Set in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe, Jen Burke Anderson’s “Shelter: A Photo Gallery” captures a particular—unique—feeling of isolation and confusion. The second-person narration and narrative structure—a series of time-stamped snapshots—are perfectly paired to encapsulate the sense of displacement of the moment.
- Port of Barcelona, 18 February 2020, 10:44pm Left: you, hand placed on the heart of your gentleman friend (right); background: overnight ferry boat to Savona, Italy.
His expression: a small smile under knit brows. Yours: eyes a bit popped, mouth a bit open.
You are leaving your gentleman friend behind. This is a writer’s journey, a journey of solitude. In twenty hours you will land in northwestern Italy and amble through Central Europe on your Eurail pass, stopping and starting by whim, then conclude in the Balkans. The plan is to procure a small apartment for perhaps a year, perhaps longer, finish your novel, and claw your way into the mid-career writer slot—something you have struggled and failed to do with a full-time job.
You have worked and saved for this moment for the last ten years. The moment you turn and start for the gangplank, you’ll be more alone than you’ve ever been, starting a life you’ve wanted so badly for so long you were afraid to even look at it. Only after five decades of life and six months of therapy have you found the guts to make this night happen.
The ship sails at eleven. You’re looking forward to getting settled in your cabin and relaxing into ferry life: a snack at one of the restaurants, a drink at one of the bars, shooting the shit with fellow travelers, letting the Mediterranean slipstream tousle your hair on the deck. The ferry line website spared no detail.
Coronavirus is a news story among other news stories. Something to watch, certainly, but no reason to go home.
- Embarkation lounge, Barcelona–Savona ferry, 10:55pm Moroccan families seated around an empty dancefloor, variously falling asleep, checking their phones, and staring into space. The whole scene is like a wedding feast for which the bride and groom never showed.
Raï music booms through the sound system with techno beats and vocoder-ized vocals. The few women present look profoundly bored and unhappy.
Nobody disembarks at Barcelona. In fact, nobody shows any interest in Barcelona at all.
- Concierge desk, Barcelona–Savona ferry, 10:55pm Italian ferry crewman, seated, left, shooting an arch expression up at you as you inquire whether you are on the correct boat.
This is not an unreasonable question. Already tonight this ferry line damn near sent you to Rome out of casual staff negligence at the dock.
But you, standing off-camera to the right, are trying to convey an additional discomfort to this man, sweeping your eyes this way and that. There are groups of Moroccan men camped out everywhere: in the darkened TV lounge, in the disused alcove near the fire extinguisher. The smell of unwashed socks is overwhelming.
Is this an Italian ship? you want to blurt out to the concierge, someone you now realize you’re trying to conscript as an ally. Is it in fact bound for Savona, Italy?
In a moment he will explain to you, in a manner indicating he’d had enough of you before he even knew you existed, that the route originates in Tangier. That this flimsy cardboard slip with the bar code is your cabin key.
- Stairwell wall, Barcelona–Savona ferry, 11:15pm Arabic coronavirus information poster featuring pictograms of violently coughing men and humanoids clutching their stomachs. A man sleeps on the floor underneath it.
The ship has set sail. You can’t find your cabin.
- North-facing deck, Barcelona–Savona ferry, 19 February 2020, 12:55pm Moroccan man and wife in traditional dress conversing quietly with their backs to you.
The two stand like twin towers of companionship. The man nests one outward-facing palm in the other on the small of his back; her elbows indicate a prayerful arrangement of hands by her heart. The martial poise of each, their particular rooting to the deck and practiced distance from one another, scans like a warm visual shorthand for home—each the other’s home, and side by side a greater home still.
A man is singing the call to midday prayer from within a mosque installed in a former deckside storage bay. Rolled-up prayer mats and dozens of shoes point to the entrance.
Your eyes sting. The Mediterranean’s blue-gold winter sun pours through the portals and onto the briny rot oozing from this vessel’s 1980s seams.
It was a long night. You had to purchase your drinking water bottle-by-bottle at the one open bar, then get lost in the maze of identical, poorly signed cabin-corridors. You were followed once.
