Sometimes you suddenly cross a line.
Yesterday, we decided on the spur of the moment – tempted by the thought of eating something different from the last twelve satisfying, but occasionally too predictable, weeks of home cooking – to just do it : go and eat in a favourite restaurant. I had actually already broken my own hymen of taboo a couple of hours earlier.
I was lonely.
When D went back to work on Monday, I enjoyed being alone for about 45 minutes max, then immediately felt too solitary and empty. For me, the best solitude is when you are not alone – when the other person is in another part of the house for most of the day, doing their thing, and you are doing yours, and then you meet up for coffee and meals at certain times and then watch something together in the evening. To me, this is the essence of happiness. You become completely acclimatised to it when you are together 24/7 for three entire months. It becomes natural – you are inseparable. And I felt both intensely restless yet also desolate on Monday, going down to the lake alone, trying desperately hard to concentrate on, and enjoy, reading. Yesterday, I couldn’t do it again and decided to just spontaneously meet him outside the school gates, something – unbelievably – I have never done before in 14 years of D working there.
I had been at home, looked at the clock as it ticked towards the afternoon and just thought fuck it – I am going to cycle down into Kamakura, even though it looked like storm clouds overhead and heavy rain, packing raincoats into my rucksack just in case and then just gliding down the hill at full speed past all the pungently fecund flowers that are out right now suffusing the air with their bee smells, all the moist greenery, past the temples and the people on the streets (still not so many, but some sitting spaced out in coffee shops, a sense of stirring and the lid being taken off the pressure pot now that the state of emergency has officially been lifted across the whole of Japan, a lightening in the air, a less tightening in the chest, a physically palpable sensation of cautious optimism and movement tangible in the shared space). I felt enlivened and bolstered, like we were all entering a new chapter.
People are cautious though. Which is obviously the right attitude to be taking. Even if it took quite a long while to get to that point. As reported here, when I was going crazy with exasperation from January onwards, the quarantined, disease-ridden cruise ship stranded at Yokohama Port dealt with the authorities with jaw-grindingly infuriating incompetence, the refusal of our schools to look the situation squarely in the face when I was permanently baffled by the willing oblivion that seemed to be the status quo for so long when it was obvious that the world was heading into a pandemic and there seemed to be zero trend towards social distancing and I feared a calamitous siege of the hospitals as seen in many other countries, somehow, people just kept their calm, gradually adopted the measures (most people wear masks here anyway, especially in winter and spring; people are naturally more socially distant in the sense of not shaking hands nor hugging and have for a long time had to learn how to negotiate space given the situation on rush hour trains on weekday mornings); somehow, the government’s policy – which I was melodramatically opposed to for a long while, and it did, it must said,get a bit hairy for a while with Tokyo hospitals becoming overwhelmed with severely affected COVID 19 patients – of limited, precision point testing, but treating those that obviously needed to be treated, while the population as a while complied with the lockdown, unlike the foolish protesters in some other countries who can only ever seen government intervention as a threat to their ‘liberty even though by doing so they are risking the shutdown of their lungs and then the failure and then perishing of their vital organs, leading to painful death in complete isolation – somehow ( I still can’t completely explain it to myself fully and will be re-analysing this for a while) , the country as a whole has pulled it off, the World Health Organisation making a statement the other day that in Japan, the coronavirus response had been a ‘success’.
Obviously, we are not ‘out of the woods’. Anxiety remains. Convenience stores and most shops have plastic surrounding tills and cashier desks; the employees are masked, and it has become natural to not stand too close to other people. But, as I said, the feeling was definitely different yesterday, and, seeing an outside table free, tucked in a corner on a woody veranda by itself, a seat directly facing Duncan’s school gate across the street, I made the split-second, unconscious decision to just park my bike, buy a beer, and sit down, watching the world go by, the masked teachers coming out one by one from the security guarded gate (there are no students there yet, and they are working reduced schedules, gearing up for a probable full return – like me – for next week. )
I went to the counter. Paid my money. Sat down. The server brought me my drink. I sipped from my glass. Watched faces, others walking by – it felt humanising and stimulating. Still a little daunting, drinking from the glass. But hygiene has never been a problem in Japan, and the servers in the cafe were very cautious; I figured it was no more dangerous than handling the grocery shopping that we have been doing locally for the last twelve weeks – and anyway, the crisp, draught ice cold beer tasted delicious. I felt a sense of ‘general positivity’ for the first time in a long while: you realise that, yes, you might be alright Jack – and we were; in our suppressed dream routine, in the house and on the usual cycling route – but it is not the same as being a part of the outside world, which everyone, except for the most confirmed social recluse or hermit, ultimately wants. I loved seeing human beings again. A young couple, sat on the other side of the veranda, having an argument – both pretty and ludicrously petulant; I couldn’t understand why she was taking his aggressive taunts at her, and could picture them in old age, if they stayed together, encrusted with misery and resentment if they didn’t change their ways, but that was just my personal take – they were just immature and learning how to do relationships; they will doubtlessly break up ; the point was that I could look at them and listen to them, keep myself to myself, but be part of a wider picture. It felt hydrating.
