Shibuya, Tokyo.

COVID-19 Diary: Stuck in Tokyo

I was about to hop on a plane and start a new life in Europe. Then a global pandemic hit.

6 AM. My alarm rings. It’s Tuesday morning, and I am not going to work. So I snooze. For an hour. All’s fair in wars and pandemics.

7 AM. My alarm rings again. It’s still Tuesday. I snooze for another hour, but my well-honed sense of guilt and duty finally gets the better of me. I browse my Twitter feed sleepily. Email before breakfast is taboo. There’s no telling what sort of news The New York Times broke to me overnight. “Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain…”, says the notification. Oh God, he’s dead, isn’t he? (Don’t worry, he’s fine.)

But there’s an email I dread even more. It’s an email telling me that my flight from Tokyo to Vilnius has been cancelled, again. Or, as LOT Polish Airlines eloquently put it:

*************ATTENTION********************
***YOUR FLIGHTS HAVE BEEN CANCELLED***
***TO CONFIRM NEW HOURS OF YOUR TRAVEL***
***PLEASE CONTACT OUR CALL CENTER***
***PH: +4008822057 / +48-22-577-95-73***
***SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE***
******************************************

I try not to count the days I’ve been stuck in my 16 m² hotel room in Tokyo. Unfortunately, not counting is hard when the calculation is so simple: Number of Days Stuck = Today's Day of Month + 1.

In May, I will need a new formula.

My 16 m² life. Granted, the view leaves something to be desired.

8 AM. I start my daily Spanish lesson. My method can be best described as “whatever I feel like learning”. The only requirement is that I learn something. Today, I cycle through 20 new words (el barrio gets me down the rabbit hole of Thalía memories), then spend an hour researching verbs. It turns out, Spanish grammar is not inherently exciting. And yet I’m pretty pumped (in the time of a pandemic, when everything is relative, pumped means not holding my head in my hands, staring vaguely at the screen). Yesterday I decided that having studied Spanish for three weeks I was now ready for “Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal”. After struggling through the first sentence, I then realised that my knowledge of present simple might not, after all, be sufficient for a novel written almost exclusively in the past tense. So I’m now cramming el pretérito indefinido.

9:30 AM. I’m ready to face reality. 24 new cases in Lithuania, 25 deaths in Japan, Americans continue protesting against shelter-in-place orders.

And no cancelled flights.

I’m conflicted. Relieved, because there’s still a chance I will be able to leave Tokyo in a week. Disappointed, because my flight from Vilnius to Moscow via Minsk in May is still scheduled — I am clearly not going to make the trip, and I’d really like my 77 euros back. Hopeful, because if Belarus keeps pretending COVID-19 doesn’t exist, I might be able to reach Lithuania via Minsk. Ashamed, because thinking about my flight while people in Belarus are getting sick is just selfish.

A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”

“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have,” said Hermione nastily, picking up her quill again.

— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Almost 10 AM. I grab my jacket and leave. The hotel is deserted — I have not met a single patron, and I’m wondering if they’re keeping it open just for me. But they’re still following the rules. Yesterday the guy from the front desk called and asked me when I’d like my room cleaned. He didn’t ask me if I wanted it cleaned. Hotel rooms in Japan must be cleaned at least once every three days for “sanitary reasons”.

I love fresh towels, really. But having one’s lair tidied by an outsider is rather stressful. You see, they touch things. They also bring things. One of the key assumptions in microeconomics is that more is always better. I beg to differ. When you’re squeezed in a tiny room with no wardrobe and three suitcases than contain your entire life, Marie Kondo >> Hal Varian.

The hairdryer? I stuck it behind the TV. The phone? Same (it turns out that getting it out while it’s ringing is nerve-racking: you’ve got to make sure the TV is still standing after the ordeal, and who the hell put all those books there?!). The Braun clock, the emergency light, and the six pairs of slippers are in the safe. The safe’s too small for bathrobes, so the four of them are now on top of the bulky air ionizer that I crammed underneath the desk behind the two bins. This is my life, and it works — until a well-meaning cleaner brings another pair of slippers.

