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What It’s Like to Get Back out in the World for the First Time

By AFAR Editors

Jun 4, 2020

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Collage photos: Andrew Rowat, Charissa Fey, Mari Luz, Lyndsey Tramuta, Diane Soonyeon Kang and Laura Dannen Redman

As countries around the world slowly start to reopen bars, restaurants, and public spaces from COVID-19 restrictions, what does it feel like to re-enter after being shut in for months?

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The world is reopening—sorta. And though not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to work from home or to choose when to venture out back into the world, many of us call ourselves that lucky.

With that, we turned to our contributors in cities around the globe to hear what it’s like to return to routine. From visiting a mall in Bangkok to flying, again, these anecdotes capture the trepidation, the excitement, and the weirdness of it all. 

The first . . . meal out with friends in Seoul

After hibernating indoors for weeks, both in New York and again in Korea, I was craving something spicy, saucy, and deeply satisfying: buffalo wings. While it’s not the first thing that pops into mind when thinking of Korea, it’s a comfort food I turn to time and time again. And just weeks after arriving in Seoul and going through the strict government-mandated quarantine, I was in need of some comfort. To feed my buffalo wing craving, a few friends and I headed over to Southside Parlor, a casual bar in Itaewon that also acts as a sort of refuge for foreigners. 

The weather was perfect that night—a cool 70 degrees—too early in the season for mosquitoes or pests. We headed to the rooftop after placing an order for buffalo wings, with a Paper Plane cocktail in one hand. After finding a seat upstairs, I closed my eyes for a brief blissful moment after sipping my drink as I took it all in. The slight breeze, the fruity taste of the amaro from my drink, and chattering laughter in the background. I felt like I was in a bubble, far away from the chaos of New York, and eerily normal considering all that was going on. A part of me felt guilty and anxious when thinking of the situation in the U.S. while the other part of me clung to the feeling of normalcy and safety. My wings arrived, and I ate them ravenously. —Diane Sooyeon Kang, visual storyteller, on April 17 in Seoul, Korea

The first . . . walk on the beach in Barcelona

The first thing I wanted to do when everyone was finally allowed out to walk and get some exercise again was to see the sea. At 8 p.m., I met a friend and we walked about 15 minutes from my place in Poblenou to the water. The streets were busy with people and we tried to pick an empty route. When we got to the sea, there were bikes and runners everywhere; you had to zigzag to keep a distance. 

It was nice to see the water—you’re allowed to surf or exercise in the sea but not to hang out on the beach. But the feeling was also bad. I was happy to see the water, but I wasn’t happy to see all these people everywhere. While it’s nice to see life outside and everyone getting back to normal life in a way, it’s scary in a way, too. People are relaxing too much, and we don’t know if we’re going to get better or get worse again. —Sonia Lertxundi, teacher, on May 1 in Barcelona

The first . . . ice cream cone on the Jersey Shore as summer kicks off

We knew Strollo’s Lighthouse in Long Branch, New Jersey, was more or less closed—its neon lights had been dimmed and only one window remained open for takeaway pints of ice cream—but we had a birthday to celebrate, and dammit, we’d find a way to eat soft-serve ice cream! We raided our kitchen and packed a bag with sprinkles, cones, napkins, spoons, an ice cream scooper, and our masks, and drove the 4.5 miles to our ice cream oasis.

As we pulled up, we actually, audibly gasped: The lights were on! All the pickup windows were open! People were sitting at socially distanced picnic tables eating freshly swirled ice cream cones! We could barely contain ourselves as we stood way back from the counter, shouting our orders through our masks as the hard-working Strollo’s teenager shouted back (“Chocolate fudge?! You mean hot fudge?”). Cash was handed over, hands were sanitized, and three generations of Redmans sat down absolutely giddy, licking our dripping cones as we talked about something normal for once: that summer may actually come this year. —Laura Dannen Redman, AFAR digital content director, on May 12 in Long Branch, NJ

The first . . . conversation at a Parisian café  

For eight weeks, my husband and I made filter coffee once, sometimes twice, a day. Using our well-loved Chemex, we took the time (we had the time!) to spend preparing it, waiting for it to brew, and drinking it leisurely. But as we neared the end of strict confinement in Paris, I was eager to start imagining my first outings for coffee—for that first creamy, perfectly executed cappuccino from one of my favorite local spots, Dreamin’ Man. May 11 rolled around and I excitedly messaged the owner on Instagram (his main tool for communication), fully prepared to throw on shoes and a mask and race over to see him. “Tomorrow! We’ll start take-away tomorrow. Thank you!” he replied, polite as ever. 

I put my coffee outing into my calendar—the first “event” in nearly two months—and made a plan to reunite with a friend. As I approached the sliver of a café the next afternoon, I felt a frisson of excitement: I was seeing people! More importantly, I was reconnecting with what I love most about Paris—the exchanges over coffee. A handful of people were lined up with proper distance, waiting for their turn to order. I queued with my friend and remarked how it almost felt like old times. We would have to drink outside and couldn’t hold forth with the owner for very long, but we were baby-stepping back into the one ritual I missed the most and that was a good start. “Lindsey! Thank you for your support! One-shot crème?” Some things don’t change.  —Lindsey Tramuta, journalist and author of The New Paris and The New Parisienne, on May 12 in Paris

The first . . . cycle through Central Park

After seven years of living in New York City, my husband and I have our summer Saturday routine down pat: From our home in Harlem, we bike or walk the six blocks to Central Park, where we set up our blankets and anchor them with coolers packed with bread, cheese, fruit, salami, and drinks. But this year, we’ve hesitated. It’s busy outdoors. It’s rained a lot. And when we do go out, we mostly stay within a two-block radius of our apartment, opting to walk and bike in the smaller park closer to us. 