Eventually, D emerged from the school premises, surprised but happy to see me, and we decided, rather than go straight home, to just take some random meanderings down the backstreets of Kamakura, taking pictures of things we had never noticed before, seeing new small details; taking them all in. We decided to just go and sit outside one of our favourite temples and just talk for a while, passing a Chinese restaurant we had once been to on the way and I suddenly decided: I WANT TO EAT CHICKEN IN THAT PLACE. LET’S GO. Normally, of course, this would be completely par for the course – you go out, you eat out. Recently, however, it has felt unthinkable; horrifying. Even yesterday morning. But it is interesting how the psyche works: sometimes you just move through the inhibiting membrane to the other side again without thinking too hard; it is a natural metamorphosis. I said, jokingly, I am willing to risk my life for some spiced Chinese chicken and dumplings and D, to my amusement, was also effortlessly persuaded.
So we mosied around further until it was open for dinner, dipping in and out of old temples sites or down the back streets or by certain points of the river, until it was time for opening hour, and we took the plunge. We went in. The only customers. The tables spaced out (exactly as they were before; I am a claustrophobe, so can only go into restaurants, bars, cafes or pubs where there is enough room to breathe and manoeuvre – I won’t even consider them otherwise; I know which places work for me ); open windows were letting pleasantly naturally temperatured air move freely about the premises; the staff were all masked and delighted they had some customers, and we sat down. We ordered. Ordering food. Later, some other people came in and took up some more tables- the restaurant had also been doing a take out service for people who wanted freshly cooked Chinese food on their way back from the office: a fair number of people cycling or walking by to stop and order their dinner. The background music was good – very eclectic, cool, not too loud – a frequent problem for me – the food was fine; not as amazing as I had been expecting, perhaps, but still extremely satisfying; spicy with chilli and they do a great lemongrass-infused, almond and apricot stoned annindofu : but it was rather the normality of the situation that was thrilling, the sense that the world had shifted a gear a little, that economic activity was resuming; that the inevitable interdependence of people in any society was starting up again. I felt kind of elated.
Also, I have to say, I liked the symbolic nature of the restaurant that we had chosen, which I think was semi-deliberate on my part, once I had thought of it. I am no apologist for the government of China: the regime is brutal, and now on a rampage: God knows what is going to happen in Hong Kong; I don’t believe their death toll or infection figures any more than I do Russia’s or any other country’s; and it is obvious that the oppressive Communist party were trying to conceal the true extent of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, and that the very reason that the majority of these coronaviruses exist in the first place is due to the circumstances in which livestock and wild animals are kept in wet markets in China and other regions in Asia, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Though it will be extremely difficult to stop or reduce these cultural practices (try making Northern Europeans stop drinking heavily, or get Americans to give up their guns; ingrained tendencies are very hard to remove from any culture), the W.H.O must insist that action be taken in order to prevent a reoccurrence of this global disaster. They have to be pressured into doing so, diplomatically. Presumably, China, if only for its own interests, and to regain some international respect, will have already realized this too and will do their best to halt the trade in exotic species. If anyone has the militaristic power to stamp something out, surely it is China.
Despite all of this, though, to me, only the most facile, and unintelligent person will reduce this pandemic to a China-hating trope. Racist people have such dull minds. Such limited thinkers. So unphilosophical, bigoted and trite. I despise nothing more. Things are never completely simple. Which countries colonised more vulnerable ones in the past and reduced their cultures to debt-ridden third world states prone to disease? MERS originated in the Middle East; Ebola in Africa; the opioid epidemic a complex economic web over continents and social groups. Where did malaria first come from? : who procured the mosquitoes? It could even be argued that the biggest global killers, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, stem directly from the Fast Food Culture of the USA and the global behemoths that deliberately spread the unhealthy practices that follow when such innutritious food is introduced into a society; diseases caused by the intentional spread for economic gain by poor eating habits surely account for far more deaths a year than this virus ever will. It is all complex; we are all interlinked; It is simply boring, moronic, and not necessary to demonize one particular society ; the way that Trump leeringly pronounces the ‘China virus’, with extra sarcastic emphasis on the former word, is sickening to the human soul: people who actually think for themselves, and are not swayed by cheap, vile, impulses. The man is such a dick. Always the very lowest common denominator. Tacky. Corrupt to the marrow. Undignifying to his country. It’s almost as if the atrocious death toll in the USA is a spiritual reaction to his ‘government’s’ leadership; a malaise made physically manifest. Perhaps I am going too far saying that, I don’t know, but in any case, to me, the answer is not to become more insular, more nationalistic, more racist, more full of hatred, more ready to blame and to avoid responsibility for one’s own mistakes, but to open up. Start the dialogue. And yesterday’s meal, which felt like a new beginning for me, felt like the ideal place to start.