Dispatches from isolation

I had a friend in college. One of those brilliant, troubled types. A writer and a chemist. He used to make his own drugs. Ordered the  ingredients online. Mixed them in his bedroom. I remember sitting with him upstairs in Bewley’s one afternoon. He told me about roaming around at night, sleeping outdoors.

On the grass in Stephen’s Green another time, describing how it felt when all the colors and sensations around you melded into one. He came from a family of high achievers. His older siblings with their diplomas in frames all over his sitting room.

For his birthday once, he invited a small group of us to his house. We played Balderdash and Piffle in his bedroom. Then he brought out some tubes of paint, and asked us to fling colors at the wall. For years, I had this brown woolen cardigan with a small yellow paint stain that I couldn’t get off. His mother drove us home at 3 in the morning.

“If you had to choose,” he asked me once in Café Sol on Dawson Street. “Between never seeing anyone again but having the Internet. Or seeing a small number of people and not having the Internet, what would you choose?”

Naturally, he was considering the first. And I said, I mean, I know where you’re coming from.

We were young and stupid and dealing in hypotheticals.

It’s been around two weeks now. Most of it spent right here at the dining room table. My laptop and a cup of something. Often, with candles too. Little things. LSH works in the kitchen. He likes the bar table. He’s used to standing in his office. Suits me well. 

“So, we haven’t A/B tested that yet,” he says through the wall. The apartment is now filled with the voices from his conference calls.  Sometimes he comes out and his face is all different. He doesn’t know it. More self-possessed. A little further away than normal. A sense of purpose. His world is in our kitchen now.

Another day, he’s on the sofa, his head hunched over his phone in a professorial manner. I creep up behind him. The closer I get, the surer I am. I know those shapes and colors! I know that concentrated, contended expression. This is what middle-aged Germans do on the train after they have completed all the Sudokus in their flimsy puzzle books.

“You play Candy Crush?!” I say. I am beside myself. I had no idea.

A friend recently asked if there was anything that still surprised me about my husband. Sure, I’d said. But I hadn’t been able to think of a concrete example.

“I only just downloaded it,” he says. “It’s actually pretty good!”

“There’s no need to be defensive,” I say. “It’s just that all of a sudden, I feel like I barely know you.” 

I resolve to play Kebab world again. Make time, for the things that matter.

When we venture outside together, I am insufferable.

“Stop scratching your nose.”

“I wasn’t scratching my nose.”

“You absolutely were. You do it all the time.”

“Stop treating me like a 5-year-old.”

“Stop acting like one.”

“I think it’s because we can laugh at ourselves,” LSH says in bed one night. “I think we defuse arguments that way.”

“So you think that’s why it works? Because even though we are very different we can both laugh at ourselves?”

“Yes, Katzi.” He is tired. He does a good impression of my incessant questioning. Do you think I’m a good person? If you were an animal, what would you be? What two people would you most hate to be stuck in qurantine with? I am maddening to live with. But so is he.

Taking out the bins and hanging up the laundry have become thrilling activities. Sometimes we fight over who gets to do it. Occasionally, we do it together. Slowly, we are becoming better people.

I’ve been writing more. The other day, I was having trouble focusing. Felt all tingly and restless. I brushed my teeth. It changed everything.

“It’s easy to forget,” says LSH. One of the reasons I married him is because he is kind.

I haven’t had a haircut in much too long. I no longer wear makeup. I slouch in front of the computer in the same green cardigan every day. I am startling to look at.

bad hair

Social isolation has made me startling to look at.

In the outside world, people are dying. Across the road, in Rosmann, people line up in a neat, sad, socially distant line.

I listen to music really, really loud now. Sigur Ros when I’m writing. LSH says I hum along, really loud. He hears me through the door. “You must know you’re doing it,” he says.

I do.

The da-da-DING of Whatsapp notifications punctuate our days. We are not alone.

We chat on Zoom with five friends in Dublin. All of us in our sitting rooms or bedrooms. In this strange thing together. They tell us the street traders at home are selling masks now. My friend’s three-and-a-half-year-old teaches us some Mandarin he picked up at preschool.

Watching the news is always bleak. Never more so than now. But I indulge in small pleasures. Examining the travel books on the financial correspondent’s bookshelves. A medical expert’s spice rack. A political analyst’s balcony.

The clocks go forward.  “Look,” says LSH. He points out the window. We are on the sofa, watching Tiger King.  It is 7 o’clock. Still bright. 

I go to Edeka to buy ricotta. It is remarkably cold. I stock up on the essentials: triple chocolate chip cookies and a jar of kale.

Inspired by a friend’s kindness, I scan through a box of Lindt chocolates separately. “For you,” I tell the cashier. “As a thanks.”

Her face changes. I struggle to key in my pin number with my disposable gloves. I step outside.

