It’s like we’re on another planet. No – more like we died and went to some Covid-free heaven where you don’t need masks (mostly), you can hug your friends, share food, eat in cafes and the sun is shining.
But let me start at the beginning.
The day begins with 2:30am school as usual for my son. I’m up by 7:30am, with a fridge full of leftover food to choose from for breakfast. I make Vegemite on toast.
Then it’s down to business for packing. Once we leave, they’ll toss anything left behind into some kind of Hazmat dumpster, so we’re extremely thorough. We end up with one extra suitcase (my sister’s games and books), and no less than four shopping bags full of chips, tea, Tim Tams and enough fruit to power an entire juice bar.
“Do you need a trolley?” says the guard.
“No, no,” we say gaily, and skip down the corridor (well, I skip, anyway) to the elevator.
“It kind of feels like we were only just arriving here,” says my son, trying to describe the out-of-time sensation of these fourteen days.
“While at the same time feeling like forever,” I add, and he nods.
My daughter just looks as us. “It feels like two weeks,” she says flatly, ever the pragmatist.
Then it’s just checking out with the police in the lobby, a friendly wave to the hotel staff (they look bored) and we stagger out into the sunlight to where my sister’s waiting with the car.
Where do I begin with the strangeness of the rest of this day?
To start with, it’s pretty amazing hugging someone that’s not my husband or kids or dogs – haven’t done that in a whole year.
Then there’s discovering an entire road and set of buildings behind the hotel we had no idea existed. We’re gawking at this as we jam the suitcases and fruit into the car, then get another surprise as we cross the road (CROSS the ROAD!!!) to where the Moreton Bay fig tree is waiting patiently in the sun. To my kids’ utter embarrassment and my sister’s amusement, I hug the tree – the trunk astonishes my fingers with its rough grittiness, its warmth.
But the big surprise? There’s a massive building behind the tree! Glass-walled, it’s been hidden behind those dense leafy branches all this time. We stare. I’m sure we look bizarre to the workday commuters who carefully step around us on the pavement, but I feel like the residents of Plato’s cave, suddenly shown a wide world they never knew existed.
The feeling continues as we drive to a nearby café where my nephew works, and where we can enter without a mask (!!!) and sit down inside without fear. (Sydney has had zero locally-acquired Covid-19 cases in over a month, by this point. People are ready to don masks and lockdown as soon as there’s a case or two, but mostly there’s no risk. How has this happened? A combination of an island nation, willing to shut its borders and impose lockdowns and quarantines, and a people willing to make sacrifices to protect each other. A heavenly ethic, indeed.)
Brunch is delicious, and my nephew makes my second latte in two weeks (he also brought me the first one, with a grocery drop-off on Day Four.)
Friends back home in the Pacific Northwest will realize the profound importance of this coffee moment.
As we chat, the kids and I keep shaking our heads in disbelief. Fresh air. Sunlight. Eating out, inside a cafe.
The weirdness just continues as we drive over the Harbor Bridge and north to Newcastle, my hometown where most of my family still lives. We notice the extreme green of the bush, the blue of the sky. The motion. The change.
Once unpacked, we head for the beach. It’s a five-minute walk away, past fragrant pink-and-yellow frangipani (plumeria), and a park full of people smiling, playing tennis, hanging out with friends (no masks, no distancing). The golden sand is warm between my toes, the water balmy on my pale, quarantine-hotel skin. We splash and float in the waves, and it’s as if every worry and fear and dread from the past 12 months is dissolving in that salty blue expanse of happiness.
And then, when we return, Mum and Dad are there. To hug them and not stop, to make silly jokes about how short they seem to my now-lanky son, to look and touch and just be – this is what we have come through so much for, and is possibly the most otherworldly, heavenly experience in this whole bizarre day.
My other nephew and his partner come for dinner, we eat pizza (first time in two weeks!!!) and share food and sit close together under the spreading trees in my sister’s lush garden – things completely impossible at home right now. Overhead the rainbow lorikeets squabble with noisy joy, like impetuous teenagers. I slap mosquitoes and gaze at my family, not quite believing I’m actually here.
For them, of course, it’s all normal. I grew up here myself, visited as often as we could afford, and took it completely for granted. But after a year of restrictions and two weeks of our quarantine cave, I see it for the paradise it is.
My sister and I walk Mum and Dad around the corner back to their apartment, and I’m still reveling in the topsy-turvy balminess of the night. I taste the salt air, smell the sweetness of frangipani and relish the stretch in my legs.
Yes, it’s just Newcastle. Just the ordinary Australian life that I grew up with.
But it’s freedom.
(Note: This day marks the end of my quarantine blog. I may write more on this site in future; feel free to follow if you like.)