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Sleepless in Seattle: A pandemic spent in America

Niamh Kinsella reflects on experiencing the struggles of pandemic life from across the Atlantic

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Image Credit: Josh Fields

Picture this. It's day 56 of watching a pair of squirrels run up and down the cable lines by my windows. My duvet wrapped around me, wearing my best Bridget Jones pair of Christmas pyjamas, I follow them whilst delivering my mum what is most likely her third cup of morning (this one, herbal) tea, not at-tempting to ask whether there’s anything new in the world of automotive logistics as I had merely 12 hours before. I’m sorry to disappoint that I'm not in fact going to tell the story of my TomHanks love affair (I’m sadly not Meg Ryan). Instead, it's the story of how a quick trip home to Seattle became an indefinite stop. The only film reference that comes to mind is Contagion. I’ve become impassive to the sight of the Space Needle, going to the local Whole Food’s store for the entertainment of seeing pretentious mushroom coffee or $10 bread made from cauliflower (America is missing the market for meal deals), using CBN for a BBC news equivalent, Starbucks coffee on Uber eats and surprisingly, people messaging me to ask whether I’m loving all this.I don’t want these things to be misinterpreted as criticisms, as I will always be eternally grateful for the experience of spending the pandemic in a completely foreign yet beautiful place. Yet when I first arrived back home in March of last year for the Easter break, the supposed two week stay with my family was well and truly thrown awry by border closures. Flying became a sweet memory of the past and planning beyond all of this was frustratingly out of reach.

I read a lot of Joan Didion during the pandemic, (I like to pretend this makes me a mature literature student reading memoirs in her free time, but really, I saw her books in a bookshop and thought they’d look great on my bookshelf). In A Year of Magical Thinking, she says “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Whilst Didion is talking about the sudden death of her husband and the pain of living with grief, this quote resonated with the feeling of something you have no control over being ripped away from you. Not having control over when and how I (and us all) could live was unfamiliar and made me recognize that I hadn’t really experienced true loss before. I am fortunate enough to say I haven’t lost any family members, or experienced hardship financially, but to have something you can’t grasp, the structure of time itself being taken away, left me with a sense of mourning for, well everything. I felt I was wasting my 20’s – the so-called 'best years of my life' away. Now comes the complicated facet of social media. My relationship with it has changed irrespectively, whilst before I used it merely to document my gap year and stay up to date with friends, I found myself loathing it over the pandemic. Scrolling turned into a tricky relationship, one of which I was dependent on to fill a void of boredom and fulfil the idea that I was missing out whilst everyone was having the time of their lives on House Party (they weren't as I’ve come to realize). I still go through phases of deleting and reinstalling TikTok – whenever I hear I hear a song pop up from last year, I go mildly insane.

 Whilst I was hit with the laws of Trump, I felt I was missing out on the national traditions that had come from lockdown. I found myself missing the most trivial of things, BBC news in the morning, hello to my neighbours in the garden, UK adverts, late-night trips to Tesco (or M & S, as Adele has confirmed), English humour, and pubs. The list of unmistakably trivial details, ones which never crossed my mind as being important in my everyday life, came to light. There are good things to have come out of spending the Covid-19 period in another continent, however. With regards to time at home, I watched some great series and films, my favourites include The Undoing, Big Little Lies(the cast adding to its incredible plot), Unorthodox, It’s a Sin (which made me miss England and the 80s nostalgia even more so) and I began the marathon of watching and then re-watching Gilmore girls. I, like the rest of the world, came to appreciate getting outside when I could, so walking is something that has stuck with me as being a kind of therapy. The things I came to hate, unfortunately, were baking (I’ll never buy banana bread again) and seeing celebrities appear relatable on TikTok.

Whilst I can sit here and slate America for the things I’m not so keen on, I can’t disregard the things I appreciated. Washington state offered some of the most beautiful settings I've seen. Often regarded as the evergreen state for its abundance of “Twilightesque” forests and greenery, exploring the area is something that will be a fond memory of Covid-19. I was fortunate enough to travel up to the islands towards Canada, driving through national parks, and down to Oregon where I had a Twilight fangirl moment driving along the coast of the Pacific coast highway. Closer to home, walks around the suburban American streets of Queen Anne in the afternoon became a habitual routine whilst I listened to The High Low and Off Menu. Trips to neighbourhood farmers markets to get coffee with my mum replaced Sunday trips to the pub, and midweek drives to the beach moved my attention away from seeing Megyn Kelly truly enamoured byTrump’s rejection of scientific fact. These are snippets of life, seeming so far removed from what was and is familiar to me. I was reminded of these disparities as I was turned away from bars, (would I be reformed to a 16-year-old again who would be searching for a fake ID’?), and English humour, whilst faced with the fresh-faced employees of Trader Joes, was looked at with confusion. Appreciating American festivities was a curious build-up of wondering who puts “yams” and marshmallows together, and realizing American's do unironically put American flags up and celebrate Independence Day like Jaws paints it.

Regarding continuing university in the past year, it is precarious to explain such a difficult year. Whilst individual experience can overwhelm the grander perspective that the collective student population had to endure, it's hard not to let your own frustration’s cloud the simple matter of fact that simply nothing can be predicted or controlled. I felt set back academically, as an awkward eight-hour time difference meant for 3am seminars that I couldn’t attend, and 5am calls for the ones I could attend. Because of this I felt even more disconnected, as though whilst others sat on quiz night zoom calls, I was only waking up and felt detached as friends and family talked about things you could only appreciate if you were in the UK. It made me appreciate how much of your university experience is made beyond the academic side, and rather how seeing friends and people on your course every day, trying to adapt to living on your own (simultaneously loving the in-dependence but missing a good home-cooked meal), and especially for me appreciating living in York and recognising the simple things like going for coffee with friends.

What the pandemic has taught me most of all, is the undeniable aspect of myself that is wishing for something else. I’ve come to realise that I’m an incredibly nostalgic person; I reminisce on good times in my life and grow anxious of the uncertainty of the future. Instead of being content in the present, acknowledging the undeniable aspect of life that is its unpredictability, I had become so accustomed to planning and thinking about the ‘next thing’. It was an uncomfortable feeling to sit with every day, coupled with the snatching away of everything I was familiar with; England. When my family first moved to America, I was elated with the thought of leaving the UK. My immediate thoughts roused over the things I wouldn't miss, unable to comprehend three years later I wouldn’t be able to get back to them regardless of their value. It is easy to pick out details of your life and surroundings that you would change, I’d imagine many people my age would leave the UK for all its flaws in exchange for what social media or The Ten Things I Hate About You romanticises with Heath Ledger serenading you with the Olympic mountains in the distance. Yet the reality is we want idealism, to plan the perfect order of how life will unfold. Unfortunately, I wasn’t restless in my sleep at the thought of what tomorrow would bring in a unique place, but at what I thought I was missing out on, somewhere else. Pandora Sykesperfectly summed up how I was feeling as she quoted Kahil Girban in How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right as she says, “Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future,” “but from wanting to control it.” I’m far from claiming to be an expert on life here and part of me is in disbelief that I left for the university break at 19 and walked into my student house at 21, feeling like it was only yesterday I was waking up from Salvo’s Wednesday into my 9am seminar. My time away has made me acknowledge that change is constant and whether colourful or not, it is necessary to grow

Image Credits: Niamh Kinsella

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