Men hollered in Arabic up and down the halls all night. Your cabin had no phone system, no panic button, not even a peephole on the door. The locks seemed like a joke. The scolding looks you got from the men in the stairwells, their unsatisfied searches for a ring on your finger, played across the backs of your eyelids as you skipped across the surface of sleep, semiconsciously coiled to strike.
Do these passengers live onboard, stateless, traveling in circles? Even more men slept on the mezzanine floors, the edge of the empty swimming pool, possessions spread out around them as though for sale. Cigarette smoke and cooking smells leaked out from under cabin doors.
Nobody onboard—not even the Italian crewmen—extends themselves for conversation.
- Port of Savona, Italy, 9:05pm You, seated in the ship’s disembarkation lounge, right hand on suitcase handle, left hand holding your dirty, dropping head. You were supposed to be let off an hour ago.
Nobody has been let off. Not since about ten Italian police stormed on and dispersed into the ship’s innards.
Everyone is silent. Even the bartender, with whom you’ve established a vague rapport after purchasing five bottles of water and eight lemonades just to sit in his somewhat protective jurisdiction.
You want off this goddamned ship like you have never wanted anything in your life. You hate these people. Crew, passengers, everybody. Their misery, their entrenched self-obfuscation.
The air is stale and hot.
Shut that stairwell poster out of your mind, no, don’t go there, corona, coronavirus, quarantine, somebody on board’s got it, quarantine ship, trapped here for one week, two weeks, three weeks, a news story and then the world just forgets.
Epochs will unspool and then, without apology or explanation, a ship’s mate will unbolt the gangway.
- Wide shot, outskirts of Savona, 10:15pm Under a high-mast roadway light, three tiny figures: you and two Savona residents who don’t really speak English making the long walk into the center of town.
You have no room booked for tonight. You didn’t trust the ship’s wifi. You didn’t trust the ship’s anything.
Admittedly you should have planned this part better, but wasn’t it also reasonable to assume there’d be hotels galore by the ferry dock, lousy with off-season rooms?
Especially at 8pm, when the ship was supposed to have let you off?
Your blood sugar is crashing. You got screwed out of the dinner you paid for because the crew never announced it.
- Hostale N—, Savona, 11:15pm You, lifting the mattress and checking for bedbugs. The crocodilian concierge downstairs took one look at you—your Americanness, your fear—and charged you €50.
The left side of your skull is pulsing where you whacked your head on a staircase overhang.
The soap dish is cracked. There’s a hair in the sink. The shower fixture is nearly rusted off the tiles.
You try not to touch anything. You use your own shirt to dry your face.
In the morning, when you pull your canvas suitcase upright, there will be a scrim of filth clinging to the part that touched the floor. Still, all you needed last night was a door you could shut behind you and lock. That you did get.
- Balcony, Hotel M—, Savona, 20 February 2020, 5:14pm Two patio chairs with wing-tipped backs parked at a chic glass table. The sun sinks behind an electric-peach Mediterranean.
Surely the trip turns around here. Surely the whole thing simply got off to a rough start, the way anything can. Hotel M— is the first place on this entire sojourn that has exceeded your expectations. The room lives and breathes with light.
You can only afford two nights here but that’s enough. Hot water is running into the oversized bathtub blessed with a portal window. You’ve emptied the hotel’s aromatherapy salts into its depths.
You will deep-cleanse, deep-rest, set your head to rights, and start writing.
- Black rainclouds, red-striped smokestack floodlit by a sliver of sun, tenements, line of uniform roadway lights, Vado Ligure, 21 February 2020, 7:31am Your morning walk to the industrial port north of Savona. You are trying not to think about the candy store yesterday.
You walked in and a whole cadre of owners and locals, as one, turned and gave you such an interrogating glare that you instantly spun around and walked out.
Was it something to do with this coronavirus business?
Or is this simply Northern Italy in winter? Visit Europe off-season and you get lower fares, fewer crowds, and silver-chipped cloudscapes. Also, expect to feel as though you’ve stumbled into someone’s intimate family business meeting and cannot find the exit. You’re an intruder with green candy, and in the season of backstage whispers and slow-moving repairs, green candy is just a vulgarity.
Seek the one person in town who can at least feign happiness to see you—the café lady, the news-kiosk man—and greet them daily.