In mid-May, my weather app was showing a string of warm weekend days ahead, and the city had been socially distancing for more than a month—plenty of time for everyone to get the hang of the new normal. We decided to bike to Central Park to survey the scene. We put on our masks and gloves, and zipped down Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the sunshine to enter the park at 110th Street. Even at its fringes, the park was teeming with people walking, biking, scootering, sitting, and picnicking. The bike paths were as crowded as I remembered them being in the fall, if not more so; just like usual, there were racers gunning it, and packs of tourists wobbling uphill. We biked down 20 blocks before exiting the park and returning home via the street, uneasy with how the lawns, hills, and paths were only getting more and more crowded the farther south we went. 

Rationally, I know that people will want to be outside when the weather is nicer—after all, we were complicit. And with so much of New York City still closed, it’s natural that the parks would be a destination. I’m just not sure it’s possible for so many people to socially distance and stay safe. —Katherine LaGrave, AFAR digital features editor, on May 16 in NYC

The first . . . domestic flight in Europe

Last week, I boarded an airplane for the first time since lockdown began in the United Kingdom. From our home in London, I flew to Zurich with my Swiss husband and daughter for family reasons. I have visited Switzerland nearly 40 times, and it feels like returning home in so many ways—but through the wide eyes of a giddy American who will never get over the cleanliness of the airport, the efficiency of the trains, the pragmatism of the Swiss.

I thought flying would feel like pure freedom again. But it didn’t. I felt heavy with sadness, mourning the loss of how easy it had been to hop between countries and families.

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We flew SWISS, which currently has a single flight a day to Zurich, compared to 10 to 12 normally. Because there are so few passengers, check-in and security were thankfully quick and easy. (We had to present a marriage certificate so I could legally enter Switzerland.) But Heathrow, normally the busiest airport in Europe, felt postapocalyptic, with almost all shops and restaurants closed. There was a palpable sense of tension and fear. Almost all passengers (reassuringly) wore masks; one decided to don a full plastic hazmat suit for the flight.

How lucky we were pre-COVID to breeze through the airport, to buy magazines and chocolate at Boots, to plan trips to see family and friends. New security measures will be comforting to many but will strain any ease left in travel.

The window seat gave me an extraordinary view, rising above the clouds, and descending into the Swiss landscape I know now so well. I’ve always known how lucky I am to have a powerful passport, at least for now, but I wonder if our children will feel the same sense of travel freedom and open borders. —Annie Fitzsimmons, AFAR Advisor editor, on May 19 out of Heathrow 

The first . . . espresso in Florence

I’ve been living in the same neighborhood in Florence for about six years. My daily routine is simple: Wake up, get ready, and head to the bar round the corner, Bar de’ Giudici, aka “Bar da Giulio” or “at Giulio’s.” It’s named after the owner, who has been there since 1975.

My brain simply doesn’t start up without espresso. And espresso for me is only the one from the bar. Espresso is not just a coffee; it’s a moment to myself: the moment where you enter the bar, order “the same,” chitchat with fellow breakfasters about family, weather, or political corruption. My coffee comes warm, I sip it up, leave coins on the counter, wish everyone the best, and run to the office! But ever since lockdown I’d rather have no coffee than use a home machine. So I waited.

The first day of bars reopening after lockdown, my first mission was then very clear: espresso da Giulio! A few people were standing in line outside, since more than two people can’t enter at a time. I waited for my turn, and when I finally said hi to Giulio, Sofia, and Ari, I was already back to life! My first sip was like kissing for the first time. Wow! An explosion of flavors; the power of its heat. It’s funny how you rediscover things that you had just considered a routine. Sweet creamy espresso, I missed you. My routine, I missed that, too.

Life is coming back again, slowly. We will have to rebuild our companies, our society, and our future, and I am not sure what to expect. But no matter what, I am sure where to start: with a morning coffee da Giulio. —Luca Perfetto, cofounder and CEO of Florencetown, Florence, on May 20

The first . . . trip to the mall in Bangkok

I never thought I’d say this out loud: I’ve missed the mall. The blast of ice-cool air-conditioning after a trek through Bangkok’s steamy streets. The eat-whatever-you-fancy food courts. This microcosm is so full of life. After almost two months of closed doors, shopping malls in Bangkok opened again on May 17. Last weekend, in desperate need of a haircut and new clothes, I set out to Iconsiam, one of the city’s biggest malls. 

Upon disembarking the shuttle ferry crossing the Chao Phraya River, I was welcomed with a thermometer gun to my head (35.8 C, or 96.4 F, it read—hmm) and a squirt of disinfectant on my hands. The plaza, normally crowded with selfie-snapping tourists, was eerily empty. Entering the mall was not inferior to a TSA routine: I had to register my phone, scan a QR code to “check in,” walk over a bridge spraying antibacterial fog, then pose for a headshot photo—face mask and all—only to arrive at a quiet mall where staff were clad in full PPE gear. Every other restaurant table was taped off with a big X, and many stores had designed a one-way shopping route. Despite all this, it offered a welcome whiff of erstwhile normalcy. The soup dumplings I had for lunch (seated at a different table from my wife) tasted better than ever, the air-con blast felt cooler. At every shop I entered, another temperature check, another QR scan. Privacy be damned—but I got my hair cut, so at least I look good on my next check-in headshot. —Chris Schalkx, writer, on May 22 in Bangkok

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