I was talking to Lukas when I noticed I wasn’t feeling well; we were discussing a project we were both working on. Although he works in the new technology group, because of the backlog of work in engineering, he had been loaned out to one of the software teams to help them get back on schedule. Swiss, he had spent a year working in Australia, but has a neutral English accent, neither British nor American. We were on the 07:48 train from Chur to Bonaduz, sunlight slanting into the train car, as we moved around a mountain or passed under a partly cloudy sky.
My symptoms were a fever followed by chills, a sore throat, all coming on that very morning and a little worrying. The coincidence bothered me: until now, world events have had no direct effect on me, and it seemed I had lived all of my life removed from the currents of history. Not any more.
On Tuesday, March 10th, the U.S. Embassy in Paris sent an email to U.S citizens living in France concerning covid-19. It advised citizens to check the CDC website, the covid-19 crisis page on the State Department web site, and to check with airlines regarding travel restrictions.
On Saturday, March 14th, my sister cancelled her trip to come visit us.
Now on this Monday morning, March 16th, Ralph, the director of our department (product management and clinical concepts), came into the office I shared with Mike and Vincent, told us to take whatever equipment we needed, and to go home. Because of the covid-19 situation in Switzerland, everyone would be working from home for at least the next week. I took a picture of my white board, gathered up my notebook computer, power cables, mouse, headphones, and some engineering specifications (I always print specs). We had two ventilators in our office, an MR1 (for ventilating a patient in an MRI environment) and a C1. Mike was going to take the C1 home with him, and we decided to leave the MR1 in case someone else in our department needed it. As it turned out, given the world wide ventilator shortage, as few weeks later our MR1 was commandeered and deployed someplace in Switzerland.
I was back in my apartment by noon.
I worked from home Monday afternoon, then took the next three days off. Usually I’m out for about thirty-six hours, at most, then am fine. Not this time: I was extremely tired, slept about sixteen hours each day, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Tuesday morning I called my physician, but because of my symptoms, they would not see me. They advised me to stay home and if I got much worse, then go to the hospital. Another phone call, to one of the local pharmacies, Pill Apotheke Grischuna, which delivered some over the counter medications; they left a package by the front door, I made a bank transfer to pay the bill. By Friday, I was better.
In the living room I had set up my work Dell next to my personal Lenovo, brought out an old 22” Samsung monitor, found that the VGA connection worked better than the HDMI, got everything networked, VPN’ed, and so on.
Ready to work, and yet…
When the family is in another city, and you’re past the clubbing age, work becomes your main place of socialization; that was now gone. Moreover, Chur had gone into hibernation. In normal times Chur’s activity patterns are like tides, a regular ebb and flow of people, although it can seem odd to the uninitiated. I live in the old town, a lovely pedestrian area with many cafes, stores, restaurants, and galleries. On any Saturday morning there will be lots of people out and about, but then, often by 12:30, nearly all the streets are deserted. A couple of hours later there will be another surge of people, until dinner, and then the streets are quiet again. Sundays there is little activity.
That March almost all businesses closed, certainly all bars and restaurants. My sports club closed. The pool closed. My orbit of interaction, already small, disappeared: I went out every few days to Denner or Coop for food and beverages, and every other day to the track to workout. With no interactions, the going was getting weird, and per Hunter S. Thompson, I was turning pro.
But I’d been here before, sort of. Here and there I’d lived on my own, as early as 1983, third year at the university in an off campus apartment over looking Lake Champlain, the only media I had was radio (WRUV – the voice of the university of Vermont, or at night from Montreal, CHOM FM!). This kind of living, peculiar at first, helps develop inner resources and helps you become yourself.
And I’d done some whackier isolations: When I was thirteen I went on a six-week Outward Bound type program: climbing, caving, and backpacking. The last week of the program was a solo: out on my own in the curious, very remote landscape of Dolly Sods, West Virginia. I had a sleeping bag tarp, two quarts of water, and a large ziploc bag of gorp1For the uninitiated: Good Old Raisins … Continue reading. The instructor came by once a day, never speaking, to see if I was okay; otherwise, it was just me alone in the wilderness. Most days it was cloudy and rainy. With nothing to read, I took short walks and wrote in my journal: about the other jerks in the program, lists of all the things I wanted to eat when the whole damn thing was over, about whatever existential crap goes through the mind of thirteen year old. Years later, on another sort of retreat, I took part in a three day retreat, in the lush, foggy redwood forests along the Pacific Coast in northern Californian. This was a more profound, intense experience, and when I finished I had the welcome disorientation of not know the day or time (I was in no way troubled by this), and for a short time, the things of the world, all objects, seemed unique and worthy of attention.
