Stay (9600km from) home

“Yes that looks fun but I’ll do it in summer”. If I had a euro for every time those words echoed through my mind, I wouldn’t necessarily be rich but I would definitely be able to swap a good amount of long walks across Amsterdam for tram rides.

Au Pairs seem to be doing quite the opposite as their peers during this abnormal time. Now more than ever we are a crucial component of our host family. As my fellow au pair and wise, dear friend shared one day – we are carrying more than we know, and in some ways carrying those around us. Keeping our personal dealings to ourselves and having to lift the family every day in some ways which may seem like it goes unnoticed. When going to work (in most cases – going downstairs), being ‘not in the mood’ is not an option. We put aside all natural feelings that flow through us for the day and deal with it only when alone.

Mid march was when Dutch officials announced the state the country finds itself in amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Social distancing was encouraged and social gatherings of more than 100 people were banned and this was to last until the end of April. Moments after the announcement, I was flooding with Facebook notifications involving updates on the events and concerts I had so looked forward to which were now AFGELAST. 10 days later we were told measures had increased as have COVID-19 cases. Gatherings of more than two people are now prohibited and social distancing, self isolation and unnecessary movement is in place until 1 June (later extended to 1 September – goodbye European summer music festivals).

Dutch officials addressed the nation at the exact same time president Cyril Ramaphosa announced lockdown in South Africa, leaving me with 72 hours to decide if I want to stay here in the Netherlands, essentially locked down in a small town on this continent oozing with opportunity and plans I had made for myself; or to return home, not be able to hug my family upon arrival, self isolate for 21 days, not see the friends I miss so dearly and head into what would be my third consecutive winter.

I stayed. I am fortunate to be in a position where I am still able to work, and have a host family that is incredibly supportive and encouraging. I recognise that not all au pairs are in my position and may not have the greatest relationship with their host families, so the decision for them to stay may not have been as easy. The weather started to take a dramatic turn for Dutch standards (it was the first time in months it wasn’t so cold that wearing uncomfortable stockings and thermals were non negotiable). I had plans for the coming months. I could save money. But what for? What if this pandemic caused us to live like this for longer than the three months forecasted? What if it worsens and I go back to South Africa, backtracking to where the virus stands in Europe?

I found myself experiencing familiar feelings from a few years ago that I would rather to have experienced in the near future. Denial. Anger. Depression. Bargaining. I found myself digging into the archives of my psychology lectures and realised that these form part of the five stages of grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross Model. These do not have to come in a particular order. (I was yet to enter experience stage 5 – acceptance, especially after hearing news of losing a family member and a pet back home since lockdown started, and not being able to do anything about it)

This interview with grief expert and co-author to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler, explains the model in more detail and relates it to the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights how important it is to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, make it manageable and see the light at the end of this indefinite tunnel we find ourselves in.

I also found solace in this quote by Dr Jenn Hardy: “It’s ok to grieve the loss of what you thought these next few months would bring. You don’t have to bear it all with a smile on your face.”

As with most things in life, I am not the only one experiencing this. Deciding to become an Au Pair is a decision that comes with great thought and planning. We know that our hard work will be rewarded with numerous opportunities for the experiences of a lifetime. We dream of weekend getaways to surrounding countries, and realise those don’t have to stay dreams. It is very possible. We work through the long winter days, knowing that we are saving for that week or two of holiday in the summer. I am sure this is not at all how most of us envisioned our au pair year to go.

I am also completely aware of my privilege during this time, this is a choice I made and do not expect pity from anyone. My heart still aches for those who are stuck in abusive homes, and for those stuck with 10 other people in a house with one bedroom and limited resources. For parents who are expected to juggle working from home while at the same time trying to educate their young children or helping their child finish matric.

For those working on the front line to fight this pandemic and for their families who aren’t able to comfort them after a long, hard day’s work. For those working on the front line to fight this pandemic, who live alone and attempt to go and buy bread, milk and an apple after their 30 hour shift only to find shelves empty due to panic buying.

To those who have lost loved ones not only to COVID-19 but also other causes who will now not have the celebration of life they deserve due to regulations. Coronavirus has affected every single person in a unique way – but that does not mean you need to suppress your feelings because others may have bigger or smaller struggles than you.

You may also feel overwhelmed with articles advising you to ‘keep busy’ or ‘develop a skill’ during the situation you find yourself in. Yes, it is possible to do so and it can be great. To an extent. Do not let it create a subliminal pressure to keep up with what the rest of your feed is doing. It’s okay to do absolutely nothing but process your thoughts. There is no right thing to do or best way to spend lockdown.

If you do feel overwhelmed by suggestions, stop reading here.

However, if you are interested in trying something new, the below has really offered a sweet escape during lockdown. Use it, don’t use it:

Podcasts are always a nice little break from your surroundings. Some gems:
– Deliciously Ella for all things #wellness
– We Dive Deeper, George Ezra & Friends and Table Manners all offer interesting out of the box interviews with musicians.
– LuAnna the Podcast for some humour (warning – explicit content and mostly inappropriate but shares real funny, real stories from real people).

Scribd is offering a 30 day free trial, giving you access to a world of online books, magazines, articles, sheet music – the works. A book I read recently and will read over and over again because I feel it speaks to many parts where I find myself right now is In My Vel: ’n Reis by South African author Azille Coetzee. This memoir addresses the issues of (among others) identity as 1) an African and what that means in the African and global context 2) an Afrikaner and where that places you in society. I was particularly drawn to it due to the fact that it follows Coetzee’s time living in the Netherlands and trying to immerse herself into Dutch culture while sharing the challenges she faces and grappling with why South Africa has such a grip on her. This is a must read for anyone who has lived abroad, or anyone struggling to pinpoint their position in contemporary South African society.

Use this time in whatever way you want to, without putting pressure on yourself to use it “wisely”. There are worse places to be in a pandemic, but home will always be most desired. But we’re pretty lucky to be in a spot where nature is not on lockdown and the sunshine is there to keep you company. And if you’re looking for a song to accompany you, this one is best served with a smile and a pinch of gratitude.

– Emma Cloete

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