(No More) Quarantine Hotel: Day 14 – Freedom!

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.

woman and kids at beach

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.

family outside hotel
Possibly the most exciting hotel check-out ever.

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.

tree hug
So grateful.

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.

hotel
My tree’s view of the hotel. Our balcony is the second one up, on the left.

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.

three people under tree

(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.)

Quarantine Hotel: Day 13 – The Finish Line

For our last day in captivity, things go remarkably like any other day.

Except, of course, that happy little moment where three nurses and two soldiers show up at our door with negative Covid test results, check-out papers for 9:30am tomorrow and green wristbands saying “Tuesday”.

(If we’d tested positive, we’d have started the 14 days all over again. There’s incentive for you.)

family with wrist bands
I’ve never been so excited about a plastic wrist band.

The knock at the door comes after a busy quarantine morning of emails, coffee, chatting on the balcony and juggling practice. I run to answer, grabbing my mask and probably overwhelming them with my manic expression. Luckily they’re just testing for Covid-19, not sanity.

We made it! Freedom, freedom, freedom! Just one more day to go, then we join this Australian paradise where you can have dinner with friends, go to work, see a play, sing with others and not spend every moment worrying about sickness and death. Unbelievable.

The three of us do a little wristband dance around the room.

Then we eat pumpkin-feta salad and Tim Tams for lunch – again.

I talk to the kids. As a learning experience, was quarantine useful?

“I found out that even if you’re locked in a room, if you actually have sunshine it helps a lot,” states my son. Fresh from the usual nine-months-of-gray Pacific Northwest winter, we all relate.

“I learned that if you keep a regular routine and get serotonin from regular workouts, that goes a long way,” says my daughter.

kids on balcony

Calves and thighs aching from endless pliés, I nod.

 As for me, I learned that you can do an effective workout in a surprisingly small space – not to mention that I like getting three meals delivered daily a whole lot more than I should admit to.

Also, that I need to work on my fruit consumption.

fruit and balls
The final fruit total: 13 oranges, 9 apples, 9 pears and miscellaneous juggling balls.

Of course, it helped that we’d effectively spent the last 12 months in quarantine, with our home state’s restrictions in the U.S. We could go outside, sure, and buy our own food. But when it came to online school, Zoom socializing and isolating as a family, we were already experts. If you came into hotel quarantine fresh from civilized society (as many Australians have had to do when crossing state lines), it might be a bit of a shock.

And then there’s all the essential life skills I achieved here: juggling, ukulele-playing, bird-training, Tim Tam hoarding, flawless F# major flute scales.

We drift through the afternoon and into a humid twilight. The hotel management delivers one last gift: a massive Kit Kat bar and a sweet handwritten note wishing us all the best. (Must remember to say thank-you as we gallop out of the hotel tomorrow morning.) My son and I achieve circus nirvana by mastering double jump-rope while juggling, and we record a podcast for my daughter’s university prison literature class, the three of us discussing transformative justice in a surreal quarantine moment.

Night falls. I stare out at the Moreton Bay fig where the mynas and currawongs have finally gone to sleep. The branches are huge, dense, mysterious. It’s the kind of tree you could build an entire elf village inside, or a magic house with a slippery-slide inside the trunk.

As I gaze, I think about last night, when I had – as I often do in strange rooms – a claustrophobia attack. Suddenly awake at around 2am, I just couldn’t get enough air, though I could see light through the curtains and told myself I wasn’t shut in. A little desperately, I went out onto the balcony – the late-summer Sydney night was warm, humid, stuffy. I still couldn’t breathe. I felt the panicky feeling of having nowhere else to go to escape.

Then I thought: Had quarantine taught me how to talk my body and mind through this imprisonment? I stared across at the tree, solid and reassuring in the streetlight. As I gazed at that fat, wrinkled trunk, I rooted my own legs down into the balcony floor. My head floated up out of my spine, like the leafy dark green crown of the fig. For a tiny moment I was supremely aware of myself as a giant ecosystem – of my bacteria and mitochondria swimming around my tree-like body. A reassurance spread through me that, like the tree, I could breathe, even in the humid, smoggy air. Breath after bigger breath, I visualized the oxygen that the tree was, right now in the darkness, releasing in one long exhale, surrounding us both with a life-giving halo.

Finally, calmer, I went back inside to try and sleep.

tree

Now, tonight, I stand on the same balcony, as I have for fourteen days and nights. I stare at the same tree. Tomorrow, I’ll get to walk out of the hotel, across that road and touch it. The luxury feels almost incomprehensible. I realize how much just two weeks of comfy voluntary confinement has affected me, and how unimaginably destructive it must be to have a life sentence in an actual prison. I think about transformative justice, but also of how our quarantine has helped keep my family, my country, safe and well.

Then I head back inside to write this final blog post inside the Quarantine Hotel. (Don’t worry, I’ll still write Day 14 tomorrow.)

Outside – as the manager’s note said – the world is waiting for us.

sunset
One last sunset at the Quarantine Hotel.

Quarantine Hotel: Day 12 – So Fancy

I’m not sure why I decide to put on fancy clothes today – well, a skirt, anyway – but it sets the tone for the whole day. Of course, it’s Sunday, even in quarantine.

woman in skirt

Also, all my leggings and T-shirts are in the laundry.

