“Our strategy had not changed, but whereas yesterday it had obviously failed, today it seemed triumphant. Indeed, one’s chief impression was that the epidemic had called a retreat after reaching all its objectives; it had, so to speak, achieved its purpose."—Albert Camus, The Plague
News outlets around the world announce the reopening of New York, Austin, Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin. I walk along the Singelgracht in Amsterdam to visit a client and I see people out on terraces eating cheese, bread and croquet brunches on a Wednesday morning. I pass by a gym and it is jam packed with people sweating on stationary bikes. The metro ride back to the Centraal is standing room only. It seems like the pandemic is over, a switch has been flipped, and it almost feels like nothing happened at all.
But if you pay close attention, the virus still lingers. Variants mutate, and many less developed countries still have high rates of infection. It’s clear that we have yet to completely subdue the virus in the same way we have eradicated polio or mumps. Hesitancy around taking the vaccine also keeps many countries from reaching critical levels of immunity, and it seems we will need to take booster shots in order to stave off recurring strains each season. As I write this, Great Britain, praised just weeks ago for its effective vaccine rollout, is reinstating travel bans from high risk countries.
But before I go too far, this edition of the Random Embassy Papers isn’t about my scientific, ethical or moral opinion regarding the roll-out of the vaccine and state policies for reopening society. All told, I am very happy that things are opening up and that we can see our friends and loved ones again. We can start to at least think about travel and socializing in a way we haven’t done for over a year. We can start trying to figure out what all this means for our future.
Since this newsletter is a way for me to investigate my experiences, I thought it would be a good place to share a list of things that I learned during the pandemic months. How has my daily life changed? What new habits that I developed that are worth keeping as things begin to return to some form of “normal”?
I don’t only want to share this list, but I want to figure out a way to retain these pandemic habits and make them lifetime habits. It will be a struggle to keep many of these behaviors. The streets again will be filled with people, we will stay out late at friends' houses or in clubs, we will go to gallery openings and have BBQs in the VondelPark. Pressures from work will feel as if they are the only thing that matter again, and we will wilfully submit to many of the ridiculous rituals that we subjugated ourselves to before the world paused last spring. There will be pressure to return to the office and to return to normal, even though there is no normal there.
As I think back to the first weeks of the pandemic. I was afraid for my father, who at first did not seem to want to take the situation seriously. There was such uncertainty about the virus itself. How contagious was it? How deadly was it? I remember hearing estimates of possible death tolls that were as high as 1.7 million in the United States alone. Happily my dad came around and began to shelter in place. It was a lonely year for him. Thankfully he is now able to visit his grandchildren for the first time in 18 months this coming week.
I try to remember what we missed during those months, and to reframe those sacrifices as valuable methods to live a deeper and more connected life. It’s not easy to do this, and I hope that collecting these ideas here will help me to keep this attitude up.
Staying at home.
I became accustomed to spending nearly all of my time at home, and came to truly enjoy it. I was already used to spending long hours in front of the computer as a freelancer, but the pressure (and option) to go out and simply fill time was gone. Instead I find better ways to use my time at home - reading, studying, researching, working on my own projects, spending time with my girlfriend. There is a difference in the quality of what I am doing, even if I am not going to as many gallery openings, shows, or events as before. Going out simply to go out should be the exception, not the rule.
At the beginning of the pandemic I re-established regular phone contact with an old friend of mine from Philadelphia who now lives on the West Coast. We have two or three hour conversations over the phone. I hadn’t done this since I was a teenager. This difference between just messaging and actually hearing the voice of someone is huge. We have more thoughtful conversations over the phone because that’s all we are doing. We aren’t multi-tasking, carrying on the conversation via text while watching a movie or surfing the web at the same time.
Keep in touch with your parents and siblings.
I redoubled my efforts to send regular emails or WhatsApp messages, and to make phone calls to my sister, father and my close friends. It’s easy to forget this simple act, but this kind of regular contact reminds us that there are people in our lives that are the first ones we think of in a crisis. This can help us feel a sense of connectedness even if we don’t see or talk to them on a daily basis.
At the beginning of the pandemic my trainer was back home with his family, and all of the gyms were closed. I was in the best shape I’d ever been, and was afraid to lose it! I set my alarm at 6 AM everyday and ran 5K. Then I found a set of workouts posted online from different gyms in Thailand. I would do these 30 to 40 minutes workouts four or 5 days a week, and they kept me in condition until last May when Vahid returned. This routine helped me feel a sense of control and security, and I liked that I was the one prompting that discipline. The gyms were still closed, but we started to work out outdoors. I’m sure when Muay Thai was invented, it was not intended to be practiced underneath a bridge in the sub-zero winter temperatures of Northern Holland. But we managed. The gyms are now opening again, but for the most part we’ve decided to keep training outside.
Writing (with a pen and paper).
During the pandemic I began to write more than I ever have. This newsletter is part of that effort. I write almost everyday. I don’t have a plan for what I’m going to write about, but now that I have the hammer it’s not too hard to find the nails. The act of writing, especially with pen on paper, provides me not only with tactile satisfaction, but it makes me slow down and actually THINK for the 5, 10 or 20 minutes that I write. I write in cursive and strengthen muscles in my arm that have atrophied since grade school.
Being bored is OK.
I got used to being bored. I couldn’t just go to the bar or coffee shop to cover up my discomfort about being alone. Part of this was limiting my social media intake. I read more, I put time into personal projects. I focused on the things in this list. But above all I came to feel comfortable in my own skin. Feeling this confidence is priceless and is something I want to focus on as I reenter the social world.
My girlfriend and I managed to cook almost everything in two cookbooks: Otto Lenghi’s Simple and The School of Life Thinking & Eating: Recipes to Nourish and Inspire. Cooking together and eating together brought us closer throughout the pandemic. When the guidelines allowed, we had people over for dinner. These simple, very small gatherings made us feel less lonely, and helped us to connect with our friends in a way that I don’t think happens when you go to a restaurant. Inviting someone into your home, serving them food you made with your own hands creates a different experience. It fosters an intimacy that cannot be purchased.
Recognition of death.
Perhaps it is because I’m about to be 41, which is the age that my mother was when she passed away. I was only 18. Those 23 years have gone by in a flash. The pandemic reminded me that death is always there, that despite our culture obsessed with technology, consumer products, happiness and surface signals of success, the spectre of our eventual non-existence is always there. But instead of being morbid or sad about this fact that we all have to face, it brings me gratitude. I’m happy to have had the incredible experiences and luck that I had in my life. I try to think of this everyday and in this way I try to listen closer to those I engage with, both at work and at home, to actually engage with full awareness in my life, and to truly see and feel each moment as it happens.
Perhaps the pandemic made these changes too easy. Will I be able to maintain this discipline as the world opens up again and we resume some sense of normalcy? My aim is to remember the sense of calm and purpose that emerged throughout the last year. The key is less distraction, and making better choices around how I value and spend my time.