Rites of pandemic passage

In this seemingly never-ending pandemic (sur)reality, there are many rites of passage a person can experience. Mad dashes for hygiene products at the grocery store. The long wait for a vaccine to be produced. Mask mandates. Lifted mask mandates. Reinstated mask mandates. Another wait to get a vaccine. Virtual everything, from medical visits to birthday parties and weddings. Some of these rites of passage make me personally want to run for the hills and live in a  cave, far away from other people and this fast-changing world. Others cause me to pause and practice gratitude for the abundance and privilege in my life. Still others stop me dead in my tracks, leaving me without words to express the hollow hopeless feeling in my heart.

It would be sufficient to say that 2021 has been a tumultuous year for many. I could also say that this tumult has not spared my immediate or extended family and leave it at that. Since I am a writer, I will carry on and share a few of the rites of pandemic passage I have experienced over the course of this raucous year.

I began 2021 in a small farmhouse in France. It was hard to heat, and the internet was so slow I was reminded of the old dial-up with the wonky connection sounds you would hear when turning it on. Participating in any kind of social realm was challenging, to say the least. Virtual participation was nearly impossible, and I spent a lot of time screaming in frustration while walking around the farm fields by our house with my dog, a large white husky named Atticus. Atticus was completely unperturbed by any of the repercussions of life during a pandemic and was mostly concerned with whether or not we would visit with the various local herds of dairy cows.

My husband and I moved to France after four years in Belgium, where my husband was studying for his doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels. We lived through our first lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic in Brussels. We experienced the toilet paper and hand sanitizer craze. Grocery stores put signs up limiting customers to the number they could take per visit. I remember the snack and meat aisles being completely empty, though there were still plenty of vegetables. We wore masks indoors and on public transport. Then came the signs instructing us to wear masks in the more crowded outdoor public spaces. There was a sign just before the grocery store on the main road leading into town from our house, and it was at this point that everyone had to put on a mask.

I grew increasingly stressed out just going to the grocery store because I was worried about sanitizing my hands after each item I touched. I would return home, wash everything, and take a shower to unwind. It got to the point where my husband began stopping at the store on his way home from school to save me the added strain on my nervous system.

We spent the second and third lockdowns in northern France, where we moved when we discovered soon after the start of the pandemic in the spring 2020 that we could not return to the United States because all of the airlines had cancelled travel with animals (we have three cats and a dog). My husband was offered a postdoc at a university in Lille before returning to the states in the summer 2021. Because we were not European Union citizens, we were required to live in the country where my husband would be working. Finding a place to live was nearly impossible with the strict regulations protecting property owners. We finally found a small farmhouse and settled in. We managed to explore the area a little bit an even went to a restaurant for lunch in a nearby village. A few weeks later, we went into a second lockdown. From then on, we pretty much only visited the local bakeries, grocery store, and medical facilities.

The lockdowns in France were no joke. We were required to fill out attestation forms, either printed or via an app we could download onto our phones. For what felt like an eternity, we were only allowed to travel one kilometer from our house unless our errand was included on the list of essential reasons for travel. When the distance was extended to 10km, I started meeting up each week with a friend who lived 20km away. We would choose little villages at halfway points and go for long walks around the farm fields together.

Each Tuesday morning, I used my husband’s small WIFI device to join a virtual Dutch class. This was one of my only means to connecting to the outside world.

The region where we lived was once part of a larger area that included parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. People in my class had parents and older siblings who had grown up speaking Dutch and were in this class to reconnect with their family heritage. Our landlord told us the school where his grandmother studied as a child at one point posted a sign above the front entryway that read “Illegal to speak Dutch” (in French, of course).

We went through an ease in lockdown restrictions over the holidays and then a third lockdown at the start of 2021. Events were planned and then cancelled, one after another. We were thankful to have met several members of ours and surrounding communities, all thanks to a woman I befriended in my Dutch class before it went to an online format. We were able to go for long walks around farm fields, learn about the history of the area, and engage in inspiring dialogue with new friends. These outings kept our spirits from petering out during those dismal months from one lockdown to the next.