The day starts well enough with coffee, croissants and a Covid test at 8:30am. The nurses show up in full PPE, which is a good thing since the nasal swab makes my poor son splutter, sneeze and cough, eyes streaming from triggered allergies. I think for the umpteenth time how glad I am not to be a nurse. These two gaze with the dispassionate, sympathetic gaze of people who’ve been vaccinated.

The kid attempt to go back to sleep, and I chug away at a hefty grant application.

Then a knock – Lamingtons! How fancy is that?! (Cultural explainer: Lamingtons are a beloved Aussie cake coated in chocolate and coconut. Divine.)

“I suppose you want a photo for the blog,” says my son. How did he guess??

Then there’s another knock, with two packets of Twisties. This is unbelievable.

“They’re basically Fritos,” says my daughter, examining the classic red-and-yellow packets with a critical eye.

“No no no no, they’re WAY superior to Fritos.”

We take our fancy lamington morning tea out to the balcony, watching a gentle parade of Sunday pedestrians in fancy clothes: a long pin-striped navy dress, white cardigans, flowery Indian salwar kameez, a toddler in pale blue hat.

lamington on plate

I attempt to attend livestream church but the wifi freezes, so we sight-read some flute/violin duets instead: Brahms, Bach, Loeillet. Fancy stuff.

The tone goes rapidly downhill after lunch. Angry accusations of sniffing while someone else was trying to sleep, lack of sympathy at the allergies causing the sniffing. It escalates into a massive screaming argument. I give up trying to rein it in and try hiding on the balcony. It doesn’t help.

Then there’s a knock at the door – it’s the police. The two officers politely ask what the argument’s about, and I seize the opportunity.

“Hey kids,” I call, relishing the moment. “The police are here. They’d like you to come and explain the argument.”

Shuffling feet, sheepish voices, some hesitant phrases that trail off. “It’s about – “ “Well, he was sniffing loudly – “ “She yelled at me – “ and finally, “It’s basically about people not respecting other people.”

I nod heartily. “Yes, that’s what I think too.”

The officers keep admirably straight faces, and talk seriously to the kids. We’ve got to respect each other, de-escalate, not long to go now, wouldn’t want to be called up for a domestic violence situation, that would mean separation, wouldn’t want to start quarantine all over again, would we?

We shake our heads in unison. No, we wouldn’t. I thank the cops and shut the door.

We go back to the living room, and the silence is golden.

After lunch, some birdsong floats through the balcony door –  a series of pure, sweet high Fs. I hum along, pull out my flute to get the pitch. My son laughs.

“That’s so annoying. Getting out your flute.”

“Really,” I say.  “I’ll make a note of that.”

“Yes, and you can put it in your blog.”

I’m sure I’ve irritated a lot of people in my musical career, but this is a first – achieving annoyingness simply by unpacking my instrument.

I pull out the ukulele instead and work on a spoof quarantine version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Eyes roll.

Mum and Dad call: They’re loving the ukulele songs. Hah. Dad went for a swim yesterday and is feeling better, so that’s one good thing.

I plug away at the grant application, taking juggling breaks. During one inspired moment we even try out a five-ball two-person routine and manage to get four or five catches – amazing!

My nephew drops off more supplies (chocolate, salt and vinegar chips, hard cider), we chat over the balcony and then launch into a Taylor Swift ballet workout.

It’s surprisingly fun, and I point my toes, feeling fancy again.

We tuck into gnocchi alfredo for dinner, followed by a cider and a family game – all three of us this time. No sniffing or yelling.

One more full day to go – then freedom Tuesday morning, all going well with today’s Covid test. Let’s hope we last.

When you’re in quarantine and are kicked out of singing in the living room.
Quarantine Hallelujah

I found myself in quarantine

I learned to play the ukulele

But you don’t really like my music, do ya?

I learned some chords, the fourth, the fifth,

The minor falls, the major lifts,

And then I started playing “Hallelujah”

Hallelujah, hallelujah,

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

The first few days were kind of fun

We had a balcony in the sun

I wrote a blog that seemed like it amused ya,

We played some games, we grew our hair,

We sat out on our balcony chair,

And from our lips there came a Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

We said our thanks to God above,

We tried to show each other love,

But it’s not easy when your kids outgrew ya

We got annoyed, we had a fight,

Some days we couldn’t see the light

This song was just a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

Each day felt like the one before

We knew the room, we paced the floor

We did our work, we called you if we knew ya,

We juggled balls, we jumped the rope,

We tried to hang on to our hope

That one day we’d have freedom, hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah,

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

Now we’re nearly there at Day Fourteen

We’ve all survived the quarantine

I’ve told the truth, I wouldn’t try to fool ya,

We have a Covid test to clear

And then we’ll walk right out of here

And sing aloud a grateful hallelujah!

Hallelujah, hallelujah,

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

(With apologies to Leonard Cohen, who never had to go through hotel quarantine.)

Quarantine Hotel: Day 11 – Weekend!

Well, we made it to the weekend.

Just for once, I sleep in. When I wake up, my son’s finished class and it’s a sunny Saturday morning outside. Over coffee I have a balcony phone chat with my old school friend Claire while she watches her son’s cricket match. She lives just outside of Sydney, and honestly we could have been chatting on the phone every weekend of last year but somehow we never thought to, or we just seemed too far away. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but if people are out of sight, they’re often out of mind. It’s a huge consequence of pandemic lockdown that we’re going to have to come to grips with fairly soon.

bird on balcony
My friend the myna.

We’re in the middle of a deep discussion about mental health and prison reform when a myna bird hops up, just inches from my bare right foot. I interrupt my own profound statement to squeal quietly. Clearly, quarantine’s having a bad effect on my attention span.

