Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff has chronicled her experience of coronavirus lockdown in a remote rural location in Austria.
Life in Corona-Isolation
by Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff
My husband, a surgeon and commanding officer of a military hospital, saw it coming: “As soon as schools shut down, you and Erica are leaving the city.” This was a few days before March 13, when the Austrian government instructed the population to shelter in place, closed all schools and the entire economy in order to restrict personal interactions and break the exponential rise of Covid-19 infections. I believed him, yet on a subconscious level hoped this was just a bad dream, while I mechanically packed a few bags and waited for Erica to return from school one last time.
I was transported back in time, some thirty years ago, when one morning I woke up to the sound of helicopters hovering over Kuwait City, forcing me to head to the nearest supermarket for essentials, just as I did on that day the government shut down Austria. There were rumors about government plans to impose a curfew and to limit the number of shoppers in a store. (All that was to follow in the coming days.) I remember the insecurity of the resulting panic-buyers on March 14, when I also shopped for essentials, though not for toilet paper (!), before Erica and I packed up our two cats and headed to our country house in southern Austria. My husband had planned to help us settle in, but was called to the barracks due to an alarm notice sent out during the night hours. In all his years in the army this had never happened before. My stomach felt very queasy.
The drive to our new home was eerie. In normal times, the main highway to the south is commonly used by cars and countless heavy-laden trucks likely heading to Austria’s neighbors Italy and Slovenia. But not on this Saturday: not only was the highway empty, but so were the winding roads through the mountainous areas. There were no tractors or other farm equipment slowing us down, no one on a sightseeing tour, just a mother, her daughter and their cats fleeing the city for safety in the countryside while listening to breaking news on the radio. After all, the mayor of Vienna had recently announced that he and his experts expected hundreds or thousands of Covid-19 infected people in Vienna, and had therefore begun erecting a makeshift hospital in a spacious exhibition hall to assist the regular hospitals, which were expected to overflow with patients.
Erica and I have settled in to our new rural life thirty miles away from the nearest major city. Due to the de facto curfew which permits only shopping for essentials, a visit to the doctor’s office or outdoor exercise, I venture out only very rarely, fascinated once again by how little one requires and how much we still have access to. The grocery stores have always been fully stocked. Yet, as much as I would want to take advantage of the gradual opening of stores, my aversion to the forced use of face masks when entering a store denies me the pleasure.
Let me explain the reasons: First, research and discussions with my doctor husband and others in the medical field make me conclude that face masks are at best useless and at worst even dangerous; the masks literally mask a feeling of security. If they make one feel more secure, then by all means wear them. But mandating a face mask by law is wrong. Secondly — and this is the real reason for my rejection of wearing the face mask — I have been a staunch advocate of banning the veiling of women, especially in the West. I cannot support the mandatory face mask and simultaneous fight against mandatory veiling of women. I want to look people in the eyes, read their lips (which we all do subconsciously), enjoy their facial expressions and judge whether they are friendly or not. All of this is made impossible by facial masks. I am betraying myself if I wear an ugly face mask, so instead I wrap a very light shawl around my nose and mouth for now until the arrival of my recently ordered summer hat with a light sunscreen shawl.
Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the creativity stimulated by the compulsory face masks. Newspapers offer sewing instructions; famous and not-yet-famous designers provide their interpretation of a “designer face mask” including a corresponding price tag; but I am so partial to masks personally sewn by Brigitte Huber, whose great-grandfather was Gustav Klimt, I even ordered one for posterity.
Apart from watching the ubiquitous daily press conferences held by the government, Erica keeps busy with schoolwork sent to her by her teachers, and I with housework and preparing lunch and dinner. Unlike in Vienna, here I have to keep the house clean all by myself, something I am admittedly not very good at. But I also find time to catch up on much-missed reading and writing, which helps me keep my sanity. Days flow together, one following the next, with very little excitement. It is the uniformity of these days that causes boredom. It is one thing to do something you enjoy day in, day out, but at some point even your hobby will turn into endless boredom.