It is snowing. The day after summer time began.

A winter wonderland. Thick, fluffy flakes, like you see in picture books.

I watch them swirl over the empty playground. Choosing which daffodil to land on.

I return home, disinfect my phone, put the ricotta in the fridge.

LSH is in the kitchen. Looking out the window at the snow.




The Model Railway and The Emergency Haircut

“These wispy bits at the back of your head are borderline catastrophe,” she said, kindly.

I’d chosen her salon because there was a winter-themed model train set in the window. Tiny carriages chugged around and around a snowscape and up above, as if by magic, a hot air balloon carrying a family of dolls battled through the blizzard.

The night before the appointment I received counselling from LSB over Skype. “All things considered, Katzi, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

For the last few months I have been sporting what can only be described as a mullet. Those of you unfamiliar with the term (Dad?) might find it helpful to do a Google Image search. I had been carrying my mullet stoically, concealing the rat-like tufts in a heap at the back of my head or using hair slides to pin them to obscurity.

I had done all this in the belief that good things come to those who wait.

But when the thin, spindly tufts began to take over my subconscious I decided it was time to act. Having dreamt that I was given an impromptu haircut by a concerned friend, I, like all those suffering in silence, turned to the Internet.

There I found forums, videos and entire blogs dedicated to my predicament.

I, dear readers, was growing out a Pixie Cut. I like pixie cuts. I’ve had many in my day. Like the ideal babysitting charge, they are short and sweet and require no looking after. But like the model child, their development can take a nasty turn. In the case of the Pixie, everything you loved about the short front and slightly longer back turns into a straggly mess, leaving you looking like a 1980’s popstar.2012-12-09 15.04.48

After extensive research, which included perusing forums offering nuggets of wisdom like “trust me, you need a stylist to get you through this” I decided it was time to limit the damage so that I can grow my hair out with dignity.

“You know, not everybody can do this,” the hairdresser said, shampooing my hair. “They say it’s easy but it requires skill.”

“Oh, trust me I know!” I said. “I don’t have any skill at all. Whenever I try anything with my hair it’s a disaster.”

“Well, that’s why we’re here,” she said brightly.

She brought over some wonderfully old-fashioned books, featuring pictures of ladies with different hairstyles grinning manically. They beat Google-image search hands-down.

We looked at what could be done and she showed me some pictures of what my hair grown out could eventually look like as long as I remembered to come back for a “maintenance” cut every six to eight weeks.

She got chopping. I was startled by the sudden noise of an engine. The train had set off. I watched it go around and around and smiled because outside, in the real world, it was snowing too.

I now have a “bob,” which LSB calls “Robert.” When I told my hairdresser that I was in a long-distance relationship, she sighed and said “From the bottom of my heart I really wish you all the best with that.”

I told her it was really quite a serious thing. “Look,” she said. “At least you’ll have lovely hair when he comes to see you.”

Which is Thursday. It can’t come soon enough.

Let it snow, please let it snow.

It was morning, my least favourite time of day and I was tired. I’d worked until 2 am and was due back in at 10. I was still blurry eyed when I tore open the curtains and was half-way to my dresser-mirror, ready to contemplate the enormous bags that had inevitably festered themselves below my eyes, when I did a double take and let out a tiny squeal.

It was snowing.

I had not seen this coming. Granted, it’s been cold. But given that being cold is my default it would have been a leap to expect snow. I could have checked the weather forecast but with such foresight my life would be entirely without thrills.

I squealed again on the way to the train station and smiled stupidly at strangers, who looked irritated as they battled through the cold.

I sat at a computer beside a window and tried to sound hip as I translated a technology show, known apparently for its ironic tone and trendy catchphrases.

But all I could think about was snow.

Snow is the material which exempts me from adulthood. It is the compound which brings a rush through my body, makes my heart skip and causes me to squeal.

I spent every winter of my childhood in a continued state of daring hope followed by crushing disappointment. I remember vividly rushing into my parents’ bedroom at an ungodly hour to check if it had snowed overnight. I remember the familiar sadness that overcame me as soon as the green of the grass and the bleak black of the sycamore branches in the garden were revealed.

Grown-ups don’t like snow. They say it’s a pain. It causes traffic chaos and turns to sludge.

Two years ago, LSB took me to the Christmas markets in Nurnberg. It was possibly the best move he could have made in our relationship (which would you believe, celebrated its 5th birthday last week; he sent me a card with a crocodile wearing a party hat and blowing out a candle beneath the caption “5 Today”). The snow reached up to our knees and we spent three glorious days drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate laced with amaretto. For those of you nostalgic for my juvenilia, you can read about my experience with the Christmas markets in Regensburg here.