Claire laughs. We hang up to attend our respective Saturday-morning family routines.

The big difference is that mine’s in socially-isolated lockdown but hey – we’re getting kind of used to it by now.

What I DO miss is walking. I start a mile, looping around the apartment in the track I measured out last week through the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room. Looking for entertainment, my son juggles along. I push past him, enjoying the novel feeling of actually stretching out my hip flexors, and he starts ambushing me again, jumping out from behind doors or tossing balls into my path to make us both giggle.

At exactly noon we sit in perfect silence for 15 minutes while my daughter does a Zoom job interview. Even in quarantine, she looks more professional than I’ve ever managed to (well, her top half, anyway).

girl with laptop

Then I get back to my walk, checking off every ten loops to keep track. I think of a film I once saw about a guy who wanted to walk the Camino di Santiago, but was stopped by aggressive cancer. He walked the length around his backyard instead, in between treatments, visualizing each section of the Camino.

I stride around the apartment, trying to visualize the beach walk near where my parents live. It’s difficult. But eventually the scene kicks in. I feel calmer, react less to distractions of kids, traffic, thoughts.

“I need to pee,” says my daughter firmly, and locks me out of the bathroom. I make a few more loops to the front door and back, but it’s not quite the same. I stop for lunch.

The weekend just gets more laid-back. Feeling creative, I take some artsy photos through the spyhole of the front door (that magical porthole) and head out to the verandah for tea, jotting down a couple more birdcalls – maybe I’ll write a flute piece with them. The fig tree is swaying deliciously in the wind like a dancer. I notice for the first time how our hotel building reflects in a warped, Gaudi way in the shiny glass of the building opposite.

door keyhole
The view through our front door into the forbidden corridor leading to a magical, Covid-free world.

Is my brain latching onto art and music as a coping mechanism? I’m deep into a grant application for a festival I started last December, and a key part of it is how light art brings joy and peace during dark times. Claire’s actually an expert in this field, and has sent me a stack of academic research on the subject of arts improving mental health.  

Or maybe I’m just chilling out because it’s the weekend. I pick up the ukulele and strum a couple of songs, hoping to lure another bird. My son improvises picks out of a folded Post-it and a bread bag tie and works at the chords of “Riptide.”

ukulele pick

The afternoon passes in a happy peacefulness. We work at assignments, then hit the dance floor with an instructor who combines hip hop moves with ballet grace. I have neither but it’s a lot of fun, and I think I’ve gotten fitter over the ten days. Quarantine hotel as a fitness regime! Maybe I should suggest it to the manager.

Breakfast for dinner again (I love weekends) and a family movie. Two of us, anyway – that’s not bad.

Are we all just getting used to this? Where’s the drama? It’s a little worrying how anything can start to feel normal, even voluntary imprisonment. I suddenly understand, just a little, that alleged captive mentality where even if you’re offered freedom, you’d rather stay inside where it’s familiar.

Two more full days to go, then freedom on Tuesday morning…not a moment too soon.

Quarantine Hotel: Day Ten – Sink, Swim, Float

The days are getting longer, with less substance, a kind of stretching blank miasma. Or an expanse of cloudy water, with no visible edge or shore.

window seat

We work at our tasks in the morning, my son starting at 2:30am and my daughter at 5am with a midterm exam.

I wake at 4am with a nosebleed, which kind of sets the tone for the whole day.

The monotony is broken somewhat with a mid-morning delivery of caramel Tim Tams – the management? the caterers? At this point I’m almost beyond caring – and then lunch. It’s pho, something we’ve all been missing, rich and tangy.

pho

After lunch my daughter starts a physics lab on Zoom – we’re under strict instructions to be quiet. So of course my son starts up some wall juggling in the bedroom: thwump, thwump, thwump.

Being a responsible parent, of course I go and join in. He’s throwing against the bathroom door, and I just can’t resist: I lurk on the other side, wait til he’s in a throwing rhythm, then pull the door swiftly open.

The look on his face as the ball flies past my head into the bathroom is priceless. We both giggle, and do it again, and again, cackling hysterically. I shut the toilet lid after a couple of near misses, then comes a sharp call from the living room: “Shut up!”

We exchange glances. Then we move into the bedroom and he teaches me to wall-juggle.

The afternoon passes in a bleary fog. I know I need to keep doing things to stop myself sinking into an abyss of depression, so I battle some more with work and the wifi, then strum some tunes on the ukulele. (The lab is over; we’re allowed to make noise now.)

I learn E major (it’s hard), delighted I can now play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The reaction from my son is immediate and fierce.

“No. Please don’t play that one.”

Undaunted, I launch into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and –

“No, don’t play that one either. You learn all these chords and you only use, what, three of them in those stupid songs.”

“Well, what do you want me to play?”

My son grabs the ukulele, picks out A minor, G and C, and hums a tune. I have no idea what it is. He fiddles a bit on YouTube, then produces the familiar strains of “Riptide.”

It’s easy enough – just three chords. I start it up, humming the chorus until my daughter strides in with a menacing look.

“Don’t you dare play that song. Just don’t.”

I give up. I’ll wait until it’s cool enough on the balcony – maybe the birds will appreciate my music.

“I just want to be out of here,” says my daughter restlessly, and I couldn’t agree more.

clouds

We workout, three intense sets after our break day. I can’t help liking the instructor, who’s lean and boppy and super-positive in California-dancer-yogi way. As she shimmies and shakes she dispenses earnest advice that seems to apply both to her complex moves and life in general.

