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Since we started to be in the grip of the pandemic, I wondered how I’m going to remember this time: as the chaotic Corona year, as a life filled with insomnia, insecurity and limitation, including narrowness and loneliness, or as the year of being close to my family and moving my career further along. As a year with many shared laughs, new relationships, Zoom weirdness and long walks with my daughter. Will it become one year of many, details losing their sharpness quickly or a year that will become ingrained into my soul and memories?

It’s just a year

That was my first thought when I reflected on all the things that would disappear this year. I wondered about the parents afraid of losing one school year. One year in the life of children, some of them will have 100 years or more. A small share of their lives. But, a year can be a lot. We traveled the world for a year and it felt like a long time. When people are unemployed for a year, it feels like an eternity. Just like being sick for a year. A year-long sabbatical is an opportunity to refresh your soul, develop new perspectives and then returning to a world that barely changed. Many adults choose this option to gain distance to their daily patterns, to better understand how they want to live the rest of their lives. While the pandemic was an abrupt and unwelcome break, many adults used it as an opportunity to rethink their future and better understand what’s important and what’s not. The difference between children and adolescents: Adults have the luxury to create their own mind space to think about post-pandemic changes. They understand life is about peaks and valleys, things will fall into place at one point.

For young people, time stands still in a different way. Their life is forming, the future wide open and the relationship to it more fragile since they don’t have enough life experiences to reflect on. Lived experiences don’t provide the security blanket yet to look optimistically at the future. In addition, young people are more dependent on societal structures of school schedules, vacation and tests. They rely on their school schedule to tell them what to do, where to go, how to behave. Sure, it’s a restricting corset but it provides support and reasons to get up in the morning. Every day counts for young people and we have to be more empathetic when it comes to their Corona experience. It’s not enough to say there will be many more years and when they are 90 this phase will be almost forgotten. To develop a feeling for time, to put this year into perspective requires this: time.

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” — Rilke

It is silent out there. It is an unreal silence, one that carries the coming storm and its associated noise with it. Just like a Tsunami: You stand on steady ground, your feet in the sand at the beach, the water retreats, and you know: the water will come as a long, seemingly never-ending wave. We see the power of the wave in parts of Italy, in Madrid, a time delay that let us anticipate what we will go through. Maybe it won’t be that bad because we were able to learn from the sufferings of Southern Europe and we are a bit more prepared. The mercy of the late virus spread, a cynical blessing. Knowledge acquired dealing with the virus, successes and failures the lucky ones can learn from — a blessing for the ones that will experience the wave in the days to come. The mercy of the late virus spread does not equalize for social, economic and topographic differences. I worry for Mexico City, Dhaka and Karachi — just to name a few of the mega-cities. A blessing might not be enough for them.

We have places that made us who we are, the forest behind my house, the football pitch 2 blocks down, the Rhine river a few kilometers away from where I dreamt of leaving my home and exploring the world. And there are places that change us in our young adulthood. Places that represented love, happiness, a different way of life. When I was 14, I toured through Spain with my sister and we stayed in Madrid for a week. Spending time there gave me a glimpse of what my life could be, how life could be experienced in a completely different way. The images of Madrid hurt in a special way. And I don’t understand why we can’t help. Germany provided ICU beds for Italy and France. Not for Spain, Romania or other hard-hit regions.

What happened to Europe? Is there still an ounce of Europe left? Was Europe nothing more than a currency and open borders? I was pleased to see a helping hand being offered by Germany to Italy and France. Still, people are dying miserable deaths all over Europe, have to spend their last moments alone, separated from their loved ones, no funeral, just putting the bodies into the ground or burning them. What happened to Europe? Thousands are living dying in a refugee camp in Moria and we just watch it and shake our heads. Citizens are being flown back home from all over the world, but we can’t even help orphans in refugee camps. I have to focus on children because they are the only ones that evoke emotions. A 40-year old refugee from Syria needs as much our help but I don’t have any hope we can establish an emotional connection to his tragedy. Empathy seems to be as scarce a resource as masks and ventilators. Only freezing children in a tent on muddy grounds can evoke some form of empathy. We should move all these people, all these tragedies, all these lives. They should have the right to ask for asylum, be processed, moved into humane camps and be regarded as humans. We are failing badly. Our expectations who we should be and could be were never that low. We don’t even feel anymore what a failure we all are.

