Finally able to take my first post-lockdown trip abroad, I booked a ticket from my nearest international airport, Oslo, to my longtime default holiday destination, Amsterdam. I had no agenda; I just wanted a change of scenery.
At the airport in Oslo, I was pleased to see very few people wearing masks. When my flight was called, I walked along the jet bridge behind a married couple, one of whom was carrying an adorable, happy little girl aged two or so. The child was looking around at everyone, smiling and gurgling. Then we stepped onto the plane — and the moment she espied the crew and the rows of passengers, their faces all covered with masks, she erupted into a howl of horror.
I knew how she felt.
Not that I have a right to complain too much about the lockdown. For me it’s been far easier than it has for most people. I’ve spent it in my quiet little apartment in a serene little town in the mountains of Telemark, doing what I’d have been doing anyway: working at my computer, playing with my cats, and sharing deep thoughts with my partner. Apart from him, my human contact was supplied mostly by daily visits to the supermarket across the street, where, since I used the automated checkout, I usually didn’t speak to anybody.
Which was fine. I’m not big on crowds. Still, it was exhilarating to plunge into the busy Amsterdam streets. Life! It was fun checking into my regular hotel and renewing my acquaintance with the longtime manager, Mike, and meeting the glamorous new clerk, Margo. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed such small human pleasures during the lockdown.
And it was great to walk. Amsterdam is a terrific city for walking. My hilly town in Norway, not so much.
After a couple of years of living like a near-hermit, all the little human interactions had an impact.
After all the walking, I went to bed that first night in Amsterdam ready for a good night’s sleep. But I kept getting shocked awake by the noise from outside: people in the street arguing loudly in a babel of languages; trucks clattering by so cacophonously that they sounded as if they were about to crash through my hotel-room window; a shrieking siren, and then another, and another; something that sounded like a truckload of shopping carts being dropped from a great height onto a couple of dozen empty garbage cans; and something that sounded alarmingly like a gunshot, followed by a bloodcurdling scream.
Yes, Amsterdam was back to normal.
The next day: still more walking. And soon I realized my feet were hurting. I took off my shoes and socks to find that my toes were calloused and bloody. Back home, I’d been so inactive for so long that normal walking had come as a shock to them.
Then again, my legs now felt as strong as Lia Thomas’s.
It wasn’t just my legs and feet that felt the difference. After a couple of years of living like a near-hermit, all the little human interactions had an impact. At a bar that I’ve been visiting for a quarter century, a guy asked me what I was doing in Amsterdam. “Just a weekend trip,” I said. “But it’s Monday!” he protested. “How come you’re still here?” It was a harmless, and typically Dutch, riposte. But the lack of regular contact with idiots during the lockdown had dulled my ability to deal with such foolishness.
Perhaps because I’m out of practice vis à vis travel, there were mishaps. I lost a credit card. Then I lost another one. On a rainy Sunday I bought takeout from KFC, and on the way back to the hotel my soaked paper takeout bag split open and pieces of chicken flew all across the floor of the tram.
Life was safer under lockdown. Easier, in many ways. But maybe life isn’t supposed to be so easy and safe. “You know,” Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer says in Annie Hall, “it’s important to make a little effort once in a while.”
The journey home was the real test. It’d been so long since my last Amsterdam trip that I’d forgotten to avoid the dreaded late flight that always obliges me to drag my luggage around all day after checking out of the hotel and then strands me in Oslo after the last bus of the evening has left for my hometown. My toes were in such pain that I opted to forego any further adventures and instead spend my day off my feet at Schipol. Thanks to this decision I was able to witness an entire Zoom conference that a passenger seated near me was having with his wife (presumably back at home) and an admissions official at a college to which their daughter had applied.
Eventually I made my way to the airport bar, where, trying to sit on a stool and put my backpack down at the same time, I lost my balance and tumbled to the floor — attracting the attention, to my embarrassment, of everybody present. When I stood back up, with the help — also embarrassing — of a waitress and another customer, I found myself face to face with the merry, white-mustached man who’s been tending bar there for years and who these days is a dead ringer for the eponymous Wizard of Oz actor Frank Morgan.
“What did you just do?” he asked me with a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
“Did you fall because you’ve had too much to drink?”
“I think maybe I fell because I haven’t had anything to drink.”
We chatted a bit more, and then he looked beyond me to the bar manager, whose presence I hadn’t noticed until then. “He’s not drunk,” the wizard assured him with a shake of the head, and took my order.