“Remember, you don’t always need to be in control,” she says, executing a perfect hip-circle with flamenco arms. “When you try to control everything, you don’t enjoy anything. Sometimes just have to let go and trust yourself.”

Incredible. She’s just summed up my entire life including the last 10 days of quarantine. Out of the mouths of YouTube babes, etc. I listen avidly for more, doing my best to squat, kick and flick my arms all at once without falling over.

“Come on!” she exhorts, flicking out her hands side to side with a beatific smile. “Just shake out all that negativity, you don’t need it anymore!”

I shake with enthusiasm, whacking my son’s face as he dives after the juggling balls and back-kicking him with a lunge as he weaves in and out in a silly parody of the moves.

It’s all kind of fun, but my body’s getting more and more achy from the hard bed, the inactivity, the bad dreams, the worry. After the workout I do some yoga, and start crying during a tough straddle stretch. It just hurts so much, and this situation is so stressful.

I think about Dad, who’s going through a spinal MRI today – it’s an extra scan to figure out what’s causing him all the severe leg pain that’s been getting worse for a year or so now. The oncologist wonders if it’s the cancer, not just sciatica.

I lean forward, my hips aching from a year of working from home, and think about pain, and worry, and swimming. When I first learned to swim it took me a long time to get the hang of it. I would work my arms like mad and still keep sinking. Floating took even longer, that subtle art of just being, of trusting, allowing yourself to merge with the unpredictable rocking surface of the water. Of trusting that you’ll live, not drown.

I love swimming now, being in the ocean or lakes or rivers, but there’s always that tension – you have to keep moving or you’ll sink. Unless you flip over, give up control, trust.

Dad calls to let me know he’s doing okay after the scan. I ask if he’s gone swimming lately – he’s a lifelong swimmer, competitive in school and still able, at 86, with terminal cancer, to get through a kilometer faster than I can at the local ocean baths.

He hasn’t been this week – too rainy and windy.

Dad at the baths
Dad at Merewether Baths.

Dinner arrives. It’s delicious: Triple Mushroom Ravioli with Heirloom Carrots, Herb Velouté and Herbs, according to the little slip of paper inside the bag. I have a civilized glass of wine with my daughter, who’s thrilled that, being 18, she’s legally allowed to drink in this country. Then we wander out to the balcony to admire the giant fruit bats wheeling in jagged arcs around us in the dusk, before cuddling up for a movie.

movie legs

Ten days down, four to go. I’m swimming as hard as I can, keeping busy, churning my arms – but I still feel like I’m sinking into this murky water, enveloped in fog, with no edge in sight.

I take a breath, trying to float. Then another. And another.

Quarantine Hotel: Day Nine – So Boring, Baby

woman playing ukulele on balcony

Another early morning, this time after a rather disturbing nightmare about leaving our dogs only to have one get critically injured. I text my husband to make sure he’s filling up their water bowl. And watering the plants. Then I lie awake feeling claustrophobic – something I’d been worried about since I first heard about hotel quarantine.

By daylight, though, things look better. My husband texts back – he got his first vaccine dose! And yes, he’s watering both dogs and plants. Cheered up, I make coffee and attack some festival paperwork.

Then it happens. I realize what I’ve been determinedly avoiding all along – but it takes the kids to point it out to me.

 “I’m so bored,” says my daughter from the sofa bed.

“So incredibly bored,” says my son, staring at his phone with glassy eyes.

I show impressive parental restraint and suggest nothing, waiting for them to figure out a solution. My daughter suggests some badminton, and they have a few hits. I keep typing, dodging the occasional shuttlecock and pretending to myself I’m not actually bored solid.

There’s a knock – lunch. And more Tim Tams!!! Six of them this time, so either the caterers’ math is improving or they are just feeling more benevolent.

Tim Tam stack

The main course is pie. It’s not the traditional Aussie meat but a veggie sausage version for us vegetarians. But it looks just the same, especially when I decorate it with a tomato sauce (ketchup) face. Then I style it for an Instagram food pic, and do the same with the stack of Tim Tams.

Did I mention I was bored?

Inspired by the pie and my photographic creativity, I tell the kids they have to listen, and I launch into the song Dad always used to sing:

“Meat pies and tomato sauce/Same thing for the second course/From Perth to Sydney we all endorse/Meat pies and tomato sauce!”

A classic gem, then and now.

My daughter rolls her eyes, probably in the same way I used to do to Dad. Then she critiques my pie-face.

pie face

Just wait. I’ll have my ukulele soon, and then they’ll be impressed.

“You’re regressing, you know that?” asks my daughter as she washes up her plate. “Besides, the pie tastes terrible.”

My son starts grinning and laughing maniacally. I raise my eyebrows.

“I’m just going insane,” he says casually.

“Do you want to play a game?” I offer, gesturing to the suitcase full of Scrabble and Boggle. “To pass the time?”

“No. I’ll just be bored.”

Ohh-kay. I go back to eating my pie. It’s delicious, actually.

I pretend to work some more. The kids scroll their phones in a stupefaction of boredom. Nothing changes.

Then – another knock at the door! I jump up, excited. Maybe it’s my ukulele!

delivery box

Yep, a massive Amazon box, big enough for several ukuleles plus a Fijian rugby player or two. (see Day Eight). Like a kid at Christmas, I drag it in, babbling to the kids.

