It was the beginning of March. The corona virus was wreaking havoc abroad, but here it seemed to be something only over-zealous HR policymakers were worrying about. Then, on the twelfth, we received the shock announcement that we would have to work from home until the end of the month. Three days later, the schools were closed for three weeks. Everyone I knew was counting down the days until we could get back to normal. Three weeks seemed like a long time.
On the seventh of April, a bombshell hit. During his press conference, the Dutch prime minister used two new phrases, ‘the new normal’ and ‘the 1.5m society’. My jaw dropped as my heart froze – surely it was impossible that this situation could become permanent? I could not believe in ‘the new normal’. Four months on, I’ve been forced to accept that many things I would have found bizarre back in March, now indeed seem to have become normal. This series of blog posts will look at various aspects of the ‘new normal’ as I experience it in the Netherlands. This post: holidays
As the corona virus crisis was unfolding, nothing was further from my mind than the summer holidays. It was not even spring yet. Even as the lockdown was extended, I was positive that the holidays would not be affected. We were looking forward to our trip to Canada and the US, while friends and family were planning trips to Vietnam, to Greece, even a sabbatical in Australia.
Fast forward to the summer, and all plans were cancelled. Then – a ray of sunlight broke through the gloom. Travel restrictions to certain European countries were lifted. Our response was joy and a rush to book a new holiday. But we were in the minority. The message from the government and our employers was clear: going abroad on holiday was the same as walking alone through a dodgy area of town late at night with a pocket full of cash – yes, you were allowed to do it, but only an idiot would, and if you ran into trouble then you were on your own. Our friends and colleagues talked of trips to other areas of the Netherlands, or at most just across the border to Belgium. The country seemed to be filled with ’50s era Stepford-style families, utterly content at the prospect of two weeks in a caravan a stone’s throw away from their in-laws. Websites and posters appeared lauding the joys of staying in your own country, preferably your own region. Our family in the UK took matters even further, spending their holiday in their own home.
Feeling incredibly daring, we booked a trip to Germany. The night before travelling, I couldn’t sleep due to anxiety. Two weeks in a holiday flat in the Alps loomed up in my mind as fraught with danger as if it were a trip to snake-infested jungles. Were we being irresponsible? Would we end up trapped in a quarantine, losing money to pay for accommodation and leave days to cover our absence from work? Or worse still, would we get ill?
My fears were swiftly dispelled when we reached our destination. The requirements for masks and contact details at restaurants were handled efficiently and in a matter-of-fact way, giving a feeling of safety while having a minimal impact on our fun. Our daughters were proud of their star-patterned masks, which they usually only needed to wear for a few minutes each day. We went walking, climbing and swimming, sat out on terraces for almost all our meals, and had a wonderful time.
Coming back felt strange. Usually, we would have had plenty of stories about our holidays for friends and family, now, I held back, reluctant to either rub it in that we had had such a wonderful time, or to advertise the risks we had taken. I noticed that the silence regarding holidays seemed to extend to others. That set me thinking. We had heard almost no one saying they would go abroad on holiday, yet our flights had been full, and statistics showed that half the Dutch people taking a holiday were going abroad. Was ‘the new normal’ really to spend your holiday in the Netherlands, or was the new normal to keep quiet if you did go abroad?
The increasing rates of infection towards the end of July made us glad to be safely home. We had always been aware that we were taking a risk. Was that risk worth it just for a holiday? Every day we had gone to new places and done new things. We had met countless people from different countries: smiled and nodded as we passed each other on shady woodland paths, chatted about our choice of home-made schnapps on the restaurant terrace, bonded in adversity scrambling down a seeming endless slippery shale mountain slope. Our activities were limited by the weather or the ‘ruhetag’ of the restaurant we wanted to eat at, but never by corona. When we came home, I experienced the jarring realization that, for two weeks, we had been back in ‘the old normal’. Returning to an existence spent within the radius of a bike ride from our house was like returning to a dark, stuffy room after a walk out in the sunshine.
Perhaps we would have experienced the same feeling of freedom and escape going on holiday in the Netherlands. But would it really have been safer? Belgium was the safe destination of choice for many, being ‘just across the border’. Yet shortly after our arrival, Antwerp was designated ‘orange’, meaning no non-essential travel. And just a week ago, the Dutch authorities advised against travel to Rotterdam. My distinct feeling is that we were safer on our quiet mountain paths in Germany than in a busy town centre in the Netherlands. My biggest fear was that the border would be closed, cutting us off, but the increasing move towards localized quarantines makes me doubt if even that risk would have been entirely absent if we’d holidayed in the Netherlands. The only absolute safety would have been to stay at home – a self-imposed lockdown.
Whatever the exact nature was of the gamble we took: I have no regrets. The memories of imposing mountain peaks, scintillating waterfalls, peaceful woods, cheery terraces, our daughters striding confidently up rocky trails in their self-appointed role as guides – they refresh me even now. That escape to ‘the old normal’, when for whole stretches of time the word ‘corona’ never entered my head, is what will give me the strength to face the uncertain months to come. I hope that everyone else, whether they took a vacation, a ‘staycation’ or carried on working, can find their own way of recharging their batteries. Because if living with corona is indeed ‘the new normal’, then we can’t afford to run on empty.