Nobody should live like this. And nobody can ever say: We didn’t know, it was hidden from us.

It is quiet out there. My ears are used to constant stimulation: video calls, podcasts, music, anything to fill my ears and mind. And, now I sit often in the living room, just listening to the silence. And I can hear the storm embedded into the silence. I drink my coffee, look at the tired dogs and hope.

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

We are in a liberal, fairly relaxed lockdown. No more meetings, only 2 people can be together in public, no events until June 1. We can still go to work, go for a walk but we are encouraged to stay home. During our daily walk, we saw the community police breaking up groups in parks. People still hung out together, still played football. There’s more police presence, people are getting more serious with the 1.5 meters distance rule.

We didn’t go to the office today, stayed mostly home. It was a reflective day, I’m drawn more and more to poets. With so many facts and non-facts floating around, it is a nice change of pace to immerse yourself in the wisdom of beautiful souls.

I’m looking for consolation, a way to reframe reality. One of those beautiful souls is Maria Popova, the curator and writer of Brainpickings. In my last visit to a bookstore for a while, I purchased her book ‘Figuring’. I finished it today and when I read the last page, I was consoled.

“Meanwhile, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known — an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.

In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all. The Voyager will still be sailing into the interstellar shorelessness on the wings of the “heavenly breezes” Kepler had once imagined, carrying Beethoven on a golden disc crafted by a symphonic civilization that long ago made love and war and mathematics on a distant blue dot.

But until that day comes, nothing once created ever fully leaves us. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents. Meanwhile, people live and people die — in peace as war rages on, in poverty and disrepute as latent fame awaits, with much that never meets its more, in shipwrecked love.

I will die.

You will die.

The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.

What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.”

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

These signs can be seen anywhere around Amsterdam

Yesterday felt like a day off from the insanity. We had a nice evening, watched an episode of ‘The Crown’ as a family and then ended the evening listening to a Kenny Rogers concert. The morning was spent walking the dogs, running for an hour through the empty streets of Amsterdam, making breakfast, were touched by the ‘Aberfan’ episode of The Crown and then went for a long walk. One thing is clear: our dogs are the biggest winner of Covid-19. We tend to walk them maybe 40 minutes daily, now they get at least 2 hours.

Today was a beautiful spring day. It was cold but the sun was bright, the sky blue and the flowers were eager to showcase their beauty. People are starting to behave better, there were almost no groups huddled together. On the tight dog paths, we move our heads to the side when we get too close. It’s all weird but it is what it is. When I have distance with people, when I see them sitting on the stoop, I try to smile more. We are so alone now, forced to stay away from people. A smile in these times goes a long way.

The Dutch government wants to avoid a complete shutdown. We received an alert on our phone today to keep distance, signs are now plastered across the street. I don’t think it’s going to work. I believe we will have a shutdown within a few days.

Reality is, the weekend was nice but it ended early. Sunday afternoon Germany announced a lockdown, the images from Spain and Italy continue to shock, Merkel went into self-quarantine, and Rand Paul has Covid-19. This event is not about the normal sequence of news, it is a Tsunami. Trump perfected sequencing news, opinions, and rants. Covid-19 got him beat. It’s a triple threat of health, economic and financial crisis. Uncontrollable.

We walked home. The spigot of news opened up again today. It’s a trickle now but it’s about to be turned into a firehose quickly. Stay safe.

15 minutes from or home. Wonderful. 

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Saturday at 9.30 am. Not one person around.

Today felt like a normal day. Kind of. Woke up at 3 am to scan the latest Covid-19 news, went back to sleep, alarm at 7 am, dog duty and then off to Pilates. I really didn’t want to go to my private weekly sessions but I’ve been with my trainer for 3 years and that’s her main source of income. She’s a wonderful person that had to deal with health problems and as a completely healthy person, it felt wrong to cancel.

My new greeting when I meet with people that will be in my personal space for a bit is: No fever? No cough? Yes, I know, I’m such a charmer. When I had a minor coughing fit, we both had to laugh. During a typical Pilates session, she touches me lightly to correct my movement but this time she was sitting a few meters apart, correcting just through instruction. While it was somehow different, it felt normal.