Yet in these instances I entered into the situation willingly and there was a known endpoint. With covid-19, that end date was, and remains, unknown. Isolated in my three room apartment, I felt a bit like a sailor, singlehanding, but there was no particular destination, the only plan being to stay afloat.
The pandemic and its necessary adjustments added a layer of stress to an already very troubled world. On the other side of the pond, the vicious, feral occupant of the White House continued his reign of enrichment and destruction. The virus was spreading, infection rates were on the rise, people who should not have been, were dying.
Keep moving in place
In hindsight I should have immediately gone to Montpellier. I have residency/work visas for both the EU and Switzerland, so I should be able to move about if needed. But…I had recently been sick—had I had a mild case of covid-19, and was I carrying? I never got tested, but worried—Switzerland was considered a high risk zone. At home Kieran was between apartments, and Maëllys was staying with us, so the house was already full. I decided to stay in Chur for the time being.
Time to get my shit together. As Gunny said, “Recon Marines improvise, adapt and overcome.”2Heartbreak Ridge: … Continue reading
Sports and exercise, whatever their own intrinsic merits, hide a lot of sins. Annie ordered me some weighted jump ropes that she had been using, I got a 16 kg. kettlebell, a 30 kg. sandsack, a 10 kg. medicine ball, a TRX system, mat, and a 70cm Swiss ball (which in Switzerland is still called a Swiss ball). One day it was alternating squat and pull sets, then alternating single leg and push sets. Some core stuff, then to the track to jump rope and throw around the medicine ball. Next time it was alternating hinge exercise (e.g. dead lifts) and pull sets, then alternating lunges and push sets, then to the track. Repeat forever.
Working out on my own was more of a pyschic challenge than I realized. In normal times, once I made it to the gym, and it was a nice gym, all was good, I was motivated and ready to go: the atmosphere there, a guy working it at the squat rack, a woman doing lat pulls, made it not so hard to get a good workout. But now my apartment was not only my office, but also my gym, sans buddies or babes. It was all right there, yet somehow its closeness and convenience made it all the harder to get started. The sofa was just as close.
But most days I got going, and kept at it. And going out for the track portion of the workout was welcome: a bit of a walk through the Altstadt to a modern, composition surface track. The track was down in a draw, so there was little breeze, but usually good sun. Five sets on the heavy rope, then the medicine ball; five sets on the medium rope, medicine ball, and to finish five sets on the light rope, fast (for me), a burn in the forearms and back. I tried to push it, make it hard, mostly in an effort not expecting to make progress, but to keep in place, not revert, stay out of the slough of despair.
Then there were the evenings in the apartment by myself.
Around the corner on Marktplatz, every night just after the 8:00 P.M. bells, a woman would sing, acapella, something a bit sad, her voice carrying well through the streets. I thought once of going to see her, but what then of the idea behind the confinement? I could hear her just fine, and the applause afterwards, of those who had gone out to see her.
Drinking helped, but the problem is I can and will drink a lot. Usually it’s red wine, but often I’ll buy English (Johnny Walker Red) or Irish (Jameson) whiskey. One way to keep from drinking too much was to start with a beer, which was filling, before moving on to something stronger. Other times I would fill a glass with a just a splash or so, then do so again a little later, thereby fooling my sympathetic nervous system of drink counting organs (brain, liver) into thinking I had had more than I really had. I avoided buying cava or prosecco or Champagne, because if I opened a bottle, I’d finish the bottle, my rationale being it will be flat in the morning, since I conveniently didn’t have a stopper.
Of course there was reading and books, but unexpectedly I was finding it hard to write, and the not-writing meant more to me than I thought. Over here I have not formed the same level and quality of friendships that I had in North America. Of course there was the occasional bit of letter exchange with those back in America, but that was rare, having gone the way of WordStar. More often there might be an email exchange or even a spirited, if limited Facebook ping pong on some topic, but that wasn’t much. The intellectual and psychic isolation was and is a peculiar kind of loneliness. The writing, among other things, became a way to fill that gap, a sort of one way conversation, me writing to me but for those who wanted to read, listen if you will, for those back in America. But now with the continuous column of pressure on me, on all of us, I felt blocked, writing seemed frivolous.
