Exactly a year ago, university student Nis Warsame was due to return home to the UK from their internship in Leipzig on the day Germany announced lockdown (Monday 22nd March 2020). Stuck in a foreign country and relying on their German-speaking friends for updates, they describe how they coped in isolation so far from home.
LEIPZIG, GERMANY — I wake up without my alarm clock. I wake up too early. It’s 07:54, I fall asleep again. It’s 09:34. The sun can no longer be ignored as it floods through my thin curtains. A chorus of birds can be heard from the window I left slightly ajar last night. I can’t sleep any longer but it’s at least an hour before I’ll rise. Things move much slower these days and I force myself to at least mimic this pace – so the days don’t feel as painfully long.
After an hour of scrolling, checking social media, replying to friends and family, organising video dates etc. I get up.
I have kept a few parts of my daily routine, pre-lock-down, for some semblance of normality. I immediately go to the kitchen for my morning coffee, and to smoke my first poorly rolled cigarette of the day.
I’ve only been smoking since August, when I moved to Leipzig, and I’ve noticed my habit increasing and how it’s becoming my crutch for getting through this time. When I roll my cigarettes, I can never quite get the tobacco evenly distributed throughout the paper.
The end result almost always is an awkwardly shaped banana. Straight at the beginning but curved at the end. I’ve had months of practice and still can’t get it right. I’ve given up. It still smokes okay, I guess.
After my coffee and cigarette. I go to the toilet, I reach for paper and notice that we are running on our last loo roll. I groan and also realise after today, I will have run out of food. I need to go outside.
It has been three days since the lockdown was announced. It started at 00:00 hours, nine hours before I was due to leave Leipzig for home, which is Birmingham, UK. Stopping briefly in Amsterdam, the city of my final traineeship for my year of working abroad.
Having completely muted all COVID-19 news, which was rather easy considering I don’t speak German, I rely solely on the word of my German flatmates that grocery shopping is a permitted reason for an excursion to the outside. They also informed me that it actually was not a quarantine which is what I initially thought, but only a lockdown. So you could still go outside for your grocery shop, take walks, engage in some solitary sports, and if you had to work this was also allowed.
It’s now been a month since the lockdown started. In the beginning, my days were mostly filled with lounging about, worrying about how I didn’t account for a global pandemic in my finances, and looking forward to my daily walks.
I don’t typically plan my routes. It adds more excitement to the dull humdrum of lockdown life. Leipzig is a big city and actually underpopulated due to a mass exodus of its citizens to West Germany, after the country reunified, and the population never recovered. So, fortunately there’s plenty of space to roam around without worrying too much about getting too close to others.
When I describe Leipzig to people back home, it can be perfectly summed up by the following words: “Bristol — but on crack.” It’s the liberal bubble of East Germany, with a more radical version (hence the “on crack”) of Bristol’s co-operative and hipster spirit, distilled in an extraordinarily German manner.
With housing projects (squatting the hundreds of abandoned buildings in the city) on almost every other street, and the nearly complete absence of familiar franchises such as McDonald’s, or Burger King as the locals prefer to support the independent shops. And political demonstrations, pre-COVID19, a weekly routine for the city. But, if you pan your out too far, this liberal bubble is burst as you realise that Leipzig is based in Saxony. The state which is also Germany’s heartlands, and headquarters, for the Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, Germany’s far-right party.
If I’m on a call with a friend, to add some excitement to my walks, I’ll let my pals back home choose my directions. “Okay, Munira,” I say. “Where shall I go, left, right or straight?” I’m not so familiar with Leipzig, so after a three-hour call, I usually find myself rather lost or having gone round in circles.
Or I’ll go to a park if I am sick of the same four corners of my room in my shared flat. The weather is usually nice, in the upper 10s or low 20s celsius.
As I make my way the park, I have noticed that streets are covered now with public health posters. This is one tell-tale sign of what’s changed. Gone are the campaign posters for the mayoral election, which were up a week before lockdown. Now the lampposts are adorned with punny state posters warning one that you should “Share stories, not Corona” (“Teilt Stories, nicht Corona”).
But at least there is some continuity, the bakeries are open and the familiar smells of German bread and Döner still waft down the streets. And the scenes at the park are always interesting. Many people have taken up sport. I rotate between my favourite spots at the park.
This week it was a bench facing the gates of Rococo-esque German stately manor. To my side, there is a woman with blonde hair in her, I guess, mid-20s wearing fitness gear, who stops jogging down the path leading to my spot, to use the empty bench beside me for step-ups.
I, meanwhile, proceed to smoke my eleventh cigarette of the day. It’s late in the afternoon. I feel guilty, I should probably take this time to exercise more.
I take some time to think about this and the thought’s nice. But I know it won’t be converted into action.
It’s getting chilly, too chilly for me in my summer get-up: a blue shirt, my thrifted Lee Riders denim jacket, and grey jogging bottoms. I don’t bother too much about what I wear these days, I haven’t worn a bra since the lockdown began last month.
Back in my home in the kitchen, I am talking with my flatmates, a place where I spend most of my time now, eating, socialising and doing what work I can from home. Our second-hand chairs are always in need of being repaired, and the seat falls off the chair’s frame for the umpteenth.
My flatmate Basque jokingly remarks how the state of our kitchen is like entropy. One meaning of entropy, which is the same in German, is a “lack of order or predictability” and that’s precisely how life feels these days.
But, mostly, life in lockdown is just fucking uninteresting and I’ve just run out of tobacco, again.