Jeremy and I spent Easter weekend last year at a converted railway station in rural Lower Saxony with dozens of other people—a collection of German friends and acquaintances, kids and adults, who had gathered specifically to celebrate a 25th anniversary, but more broadly to celebrate friendship and life in general. We all cooked together and ate together, went for walks together, played music, shared big rooms with bunk beds, chatted, laughed and danced through the night. It was the most communal situation I had been in for as long as I could remember, and while I found it challenging as an introvert, I think back on it with nothing but joy.
This year it’s just me and Jeremy and whichever neighbors we might see out in the garden or passing by at a safe distance on the street. It’s late on Sunday morning as I write this, exactly one month from my last relatively normal day, and everything is quiet. Silent, even, with the exception of a few birds singing somewhere, and the clock ticking in the kitchen, and my computer humming faintly. Fairly normal for any Sunday, actually, quarantine or not.
It was remembering the normality of things that got to me this week. The first Monday of the month would usually be the Brighton Acoustic Club (otherwise referred to as the “folk club”) at the Lord Nelson pub in town. We’re taken to playing some tunes there with fellow musicians from our Wednesday Irish session, and Jeremy has even sung the occasional song. This week we contributed to the first virtual folk club: Jeremy and I recorded ourselves playing a few jigs, and other folks sent in recordings of tunes and songs, and the regular hosts of the folk club introduced everyone’s videos live on Facebook over the course of about an hour on Monday evening. I’ve been missing our regular sessions and tune workshops, but I hadn’t felt the loss so sharply until then, seeing all those familiar faces on screen and hearing everyone play. I longed to be sitting at our usual table in the Jolly Brewer, a hazy pale ale in one hand and my fiddle in the other, surrounded by music.
I felt the same longing in my ballet classes this week. I cracked last Saturday, put on a full white tutu and pointe shoes and danced around the kitchen in an attempt to feel carefree (it worked—briefly). This week’s virtual classes were “attended” by some women who used to be regulars here but have since moved away—to London, Sweden, Switzerland, even Hong Kong. It’s been fun to be able to dance “with” them again, but it’s also just made me miss everyone even more. And the charm of classes in the kitchen has started to wear off as well. I can’t move around much, I certainly can’t jump, I’m tired of having to avoid the empty bottles and cardboard boxes that are piling up, I’m tired of trying to practice choreography when I can’t properly hear the music or see myself or anyone else. My nerves were frayed by the end of class on Thursday and I was just fed up with everything.
Thursday was a rollercoaster of a day all around. It started when I checked my email in the morning and saw a message from stranger telling me that he (and his wife!) had found a translation I did many years ago to be “unreadable”, but that he was giving me “the benefit of doubt” and assuming that the German source text had been equally “unreadable”. That was it. That was the whole message. And he said it like he was doing me a favor by letting me know.
I was so stunned at first that I didn’t feel anything. I kept reading the mail trying to figure out if I’d missed something. And then the adrenaline hit. I went straight into fight-or-flight mode, heart racing, breath catching in my chest as I tried to work out what to do. Jeremy happened to come in then and I showed him the email and promptly burst into tears. After weeks of being trapped at home and worrying about everything—worrying about getting sick, worrying about my loved ones getting sick, worrying about money, worrying about my job and whether I’d ever get any work again, worrying about the end of the world—after weeks of living with existential dread for myself and everyone else, I woke up to this petty email and it sent me over the edge. Someone else living through the same global pandemic thought it was reasonable to send another human being a message just to say they didn’t like a book.
I went through every emotion in the space of an hour, the dominant one being rage. I hammered out a message in return but didn’t send it—not immediately. Instead, I let the emotional storm pass and spent the rest of the day thinking on and off about what approach to take. Crying, ranting and writing an angry response (even without sending it) had been cathartic, and by the time I finished my morning coffee, I already found myself not really caring too much about the whole thing. There are, quite obviously, bigger issues to deal with right now. I realized I could easily just let it go, ignore it, not respond, not feed the troll. I could delete the email and go about my business. I could swallow my anger and move on.