- Left to right: patrons, cashier, managers, Supermarket L—, Savona, 22 February 2020, 6:05pm You have just set off the store’s alarm by walking through the wrong exit. Your right hand holds a bag heavy with pastries and oranges; your left waves a greeting as they all shout and gesticulate at you. You smile and nod stupidly, somehow unsurprised at this turn of events and yet ready to scream and start hurling oranges at them like a drunk at a fairground attraction.
The cashier points and yells: If you run, they will follow.
The bells are painful, designed to humiliate by volume. Anyone who was having a difficult evening is now having an impossible evening.
Assistant manager yells to manager; manager yells at cashier; several cashiers yell back at manager; customers yell at everybody. Frantic activity up in the observatory office. Nobody knows how to shut it down. It’s been so long since anyone has done anything this stupid that the solution predates the employee turnover.
In the end you just slink away, less with management’s blessing than with the realization that no plan was ever in place to deal with the likes of you.
The alarm bells follow you down the dark footpath back to your hotel. Roadway to your right, abandoned seaside factories to your left.
- Cover of La Stampa, 24 February 2020, 10:51am Soldiers, facemasks, machine guns presented. The edge of a northeastern Italian town.
That’s the northeast, you tell yourself. You’re in northwestern Italy. Miles away.
The reportage is unsettling, but focus on the facts: you’re okay. This little café is so pleasant, such a hustle of local friendship, doing such a brisk business.
Authorities seem to be containing COVID-19 in Lombardia and Veneto anyway. The media likes to scare people.
But you scrap those plans for dropping in on your colleague in Switzerland, reachable only via Milan.
The ship. Sitting there. Trapped.
Maybe westward movement isn’t the worst idea. What’s Turin like?
- Savona–Turin Trenitalia connection, 25 February 2020, 11:23am You, the sole passenger in your carriage, gazing out the window down the river-veined plunges of the Ligurian Apennines, the dejected communes slashed with clotheslines, crumbling down cliffs.
Will Bosnia be like this?
- Porta Nuova railway station, Turin, 1:45pm The electronic departures board spanning the services hall, yellow dot-matrix glowing on black.
About one-quarter of the routes have been canceled.
- Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, Turin, 1:51pm You, emerging from the railway station portal, looking down the way, working out Turin.
Everyone’s on the phone, marching around with crisis eyes locked on the pavement ten feet ahead. Cashmere-scarved girls and venture-capital boys speed-walk through giant blocks of palatial decay, colonnades and galleries with filth-blackened corners, beggars on cardboard slabs under the catacomb arches. The railway station façade is blasted with graffiti. Basically, Turin is San Francisco with basilicas and better shopping. Private opulence, public squalor.
And here you will lay your head, marking time, waiting for a bright idea.
- Concierge, Hotel R—, Turin, 26 February 2020, 5:15pm He’s about fifty-five, with rectangular spectacles and a sharp bald head, regarding you as though you are dribbling on yourself. You have just asked him if there is a map of the area available.
The more desperate Turin becomes for customers, the more abusive they are to the few they get. Hotel R— is empty and getting emptier by the minute. Ditto the café that charged you for a slice of cake you never ordered, hoping you’d be too intimidated to contest the bill.
Italian headlines have begun to scream pandemia and if you’re not a coronavirus believer by now, you’re scared enough of those who are to start holding on to your money.
- Piazza Carlo Felice, 27 February 2020, 2:14pm Close-up: bourgeois man in his early sixties, fur-collared coat, fedora, under-eye ruts the color of rhubarb.
You accidentally ran right into him while stepping out of the pharmacy, distracted by the long lines inside for hand sanitizer and facemasks. Chin after chin tipped down in silent dread.
The man, leather briefcase in hand, reared back from you and now stares. Your talk-starved mind scrambles for apology in the correct language—lo ciento? mi scusi? entschuldigung? But you stand there mute, panicking, frozen.
His hatred of you goes back to the Medici. You are not just stupid, clumsy, and rude; you are evil.
This look continues for a full three seconds.
Afterwards you will return to your hotel room, bolt the door, lie down, stare at the wall, and emerge only when you’re too hungry not to look for dinner.
I think, your cousin texts you from her home in Berlin, Italy is headed for total lockdown.
You never did get your aspirin from the pharmacy.
