Four months ago today I left my home in Tokyo and landed at Pearson International in Toronto, Canada. I smiled and waved goodbye to the lovely new friends I'd made on the flight, wished them the best of luck with their complicated-ass family drama, and headed for baggage claim. Unbeknownst to me, and besides my mother, they would be the last people I'd converse with, the last people I'd have a true tête-à-tête with in person, for a long time. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In 2019 I had big plans for 2020. Besides the Christmas/New Year's Australia trip that was affected by the wildfires (remember those?), I had a round-trip to Toronto booked for March 30th - July 3rd. My mom had a long-awaited hip-replacement surgery scheduled early in April, and I would come over to help out. My partner Jonno, who would quit his job to travel, was going to join me in Toronto early in May after a surf trip in Bali. In June, two of my dear friends would have a destination wedding, and a big group of us, who've been friends for over a decade, would all travel to Mexico to celebrate this joyous occasion together. Later that month, I would meet Franzi (Banff roomie, Thailand diving buddy, and all-around-adventure mate) and her friend in Iceland with Jonno for a few weeks. We'd been discussing a three-week-long hiking & camping road trip in Iceland for years, and 2020 was the year it would finally happen. I would be back in Toronto for Pride Weekend, as well as Canada Day, and my BFF's boyfriend's 40th. Jonno and I would return to Japan in July, in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which we'd somehow managed to score tickets for. Yew!
Spoiler alert, none of it happened.
The first reported cases of COVID-19 in Japan were early in January, before it even had an official name. Everyone just called it Corona. Personally, I thought it would be similar to the SARS outbreak we had in Toronto in 2003, something that we all knew about and were cautious not to catch, perhaps even a bit fearful of catching, but didn't bring the planet to a screeching halt. SARS, while scary, ended up being something the world was able to contain. By late January, despite the increasing number of cases in Japan, I still believed that this new Coronavirus would follow a similar path.
Come mid-February, it was barely an afterthought. I was chatting with a friend who lives in South Korea. Feb 19, Her: "But now with Corona the start of the semester is pushed back." Me: "Oh what? It's that big of a deal there? Here they're just asking us to stay home if we're sick." Her: "I think they're taking a lot of extra precautions 'cause it's spreading so fast."
Damn, I thought. I began to monitor the international situation, checking worldometers.info daily, as well as the site that kept track of Japan's numbers, but I really didn't believe it would affect my own life too much, if at all. Canada still had less than 10 cases total since the first one was reported in January, and everyone seemed to be recovering. Most of the rest of the world remained unaffected. I was a little worried about how the world, Canada in particular, saw travellers from Japan, but I did not question the world's ability to get the situation under control.
On February 26th, I took my first screenshot of world-o-meters. With a grand total of 189 diagnoses, Japan had fallen to 5th highest number of confirmed cases internationally as Italy surpassed us with their official number of 470. China's 78,500, South Korea's 1,600, and the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship's 700 official counts were still the highest numbers in the world that day. The US, where I was meant to stopover en route to Toronto, sat at 9th with 60 total confirmed cases at the time. Canada is not in my screenshots, but if memory serves, we still had fewer than 10 cases. The next few days would prove to be a critical miss.
On February 27th, at my part-time teaching gig, I'd arrived to find a digital thermometer and some alcohol wipes sitting on my desk; I would need to take and record my temperature every day before work. Later that evening, Prime Minister Abe announced that all public and private schools across Japan were being "asked" to close for the month of March, giving teachers, parents and students one day to figure it all out. Sh*t was getting real.
I went into panic mode, and I wasn't alone. While Japan sold out of bread, rice, and toilet paper, I began to monitor the situation obsessively. I watched as Italy's cases grew from 470 on Feb 27th to 3000+ on March 5th to 7,300+ by March 9th. I watched Iran, Germany, France and Spain surpass Japan in that order with their official number of cases. I kept a close eye on USA, and when they went from 160 cases on March 5th to 550+ by March 9th, I made my decision: I'd go to Canada on a direct flight and I had to go now.
At the time, it seemed like I was overreacting a little bit, but I wanted to play it safe; I was determined to arrive in time to voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days before mom's surgery, which was still scheduled for April 6th. In the early days of the pandemic, physical distancing was not yet a thing, we were merely told to wash our hands, not touch our faces, and pretty-please self-isolate if we'd travelled to Wuhan. Soon travellers from the rest of mainland China, alongside Iran and South Korea were added to the "voluntary self-quarantine" lists of the world, as was Japan in some places (though not in Canada yet, I was just being cautious). Two days later, by March 11th, the last screenshot I took of World Meters (I had to stop for my mental health), the US was at 1,016 cases, Spain 2,188, and Italy 12,462. Trump announced that evening the US border would not to be open to Europeans. I paid $3000 for a direct flight that would depart March 17th. It didn't seem like an overreaction anymore.