Awkward though the fall was, well, c’est la vie. And I recognized almost immediately that it had had an upside: it had resulted in a set of brief but positive interactions with strangers — the bartender, the waitress, the fellow customer — that are precisely the sort of thing that give day-to-day meaning to ordinary (non-lockdown) human life.
Arriving in Oslo around midnight, I took the airport train into the city, where I figured I’d wait at the bus station for my 5:40 A.M. ride home. But the bus station closed at one o’clock, so I went outside, hailed a cab, and asked the driver to take me to my old regular bar — the only place downtown that I knew would be open till three. Halfway there I noticed something fishy.
“Where’s the meter?” I asked the driver.
He mumbled something incomprehensible.
“How much is this going to cost?”
He cited some sum that sounded steep even for a cab ride in Oslo.
“I’m not paying that.”
“Do you have cash?”
“Only euros. I have a card.”
“I’ll take euros.”
“I only have 50s. Do you have change?”
“Give me 50. I’ll give you 200 kroner back.”
There were empty stools at the bar; I took the one at the end and ordered a drink. A moment later a young man in an elegant overcoat materialized beside me, looking for all the world like a taller, handsomer Jude Law circa The Talented Mr. Ripley. In a splendid Oxbridge accent, he asked the bartender for a beer, then turned, flashed me a charming smile, and sat down on the stool next to mine. “I’m knackered,” he confessed, the first time I’d ever heard this word in real life. “I’ve hardly slept in two days.”
“I’m wiped out, too,” I said.
This was, he told me, his first time in Oslo. He was staying in the city with colleagues, and when, wandering around town after dinner, they’d passed the bar and he’d seen it was still open, he’d peeled off from the group to grab a quick drink.
Next thing I knew we were exchanging life stories. He’s a 39-year-old IT salesman who’s originally from Gloucester and has a wife and two small children in Stockholm, where he’s been working for two years without yet learning Swedish. Asked about his job, he dismissed it as “boring”: he’d gone into the field, he said, solely for the money. When I inquired where he’d been to college — “university,” I quickly corrected myself — he appeared self-conscious: “I tried, but it wasn’t for me.” I assured him that if it wasn’t for him, then he hadn’t missed anything. After all, I said, he apparently had a nice family and a successful career. After a pause he asserted, “I’m happy.” But his tone seemed defensive.
Owing to the lockdown, it had been a long time since I’d had a genuine encounter, even of such a limited extent, with a person I’d never met before.
Along the way he asked about me — why I’d come to Norway, what I do for a living. He looked puzzled, and even oddly discomfited, by my answer to the latter. “I don’t know much about writing,” he shrugged. “I don’t really think about it.” When, at his request, I rattled off a list of some of the topics I’d written about, he was plainly at sea. At first blush, I’d taken him for superlatively suave and sophisticated; now, well, I’d gotten just a bit of a glimpse of the complicated human being beneath the glamorous surface.
Soon afterwards, having conversed for perhaps an hour and a half, he was gone. And I spent much of the bus ride home going over our conversation and trying to figure out what makes him tick. Not that I could. Like all of us, he’s a mystery, not about to be figured out in an hour and a half, if ever.
After a while I asked myself: Why am I thinking so much about this stranger? And I realized that, owing to the lockdown, it had been a long time since I’d had a genuine encounter, even of such a limited extent, with a person I’d never met before. Years ago, living in New York and Amsterdam and Oslo, I’d had conversations aplenty with strangers in bars and at parties and the like. But had I appreciated them sufficiently? Now, post-lockdown, I felt that perhaps I hadn’t. (READ MORE from Bruce Bawer: Odd Nerdrum, Edvard Munch, and the Smallness of Contemporary Art)
And now I saw that my encounter with Adrian — for that was his name — had been meaningful, and even, in its own way, precious. Human beings weren’t meant to keep their distance from one another. We surely weren’t meant to cover half of our faces with masks. And we definitely weren’t meant to be hermits, hiding away in our homes and viewing our fellow men and women as walking contagions.
“Man,” wrote Aristotle, “is by nature a social animal.” The chance meetings that we have in ordinary non-lockdown life — by turns fun and frustrating, idiotic and illuminating, humiliating and humanizing — are the stuff of life itself, its woof and warp. To spurn normal human concourse for any reason, and especially to outlaw it in the name of health and the common good, could not be more of a peril to emotional health or more of a blight on the common good.
Yes, indeed, I reflected as the night sky began to lighten and the bus negotiated its way down the curving road into the town where I live, the lockdown is over. And life is back, at last, for as long as it may last. Hallelujah.