Usually going back home is like visiting a theme park – it’s all so familiar, I can communicate easily, I know how to maneuver and I know what the food is and what it will taste like.
But this trip has quite thrown me off my stride. I had read all about how lockdowns were ending and the country was opening up again with summer celebrations, but the reality was quite different. People and places looked worn and hard-done-by; there were more signs of struggle than there were of recovery.
Even small things were difficult – like talking in masks. People at home have had more than 16 months to get used to it, but in stores here, clerks don’t talk to you. There’s no culture of “Hi, how are you, may I help you find…” . Given the language issue of you speaking one language, the clerk speaking another and neither of you speaking Arabic, you usually walk into a store, find what you want and pay for it without having any conversation. I have had very few interactions with trying to talk to people in a mask here but at home, it happened constantly. So I was constantly asking people to repeat themselves. In one to-go restaurant, the clerk kept asking me if I wanted something in my salad and I could not catch the word, finally he picked up a piece of tomato. Exactly the sort of thing that happens here all the time, but never at home.
I was also off-kilter as everyone expected me to know how to use Grubhub/ Foodhub, Door Dash, Just Eat and Hungry House. When I checked into a 5-star hotel and the receptionist told me that both restaurants, the bar, and the lounge café were closed, she said, “Just use Deliveroo” leaving me both hungry and confused. Deliver-what? When a friend said, “I’ll call Ola,” I wondered who that was. Oh. It’s a car service.
But what really changed in Covid is not the masks or the long lines, the dearth of baristas and the ubiquity of hand sanitizers (yes Darling, mine is Bellini-scented). And what changed is not the hellos, that slight intake of breath when you finally see that special someone for the first time in 2 years and you launch in for all-encompassing hug.
What has changed is the good-byes. Oh perhaps you got a bit teary in the past, oh a slight sniffle as you saw their car receding, but saying good-bye has now altered, perhaps forever.
Everyone (well almost everyone, we do not discuss those who could get a vaccine but choose not to, they are unspeak-about-able) got their wake-up call about the impermanence of life-as-you-knew it. Not simply people, but places, the texture of your favorite neighborhood are fragile. The coffee place that was there for ages, the neighbors who moved, the people whose name you didn’t know but saw every day – the fabric of your world ‘before’ is gone and as you stand there, the taxi waiting, saying farewell, the moment has a entirely different feeling. As you lean in for your hug, it’s perfectly clear to you now that you may never see this person again.
Two years ago I waved cheerfully as I got on trams, trains and planes to leave family, friends and cities I love – this summer, I cried (which is why Darling, always carry a handkerchief) with the bitter knowledge of the precariousness of relationships and locations. My blitheful “See you soon!” turned into a tear-induced-silence as I stared at the person I was leaving, thinking of the delta variant, the vaccination rate and probability.
Good-byes are different now.
The Drawing Room, Anna Alma-Tadema