They stare up with dread in their eyes.

“Please don’t,” says my daughter. “I have a Zoom.”

Quietly, I unpack, find the tuner, explore the strings. I’m a former professional musician on double bass, piano and organ, and apart from the flute I also play some guitar and cello for fun.

woman unpacking ukulele

But hey, this is kind of new! Every chord is different. I spend ten minutes studying them on ukulelebuddy.com, then head out to the balcony where the sun and Sydney humidity are creating a Hawaiian microclimate.

I kick back and play Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s classic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” ticking off a longtime aspiration. Then a standard I-VI-IV-V progression: “Blue Moon,” or maybe “Stand by Me.” Then I launch into a spoof version I wrote of “Heartbreak Hotel,” working the sweet little instrument and my tiny choir voice into something remotely bluesy-sounding. I’m on a roll.

“That’s so embarrassing,” comes the critique, brutally honest as always.

I’m getting sunburned, so I move inside and keep jamming.

My son interrupts my fantasies of ukulele world domination by grabbing the instrument and plonking on the sofa next to me.

“Do you want me to show you some chords?” I ask.

“No,” he says, floundering around. He strikes a jagged tritone.

“That’s not a chord,” I say, ever the encouraging teacher. He moves up a couple of frets.

“That’s not one either.”

Finally he agrees to learn C and A minor (the easiest), followed by F and then G, with three cramped fingers straddling the strings.

“That’s so hard,” he complains.

I smile, thinking of all the crazy physical stunts this guy can do: double backflips, twisting front flip dives, skateboard tricks, handbalances on stacked chairs. Not to mention the juggling. He can also ride a unicycle, play jazz drums and tenor saxophone, edit films and scuba dive.

My daughter, meanwhile, studies quantum physics and eats violin concertos for lunch. Who needs a ukulele?

“You just have to practice,” I offer, lamely.

“Nah, it’s so out of tune.” He hands me the ukulele and leaves. I tune the strings.

Then the juggling balls and jump rope arrive!

Within minutes, my son has perfected his three-ball routine and is working at wall-rebounds. He patiently teaches me, and I actually get about ten three-ball catches.  

Then he’s hitting double-under jump rope personal bests before running a mile around the apartment.

“This was a good present,” he says.

We cobble together dinner from our copious leftovers – nobody is particularly interested in tonight’s veggie tray – and I head out into the twilight to play some flute with the birds. I remember today’s phone call with Mum, chatting about little things while Dad played jazz tunes in the background. I’m looking forward to making music with him.

When I stop for breath, I hear voices inside.

“’Agonized moans…the hotel wifi has struck again.’ What on earth?”

“Those weren’t moans. Where is she quarantining? None of this stuff is happening here.”

“I couldn’t even think of things like this to exaggerate.”

I walk inside. They keep going.

“Look at this! ‘Three good qualities about my daughter: Has no problem projecting her voice.’”

 “Well, what would you rather I say about you?”

“How about I washed your dishes when you left food on them? Twice?”

“Okay, I’ll put that in there.”

They complain a bit more about the blog – and fair enough. They didn’t ask to have their quarantine life on display. I agree to tone it down, and we all settle down for the night.

At least it’s not boring anymore.

“Quarantine Hotel” (Lyrics: Rosemary Ponnekanti. Music: Elvis Presley)

Well, since we came to Australia

We found a new place to dwell

It’s down the end of Covid Street

At the Quarantine Hotel

Where it gets, it gets so boring, baby,

It gets so boring, it gets so boring I could die.


They get you from the airport

And they take you to your room

And then they take away the key

And leave you in the gloom

Where it’s so, where it’s so boring, baby,

It’s just so boring, where it’s so boring you could die.


Well you never see the bellhop

And you never see the cook

They leave your dinner at the door

Without a second look,

And so it’s, it’s crazy boring, baby,

So crazy boring, it’s just so boring you could die.


Well everyone takes care of you

At the Hotel Quarantine

You can check out any time you like

But you can never leave

And it’s all because of Covid, baby,

All because of Covid,

‘Cos if you get Covid —— you could die.


(With apologies to Elvis and  The Eagles, who probably never had to go through this.)

Quarantine Hotel: Day Eight – Living in the Moment

It’s another 4:30am start. My son has a calculus quiz at 6am, so I head out to balcony to write down some of the morning birdsong. Then I hear agonized moans from inside: the hotel wifi has struck again, refusing to upload his final answers before the test times out. I hurry inside and whip out my phone to email them to the teacher, along with the usual pathetic plea. My son joins his next class, only to get kicked off the wifi repeatedly. I retreat to the balcony.

moon in sky

My friend alerts me to a story in The Guardian about the Fijian rugby team, who on their last day of Sydney quarantine all lined up in their individual balconies and sang a heartbreakingly beautiful song as a thank-you to their hotel staff.

The challenge is on. I join the Hotel Quarantine Australia Facebook group (11.9k members and counting) in search of fellow inmates here with balconies. Maybe we can all get together and play a symphony or something.

The top post is from some poor mother of a seven-month-old who, despite testing negative, has just been told she has an extra five days of quarantine because someone on her flight tested positive.

Now I’m worried. On the plus side, at least we’re not one of the 40,000 Australians who are still stuck overseas.

And our food does seem to be better than everyone else’s in the group.

salads
Think we definitely have enough salad for lunch today.