Supermarkets have been transformed, tapes all over the floor, plastic covers at the register. Even more, the butcher shop was in full virus mode: Even the POS terminal was covered in plastic wrap that, after each usage, the customer has to throw away. It felt strange but also good to see how much thought they put into the whole customer experience.

A few hours later, we went to Noordermarkt, a local farmers market. I wasn’t sure we should go but I know how much local, small businesses are suffering and we gave it a try. The moment we entered, we saw masses of people waiting for assistance, I heard multiple, nasty coughs and I said to my daughter: It’s a Coronaparty, we are out of here. We missed out on dried mangos, amazing sausages, our weekly pea soup, veggies and fruits but I just was too afraid. Our flower man had his stand in a remote place, the customers kept a distance and we bought too many flowers. Who knows, by next week the market might be closed for a while.

While everything was different, it felt good to have some kind of normalcy. A nice chicken is about to be devoured together with carrots and potatoes. It almost feels like a Thanksgiving meal.

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

I was thinking a lot about the economy today. Meaning, I was thinking about people. Goldman Sachs just released their latest forecast and it is a note right out of human hell: “The bank is forecasting a 24% decline in economic activity next quarter, compared to their previous forecast for a 5% decline.”

How bad is that? The biggest recorded quarterly decline in modern U.S. history was 10% in the first three months of 1958 during a short, but steep recession. Some 2 million people lost their jobs in less than a year. Even during the worst of the 2007–2009 Great Recession, the biggest contraction in GDP was 8.4% during the 2008 fourth quarter.

As a reminder, The Great Depression began in the United States as an ordinary recession in the summer of 1929. The downturn became markedly worse, however, in late 1929 and continued until early 1933. Real output and prices fell precipitously. Between the peak and the trough of the downturn, industrial production in the United States declined 47 percent and real gross domestic product (GDP) fell 30 percent.

This is a forecasted decline of 24% in one quarter. One quarter.

Not 4 years.

Economy equals people. Humans with dreams, ideas, fear, and hopes. It is unimaginable what a decline of 24% in GDP will do to people. I can’t even put it in words. Dystopian movies might look like fairy tales. Good night stories of a future that might be better than our reality.

The German government promised to take care of everyone, ensure that everyone keeps their job and business. It’s a pandemic, nobody’s fault, we pause for a few months, ride it out and then restart the economy. Whatever it takes. Whatever the price. That’s what government is for. It will restore faith in institutions, ensure stability and beat down any populist forces. I don’t think it’s the right approach. I know it’s the only approach. Giving a few dollars to citizens and bailing out corporations will do nothing. It will lead to more anger, more division.

The roaring US economy of the past hasn’t worked for many. Homelessness is a daily disgrace, the climate numbers are horrendous and inequality is at a peak. But it’s better keeping that economy alive, fixing the problems and pay off the debts over time than the current proposal. The government should pay all mortgages, all rents, all wages, everything until the storm is over. And then we figure out how to deal with the new reality. At least, it’s a reality, not a dystopian nightmare.

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

Angela Merkel spoke last night. “This is serious.” (…) “Since German unification — no, since the Second World War — no challenge to our nation has ever demanded such a degree of common and united action.” She was direct, honest and empathic. She thanked the healthcare workers and made a special point to show her gratitude towards the people that feed us every day. “Those who sit at the supermarket cash registers or restock shelves are doing one of the hardest jobs there is right now.” It was perfect.

The city continues to work. Construction everywhere, even around our house. It feels as if all construction work just started this week. In reality, all other services are closed, and construction, as well as municipal services, are sticking out because they continue to do their job.

There are now signs on the floor in supermarkets, 6 feet apart. Most people stick to it. Just a week ago, nobody would have paid attention. Now, we keep our distance. We smile more at each other. We are friendlier. We know everybody goes through the same thing. Even the ones with a steady income and no financial hardship. They are still scared.

