By Marieke Slovin Lewis
The Author's Life in Bailleul, France
I am a wandering soul. I have been (up)rooting myself every two months to two years since leaving for university at the age of 18. My longest stay of all the places I have lived was recently in Brussels, Belgium, where I lived for just under four years while my husband completed his doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Moving so often can be a lonely and exhausting business. Starting over in a new community, trying to meet people, putting down some shallow roots, all the while knowing that it is likely only temporary. There are times when I have wondered why I should even bother making the effort, and yet I always do because the benefits of connecting with kindred people all over the world far outweigh the loneliness of a solitary existence.
The concept of starting over has taken on new meaning in the year 2020, My husband and I are both originally from the United States. We were all set to return there in May 2020 when pandemic pandemonium swept over the globe, changing our plans dramatically and wreaking havoc and uncertainty for people everywhere. We wound up canceling our plans to return and moving just across the Belgian border to Bailleul, a small farming community in northern France. We were lucky my husband was able to find work, allowing us to stay in a part of the world where we felt relatively safe.
Not long after we settled into a small farmhouse surrounded by fields of corn, the entire country went into a second lockdown. Instead of extending my roots out to neighbors and people in the community as I would traditionally try to do, I found myself isolated and alone in a foreign land.
In addition to being a world traveler, I am also a musician and composer. I write stories from people’s spoken stories, using a method of songwriting I call Story-to-Song (STS). As people share their stories with me, I listen and look for patterns and themes that communicate a universal concept from the human experience. This universal might be an emotion or a call for action that is familiar to many people: the desire to belong; the desire to be loved; the wish for peace. I shape these words into a chorus or refrain, and the events of the story unfold through the verses. People who listen to the finished song can make a personal connection with the universal theme from the chorus, even if they have not lived through the same experiences being communicated in the verses. As the verses and chorus progress in their back and forth call-and-response, the listener can begin to imagine what it might be like to become a mother, to move to a new place, to live through a war.
One of the benefits of becoming a resident of the world is that I have been given the gift of meeting people who live in the many corners where I have ventured. Rather than finding my footing in France, I found myself expanding my reach to friends all over the world. In an effort to experience human connection in 2020, if only virtually, I sent emails, texts, and messages to the many people who have come to make up my global community. I spent far too many hours on video calls through multiple platforms—Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp—all from the deeply human, primal desire to feel less alone. As a result of my far-reaching, I have been able to vicariously experience a profoundly unique year through a diverse lens of perspectives. It is the beautiful, painful, dark, and light breadth of perspective that I wish to share as 2020 slowly but surely draws to a close.
Being a person who is constantly seeking out stories of our humanity and lifting those words into songs to help create a feeling of solidarity, in this pandemic time of isolation and loneliness, I decided to reach out to friends around the world to see what kinds of stories my global community might have to share about their journeys through 2020. I was curious to see what patterns they might reveal, and I thought they could offer some solace and solidarity as 2020 draws to a close.
In true 2020 fashion, I seemed to stir the waters more than I intended, causing emotional stirrings and concern over meeting deadlines, what to write, and how to capture such a tumultuous year in a few short sentences.
Jen Chauvet, Homer, Alaska
An initial response came from Jen Chauvet, a friend in Homer, Alaska, who expressed doubt that anyone would be interested in hearing about her lockdown life:
Obsolete park ranger isolates at home. Writes Jr. Ranger book. Gardens, skis, eats too much.
She sent a couple of photos of her pandemic experience in wintry Alaska.
Soon, more written accounts began arriving from friends living around the globe.
Melissa Watkins, Brussels, Belgium
My friend Melissa Watkins, who is originally from the United States and has been living in Belgium for many years, sent me a text message, saying that she was finding it challenging to write about 2020 when it was still so present:
I find it really strange, but it is hard to put everything in words when we are still living it, still coping. Do you know what I mean?
I did know, and I agree. It is often with time and distance that we are finally able to find meaning in difficult moments of our lives. This meaning might change shape with the more time that passes as we have more time to digest the experience and gain a fuller perspective. Meaning I have derived from experiences during my childhood have shape-shifted over the decades that have followed, and I imagine that many insights and patterns from 2020 will evolve and change in the years to come.
After the holidays, Melissa sent the following piece. Her universal theme of gratitude rose like mist atop cold, clear water as the morning sun rises in the sky, warming everything below.
