The New Normal in Franeker

By Albert Meijer

“Assholes,” I say and instantly regret it.

The object of my aggression are two elderly people on e-bikes, passing us from behind, and in doing so were closer to us than the acceptable distance promoted in our new “1.5 meter society.” Luckily the wind catches my words before they reach their ears.

I’m walking parts of the ‘Slachtedyk’-marathon, a 42km road across an ancient dyke which used to connect the Wadden Sea to the long-since disappeared Middle Sea, protecting the Frisian countryside in the North of the Netherlands against floods. Every Sunday, I walk part of the route with my parents and sister. They live together in the house where I grew up, somewhere between the beginning and end point of the Slachtedyk.

Since I visited my mom’s birthday in March, I never left the house. This part of the country is ideal for social distancing: it’s low-populated, there are meadows, lakes and lots of wind, and people keep to their selves a lot anyway.

The virus hasn’t hit the area as hard as other parts of the country, but my family is extra careful. My dad is undergoing chemotherapy; my sister is a nurse in an elderly home. We order our groceries online, and keep out all visitors. Thankfully, we have a dog. Otherwise, I’d be afraid my parents wouldn’t ever go outside at all.

It’s a privilege, a luxury to be able to live in quarantine – but it’s not easy to be here. I miss seeing my friends and colleagues in non-digital form; I miss the city I live in; I miss sleeping in my own bed, or any bed – I’ve slept on an air mattress in the past months; I miss going to concerts and bars; and as a queer person, I am slowly going crazy from the heteronormativity and sexlessness surrounding me every day.

I’m sure my parents and sister are slowly going mad too. My sister’s workplace at times feels like a ticking time bomb, now restrictions on visitors are slowly being lifted. She works with people with dementia, which makes social distancing impossible, and face masks would cause too much confusion and agony. We have decided that if the virus comes to her workplace, she will have to move in with a friend, for my dad’s safety.

My dad has enough to worry about without the virus. My mom isn’t allowed to come to join him for the chemotherapy in the hospital anymore. While the rest of the country is slowly coming back to normal life again, they are still anxious about having friends and family over in the backyard for a coffee. Only the dog seems to be having the time of his life, with all the attention he’s getting now.

These Sundays on the Slachtedyk are what keeps us sane. We walk through grasslands full of rare birds with wondrous names: lapwings, god wits and skylarks greet us, each with their distinct songs. This area is one of the main nesting areas for Europe’s bird population. Some parts of the dyke are accessible to bikes and cars, but there is never much traffic. What strikes me is how close the passers-by sometimes come. And how upset I get when they do.

The new normal in the Netherlands is starting to look more and more like the old normal: shops are open, restaurants will re-open soon as well. The death toll is in a steady decline, and people are more confident to go out to meet each other, especially outside. The Curve seems to have flattened and along with it is our willingness to socially distance.

On the Slachtedyk, this means most people are careless when they walk or bike past. And logically, they should be – if they don’t cough or sneeze in your direction at the exact moment of passing you, it seems unlikely an infected person could transmit the virus in such a swift encounter, especially in a place that is always windy.

Our prime-minister is doing all he can to get back to this ‘old normal’, even if that past normality wasn’t deserved. Why are we pumping so much extra money in our national airline, KLM, even if we now flying at the same rate is unlikely and unsustainable? Why are we giving out money to the same multinationals who are evading to pay a fair share of our (and the rest of the world’s) taxes due to the Netherlands status as a tax haven? Why is our finance minister making poorly-timed remarks about Spain and Italy’s economic strategies, affected directly by our own tax haven status? Why are some companies getting more funding on their own than the entire cultural sector combined? Why are we only finding out now that Romanian guest workers in our meat industry are living in crammed, unsafe spaces, which now makes them extra vulnerable for contagion? Why is the government urging us to applaud nurses and doctors and teachers now, after years of budget cuts, without putting forward long term financial plans to match? And why is no one getting angry at this?

My anger is lost in the wind. I hope I can walk it off. ∎


circle-cropped (3)Albert Meijer (The Netherlands, 1986) combines an office job in the cultural field with freelance writing and making music. He lives in Utrecht.

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