Then it gets even better. Just as I finish up my 9am Zoom there’s a knock at the door. It’s another gift from the manager – Aussie lollies! (That’s candy, for all my American friends out there.) Big packs of Fantales (caramels) and Freckles (chocolate with sprinkles), and a sweet little card bearing the encouraging message “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!”

(Cultural explainer: This is a spoof on the traditional Aussie sports cheer, which usually ends “Oi! Oi! Oi!”)

I can’t help it – I smile in sheer delight. Freckles were my favorite sweet to buy at the local milk bar (corner store) when I was a kid in Newcastle in the 1970s. They cost 2c each, which meant I could get quite a few with my weekly pocket-money (allowance) of 20c. Pretty sure the manager doesn’t know this important piece of history, but it’s a really nice gesture to homesick Australians who’ve made it as far as this hotel.

I pop a Freckle into my mouth just as an argument is blooming in the bedroom.

“Wear headphones! We don’t want to hear your stupid class.”

“My earbuds need charging and I HAVE to be here. I shut the door.”

“We can still hear you! Why do the rules not apply to you?”

“You can wear my headphones,” I offer.

“I don’t want to wear your headphones, they hurt my head. Just SHUT THE DOOR!”

We shut the door.

I go back to reading the news; there’s another story about coping with stress.

Tip #1: Make a list of three good qualities in another person.

Ohhhh-kay. How about –

  1. Is always willing to speak their mind.
  2. No problem projecting their voice.

I hesitate. Then I add, to tell the whole story –

3. Generously helps brother with calculus.

Tip #2: Make a list of 10 achievements you’re proud of. It could be something small, adds the author, like making it to gym class.

Hmm. That’s harder. I chew thoughtfully on another Freckle.

  1. Did not yawn during my 4:30am Zoom.
  2. Nobly got off the wifi when asked.
  3. Changed out of pajamas before lunchtime.
  4. Did not yell when my headphones were rejected.
  5. Took at least ten minutes to eat all the Freckles.

I decide to leave the other five for later and look at Tip #3: Try new things.

Ummm…I glance over at the juggling sock balls, untouched since yesterday. I look at a Powerpoint I’ve been procrastinating – it’s new, technically, but I don’t think that’s quite what they meant.

Then I open my email to discover a surprise gift from a very thoughtful friend: $100 to spend on a quarantine cheer-up item! I start scrolling through the Quarantine Hotel Facebook group to see what other people are doing for fun and there’s a woman on her balcony strumming a ukulele.

I glance at my kids. I search Amazon. I glance up again.

“Hey, you guys,” I begin, but I don’t get far.

“Ukuleles are the most annoying instrument ever,” says my daughter, a violinist.

My son (a drummer) just shrugs. Ok, maybe I’ll finish that tip later, too.

Tip #4 is the final piece of advice, particularly poignant coming from the author who is dealing with her husband’s sudden cancer: “Live in the moment.”

It’s tough, especially when there’s absolutely nothing happening in the moment. Or the next. Or the next.

When they knock at the door for lunch, we scramble around in excitement, then slide back to our screens.

Another balcony flute session, and finally my scales are paying off. I whip through them, enticing a myna bird to the railing below, when suddenly I hear voices close by. And they’re not my kids. A little shocked, I look around, lean over the balcony to see next door. Nothing. Then I twist into a backbend and stare upwards. On the balcony above are a dad and his two little girls. I think they’re as surprised as I am, but we quickly recover and grin happily.

upwards-balconies

“We were out here every day looking for the busker,” says the dad, gesturing to the street. “And it was you!”

“Do you mind?” I say, remembering those high, piercing F-sharps. “I can stop if it bothers you.”

“Oh no, don’t stop!” they all say in lilting Pacific Islander accents. “We love it! It’s beautiful.”

I play through more Bach, Telemann and Massenet, watching for birds and living in the moment.

The balcony’s getting hotter, so I head inside. Mum calls, and I coax Dad through a conversation about flute music. He’s in pain and super-tired after yesterday’s scans, and has spent most of the day in bed.

“You know, Dad’s really liking your blog!” Mum says in a cheerful tone. “His hearing is so unpredictable that I think he may be missing a lot of our phone conversations, and this helps him catch up with what you are going through. He really loved that flute video yesterday.”

I’m suddenly really glad I put in all that work with the phone and the ironing board set-up. I think of the two little girls upstairs with their dad, and I remember when I taught my Dad to play the flute himself. I was 17 and he was 53. He’d hated learning violin as a boy, and hadn’t really played anything else since except a little mandolin.

I can’t remember whose idea it was for me to teach him the flute, but he worked at it and it led him into a whole new world of solos, occasional duets with me and the very real ministry of accompanying worship – sometimes while also acting as priest.

My daughter and I make yet another cup of tea (I’ve lost count) and potter around, lazy in the sunshine. We all work out, living in the moment with silly Disney dance moves and a game of hotel-room badminton before dinner.

Then I make a decision. With a covert glance at my roommates, I open up Amazon and use my friend’s gift to buy a jump rope, actual juggling balls and a ukulele. I reckon that’ll hit tips 2, 3 and 4 all at once.

Stay tuned, neighbors.

Quarantine Hotel: Day Seven – Are You Well?

Woohoo – halfway through quarantine! We’ve made it this far, so I’m pretty sure we’ll make it the rest without any major collateral damage. But more and more, people are asking the big question “How are you?”

I honestly don’t know what to say.

mum and daughter
Workout session.

