In the Underworld
A mural in Žižkov, December 2020
My days revolved around plants and birds.
In the morning, I would go out to the terrace – still in my pyjamas – to greet the garden and feed the birds. First I poured birdseed mix into the feeder, then shelled some peanuts by hand because they were too big for the coal tits to open on their own. “Some birds know how to use tools,” I mock-scolded them, as they chittered and hopped impatiently in the bushes. For the blackbirds, the birdbath had to be changed daily, sometimes several times a day. (They seemed more interested in water than food: taking baths at every opportunity, and making a special cry as they flew away.)
When the morning bird show was over, I would dress and go out for my first walk of the day. If it was within Vítkov, the park adjoining my flat, it was mainly for exercise. And if it was a good day, and I had a lot of energy, I could climb the steep hill all the way up to the massive figure of Jan Žižka on his horse.
But more often I went to the parks where I had tree friends.
At Parukářka, it was the cherry tree opposite a playground. Her long, low branches had been worn smooth in places by climbing children, a maternal embrace extended to me as well. I felt I was being held close when I leaned into her trunk. And she had a magic eye. If I was there at the right time, when the sun slanted through her branches in a particular way, I was able to peer through it like a portal into another dimension. On most of my visits, I sang her songs I remembered from being a kid at summer camp.
If, on a particular day, I left my flat and decided to go downhill, through the Žižkov tunnel, I would visit a sycamore in a little park in Karlín. She was majestic: one of those trees that fills your whole field of vision. When I visited her, in my mind’s eye I sometimes saw a panorama of all the events she had lived through: big storms and wars, and the seasons changing like patterns of light. Though not as huggable as my cherry tree, I felt she didn’t mind when I tried to get my arms around her trunk, or when I took a picture of our shadows together on the ground.
Back at home, in my 20 square meter flat, I spent the afternoons on the couch looking out at the birds, until they flew away at dusk. I ordered groceries online. I cooked, ate, washed dishes and slept. In the morning my routine began again.
It was a peaceful enough way to spend one’s days. But it required a careful management of attention. It was important to focus outward and ground myself in details, noticing the temperature of the air, the neighbours walking their dogs, and of course the plants, changing with the weather and the seasons: the yellow flowers of greater celandine burgeoning in the vacant lot across the street, the sawtooth leaves of dandelions sprouting out between the flagstones of my terrace. To keep myself going, my thoughts had to be simple, fact-based and local.
It was three months into the pandemic. It was six months into the pandemic. It was nine months into the pandemic.
I had contracted covid-19 at the very beginning, the same week in March that the borders were closed. I had not felt sick at the time, and yet, months later, I was struggling to recover. My energy was like the faltering battery in my iPhone 7: prone to sudden shutdowns in the middle of everyday activities. Sharp pains would stab my ribs and back if I tried to lift anything heavy, if I attempted to ride a bicycle, if I did too much of anything – but “ too much” was a limit I could only recognise after I had passed it.
Between the public paranoia about the virus and my own, I was afraid to tell anyone about having long covid. I was only able to confide in my sister, and one or two close friends, who lived far away. I had been in Prague for less than eight weeks when the pandemic hit; barely enough time to pick up the rudiments of Czech, much less form new friendships.
It was my colleagues, and especially the guys in my office who I had sometimes gone to lunch with before the pandemic, who now became my lifelines. Hailing from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, they evinced neither the excitement nor the panic of Westerners having their first experience of government curfews, sudden shortages and services like haircuts going underground. They took it all in stride: making jokes about corona and continuing to come in to the office while everyone else worked from home.
I came to depend upon seeing them, and thus became one of the "intrepid" myself, braving crowded buses and trams for the sheer embodied experience of being in the same room as another human being. If I managed to meet at least one of them in person, at least every other week, it made my teetering sense of normalcy wobble more upright.
Then I could return to my tiny flat and be ok for another day. I would be able to avoid falling into speculation about when all of this would be over. I could steer past my longing to return to the daylight world of "before" and stay with the birds and the trees and the plants in the forever-present-unknown.