Continued from part 1.
After my failed grocery shopping attempt last Thursday, I went to a different, bigger supermarket in Old Town Geneva, about a 20-minute walk away. Rue du Rhône, a high-end shopping destination once bustling with tourists and fancy cars, was quiet and deserted.
I couldn’t even see the storefront when I got into line for the supermarket. They operated on a three-out, one-in system. Luckily it moved fairly quickly and I was inside after around 10 minutes.
Inside the store was a bottle of hand sanitizer that was literally chained to its kiosk, which made me laugh. Even the Swiss can’t be trusted in times like these! There were taped signs everywhere on the floor directing traffic flow and blocking out distances between shoppers, but no one seemed to be following them. In the pasta section, there were signs asking us to be considerate of other customers and to only purchase our usual household quantity.
As I was walking home with two heavy bags of groceries, I saw the bus coming and decided to get on. This was the first time I’d ridden the bus in exactly one month. It was nearly empty, and the door next to the driver was taped shut, in addition to this chain at the front blocking passengers from sitting too close to the driver.
Got an email from the owner of the company that manages my rental in DC. His cousin has passed away from the coronavirus.
Today I got my stimulus check in the full amount of $1,200 since I made pennies at my last nonprofit job. I’m very lucky to be in a position where I don’t need this money, so today I donated to the following charities/causes:
- Capital Area Food Bank – biggest food bank in DC
- Bread for the City – provides food and legal services; my ex-roommate works there
- World Central Kitchen – feeds communities in need, run by chef and all-around wonderful human being José Andrés
- Philadelphia workers united – fund for laid-off workers
- ActionAid USA – used to work with them at my old job
- La Colectiva – supports immigrant communities in northern Virginia
- Catholic Charities – I donated specifically to their homeless shelters
- DC Improv – I used to take improv classes here and was sad to learn they had to lay off their entire staff
- Survival International – advocates for Indigenous Peoples, particularly uncontacted tribes
- Milwaukee Black businesses fund – self-explanatory
I haven’t gone through the whole $1,200 yet so will keep looking out for other places to donate. Food security and homelessness are definitely top of mind, as are opportunities to support communities of color who are being devastated by this pandemic.
Feeling really pissed, especially after I read this article in the NY Times today: “‘Nowhere to Hide’ as Unemployment Permeates the Economy.”
A few weeks ago I was listening in on a COVID briefing call where one of the speakers was an analyst from Goldman Sachs. The guy had said that based on his projections, the economic fallout from COVID would be less severe than the 2009 recession.
As of today, more than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last four weeks. And that’s just one country that hasn’t even hit its peak yet.
I’m frustrated by all the missteps and mistakes that led us to this point, all things that could have been avoided.
When China silenced Dr. Li Wenliang and other whistleblowers.
When the WHO told us that there was no evidence of person-to-person transmission and no need to restrict international travel and took more than a week to declare a pandemic.
When the CDC said masks don’t help.
When people in Italy and New York and everywhere else accelerated the spread of the disease by running off to their second homes when they should have stayed.
In Switzerland, things are getting back on track. I think. Today the Federal Council announced that some shops would be allowed to reopen on April 27, schools would reopen on May 11 and other public buildings on June 8. Things seem to be getting better here, but I’ve lost a lot of trust in institutions in general, seeing how badly things have been mishandled. We have a long way to go before we get anywhere close to normal again.
I join a Zoom catch-up call with a few of my friends from college. It’s wild that most of us have known each other for over a decade, and it never occurred to us to do a conference call in all this time!
A lot has happened in these eleven years. Almost all of us started grad school the same year, 2015. Two are still in the middle of their medical residencies. One is heading back to school this fall to do an MBA. One is married. Two have cats. Two live in California. One is still back in Atlanta, our college town. I lived in DC for six years and now live in Europe. A lot has changed, and yet we pretty much feel like the same people. That was really refreshing.
I get an email from my French school, which had closed back in mid-March. We’ll be resuming in-person classes around June 8 (!), the third phase of Switzerland’s scheduled re-opening. I had always complained about how mentally draining these classes were, but at this point I am desperate to go back to normal.
Thinking today about how drastically life has changed in just eight weeks.
