During the COVID19 pandemic I got stranded in Warsaw. Like most other European countries Poland implemented strict movement control of its citizens, in an attempt to limit the spreading speed of the virus. Six weeks later I sailed back to Sweden across the Baltic Sea. What I found there was both a shocking negligence of the dangers, but also a great sense of freedom. In Act 1: How a date turns into living together. But, does it work?
Title photo: Kraków at sundown
Saturday 14 March 2020. Word has it that the Polish government will cordon off Warsaw. I’m spending the weekend 300 kilometres further south and my company has her home in the Polish capital. Monday I fly back to Sweden, but it looks like the government will kill all international traffic before that. Thursday, when we decided to go along with our weekend, things didn’t look that dark yet, although I did pack a few more things in a bigger bag than normally needed for a weekend away.
I’ve arrived in the city of Kraków 48 hours before Polish quarantine rules were put into affect. Restaurants are already on take-away only and many have closed. I’m texting my friends in Sweden about what’s up there, but they report no such thing is happening. Everything is open as normal.
Over the course of three years I’ve stayed in the beautiful former royal residence of Kraków dozens of times. I’ve made friends with some of its people, I’ve come to love the Stare Miasto, the walks along the Wisła river, the trumpet player in the cathedral tower, the food, the dancing and the life. I’ve never stayed in hotels, but always in apartments that made me feel at home. But I’ve never seen the city as deserted as during this weekend in March.
Kraków has turned into a city of fear, where only a few dare to be out. Saturday evening, I count the number of people in each bar on one hand. Our neighbourhood this weekend is the normally buzzing Kazimierz quarter. Now the streets are empty, with some bewildered tourists strolling around and a few locals ordering the typical zapiekanka – dubbed into “pizza bread” by the Americans – on the quarter’s main square of Plac Nowy. We buy some tasty sweet bakery from a local cafe on a side street and the lady behind the counter tries hard to treat us as normal human beings. All non-food shops are already in lockdown.
Sunday 15 March 2020. Skyscrapers sculpture our horizon as the motorway meanders into Warsaw. Rumours the government wants to seal off the capital from the rest of the country – something Finland would do weeks later – are not true. Moreover, there were no roadblocks on our way, no rolling military trucks with soldiers that would have been needed to put such a plan into action.
Yet, I feel excited, because as of this moment the borders of Poland are closed for all international air and rail traffic, domestic travel is discouraged. From just a romantic weekend away, my company and I will now jump over several steps in normal courtship. We’ve become sambo – the perfect Swedish word for two people living together – overnight, when we were technically still on a date. I look at her from the passenger seat while she steers her car through the city. She is a Goddess to me, but love in Corona lockdown, will it work?
The Toilet is the Spare Room
Sunday 29 March 2020. Two weeks living together and we haven’t killed each other yet. It goes actually very smooth. My girlfriend and I do our work remotely from the sofa, the bed, the kitchen table or – incidently – the toilet since it is the “spare room”. She loves Apple and Zoom, I prefer Windows and Skype.
Apart from my reporter work, my daily “main clients” are kids at their schools – Sweden has kept its elementary education open throughout the entire crisis – or at home. As a mother tongue teacher in Dutch and study coach in Dutch and English in Uppsala I’m already used to teach online. “We” have been doing this for a decade, offering children of parents with non-Swedish base language lessons in their mother tongue, both in classrooms and online. Mother tongue teaching is part of the Swedish law on education and for me it is much part of my normal life.
Which cannot be said about the world outside “our apartment” in Warsaw. Walks are forbidden, unless with two people if not a family. The small food shop on the corner has standard a line of people waiting in front, as only 3 customers are allowed to be inside at a time, later it will even be a no-go zone for those younger than 65 between 10 and 12 AM – a decision made by the Polish government to protect the elderly from Corona.
Spraying your hands with disinfection fluid upon entering is standard, as well as keeping as many metres from others as possible in the small confinements of this Żabka. The cashier wears plastic gloves. I’m happy to see her employer was quick in installing a giant plexiglas wall on her counter, something the other small stores in the neighbourhood also have managed very well with. Supermarkets have bigger lines and a few more people inside, but I’ve decided to skip the Biedronkas to limit my exposure to other people. As a travelling teacher in Sweden I move within a radius of 85 kilometres by bicycle, bus, train or on foot and as a travelling reporter I fly across the whole of Europe; my regular route in Warsaw is now within a circle of 420 metres and it includes two pharmacies, two bakeries, a vegetable shop in a wooden shed and three mini-markets. I consider myself lucky the situation is not as severe as in France, and unlike in e.g. Italy I am allowed to go further than 200 metres from home, which I use to go to a park or discover more of my new home town.
I’ve started to clone myself. The touchable bedrooms, living rooms and bathrooms may be closed for inspiration, but open online for take-away or home delivery is Ikea, where I’ve ordered my favourite chef’s knives and other kitchen tools to make my hobby of cooking a bigger joy. From a favourite Polish fashion brand I’ve complemented my limited wardrobe and from Germany comes a pair of sneakers identical to the ones I left at home; all by courier who keeps a respectable two metres distance to the front door. To protect ourselves even more, we spray all boxes and packages of products we buy or get with a spiritus mixture at the front door, before moving them further into the house. It is a lesson learned from Wuhan.
It is still Sunday and we’ve decided to get out of our comfort zone to visit the centre of Warsaw a few kilometres away. Officially this is not really allowed, as non-essential travel is forbidden, but I can always argument I’m a reporter and the limits are unconstitutional. But our excuse is not tested, probably because there is clearly not much for the police officers to worry about. Warsaw’s old town looks even more deserted as Kraków’s Kazimierz half a month earlier. Not that this is good news. I learn a day later that Warsaw had the worst air pollution of the world just when we were out. It was a relatively fresh Sunday and since most people stayed at home they fired up their coal burners to get cosy. Some experts argue that Corona will eventually lead to less deaths because of the lockdowns leading to lesser air pollution, but apparently that doesn’t fly for Warsaw.
When it comes to the COVID19 deaths Poland (pop. 38 million) counts only 22 on Sunday 29 March 2020. Even if this number is likely 3 times higher, I start to believe in the movement restrictions. Sweden (pop. 10 million) already has 110 fatalities on this day, while priding itself on natural social distancing as part of the society’s culture to protect itself. Anxiety starts creeping inside me. What if the Sweden – my home – has it’s laissez-faire approach wrong? What if my friends in Sweden – quite a few work in hospitals and at schools – get ill? Will it actually even be safe for me to go back once I can?
| Marcel Burger / nordicreporter.com (text and images)
This is the first act of my COVID19 story, set against the backdrop of the events unfolding in Poland and Sweden in Mid-March to Mid-May 2020. In Act 2 the confrontation with Poland’s and Sweden’s state of affairs; in Act 3 how it is to be back in Sweden.