Living in Germany has always been my dream. Not just any I-wanna-be-a-pilot kind of dream, you know? If I were to place it on the imaginary podium of an imaginary race of dreams, it would definitely be up there, popping champagne showers on being a successful writer and a polyglot. Believe you me, this is the real deal.
Why the near irrational fascination, you ask? Personally, I think it starts from the language. Germans have always been stereotyped as cold and humourless beings, but the German language has so many words to describe emotions or feelings often insufficiently or indescribable in English. For example, Waldeinsamkeit (Wald = forest, Einsamkeit = loneliness) is used to describe the overwhelming feeling you get wandering alone in the wild. My favourite German word is Gerborgenheit, which can be loosely described as the sense of comfort, familiarity and security all combined into one. I do think language is the bridge into another’s culture, and that’s why I feel that the love towards Germany just naturally grew: the food, the traditions, the football… everything.
Thus, the dream was born, and just like any dreamer, I went to pursue it. I watched German shows almost on a ritual basis, on top of supporting my favourite football club (Borussia Dortmund) in the German Bundesliga, trying to understand the words coming out from the commentary. After National Service, I spent my free time before my university enrolment in German language courses, trying to prepare for the hopeful eventuality that one day, I might be able to live in Germany.
And since I will be in university, I began planning for a semester exchange in Germany. Hence, when the opportunity comes around in my penultimate term, I could not be happier. It seems too good to be true; the term lasts from February to June, just in time for EURO 2020, the zenith of European football tournaments; the location of the university is convenient enough for me to travel to neighbouring countries; and last and most importantly, a chance for me to experience the snippet of a dream that I have been holding on to for so long.
Then, out of nowhere, news of a deadly virus spreading in China started filtering into the mainstream media. I wasn’t really worried about it, as there were plenty of instances of such wannabe pandemics that were reported before, and with the exception of SARS, never really fully realised their potential. If anything, I thought, it would probably spread downwards towards parts of South-East Asia first, so I believe I would be much safer in Germany. Thus, when the first case of the novel coronavirus was first reported in Singapore four days before my departure, I felt rather lucky in some ways, since I would not be around to bear the brunt of this disease, if there was any.
The first couple of weeks in Germany went about pretty much in the way I imagined it to be. Made some new friends, explored a few nearby cities, got a little bit drunk — you know the drill. My happiest memory during my short stay there was probably participating in the Karneval or Fasching that marked the start of Lent, the equivalent of Mardi Gras or the Carnevale in Venice. I could remember the colourful parade floats passing by, throwing popcorns/candies/tissue paper, followed by the throng of festival goers, drinking beer (of course) and having fun. Ironically, the first case of COVID-19 in Germany was traced to a Karneval participant in a state up north from where I was located, but I don’t think anyone in the world could predict how rapid the virus will spread then.
Nonetheless, as the number of cases started picking up worldwide, I was beginning to feel a little bit concerned, but I always tried to reassure myself with plenty of ‘reasons’; such as the fact that Germany has one of the best healthcare systems in Europe, that so far the worst cases are happening in France and Italy, not Germany… everything I could throw at the growing shadow of doubt at the back of my mind. I guess the denial worked for a while, even as rumours of a recall back to my university in Singapore slowly emerged as the epicentre of the now-pandemic began to shift to Europe.
However, any semblance of a façade that I’ve put up in my mind came crashing down when the government announced that they will be suspending all overseas programmes until end July. Frankly, it was the worst moment of my life. The news was soul-crushing at best, and all the negative emotions that came rushing in afterwards — it felt like I was experiencing all five stages of grief at once. It felt like I lost all hope in life and what it offers, and there are nights when I would just stay up, looking at the ceiling of my room crying. Thinking about the emotional and financial costs of the trips that happened/were not going to happen, not to mention the possibility of a lifelong dream crushed forever, along with the overwhelming sense of despair, I began to isolate myself, not necessarily because of fear of contracting the virus (due to my previous history of having pneumonia), but simply because I was too depressed to leave my room. Every day felt like a monotony, a personal hell, a wicked Groundhog Day where you are watching the world pass by and yet you are unable to move.
It took a few messages and conversations with my family and friends to pull myself from the abyss. Some even came from friends that I rarely kept in contact with, which really speaks to me about the pandemic as a kind of litmus test for people. But fair-weathered friends aside, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much support or concern (given my abrasive personality at times), so I was surprised when it happened. Maybe it was a combination of this unexpected kindness and a gradual dawning of acceptance that helped me through this dark period, and for that, no words could adequately describe the sense of gratitude that I felt at that moment (and now, while I’m writing this.)
So what now?
As I’m stuck in my quarantine back in Singapore, I’m afraid the short answer is, I don’t know. I faced many disappointments before, but nothing like this. And from what I read in the news, no else has either. Some said the aftermath is going to be worse than the 2008 financial crisis or the Great Depression, some said this is the ‘World War’ of our time. But this is what I know — regretfully, in the face of such unprecedented personal cost and grief, we often forget that this pandemic affects everyone else as much as it affects you, if not greater. There is someone else crying, unable to sleep at night, someone else feeling depressed, unable to carry on with their lives even. Many might have shared the same dream as me, and many might have others, but they too feel the same rejection and despair.
And yet, despite the circumstances, I do believe that all is not lost. If there is anything numerous tragedies have taught us, our capacity to hope and dream will never diminish. My short sojourn in Germany have given me a glimpse into what could be, something to hold onto. In some way, I’m lucky enough, but now I know for a fact that this dream is not impossible. What happens after COVID-19 remains to be seen, but I won’t stop dreaming, and I hope others won’t too.