So far away: living abroad in the lockdown

Many foreigners living in Australia have been faced with a decision whether to stay or return home during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Pixabay)

“One day away,” I’ve said to myself over the two years I’ve lived in Australia.

I’ve said it whenever I’ve missed my home in Finland or just felt overwhelmed by the distance to my family and friends. One day in an airplane, 24 hours, and 15,198 kilometres to be exact.

If something happened, someone got sick or I would simply need to be there, I could, and it would just take one day.

Now it seems a world like that has slipped away, for the first time in most of our lives. Distance in our modern world that plane travel has shaped feels like an illusion. Now that the coronavirus outbreak has closed borders and grounded planes across the world, for people like me, it feels like staring down into a big, dark gap between here and there, uncertain when it can be crossed again.

As someone already prone to anxiety, I have thought about almost all catastrophic scenarios you could possibly think of.

I have of course worried about someone at home getting sick and me being unable to be there. I have also felt anxious about the uncertainty of when the next chance to travel to see everyone again will be, and then trying to accept that it might be a lot longer than I am used to.

These thoughts have been at times pretty draining to process.

But among feelings of frustration and fear, I have also found surprising ways to cope. And as a big surprise to myself, in a way it has been easier than I thought.

Living between two countries, two different lives, I’ve always felt that I live in a different reality, where the majority of my close friendships and contacts to my family still remain online.

I have an internalised clock that ticks in two different times, a Finnish and an Australian one. I know what time my friends wake up and respond to messages, when my mom has her lunch at work and often calls and I know what messaging apps are best for video calls when the internet turns slow. A big part of my relationship with my partner has been spent over long distance, where six-hour Facetime hangouts were the norm. I have even done my therapy sessions on Skype for a couple years now.

It has not always been easy and has almost always been a bit frustrating, but in maintaining social life online I have, somewhat unwantedly, become an expert.

Yet now there is a difference: my familiar reality has become a shared, collective one.

When no one has anywhere to be, everyone is at the same place: home and online. Surprisingly to myself and people around me asking how I was coping so far away from my other home, I have felt oddly less alone.

For the first time many of us are using social platforms the way they were intended to be used, to genuinely connect, and in the midst of the shared fear and anxiety it has been refreshing to witness.

I have already attended a Zoom birthday party, and have seen free online tutorials offered on everything from poetry to cooking and photography. A yoga teacher friend of mine said she had her biggest ever turnout for a class that was held online this week.

I know I am privileged in that I have a safe home to be in, do not have anyone more vulnerable to care for and even have some work left. But having more free time, and without the pressure to be busy that we often feel, I have felt less guilty for doing things I enjoy, like chatting about nothing important to my sister for hours, binging a series I have wanted to watch for ages or just spending time with my dog.

I have not yet started a great new creative project yet or begun Marie Kondo-ing my house but that has been equally fine too.

Accepting the current reality can feel too big a task to overcome but accepting our own feelings, or at least trying, no matter how difficult or painful they may be, can be a good place to start. I was recently reminded by someone (on Skype of course), that this, like everything, has a beginning and an end, and that the part in the middle is the painful bit.

And when that end eventually comes, I know the reunions with people I love will be some of the most memorable and cherished of my life, and the ones that I will be the most grateful for.