Remember playing musical chairs?
Obviously, it’s been a while since you’ve played because we’ve all been quarantined for weeks. But do you remember that feeling when you anticipated the music turning off? Anxiety would build up and your heart would race because if you weren’t prepared, you would lose. You just wanted to claim a chair, sit down, catch your breath and prepare for the next round of mayhem.
Well, during the days/weeks leading up to the global lockdowns in response to the coronavirus, I experienced some serious musical chairs energy.
A couple of months ago, I was in Chicago, devising a plan to return to the UK. If you’ve been following my story on The Black Expat, you might be wondering, “Why, God, why?” But it was a decent plan.
I was invited to participate in a business incubator program, which would help me bring my work to the UK and hopefully plant some roots. I would stay for six months. After that, if I still didn’t feel stable or happy in the UK, I would leave for good. Everyone who dared to ask about my life heard my six-month plan. And based on the lack of follow-up questions, I think we all agreed I was doing the right thing.
Leading up to my departure, I followed news reports about the coronavirus. It was mid-February and a few cases were reported in the US. But it still felt otherworldly. Images of the lockdown in Wuhan seemed so bizarre. An entire city on lockdown? Ordering takeout and seeing the temperature of the delivery driver on your receipt? I was shaking my head in disbelief while using an app to check-in for my flight.
On the way to the airport, my Uber driver talked about the Democratic primary, Trump’s imminent victory in the next election, and his plans to retire in Orlando in a few months. He was baffled by my unwillingness to live in the US, which he described as “the best and most generous country in the world.” I was baffled that a talkative Trump supporter would drive an Uber on the southside of Chicago.
It was a long journey to Bristol, including a twenty-four hour layover in Lisbon and two nights in London, where I stayed in a crowded hostel to save money. But the virus only came up a few times. On the long flight from Chicago to Lisbon, I sat next to a woman who coughed nearly the entire time. I’m talking full-body, rattle-your-insides type of coughing. I tried to sleep with my face wrapped in a blanket while I wondered if this was my first exposure to the coronavirus.
Two days later, a British man moved into my room at the London hostel. He and I both had top bunks in the completely full room. He spoke endlessly about his recent return to the UK from China and the dramatic extent of the lockdown measures over there. He was stressed about losing his teaching job and how he could access his Chinese bank account from the UK. I became stressed that this could be my second exposure to the coronavirus.
The following morning, I took a nearly full bus to Bristol. I was moving into a temporary home, shared with three strangers, which would be perfectly fine for the busy six months I had ahead of me. Moving in was only complicated by my landlord’s long discussion of how overblown the coronavirus thing was. In fact, she and her family had just returned from Tenerife (where many British tourists were currently being quarantined in a hotel). She had been really sick while she was there, but it was no big deal. Meanwhile, coronavirus and I were in three times deep.
Over the next two weeks, I tried to get settled and learn my way around the new neighborhood. I chatted briefly with the strangers I live with, I went back and forth to my storage unit to reacquire some of my favorite things, and I did some essential grocery shopping for things like tea, wine and ice cream. But while life resembled my normally wacky expat routine, circumstances became increasingly bizarre.
By mid-March, the threat was clear. The US State Department warned all of us who were abroad to either get back to the US right away or prepare to shelter in place indefinitely. I gave the option some serious thought. Did it make sense to get back on a virus-filled plane to reach familiar and comfortable surroundings? Or should I shelter in place, giving these next six months everything I’ve got?
So, I prepared to stay through it. While the UK was slow to shut things down, I did my doomsday shopping among empty shelves and confused shoppers. I stopped riding the bus. I went out less and less. And I became increasingly aware of the amount of time my housemates spent outside. I started to avoid them and the things they touched. Anxieties were high – inside and outside the house.
By March 23, 2020, when the official lockdown began in the UK, I was already sheltering in place in my slightly uncomfortable and very awkward circumstances. It’s as if the music stopped on the musical chairs game, and although I got myself a seat, that thing is super wobbly. And everyone around me might have coronavirus.
Once or twice I’ve been tempted to cry. But I try to see some humor in what is otherwise a horrifying situation for the entire world. I stay worried about everyone and how much we’ll be changed when we reach the other side of this. And I hope we, including you, your loved ones and the strangers I live with, can remain happy and healthy until the music starts up again