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I won’t pretend that I have a singularly unique quarantine story, or even one anywhere near the hardest. Life could be much, much worse and I am supremely grateful, above all else, that I got a choice in how this happened. When my university decided to move online, a few days after Yale and Columbia began demanding that their exchange students return and we had the first two confirmed coronavirus cases on our campus, my parents began making plans for me to come home before it became impossible. I said no. There were still exams I had to sit in May, I said, and there was no way I was going to be able to study with everyone home, or take my last three weeks of classes over Zoom with our unstable internet connection. One of my classes had yet to go online, and I didn’t want to leave and miss a tutorial. Flight prices were going to skyrocket. And these were all true enough, especially the excuse about exams, but I stayed mostly to keep my family safe.
This was the first winter and spring in all I could remember that my dad hadn’t caught pneumonia, hadn’t ended up with an inhaler or at the ER, struggling to breathe. So I, who had almost definitely been exposed to the virus on campus, and if not there in our university’s city at large, was going to make a long train trip and go through two airports, one that had been host to thousands of Americans on the continent from heavily infected countries escaping while they still had time, to come home? To potentially kill or do irreparable harm someone I loved? Hell. No.
I didn’t bother having that argument with my parents, knowing how adamant my dad would be that there wasn’t really much of a risk at all, that it was more important for him to know his oldest was safe and well and home. Sorry, mom, exams, I can’t even consider it. In August, I promise, if things are good.
For the most part since then, my days have revolved around exams. The majority of the month between the end of physical classes and May 6 (my Russian oral exam), was spent preparing for that exam and gathering notes for all of the others, as I helped my two roommates pack for their return to Pakistan. And there was only one slightly unfortunate incident involving a towel, a shaving razor, and a threat of bodily harm to a stranger. I made it out in one piece through my oral (thank God for Joseph Brodksy and my ability to prevaricate about poetry in any language, because the Jewish Autonomous Oblast almost killed me), and on Monday, after writing six 2,000-word, fully sourced essays and two source analyses over two weeks, I finished my history and economics modules. All done for the year, and faced with how my lockdown was going to go until at least August.
Before Monday, my days had a well established, if unhealthy, pattern. Up at 7 or 8, run for four or five miles, come back for a shower, work from then until 9 or 10, dinner if I felt up to making it, and up doing more work, reading, or occasionally watching a movie until 2 or 3. Rinse and repeat, with the variation of Muay Thai practice on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Now, I’m working to wean myself off of that schedule (which is really a more humane version of my term time one), with limited success. Applying for online internships to replace the one I lost in Moscow, and hoping to find something that is both fulfilling and will look good on a grad school application.
So how is a lone 20-year-old American in England spending her lockdown, other than internship hunting? I still exercise obsessively, partly as a substitute for not being able to work as intensely. Spending, as a student and simply by personality, so much of my life in my own head makes the demanding physicality of ballet, running, and boxing essential and so, so gratifying. Shopping is also just about the only time I might talk to someone in person during the week, although where I shop that might just be a few polite sentences in Arabic or a quick thank you in Chinese.
Reading takes up a good portion of my time as well, which is never disagreeable. I’ve taken the hedonistic approach to choosing what I read; what I want to read, I read. So far, an HRNK report on Songbun, Sonechka and Other Stories by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Cursed Days by Ivan Bunin, Ancient Egypt by Barry J. Kemp, and The Assassins by Bernard Lewis. Every day, I try to at least do an hour of French or Hebrew or Russian or Arabic, all four if I can summon the will. When I can find the inspiration, and the energy to grind my inkstone, I paint Chinese calligraphy for a few hours. Or work at a new piece on my harp. Sometimes for the joy of creating, sometimes to keep being quite so alone (two months and going) at bay.
The silence is nice, and I never have an objection to being alone, but more often than not I find myself listening to music when I cook dinner. Dancing to Dean Martin with the broom while I stir fry the yakisoba, because who is here to judge? Or I go on a long run as the sun sets, pick a particular place or thing and take a ton of pictures for one of my friends back home, who likes having a tour through a place that she’s never been while being stuck in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts for so long. Movies or TV, then, if I don’t feel like reading. As with the books, there’s no real rhyme or reason, just whatever strikes my fancy. It might be Star Trek VI one night, and Where Are You, Jafar Panahi? the next. Maybe Inspector Morse or WCVB (thanks VPN) if I feel homesick. If I can’t fall asleep, I’ll listen to recorded poetry, usually Philip Larkin or T.S. Eliot, until I get drowsy enough to make an attempt.
Undeniably, the highlight of any day is watching a movie, or just having a conversation, with a friend. I suppose I should put a mini-PSA here: if you have a friend or family member that lives alone far from friends or family, particularly if they live abroad, they will appreciate any effort made towards a conversation or some shared activity, over Zoom or FaceTime or text, no matter how much they might complain about the time difference. Even getting a letter makes a day.
Does my navel-gazing have a point? If I were a more disciplined person, maybe I could say that living alone in lockdown has revealed great Platonic truths to me, or allowed me to transcend the noise of the world. The truth is something closer to me hanging upside down in an office chair flipping through A Comprehensive Russian Grammar and considering if I want to listen to that particular episode of Firing Line while I take a shower. Or dancing in the kitchen in llama pajamas at 11 p.m. singing along to traditional Sudanese music while I make lime curd out of exam-induced anxiety. So maybe that is the great lesson; enjoy even the challenging times to the fullest, and appreciate the good ones that much more than you did before when they come back. They will.Published in