But still, I was optimistic. Back then it felt like something that could be contained within a few weeks. I spent the next days packing. I brought my swimsuits for Mexico, my camping gear for Iceland, and my sparkly ears for Pride, though somewhere in the back of my mind the thought gnawed at me that I mightn't be using any of it. "I'd rather be prepared to go than have the opposite," I argued with myself. Though I did follow my gut and pack some extra house clothes, just in case.
(remember the first time you saw the empty shelves where toilet paper used to be?)
On March 16th, the night before I was meant to leave, I got a call from my best friend who'd heard from a former colleague at the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company. "I just wanted to give you a heads up. The Prime Minister (of Canada) is going to have a press conference today, he's going to declare this a national emergency. Not sure exactly what he's going to say, but be ready for anything. Most likely the airports will be limited, but obviously Pearson won't be affected. It's on at 2pm our time, that's 1am for you so you'll probably be asleep."
I sighed it out (what else could I do?), set my phone to Do-Not-Disturb mode and went to bed. I'd been having an overwhelming amount of conversations with people in Toronto all week, people who were starting to monitor and worry about the virus, just as I was trying to find peace by tuning it out. I did not want to wake up to the onslaught of messages I was sure to receive from well-meaning friends and family over the course of the night (for me) and day (for them) before I could enjoy what was to be my final morning coffee on my balcony in Japan.
Sure enough, that morning my inbox was flooded.
"It's a national emergency..."
"You're going to be told to self-isolate for 14 days..."
"Only a few airports will be receiving international flights..."
I found footage of the now infamous press conference online, where Trudeau declared to Canadians overseas: "Let me be clear. If you're abroad, it is time for you to come home."
Damn. No wonder everyone was messaging me.
Most of what he said was unsurprising: "...you must self-isolate..." "...required to complete a basic health assessment..." yada yada yada. This was also the beginning of the rest of the country being told to stay home, "as much as possible." The only bit of news that I was not expecting (which seems silly in hindsight), the news that completely broke my heart was that Canada would start "denying entry" to non-Canadians. The border was about to shut down.
Jonno is Australian. We had been living together for over 5 years, but Japan doesn't recognize civil unions. We were about to be separated for a very, very long time.
The goodbye that morning was the saddest.
We stood at the door, hand in hand, facing each other. "Hopefully it'll just be just a couple of weeks or something," he said, about to leave for work. It was his last week at the job he'd quit to travel.
I nodded and my eyes filled with tears. He squeezed my hands. "I'm not even meant to come until May, right?" He said reassuringly. "Everything should be sorted out by then, hopefully!" He hugged me so tightly while I tried not to sob.I squeezed him back.
"Let's be optimistic about it, yeah?" he said into my hair, holding me tighter. "I mean," he laughed, "what other choice is there, really?"
I laughed with him. "Yeah, hopefully it'll be okay," I said with as much gusto as I could muster. "My friends seem sure it'll be like 2-3 weeks of this, tops."
"See? We'll be fine."
We kissed goodbye. Before he turned to leave, he smiled and booped my nose. I could physically feel my heart shatter.
He looked back at me once more as he headed out the door, seeming a lot sadder than he'd been letting on, before he walked down the concrete stairwell and out of sight.
No! I thought. Not Yet! I raced to the bedroom, threw open the curtains, and practically launched myself out over the Juliet balcony as I shouted, "Goodbye! Goodbye!"
He looked up from the street and grinned at me. "Bye!" he waved again, laughing.
I kept smiling and waving and he continued his walk. He looked back and did a little wave a few more times, hamming it up for me, the last one as he disappeared around the corner and out of sight. I sobbed.
I finished packing and getting ready, took one final look around at my home, and left for the airport.
At the time of writing (July 17, 2020) Italy, with over 240,000 diagnoses, sits at 14th highest number of confirmed cases internationally. Spain is 9th with over 300,000. America, with over 3.7 million official cases and over 140,000 deaths, is first. The world has seen a total 14.2 million cases (and counting) officially.
It has been four whole months since I have seen Jonno, the longest we've ever been apart. Even though I am/was a tax-paying resident, I cannot go back to Japan. There is no official word on when I can. Jonno's not able to leave the country because he'd be in the same situation as I; what would we do with our apartment, our belongings, our whole life then? Where could we even go? Canada is out of the question, not only as a temporary visitor but also through the spousal visa option (I need to have real roots here, something like a long-term job so that I can prove 1. I'm able to take on financial responsibility for him, and 2. we plan to stay here for a few years). Australia is the same. We have no idea when we will ever see each other again.
