Auckland, New Zealand Aotearoa
2020 has of course gifted us with many weird and wonderful scenarios. Some of those scenarios have caught us off guard, some have alarmed and troubled us, or surprised and delighted us, and many have made us take pause for thought. And despite all of the restrictions imposed on us throughout the year it has nevertheless been an eventful collection of months, if not physically then certainly mentally and emotionally.
While my year involved more freedoms than most were able to enjoy, and more travel than I’d usually manage in a typical year, there came a point where I had to give up my wanderlust and return to New Zealand. And in order to do so it has meant giving up my freedoms for two weeks and submitting to ‘Managed Isolation’ upon my return to the country. That this period of isolation happened to coincide with Christmas was an unfortunate amalgamation of a cancelled flight and our national carrier not making the effort to notify me of said cancellation. So instead of a Christmas spent with my family, outdoors and in proximity to mountains of nutritionally questionable food groups I am instead alone, holed up indoors and permitted three appropriately portioned meals throughout the day.
Despite not technically being a part of the real world on Christmas Day this year, a funny thing has happened in that the real world has come to me instead. Text and voice messages are of course dime a dozen in 2020, but the wonderful quantity of them on Christmas Day, and in such quick succession so early in the morning, can’t help but invigorate your spirits. Videos come later in the morning, once friends in the Northern Hemisphere have put a few drinks inside of them to dull the reality of their own respective isolations. There are friends in front of open fires and others in front of garishly decorated trees. There are cocktails being poured and there are performances to Mariah Carey being attempted that suggest many of the said cocktails have already been enjoyed to lead up to such drunken hilarity. And then there are the video calls – a trope of pure science-fiction in my childhood, and yet a rather banal reality of life in my forties.
And so London arrives in my hotel room, where Tier 4 restrictions settle over the conversations like a bad smell. Lisbon, and Barcelona arrive next, with a more upbeat energy. But this is perhaps down to the sunnier climate and the fact that no one is really observing the restrictions there too religiously. There are shades of grey to all acts of devotion on the Iberian Peninsula after all. Nice taunts me with images from a cruise ship buffet that is as plentiful as it is precarious – it is a super-spreader event if ever I saw one. The roasted suckling pig unglamorously displayed on a spit doesn’t diminish my concern either, and all I can think of is Gwyneth Paltrow’s final meal in Contagion. Amsterdam cheers me up again quickly with tales of beer drunk, and then more beers and more again. Then Switzerland makes an appearance in a voice message, followed quickly by Scotland. In both locations snow has fallen plentifully on the ground and warming liquors are being quaffed aplenty as a result.
Each message of good cheer comes with a caveat however – and the caveat is Covid. It finds its way into each Christmas conversation as it has found its way into so many other conversations throughout the year. A topic to be alarmed by and made fun of in equal measure. A topic we try so hard to reconcile with using humour and optimistic platitudes but that manages to taint our bonne humeur nonetheless. And each message comes from a place of isolation in its own right – isolated from family and friends, and the freedom to interact with the world outside the way you’d wish to. There is a shared rapport in these messages and that commonality is that we’re all alone together.
The notable difference in our respective isolations however is that mine comes with an imminent light at the end of the tunnel. It is an isolation that only exists for two weeks, and beyond it there are all of the freedoms awaiting me that we were all privy to on Christmas Day way back in 2019. There will be hugs upon greeting (oh, how I miss hugs) and air-kissing. Hell, there’ll be real kissing on the cards also. There will be convergences of 5 people, 10 people, 15 people and even more, all clustered about one another engaged in natural cycles of conversations that don’t begin to stutter the minute anyone gets too close or appears sans mask.
So, beyond my window there is a world where families and friends gather for Christmas Day, and where food is shared across tables seating any number of guests. Guests arrive from other celebrations and depart to other Christmas commitments. They move freely from one neighbourhood to the other and from region to region. They don’t wear masks and their hands aren’t parched from gallons of sanitizer. And while I couldn’t connect with that world today I was reminded that it was within my grasp, and that it will taste all the sweeter for this momentary exercise of exclusion.
I was also reminded that in isolation the volume of those voices that reach out to you through the ether becomes louder and all the more elevated. In isolation any attempt from the outside world to peek in and offer a platitude or well-meaning Christmas wish becomes an act of such good grace that it negates any temptation to succumb to self-pity or feelings of solitude. Those voices coming through the ether don’t need to say much, but the fact that they are there at all has made this Christmas Day one of the least isolated of my life. And one of the most joyous to boot.