“Tired” is a great word right now. I got up for a 4:30am Zoom presentation today (9:30am for more civilized folks in Tacoma) and my son’s back to 2:30am starts for school.

“Sore” is another good description. Six days straight of dance workouts, pushups and crunches combined with the anatomical delights of a sofa bed and essentially sitting on my butt all day long are beginning to make themselves felt.

We’re definitely well-fed. Too well-fed, really. The caterers outdo themselves today – Cornish pasties, cakes, endless salads, frittatas – and we decide to celebrate the halfway mark by ordering in some Malaysian laksa and noodles from a local restaurant. The fruit bowl has taken over the entire TV shelf, and let’s not even talk about Tim Tams.

fruit
Yes. Thats 10 apples, six oranges and four pears.

Even our mental health is pretty good, although the days are definitely blurring into each other and maybe I should be concerned that I can’t remember what happens unless I make notes for this blog.

But I notice we’re all a lot shorter on temper than usual. The kids lie around a lot, and amuse themselves by experimenting with new ways to sneeze. Surely that’s not normal?

And then there’s the door.

doors
NOTE: This is not our room. Its the one opposite, because I am not allowed out into the corridor.

It’s hard to describe the semi-mythical pull of that entry door to our apartment. We came through it on Day Zero and haven’t been fully back out since. We pop our heads out to collect food and put out the garbage, occasionally catching a glimpse of the hotel elves as they scuttle away, masks firmly on. Down the end of the corridor is a chair. Sometimes there’s a masked, suited guard sitting in it – but sometimes it’s strangely empty. Only once have I seen anyone else: our next-door neighbors, when we accidentally popped out simultaneously to pick up dinner.

It was a shock.

Because that door is taking on fantastical properties. Opening onto a corridor we can never enter, leading to a futuristic Covid-free world we can only spy from our balcony, it’s like a magnet, the embodiment of every magical door in every fantasy novel you ever read. It’s the wardrobe door in Narnia, the doors to other loops in “Library of Souls,” the Leaky Cauldron in “Harry Potter” and pretty much every single door in the whole of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Sometimes I put on my mask and peep outside, just to see if I’ve entered “The Matrix” yet.

So when the nurse calls in the morning and asks “How are you?” in that chirpy Scottish accent, I’m a bit uncertain how to reply. Where do you start?

“Ah – no Covid symptoms,” I end up mumbling.

My sister calls, chatting and making sure we’re okay and procrastinating going to work. My other sister (in Queensland) emails, asking how we are and thanking me for her Christmas card, which just arrived.

Then Dad calls after lunch. He’s in between three CT and PET scans at the hospital to see how the cancer is progressing. (His wry answer: “I don’t know why they do this, I can tell you what the results are going to be.”)

We chit-chat a bit, he’s tired but not too tired to tell me a joke he regularly shares with the radiologist, who has the same dark sense of humor. Whenever he gets a scan, he has to fill in the forms: “What is your name?” “What is your age?” “What kind of cancer do you have?”

Then there’s the punchline question: “Are you well?”

I burst out laughing. “Really?”

“Yes, really!” Dad replies with an audible eye-roll. “Can you believe it?”

A range of Monty Python-esque answers run through my brain: “I’m not dead yet!” “I’m getting better!”

He hangs up to go have the last scan while Mum waits in the waiting room and balances their bank accounts. She sympathizes with my lack of interest in the hotel manager’s art package.

“They always made us draw pictures in Grade 2,” she says. “I could happily write a page of words but I hated doing those pictures.”

Feeling supported, I head out to the balcony to record a flute session, requested by a friend who’s following my blog. It’s hot, the phone keeps running out of juice, and I have to prop it on an upturned bin balanced on the ironing board to get anything like a good angle. Trucks rumble noisily below. Nobody’s paying attention. I fumble.

Then I slow down for “Be Thou My Vision,” that old Irish hymn that’s a favorite of both mine and Dad’s. I get out of my fingers and into the music, and suddenly over in the Moreton Bay fig I hear birds calling, chirping, trilling along with the ancient Celtic tune. We play together for awhile, united in wordless song.

Finally I smile, stop the recording and head inside for dinner.

Yes, I’m well. Thank you.

Quarantine Hotel: Day Six – Mambo!

Life’s just getting better and better. It might be Monday morning for the rest of Sydney, but the three of us are still kicking back on the Tacoma weekend – no school, no emails.

So instead we party! Well, I do, anyway.

woman in mirror

The fun begins, ironically, with the hotel manager. Evidently he feels guilty about asking me to take down my art project (aka “STUCK IN QUARANTINE” sign) yesterday, because at 8:30am there’s a door-knock delivery of a coloring-in package.

That’s right. A zip-lock bag containing a butterfly-themed “Colouring for Grownups” book (don’t panic, Aussie spelling there), pencils, a picture book of “Koby the Koala’s Sydney Adventures” with the paper 3D glasses to go with it, and a nifty stacking six-color crayon, just like I had when I was seven. Oh, and a thoughtful packet of ear plugs and Sleep Mist spray.

I can’t decide whether to be grateful or slightly offended. I toss the packet on top of the games and badminton rackets, and go back to my coffee.

People-watching is a major activity in quarantine, and I’m getting a thrill from seeing all the little kids trotting off to school – something I haven’t witnessed at home for exactly a year now. I’m pondering my own son’s return to in-person school – will we all get Covid? – when he lovingly interrupts my reverie.

“Can you peel me an orange?”