I finally returned to the United States on June 17, experiencing another rite of pandemic passage: international travel. In our lives together, my husband has often suggested that I could try to simplify my life because I am pretty much always making it more complicated than it needs to be. This propensity was once more on full display when I made the journey from Paris, France to Seattle, Washington with several pieces of luggage, three cats, and a large dog. I was at the front of the line to check-in at Charles de Gaulle with one large cart in front of me and another behind. I had imagined I could somehow push one forward while dragging the other one behind. I was mistaken. I nearly lost two cat crates and a suitcase on my first attempt. Then a staff person came to my rescue and took one cart while I followed along the priority straight lane, saving me from attempting the meandering labyrinth for everyone else.

The impression had already been made, however, and I apparently became known to all of the passengers who were waiting behind my circus parade at check-in. While waiting to de-plane at the stop in Iceland, a woman gave me a concerned head tilt and asked how I was doing.

I looked at her, nonplussed.

Aren’t you the person traveling with the big dog?

Ohhhhhhh, dawning recognition. Yes, that’s me. Plus three cats. I am ok.

At this point in the journey, I was less stressed out about the animals than I was about the twenty somethings across the aisle from me who refused to wear face masks for the entire flight. The flight attendant would come by and ask them to put them back on, but the moment she left they took them off and began laughing and talking as if they were the only people on the plane and we were not in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Kids.

Another woman stopped me in the women’s bathroom at the Reykjavik airport, asking if I was the passenger with all of the cats.

Yes again.

Flying above Washington state as the plane began its descent, I was reminded of the enormity of the Cascade Mountains, which I had called home many years before. It seemed like I could reach out and touch the tips of jagged mountain tops. A father reach, and I could make contact with the sea. After spending years in northern Europe, which has beautiful scenery but has been without vast tracks of wilderness from a long time, I could feel my soul exhale in relief to know that I was returning to a land with such vastness.

Reentry into the United States at Seatac Airport came with its own rites of passage. Moving through security; visiting the CDC, who were only concerned that my dog had a rabies vaccine and did not even check the extensive collection of health certificates for my three cats; and waiting for my baggage before I could begin searching for my collection of four-legged companions.

Not only was everything big and abundant in the United States, but people were also exceedingly kind and thoughtful.

When my name was announced over the loudspeaker at the airport in Seattle asking if the passenger with the dog but please come for it, I was horrified that either something bad had happened to my dog or my dog had done something bad for which I would pay.

In actuality, the person who had called for me simply wanted to make sure that I knew my dog was OK and that he was there to help. And he did help, waiting with me until my luggage came out what felt like ages after everyone else’s. I was the last person standing by the birdcage carousel with a couple who had imported meat from Iceland. The airport staff person then help me wheel all of my luggage to the agricultural section, where we put it through another round of security. He then help me to the little airport train, where he passed me off to another call he could help me get to the place where I could collect my animals. There, his colleague went off in search of wheeling carts because she didn’t want me to have to pay the fee for renting them after such a long and difficult journey.

I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and it came as more than a bit of a shock that a complete stranger at an airport would go to such lengths to help me. Are they for real? I wondered, and yet the graciousness and kindness among the staff felt very authentic.

The culture shock continued in the days that followed well I recovered from jet lag and exhaustion from the journey in Washington. Everything seemed enormous. It began with the views from the airplane and then extended to the oversized parking lots, parking spaces, roads, houses, cars. Compared to Europe, US Americans seemed to take up a lot of space.

The mask situation was completely different in the United States. People were just beginning to stop wearing masks, and there were signs on storefront windows, explaining that only unvaccinated customers were required to wear a mask.