- Piazza Carlo Felice, 28 February 2020, 8:23am The rows of wood-and-iron bistro tables lining the galleries, so lively with students and young globalistas when you arrived a few days ago, stand empty and silent.
- Porta Nuova railway station, Gruppo Torinese Trasporti office, 10:47am Female GTT employee, thirty-six, shouting and pointing you out the door.
This is your second railway assistance office this morning. The first one made you wait forty-five minutes for the news that you had entirely the wrong agency for a ticket to France.
All you need is to reach Modane, some sixty-seven miles up the way and over the French border. There’s online, of course, but then you’d have to print out the ticket reservation and you’re on the road with no printer. Hotel R—’s reception desk could do you the favor, if Hotel R—’s reception desk were not manned by hostile cadavers.
The Trenitalia self-service ticket kiosks only gave you baffling strings of pictographs indicating some hellish itinerary combining bus, train, fifteen-minute walk, bus again. You have no idea how to use Europe’s intercity buses and anyway, dammit, you’ve paid for a Eurail pass. You’re not going to ride some milk truck without a toilet that might be detained at the border for hours.
Surely there’s a magic bullet somewhere, you just have to open the right door.
The Gruppo Torinese Trasporti pretended to have no idea what your Eurail pass was. They exist to remind you that they are Italian and you are not.
No! this GTT woman is telling you, after insisting nobody there speaks any English. Impossible! All sold out this week.
You strongly suspect this is bullshit. Online ninety minutes ago there seemed to be seats to Modane.
But, she is saying, go GTT office at Porta Susa! France tickets from GTT Porta Susa!
- Porta Susa railway station, electronic departures board, 12:01pm About one-third of the routes have been canceled.
- Porta Susa railway station, Gruppo Torinese Trasporti office, 12:14pm Seated female GTT employee, twenty-six, face turned up to you in a mask of contempt-tinged apathy. She has just answered no to Parla Inglese?
And now you both listen to the second hand on the clock.
You are the only patron.
Another GTT matron sashays over. Train, you are sputtering, and realize you are also shaking a fist next to your heart. Train. France. Ticket. Today. Me need.
“GTT office Porta Nuova!” bellows the matron, pointing you out the door. “France tickets there!”
“I just came from—they sent me—listen, man!”
In the name of God! you want to scream, whacking your fists down on the service counter and fogging up their eyewear, there is a pandemic butchering your country! It is your responsibility to help me get out instead of lolling about like film stars in a fucking VIP lounge! Will you sell me a ticket to France or do I have to set this goddamned office on fire?
The GTT Porto Susa are listening.
You scythe across them all with narrowed eyes before crumpling the tiny queue-number ticket, hurling it on the floor, and swanning out into the atrium.
- Hotel R— bathroom, 7:33pm You, staring back at yourself from the mirror, which reflects a chat show on RAI television with a distinguished guest pleading for la calma, la razionalità while a packed studio audience bursts into applause. In a moment RAI will run a nostalgic documentary about a 1970s pop diva.
You look awful. You have just used the hotel’s shaky wifi to book an air ticket to Munich, shattering your vow never to take one of those environmentally disastrous short-distance flights again.
But what choice is there?
- Swiss Alps, aerial view, Turin–Munich, 11:50am The flight is two-thirds empty. The young couple in row 7 are wearing what looks like hazmat gear.
It occurs to you that you have not yet written one word.
- Munich International Airport, 28 February 2020, 2:14pm Extreme closeup: your face, suspended, as you wait for the automatic doors from baggage collection to open into the arrival hall.
What you’re expecting: a phalanx of Polizei, facemasks and machine guns, public-health heavies in cleanroom suits shoving instruments in your facial holes, frightlights, interrogation. You’ve got every receipt bundled in chronological order, ready to go, ready to prove every single place you’ve been—nowhere near Lombardia, nowhere near Veneto! What will it take for Germany not to send you right back for even attempting to escape the dysfunctional terrorscape of Northern Italy and the infection you’ve surely brought with you?
You’ve pre-loaded the answer to every question you might be asked, ready to be detained, to speak deferentially, to put on the same laboring rictus you wore at your law-firm secretary gig: I anticipate your concerns, I’m intelligent and capable, you can count on me, I will be an asset to your entity.
You’re ready to kiss ten years’ worth of ass. You’re ready to fight.