LSB and I at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

LSB and me at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

By the time I completed my last jazzy sentence for the technology show, the snow had disappeared but the feeling remained. I headed into town and spent the evening wandering around the Christmas markets at Alexander Platz. I treated myself to a little cardboard plate of rosemary potatoes. I even paid an extra 50 cent for Tzatziki. The texture was divine, the rosemary subtle but brilliant. But they were cold.

As I waiting for the underground home, I watched an old woman drinking beer. She was wearing Birkenstock sandals with socks. She had a wide face and a big forehead. She almost looked noble but I suspect in fact that she was very sad.

Reflections On A Winter Wonderland

I trod upon this Winter Wonderland two nights ago; perhaps you can see my footprints in the snow. This is my mother’s hometown of Regensburg, Bavaria and I am seeing it for the first time in the winter. I know it from the summers of childhood and adolescence as the place where first I splashed my toes into cool drinking-water fountains and then wandered moodily into the branches of H & M and Müller in the hope of diversion from the obligations of ‘extended family’ holidays.

The German side of my family is enormous – my mother is the fourth child of nine and at last count my cousins tallied close to thirty. My memories of the summers between about 1995 and 2007 are rooted in a certain self – consciousness about the German I spoke, which I perceived as stilted in comparison to the Bavarian twang and slang with which my relatives conversed. Aware and anxious from a young age that I had but a single afternoon to persuade each branch of the German relatives of my lively personality and engaging wit, I presented invariably an image of dullness and excessive politeness which they perceived (with accuracy) as shyness and awkward sensitivity. I had an awful lot of fun in Regensburg too though – I was particularly fond of the twisty yellow waterslide at the local pool and the vast availability of playmobil and wooden dolls’ house accessories in the toy -shops. When my Grandmother moved out of the family home and into a flat nearby, she dedicated her biggest free space to a playroom for her grandchildren. There she set up a shop (or ‘Kaufladen’) which she supplied with a wooden till and weighing scales, dried apples from the garden, miniature packets of raisins and cinnamon-topped marzipan balls; all of which could be purchased in tiny cone-shaped paper bags, which she provided for her customers. It was marvellous.

Such feelings return to me as I sit on a Regensburg and Grandmother-bound train with my boyfriend, who is not a part of these memories but who has the most incredible ability to absorb and to understand information and to remain quite silent as he does so; only to amaze me with evidence of his awesome memory at appropriate points in the future.  For instance, he has recited in order the names of my mother’s brothers and sisters without ever having been formally taught, recalled anecdotes about my relatives that I don’t even remember fabricating and has learned (albeit not with great accuracy) the lyrics of the family song (yes, there is one) which is performed at the approximately bi-annual family gathering.

I would forgive you for accusing me of having notions of one day appearing on one of those ancestry-tracing television shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ . To practise for such an occasion, I ask Andrew to take a picture of me on arrival at Regensburg train station.  I attempt to look restrained and dignified, humbled and delighted (as those minor celebrities do at important and scripted moments in the discovery of their past) but it is too much for me and I end up pointing with mock excitement at the sign above my head.

The journey begins and we battle through a blizzard along the Danube on the way to my Grandmother’s flat. We are startled by a baby rat as it darts for cover under the inches-deep layers of snow by the riverbank. When we arrive, we are heaped with white powder. I am nervous as I ring the bell – it has been three and a half years since I last saw my Grandmother and at that time I was not romantically attached. She opens the door and pops her head out. She motions us in as if we were meals on wheels. It is wonderfully reassuring. She brews a herbal tea and we sip it as the blizzard outside continues. She tells me that she misses packing Christmas parcels for her Grandchildren; it is beyond her competencies now, she tells me, as the children are looking for gadgets and games she doesn’t understand. I tell her how I loved playing shop in the playroom and how I remember her paper bags and dried apples. She smiles and tells me she has found old letters that her children wrote to the Christkind (the German equivalent of Santa Clause). I ask her eagerly if I may see them. I may. She gets up to fetch them, and I whisper a few words to Andrew, who has remained mute at the head of the table (Andrew speaks no German and my Oma no English). I leaf through the letters of my youngest aunts: they have asked for an anorak and an extendable pencil and have promised the Christkind that they have been brave Kinder all year.

Outside my Oma's flat

After an hour and a quarter, we shake hands goodbye and venture back out. We are station-bound again but have decided to check out the Christmas market by the Castle before we leave. We are ankle deep in glistening snow. Burning torches light our way to the courtyard, where stalls of mulled wine and gingerbread lure us through the cold. Four men play Christmas carols on old-fashioned horns. Beyond the glistening snowflakes and torch flames, the castle gleams. I buy Andrew a baked potato and he buys me a woolly hat. We leave our footprints in the snow. We miss our train and spend all evening in a Winter Wonderland I feel is part my own.