This is weird
April 2020: Three facts: I am sensitive to smells, the sun is shining, we are in the middle of a lock down due to a rampant global virus.
Like I said, this is weird. We are in week three of Lock down in Belgium. We are advised (ahem, told, socially pressured, threatened with fines) to stay in our houses as much as possible, except to get exercise, walk, go to the shops or work, if our work cannot be done online, or is saving peoples lives. I am ok with this. I live comfortably in a light and airy co-housing apartment with a garden, space, parks and nature nearby. I can order anything I want online. My jobs can be done online, although I may not be saving lives, I can keep students calm and help them to graduate before the summer. I can continue my own studies. I have an excuse to be anti-social, introverted and read that pile of articles. No excuses not to write those essays, research and grant proposals.
I mean I would rather be in a Finnish forest lying on a carpet of moss right now, but I am not complaining. Life is good. I am healthy, my family and friends are all ok. I can just about ignore the virus and the fear if I do not Google too much, watch the news and keep obsessively washing my hands. I can post culture tips on instagram and enjoy all the passing memes. #Lifeintimesofcorona.
So why am I having these strange olfactory and visual flash backs? Why am I paralysed when trying to leave the house? What is the sun shining brightly on my bare foot together with this specific combination of smells causing my body to remember?
This lock-down is familiar to me. I grew up in this world. I was born in Swaziland and lived in South Africa under the Apartheid regime for a large chunk of my childhood. An expatriate world of separate houses safe from the outside threat, safe from the ‘natives’. British passport, long haul flights, boarding school.
April 2019: I board a plane to Johannesburg in South Africa. I want to experience how it feels as a place, now. I want to move through its air, smell its smells and talk to people who stayed while it changed and didn’t change. I rent a room in a house in Sandton, the same place I lived as a teenager in the late 1980’s. I am in the garden, the smells hit me first, specific plants, sprinkler on earth, cicadas and morning birds chorus. I am feeling bright Highveld sun shining on my bare foot, in a gated housing complex, behind a high wall. I spend more time inside a house than I ever do at home, in Belgium. This is life for privileged people in Johannesburg. The outside world holds some kind of threat, the fear of violence keeps you locked ‘safe’ inside your own home. The Familiar dance William Kentridge often pictures in his work.
April 2020: I am amazed how quickly I adapt to the new rules under the lock down. There are new social codes, a slower pace. almost no traffic. You can hear the birds clearly. There is an utter lack of public life: no bars, cafes, shops, no morning coffee at the station, on the way to work. I worry about a ‘Shock Doctrine’ effect, about basic rights being eroded even more than they already are, the economy being used as a excuse to erode social support structures, about artists being unfunded, forever. I think about refugees and homeless people, people in precarious housing, children in precarious family situations, people in the slums in Johannesburg, all packed into tin shacks with no running water. The virus will kill people because they couldn’t wash their hands and don’t have access to health care. I know I am in utter, utter luxury. I have always been in this position. Privileged segregation/separation: inside and outside, the bubble with gates, walls, digital screens between us and them.
The mixture of bright white sunlight, crisp cold air, fresh washing hanging outside, budding and carefully flowering plants, the smells of cooking. Springtime in Europe, Autumn in South Africa. The smells of domesticity with the outside world at its edges: disinfectant hand gel and fear. My body hesitates to go outside. I need to move, get fresh air. I know I can’t catch this virus by cycling along the river or walking to the shops and yet I am paralysed. My body is trained to stay inside. It is both an expat childhood and a boarding school training. I often have this hesitation, this familiar difficulty getting out the house. I never understood it until this virus locked us in our homes. I grew up locked either in my home or in my boarding school dormitory.
Lock down is strangely familiar to me.