The dust falls from our travel boots. Laundry slouches in uncertain heaps. After 7 months on the road, the curious monkey returns to Amsterdam. Everything is the same. Nothing is the same. We’ve come home in a time of coronavirus.

It’s so quiet here. The freeway doesn’t hum. The birds no longer compete with the planes for airspace. No kids bike past our home on their way to soccer practice. It feels like the middle of summer when we locals abandon Amsterdam to the tourists. Except there are no tourists either.

Quiet comes in many shades. Angkor Wat is silent but for the ghosts. New Zealand is still if you can ignore the snuffling of the four-footed neighbors. In Amsterdam, today, I hear the quiet of a held breath.

Survival Mode

Quiet in Perth, Australia
Street art, Perth, Australia. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Preppers plan for events like this. A pandemic, nuclear war, mayhem. They expect the worst of their governments and even less of you and me. Like Tara Westover‘s family in the wilds of Idaho, they stockpile fuel and arms.

Not all preppers rough it. Peter Theil has a sheep station in New Zealand. Elon Musk is hoping to colonize Mars. Where do you plan to await the zombie apocalypse?

For a while, I thought I could outrun the coronavirus. Tasmania is nice and quiet. Not too many people and plenty of sheep. In fact, half the state is a national park. Maybe I could pitch a tent, survive on fish and berries and the contents of my bug out bag.

But this would require skills I do not possess. Much more sensible to hole up in my own home. Get my kids to provision me until this all blows over. Alas, the preppers have a term for this, too. It’s called bugging in.

New Eyes

One year ago, Marcus Tatton conceptualized a work called Viral Escapade. Three monumentally sized viruses carved out of wood. How could Tatton have foreseen its relevance? I saw his work at Sculpture by the Sea, a public art event in Perth, Australia. Three days later, that exhibit closed due to coronavirus.

Viral Escapade by Marcus Tatton, Cottesloe Beach, Australia. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The world moves fast. I can hardly hear it for the thump of blood in my ears. So many unknowns, no good answers. And yet, strangely, I feel grateful.

For the quiet pleasures of writing with pen and paper or to hold a good knife in my hand. For my vegetable garden that continues to produce greens for our salad tonight. To my sourdough starter as it roars back to life, promising bread for months to come. If all this makes me sound like a prepper, I assure you: I am not.

The doomsday prepper vision is unapologetically bleak: society as a fragile edifice, a thin veneer of behavioral norms over the abyss of greed and violence that is human nature.

Mark O’Connell, “The world isn’t ending and you are not a prepper” in The New York Times, 25 Mar 2020

Yes, our governments are faulty, some more than others. There is greed, too, and there may be violence to come. And still I think we are stronger together than apart.

Quiet in a Room

My hope in venturing around the world was to be able to see with new eyes. It wouldn’t be easy, Alain de Botton warned, especially once I got home. Old habits die hard. They blind us to what is in plain sight.

I walk the quiet streets of Amsterdam trying to see what’s new. The milkman is gone but his sign still stands: a Dutch girl in a winged white hat and yellow wooden clogs offers me cheese. I’ve never noticed her before. To me, she was a sign telling me whether I could still buy milk.

Pascal once said: The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. It’s an apt thought for these strange times. For many of us, the world has shrunken to the size of our homes. We’re stir-crazy, screen-addicted, reduced to running marathons on our balcony.

Take comfort in the knowledge that others have walked this path and survived. In 1790, Xaiver de Maistre pioneered the concept of room-travel. He shared his experiences in Journey around My Bedroom. He followed up that blockbuster with Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. De Maistre didn’t take a bug out bag. All he needed was a pair of pink and blue pajamas and a quiet mind to see his world through new eyes.