Writing about our 2020 experience has tied me up in thoughts and writing, writing, writing. I always find writing about something you are currently living to be difficult, even when there is a lot to write about. After all, 2020 started with a cyclone. Literally. We spent New Year’s on a tiny airplane fleeing a cyclone and watching the New Year’s fireworks illuminating the sky beneath us. The rest of 2020 just continued along this same theme: fleeing or avoiding disaster one way or another. It was like we were in a little bubble, watching the rest of the world fall apart. We have had many sad, funny, momentous stories, but nothing too terrible. Underlying all of them was a tremendous feeling of gratitude. We have been so lucky because nothing devastating hit our family or close friends. I sometimes caught myself falling down the rabbit hole of “what if’s"; linking all the debilitating occurrences and imagining “the end of the world as we know it”; or grieving the loss of normality, especially for my young adult kids. But then I would find my feet still planted firmly on the ground. I would go for a walk or run and feel my breath and remember, we are ok: WE are ok. we ARE ok. we are OK.
Tanya Kitterman, Bellingham, Washington, United States
I received another 2020 reflection piece, titled “Living through 2020,” from my friend Tanya Kitterman, who I met when I was first beginning my career as a park ranger and volunteering with the United States Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. Tanya shared a written piece with an accompanying photo album of images that offered a visual tour of her year in the life. She wrote about her experiences working in the wilderness division of a national park in Washington State:
I work at a national park during the summer months. Due to the pandemic we had to keep our indoor public facilities closed in 2020. Thankfully, we were able to find ways to keep the park open so that people could seek the joy and rejuvenation found in wild places, and maybe bring back a sense of normalcy for a bit.
She also shared scenes of the pandemic from Bellingham, Washington, where she lives with her family:
In the small city where I live, people have tried to stay kind and help their neighbors. We have been wearing masks, trying to support stores and restaurants by ordering takeout and goods for curbside pickup, and moving much of life outside. Our social life consists of chat threads at livestream online concerts, phone calls, waving to friends from a distance across a front yard, and "podding up" with another family of close friends in the neighborhood. Thankful we can have some interaction outside our immediate family this way.
Tanya expressed gratitude and pride in her community, where people were doing as much as they could to take care of one another:
I am lucky to be employed, and trying to help out others where I can, especially artists, musicians and small businesses who may not make it through such a long shutdown. Our 20-year-old son has moved back home after only one year away. His work in the restaurant business has dried up and he is earning some small income delivering takeout. As we move into winter, many of the usual emergency homeless shelters will stay closed this year. A tent city has set up on the lawn of the city hall and library and citizens are looking for solutions for when the weather drops below freezing. Right now in the US, we are experiencing various levels of shutdown or lockdown depending on our local leadership. The thing in common nationwide is that we are doing it all with little federal government support such as the people and businesses in Europe are getting. Closing a business would be easier if wages were covered for employees, or if citizens got paid to stay home and stay safe.
Her final thoughts were cautiously hopeful and spoke of an enduring human spirit:
It feels like 2021 is going to be even more challenging as we try to recover. As long as we continue to have compassion and care for others, we can do it.
Karel Deneckere, Berlin, Germany
I chatted via Facebook Messenger with Karel, a Belgian friend who spent 2020 with his girlfriend Amelie in her apartment in Berlin, Germany. He shared stories of life in Berlin, including the protests against government-imposed lockdown restrictions for fear of a shift toward absolute state control:
I've seen people waiting at the bus stop, for example, wearing armbands with slogans that they refuse to have the government restrict their "freedom." The armbands are reminiscent of the Star of David and are, of course, intended to shock. It's pretty clear that they intend to draw parallels with Nazi Germany (at least, from the perspective of leftist corona critics). Unfortunately, I didn't dare to take a picture. There have been huge demonstrations all over Germany and, as I see from nearby, it's tearing apart friends. One should keep in mind that Germany has a history of state violence, which, to a certain extent, legitimizes the fears for freedom restrictions. Often the question then becomes who is restricting the freedom of whom?
We chatted back and forth, and he added:
In fact, the curious thing is that in Germany (as compared to most other western European countries) it is not only people from the far right who are protesting. Also people who consider themselves “leftists” (anti-vaxxers, and those suspicious of the global pharmaceutical industry, “which is only out to turn the pandemic into a profitable hysteria”). The demonstrations that took place in Berlin and other large German cities were attended both by people waving the old imperial flag and those carrying A-flags (anarchists). The so-called “Reichsfahne,” the flag of the German empire during WWI, was until recently the legal alternative for the swastika flag of the Nazis. Now, Amelie told me, this imperial flag has become illegal.
Karel shared a screen shot from the German newspaper, “Zeit” (“Times”) to show the number of COVID-19 cases in the country: Note the difference between West and East, which suggests divergent views on governmental intervention. Germany was divided into two separate regions after World War II. The West remained democratic while the East was conservative and Soviet-controlled.
