A tale of two pandemic cities

Five months into the pandemic, I wasn’t doing too well. Although at 63 I might be expected to cheer for policies designed to keep me safe, I recoiled against the policing, the snitching and the lack of permission to articulate what we were losing. One newspaper article pronounced cruises dead forever. Another predicted people would never sing in choirs again. Media pundits declared, with what sometimes seemed almost like glee, that life as we knew it would never return.

Public health experts who took issue with lockdown strategies struggled to get their voices heard, as noted by Stanford University professor Jay Battacharya in a recent Munk Debates podcast. Ordinary citizens who questioned the policies got branded virus deniers or anti-science Trumptards. I have the screenshots to prove it.

As a left-leaning medical writer who wallowed in science every day, I struggled mightily to find my bearings in this strange new world and my Zoom shrink was running out of ideas. I saw two ways out of the rabbit hole: ask said shrink for a prescription or take a trip to a more hopeful and relaxed part of the world. Option B won out.

Four days in Amsterdam, three days in Stockholm, 14 days of quarantine back home in Toronto: the idea seemed preposterous even as I boarded the plane – but I didn’t step off.

Photo by Gabrielle Bauer.

When I landed in Amsterdam, a wall of heat slammed into me and for the next three days the temperature never fell below 32°C. My doll-sized hotel room, smack-dab in the red light district, had no air conditioning. On the bright side, it gave me a chance to chat with a sex worker on a break down the street. I asked her how COVID-19 had affected the sex trade, which had resumed in July.

“Why would it affect anything?”

“I thought you might not be allowed to, you know, hug and kiss your clients.”

She laughed. “My clients don’t come to me for lovey dovey stuff. They come to get the job done and the virus hasn’t changed that.”

Following a month-long uptick in cases (but not deaths) in the Netherlands, Amsterdam had instituted an indoor mask mandate in three small tourist areas of the city, which struck me as a proportionate response. The locals accepted the rule without complaint, though their masks came off outside the designated perimeters.

With the notable exception of Americans, the streets bustled with tourists – I heard a lot of French and German – and the cafés lining the canals spilled over with clusters of people nursing Heinekens. A bar owner told me that tourist traffic was hovering at 50 per cent of normal levels: a significant dip but hardly the death knell that some had predicted.

I spent most of the time walking up and down the streets, sprouting blisters on the backs of my feet, and when I needed a break I would grab a seat at a patio, order a beer and strike up a conversation. In near-perfect English, my interlocutors told me they were ready to face the virus as a long-term lodger they would need to make peace with rather than wrestle to the ground.

Photo by Gabrielle Bauer.

COVID-19 had not been forgotten but the life force was reasserting itself in a way I had yet to experience in Canada. A little too soon, perhaps? Head-in-the-sand syndrome? I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling that way but to me it was oxygen.

I arrived at my AirBnB in Stockholm as the sun was setting, marvelling at my luck in landing a room with a killer view at half the price I had paid in Amsterdam. Over the next three days I fell in love with the city, thanks in part to the dazzling weather that brought the residents out en masse to the flea markets, parks and beaches. On one occasion, unable to resist the water splashing against the floating restaurant where I was having lunch, I dove in with my skirt and halter-top.

It was easy to forget the pandemic as I ducked into old churches and oversized H&M stores, grabbing a box of lingonberries at the outdoor market along the way. Not that the Swedes had ignored the virus: following their government’s advice, they had worked from home when they could and avoided bumping into each other throughout the spring. Having put in the time to control the spread, they were now ready to squeeze the juice out of the summer’s final stretch.

When I got back to my Toronto home, I headed straight to the basement, where I spent the next 14 days. My husband had fully supported my solo adventure, so this part of the bargain came easily. I posted pictures of the trip on Facebook, bracing myself for accusations of carelessness, irresponsibility or worse. They never came. Perhaps the zeitgeist in Canada was also turning a corner?

Recently, several newspaper articles have suggested we take our cue from continental Europe, lay the dream of eradication to rest, and “learn to live with” the virus. No doubt some people will recoil at this idea while others will feel more than ready for it.

What seems a reasonable compromise to one person may strike her neighbour as pure folly. Vive la différence, I say, as long as we keep talking across the fences dividing us. With so much at stake, we need healthy debate more than ever.

Take Sweden, for example. Some observers have vilified the country for playing fast and loose with lives while others have touted it as a model of cool-headed thinking. The story continues to unfold and it’s too early to declare any winners or losers in this most unwanted of Olympic games. The death toll per million in Sweden stands at 583; in Canada a far more palatable 246. However, the Swedes expect to be better prepared for a second wave. We shall see. We can expect to be wrong, many times over.

Travel, in the truest sense of the word, exists to open our minds, to show us possibilities we didn’t know existed. My short European trip showed me that the problem called COVID may have more than one solution. It rekindled my hope that the old normal – at least the good parts of it – would return someday. Alarmist headlines notwithstanding, we would take cruises and sing in choirs again.

As we step into the fall, I hope we stop pointing fingers at each other, swallow some humble pie and keep looking for the most humane way to deal with a virus that may or may not bend to the human will.