My husband and I are grateful to Erica’s private school and her teachers for their commitment to staying in close touch with their students either by sending daily e-mails with work assignments or online class meetings. The gym teacher even organized a live online workout, which Erica’s muscles can attest to. Erica spends at least two to three hours a day on these work assignments, in addition to practicing piano and rehearsing the songs she and her vocal coach were working on prior to the school’s closing. Erica is lucky with regard to her school. Others, especially in areas populated by high numbers of migrants, are not. Teachers claim that they have been unable to reach a number of their students either by phone, by mail or by e-mail. According to newspaper reports, about 20 percent of all students have disappeared because their parents cannot afford computers and an internet connection or even a quiet place to study. Moreover, there are fears about migrant children losing their knowledge of German because they cannot attend school or kindergarten. These are not unfounded as 77 percent of all six-year-old migrant children surveyed did not speak sufficient German before the Corona-crisis. Now these children are forced to stay indoors with their parents who likely do not or cannot speak German with them; these children also are separated from their German-speaking friends and teachers. All of this does not bode well for the future.
What Erica and I miss the most is going to the opera. Before the shutdown, before Corona, we would regularly attend performances at the Volksoper and the Vienna State Opera. It breaks my heart to receive daily e-mails announcing the cancellation of all the performances I already had purchased tickets for: Cole Porter’s “Kiss me, Kate”, Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town”, Gioachino Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” and “Guillaume Tell”, and the list goes on. However, like so many others who desperately miss their daily dose of classical music, we are grateful to the Volksoper and the State Opera for providing streams free of charge, with the latter even following the original performance schedule, in addition to operas for children. We have already spent hours watching incredible performances such as the world-famous German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in a Salzburg Easter Festival rendition of Pietro Mascagno’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” or an intriguing interpretation of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” from the opera in Lugano, Switzerland.
Despite our appreciation for the streaming websites, Erica and I miss live performances. Nothing compares to the thrill of enjoying the surroundings and the interior of an opera house or a music hall like the world-famous Vienna Musikverein with its phenomenal acoustics. Nothing compares to the feeling of an aria sung live both for the performer and the audience. Nothing compares to the sound of an orchestra interacting with the artists on stage. Nothing compares to goose bumps during the frenetic applause after Jonas Kaufmann’s rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” from Verdi’s opera “Tosca”. Streaming, while greatly cherished, can never be more than a second-best solution. However, if the Corona-crisis leads to more people, ideally the youth, utilizing the various free streaming offers and discovering the ephemeral beauty of classical music, then something good will have come out of this sad situation of being locked up at home.
One of my daily highlights is the phone call with my 79-year-old father who stayed behind in Vienna. Despite his compromised lungs due to recent bouts of pneumonia, he ventures out of his apartment every single day to keep from going insane and to stay physically healthy. Armed with plastic gloves and the now-mandatory mask, he goes for long walks and stops at different grocery stores along the way. He then recounts his adventures, such as how he witnesses strict adherence to the distance rules among his fellow walkers and how he finds other rules ridiculous, such as the government’s closing of the blooming public gardens despite the glorious spring weather (which were reopened after Easter due to popular pressure). During the Easter holy days, he proudly told me about how he managed to overcome technical adversities to take part in the online live streams of masses held by the Archbishop of Vienna in the empty St. Stephen’s Cathedral. My father has come to the conclusion that a live stream can never take the place of a live mass, attended by the faithful in person, and he prays that the live streams will never become part of what Chancellor Sebastian Kurz chillingly calls “the new normality”. In this context, I was always wondering how the Islamic Faith Community would deal with the upcoming Ramadan, the month of fasting and breaking fast either among the extended family or within a large community, oftentimes including non-Muslims. Interestingly, not only was the Islamic Faith Community the first religious community in Austria to instruct its faithful to stay at home after the initial lockdown order, but it also published guidelines for Ramadan: continue to stay at home, pray at home, break fast at home, “turn your home into a mosque.”
Unfortunately, we do not know how long we will continue our isolation in the mountains. We will not return to Vienna until schools reopen, but even the minister of education has not be able to communicate any kind of information about when and how schools will be able to welcome their students back. And even if there is a return to school, there are more questions than answers as to how students of all ages can keep a one-meter distance from each other; classrooms are generally too small to enable each students the required 20 square meters as demanded by law; mandatory masks or no masks on a sizzling summer day without air conditioning? Until these questions are resolved, Erica and I will remain where we are, enjoying each other’s company and waiting for further instructions.
What my father, Erica and I miss the most is personal interaction. My mother-in-law lives nearby, but she is afraid of coming to see me and her granddaughter. Yet nothing is more special than a personal conversation while sharing a glass of wine and a good meal.
Given that Erica and I are free spirits, it is admittedly a great challenge to stay put, but we are immensely thankful to my husband for purchasing our country house for precisely a situation like the one we are currently experiencing. We are also grateful to him and the medical personnel for their dedication to caring for their patients.