I was both charmed and staggered to learn, when Spain first went into lockdown last year, that hairdressers were deemed essential workers. “Otherwise, how are old ladies supposed to manage if they can no longer wash their own hair?” said officials, no doubt breaking into an icy sweat at the idea of having to justify salon closure to their feisty abuelas. In France, recurring quarantines require closing all shops except those selling bare necessities. “Thankfully,’ remarked my friend Maer, “the French consider wine, pastries, and chocolates to be necessities!” Les Européens are so civilized, n'est-ce pas?
I began wondering: Are Europeans finding ways to turn lockdown into a viable lifestyle? Are they learning how to adjust in ways that we haven't considered here in the US?
When I reached out to friends in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, they poured out tales of much tighter restrictions on commerce, socializing, and mobility than anything we've seen in the States. And then — human nature being what it is — they explained how some people are circumventing them.
“We are currently in our third lockdown with a nightly curfew. Be indoors by 9:00 pm and you can be back on the streets by 4:30 am,” says my friend Patrick, the Irish owner of the popular Amsterdam coffee house Monks Coffee Roasters. Lockdown requires non-essential shops to close. “This is being flouted like a badly run speakeasy with unmarked bags and bizarre hand signals. The basic rule of law is, if you sell food or medicine, you can open your doors. ‘You want fries with those new pants/washing machine/garden chairs?’”
Naturally I asked how everybody was staying (relatively) sane. “Good question!” says Carlotta, an Italian tour guide and chef living in Turin, Italy with her boyfriend Paolo. “I would love to answer that I made the most of all this free time by doing a lot of exercise and eating well; the reality is I've been eating more comfort food than ever! What kept us sane during the toughest times was our dog, Luna; we adopted her in early March 2020, by chance just before the first lockdown started. She is our furry princess, she's the funniest and most sociable dog ever, and she gave us a legal reason to get out for a walk when it was forbidden!”
“People are renting dogs on leash time,” reports Patrick. “I’ve also heard of cat walking taking hold, but can’t confirm.” It gets crazier than that; in March the Spanish news showed locals walking plastic dogs, chickens, even goldfish; the police were not amused and soon put a stop to it.
“If I could avoid doom-scrolling, I would be saner,” observes Maer, an American living in Montpellier, France, with her husband, Mark. “We’re retired from the film industry and I think that has ruined TV and most films for us. We can no longer manage that wonderful suspension of disbelief they require. We get bored and wander off to read.” They also take online classes, including Yale’s Science of Well-being (similar to Rich’s UC Berkeley happiness course).
Patrick and his Dutch fiancé, Margreit, amuse themselves with AI. “We got one of those ‘Hey Google’ speaker things," he says, "and although it was slightly creepy at first, we enjoy the randomness of asking her questions, teasing her, challenging her, and making her play obscure music. I know, it’s a machine, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers; she’s the only stranger you're allowed to have in your house at the moment.”
Carlotta says she and Paolo “do an aperitivo on Fridays to cheer ourselves up. Every week I put together something different: olives, a good salami, some mortadella cubes, a selection of cheeses, croutons with butter and anchovies, salmon, ham, savory pie... you name it! We open a good bottle and do a little ‘party,’ just the two of us.” Her favorite comfort recipe: spinach squares.
[Carlotta’s Spinach Square Recipe]
Patrick just moved and will be kitchenless until March. “We live with a loan microwave oven and takeaway food. Not great but we’re still alive … just. Once the kitchen arrives, the first thing I will prepare is my sensational Shepherd’s Pie. It’s a secret recipe handed down through generations of my family.” Oh yes, I talked him into sharing it with us!
[Patrick’s Shepherd’s Pie Recipe]
Everyone struggles. “I work in tourism," says Carlotta, "and the biggest challenge is figuring out when I'll be able to work again and how tourism habits will change. The second biggest challenge is fitting in clothes after all that comfort food!”
For Maer, staying put is hard. “My main jam is going places, walking around and looking at things; having to cool my heels has been tough. But then I realize that the only thing wrong with my present moment is my idea of how the future will be. If I manage to turn that off, all is well. We’re warm, dry, well-fed, and well-befriended, and that’s enough.”
At the coffee house, Patrick deals with maskless conspiracy theorists and other tests to his patience and diplomacy. On a personal level? “The biggest challenge I faced was grief. We lost two family members back in Ireland to Covid, and being unable to be at funerals due to travel restrictions was difficult. My aunty was a particularly close person to me and watching on a computer screen my mum, that I haven’t hugged for over a year, at the coffin of her sister was heartbreaking.”
None of them expects to be vaccinated any time soon. Carlotta and Maer are hoping for fall; Patrick says, “By Christmas.”
All three feel they’ve learned a lot during lockdown. “I had the illusion to be in control my future; well, that was a big fat lie!” says Carlotta. “I'm learning to enjoy the simple things that I have always taken for granted.” The pandemic, observes Patrick, “made me realize how entitled and indulged we are as a species. Personally I took stock of what I had and how much I actually need.” Maer echoes this sentiment. “It’s a superpower to be comfortable with very little.”
When I asked Patrick if he thought the world would ever return to normal, he said, “There is never really a ‘normal.' We are always evolving. Now there is a shift in mentality and behavior, and I think it’s a good one. I’m hopeful for humanity as a whole. Fighting a pandemic as opposed to a war has made the planet smaller and made us realize how very vulnerable we are.”
“Holy smokes are we all interconnected,” says Maer. “The butterfly effect is very real.”
This has been a rough time for everyone. As one gastroenterologist put it, using the terminology of her field, “If 2020 was a drink, it would be a colonoscopy prep.” While 2021 offers reasons for cautious optimism, the pandemic is far from over, the outcome still uncertain. “At the beginning I thought we would return to a better normal,” says Carlotta. “Now I just hope it won’t be worse. But I can’t hide a sparkle of hope for us to learn a lesson and be a better society.” Amen to that!
How's your pandemic going? Any tips for adapting gracefully to the new abnormal while we wait for our vaccines?
This post is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible with some of our sanity and sense of humor intact. Each week I provide tips, strategies, and reasons for hope.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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