A day in my life, in the before times:
7:30am: Wake up, do yoga, change into work outfit, eat about four waffles straight from the packaging without even putting them in the toaster, put on makeup, and head out
8:30am: Take the bus into work; it’s usually standing room only
9am: Arrive at work, grab a fresh cup of cappuccino from the cafeteria, and head downstairs to my cubicle
Noon: Have lunch with one or more colleagues
2pm: Have another coffee
5:15pm: Take the bus to the other side of the lake
5:40pm: Pop into a grocery store and pick up a few random things that I’m in the mood for: candy, soda, fruits, bagels
6pm: Go across the street to French class
8pm: Leave French class and take the bus home
8:30pm: Get home and watch TV or read a trashy novel to close out the day
10pm: Go to bed and scroll a bit on Instagram before falling asleep
A day in my life now:
8:30am: Wake up, change into clothes that are a slight upgrade from pajamas, make a fried egg sandwich, and do yoga
9:15am: Log into my work computer and embark on an endless stream of Zoom meetings, only activating my camera if my hair has been washed recently
10:30am: Put on my mask and sneak out to stand in line at the grocery store, since this is the only time of day where the line isn’t terribly long
11:15am: Come back, wash my hands, take off my mask and get back to work
2pm: Look up and realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch; heat up leftovers
6:30pm: Look up and realize I should probably start dinner; start dinner
8pm: Start reading coronavirus news
Midnight: Go to bed, reading coronavirus news until I fall asleep
Today I talk to someone face-to-face for the first time in eight weeks!
I meet a coworker at the lake, we take a couple of work calls together, we take a long walk. (When I get home I check the health app — more than 8,000 steps, not bad.) We both wear masks the entire time.
I also go to the post office for the first time in three or four weeks. And wow, things have changed big time. Before, you could just waltz into the post office, press a button to generate a ticket, and wait for your ticket to be called. Now you have to stand in line to even get inside.
I walked to the other side of Lake Geneva, where the train station is, for the first time in over a month. (It’s about 2.2 miles roundtrip — perfect for exercise.) There’s a tiny Asian market there run by a Vietnamese couple, and I thought it would be good to do a little something to support Asian-run businesses. They were open even though it was Sunday and I got some ramen, frozen dumplings and Chinese snacks.
I am obsessed with Japan lately. Yesterday I spent hours watching this series on YouTube about a day in the life of [a Japanese housewife / a Japanese office worker / a Japanese college student / what have you]. And then I spent hours reading the blogs of people who’d taught English in Japan through the JET programme, even though I have no desire to teach English or live in Japan.
I think it’s because I was supposed to go to Japan and then Korea with a friend this summer. I hadn’t bought tickets yet, but it was always on the docket for June. When I first went to Japan in 2016 and loved it, I kept saying to myself, “I’ll come back in two years!” and then “I’ll come back next year!” but I never did. This was supposed to happen. But I guess it won’t. For now.
Today I looked up a Japanese shop here in Geneva, a cute little back-alley store with snacks, soy sauce and empty bento boxes that I’d been to a while ago and liked. They are re-opening on May 4. Just one week away. Count me in, guys! I’ll stand in line for you!
I also found a Japanese hair salon all the way out in Zurich, three hours away by train. (I pretty much only trust Japanese salons to cut my hair now; the last time I got a haircut was February in Jakarta, and before that December in Bangkok.) Should I go? Is it crazy to take the train right now just to get a haircut? I don’t know! I no longer have a working definition of what “normal” is.
Today I ordered food delivery for the first time. Not just the first time in quarantine, but the first time since I arrived in Geneva 9 months ago. As I checked out, I was reminded of why I don’t usually eat out here: for a small bowl of soup, three shu mai dumplings, and a tiny main dish without rice, it came out to 40 francs. The food was also packaged by a free spirit who let the soy sauce spill all over the bag. I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.
One thing that I do find nice (that I hope they’ll keep even after this is over) is contactless delivery. It feels like so much less work for both the customer and the delivery worker to just drop the food off outside and not have to worry about the human interaction part. Spoken like a true introvert.
Today the Federal Council announced they were moving up the re-opening of bars and restaurants to May 11. Museums and schools will also re-open then. “This is a new dawn for the Swiss economy,” said one of the councillors, Guy Parmelin.
I also went to the grocery store and saw that shopping baskets were back. (They had been removed about a month ago to avoid transmission of the virus.) Such a small thing but it made me happy, realizing that things are slowly starting to go back to normal. It made me think of this beautiful piece I read in the New Yorker lately about living through SARS: “The viral spell broke, and Hong Kong seemed to wake from a fever dream.”
Migros Magazin published this photo essay of a recent week in the life of Federal Councillor Alain Berset, Switzerland’s interior/health minister and the face of the nation’s coronavirus response. Here in Switzerland politics work a little differently. The country is run by seven people rather than one, several political parties across the spectrum are represented at the highest level, and the Federal Councillors don’t really have celebrity-like status. When it was Berset’s turn to serve as the Swiss president in 2018, though, he did go briefly viral when a photo of him sitting on the curb in front of the UN headquarters in New York was noticed by social media users in Africa.