My list of movies to watch in isolation was Jeremiah Johnson, Castaway, and All is Lost, but on Netflix in Switzerland I could only get the last two. My 2:00 A.M. couldn’t sleep too tired to read dirty little secret was The Big Bang Theory, which aside from the annoying laugh track and overuse of the word coitus, I really liked.
This was all during the last half of March, April, and part of May. Of course I also followed the news, to which there was not end—denial, hoarding, price gouging, idiocy, despair, death—which itself was a sort of virus. Once in a while you’d hear a story about nobility or sacrifice or a bit of imagination: a distillery in Maryland switched from making things your drank to hand sanitizer.3Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, … Continue reading
A break in the action
The sea was cold, but after holding myself under water several times, I was too numb to feel much, and I started swimming. I love swimming in salt water.
I was back in France. By May the covid-19 numbers were better. In my canton of Graubunden the the number of active cases and deaths had been brought under control, and it would stay that way until the beginning of October, when all that discipline would be lost to commerce and laziness. I returned to France the third week in May; other than there being fewer people than normal on the train, and everyone was wearing a mask and staying as far away as possible, it was like any other train ride.
It was wonderful to be back. Annie and I found a new gardening supply store, and I got to mess around in the dirt for a bit. One night Annie took my to a chic bar that made exotic drinks, and another night we went out to celebrate Catherine’s birthday. We got an extra-large tank for the grill, and cooked on that as often as we could. Now and then we went to the beach, where we rented chairs at a beach-side restaurant, ordered a post-swim crispy rosé to rinse the salt out of the mouth. I continued my home work out routine, but now and then went to the 50 meter pool at the Antigone.
I continued to work, but now instead of being in my apartment in Chur, I was with everyone in France. Except for the masks, social distancing, limit on people in businesses, life was nearly the same. Kurt and I met for beers on Wednesday nights, it was good to be talking American with an American.
And yet, even in this interlude, it was there: a background dissonance on replay, getting louder. It couldn’t been seen, but like a bad storm, could be mapped, but only after the fact. It was pervasive, dreaded, it was in my head. Wake up in the morning with a dry, sore throat: covid-19 or just the red wine from last night? Feel a little chill, what could that be? How many people did I see today? What about on the tram, the one guy who wears his mask as a chin diaper, lets fly a mucusy, phlegm-laden sneeze or five?
Back and forth
I returned to Chur in late July: I left from the newer train station, Montpellier du Sud, a stop at the train station near the Pont du Gard, cross the Rhone several times, now the sunflowers are out. At one point we hit 318/kph. When I changed to the TGV Lyria (runs between Paris and Zurich) in Mulhouse, it was as empty as I’ve ever seen it, and this during the height of tourist season.
Leaving Zurich on the train to Chur, southeast bound, on the far side of Lake Zurich were westward facing homes, their windows catching the rays of the setting sun, on fire in dark orange for a moment. Near me were three Italian supermodels, wearing masks under their chins. The conductor, after she finished checking tickets, heckled them in that dialect I can’t follow. They pouted, but complied.
Life pretended to be normal. I went back into the office (we rotated working offsite so there were only two of us in at a time). In late July Kieran had a break in his work schedule, and he joined me in Chur: we hit Zurich, hiked in the hills above Laax, he hooked up with some gamers, and I enjoyed having an excuse to eat out (it feels a bit extravagant when it’s just me). The streets of Chur started to look normal. I went back to the gym and the pool (it’s 50 meters in Chur and outside), but still masked up whenever I went into a store; most times I was the only one wearing a mask in a store. In late August Annie and I met for the weekend in Strasbourg, a city we first visited on a family Interrail trip in 2015. Annie wants to move here when Catherine finishes college (middle school).
My company manufactures mechanical ventilators that are used primarily ICUs or during patient transport, and an increase in orders meant adding second and third shifts to our factory in nearby Ems, and also plans to accelerate bringing online production in Reno. Because of the demands on our business, the manufacturing departments had sent out casting calls for anyone to come help. I spent two weeks at our facility in Ems. This was real work: standing just about all day, I worked mostly in final production and packaging section, but for a few days I was setting up the basic chassis that form the framework for our ventilators, or retrofitting NBC4Nuclear, biological, chemical filters from NATO to Swiss military specs. I wouldn’t want to do it forever, but it was a nice change from my cerebral job, and it was satisfying to have tangible results of my work.
After two weeks working at Ems, I went back to my regular job. However, by then, because of rising infection rates we had gone back into home office; since home-office-Chur is the same as home-office-Montpellier, on September 12th I came back to Montpellier. I’ve been here since.
