LETTERS FROM BERLIN

★ ★ ★ ★

WAITING FOR NORMAL LIFE TO BE REBORN

By Annie Mark-Westfall

As this global pandemic continues to draw out, it is becoming increasingly more uncomfortable, not unlike a pregnancy. I keep wishing life would go back to normal, while having a vague, intangible understanding that life will never be the same again. I am beginning to hate everyone around me, and the questions they ask—though not really, and I know this is temporary and circumstantial. I recognize that this “pregnant” period of staying safe at home, eating constant snacks and growing my waistline, is an enormous privilege that not everyone has. And when you complain about these circumstances, people love to shout you down, telling you just to enjoy it.

And like pregnancy, I am terrified of the unknown. Of the great beyond. I lay awake at night, wondering how we can possible come out of this ok.

There are moments when I believe that we may be ok. One such day, a package arrives at our door with Chinese writing.

“What did you order?” My husband asks, suspiciously. I file through my hot toddy-fueled nights, wondering what could be the answer to this riddle. Suddenly, we notice the return address, and a familiar name. I am innocent.

Tearing open the package incredulously, we find it stuffed full of medical grade masks—the kind required in stores and on public transportation, but that became, temporarily, so hard to acquire. They were sent by the Taiwanese exchange student, who stayed with my family more than a decade ago. We text him our heartfelt thanks, and he replies with earnest and urgent warnings to wear the masks and stay safe from the virus. Just over a week later, a second package arrives from Taiwan, this time full of children’s masks.  My heart swells with this sense of global solidarity and humanity.

The lockdown that began in mid-December finally comes to an end, just in time. My family had been handling it brilliantly, for months–until we just couldn’t any longer. One evening, my 5 year-old went around the dinner table, pointing at each of us, looking us straight in the eye, and informing us, “I’m sick of you; and you; and you. All of you. I’m so tired of all of you.” And then, with a child’s earnest anguish, he turned back to me and asked, “Is that ok, Mommy?”

We assured him that this was a perfectly normal feeling after several months at home with just your parents and little sister. As the kids helped clear the dinner table, I sent the Kita an email, begging them to allow my children to come back. They do.

Spring weather arrives, bringing a further sense of hope and wellbeing. The simple fact that I no longer live in a world of daily headlines about Donald Trump’s hateful Tweets, is enough to allow me to bask joyously in the sun. We have two beautiful days. I take my jacket off. My parents in Ohio get their first Covid vaccinations. Life is grand.

And then the storm comes. My husband and children arrive home from daycare, damp and buzzing from the bicycled sprint to beat the rain home. As they dry off and we settle in to dinner, my Facebook feed fills with angry news articles over a political scandal related to politicians’ investments, and handsome financial returns, on the medical-grade masks that have become the standard requirement in Germany. Competing their way to the forefront of news coverage are incredible photos of mammatus clouds over iconic sites in Berlin.

It takes me time to unpack both. First, and most incredibly to me, Germany has succumbed to corruption and chaos. This country that was previously so well organized, so science based, so focused on the wellbeing of its residents… has fallen. The days and weeks following the mask scandals reveal a first, second, and third wave of public outrage and anger in how the country is (not) dealing with the vaccine rollout process. I watch helplessly as my hopes and expectations for Chancellor Angela Merkel, the scientist into whom I put my utmost trust and faith, and her government flounder endlessly in their indecisive and petty decision-making on how to address the surge in infections.

Meanwhile, the beauty of the mammatus clouds floating over Berlin, creating literal silver linings, catches my breath, envy rising in my throat. My family missed this entirely, while we labored through dinner and bedtime. Amid my flaring anger over the German government’s ineptitude, the sagging clouds photos create the perfect distraction, with their Latin root in motherhood. A quick Google search, however, reveals that quite little is known about this gorgeous weather event. I snort with cynicism, unsurprised that science would overlook a phenomenon compared to the appearance of a cow’s udder—the embodiment and the reduction of the female. I am nearly ashamed by the triteness of this observation.

Days later, my phone buzzes endlessly. My daughter’s favorite daycare teacher has sent me another photo of the mammatus clouds. My friends text me joyously from my home state of Ohio, which has announced that all residents ages 16+ will be eligible for vaccination by the end of the month.  My American friends in Berlin swear about the worsening COVID situation, plotting their return to the US for “vaccine tourism” this summer. My head swirls in anger, fear, despair. The light at the end of this tunnel fades. The sun is gone, the weather once more cold and gray.

I plot a trip back to Ohio, but my husband firmly but gently tells me that we are not going anywhere. This sense of purposeless, interminable waiting sends me into a weeklong hole. And while I am down there, the utterly American mass shootings begin anew, and my despair deepens.

In my friends circle, the last month of pregnancy is called “baby jail.” Unable to travel, finished with our home projects, we are bored and impatient. It is this period when we need to be reminded to stay at home, lean on the community, and embrace the temporal and the end goal.

And so it is with this pandemic. Rather than looking around at what could be, I must remember that we want this life here in Germany that we are nurturing in place. For now, then, I must sit with the discomfort and the restrictions, and focus on what comes beyond these hard times. Soon, hopefully by September, the ninth month of this year, as Chancellor Merkel has promised—our post-Covid19 normal life will be reborn. I cannot wait to hold my extended family and friends in my arms again.

Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.

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