I sit up, excited. Finally, someone’s eating the fruit!

“Here, let me show you – you know, ‘teach a man to fish’ and all that – “

“No, I just want you to do it for me.”

Then he grabs four other oranges and starts juggling. I remember all the tips I’ve read for surviving quarantine: ‘Learn a new skill!’ was near the top. I do want to learn, but I can also see some problems with dropping actual oranges repeatedly on the hotel carpet.

The manager probably wouldn’t be too impressed, either.

I start to peel.

Inspired that I actually want to do this, though, my son wads up three pairs of socks and starts me off with two of them. He’s a patient teacher. I progress to three and get one successful cascade before dropping everything.

I go back to reading the news. He eats the orange, which was the whole point, after all.

Lunch is pumpkin-beet-feta salad, same as Day Zero. We must have finished up the rotation. Out on the balcony it’s 88 degrees F (32C) and climbing. We stare into the haze of fig tree branches, thinking wistfully of the beach.

Then I hoist myself to my feet – my Tacoma friends are holding a surprise Zoom birthday party for one of our group and I have a karaoke to prepare.

Delicately, I stack eight books next to the bathroom sink and balance my laptop on them against the mirror. The kids’ towels are in frame, so I toss them on the floor. Grabbing my daughter’s black turtleneck and a skirt, I blow-dry my hair into some approximation of a ‘60s beehive and practice my song with a hairbrush mike: “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen (rewritten with words for my friend). The final touch – a badminton racket for the guitar solo.

The rest of the afternoon wafts by in a summer daze. I join a Sydney friend for a cocktail Zoom, improvising with a pear slice on my glass of pinot grigio since we don’t have lemons. We chat about global warming, then I get kicked off the Zoom as my phone dies from the heat.

Dance workout time! My daughter and I crank up the AC and laugh our way through a Latin dance workout. I’m about as skilled at mambo as I am at juggling but hey – it’s extra bonding time and will make us both feel better. Plus it means I can scarf down tonight’s gnocchi and passionfruit slice without feeling quite as guilty.

As the kids wind down, I take my flute onto the balcony and float through some Celtic tunes in the warm, sultry darkness. All is silent from the fig tree, and the scatterings of late commuters pass by without pausing. Solitude cocoons me, like the resonance of my balcony music.

The notes hover, then vanish, leaving only a memory of passionfruit-tinged sweetness.

Quarantine Hotel: Day Five – Daily Bread

Sunday, a day of rest. Which we all kind of need at this point, despite the fact that all we’ve done for five days is sit in a hotel room.

I take breakfast onto the balcony and discover that “QU” has fallen down, with “TINE” looking dodgy also. It’s the gum. Overnight it leaked and spread, softening the paper corners into transparent mush.

So much for communication with the outside world. I start pulling down the papers when the phone rings.

It’s the hotel manager. It’s come to his attention that there appears to be some form of graffiti on the exterior of the building, which is not allowed.

“Oh, it’s not graffiti,” I reassure him. “It’s an art project, on paper. And I just took it down.”

I hang up and go back to scraping gum off the glass.

At 10:30am I tune into church, livestreamed from Christ Church St. Laurence in the city. After a year of pandemic lockdown, it’s a shock to see actual people inside a church – and a choir! And they’re singing! I gaze, my laptop screen framed by the window view of the massive Moreton Bay fig tree. Soaring pillars and arches translate to stretching branches. The checkered tile floor of the historic church is echoed by dappled morning sun on mulch. The music of creation pours out of both church and tree; but the living, breathing trunk isn’t the harsh shape of a cross, rather the fluid, organic geometry of life.

laptop with church

I listen to a sermon about suffering, forgiveness and grace, and an ethereal Byrd mass setting. I think about how this pandemic has both connected and inexorably divided us, around the world.

Then there’s a knock at the door – fresh towels and sheets.

The system here is pretty smooth. After you check in to the Quarantine Hotel, nobody comes into your room for 14 days, for obviously reasons. They don’t want to clean your stuff, or handle anything you’ve touched. So they deliver fresh supplies at the door, and you pack out garbage and dirty linens.

It’s working well, food-wise. The vegetarian dishes are kind of bland and the caterers obviously have trouble counting to three at times, but mostly it’s pretty classy: udon noodles, sushi and rice paper rolls, shepherd’s pie with tomato-radish chutney and a divine ricotta ravioli. Even breakfast (delivered the night before with dinner) is fancy: bircher muesli with berry compote, chocolate croissants. Today there’s even a “brasserie bread” loaf for toast.

We’ve supplemented with my family’s deliveries of eggs, avocado, tea, coffee and Tim Tams, plus some wine. Everything is searched, and alcohol is rationed: one wine bottle per adult per day, presumably to keep people from staggering down the hall in a drunken belligerence.

bread and wine

After lunch I make a Powerpoint, answer emails, play the flute to some chirpy birds and then coax my daughter into flute/violin duets.

So far no one has complained about the noise, although I wouldn’t put it past the manager at some point.

We sweat through a dance workout and I tuck into scrambled eggs, roasted veggies and a fruity pinot grigio for dinner. Outside in the fig tree, the song symphony is in full swing.

dinner

Then we cuddle on the coach to watch Disney’s “Brave” in a rare moment of family unity. The kids both agree I’m exactly like the Queen mother in the movie, and warn me they might turn me into a bear tomorrow morning.

I’ll take it. Life’s pretty good, right now: peace, love and daily bread.