The pace of change is breathtaking. Just a week ago, the restaurants were full, bars crowded. Humans can adapt their behavior rather quickly. Yes, there are always idiots. Especially during Spring Break. But in general, people are doing a good job. We are used to our daily script. And, we have problems deviating from it. It’s the same when we lose a job. A messy breakup. We want it to be the way it used to be. We hang on to that old reality. It takes time to change the script. It’s easy to shame idiots on the beach, in bars. But we are sometimes idiots, too.

That’s the first news headline I saw this morning. 2 days ago the burial pits in Iran. The narrative changes daily, almost hourly. Just yesterday we believed mostly elderly people died. 2/3 of dead people in the Netherlands never even went to the hospital. They had so many other issues that the doctors made a decision to let them die. On the other hand, in the US 38% of hospitalizations are between the age of 20 to 54. The story is unfolding as we speak.

We get CNN in our cable system and it’s unnerving. The constant breaking news, the dopamine hits keep coming, it’s anxiety-inducing. German TV focuses on a few experts that share their insights. It’s factual. It can be tough to hear their projections. But I can deal with facts, projections, data, and science. I can’t deal with this whirlwind of crazy emotions the US media wants to keep us in. Germans are sober people. They don’t like too much nonsense, hype, and overblown statements. And, Angela Merkel is even more German than any other German in that regard. She would never say “This is serious.” Yesterday she said it.

It’s serious.

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

‘Corona Heroes’

We walked to the office this morning. Virtual schooling started today and it felt good for the daughter to have a schedule, a purpose. All the tourist hot spots were deserted. A few cars, some policemen patrolling on their scooters, delivery trucks. The pigeons must be in trouble, too. Almost no tourists, takeout food severely limited, no crumbs to dine on. We passed by the Rembrandt House, the place where the artist lived in the 17th century for 16 years.

Rembrandt lived for 63 years and he experienced 4 bubonic plagues. From 1635 to 1637, the bubonic plague ravaged the Netherlands, killing more than 17,000 people in Amsterdam alone (1/7 of the population). In neighboring cities of Leiden 33% of the population was killed and in Haarlem 14%. The other three occurrences of the plague, one-ninth, one-eighth and one-sixth of Amsterdam perished, respectively.

Hendrickje Stoffels

Hendrickje Stoffels was Rembrandt’s widowed housekeeper before becoming his partner in life and business. They never got married but brought up a son together and she kept him afloat when he went bankrupt. You can feel Rembrandt’s affection for her the way he painted her gaze through soft, dark eyes. An intimate portrait, sharing his emotions with the world. In 1663, a ship from Algiers brought the plague. And an end to their love and her life.

Listening to The Daily yesterday broke me. Michael Barbaro interviewed an Italian doctor from a clinic in Bergamo, the current hotspot. Almost 500 employees of the hospital are sick, he cries every day. He describes that COVID-19 patients die alone because loved ones are not allowed to visit them. And I imagined an older woman but with 10+ more promised years, lying alone in a hospital bed after a full life, her family worrying for her at home and she has to take her last breath completely alone. The last thing she saw was not her husband or her family. It was the ceiling, the machines. That’s how it ended for her. And so many others. Just yesterday 319 people died in this region of Italy. Alone.

‘Applause for the caretakers’

We clapped last night for the caretakers. For a few moments, we came together and cheered. And we cheered for ourselves. We need a lot of cheering these days. It’s hard to believe how quickly everything has changed. How quickly we moved from a fully functioning world to a broken reality. The bad news keeps on coming, just like a constant bombardment that doesn’t stop. We are under attack from reality and there’s nowhere to escape. There are moments when you make yourself a cup of coffee, sit down at the desk and do some work, when everything seems to be okay. But you look out on the empty streets, you see the phone exploding with updates and you give in to the reality.

I’ve been scared about a broken reality three times: 911, financial crisis and today. This is the scariest one because it leaves us powerless and we make decisions out of fear. This pandemic will end. Just like the many ones before. Rembrandt lived through four pandemics. He lost his beloved partners, family members, friends, acquaintances. But he kept going. He chose growth instead of fear. That’s our job now.

How I experience the global crisis in Amsterdam

We went for a walk during lunchtime. The mornings are spent clicking through Twitter lists, checking the Guardian live blog obsessively and worrying. About the incoming tsunami of maladies and deaths. About the people caught in the health, economic, social and personal crisis. Working, focusing and then going back to the Twitter lists, the onslaught of bad news. Unthinkable scenarios have become a daily reality.