What is evil is also ugly.
Humanity is making progress: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and all that.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
E pluribus unum.
I don’t think so—see the 20th Century, history of.
Closer to home and more recently: I’ve been working there three years this February, and best I can tell, Switzerland seems to have its shit together in many ways. No need to rely on Elder’s Shit Togetherness Standard, see the OECD’s country profile here. Yet for all its advantages, this graph tells a different story:
These are the official numbers from the canton of Graubunden website. Grey represents total cases, yellow the number of active cases, and red the number who died. As mentioned earlier, all that progress from mid-April until the end of September was completely undone by mid-October. The death rate stayed low, but nonetheless, if a country this advanced can fail so miserably, what chance does the rest of the world have?
As elsewhere, life in France acted normal, but wasn’t. At the end of October President Macron imposed restrictions on businesses and travel in an effort to bring down the infection rates. At home that night were Kieran, Andre, and Catherine, along with Maëllys and Juliette; after dinner we watched Macron speak about the latest necessary restrictions. Their ages range from 13 to 25. If the gods are smiling, I’ve got another twenty years left, but what about them? What sort of world will they live in?
|↑1||For the uninitiated: Good Old Raisins and Peanuts. There were M&Ms, too.|
|↑2||Heartbreak Ridge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWCYv40Ur1g|
|↑3||Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, Maryland. They kept their hand sanitizer fairly priced, and to prevent hoarding they limited sales to two bottles per customer.|
|↑4||Nuclear, biological, chemical|
I was struck by your stay-in-place experience — living, working, exercising, etc. within your apartment in Switzerland.
Life in the Bay Area changed in ways that were bad, but also in ways that were delightful. As per the bad ways, they’re probably pretty similar to what you observed in Europe, including shortages of some products, “socially distanced” lines to get into certain shops (these were typical for a month or so but now seem limited to, for reasons I don’t fully understand, attempts to enter the premises of Trader Joe’s), and restaurants closing completely and then eventually reopening only for outdoor dining. One particularly short-sighted policy had local and state governments reduce and cut off access to parks, beaches, and hiking areas. These were closed gradually, with each subsequent closure driving more and more people to fewer and fewer outdoor venues, thereby actually exacerbating the likelihood of contagion. People craved and needed outdoor access, and it would have been reasonably safe if they had been able to spread out across all the normally available venues, especially if they were required to wear, and complied with the wearing of, masks, when in close quarters.
As far as positive changes, foremost amongst these was the decrease in traffic. This was notable on local streets and all freeways. Rush hour slowdowns and backups disappeared. City streets became far more enjoyable for strolling along, cycling, walking the dog, etc. The air became obviously cleaner. City noise decreased to the extent that a search for “why are birds singing louder” trended on Google.
The return of traffic to “normal” will be a significant downside to the pandemic’s mitigation.
The covid experience in Elkins sounds somewhat similar to that of Chur. Since moving here 21 years ago, we’ve discovered how nice small-town life can be (not a given for a couple of suburban SF-peninsula kids). And the onset of the pandemic has only reinforced this: last Spring when New Yorkers were dying in droves, no one here knew anyone who had even contracted it. Local gov’t was nonetheless prudent and cautious – schools went full-remote, etc – and I’m sure that helped preserve our situation. It really, really seemed like covid was an alternate reality. Over the summer, Massholes still came up, and didn’t wear masks, and the local preconceptions were reinforced. The supermarket parking lot was full of MA license plates being stuffed with toilet paper. But still the local covid numbers remained flat (i.e. zero).
When school started, enrollment was up significantly: Large numbers of summer residents had decided to remain here, for obvious reasons, thus many new kids in school. Not that my kids know any of them: with a schedule alternating between 50% and 100% remote, no one sees anyone at school (perhaps the kids’ biggest loss is the lack of socialization that can make high school so much fun). But the Massholes are still Massholes, traveling back & forth to MA with no regard to how that affects the local germ pool. Like your phlegm-spewing tram mate, it only takes one idiot to ruin it for the rest of us: the parent of some delinquent high school kid went away for the weekend, the kid had a house party, and a couple kids caught it. Annie had to quarantine for 2 weeks because she was in class with one of the infected, but Jack didn’t as he was out that AM due to a dentist’s appointment. Totally random.
On the flip side, I’ve been reading that widespread immunization might be possible by March, and one pundit suggested that post-covid/post-Trump may initiate a second “roaring twenties”: an explosive emotional release of socialization, travel, and general joie de vivre.