A year “through the looking glass”.
“Time is the longest distance between two places.” Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
It has been 13 months since my last business trip. On February 29, 2020, I left Greece, not for Milan – as planned – but for my home in the Netherlands. I remember being upset with the change of plans – I had 2 unaccompanied minors in the Lombardy area whom I wanted to visit for the last follow up interviews of the CHILDMOVE project. On my flight to the Netherlands, I was flipping through a magazine advertising Paris which I was supposed to visit with my colleagues in a few days. I remember taking snapshots of interesting places in Paris that I had never been to before with the hope that we would have time to visit them. Immediately after France, I had planned trips for Belgium, Wales, Spain, Romania, Bosnia and Greece. A typical work month that included conferences, team meetings and interviews, the last of a 3-year-long research project. On March 13, 2020, instead of “check-in” (the most common word in my reality at that time) on the train to Paris, another word invaded my life: “lockdown”. Suddenly my home became my main workplace – the same as with many other people worldwide. Although I tried to keep some balance especially holding on to my morning routine – coffee, breakfast, shower, dressing, work – as if my life depended on that, the end of this routine would not find me at the front door – often with hand luggage in hand – but at home, with the laptop in hand, moving between kitchen, desk and sofa for a change of scenery.
Although the nature of my work never included a 9-5 workday, often taking up afternoons, weekends and holidays, there was always a distinctive line between work and personal life. With my social life becoming inactive, work started filling the void. And while I was working from home I suddenly started to feel like I was living in the office. I am optimistic by nature, something that comes from realizing at a very young age that life is like a cardiogram: it is full of ups and downs and a flat line means we are dead. So I decided that what I really needed to do was to adjust to the new reality. Adapt to survive – as Darwin said. I remember piling up books I wanted to read and making lists of the movies I wanted to watch but I never had the time. A small parenthesis, in my normality until then. I was at home, healthy and I had the luxury of being able to continue some of my work from the safety of my home office.
With only a few interviews left to complete my research, I decided to ask my participants to do them online. I remember the first – and last – attempt to talk through social media with a shiver. I was in front of my laptop with two screen windows open, in one the interpreter and in the other one the minor telling his story, talking about abuse and trauma, with his voice breaking up and crying while I was just looking at the screen as if watching a BBC documentary. I don’t think I will ever find the right words to describe this unprecedented experience. I grew up in a culture where pain is shared as well as joy. In my country, the doors of the houses remain open only in two cases: on the celebration of the name days – where anybody can come in to give wishes and get a treat – and during a calamity – where we leave open our homes and our hearts for people to come inside and comfort us. Physical presence is in itself a consolation. And my work is based on that, on human contact which generates trust which in turn provides the necessary elements of my work. After the disastrous first attempt at online interviewing, I decided that the rest of the interviews would have to wait, still thinking that it was something temporary.
Well, as a Greek saying goes, nothing is more permanent than temporary. The situation rapidly spiralled out of control and even the most optimistic among us began realising that we were not about to get out of this situation soon. Suddenly my everyday life filled with fear. Fear for my family who were thousands of kilometres away, fear for my friends especially the ones at the forefront of the health professions, fear for the minors who participated in my research but also colleagues who continued to work in the field under extremely unsafe conditions. “Tragedy,” says Aristotle, “is an imitation [mimēsis] of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.” As a Greek, I heard the word “tragedy” repeated often in modern times whether it referred to the ancient theatre or to the small or big daily disasters that might happen in our home, in our neighbourhood, in our city or outside the borders of our microcosm. Fear, pity, but also relief, this strange feeling you have when tragedy knocks on the next door and not yours out of pure – again Aristotelian – luck. And almost always this relief is followed by guilt. Guilt for all those who lost their loved ones, who lost their jobs, who did not have a roof over their heads to protect them from tragedy. Guilt that, while I felt the loss of my normality, did not allow me to mourn it openly as if I did not have the right to experience my own unique grief. And then again, the feeling of being lucky, safe, loved. A roller coaster of emotions that would repeat during all this period of loss. Loss of lives, loss of relationships, loss of each one’s unique normality.
These days, my good colleague Nikos comes to my mind. While training frontline professionals to manage loss and grief in migration, he used to say, “The first year is the most difficult because of the anniversaries. We are almost programmed to think ‘last year I was there, I did this, we were together”. The last time I saw my CHILDMOVE team colleagues up close was in Belgium in February 2020. In the same month, I last saw some of the minors who took part in my research in Spain and Greece. In January 2020 I was celebrating birthdays in Spain and in December 2019 I was celebrating Christmas with my siblings and my nieces. In March 2021 I look back and see myself exactly one year before when I was still believing that this abnormality would soon pass and I was planning trips for the summer. And this is what I decide to do again, today. To plan trips for the upcoming months, trips that will bring me close to the ones and to the things that I love. Because hope and grief coexist. And I plan to reunite with my colleagues, my friends, my family and return to the field with the excitement I first felt in this job more than 20 years ago.
I will have another chance to see Paris, Belgium, Wales, Spain, Romania, Bosnia, Greece, the world. And until then I will continue to sing Bob Marley: Rise up this mornin’/ Smiled with the risin’ sun/ Three little birds/ Perch by my doorstep/ Singin’ sweet songs/ Of melodies pure and true/ Don’t worry ’bout a thing/ ’cause every little thing gonna be all right.