I live close to Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station. We hear the trains coming and going. Tourists arriving with their wheeled carry-ons, excited about this beautiful jewel, ready for their first Heineken and joint. It is quiet now. Some trains are coming and going. But no more tourists. It’s just us. The people of the Netherlands. All countries are fighting this enemy on their own. Not sure if the Eurozone will survive this. It’s easy to have no borders when things are good. It’s hard to have no borders when you are afraid that neighboring countries might overwhelm your hospital system.

Worse, it’s the quiet before the big storm. It’s coming. It is going to be bad, just how bad nobody knows. The estimates and numbers are mind-numbing. Unfathomable. It seems clear that it will either be bad or really bad. And that’s just for Europe. The US is dealing with complete darkness. It’s night, there will be a storm and no lights yet to understand the severity. And Africa. Refugee camps.

We went for a walk. Spring signs everywhere. The dogs were happy. A lot of people in the park, playing football. Cherry blossoms. Magnolias. We walk by each other, smile softly and try to avoid any close contact. We are in this together but we are also so alone. We know how bad this is but we don’t want to share our real feelings. No need to add to the depression of other people.

I chatted with my daughter, the dogs were sniffing areas they like to sniff. It felt good to be out. Some form of normalcy. But most of us have a heavy heart. We don’t know where this is heading and we are afraid. March 2020 wasn’t supposed to be that way. It should have been about cherry blossoms, sitting on terraces, experiencing the streets of Amsterdam coming to life. Now it’s all about uncertainty.

We walked back through the busy tourist area, now a cemetery of closed restaurants and bars. I hope governments around the world will help all these small businesses. They were profitable until last week, contributed to the economy and everybody’s lives. Covid-19 wasn’t their fault. The financial crisis resulted in the rise of populism because the corporations were bailed out and individuals left to fend for themselves. That’s when the trust in institutions took a major dive. If politicians treat this crisis the same way, I’m deeply afraid of the next wave of populism.

Tonight at 8pm, the whole nation will go on their porch and clap for all the people that keep the healthcare industry and this country afloat. There are signs of humanity and community sprouting everywhere. Who knows, it might be the sign of beautiful times to come. After the storm.

Screenshot 2020-02-12 at 16.55.29

I’m a very political person. From a very young age, I was fascinated by political debates around the dining room table, watched parliamentary debates in West-Germany for hours, demonstrated, argued, joined a party, left a party, joined another party and left again. I stayed up all night discussing nuclear weapons, reunification, the Iraq war, financial crisis, Obama/McCain/Romney – and then we were silenced.

Just this morning, I wanted to tweet about the New Hampshire primary but I stopped before I started. Is it worth to tweet an opinion to a few people that care just to get trolled multiple times by the ones not disagreeing with me? The Twitterverse feels like such an unsafe zone, a dystopian world where the loudest screamers, the most effective bots, and the fiercest tribalist rule. 99% of the universe just shake their head and stay silent. Why bother?

I’ve had my share of political discussions on message boards and I know they are going nowhere. There’s always another fact, another source and one can argue until the cows come home without ever changing an opinion (including mine) or making an impact. And while we argue, we got more tribal and angry. In 2020, this goes way beyond politics. Any comment about anything or anybody can trigger outrage. Armies of latent outraged Twitterattis are roaming this silly space ready to attack at any moment. Giving all they got. Until they find a new enemy, a new source to feed their outrage even more. One would hope they run out of steam at one point. Not so. The outraged ones created the first Perpetuum Mobile, violating the first and second laws of thermodynamics. They work indefinitely without an energy source, just kept alive by their internal outrage about everything.

While they keep on roaming and attacking, we are tired. Tired of the outrage. Tired of the same boring discussions and arguments. Tired of the attacking threat. We just want to say we like program x of candidate x without being overrun by arguments why candidate x is terrible and what’s wrong with us?

Freedom of speech? Whatever.

This goes way beyond left or right, Twitter or Facebook.

Who let the dogs out?
Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof.

All I have left is to growl. And vote.