In a moment the doors will open into the congenial bustle of a Northern European airport. Cafés, kiosks, the Bayern FC fan shop, attractive people on business calls.
And absolutely, positively no barriers. Nobody even seeing you, really.
You are free. Free to go.
Coronavirus is an Italian problem.
Free to go! Free!
- Munich: lifestyle video montage, 29 February—10 March 2020. Soundtrack: “E2-E4” by Manuel Göttsching.
You, swinging through the Schwabing district, looking more relaxed and happy than you have in years.
Popping the collar of a smart grey shirt and giving yourself a sidelong glance in a boutique mirror.
At a classy kneipe with your shopping bags parked under the table, sipping an espresso, flipping dismissively through the alarming headlines of this morning’s Die Welt.
Strolling through Lenbachhaus Gallerie with your camera, snapping the portrait of Bertolt Brecht. Sinking into the black-and-chrome Bauhaus furniture, texting Brecht to your gentleman friend.
Reading German Vogue in the pedicure chair, feet soaking. The salon is packed with a waiting list, yet the salon director is calling a huddle with half the employees. Some of them cast breakaway glances over the room and the clients.
One of them looks right at you, unsmiling.
You, contentedly dozing off while your hairdresser combs out your freshly highlighted hair with ferocious, confidence-inducing strokes, conversing in Turkish with her headscarved mother on the magazine bench. You keep hearing: corona, corona.
You, seated in the front row of the author talk at Munich Literaturhaus. Hundreds are seated in the rows behind you. And despite the satisfying dissection of contemporary malaise in alternating English and German, despite how awestruck you are by the whole red-velvet-draped affair, you can’t stop wondering: Could one of us have it?
Austria is closing its border with Italy. But you know what the Austrians are like.
Maybe eastward movement isn’t the worst idea.
Passau is supposed to be nice.
And in Czechia you’ll start saving money.
- Bavarian village cathedral; red roof, green onion-bulb spire, framed in bare winter trees and blurred by the motion of the train, 10 March 2020, 2:14pm If only the slovenly man in his forties seated across from you did not keep hacking, wheezing, and only covering his mouth with a balled fist! Should you get up and move? But where? The train is nearly full, and is it really worth reciprocating the impolitesse?
- Passau Bahnhof entrance, 4:32pm Shiftless young men and women drinking around the bus stop, stamping their feet in the slaking rain. The massive railway hotel across the street is scaffolded and shuddering top to bottom with renovations. The road gives way to American-style chain shops and a four-story mall. Your hotel is somewhere at the end of all this.
- Passau’s Danube shore viewed from the empty beer garden of an old-town kneipe, 5:45pm Behind you this establishment, surely popular on warm spring afternoons, is shuttered and dark with a notice taped on its door.
- Face of walking-tour guide: male, sixty-one, blue wool cap, no more than six travelers behind him; Saint Stephen’s Dom Square, 11 March 2020, 12:06pm Schöne Tag, he says to you sadly, trotzdem.
Lovely day to you, in spite of it all.
The first acknowledgement, the first commiseration. Something about these days weighs on your shoulder like a cold, heavy bird then flaps away the second you turn to look it in the face.
Long shadows on the flagstones. Hard iron bells from high towers.
Genau, you respond gratefully. Trotzdem.
The cathedral has tacked a COVID-19 notice on its doors.
- Letter taped on the reception door of a legacy hotel, 12 March 2020, 3:20pm Very dear guests, after much and painful consideration we have taken the decision to close our doors in the current situation. We look forward at some point in the future…
You spoke to your gentleman friend on the phone this morning. The authorities wouldn’t really close the hotels, would they? Of course not. Surely what they mean is that they won’t accept any new guests by way of discouraging travel. But they couldn’t just jilt the guests they have, surely that’s… you know, against the Geneva Convention or something… isn’t it?
- CNN International, 14 March 2020, 7:31pm An overcrowded arrival hall in an American airport. Tens of thousands are rushing to return and being made to wait for hours in backed-up hothouses, breathing over each other’s shoulders while staff scramble to check their temperatures and stamp their passports.
If my son isn’t sick now, writes one mother on Instagram as she relays his images from within the scene, he’s going to be.