When I left Europe, everyone was still wearing masks. In France and Belgium, you could not enter any kind of establishment without using the hand gel at the entrance or wearing a mask. If you forgot to use the hand gel, a staff person by the door would remind you. I arrived two a very different scene in Washington state. In the Seattle airport, people wore masks. Once outside, it was as though the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel was in sight. Shops had signs on their door saying that only unvaccinated customers were required to wear a mask. I felt very vulnerable without a mask, so I continued to wear one. But I found myself wondering people might think I was unvaccinated and then wondering why it should matter what other people thought.

I took my mother-in-law out for dinner to celebrate my return. We were told by the hostess that we would have to wait a few minutes even though we had made a reservation because our table was not quite ready. The hostess apologized profusely, which I found strange. Not only did the hostess apologize, but they went the extra mile and found us a table by a window. It was all strange and foreign, and I felt completely out of place. I could not recall staff at any restaurants in France (pre-pandemic, at least since all of the restaurants were closed for most of our most recent time there) apologizing for anything. Where was I? Was this authentic or were they just trying to get us to spend more?

I experienced yet another rite of pandemic passage, one which I never in my life would have anticipated, when I met my sibling at the US-Canadian border. I hadn’t seen my sibling in over three years, and we met in a spot where two quiet roads ran parallel at the border between British Columbia and the United States. Apparently, during the pandemic it had become routine for family members to meet along this road and spend hours at a time catching up and reconnecting while the border remained closed.

We sat on either side of a fence in lawn chairs Side a small monument to the otherwise invisible border. We laughed and cried and exchanged gifts before border patrol informed us that we were to pass nothing from one side to the other. In the hours that passed, a mother in many children pulled in on the Canadian side to meet their grandparents on the US side. It was a boisterous gathering, and we were more than a bit perturbed to have a quiet reunion disrupted.

Don’t worry, I said reassuringly. They won’t be there for very long because the kids will get bored and squirrely.

This turned out to be true, and we breathed sighs of relief when their party broke up and we were able to enjoy the quiet and each other’s company once more.

On the Canadian side, people drove by and waved and smiled. On the US side, border patrol passed a few times every hour, first rolling down the window on their pickup truck to inform us of the rules and then merely slowing down to a crawl to make sure we were following the previously stated rules.

The road trip is certainly a rite of passage for US Americans. I have made many cross-country journeys and also driven from Alaska down to the lower 48. Many of our European told us they dreamed of taking a road trip across the great American West, and others who drove on highway 66 and wanted to tell my husband and me all about their American road trip.

My road trip was even more stressful than I anticipated. I had packed three cats and dog into the car, along with my luggage, several musical instruments, and a cat litter box in the trunk. The barrier I had painstakingly placed between the back seat and the trunk to keep the dog from climbing back into the cat space lasted about 10 minutes. It worked to keep the dog out of the trunk, but I hadn’t anticipated that the cats would not stay back there. To be fair, it was advertised as a dog gate with nothing about how to keep cats from moving around.

After literally tearing apart my mother-in-law’s basement to find the wild cat we adopted from our back garden in Belgium (I actually had to lie beneath a sofa couch that I propped at an angle on the guest bed in order to reach up and grab the cat, who had managed to climb up the hollow space at the back of the couch), I put her into a small carrier, which I placed on the front seat. The larger of the other two cats, who was very concerned about the crated cat, crawled up to sit beside the crate.  My dog then commenced howling and trying to climb into the front seat so as not to be left out of the excitement.

Partway through the first part of the drive, I put the dog in the front seat and the cats in back. This setup remained for the rest of the drive.

The low point of the road trip at the hotel where I spent a night in Twin Falls, Idaho. I had to take my dog with me on a leash, back and forth, on every trip from the room to the car to bring stuff in because I was afraid he would start howling if I left him alone in the hotel room. Of course, this meant making many extra trips to carry the other animals and anything I didn’t want to risk keeping in the car (luggage, instruments, etc.). I nearly lost a cat when I was trying to open the outside door to the hotel while juggling cat carrier and dog leash. The door to the cat carrier swung open, the cat jumped, out the dog lunged for the cat. Both the cat and I started screaming. I was just thinking, This is it I will set them both free and call it a day, when another guest came to my aid.

