Groningen, the Netherlands, End of 2020.
People celebrating Christmas and/or New Year's Eve are busy making spreadsheets to plan their visits (both in- and outgoing), taking into account the ever dynamic formulae defining the currently allowed number of adult persons in a shared space.
Not us, of course: we'll rent a party bus, invite all our friends, put on songs that sound like "Wiggle It" by 2 in a Room, but with German and/or Dutch lyrics ("Wackel damit! Nur ein bisschen!"), and celebrate the dawning of a new vaccinated day somewhere above the thick wall of clouds — just like stray members of Groningen's most notorious student corps did: Vindicat Atque Polit. Niels and I always translate it as "He conquers, with chicken." And he does!
On second thought, we'll settling on a lower level of debauch, eloping to the island of Terschelling, where we'll celebrate Christmas and NYE in the tried and proven company of just the three of us, in a house near the icy sea.
Joy in 2020 means: University staff receiving a Holiday Card in the mail saying, in part:
"Hello, from our home offices to yours.
A card—something we used in days gone by to let others know where we were, or how we were doing. To make contact. Nowadays, we always know where everyone is: at home—and that is a mixed pleasure. We hope to see and speak with you soon in 'real' life." [My Editor Self, 12/6/2020: Best use of single quotes I've seen in a while! Consider adding those around 'life' and 'pleasure', too!]
Attached to the card, removable by tearing along a perforated strip, is a blank card the recipient is encouraged to send to another colleague stuck at home.
Joy in 2020 means receiving a "New Year's Eve Reception Package" from the same University (deep pockets, it looks like), which contains snacks and a flask of liquid comfort—the flask necessitated by the requirement of the package having to fit through the mail slot in the recipient's door. The contents of the package will be consumed 'together' on Zoom.
Those single quotes again! 2020, a year to put inside anxious, apologetic, not-quite-making-the-leap-to-sarcasm punctuation.
'Joy' in 2020 means that Floris's school, a Catholic institution that names "celebrating together" as one of its core values (if not the only core value—let's conquer, with chicken!), goes above and beyond trying to capture the Holiday Spirit that is part of December. The Christmas musical in the church is not happening, of course— but the students record their songs at school, and someone will put it all together so the parents can watch at home.
As usual, the eighth grade students (this being their final year at elementary school) will play the main part. I so hope for them that the "big" musical at the end of the school year, which will be their official send-off to secondary school, will take place as it should: on an overcrowded schoolyard, amidst the smell of barbecues, beer, melting plastic and shortened fuses from malfunctioning pancake irons, a thunderstorm halfway through, and the adoring gazes of parents dabbling away happy tears as they try to put on the useless colorful rain ponchos thrown into the audience by the janitor.
'Joy' in 2020 means never meeting children at the supermarket.
It means watching the "Zappa" documentary you should have seen at the Forum sitting on your fat ass on the couch instead.
It means feeling as if you're personally donating to the dwindling supply of your city's life blood whenever you go downtown even if it's not "strictly necessary" to purchase a bag of "oil balls" (oliebollen) at a stall on the otherwise deserted market square.
It means hospital admissions and deaths are going down, and XL fast lane testing is up and running, and yet the dominant mood is writhing in a fetal position at the intersecting laser beams of disgruntledness, helplessness, and numbness.
'Joy' in 2020 means restaurants selling food through windows, and people using windowsills and trashcans as impromptu bars. It means restaurants have to block off their outside tables, if they have them, with plastic tape and glued-on cardboard notes saying, "Dear guests, we're sorry, but we're not allowed to offer you this able anymore, because of the health risks."
It means your best bet at experiencing the once common intersection of food intake and socializing is by lining up for Köttbullar at IKEA, or for Churros at a kiosk on the parking lot of the home improvement store—unless you retreat to the privacy of your home or party bus.
It means the restaurants in the city center, as fucked over as they are by this year, are still putting up their Christmas decorations, because, as one owner said, "in dark times, you have to create your own light."
'Joy' in 2020 means I'm biking through the city with my son at my side, musing on the fact that my once perfectly smooth 'city bike' is now a creaking, bumpy ride because it's almost 10 years old, drawing not entirely unpredictable analogies to my twisted ankle that isn't healing as completely as it should, when suddenly, in a clear and silvery voice, a Christmas song is finding its way through my ear canal into my conscience. Defying the genetic odds, it's Floris, singing his grade's song from the Christmas musical: "Midden in de winternacht" — in the middle of a winter's night. (Niels and I both have musically talented relatives, but have been shunned by The Gift. Floris is not necessarily musically talented, but he can hit a note and reproduce a melody in a way so you can recognize it.)
Allocating some processing power to my motion control/ danger alert module as myself and Floris cycle around the laundry van blocking the bike lane while the traffic to our left is racing past us to catch the green light, I give myself permission to become emotional. Floris is singing about peace on earth, about predators playing with the sheep in the stable, and about paradise arriving with the morning star on the horizon, and I think about the vaccines that will shortly arrive in especially constructed deep freeze containers "at a secret location," via Belgium. (Why is it always Belgium?) Surely, this will be the start of our own paradise on earth. The paradise that means I can walk down the sidewalk like a normal human being again, instead of trying to gauge just how freaked out the individual walking the other way will be if I risk passing them at less than the sacred distance of 1.5m rather than throwing myself in front of oncoming traffic.
And I'm thinking: isn't it amazing. That, within a few (ENDLESS) brief months, 'we' as humanity were able to pull together, and science the shit out of this thing? Isn't this just the way, that sometimes greatness is within our grasp as a species, and we manage to jump just high enough? And isn't it a hopeful sign that Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, two people who have nothing in common except their blondness and who are currently busy negotiating the truly definitely final-final "do you remember what happened to..." Brexit Deal/No Deal in a secluded office à deux, have reportedly ordered in, and lo, they chose pizza?
Looking forward to the upcoming vaccination campaign, I keep thinking about the finish of my 2011 NYC Marathon run.
No, I won't compare corona to running a marathon—that would be silly. A marathon is much shorter, and you get a banana and a participation medal at the end.
Still, there was one moment. I'd finished my marathon, ate my banana, and staggered towards the place where I could pick up the bag of warmer clothes I'd handed over to a UPS employee a couple of hours before, on Staten Island.
I was one of thousands of runners who'd pinned her race number on her bag, and a copy of the same number on her shirt, and handed over said bag to one of dozens of UPS bag handlers before getting out of the line as quickly as possible to re-join a logistical vortex the mad complexity of which is impossible to exaggerate: the staggered wave start, in which runners were assigned to corrals according to their expected finishing speed.
Start spreading the news...I'm leaving today...
And there I was, a couple of hours later, in Central Park, freezing and looking to pick up my bag of clothes. Signs guided me towards "bag pickup" or something in that vein, which was a long, long line of stalls corresponding to intervals of race numbers. I finally saw the interval containing my number, and walked stiffly towards the person standing there, who happened to be free. He (I remember little besides an idea of maleness) saw me approach. Scanned the number on my front, nodded, pointed at me with a cool "I got you" pose. Reached somewhere behind and below him, without looking. Had the bag ready for me when I reached him, and handed it over.
I then proceeded to make a spectacle of myself by trying to insert my legs into the slacks I'd pulled from he bag, and having to sit down halfway through. The muscles were done for the day.
I'm thinking that whichever forces guided the path of my bag from Staten Island into my shivering, frozen claws that day will probably guide the vaccination campaign in Germany.
As for the Netherlands, that is anyone's guess.
But it's going to be okay.
picture from January 2020, just before - you know. Forum Groningen.