There are few of life's usual rhythms. And like so many cataclysms before this one, memories are settling in of the old times, for better or worse. What was normal then and isn't now? Here's what a few around the world had to say about their last “normal” moment before the pandemic took hold:
NEW YORK: A `CHEERS' MOMENT Rafael Familia began work last July as a bar-back in Manhattan at The Crocodile Lounge, where drinks come with free mini pizzas and Skee-Ball is also on tap. The 30-year-old native New Yorker, now living in his aunt's spare room in the Bronx, had been working in bars for five years after leaving college when he ran out of money. He was trying to pay down his student debt and earn enough to head back to school.
“On March 16, we were mandated to close down suddenly," he said. “We all lost our jobs at that moment. It was one of the most bizarre things ever. There was no point in being angry. It was everybody.”
Familia, his co-workers and their regulars gathered at the bar that night, before last call at 8 p.m. “We kinda just held a going-away party,” he said. “We had a `Cheers' moment. We basically just drank whatever was on the shelf. It was like, we may never see this place open ever again. We just had fun and danced. People kept showing up that I hadn't seen in years."
“We knew we were going to see hard times after that night." PARIS: A FONDLY REMEMBERED FUNERAL Ask Paris undertaker Franck Vasseur to recall the last funeral he “enjoyed” and you get back a sad, somewhat confused stare from the tired eyes under his disheveled mop of hair.
Dealing with a flood of bodies since March has turned his world into a head-spinning procession of death. Unable to comfort families who can't accompany bodies for cremation or gather in large numbers for funerals, Vasseur feels robbed of his purpose.
“We have been in a centrifuge,” he said. Eventually, casting his mind back to February, he digs up a comforting memory. It was a funeral he organized for an architect who died suddenly on a trip out of Paris. Vasseur swelled with nostalgia and pride in recalling a job well done. The flowers. The speeches. The marker pens handed out to family members who scribbled last words of love and remembrance on the plain wooden coffin.
The ceremony was at Père Lachaise, the Paris cemetery that's the final resting place for a dizzying array of celebrities: Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison. “There were tears, there was joy, there was music. Some people spoke, others could not bring themselves to speak. There was sharing. There was warmth,” Vasseur recalled. “The things I miss, all the things we don’t have now.”
Now, “we have nothing," he said. "Just bodies being evacuated.” — John Leicester, France TAUPO, NEW ZEALAND: AN OLYMPIC DREAM DELAYED Nicole van der Kaay was 8 when she watched a couple of triathletes from New Zealand pull away from the field to win gold and silver at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Since then, she’s dreamed of competing in the Games herself. Her training hit a snag last season when she developed a tibial stress fracture. But this year she was ready to compete again in a World Cup triathlon at Australia's Mooloolaba Beach. It was supposed to be a big step toward qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
In the March 14 race, she was excited to be mixing it up again with some top athletes, and she raced strongly enough, finishing 12th. But events around her were cascading. A trip to the next race was canceled. She needed to get back to New Zealand immediately or face being quarantined.
The Olympics were postponed soon after. She felt confused, adrift. “I was lost almost. I’d been training so long,” she said. “All of sudden my year’s goal, my all-time goal, had to be put away.” She quickly gained perspective.
“The picture in my mind was that everyone was in the same position, that there were horrible things going on in the world, and it was a time to come together,” she said. She returned to her family farm near Taupo, New Zealand, and began a monthlong lockdown. Swimming pools were closed, the nearby lake off limits. So her dad built her a makeshift pool in the deer shed using some planks, bales of hay and waterproof tarpaulin. They filled it with a hose.
Strapped in with a belt and bungee cord, she has been able to swim in place. But it’s cold. She wears woolen thermals under her wetsuit and jumps straight into a hot bath after training. Whether the Olympics is held next year as planned or gets delayed again, she wants to be ready.
— Nick Perry, New Zealand NEW ORLEANS: BITTERSWEET MARDI GRAS Devin De Wulf, a New Orleans transplant and stay-at-home dad, took to Mardi Gras culture with the gusto of a native when he moved there after Hurricane Katrina.
