Paul Sullivan, long-time Berlin resident and founder of Slow Travel Berlin, reflects on the surrealism of life in the city during the last few weeks of COVID-19…
The panic stage
When the very first coronavirus case occurred in Germany, on January 27th, 2020, most of us were unaware of what it was; we certainly weren’t in any kind of panic about it. By February the phrases “corona” and “COVID-19” were increasingly common, but it still seemed to mostly be happening elsewhere. Life in Berlin continued pretty much as normal.
But in March things started to change. As countries like France, Italy and Spain declared public emergencies and shifted to lockdown mode, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before our city was hit with it too.
Sure enough, closures also began in mid-March: first the opera houses, concert halls, theatres; then schools and kindergartens; then, finally, clubs and bars. By March 15th, Germany had closed its borders to Luxemburg, France, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark. It was clear we were now in the middle of a global pandemic.
These changes happened very quickly and the effects on most of us were equally immediate and dramatic. A booked spring break to Copenhagen with my son was cancelled due to the border situation, as was a weekend jaunt to Marrakech when easyJet grounded all their planes. We also had to cancel the planned activities for the twelfth birthday of our son (even though the main one was bubble football, for which he and his friends would have donned a giant plastic ball over their heads—alas, it was not deemed corona-proof).
In the face of a deadly worldwide catastrophe these were of course small inconveniences. Many were faring far worse: those forced to work from home and simultaneously look after small children; those who had to brave packed commuter trains to continue to work; and those who suddenly found themselves unemployed.
Others, especially the elderly, were left alone and vulnerable. I went immediately to check my elderly neighbour upstairs, who has breathing issues, but I couldn’t get an answer from her door for several days. I hoped she had already been whisked away to family already, but I also feared the worst.
The surreal stage
The surrealism of our new lifestyles revealed itself quickly. Social interactions grew swiftly weird since we couldn’t hug, high-five or shake hands. Supermarkets were voided of toilet roll and pasta, and hand disinfectant disappeared from many shops too. Although we had been told to stay inside and ‘socially distance’ as much as possible, the city’s streets, cafes, shops and parks felt as busy as ever. This created some cognitive dissonance and not a little anger as the threat of a full lockdown loomed.
Social life gradually moved even more intensely online. Sending corona-related memes along with encouraging words to friends started to replace any actual work. Time began to dissolve, or expand, or at least take on unfamiliar dimensions. Angela Merkel even appeared on television to tell us it was going to be our biggest challenge since WW2, and that we needed to pull together to get through it.
It was a typically sober, reassuring address, and alongside experts like Christian Drosten and organisations such as the Robert Koch Institute and Max Plank Institute, it felt like—all told, and compared to other countries—we were in fairly safe hands.
When the tightened social restrictions inevitably came, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief that they were not as severe as in other countries like Spain, France or Italy, where people seemed mostly held captive indoors. Here, food markets, bakeries and bookshops could also stay open, and restaurants were allowed to organise collection and deliveries to try and help them survive the suddenly cold economic climate.
We could also go outside daily for sport, shopping and other essential activities, and meet with one other person who wasn’t from our household (so long as social distancing was observed). My first such meeting was on the 28th March, for a friend’s birthday; it turned out to be one of the coldest days of March but it was by that time already enjoyable to have a bit of company; we even found an open bookshop where I could buy him a gift.
The new normal stage
During April the days blurred into each other even more, as testified lots of memes about not knowing what day it was. But overall people seemed to be adapting to the new regime. Rather than awkward, uncertain dances on the pavement, there were more decisive distancing steps being taken now. Clear markers appeared in supermarkets and at banks; clerks wore gloves and plastic dividers appeared at the checkouts.
On a personal level, after a few early corona-related articles and some leftover writing to do from March, my travel industry commissions began to run dry. A friend sent me a link for an IBB (Business Development Bank of Berlin) grant, which I followed—a simple website that told me I was 66,532th in the queue. I joined, eventually filled in the application, and three days later the money was in my account. I was impressed and grateful.
As April wore on, it seemed that Germany had—for various reasons, including a decent, if far from perfect, health service, a high amount of testing, and cool, calm and collected leadership, as well as lucky factors like a lower elderly demographic—had managed to avoid the high death rates of other countries. By now we understood our adherence to the rules had also played a part and there were few complaints in my circles when we were told the restrictions would have to last throughout Easter and beyond.
After Easter came more announcements: shops of certain kinds could open from the 20th, and on May 4th some schools would, controversially, even reopen. We now have to wear masks on public transport and (ideally) in supermarkets. It’s another new reality to get used to, and one that will be with us for a long time yet along with the continued social distancing, but even a slight return to normality is a boon for many and relieves some pressure on mental health.
At the time of writing, as the virus continues to devastate large swathes of the world, it feels like a time to be grateful for any and all positives. Speaking of which, a few days I found a note in my letterbox. It was from my elderly neighbour; she had been in hospital for a leg operation and was now back home; could I go shopping for her? I have to admit, it was one of the happiest supermarket trips this year.
Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 10 years.