There’s a special kind of sweetness in the cake baked by your landlady. No, this isn’t a poorly translated old Russian proverb. It’s simply a reflection on a rare city phenomenon – a cordial relationship between tenant and flat owner, specifically those who live in the same building. As Covid spread its unsanitised tentacles around the world, it also brought unlikely people together, united simply by their proximity to each other. A phenomenon my father, the master of the handy phrase, had many years ago described as “geo-personal”.
Love thy neighbour
“I’m just a flight away” is one of the most poignant throwbacks to The Lost World of 2019. A world where crisscrossing airline routes, chaotic as a Jackson Pollock canvas, crowded our collective travelling consciousness. How carefree, how innocent, how naïve we were. Now, it’s either love thy neighbour or perish of loneliness. In the early days of the pandemic, the Italians overwhelmed us with their balcony concerts, shared with all the neighbourhood. As the boot-shaped nation attempted to stamp out one of the earliest European outbreaks, we saw videos of sopranos and cellists defying an indifferent nature with operatic resilience. A beautiful demonstration of what the idea of community can mean in times of alienation.
Closer home, things weren’t that bad. As my next-door neighbour and I bemoaned the absence of our shared cook, we exchanged little glass dabbas filled with our cooking. I believe I got the better end of the deal, responding to her tangy vindaloo with bland sprouts. And though I might not have had the luxury of a would-be Puccini wafting in from the balcony, my dusty, netted window allowed the piano notes of the building’s resident musician to fly in on an afternoon breeze. Far from being buoyed, my heart sank every time she played her pet theme, which featured the doleful Celine Dion’s heart “going on”.
Ah, the nostalgia of those summer months when I pierced the silence of lockdown evenings with nervous laughter and asinine questions on Zoom cooking classes with friends. (“Is this a clove?” asked a fellow student one evening, instantly filling me with delusions of grandeur about my own culinary abilities.) In this advanced stage of pandemic adaptation, it’s all about social bubbles. Covid makes strange bedfellows. The freshly recovered hang together with an enviable confidence, united simply by the timing of their fall. High on antibodies, they look at the rest of the world with a barely concealed pity.
Those who have somehow dodged the disease so far – or been blissfully asymptomatic – have had to draw and redraw their social boundaries as skilfully as a gerrymandering US politician. Long-planned meet-ups are (rightly) abandoned at the last-minute because of classified information about one of the meeters’ safety lapses leaking. That acquaintance of many years who lives two lanes away and doesn’t go anywhere – she’s suddenly your back-up for those suddenly empty evenings. Just the idea that someone “safe” is a short walk away can keep you going; before you know it, Plan B is now your Plan A. Because this is the era of “geo-personal” relationships.
So close and yet so far
That warm-and-fuzzy neighbourhood feeling has a downside. Stepping out of the house in these times is an act riddled with danger. Just across the street, the excellent masseur throws me a soliciting glance that I find so difficult to resist. A few hundred metres away, the guard at my favourite pub asks me why I haven’t returned yet. Once I dodge these two trapdoors, I have ahead of me the landmine of my local cinema hall. This last temptation is easy to resist; they’re currently playing such despicable movies, it seems like a Netflix conspiracy to retain their dominion over pandemic entertainment.
In this atmosphere of constant doubt and debate, we have all learned to tell ourselves some comforting stories. Like stepping out to buy groceries in a crowded market is okay, but meeting a friend for a drink in a well-ventilated home is not. The logic behind this kind of abstinence might be questionable, but it makes us feel virtuous nonetheless. And with that I return to the landlady’s cake and Celine Dion’s laments while reassessing the contours of my geo-personal bubble.
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From HT Brunch, November 22, 2020
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