(some photos I snapped of my neighbours' storage lockers...methinks I know where all the TP went)
It feels odd now to read the things I wrote early in lockdown. To vividly recall feeling like I don't belong. I was devastated. I'm still sad sometimes, often, but it's a different kind of sorrow, one that is more of a silent acceptance than a tumultuous resignation. Of course there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
On March 18th, the day after I arrived, my mom's surgery was officially postponed "until further notice." I sighed it out. What other choice did I have? Besides, I wasn't exactly surprised.
By the end of March and week 3 of lockdown, I had left the house only once to pick up groceries I'd ordered online and refill mom's prescriptions. I was still adjusting to being in Canada, but also to my mom's new home. She'd sold the house we had lived in for over 20 years while I was overseas, and had moved into a condo across the street from Sunnybrook, Toronto's Central Park. The sunset views every evening slightly softened the sharp loneliness I felt. Three weeks was the longest I'd been in Toronto in years and I hadn't seen anyone? Despite it being very much my reality, I was still in disbelief. I think we all were. March went on forever.
As difficult as it was to self-isolate, I think the strangest part for me in those early weeks was adjusting to this space as my home. It didn't feel like home at all. From my journal: "My period came today. Besides the fact that I haven't had to deal with one of these in Canada in years, I couldn't find my damn cup. It doesn't have a home in this apartment and it occurred to me, as I was searching for it, that it's not something I'm used to anymore. I realized I'm actually kind of settled here. Yeah, no. I don't like it."
There were lots of "firsts" early on. The first time I brushed my teeth in that bathroom, my first coffee, the first night away from my comfy queen with my man to a brand new sofa bed, all alone. Each first started something new and ended a tie to something comforting. This particular first involved sanitizing my cup, something I had not done anywhere in the world besides my apartment in Japan.
"Everything has become a habit now. I've made a routine and my things have a home. But this (moment with the cup) was a first and it was my first 'first' in a while. It made me think so much of my home in Japan. It made me realize how foreign everything will be to me when —or if I ever get to go back. It made me grieve because I'm losing the physical memories of my home. As difficult as it has been transitioning to life in Canada, at least when it hurt it meant I still felt connected. Finding comfort here sort of erases my real life. But...what's more real than the life you are currently living? This is my reality now. This is the new normal."
The New Normal. How often have we heard this expression?
Jonno and I have certainly been through it since he booped my nose goodbye. I won't lie, the distance put some strain on our relationship, but it has also given us a new perspective. We are both growing and learning so much. I would go so far as to say that emotionally speaking, we are closer than ever. I mean, we had to learn how to communicate better through just words. Words are all we have right now.
Life in the time of Corona, though, is not always hard. And it's certainly not always sad. I've had so many (virtual) good times while I've been here. If I can't be with my guy as the world crumbles around me, the next best thing is to be in the same timezone as my Toronto peeps. Technologically, we're more connected than ever to the people who matter, and my Toronto friends get together virtually every week for our Wine Wednesday chats (the eventual result of what was once a book club almost a decade ago). We catch up, share news, play games, often we gather for birthdays or other holidays. We even surprised our sweet bride and groom on what was supposed to be their wedding day with a tropical-themed hangout. We do life together. The Wine Wednesday Crew are the most incredible group of people, and our weekly calls have really helped me stay sane during everything.
Thankfully, mom is doing well. She finally had her surgery a couple of weeks ago. It was a bit odd dropping her off at the hospital and being like, "see you in a couple of days," but it is what it is. This is our new normal.
And so here we are. It's safe to say I am quite used to being in Toronto by now. I'm used to not seeing people, used to wearing a mask whenever I leave the apartment, even just to check my mail. I'm used to actually getting mail here. I've accepted what the universe decides. Whatever will be, que sera. It's so far out of my control that I don't have any other choice now, do I? I've decorated and redecorated my small space a hundred times. I've been working on a novel that I hope will be good, meaningful work. My menstrual cup, along with my other belongings, have homes. I still have a morning coffee on the balcony every day, but the view has changed.
Sometimes the situation can feel hopeless and endless. It's important to remember that it is neither.
I have faith in the scientific community. I am confident that sooner or later, there will be a treatment or vaccine or some other thing that will make our lives better. Something that will allow us to safely sit in rooms together again. I am confident in this because I have to be.
My hope is that we all take some time through this to pause and reflect; this is history we are living. After this current version of the new normal, there will be another, new-er normal. What do we want it to look like? What will we bring from the old normal? What will we discard? I believe that profound empathy is shaped by profound suffering, and damn, have we all ever suffered. I hope we use it as fuel to create something better than life was BC, Before COVID.
March may have gone on forever, but April, May, and June flew right past us, and July seems to be going the same way. Remember to breathe deeply, stay hydrated, and if you are lucky enough to be with the person you love right now, please boop their nose.
Ana is a travel writer and story teller based in Tokyo, Japan. Follow her day-to-day adventures here @adventure.with.ana