- Spire of St. Matthäus chapel viewed through early morning fog from your hotel window after a sleepless night, 16 March 2020, 6:06am A ghostly two-tone hoot rings out from a barren tree.
Cuckoo. An actual cuckoo bird.
Suddenly you get why cuckoo is slang for bonkers. The bird’s almost paranormal song makes you disbelieve your senses.
- Television flatscreen with Angela Merkel in a plum-colored blazer, 10:01am Germany is closing its borders with France, Switzerland, and Austria, whose borders almost completely surround you in Passau.
Am I dreaming? ceases to be a figure of speech. The hotel room walls, furniture, floral drapery burn into your retinas as though you’ve just been told a loved one has died. All your life Europe’s open borders have been like gravity or the boiling point of water, you don’t even think about the fact that they will never change.
Your thumbnail will land on your lower lip: Then I will just stay here. Hunker down at this hotel until it all blows over. Madness to get on a train, madness to go back through Munich. I’ve got the money and the time. Two weeks? Three weeks? A month at the most, then this thing will get under control and the borders will re-open. Cross into Czechia. Start moving for real, start writing for real. Everything will be fine.
As you stand there reckoning: a small sensation will click on within the cochleae of your inner ears.
A tone, a frequency—or maybe you’re just imagining the whole thing.
- Left, standing, smiling: waitress at Café S—, hands folded in palms-upright position at her belly; right, seated on banquette: you, pen in hand, looking up at her from your open diary on the table next to the espresso cup and half-eaten croissant, 17 March 2020, 8:18am
We very much appreciate your patronage, she is telling you. It has been our pleasure to serve you. But we must tell you that we are closing tomorrow, in accordance with the current situation. We do apologize.
Well then. You will arrange for breakfast at the hotel tomorrow.
Outside, the see-saw of a German ambulance siren. Then another.
- Ludwigstrasse, group of merchants conferring in a distanced circle on the cobblestones, 10:51am Left, background: ice cream café owner, male, forty-one, aproned, shrugging and walking towards them. Right, background: young waitress looping security cable through the armrests of stacked bistro chairs.
Their expressions ping between disbelief, confusion, complaint, resignation, even some amusement.
- Wide-angle shot, your hotel breakfast room, 18 March 2020, 7:41am You, seated left on the banquette, plate piled high with cold cuts, bread, and scrambled eggs as you try to get both breakfast and lunch out of this forced extravagance. Right, standing, illuminated by the buffet counter’s orange heat lamps as they share the news feed of a single phone: three young catering staff.
You are the sole patron.
- Hotel reception desk, 10:10am
—Good morning. May I book one more night at this hotel?
—No, I’m very sorry, but we are closing at noon today. Because of the current situation.
The receptionist’s false eyelashes shudder on her lids like convulsing tarantulas. She is so young, this woman, groping for the words, the courtly terminology, that will absolve her of the shame of refusing someone shelter at the starting shot of a global public health emergency.
—Well, what do I—do I go to the police, do I…?
—I’m sorry. It’s very difficult.
Nothing has prepared either of you for this. With this exchange, both of you—she the local, you the foreigner—snap over into the new world, equally lost, equally abandoned by custom and common sense.
In the end what you say is: I understand. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Up the staircase for the last time.
- You, hurling a sweater across the hotel room onto the bed, where you are piling everything else to cram sideways into your suitcase with shaking hands, 10:41am You’ve just realized checkout is at eleven. You’ve been living in this hotel for a week with the assumption you’d be digging in even longer. You’re pulling damp washing from the shower railing, stuffing half-written postcards into side-pockets, throwing packaged snacks into a tote bag—will the store shelves be empty by tomorrow?
And where will you be? Who the hell will take you? Your cousin in Berlin, who works at a school, is under isolation orders; ditto her two daughters, who just made it in from Glasgow and London.
- Television flatscreen with Bavarian governor Markus Söder, 11:20am The sweatiest man in Germany is announcing that Bavaria is going into immediate and severe lockdown. Skiers flooding back from the Austrian superinfection center of Bad Ischl have caused this region’s numbers to explode.
- Long, narrow shot taken from the hotel lounge: two Polizei speaking with the receptionist while the remainder of the hotel staff file past them and into the back offices, 11:46am The police are ordering the place shuttered. The staff are being let go.
