Berlin/New York City - One morning in March I headed for an early flight from Tegel and was startled by something I'd never seen: Kastanianallee at 4am on a Saturday, deserted. That, it seemed, signaled the apocalypse. Barely weeks earlier the first Berlin lockdown had gone into effect: instantly no schools, no clubs, no toilet paper. Truncated operating hours in a city that never closes. It followed with a 5:30am US news alert suspending travel from Europe, no clarification. Reaction among my German friends was incredulity at the unprecedented unfolding. My first thought was: September 11.
It's a reaction to the pandemic I've heard repeated by other New Yorkers: panic my family was in unprecedented mortal danger while I was away, helpless. PTSD from the terror of 2001. Rational or not, news of border closures reignited that fear. I purchased an immediate ticket to JFK.
A born and bred New Yorker, I feel at home in Berlin but in no way do I consider the German capital to be New York's sixth borough, or "the new Brooklyn", as magazines and influencers attest. Comparisons of the cities are obvious and, I think, overblown: both are open 24 hours; residents are misconstrued as rude for no–nonsense attitudes; natives consider themselves Berliners or New Yorkers first, before claiming national identities we often feel like outliers too. Our similarities make us likeminded in ways, we have an understanding, but to oversimplify our cultural fabrics is superficial bullshit. This year I've locked down in both cities. The experience made we wonder if we'd ever understand each other again.
When I arrived to New York, streets were empty and the city's hustle absent. Like Berlin, urban life was drained. But while Berlin's initial eerie silence brought with it an unusual calm, a sense of control through immediate contract tracing and buying hand sanitiser (all of it), this already felt… unsettling. A strange energy hummed. I made my way to a friend's vacated Brooklyn apartment, where I expected to quarantine for two weeks.
Instead I stayed there, alone, for three and half months. During that time, moving around the city seemed like a dangerous health risk. At least being in closer proximity to my mom, seeing the situation for myself, brought relief but little else did. I settled into the apartment and found Berlin's apocalyptic silence replaced with constant ambulance sirens, their frequency a gauge of the pandemic worsening outside my door. The numbers of New Yorkers getting sick and dying daily became staggering. Death felt like a very real option for anyone at any time. The federal government, already untrustworthy, did nothing to help; New York was on its own.
Loneliness came quick; depression arrived soon after. I tried to limit news consumption, it was too upsetting: footage of overwhelmed hospitals; Central Park turned into an overflow hospital unit; innumerable stories of fellow New Yorkers, previously healthy, dying unattended in hospital waiting rooms or hallways, without human contact. We were saturated with photos of doctors, bus drivers and other essential workers unable to access the protective gear they needed; they were contracting the virus and dying, too.
It’s hard to fathom until it's your local hospitals they're talking about. You watch through the window as ambulances pull up and paramedics wrap themselves in garbage bags. New Yorkers live up in each other's business so we could not escape the reality of what was happening around us. When you see and hear what we did, you do everything you can to stay inside, to keep people safe. You wear your fucking mask.
I couldn't help but feeling we were living two different pandemics.
Harder to fathom is why it wasn't being contained. Citizens were selflessly stepping up but it was the government slow to take obvious increased measures. Citywide contract tracing was discussed but, months in, still wasn't implemented. I'd observed swift action in Germany but, here, it was stunted by a recklessly irresponsible president and a mayor with no sense of urgency. People died as a result and it angered me.
Everyday I was powering to get through, energy was low. I focused on being productive but motivating myself was difficult. After days and weeks, hope that it would end soon was hard to come by. I video chatted with Berlin friends who were also feeling down, filling endless quiet hours with work or a new hobby. Shopkeepers I know took a big economic hit. Still, they sounded much calmer, more vibrant, in comparison; I couldn't help but feeling we were living two different pandemics. It wouldn't be long until German measures paid off and quarantine in Berlin was lifted. I listened as friends resumed a semblance of normal life.
Meanwhile, I worked to keep my spirits up: exercised daily, Zoomed, listened to United We Stream while I cooked. I tried to keep it light; it wasn't easy. I cleared my mind with daily walks outside, a half–hour reprieve from confinement when I tried to convince myself it was a normal day. On a walk one morning I witnessed a car turn a corner and flip, landing on its roof. It was strange to see such a violent moment amidst quiet streets. Another passerby ran to the driver while I dialed 911. After ambulances arrived I returned home, shook. Entering the building I stepped past a memorial of candles and flowers for a mother in the building who had died of Covid. I got upstairs and dosed my coffee with whiskey, my frayed nerves shot. I relayed what happened to Frederik, a friend in Berlin. Feel lucky, he said. You're the one pouring whiskey and not driving the car.
