Five friends living in different European cities kept a journal for a week during lockdown. From their writings, we learn how the pandemic was felt in London, Milan, Liverpool, Glasgow and Paris, now that the cities are slowly starting to open up and to fill with a sense of summer and freedom.
At 19, in 2012, I was moving to London from Carei, Romania, for the first year of my course at University College London. On my first day, I met Zoe, a blonde and very cool “gal” from East London. We were both studying French, paired with Latin in my case, and Arabic in Zoe’s. After a term of living one hour and a half away from campus, with friends from my hometown and 40-year old Bulgarian men who worked in construction, drank rakia, and enjoyed nocturnal karaoke, I moved into student halls. One by one, I met Evan, a tall Welsh guy with a quirky fashion style, Nick, another tall guy from Liverpool, who loved news and Marlboro cigarettes, and Rosa, an expert in Pop Russian music and an excellent dancer.
Through a series of crossovers and late nights of bonding, I ended up living with all these characters during the last year of university, in a crummy Victorian house in Finsbury Park. Even though our house looked like many other Victorian houses in London, we were fascinated to discover a kitchen on each of the house’s three floors. The Finsbury Park area is cosmopolitan and busy. On a typical day in this corner of North West London, pubs are overcrowded with die-hard Arsenal supporters while other passers-by wander around the 46 hectares of the park Finsbury. The air is filled with scents from the many restaurants that serve food from places like Algeria or Bangladesh, reflecting the diversity of the neighbourhood’s population. On a winter evening, I met Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour leader, then at the peak of his popularity, while we were both buying baklava from a popular shop in Finsbury Park.
Shortly after we moved into our new house, on the 13th of November 2016, the Bataclan attacks in Paris happened. I was working on an essay that I had to submit the following day while my housemates were complaining about how boring The Mission by Roland Joffé was, a film that they didn’t get to finish watching. Upon hearing what was happening, we all gathered in Nick’s room, as he was watching the news all the time anyway, and who naturally went on to pursue a career in journalism. Me and Zoe had just returned from Paris, where we had done an Erasmus exchange, and kept repeating: We could have been there. In December 2015, the UK approved in Parliament to bomb Syria. I remember heated debates from the many kitchens of our home about the UK’s involvement. Around that time, Rosa told me that she was listening to Someday at Christmas by Stevie Wonder on her way to university and started crying uncontrollably on the tube.
In the house and in the world, many things happened that year: we hosted a George Michael - Club Tropicana- themed party, Rosa and Evan got together, we found out the Brexit referendum was actually going to take place, I hosted a gigantic Jagermeister tap in my room, borrowed from Zoe’s workplace, while Donald Trump was in the middle of his election campaign.
The result of the Brexit referendum took us by surprise in our liberal London bubble. We had been planning a party for the day after the Brexit vote, in order to celebrate Nick’s birthday and the result that would decide, or so we thought, the UK’s devotion to the European Union’s values. It wasn’t meant to be. On the 23rd of June, in the evening, Evan and Rosa went out clubbing in the trashy places around our area, trying to forget about the electoral stress with the help of cheesy bangers and cheap vodka. Nick, Zoe and I watched the vote count live on TV. Disheartened, I gave up early and went to bed and Zoe did the same later on. Nick stayed up all night, eyes transfixed on the screen. He teared up when he realized the UK decided to leave the European Union on his birthday. The following day, we all sat around an improvised table in front of our house and shared a continental breakfast, for Europe’s sake. A middle aged man passing by noticed us and helplessly disclosed: This is the worst day of my life. In the meantime, Nigel Farage, the former UKIP party leader, was announcing the newly gained independence of the UK. Mechanically, we began the preparations for the party that became a session of collective sadness, dread and disappointment turned into frantic dancing and too much punch.
Since then, a lot has changed in our lives and in the world. Donald Trump almost completed a presidential term that I would describe as turbulent at the very least, while the Brexit ride, remarkably bumpy, is going forward without a clear end in sight. Rosa and Evan broke up, she moved to Glasgow for a master’s degree, and Evan moved to Milano for a job. Zoe relocated to Paris for a master’s degree as well, while Nick has been living in Liverpool, his hometown, working for an important local newspaper. I stayed in London. The last time we all saw each other was at my birthday celebration in December, when they traveled from all over the place and I hosted them on uncomfortable sofas. I threw my birthday party on the day after the last Parliamentary elections in the UK and the Conservative party’s sweeping victory. Throughout the night, the conversations fluctuated from monologues anti-Boris Johnson, anti-Tory and critiques of the Labour Party for their poor leadership, election campaign and treatment of the Greens. However, we had our share of dance, Cher, and the sour-cherry liqueur my parents make and ship over to me.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, we are all scattered around the world, but we speak to one another more often than we normally would. I enjoy it when my friends go to the shop or for a walk during our video calls, so that I get a sense - through the pixelated squares on my screen - of how other cities are handling these odd times. Things progressed differently in each country. In order to understand how we individually lived through a communal strange experience, I asked my former housemates to write their thoughts for a week. It was a sort of experiment that offered us a common preoccupation. At the end of the diary, we draw the line and reflect on how things are going in our respective cities, when in Europe the number of deaths and infections seems to decrease and people are starting to feel the summer’s breeze.
It’s joyful escapism to read that some of them are with one foot out of quarantine, free to get a balayage in Paris, to ride their bike in the little town of Gorgonzola or to share breadsticks with their Milanese friends. Even if from afar.
Below you can find our pandemic diaries. Click on the names beside each window to read them.