Going back home at the end of a long trip usually means going back to reality. For most people, sleeping in a different bed every few nights; taking planes, buses and boats to discover places that are just a name on the map; using two of three languages, none of them your mother tongue; and budgeting in various currencies isn’t normal. Living in a place where your own key opens your own door and you don’t have to ask for the Wi-Fi password is normal.
Except that right before I left Santiago, “normal” was being redefined in the light of the pandemic and I quickly realized I wouldn’t go back to the “normal” life I had left in December.
It would probably feel cold in Canada and it would still be winter—this was the only thing I was pretty sure of, unless on top of the COVID-19 pandemic a climate-change disaster was also on the way.
“Do you want anything from Chile?” I asked Feng a few days before flying back.
“Hand sanitizer bottles. Rubbing alcohol. Face masks. I mean, if you can find any… shelves are empty it and prices are sky-high online.”
Okay, so apparently the new normal at home involved planning for DIY surgeries. Sounded fun, already.
For the first time in my life—and hopefully the last—I presented Feng with four small hand sanitizer bottles (two from Brazil and two from Argentina), two 250 ml bottles of alcohol (from Chile), two packs of sanitizing wipes (from Argentina).
“And I got one free face masks at the Lider supermarket in Santa Lucía!” I added proudly the night before going back. “But… what does Ottawa look like?” I asked Feng.
I was a bit scared. It was changing fast, but life in Santiago was still fairly normal. I was picturing hundreds of toilet-paper-clad zombies roaming around Ottawa, waving bottles of hand sanitizer and fighting for the last pack of poutine cheese curds while staying six feet apart.
In fact, Ottawa looked deceptively normal—just your typical Canadian city at the almost end of a typical Canadian winter.
At this time of the year, the weather is slowly warming up, which in Canadian means temperatures between 0⁰C and 10⁰C. There are still snow banks everywhere. It’s already too warm to play ice hockey outside—it’s a thing around here, public parks have their own rink—but too chilly and too slushy to enjoy spring outdoor activities. People are slowly coming out of hibernation, everybody is tired after months of cold weather.
Of course, Ottawa looked normal. Like millions of cities around the world, it’s at war against an invisible enemy—a fucking virus. The air isn’t toxic, no bombs were dropped, the cityscape didn’t change.
Everything looks normal but nothing is.
It takes a few hours to notice unusual details. There are too many cars parked in driveways during what should be “regular office hours.” Dogs get walked much more often, mostly out of boredom, but owners give each other a wide berth. Yellow school buses are nowhere to be seen—in fact, come to think of it, there’s almost no traffic. Entire parking lots around “nonessential businesses” are completely empty. Most stores and businesses are closed, some variant of the “because of the COVID-19 pandemic blah blah” explanation posted on the window. There’s a lineup in front of supermarkets because store capacity is limited. Shelves are also often empty—“wait… what was here before? Oh yeah, cleaning products! Bread! Eggs! Butter! Pasta!”
Like millions of kids around the world, Mark is at home because schools are closed.
Like millions of people around the world, Feng and I are also at home—although this is normal for us, we’ve been working from home for over a decade.
Like everyone, we’re trying to adjust our normal routine. No school? Feng can teach math, I can teach French and Mark can also pick up practical skills hanging out with us. Work? We’re already set up to work from home. No socializing? Well, we’re not super social in the first place—Skype and emails for us, Roblox with school friends for Mark. No coffee shops? I can make coffee at home. No gym classes? YouTube workouts in my bedroom. Physical distancing? It’s not terribly hard in my residential neighbourhood—we’re still allowed to go out and I usually don’t meet a soul on my walks anyway. No shopping malls or restaurants? It’s okay, as long as supermarkets stay open, food is all we need.
We’re flexible. We don’t have the choice anyway.
But it’s still completely fucked up and completely overwhelming because it’s not normal.
Nothing is normal.
I came back full of energy with ideas, projects, inspiration, once again convinced the world is a beautiful place full of good people.
I counted my blessings for the first two days. I wasn’t stuck halfway across the world, I had used the ticket I had bought months earlier—perfect timing. My loved ones were okay. I was okay. Canada isn’t a bad place to be during a pandemic—I don’t trust the healthcare system but at least, we have physical space and unlike in France, we can technically go out as long as we respect self-isolation measures.
Really, it was just going to be a matter of doing the same as usual… just a bit differently.
The grim reality set in two days later. On March 23 and 24, I received emails from every single one of my clients informing me that all projects were on hold. Technically, my job is pandemic-proof but I’m still mostly out of work because there’s no point in having tourism marketing campaigns or travel guides translated—understandable.
Feng is also mostly out of work—different business, same reasons.
Things aren’t getting any better, both in daily life and on the epidemic front.
I spent the rest of the week dazed and confused, unable to focus—not COVID-19 symptoms, but definitely a side effect of the pandemic.
It’s impossible to stop worrying because there’s too much to worry about—it is a matter of life and death, after all. I constantly switch between the macro and micro perspective—people are suffering and dying, damn Mark needs a haircut, how small businesses will recover, shit I can’t find eggs anywhere, how we can get out of this mess, I miss interacting with people, etc.
The number of big and small COVID-19-related issues is just mind-boggling. We were all busy going somewhere until we had to stop abruptly.
It’s hard to move forward when literally half of the world is stuck at home. It’s hard to make plans when no one seems to know where we’re going.
I miss the old “normal.”