At the same time as conservatives and far right extremists were protesting around the country, my friend Karel was experiencing a paradigm shift in his own life. He and his girlfriend had been seeing each other long-distance prior to the pandemic. When the first lockdown went into effect, he was stranded in Berlin. Spending an entire lockdown in a small apartment brought them closer together. They have recently moved into a larger apartment in Berlin and are making plans to welcome a new life into the world.
Karel’s year in a few words:
Headaches, stress, but also great expectations. 😉
Joel Dzodin, Holon, Israel
I also reached out to a couple of Insider contributors, and I was thrilled to receive a pandemic piece from Joel Dzodin in Israel. Joel shared a sobering description of his life this past year with beautiful, haunting photos. Woven through the thread of disquiet were rays of gratitude and appreciation for elements of life that often go unnoticed in the wave of activity that comprises a typical year in the life.
At sunset tonight (12/27), Israel will enter its third lockdown since the pandemic reached these shores in March. It will require the population to remain within one kilometer [0.62 miles] of their homes, and entry into other people’s homes will be forbidden. Most businesses will shut down and public transportation will operate at 50 percent capacity. The lockdown is expected to last for the next two to three weeks. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unfortunately allowed politics to intrude on what should have remained a purely public health and safety issue. Just this week, Israel launched its mass-vaccination program even as the government's fragile and fractious coalition began to seriously fall apart, necessitating Israel's fourth election within the past two years. Trying to put his best foot forward, Netanyahu went on record saying, “I want to tell you that the combination of the marvelous vaccine campaign on the one hand, and a short and quick lockdown on the other, is allowing us to get out of the coronavirus [pandemic].” He went on to say, “And we’ll likely be the first country to get out of [it], within a few weeks” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-claims-pandemic-will-likely-be-over-in-israel-within-a-few-weeks/). Based solely on an admittedly tiny sample size (i.e., my personal experience and observation since the pandemic engulfed us in March), I’m not nearly as sanguine as our Prime Minister seems to be about overcoming COVID-19. We seem to live in two different realities. Sadly, the blatant disregard of the government's public health regulations by far too many of my fellow-countrymen has taken a serious toll on my sense of social solidarity and I've been jarred by seeing so many people fundamentally disregarding basic human concern for the well-being of others. This has run the gamut from (a) store employees adamantly refusing to put on a mask, in shops with prominent signs requiring that such masks be worn, to (b) maskless people ignoring the two-meter distancing rule laughing at me when I obviously sought to move away from them, to (c) people deliberately trying to intimidate me by getting much too close to purposely cough in my face. Although I'm very aware that these forms of sociopathy have also been reported in the U.S., that's not enough to mitigate my own anger at the behaviors that only serve to propagate the ongoing pandemic. On the other hand, for the better part of the past nine months, I've rarely been outside more than once or twice a week (wanting to avoid my often-unmasked neighbors) and it's a testament to my relationship with my wife that we have done so well being semi-confined in such close quarters for so long. I've enjoyed the chance to appreciate music and to photograph the small things in life that are often overlooked or ignored during normal times, such as macro-scale portraits of spiders in the apartment and the cosmos represented in miniscule condensed water droplets. Today I received my first COVID-19 vaccination in Tel Aviv and was struck by the high proportion of people wearing masks. The situation yesterday was very different in my own city of Holon, a city located next to Tel Aviv, where the situation was essentially reversed. I fervently hope that the mass-vaccination program will succeed, and I will personally continue taking measures to insure my own and other people's safety. But without vigorous enforcement of the necessary legal measures, I fear COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. Perhaps I can end this short account on a positive note. The sun is setting, and we are now less that 15 minutes away from the start of the lockdown. My wife has returned from some last-minute shopping and reported that the neighborhood business streets were full, and that most people were masked. Let's hope that this will continue.
Kari Doyle, Copenhagen, Denmark
My friend Kari Doyle is another U.S. American living abroad. She sent a piece titled, “Getting Hygge in Denmark,” which begins with a description of the very real fear she experienced while moving with her family from Belgium, a country with many cases of COVID, to Denmark, a country with very few.
During the summer of 2020 my expat family needed to move from Belgium to Denmark for work. This was not an ideal time for a move. As with most things this year, this move was even more stressful due to the increasing cases of COVID-19. I was seriously concerned that we would not be allowed to enter our new country because we were arriving from Belgium, which had the highest positive cases per capita in all of Europe! I traveled by airplane with my daughter while my husband traveled by car with our son and beloved dog. Both parties were concerned about whether we would successfully reunite in our new country.
I loved reading about how Kari and family, after successfully completing what was undoubtedly a stressful moving experience, were settling into their new life. They were also discovering new cultural traditions in Denmark that were soothing in the midst of a volatile time and also served as a reminder to slow down and remember what is most precious in life.
