We were in France when we heard about the virus. Living in a tiny apartment in the mountains, dodging all the Brexit news we could, hiding from the world. We skied, we took the bus to the shops, we watched Netflix, we had dinner with the one English couple we had met. We were isolated from others and isolated from the world.
We found out in drips and drabs about the virus spreading. One of the first cases in Europe was at the adjacent ski resort. We laughed it off with our friends – it was only the flu after all. It was nothing to worry about.
Disasters don’t happen in Europe, and they certainly don’t happen in England. There are no volcanoes or Tsunamis. We don’t have tornados or heat waves. We don’t have poisonous spiders, or tigers, or polar bears. We are the lucky ones. Travelling has made me appreciate that.
I have watched children walking to school through flowing floodwater up to their waists and picking their way along landslide paths. I’ve sat in awe as a tiger appeared from the jungle – the very same tiger that killed a villager just days before. I’ve emerged from my comfortable hostel room to hear about the boy that went to fix the power on the roof in the middle of the night and was struck by lightning and I’ve been inside a Cambodian hospital. We are the lucky ones.
I brushed off news about the virus. When we arrived back in England life was continuing as normal, there was no need to panic. We heard that France shut down just a few days after we left, and breathed a sigh of relief to be out, back in England where it’s always safe. And we were thankful we were able to get back to our home in Greece. Our little sailboat that had been stuck out of the water all winter, drying off ready for us to get started on the huge list of jobs to get her ready to sail again.
The flight was a little quiet perhaps, but not unusually so. There were a few people wearing face masks and an announcement that if we had a cough or a temperature we should make it known at passport control. Athens was quiet, but not empty. A lot of shops were still up and running despite Greece’s lockdown measures. To be honest, everything seemed pretty normal in Greece too.
We headed straight for the boat where we’d be bunkered down for the 14 days of quarantine. We had a few dry supplies we’d had on the boat already. We would just have to make it last until the 14 days were up.
We spent 14 days raised off the ground, looking down on the world below. We busied ourselves with putting the boat back together after the winter. We found a leak in a water tank, we realised the bilge pump had given up and we opened the hatches to get rid of the damp smell. We watched the boatyard revolve around us, with people busy at work, cycling to the toilet block, building fences and polishing up expensive yachts. We’d expected it all to be shut down, but the workshop was still in full flow from morning to night, giving us something to watch.
For the first week or so it was easier than it should have been to be stuck in a few metres of shared space. We are well-practiced at self-isolation, being stuck on board for days at a time in high winds, or out at sea. We fall into a rhythm and we’ve learned ways to cope, and ways to get the space we need.
But as we approached two weeks of being unable to really walk, of rationing food to one meal a day and eating strange meals, and of being with only each other, morale was starting to dwindle. We had some real down days, especially when we were down to the last dregs of food. It made us realise just how important fresh food is – not so much for survival, but for mental health. Not being able to give our bodies the healthy, nutritious food we’re used to in our privileged society was a shock. I expected to want ‘treat’ food when I was feeling down, but instead I wanted fresh vegetables. Just some lettuce and tomato!
I stopped reading social media after I had successfully convinced myself that every single person I loved was going to die after inevitably contracting the virus. The scare stories were endless. And I’m sure they work wonders for anyone not taking it all seriously, for the people still drinking in bars or going to house parties, but for anyone who experiences anxieties the endless horror stories are unbearable, and I’m pretty sure far more deadly than the virus itself.
We upped our internet and spent our data on video calls with family and friends. We were amazed at how much better we would feel after talking to others ‘face to face.’ We both had phone call interaction with people regularly, but something about ‘meeting’ as a group satisfied something in us we didn’t know we were missing.
We set small targets for each day. We would fix something on the boat or write, or edit, or tidy. These little targets gave us something to get up for and stopped each day from blurring into one. Without being able to leave the boat we couldn’t take our usual sunset walks, or chat with another liveaboard about the weather, or stroke the village dog. Every day was in danger of disappearing, and our little targets kept us motivated.
When our 14-day wait was over, we were surprised to find we weren’t excited to leave the boat. We were worried. We had made our boat a safe cocoon. We had hidden away from the world, and the situation. We had stuffed our fingers in our ears and a pillow over our heads and we were bumbling along day to day without having to address what was going on. But fresh veg called.
We filled in our little form, grabbed our passports, and headed to the supermarket, and we were relieved to find the world still existed. There were still people out shopping, smiling, chatting. The shelves were full and there were plenty of fresh vegetables. A few days later we ventured out for a walk. The sea was still blue and clear, the cats were still fishing in the bins and the birds still sang. Despite the sadness, isolation, and uncertainty, nature was still just as we’d left it. It was and still is, reassuring.
So now we are out of quarantine and our lives have returned to normal. We get up, we work on the boat, we eat what we want for lunch, we enjoy the sun, we work some more, we go for a walk. I feel guilt for not suffering in the way others are. I feel guilt for not being able to help. I feel guilt for not being close to family. But mostly I don’t feel much different at all.
I have learned a few unexpected things from this situation.
I have learned that even as someone who believes passionately in the NHS, I have never appreciated it as I should have. We have never appreciated it. Of course the NHS workers have been incredible over this horrific period of our lives, but they haven’t just sprung into action because of a virus. They’ve always been doing this. From the moment they started their training they’ve been studying at every waking hour, they’ve had endless sleepless nights on hospital wards, they’ve experienced heartbreak and pain daily and they’ve kept on coming back for more.
Why haven’t we always clapped them from our doorsteps? Why have we let them work impossible hours for little money? Why have we let people who want to see them gone come into power? If someone collapses in the street in America you don’t call an ambulance. You don’t know if they would want to live to see the bill that an ambulance would cost them. We are so, so lucky to live in England. We are so lucky to have the NHS.
I have learned that we are all far too busy. Now that people have slowed down they have time for each other. I have spoken to my brother and sister more in the last few weeks than I have in the last few years because we’ve all been in the same place at the same time every week. And I have really, really missed them. The cost of the extra internet is insignificant compared to the difference the social interaction with family and friends has made to our lives out here. This needs to be the new normal.
And mostly I’ve learned that I am very lucky. I have freedoms that so many don’t. Having to stay inside, in our comfortable boat with running water, heating, portholes and Netflix, really isn’t so bad. I will try hard not to forget how grateful I should be when this is over. I will try hard to walk every day in beautiful places, I will be thankful for every meal I have that’s full of fresh vegetables, and I’ll remember how lucky I am to have family and friends that mean the world to me.
I’ll make time, and hope they do the same.