In that moment I struggled to adopt his attitude of gratitude, usually my own. In fact, hearing it annoyed me. He was trying to prop me up, get me to quit my bitching, but my emotional resources were too depleted to see a bright side. It felt like on top of everything, this. I couldn't even enjoy a calming walk in the park without someone close to death in front of me. I felt misunderstood, but realised he couldn't know how ceaseless it all felt. He'd already reintegrated into life outside his apartment.
Frederik wasn't the only disconnect. On Zoom calls with my Berlin friends I tried to sound upbeat but mostly noticed a difference in our outlooks, levels of depression, and belief of when (or if) things would eventually get better. It's not surprising: Germany had access to healthcare and hospitals that weren’t overburdened. None of my friends there had someone in their family die, or even hospitalised. As it stands, I've been incredibly fortunate: my family and I have all remained healthy. I haven't lost a loved one or job. I'm not homeschooling kids or facing eviction. Nevertheless fear, stress and uncertainty have taken their toll. With little emotional relief, New Yorkers may deal with mental health issues far into the future as a repercussion of months–long intensity my Berlin friends and neighbours, thankfully, didn't experience. I wasn't sure if we'd understand each other again.
In the meantime, New York, the American outlier, remembered a sense of community not utilised since September 11: free masks were distributed, free meals (still) to anyone in need, our governor's daily televised briefings provided leadership for the rest of the country (and presented information like "Today is Tuesday", a testament to how out of touch with normalcy we were). We shared a sense of resilience, that we were in it together and no one else in the country quite understood. People stood at balconies and windows each night to cheer essential workers. Every delivery person, janitor or nurse you saw got a thank you because they risked their lives to keep the city humming. (If you doubt this as a romantic memory, check out the viral video of Brooklyn crowds applauding a passing postal truck after the election.)
Eventually the constant sirens waned, welcome indication our situation was improving. Numbers dropped. We were brought back together by (masked and distanced) Black Lives Matter protests; the video of George Floyd had broken the dam and citizens could no longer sit silently inside. We witnessed police violence against peaceful protesters, daily. Storefronts were boarded up to prevent looting. Our source of intensity had shifted.
Our cities are surviving, no–bullshit attitudes intact.
By early May people were meeting in parks again, large circles painted on the grass to ensure social distancing. Covid testing became available and free. I felt safe enough to take an open–air ferry to visit my mom; Manhattan still quieter than I was used to. I walked through Soho, a neighborhood usually too crowded for me to bother with, and sat on a stoop while a few guys played soccer in the carless crosswalk; it was like the deserted neighbourhood of my youth. The tourists and pied a terre set had fled and the streets of my childhood were returned to ride or die New Yorkers. Stabbings were on the rise, but so was the strength of the community and it was the most New York has felt like "home" to me in awhile.
In September Covid deaths in New York were at zero. We stayed vigilant to keep it that way. Returning to Berlin, in the time before "lockdown light," it was strange to be dropped into relative normalcy. Park trees and street life were both in bloom, pedestrian faces fully visible, most businesses in my neighbourhood had weathered closures. At first I felt like a criminal leaving the apartment without a mask on, people not socially distanced in queues made me uncomfortable. With more options, each day was a gauntlet of decisions: do I need a mask here? Is this person safe to hug? Are we sitting too close? It took a couple of weeks, cocooned in the safety of my Kiez, to process that the worst was, hopefully, behind us. I was comforted by faith in government to take appropriate steps when necessary.
While out one night, my friend, Lilly, and I were approached by a loudmouth anti–masker. Lilly, a born Berliner, gestured to me and hissed, "She was in New York." Her tone warned careful what you say next. In New York this readiness to throw down is called "taking your earrings off." We may not have lived the same experience, but worries of a Berlin disconnect were gone. When the next unprecedented global event hits the minds of New Yorkers may jump to corona, not September 11, but the minds of Berliners will too. Our cities are surviving, no–bullshit attitudes intact; thankfully, we have that in common.