months since the first Covid-19-cases were registered, no long-term concept has been developed, no concept of how to protect the vulnerable, how to ensure contact-tracing is working, even when numbers are rising. So another lockdown seems the only measure available. And we start the new year the way we have spent so many months over the last one: in isolation. We stay at home, plan to celebrate Christmas with the only other household allowed, and hope the vaccination campaign starting next week will be the wonder we are hoping for.