Or: what it’s like to sort out a move when the world is closing down around you.
We started hearing murmurs of it in January, but it was something “over there”; not an immediate threat. It was a weird flu. We’d seen its like before. We’d be fine. “Over there” didn’t matter in our day-to-day grind. There was politicking here, and fighting there, a candidate to choose and Brexit to sort. And anyway, the authorities “there” were doing what they could to fix things. Move along. Surely, it would all blow over quickly.
Things changed quickly. By February, I didn’t feel ashamed to be using Dettol wipes to clean down my seat area when I got on an airplane to travel for work. I wondered if it was safe to fly, and whether I should be wearing a mask, and really, if, in the grand scheme of things, it would matter. Surely no one infected was on my plane. And if they were, well, bad luck. I could only hope that if I did get sick, the dice would roll in my favor.
Luck was kind to me. I didn’t get sick.
The second week of March saw emails from our company coming through, telling the US employees to work from home since lockdowns were going into place, and advising those of us in the UK to do the same if we could. We discussed it, and my colleagues decided they would start doing so on Friday.
Before that, though, there were final client meetings to go to, and lunches to host. On that Wednesday night, 100 people from the publishing and ad industries met up to honor a man who’d died, and raise funds for his son’s school. I wonder if Farzad knew that 20 people would get sick from the event. Maybe he laughed; but I suspect that instead, he watched over us all, making sure that those who caught the disease got well.
I was between apartments, staying in Airbnbs, and so felt weird about staying in someone else’s home constantly. As a result, I kept going into the office. The trains became less and less busy as the days went by. The weather was all over the place. One sunny day, it was quite warm in the office, and I opened the windows to let in some air. A bee flew in, and fell asleep in a flower on my desk. It made me feel less alone.
One morning, as I was leaving for work, I encountered the son of the family with whom I was staying. “Have they not canceled school?” I asked.
“No!” he said.
We agreed that it was ridiculous. School closures had started in the US already, and several countries were already in lockdown.
I changed Airbnbs, moving from a cozy house in Chesham to a Buddhist meditation centre in Golders Green. Going from zone 9 to zone 3, you could feel a palpable difference in the emotional tone. People were starting to get nervous, get funny about things, and the larger concentration of people in one area made the fear more intense. Boris Johnson had asked the nation to stay home, to start social distancing. But we could feel it on the wind: the request was a prelude to something larger. “Shelter in Place” orders had been put into effect in Italy and Spain. They were so severe that people were only allowed to leave to go shopping once a week, or to see a doctor. It felt like something of that magnitude was surely on the way.
I went into the office on Monday and Tuesday, but worked from the centre the rest of the week. It was peaceful, and the chirruping of birds was a balm to my soul. There wasn’t really kitchen access, so I had to go out to get food and coffee. But I didn’t mind. It was a good excuse to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.
Shops were already starting to act on the new social distancing requirements. Queues formed at the two pharmacies on the high street, and cafés stopped allowing you to eat food in their premises. Service was takeaway only. I bought food for homeless people and handed them fivers, thinking how awful it would be to be stuck outside in the near-freezing temperatures and the rain, especially when the world was closing down around you.
On Thursday, I went out to get a coffee, and heard a rumor that Boris Johnson was planning to “shut down” the country by the weekend. Well, shit, I thought. I was supposed to be moving into a new flat over the weekend, and had no food there. I tried not to panic, but wasn’t very successful. This thought kept popping into my head: what if they literally shut everything tomorrow? What if there’s no food to be had for weeks while they sort everything out? I tried to tell myself that I wouldn’t starve to death, that surely there would be food available, surely there would be options. But something in me just kept saying, “better safe than sorry.”
At lunch I went out and bought a backpack’s worth of rice and beans and soba noodles at an Asian grocery. It felt a little silly, but it also felt like a safety net. If something happened, I could live on that for a while, surely. It would get me through. I felt foolish. I felt reassured. I needed it so that I could focus on life at hand. There was work to do, calls to make, words to write. Survival sorted, I was able to go back to these things without concerns.
In the evening, I made a trip to Woodford Green to see my osteopath. On the way, I dropped by the office to take a call and handle some emails. Central London appeared nearly abandoned, and most of the few people I did see were all carrying monitors to the Tube. People were preparing to hunker down for an extended period, it seemed.
