The Generosity of Human Warmth

How a pandemic is revealing us to ourselves and one another

I venture out for my weekly shop in the narrow streets of the medieval Dutch city where I live and the atmosphere outside is noticeably different from a week ago, less convivial, less gezellig.

Some of the people walking around seem utterly lost and directionless. A man shuffles along looking fearful and apologetic, clutching a shopping bag for dear life. We cross paths twice, I beam a smile his way twice but he doesn’t see me. An elderly lady is muttering to herself in the candy aisle, some teenagers are ooh-ing and aah-ing over every item, their enthusiasm forced. A mother and daughter are going around the block, arms interlocked.

They’re all out so they don’t have to be home; I’m out because we’ve run out of supplies.

Even though the Dutch government hasn’t yet enforced lockdown and we are free to go out of walks or bike rides, we’ve haven’t been. No one in my household has job security so we’re fighting hard not to sink and working as much as ever, making the best of what we have and adapting as we go along since no one knows what comes next.

Not having to go out actually saves us time, balancing out the curious fact that everything now seems to take longer, somehow. Life happens in slow motion, at a pace dictated by the determination not to crumble while exhaustion intensifies steadily.

Lockdown distorts time, some hours go by faster than others, mornings vanish or drag on, afternoons are either endless or gone in a flash. In the evening, we work then revisit comedy classics that are painful to watch as an American. George Carlin and Dave Chappelle make me all the more grateful for my current geographical coordinates, as does John Oliver.

But watching America from abroad doesn’t lessen the horror of witnessing a country self-destruct in real time. For every American stepping up to the plate, there’s another trying to line their pockets with the proceeds of fear and panic. And the current administration encourages them to do so, no matter how much collateral damage greed creates.

Can any presidential candidate reverse moral rot so widespread COVID-19 rapid testing is the new status symbol?

I should have gone back to Seattle in early March for a couple of weeks as my life is still split between two continents but my hunch told me to stay put. My stepmom’s health had taken a turn for the worse and I didn’t want to be halfway across the world if something happened. Now Paris might as well be on the moon or in another galaxy, not a train or plane hop away from Amsterdam.

A black and white cat appears in the alleyway, I stoop down to pet it then a door opens and a woman comes out, rejoicing at the feline’s presence. We smile at each other — as cat ladies do — and she says something to the creature in Dutch so I ask her if the cat is hers.

It isn’t but we’ve just had a conversation and reaffirmed each other’s humanity. It’s the little things, you know, the connectedness of human warmth, intentional, heartfelt, necessary. Like grouping multiples of one item at the grocery store’s checkout, making sure the bar code is visible and telling the cashier how many of each thing you have. So it makes their job easier because they’re already bending over backward to keep shelves stocked and stores as safe as can be. And yet, we used to look through them before the pandemic hit.

Retail workers have gone from invisible to superheroes overnight, only with a vest that says keep your distance on the back instead of a cape. “Superhelden”, as one Dutch retail chain calls them, and very rightly so because social distancing is a bitter cultural pill to swallow. Already, our social skills are a little tentative, a little awkward now.

This is because Europeans do not have the same definition or concept of personal space as North Americans. Our countries and homes are small, our sidewalks and roads are narrow, we use mass transit rather than cars. Lockdown and social distancing is deeply counterintuitive to many of us — apart from the depressives and the Swedes — but we’ve almost all accepted it seems to be the only way to tackle this pandemic. With a wistful smile, we’re longing for our old ways yet wondering whether we might have lost them for good.

I tell myself the prospect of never hugging or kissing my stepmom again is just that, a prospect so unhelpful it doesn’t deserve mental bandwidth.

But the cat at my feet does so I snap a picture to share with my family later.

Brain radiotherapy seems to have averted danger for now; my stepmom soldiers on as Dad continues to care for her. Actually, their condo building seems to have adopted my parents as a community project.

“The president’s address hadn’t even been over for a minute that the doorbell rang,” my father tells me. “It was the neighbors, grinning from ear to ear, standing six feet back from the doorstep and asking if we needed anything. And they wouldn’t take no for an answer! So I said potatoes. They came back the next day with a bag of groceries and refused payment because they had lost the receipt, can you believe it?”

Strangers beat my dad at his own game; being on the receiving end of the kindness he routinely extends to others weirds him out and it’s as funny as it is life-affirming. To quote French health minister Olivier Véran, “Fraternity is not an abstract idea or just a word in a motto. The French are proving that fraternity is a choice. The situation is difficult but we will not lose hope. We think of those who are ill and those who are caring for them.”

It’s the little things, you know, the connectedness, intentional, heartfelt, necessary. Now that social distancing has replaced our love languages, we’re being forced to come up with creative ways to turn random interactions and words into human warmth.

As all masks and carefully curated appearances fall away, the pandemic is revealing us to ourselves and to one another.

It was about time.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

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