You did your best


covid-19 france nyc travel usa

The new pattern for living seems to go like this. Emerge from a lockdown and shake off the careful life you built inside the restrictions imposed on you. Take a few halting steps out to your friend’s house, to the pub garden, walk the streets more and more carelessly. Soon you can forget the bread baking cycle and the little routines you imposed on yourself so you didn’t bang your head off your own four walls. Live more energetically and spontaneously (while you still can). Soon, travel is back on. Head out of the city and see your parents. Dare to book a plane ticket.

A girl standing on a mezzanine floor in an airy apartment
The apartment in Paris

I shot out of the gates myself, determined that I wouldn’t pass up opportunities any more. I went to Switzerland, then France with my girlfriend. In Paris we squeezed it all in with no slack days. We met more cousins than I knew a family tree could accommodate for drinks and dinners and those French lunches where everybody manages to have a couple of glasses of red in the middle of the day.

We spent a week in a manner somewhere between tourists and locals. The apartment in Montparnasse was borrowed from a friend who was out of town, and we went for morning runs. We bought fresh bread some mornings to have with breakfast, which like all meals seemed to involve primarily bread and cheese that had no business being so good. The allowances for being tourists were as follows: the running route inevitably led to the middle of the city (the somethingth arrondisement, I really struggle to get native with those) and some great landmark, we visited the Musée d’Orsay on my urging, and we dawdled around when the path to an appointment led us somewhere nice.

A canal with autumnal trees overhanging its banks
Canal St. Denis

I like the Musée d’Orsay because:

  • It’s much smaller than the Louvre
  • It’s a little bit quieter than the Louvre
  • You spend way less time walking past hall after hall of Christian devotional art (sorry basically everything from 1000-1600) to get to the good stuff
  • They have a great collection of Rodin busts
  • The restaurant is inside of a clock
A crowd of people in front of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
Fans of Starry Night

After Paris, we headed south to stay with Sarah’s parents in their mid-renovation farm building in the Loiret. There things slowed down a lot. For a while I worked remotely from an adjoining building before I came to my senses and booked the rest of the week off to just be with everybody else. A crucial part of everybody else was Pip, the little kitten rescued from a drainpipe. It is quite amazing how much time you can spend watching the kitten, or talking about the kitten to others who are also watching the kitten.

A black kitten
Pip, the gutter cat

For the most part we holed up while Sarah got as much quality time with her parents as could be had in the respite from pandemic-induced estrangement. Her family are spread far and wide geographically, but they’re very close in the important ways, and frankly I don’t know how they cope for long stretches apart in the current climate. On a rare outing from the hamlet we saw a chateau and climbed a watch tower in the middle of a huge forest to see the view. The autumn foliage made it pretty spectacular.

Green, golden, and yellow tree canopies split in half by a single track road
Forest of Orléans

After France, I was only back in the UK for a blip before I got on a plane, alone this time, to New York. This was ostensibly a work trip and indeed I did have lots of meetings and see lots of colleagues I haven’t seen since the pandemic began, and I did go to the giant holiday-slash-IPO party.

However, a big reason for me to get here was to see some friends I haven’t seen in person since before the (all together now) pandemic began. These friends were all made from working at BuzzFeed but half of them don’t work there any more and they were always more than colleagues anyway. During the pits of the lockdown in 2020 we spoke basically all day every day. It’s been really, really cathartic to see them again in person.

New York City skyline at night
New York City skyline from a rooftop in the Bowery

Things have changed for basically all of us during the pandemic and the little re-openings. There are new partners, new apartments, new pets, new jobs. It’s a common refrain that my cohort in particular has had the last few loose years of our twenties taken from us and we’ve been thrust out the other side into that middling settling-down period. While I reject the premise with a mixture of denial and hope that I’ve still got more in me, it’s hard to deny that the average member of the friend group has “grown up” a bit. Perhaps due to circumstances of ventilation and social distancing or perhaps due to how we’ve changed as people, more of my time catching up was spent walking the dog, or chilling in an apartment, or having one or two at the bar and calling it a night. The regrettable truth is that it’s better this way. Rather than the usual week I planned to be here for about ten days, and the reduced pace meant my liver could keep up.

A gate labelled "Giglio Boys Club" covered in illuminated Christmas decorations
Mysterious Italian American Christmas establishment
A big white dog drooling
Ava drooling

So it got toward the end of the week and things began to get a little bit weird. After the BuzzFeed holiday party a lot of people got contact tracing emails saying they may have been in contact with somebody who has since tested positive for COVID-19. In the meantime, the headlines about the vaccine-resistant and highly transmissible Omicron variant grew from a background murmur to a roar. We cancelled a dinner party and people started laying low. I had a couple more one-to-one hangouts in the open air and got ready to get out of here before the cage came down.

The morning of the day before my flight, I took a lateral flow test to certify myself as fit to fly, and it came back positive. Things rolled into motion from there. I moved my flight. I got out of my shared Airbnb and into a hotel room where I’d be self-isolating for the next few days, perhaps over Christmas. I stocked up the room with supplies to be relatively self-sufficient and now I wait. I’m writing from the hotel room now, while the flight I was supposed to be on flies up the coast of Newfoundland on a great circle back to the British Isles.

So just like last time and the time before, I’ve been a little slow, we’ve all been a little slow to make the change to living defensively. Like last time I wasn’t really sitting rapt as the Omicron variant concerned scientists the world over because I wasn’t sure, and I wanted to get the last good days in while they were still on offer. Was that reckless, selfish? Ask a sample of a hundred people and at least a few would say I was wildly reckless to travel so much and for so long and a few would say I should stop worrying about it. I’m here now. I hope to be home soon for the next quiet phase of a smaller, and hopefully cosier life. When I finally get back to my home and my girlfriend I imagine it’ll be all home cooking and baking and little home improvements and those small joys that can be found close at hand.

A suspension bridge over a wide river, with project housing on the far bank
The Williamsburg Bridge

Let’s see how long I can stay so objective about my predicament.