No further announcement came on Thursday or Friday, and I felt a little foolish, but mostly relieved. I’d been harboring a secret fear that I would be prevented from moving. And then what would I do?
On Saturday, when I went to pick up the keys to my flat, the woman in the real-estate office seemed relieved to see another human. I was certainly glad to talk to her for a bit. She said that in the last week, 3 house sales had fallen through, and one house had lost £100,000 in value. She was mostly just with her kids, and was glad to have a place of her own with a garden.
Because of the way things had gone, I had to rush from the office directly to the flat to attend an online-rehearsal tech test for an acting group. There was the option to socialize online for a while, but I quickly hopped off to run to the Sainsbury’s around the corner, and get a few things for my flat. It was brand new, and there wasn’t even a roll of toilet paper in the loo. Or soap! I needed to change that.
On entering the shop, I felt an underlying sense of panic bubbling up. Never had I seen a produce aisle so devastated. There was not a potato, carrot, or cauliflower in sight. There were no onions, no heads of broccoli, no aubergine. It was as if people had been shopping for the Apocalypse.
Other sections of the store were equally empty. There was no liquid hand-soap, no toilet paper, no bread, no flour, no yeast. I had all of these things somewhere in my boxes, but they were still in storage. I had to improvise on my buying, and I kept wondering: Was I finding everything I needed? What if I missed something? Moreover, What if they never got [xyz] back in stock again, and the last time I had it was the last time I would ever have it?
I mentally stepped back to observe these reactions, and reflected that being able to have that type concern was a magnificent privilege in and of itself. There are so many people in the world who can’t find any food; much less their “favorite” foods. And wasn’t I so tremendously lucky to be able to worry about that? Especially since it was highly unlikely that things wouldn’t be on the shelves again in short order.
Somehow, this put things into perspective, and calmed me down. “I’ll make do with what I can find,” I thought. And so I did. And things were fine.
After going back to my new home, I joined a phone call with 45 of my closest franily1 members, to discuss business for the service organization of which we are all a part. After spending seven weeks being effectively homeless, seeing all of these familiar faces making familiar jokes and references was a balm to my soul. I felt like I was starting to root down, and be settled.
Since I didn’t have any furniture on my new flat, I went back to spend one more night in the Airbnb. A part of me was sad to know that I’d be leaving the next day, since the meditation centre was really such a lovely place to stay. But I was looking forward to being in my own space. My only concern was how to get the rest of my stuff from the office. After considerable thought, I realized that there was no reasonable way to go Centre > Office > Storage on Sunday. So I committed to making one last trip to Central London on Monday. Little did I know how perfect that timing would be.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny after a week of intermittent storms. I left earlier than I needed to, and got a coffee at the Caffe Nero on the Golder’s Green high street. I was the only one in the shop. The employees had stacked up tables and chairs to wall off the seating area. It was impressive engineering.
I took two busses, and arrived at my storage unit half an hour before the movers were supposed to arrive. The busses weren’t busy, and no one gave me a mean look. But, riding with a suitcase, I felt like I needed to tell people why I was there. “I’m moving today,” I wanted to say. “That’s why I’m here. I’m not traveling for pleasure. I can’t not do this.” No one spoke to me. I thanked the drivers as I disembarked.
The SafeStore in Chingford is next to the local Costco. This, in turn, has a pedestrian gate that opens out onto the North Circular road. I was hoping to use that gate to bypass a half-mile walk, but it was locked. Weirder, to me, was that there were four people standing by the gate, hanging out and looking bored. I went around them, confused, but then realized that they were probably waiting to get in to shop. “I wonder if they’re having a sale on something?” I thought to myself. And then I got around the corner to the drive leading to the SafeStore and Costco entrances.
Cars were parked in a line reaching back at least a quarter of a mile. As I walked, people stared at me, looking a little suspicious, a little chagrined, maybe judgmental. “Who are you?” they seemed to be asking, “and why are you here with that suitcase?” There were also people out of their cars talking while they waited. “I’ve been here two hours!” someone near the front of the line said. “I hope they let us in soon.”
This crowd of people–linear thought it might have been–was making me feel uneasy, so it was reassuring to get behind the locked gate of the self-storage building. I dropped off my suitcase in my actual unit, and then went outside to sit in the sun under a willow that was starting to grow leaves.