“Post-Katrina New Orleans was a place where a lot of people who were idealistic, who wanted to help out, they came," he said. The former middle school teacher from Charleston, South Carolina, founded the Mardi Gras Krewe of Red Beans in 2008. Its 350 members adorn their parade costumes with, yes, red beans as they walk to honor their families, their neighborhood and the traditional Monday meal of beans and rice.
This year, as the coronavirus took hold elsewhere, Mardi Gras went on as usual, drawing thousands from around the world. It ended Feb. 25, before the lockdowns in the U.S. began. On Fat Monday, called Lundi Gras by locals, De Wulf's krewe danced in the streets in their bean suits, children in tow, as a crowd of 15,000 cheered them on. It was a good day for the Krewe of Red Beans. The feeling didn't last.
Coronavirus cases soon overwhelmed the city's hospitals. “We had a lovely time. Everything was normal, until it wasn't," he said. “With the gift of hindsight, we know that our parade this year spread COVID. I wish that we had been alerted that COVID was here.”
De Wulf knows the pandemic struggle up close. He's married to an ER doctor and has found a new project to help ease the stress for ER and ICU staff throughout his city. He began fundraising to feed frontline workers and raised about $500,000 in barely three weeks.
“A lot of people donate from all over the place and I think it's because they're rooting for the city,” De Wulf said. “People have rooted for New Orleans time and time again. We're an underdog story.”
RENTON, WASHINGTON: AN OTTER BIRTHDAY Andrew Fouche, who pastors a small Baptist church just outside Seattle, is the father of five in one of the first areas hit by COVID-19. “Our last gathering as a church was March 8," he said. "Just a couple days after that, the orders came out to limit gatherings of our size.”
But his 100 congregants at Sunset Community Church in Renton have dodged the virus and reorganized online for worship, prayer and fun, including Bible Jeopardy. Three of Fouche's kids have had birthdays in the last six weeks, two in isolation and one, Sophia, on March 1. Before things got bad in Seattle, the 40-year-old Fouche and his wife pulled out a 10th-birthday celebration for Sophia.
“We went to the Seattle Aquarium, with lots of other people, and enjoyed that. That's something that she loves to do. We went out to dinner at one of our favorite Chinese restaurants and shared communally, family style,” Fouche said.
“All of those things take on a different feel now," he said. “It feels like a different life.” Sophia's favorite part of her special birthday, that last normal moment? “I really like seeing the otters at the aquarium," she said. “Yeah, it was really good."
MADABA, JORDAN: A JOB WELL DONE Mariana Makramalla is usually hunched over a table, snipping small pieces of colored stone with pliers in her family’s mosaics workshop in the western Jordan town of Madaba.
Typically, Madaba attracts tourists who also visit nearby Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. But Jordan closed its borders in mid-March, just before peak tourist season, as it tried to halt the the virus.
During the closure, Makramalla, 24, and her 27-year-old brother Majed, visit the two-room workshop from time to time to tidy up. The walls are covered with colorful mosaics for sale, whether an icon of the Virgin Mary or a variation on the tree of life.
Makramalla, a Coptic Christian, said she’s a bit aimless these days, staying up until dawn and puttering. She misses the structure of her time spent in the workshop. “When I first start doing the picture, if it has a difficult thing, at the beginning I say, no I can’t finish this one. It’s very hard,” she said. “But when I start cutting the stone, even if it’s the wrong one the first time, I keep cutting it, cutting it to put the best one. When I have finished it, or almost finished it, I see it’s very nice, so I feel very happy.”
Makramalla graduated from college last year with a degree in English translation. Like so many young Jordanians, she has been unable to find work in her field. She got into mosaics three years ago, while still in college, after training under a Syrian craftsman.
She loves the sense of accomplishment, the compliments she receives for good work and the lively exchanges with Arab and foreign tourists. She recalls how good it felt after her first sale, a mosaic of Mary and Jesus.
“There were many things to do before the corona,” Makramalla said, “but now, nothing.” — Karin Laub, Jordan
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