Berlin life in the time of COVID-19

Pariser Platz on COVID-19 nights (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

I’m not a disease expert by any stretch — though I have been sick in several third world shitholes.

But it feels like anyone with any sort of public platform is expected to take a position on the COVID-19 pandemic. It certainly had a paralyzing impact on travel.

In short: take it seriously.

Expect it to last anywhere from several months to most of this year. And start preparing yourself for a world and an economy that looks very different from the world we knew before.

I live in Berlin, where life has been in various forms of lockdown for at least two weeks. Last weekend, Chancellor Merkel announced even more restrictions, including a ban on public gatherings of more than two people.

We can still go out to buy groceries, or for solitary exercise, but that’s about it.

I’m fortunate to have Tempelhofer Feld — the runways and open spaces of the old Tempelhof Airport, from the Berlin airlift days — right at the end of my block. But even it was sparsely populated last weekend as residents sought fresh air and sun to compensate for locked in apartment life.

Unlike the weekend before, people were actively trying to keep some distance from one another. They seem to have gotten the message — and the blunt warning from the government that restrictions would increase if we don’t cooperate. [Images of the view from Berlin here]

Will it change behaviour over the long term? It has already resulted in something I thought I’d never see: Germans giving way on sidewalks. They normally barge straight down the middle like the Wermacht invading Poland, especially in groups. Yielding politely is practically unheard of here. But this past Sunday, people stepped aside when we passed each other like they would in Canada.

Well, not parents will small children. They still shove blindly down crowded sidewalks with their kinder-Panzers out front like a battering ram, acting under the mistaken notion that others care about their pampered offspring as much as they do. But they were always rather self-righteous, and I wouldn’t expect them to adapt.

The new normal for sunny Berlin Sundays. (Photo: Odd Andersen, AFP)

I went for a walk last night late through the nearby neighbourhood. The city felt strangely deserted, empty roads and blue police lights flashing in the distance. There was an ambulance on my street a few buildings down, with lights flashing and three heavily armed police standing outside. And two blocks from there, another emergency vehicle blocked the road, and uniformed men were questioning a lone walker with his dog and asking to see his papers.

I didn’t encounter any other people, and very few cars. This in a city of 3.5 million. I could have been walking through occupied France, where people hid in their homes after dark and dreaded a knock on the door. We stopped at the grocery store on the way back but the shelves were cleaned out, as though the Mongol army had passed through. Veggies all gone, not a single egg in the place, no crisps either.

An old high school friend who lives in a city to the west of Berlin described air raid sirens going off in her neighbourhood, followed by barking German voices from hidden loudspeakers warning residents they must stay indoors and follow the new regulations.

It must have felt a bit like this in the 1930’s, as inflation spiralled out of control, essential foods ran out, and the government imposed restrictions on movement. Now that the borders are closed, I have an acute feeling of being trapped. I can imagine what it must have felt like for all those people who lived in denial, and who didn’t leave Hitler’s Germany until it was too late.

I don’t know why so many World War Two images come to mind at a time like this. It isn’t some unique historical menace attached to Berlin. Germany today is quite a good place to be. I guess it’s just that I’ve read so much about that conflict, and the dislocated memories of long dead people who lived through a time when their world fell apart. Are we living through such a moment now?

In some ways, it feels like we’re just sitting around in a state of low level dread, watching global numbers climb, waiting to get sick.

Being an expat can be difficult at times like this, too. I realize how isolated I am as a temporary resident in a place where I barely understand the language. We have great upstairs neighbours, but otherwise we’re completely on our own. I’m worried about older relatives and friends back home, but the borders are closed, and I couldn’t get out if I wanted to.

But we have it easy compared to people who have already lost their jobs, and who have no shelter to hole up in and wait it out. My normal life was already a form of semi-seclusion. Not much changed for me, apart from the gym being closed and my travel plans for the year being disrupted — and potentially cancelled.

An inability to travel is a problem for a travel writer. The short trip I planned over Easter to get new material for my magazine column is off, and my summer travel goals might be cancelled, too. But everything’s shut anyway. And even within the European Union, countries have closed their borders.

I’ll talk about what I think this means for the EU in another blog.

It’s difficult to filter hysterics from accurate scientific information with so much smoke in the air. Sam Harris released two podcasts with medical experts on COVID-19, I found those quite useful (ONE and TWO). And Joe Rogan has done the same.

I also recommend following Tyler Cowen. He’s writing a lot about what a post-pandemic world could look like. And after a great deal of denial — much of it from world leaders — it’s finally sinking in that the world we reenter on the other side of this crisis will look very different than the world we knew last month.

Suffice it to say that I’ve never shied away from traveling to places others avoid — North Korea, the Tibesti mountains of Chad, Syria right before the war. But I did my research and weighed the risks. And that’s the approach I’m taking with COVID-19. I don’t worry about getting ill myself. I’m 47, pretty fit, and with a healthy diet and lifestyle. But I don’t want to be the guy who brings the plague to some remote island outpost. I don’t want to be a person who spreads this thing to the old and vulnerable. And I certainly don’t want to end up in hospital in a country with substandard medical care.

So yeah. Don’t be an asshole. Put your travels on hold for a few months — maybe even a year. Spend some time reading about it, instead.

Apart from staying informed, I’m writing, reading the year’s worth of books I’ve got piled up here, and kicking back with some classic films. That’d be my non-expert’s advice to you, too.

If you’re feeling claustrophobic, I recommend taking armchair journeys with an Atlas, or with classic travel literature. Order a few books from Eland, the London-based publisher that keeps the very best of travel writing in print. And have a look at the book reviews here on my blog for inspiration.

If you need some home-based exercise options for staying healthy without the gym, these are all solid programs that I either created or published: Forbidden Fitness training for ninjas (and those who wish they were), the Warrior Zero Bodyweight Challenge by my friend Helder, and Shapeshifter Yoga to work out those chair-shaped kinks.

So please stay safe, stay sane, get some exercise each day, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

In another blog, I’ll talk about Europe, the future of travel, and whether travel writing can remain relevant in a post-pandemic world.

 

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