I felt like there was a interesting juxtaposition in that moment: there I was, sitting patiently and enjoying the day, while other people were panic-buying whatever they could at Costco. Once again I felt gratitude for having bought rice and things on Thursday. Once again I reflected on how grateful I was to have the resources to be moving, and have very few things beyond my own care to worry about.
The movers arrived, and in short order the truck was loaded with my possessions. The moving company I used–Transport Masters–gives people the option to “ride along” in the truck. There were two movers–Alex, who had seen me through all of the moves I had previously made in London, and the son of Alex’s boss, whose name I didn’t catch. With me in the cab, the space felt tight. I thought about the impossibility of proper social distancing in this situation, and tried to sit as close to the door as possible.
The drive to Chesham was very peaceful, and we all chatted about the current situation. The young man mentioned some conspiracy theories he’d heard about the virus, and Alex piped up to discredit them.
When we arrived, they made quick work of unloading the boxes. As I said goodbye, my heart felt a little heavy. I’d made a vow to myself that this would be my last in-London move, and it was sad to think that was probably the last time I’d see Alex. I hoped he would be well.
Then I set about unpacking.
One Last Journey into Central London
On Monday, I worked from home the first half of the day, and then went back into Central to get my monitor. The train was almost empty. Again, I felt like I needed to make a disclaimer, explain why I was on the train. This will be my last trip, I wanted to say, and I need to go in because what’s at the office is vital to my job.
The only time I’d ever seen Tottenham Court Road (TCR) station that empty was very late on a weeknight. There were even fewer people in town than on the previous Thursday.
On a hunch, I went to the TCR Sainsbury’s, and was delighted to find well-stocked shelves. No one was working, and it’s not a highly residential area, so there was nearly everything you could want: meat, vegetables, bread, cereal. No hand-soap, no loo-roll, no baking supplies. But it was something. I purchased a few things and then went to the office. There were a couple of people sitting on the office stoop, chatting. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman said, standing. “I thought no one would be here.”
“This is my last trip,” I supplied, “I had to come get my monitor, or I wouldn’t be in town. But it’s fine. Feel free to sit here.”
When I had finished working and packed things up to leave, the woman and the man were gone.
The Uber driver who took me and my stuff back to Chesham said that ridership was down, but the trips seemed to be longer. I thought that was interesting.
That night, Boris Johnson turned the “shelter in place” request into a mandate. I didn’t find out about that until the next day. I spent about a week having crying fits, panicking over my parents, and the fact that I probably wouldn’t have any extended human interaction with anyone until this was over. But then I got used to it. I do know one person in town, and have found that chatting to people briefly, even in queues, helps to make things better. So does talking on the phone, or doing video chats. I miss hugs though. And seeing more of my friends than what fits on an iPhone screen.
The line to get into Sainsbury’s stretches down the block, and wraps around the corner past the library. There are queues for everything, and I can’t help but think of stories about living in Soviet Russia. At least we’re not subject to rationing, yet. There were purchase limits in place for a while, but that was to stop people from panic buying. Loo-roll and flour are back on the shelves, and people seem to be calming down, behaving more rationally. I hope that will last.
Chesham is quiet. When I need something, I try to find it at a local business first. I buy bread at the bakery, and try to shop at the farmer’s market that is miraculously still open. Tulips that I bought in Amsterdam last fall started sprouting, despite being in their bags, unwatered and away from sunlight. So I went to a hardware shop in town to buy pots and planted them.
Every day I walk in the Chiltern hills, and have delighted in watching spring cover the land like a blanket. Leaves have sprouted, trees and flowers have bloomed, and the days are starting to stretch long.
Time seems to have lost most meaning. The days are starting to blur together, and I have to check my phone to see when I am. The weekends are only different from the week because of the length of my walks, and the work to which I turn my attention.
My computer monitor sits on my desk, and acts as the delineator between work and play. When I’m working, I use it with my company-issued computer. When I switch to my personal laptop, the monitor sits in a corner, turned off, waiting for the next day to start.
I don’t miss the commute, or the crowds of central London, but I do miss my colleagues, and friends, and going to the theatre. I miss traveling, but at the same time, I am glad to be here, in zone 9, drinking in the scenery, and going deep into the secret turnings of these country roads. For me, this pandemic is a kind of paradise. And it’s making me realize what I truly value, love, and long for. A very strange gift, but one many of us are getting from this Great Pause. I just wonder what we’ll retain when it’s time for us to press “start” again.