But the more I thought about swallowing my anger—and specifically, the more I thought about myself, as a woman, swallowing my anger at a patronizing man who had inexplicably sought me out and tried to take me down a peg for no discernible reason, other than that he could—the less palatable it became. I have smiled my way through belittlement too many times and I’m done. So I revised my note and I sent it (and immediately blocked all subsequent email from the guy, because I don’t want a dialog, defense or even an apology—I really am done). The note was calm and to the point—the point being that I thought it was a remarkable thing for a person to write a missive like that in a time like this, and that if his aim was to make an already terrible situation even worse, he had succeeded. Fin.
The cloud of all this was somewhat hanging over me on Thursday afternoon when I joined an online meetup of local literary translators. I had met one of the translators at a symposium held in London just a few days before the (canceled) London Book Fair. She had told me about these “translation clinics” they held regularly at a cafe in Brighton and invited me to the next one. That wound up being the first virtual one, two weeks ago. I was as nervous joining a virtual meeting full of strangers as I would have been walking into a cafe full of strangers, but I’m glad I pushed myself to do it, both that time and this one. It’s nice to see different faces and put my social skills to the test, and it’s always good to connect with other translators. That said, I’m the odd one out in this group and I feel it acutely; as an “academic” translator rather than someone translating novels, I’m in a closely related but still quite distinct world, so I don’t share many of the issues these other translators are facing. On top of that, as I sat listening to everyone discuss the contracts they were negotiating and stories they were translating and authors they were dealing with, I kept thinking of my resolutely empty inbox (empty save for the email telling me I was bad at my job) and I felt more and more like a failure and a fraud.
And then the meeting ended and I checked my email to find a publisher offering me another book to translate and someone else offering me a subtitling job. Swings and roundabouts, folks. Swings. And. Roundabouts.
Friday brought summery weather so we took a long walk, strolling up to the top of our hill and through the tiny, nerve-racking pedestrian pathway that runs under the racecourse (it’s a short tunnel, but two people can barely walk abreast in it, so there really has to be a one-in-one-out policy in order for everyone to keep their distance—but no one else seems to think that). We would usually make a little loop around the back of the racetrack buildings and then head home again, but this time we just kept going—over little hills and down into valleys, through stiles and across fields, under a big blue sky, with the South Downs rolling away all around us, and sheep grazing, and the hazy sea on the horizon. There was so much open air, so many colors. And so few people. We weren’t totally alone out there—we saw folks walking dogs, a few couples sitting on the hillsides, the occasional lone wanderer—but we didn’t have to make any effort to stay far apart because there was so much space. Sometimes we nodded and smiled at people from a distance, but sometimes there wasn’t anyone else in sight, and it was pure bliss. I felt like we had discovered a magical secret world where all the stress that now comes with human contact just evaporated in the spring breeze.
It was so satisfying that we did it all over again on Saturday, going even farther, a good five miles in total: all around the racetrack and beyond, along the East Brighton Golf Club course to a hilltop overlooking the marina, then back along the fields of sheep, across a dell and up to the racecourse again, where we made the mistake of trying to follow the racetrack to its starting point and wound up trapped among the grandstand buildings, all locked up for the lockdown. It was well past lunchtime by this point, and walking into the mid-afternoon sun had exhausted us, so instead of trudging back the way we came to find an exit, we pressed on and found a scalable fence, clambered over it and were free. Though I felt much less free once we were back on the street than I had felt when we were stuck in the empty racecourse.
There’s an irony to this quarantine situation: social isolation is making me feel suffocated by people. We live in a small, poorly insulated flat surrounded by other people in small, poorly insulated flats, and we’re all home pretty much 24 hours a day. We can all hear each other sneeze and shout and play music and watch television (and we don’t have noisy neighbors by any stretch, we just have neighbor noise, which is bad enough). If we step outside the front of the house we’re bound to encounter people on the sidewalk, and even when we sit in the back garden we’re never more than a few meters away from our neighbors sitting in their gardens. It’s not sitting at home that makes me feel trapped, it’s sitting at home and sensing all the other people sitting at home around me, constantly. And I wasn’t fully aware of just how oppressive this was until I stood on the crest of a hill in the sunshine and felt a knot loosen inside of me. Briefly.
The knot tightens and loosens and tightens again. The rollercoaster goes up and it goes down. The swings swing, the roundabouts roundabout(?). So it goes, for as long as it’s going to go.