There have probably been far too many ‘one year on from the start of lockdown’ thought pieces all over the internet and in print, so what more can I add to this? But it has been a year unlike any other, so I feel I want to commemorate it in some way. Not that telling a thrice-told tale ever stopped a writer from sharing their own personal views… However, it ended up being a lot more complicated than I expected.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I started off with a bit of stock-taking and thanking my lucky stars that I still have a house, a job, my health, healthy children, fragile but nevertheless resilient parents even if they are quite a distance away. Of course, there are the worries that would probably have been present at this point in my life with or without Covid: money worries, trying to do three jobs at once, or the nagging concern that my boys, who used to share every random thought with me, are now barely communicating. (But maybe I should just enjoy the silence and read more?) There are worries that are Covid related – my parents still not vaccinated, an ex who thinks taking the boys to theme parks in the United States this summer is perfectly normal behaviour etc.
However, this year has above all made me lose faith in politicians of any country. In the UK, I’ve had a bad opinion of the Tory government for many, many years: I believed them to be self-interested and malevolent towards anyone ‘not like them’. However, this past year has demonstrated that they are also incompetent, corrupt and dictatorial in a way that I wouldn’t have believed possible in a mature democracy. People too have proved disappointing: inspiring stories of selflessness and community spirit in the first lockdown have degenerated as the situation has dragged on. It’s easy to be a hero in one brief moment of emergency – it’s hard to be consistent about being brave, helpful and thoughtful in the long-term, especially when you see so many people around you behaving badly. Clearly, the much-maligned ‘Balkanisation’ is a frame of mind that is easily accessible to anyone, regardless of geography.
How Much of a Shift?
This year is more than a ‘pause button’ or an ‘inconvenience’ or even a ‘global tragedy’. It is a paradigm shift – for me personally, and perhaps for many others, although I hardly dare to hope it will be so for society in general. There is much talk of ‘a new normal’ rather than a ‘return to normal’, but I hardly dare to allow myself to hope for it
The reason for my scepticism? Because I have had the misfortune of living in interesting times and experiencing paradigm shifts before. And while it’s true that in every single case things changed, often dramatically, I am not entirely convinced that societies as a whole or even social groups within them are able to fully reflect and digest these shifts and learn their lessons from them.
The first major shift was the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. For me personally that meant losing my fear of speaking up. I would never pretend again, never censor my thoughts and feelings, I would stand up for what I believe in – without hurting others or being thoughtless about their needs. I would never uncritically accept what ‘the state says’ and would check for facts and evidence, weigh things carefully and listen to diverse points of view. But that was my personal victory. My country lagged behind.
A period of wild capitalism followed in Romania in the 1990s, yet it was always coupled with the sort of populism that was not any prettier for being left-wing. Those of us coming from Eastern Europe have always been puzzled about the distinctions between right and left wing – our left was right-wing and retrograde, our right-wing seemed liberal for a while but was probably far too enamoured of anyone from the West and accepted capitalism too uncritically. The extremes seemed to be plastered all over the media, especially in the dozens of TV stations that everyone seemed to be setting up in their front room, but at least they didn’t become the mainstream or majoritarian government in Romania, unlike in some of our neighbouring countries.
Then I watched the Romanian documentary ‘Collective’ on BBC4 (nominated for Best Foreign Feature at the Oscars) about the scandal following the fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, and the high number of burn victims who died subsequently in hospital because of diluted disinfectants, incompetent management incapable of admitting their mistakes, corruption and cronyism at all levels. Although this all happened 5 years ago, the parallels to the current mishandling of the pandemic in many countries are too striking.
One scene in particular might have been written for me. The young, somewhat naive and idealistic interim Minister of Health tries to be the new broom, sweeping away the dysfunctional way of doing things… and is subsequently accused of lack of patriotism by the populist Social Democratic Party (descended from the former Communist Party). His father asks him: ‘Why don’t you just pack it all in and go back to your job in Vienna?’ That sentence struck a dagger to my heart: because that was in fact my choice 20+ years ago.
I tried to change things back home, I failed, repeated it a couple of times. Then I began to realise that I might be wasting decades of my life struggling for a societal change which might never come about. So I gave up and ran away. I still have moments of feeling guilty about it, although I notice that those friends who did stay on ended up accommodating themselves to society rather than trying to change it anymore. It is so hard to change things when others are comfortable with the old way of doing things.
I thought I was moving to a country where I could make a difference, through my vote, my community service, my expertise and so on. While I started doubting all of this in 2016, this past year has orphaned me of any illusions or country I can call home. I cannot run away as easily anymore as I could in my twenties, for both family reasons and boring practical ones.
So, What Changes?
It may be challenging to change the world on my own, or even my small corner of it. But, at the risk of sounding like hundreds of self-help books, I can change my attitude towards things.
- I can stop putting up with people spouting nonsense or hateful bigotry or conspiracy theories, because I am too polite or too scared of conflict or have simply resigned myself that they will never change their minds.
- I can make the most of the last few months I have with my older son – and the two years I have with my younger one – without the pressure of ‘entertainment’, but simply talking, getting to know each other all over again instead of assuming that what was true several years ago still describes them well.
- I can focus on ‘my legacy’ – a grand word to describe what I really want to achieve before I die. Do I want to be remembered as the reliable, good value for money (i.e. cheap) employee who tried never to let anyone down but nevertheless still failed to please everyone all of the time? Or would I rather be a translator, poet and novelist, who has also shared her love for books and authors who deserve to be better known?
- The greatest joy in my life (other than nature and the arts) has come from friends. This year has made me realise how fragile we all are, how we never know when our time to meet friends might be cut short. I have always kept an open house for friends to visit – but in future I will also make the most of any opportunity to visit them and keep in touch more frequently.
Final thoughts on this very long personal ramble: I’ve illustrated this post with pictures from this morning’s walk in Marlow, as a reminder of what I love about England in spring. Will I be accused of lack of patriotism if I say that I have five countries in the innermost chamber of my heart: Romania, Austria, Britain, France, Japan? I think there is room enough in there for them all.