You have fewer than fifteen minutes of the hotel’s good graces and wifi. Your Berlin cousin and nieces are desperately combing the internet for any possible roof to place over your head.
- Extreme close-up, your eyes, 11:55am Your niece has found a place—the last available in Passau—through Airbnb, a business you have vowed never, ever to touch because it has culturally decimated entire neighborhoods of your home city.
It’s in the suburbs, a thirty-minute walk away.
The reservation will expire in five minutes, your cousin writes you. You have to make a decision now.
Then: Are you sure you don’t want to just try to get one of the last flights home?
CNN International. The overcrowded arrival halls.
Your president. Your country’s public health system, which is about as ready for a pandemic as it is for a fucking asteroid. Millions will be infected. And how many will die?
Book it, you write your cousin. Yes. Book it.
- Extreme long shot: you, from behind, scaling the hill of Neuberger Strasse in the mid-day heat, 12:34pm Bent by your baggage, wearing everything you couldn’t fit behind a zipper, knowing you took a very wrong turn somewhere.
You need water. You need a toilet.
What have you done? There is no turning back.
- Front door, three-story house, Passau suburbs, 1:01pm The German couple in their thirties—you are careful to practice the new Soziale Distanz with them—who stand on the doorstep are the sole barrier between you and homelessness, you and exposure to a life-threatening disease about which little is known.
Still, they’ve got your money. Your niece’s Airbnb account has paid up the flat for one month, by which time COVID-19 will surely have been contained.
If not, well then…
The couple’s English is halting. Your German is halting.
They are friendly. The man is on crutches yet clobbers his way up two flights of stairs to show you the flat with great enthusiasm. His usual travelers have been homebound in fright for weeks now.
It’s a good flat. The Danube is visible from the sunniest bedroom. Twentieth-century pop-culture kitsch decks the walls—Warhol, the Beatles, Jim Morrison, even a Coca-Cola calendar with moveable magnetic parts—and this makes you feel simultaneously at-home, and as though this day is a guillotine severing any last ties with the twentieth century itself. These totems of cool and fun now look like artifacts unearthed by some tectonic convulsion of fresh, strange fear. You observe yourself feeling this as though watching a total stranger floating outside the window.
In time you will learn a German word, mutterseelenallein (literally, “mother’s-souls alone”), which evolved phonetically from the French Huguenot refugee expression moi tout seul. A refugee you are not, rather some variety of official or unofficial outsider with resources, but that doesn’t change the fact that the world has shuffled its cards on you. As it turns out, you are a much easier mark than you ever suspected.
For now you seal the deal with the man on crutches, yes, yes, the flat is fine, you’ll take it, and the money passed electronically from your family to this Passauer couple (you’ll repay your kin when you finally get a hold of yourself) is the closest thing to an embrace of refuge you will receive this year.
The man of the house closes the door to the stairwell, and you are alone in your shelter.
What am I? A camera? An animal? You’ve done nothing but run since setting foot in Europe.
Your throat is scraped with thirst but you will not stand and get yourself a glass of water for another ten, fifteen minutes. Clocked, dumb, open-mouthed on the edge of the Danube-facing bed. The sensation inside your ears that began a few days ago now registers as physical pain. In a few days it will be replaced by a mysterious twinge in your left armpit, which will be replaced in six hours by a piercing headache on the back right-side quadrant of your skull, which in a few days will be replaced by one eyeball feeling larger than the other. These psychosomatic phantoms will dovetail for weeks, months, for the now-talked-of foreseeable future while you try to triage this whole mess (what are your options? who can help you? what do you even call your situation?), repair yourself, mend soul back into body in these still walls, these days like cold thick glass.
The bells of a Bavarian church chime two in the afternoon and it is—perversely, irreversibly—a beginning.
Jen Burke Anderson writes about Europe and her town, San Francisco. In 2018 she won first prize in the humor division of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and her short story “The Constantly Unfolding Horrors of Vasily Nikoleyevich” will be published in booklet form by The Fabulist this year. She blogs about cinema, psychology, and the arts on Medium. In 2020 she was stranded in Passau, Germany amidst the outbreak of COVID-19. “Shelter: A Photo Gallery” is the first chapter of a novel in progress about fear, loneliness, and revelation in lockdown-era Europe.