Overall, I have been impressed by Monsieur Berset’s leadership on COVID and him as a public figure. Even though I think Switzerland acted more slowly than it should have and is still parroting the frustrating refrain “only wear a mask if you’re sick”, I think as a whole he has been decisive, visible, accessible, and – most importantly – trusted by the populace. He has been giving a press conference about twice a week, and I am always impressed by how seamlessly he switches between French and German depending on the language spoken by the journalist. Berset is also a Social Democrat, with whom I share many policy positions, so I am happy to see him playing such a key role in leading this country. (Simonetta Sommaruga, who is from the same party as Berset, is actually the president of the Swiss Confederation, but she’s deferred to him to be the main spokesperson on the COVID response, which I think reflects positively on another aspect of Swiss politics: That people are less about their own egos and more about what’s best for the country.)
A few weeks ago, somebody on Instagram shared a photoshopped picture of Berset and Sommaruga with wildly overgrown hair courtesy of COVID. Berset, who manages his own Instagram account, shared the story with a handwritten “euh?” and three mortified emojis, which made me laugh.
Merci, Monsieur le Conseiller fédéral ! Thank you for restoring some much-needed faith in our political systems.
Today we found out that we’ll be returning to the office on May 11! Holy moly. When I read that email I almost wept. It won’t be a full return, though – we’ll need to keep the office at around 30% capacity, which means people will take turns going in. But I’m so excited to be going back. I also think a 2-days-in-the-office, 3-days-at-home schedule might actually be healthier for me in the long term? But we’ll see.
I also started remote one-on-one French conversation practice today, since I’ve been out of French school for almost 2 months and Duolingo isn’t helping me as much as I’d like. I found a teacher who is Swiss but lives in Argentina. We did a trial Skype lesson for 30 minutes and she was great – friendly and patient! It was the most French speaking I’ve ever done in my life and I felt significantly more confident afterwards. I’ve signed up for a package of 10 more classes.
This is how I know things are really going back to normal: I went to the grocery store today, and there was no line. You could just go in.
And the bus was half full.
I also had a remote Spanish conversation class today, and TBH I didn’t like it as much as the French one. I think the teacher and I just didn’t ‘click’ on a personal level, and I was also disappointed that my Spanish had regressed significantly due to lack of use (I’d used it a lot in my old job working with civil society organizations in Latin America). All the more reason to pick it back up again. I’m going to keep looking for a good match.
We talked about travel plans and I remembered that I’d been really looking forward to going to Mexico City last September, had even bought plane tickets and booked a hotel room — but then I got the job in Geneva and couldn’t go. Now it’s unclear when I’ll be able to visit Mexico or any part of Latin America. This world is just nuts.
I’ve been getting YouTube ads on my phone from the OFSP, the office of public health in Switzerland. (In German it’s called the BAG. It’s fascinating to me how many things in Switzerland have 3 names in 3 different languages and all 3 names have to be squeezed into the logo.) The ads are PSAs demonstrating how to properly wear a mask, which apparently the OFSP/BAG is “strongly recommending.” Have you guys been asleep for the last 9 weeks or something?!
We’re supposed to start going back to the office in small numbers next week. The cafeteria won’t be open, but the coffee machines will be, and that’s honestly the thing I’m most looking forward to. The coffee at the office is so good. There will be lots of other weird rules in place: only one person in the bathroom at any given time. They’ll take our temperatures before entering the premises. No in-person meetings are allowed, technically. I’m fascinated to see how many people will be back and how it will all play out.
I also ordered delivery for the second time. This time, the delivery guy couldn’t find my door and called me. I freaked out (in-person French conversations are nerve-wracking enough, but phones are a whole other level), but managed to pick up and have a bad but decipherable conversation in French. I am SO proud of myself for not giving in to my impulse to go “sorry, do you speak English instead?”. Progress!
Today I was able to return to the office.
Yesterday, Switzerland launched phase II of its re-opening. Schools, shops, restaurants and museums are now allowed to open. My work is also slowly easing us back in: in theory, up to 33% of us can be in the office on any given day. In reality, it’s far less, and the office feels deserted and distinctly dystopian.
Here are some of the new rules:
- A temperature check before you can go inside.
- Before sitting down at your desk, disinfect your hands, then disinfect your phone, computer, and general work space.
- No sitting back-to-back or facing another person.
- Only one person is allowed in the bathroom (which has 3 stalls) at any given time.
- The cafeteria is closed. No food delivery can be ordered.
- Lunch must be brought from home and eaten alone.
- One person at the coffee machine or water cooler at a time.
- Every conference room has a sign outside indicating the maximum number of people who can come inside.
- Door handles, tables, chairs and common areas like the kitchen are being cleaned constantly.
There was one colleague who literally wore a mask for the entire day. I was truly impressed by her stamina. Overall, I do feel very safe at the office, I’m glad my work has gone into overdrive to protect us, and I’m happy to be back a few days each week.