I also found the hotel room had not been cleaned, which pushed my stress level through the roof. It’s one thing to not do an effective cleaning job during “normal” times, but to leave hair everywhere and a partly empty carton of Chinese takeout on the bathroom counter was beyond disgusting. I called down to the front desk, but they said every other room was taken. I used hand wipes to try to wipe the surfaces down. The room was so awful that my wild cat went willingly into her crate the next morning just to get out of there.

The highlight of the trip was driving through the vast expanse of Nevada with nothing but open space, mountains, and ranchland for company. To keep myself awake, I put my window down and threw clumps of husky fur out for the wind to claim.

After two and a half days on the road, I finally made it to our home in Arizona. At this point, I went through yet another reentry culture shock. Absolutely no one was wearing a mask, and people were actually out protesting mask and vaccine mandates. As a woman, I can understand wanting to be able to make my own choices about my body; however, when people protest the vaccine because they are certain that Bill Gates has slipped a tracking device into it, it is much more difficult for me to practice empathy and understanding.

In Washington, I was worried people might think I was unvaccinated because I was wearing  a mask. Arizona is the wild west, and I had no idea what kind of wild thoughts were running through people’s minds when they saw me in a mask. Adding to my unease is the fact that many people are walking around armed.

When I lived here before, I didn’t think too much about it. I would joke about all of the bumper sticks with slogans about firearms and a village in Africa missing their idiot. I remember being thrilled as I pulled up behind one car, which appeared to have a hello kitty sticker on the back windshield. Upon closer inspection, however, even hello kitty was holding AK-47s. After five years in Europe and thousands of deadly shootings later, I am no longer joking. I find this reality both shocking and alarming.

This is only one reason I often wonder what I am doing back in the United States. Ticking off the list of pandemic rites of passage, my mother-in-law recently had a bad fall, which has required two separate surgeries. My husband and brother-in-law were not even allowed to enter the hospital with her, and she spent several nights each time in the hospital alone. The post-op care was atrocious in the complete lack of communication. I imagine this has to do with hospitals being completely overwhelmed by the pandemic, but it is still disconcerting and makes me wonder if the United States is the best place to grow old.

I am very thankful to have returned to a beautiful place. Our home comes right up to conservation space, and there is wildlife everywhere. Friends have welcomed us back into the fold of the community, and I take long walks every day with my dog that take me through breathtaking desert scenery.

Amidst the continued chaos of 2021, I sense an overall fatigue in my own being and my friends both near and far. Everyone is exhausted. Socializing is draining. The notion that things might go back to normal seems almost laughable as people begin once more rushing to the grocery store to stock up on toilet paper. I know history has a tendency to repeat itself. I just didn’t realize it happened so fast.

This past week, I experienced the saddest of all rites of passage during the COVID-19 pandemic. My 30 year old cousin passed away after a two year battle against breast cancer. From my couch, I watched the service via video. Everyone wore a mask and sat with their backs facing the camera. I felt like a voyeur, not even able to reach out to place a gentle hand on a shoulder for comfort.

No one is untouched by a pandemic. I know this now. Practicing patience has been a constant theme I also am reminded every day to appreciate each precious moment of life. May it be a long and healthy one.

p.s. Good thing I didn’t stay at Hotel 6 in Twin Falls, Idaho because they were trying to give away free pets and kids!? Just say no!

2 thoughts on “Rites of pandemic passage

  1. Carol Rekstad Decker October 23, 2021 — 4:43 pm

    Hello dear Marieke, thank you so much for sharing your story through words and photos. You are a gifted writer and I am drawn into the moment with every word. What a journey! I’m glad that you and the fur kids made it back safely!!
    May you have a nice day!
    Love,
    Carol

    1. Hi Carol! So so lovely to hear from you, and many apologies for the delayed reply to your wonderful message. It has been quite the year! Your words lift my spirits 🙂 Sending lots of love back to you! Keep in touch. xo, Marieke

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