The Danes welcomed us without any problems. We have since learned and experienced part of the Danish culture that has allowed us to endure the isolation which accompanies our current global situation. The Danish concept of being cozy and content is captured by the word hygge. Danes tend to isolate during dark winter months, preferring to be with close friends and family indoors with warm woolen socks, hot mugs of their preferred beverage, next to a crackling fire. We have embraced this lifestyle during the winter of 2020 and have come to see it as a chance to slow down and connect with our own family. As things open up and the pandemic comes to a close, I hope to continue to cultivate hygge in my life.
These accounts from North America, Europe, and the Middle East offer a breadth of pandemic perspectives, and they are unequivocally human in their authenticity and vulnerability. These were the stories I was hoping to receive. While they might not provide a picture of the pandemic from all corners of the globe, they do reveal a glimpse of what it has been like for people living in places with unique cultures, languages, politics, and perspectives.
Facebook Around the World
In an effort to piece together a bit more of the global pandemic puzzle, I decided to try one more tactic. This time, I simplified my request. Rather than asking for something written with a deadline immediately following the Christmas holiday, I wrote a short post on Facebook.
My ask: So if you could sum up 2020 in a few words, what would they be? No judgment, all responses are welcome. 🙂
I posted this accompanying photo by way of encouragement.
I asked, and people sent responses from all over the world.
Omnishambles…and a time for deeper connections (in a different way)
A year to focus on one’s blessings
I guess this was the “interesting times” the old Chinese proverb mentioned
The best of times, the worst of times (sic Charles Dickens)
It’s like not realizing how depressed you were until you got off birth control…
Just keep going
Deep pain, new beginnings, take nothing for granted
Summing up 2020? Suggestions: 1) breathing is serious, especially what you breathe on and to; and 2) talking is so old-fashioned.
2020—the year of the mask
Reflection. Connection. Remembering what’s important. Hibernation. Joy and grief.
Life paused. Reflective. ‘Inwardly.’ Teachable in so many ways!
Ick, but somehow hopeful now.
The words from a Belgian friend from our neighborhood in Brussels whose female Yugoslav shepherd had a bit of a love affair with our white husky were at once poignant and heartbreaking. She wrote in French. The following is a translation into English:
In January we were happy. In February we left for two days with all the children and grandchildren and then gathering for my grandson's birthday at the beginning of March. Since then, nothing. Short visits at 3 meters (9.8 feet) apart, and the months go by without more than virtual contact, usually with family and friends. You feel like you are alone and living a nightmare. You complain about your life. You are afraid to see the holidays arrive, these holidays that each year you plan for months in advance. You are sad and then, at the beginning of December everything collapses. You learn that your daughter has cancer, and there you cry all the tears of your body and you realize that you were depressed about little things and that now you are going to have to fight against this crap cancer with your child. Voilà, the unfolding of my 2020.
And the responses continued:
What a year!
Shite. Amazing. Challenging. Transformative.
I saved for last my favorite of all the words shared. The word is knuffelcontact. Knuffelcontact is a Dutch word that translates as “hug or cuddle contact,” which became popular during the second lockdown when the Belgian government suggested that people “could choose one contact outside of their household to be close to” in order to allow for a modicum of human contact. People need human contact. They need hugs. I found it very uplifting to learn that knuffelcontact has recently been voted the Flemish Word of the Year. This seems like a perfect metaphor for 2020 that encompasses humanity at its best.
In the pattern of perspectives from around the globe I see reflected a desire to focus on the positive even in the midst of the bittersweet and heartbreaking. I am reminded that every person in the world carries an ocean of emotions and experiences within them. What we see on the surface is but the tip of an iceberg that sits largely hidden underwater. There are infinite, unseen layers that tell the story of a moment, a month, a year, a life. What I take from these and my own experiences is a desire to practice gratitude for all that I have; to remember that life is precious; to be gentle with people because what might appear to be reactionary behavior may stem from grief and loss; and to be gentle with myself as well.
As 2020 draws to close, I take heart in knowing that people from around the world can express such heart, authenticity, and poetry. I close with a chorus:
Wherever you are in the world May these words wrap themselves around you In a warm, safe embrace A knuffelcontact of love And grace
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, composer, yoga teacher, and editor. She grew up in Massachusetts and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education from Prescott College. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She currently finds herself in a second lockdown in northeast France with her husband, Richard Lewis, three cats and a big white husky. Marieke strives to create balance in her life through long walks around the farm fields that surround her home; practicing yoga and meditation; singing and strumming on her ukulele or banging on her bodhran; and writing, writing, writing.