As a writer I’m supposed to be writing to you from a place of perspective.
I’m supposed to be well informed, wise, if not all knowing.
I’m supposed to be able to digest a situation and present an easily understandable version of it back to an audience.
I’m struggling with all of that right now. Life seems to be stuck under a thick grey fog and I’m peering through a haze to try and form any summary picture at all.
It’s the coronavirus, of course.
My walking life has halted again, this time since the end of October, almost two months, as the second wave washes across Europe and individual lives swirl, upset, displaced, like grains of sand, leaving us all scrabbling for solid, familiar ground.
It’s lasting longer, the ending of this second illness period, as governments experiment with different types of restrictions, trying to portion out the discomfort, maintain economic activity. Infection rates don’t seem to be going down after weeks of movement restrictions and the great Christmas festival is looming, when we want to be spending, eating and hugging, beating back the winter darkness with cosy celebration.
Information either comes in tiny portions that form an incomplete picture or great gollops that are impossible to make meaning of. Total number of cases in France since the pandemic began: 2. 44 million. A meaningless number to tell me what’s happening now. Number of cases yesterday, number of cases in a particular region, number of cases in hospital, number of cases in intensive care, number of cases per 100,000 people, R rate, yearly death rates. Tier 2, tier 3, regional restrictions, curfews.
So many indicators to tell us whether the current situation is “good/bad”, but nothing is a reliable indicator for what’s going to happen next because it all depends on the successful behaviour change of the contrary, writhing mass of barely controllable humans that form society.
We’re all just a bunch of stressed scared people trying to gain control of what’s happening to them by mastering the situation. Never in my life have I seen such frantic extrapolation from such small pieces of information.
It’s worse when you realise that it doesn’t matter what objective picture can be read from the statistics, that government actions are subject to other imperatives – economic, primarily. Then there’s the fact that nobody in Europe want to be seen to cancel Christmas (I wrote this two days ago. Boris has now, in fact, cancelled Christmas).
As a traveller in a time where tourism has been pushed aside, I’m falling through the cracks. I’m an unexpected anomaly, homeless in a time when we’re all supposed to stay at home.
What I want, and what I don’t have, is to know what’s going to happen next month. I want to know when it will be clear and safe for me to walk again, when cafés will be open and people can wave and call at me, ask me over for a chat.
I want to know when people can stop shrinking away from each other, when we can hug people we’ve only just met without the barrier of their unknown last fortnight rising between us. “Where have you been?” we must ask instead, “who has breathed on you? What have you touched?”
The whole world is unsafe and for a person who has no bubble, no safe place to retreat to, this is a lonely and vulnerable time to exist.
I’m in a limbo of waiting, either relying on other people’s grace or my own pocket to provide me with safe places, both of which have limits. There is nothing to do to alleviate this waiting, except return to the UK, which would feel like giving up.
I don’t know how to be a writer right now, even if my brain wasn’t dulled with the stress of hundreds of days of “what’s happening?”, creative sparks overwhelmed by jittery nervous energy or extinguished by boredom enduced social media scrolling.
What sparse information can I glean about places when they’re mostly closed? Cafés are the hearts of communities to me, they’re where I sit in the quiet of a warm corner and watch how people gather and chat, the decor, the coffee, the groupings, the boardgames. Now I walk closed streets and look in shop windows. Handbags, home furnishings, butchers and bakers. Nowhere to linger for more than a minute and barely anyone else on the streets. Masked pedestrians passing, shifting as if buffeted away from one another, stepping out into the cobbled street.
I am a person who goes to places where she doesn’t know anyone and talks about what she finds there. I have never felt less capable of connection with strangers. Eye contact is a rarity and it’s hard to smile behind a mask. We have all retreated into our known bubbles and I bounce around on the edges, unable to penetrate.
My next steps are uncertain. I head into Spain which is pretty much closed to tourism, movement across internal borders has been restricted since October and will only lift for the Christmas period. Spain, France and Britain, the three countries I’ve been paying attention to, all feel very miserable and grumpy, months of restrictions which are only partially working. We are all very fed up at the moment.
What environment am I walking into? How receptive will Spain be? My fears tell me stories of sideways glances and police interrogations, but I have to look past the nervous anticipation. I’m heading towards a route which is famed for its generosity and transcendental experiences. The camino has always given space for the muddled pilgrim to find purpose and clarity about themselves and the world. Can I share anything close to that on a lonely winter camino in the year we were ravaged by a pandemic?
And where then, in this bleakness, are my glimmers of hope?
If I manage to do this, I’ll be so proud of myself, that I stuck it out, that I persisted.
I could give up, but I’m not. I keep forgetting that, that I could go back to the UK, sink into the embraces of loved ones and rest for a while in the knowledge that I won’t be asked to leave when I get irritating or my money runs out. I forget until someone suggests it to me, as I blether out my misery in texts and phonecalls, and then the force of my “no way” gives me the faint reminder of the mirror image of this refusal, that I’m choosing to be here. I’m choosing to struggle in pursuit of this goal, this strict decision I made for myself that I would walk across Europe, in the route I decided for myself four years ago, and I’m not going to stop until I’m told I can’t. It’s getting close to that, I’m squirming my way around movement restrictions, but I haven’t been given an explicit no, you shall not pass, and until then I’ll continue.
It’s the stillness that frustrates me, not the walking. There’s glumness at every turn anyway, I might as well struggle on in the place I want to be. Maybe I just have to take the experience that’s being handed to me and stop being scared of it in advance. Maybe it won’t be as bad as I think.