The worst, however, is invisible. It seems that the last time the well-meaning cleaner emptied my two bins, he also switched them around. Why, I fume, while moving my trash, piece by piece, from incombustibles to combustibles. Because your distress gives him pleasure, responds my grumpy imagination mockingly. I’d dismiss it, but then I see myself in the mirror, and I’m not so sure anymore. Because he also mixed shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in the shower. I can’t exactly see without my glasses, and definitely not when water is pouring down my eyes. So I’m having a bad hair day today.

Not than anyone’s going to notice. The media is saying that Tokyoites continue shopping and drinking amidst social distancing orders. That might be so, but the area surrounding my hotel is (for a city with a population density of 6,349/km²) deserted. Every morning, I choose a random patch on the map and go on an expedition. Most stores and restaurants are closed, but a few remain open, offering take-away or even a sit-in lunch. I never go inside. Instead, I pass by slowly, imagining myself devouring the fake food, savouring the menu photos, taking in the mouth-watering smells. When I get back to the hotel, I finish my feast by looking at photos of churros con chocolate.

I’m vegetarian. I don’t even like fish. And yet I linger, breathing in the smell of grilled mackerel.

11 AM. I scrub my hands and finally scratch my nose. I’ve perfected the art of delaying itches and sneezes (hayfever…) by contracting my various facial muscles, but nothing, nothing compares to the good old-fashioned scratch with a finger.

For the next few hours, I’m a woman on a self-improvement mission. Right now, my late mornings are devoted to probability and statistics.

After an hour or so, I suddenly realise I have trouble breathing. Oh no, I panic, I’ve got it, haven’t I? A moment or two later I remember that my asthma hasn’t gone anywhere and that this will pass, just like it does every day. Unless I freak out — stress, it turns out, makes the tiny muscles around my airways squeeze even more tightly, severely restricting the airflow. I breathe in. Reflect. Smell hemp cream on my hands. It’s alright, I think, I haven’t yet lost my sense of smell. I go back to statistics.

2 PM. I become distracted long before 2 PM. Thoughts of food start overtaking those of finding joint probability density functions when a joint cumulative density function is known. 2 PM is the highlight of my day. I put my statistics book away and prepare for a banquet: a humongous apple, müesli, yoghurt, and nuts. I’ve been eating a variation of this for lunch for the past 22 days, and I am sick of apples. Tomorrow, I’ll have to look for alternatives.

The thing is, I’d rather eat apples — or even starve to death — than go grocery shopping more than once a week. Grocery shopping means meeting people. People carry the virus. If I get the virus, I am doomed. While I might not be at a greater risk than an average 32-year-old (so far there’s been no indication that asthma would make things worse), I have no health insurance. And that reason alone is terrifying enough to turn me into a hermit.

The cursed apples.

Until the end of March, I was just another resident of Japan. On the evening of March 31, I was supposed to leave the country and start a new life in Europe. I did the paperwork, sold my furniture, cancelled my rent, shipped my books, packed the rest. The dreaded email came a day before the flight.

So I moved to a hotel and went to the city hall to sign up for national health insurance. It turns out, I am both legally required to have insurance, and legally not allowed to. An immigration limbo. The puzzled official suggested I get travel insurance instead. You know, the thing that requires you to be a resident of one country (which I am not?), requires you to be a tourist in another (which I am definitely not), and considers COVID-19 force majeure. I thanked the official, then kicked a streetlamp outside. Let them deport me, I mused bitterly.

So here I am, strategically shopping once a week and otherwise avoiding all contact with humans. The thing is, while I miss mashed potatoes, pumpkin soup, bread and butter, vanilla ice cream, scones with jam, (really, I could go on forever), I’ve done everything I can to minimize my risk of catching the damned pestilence. I might come out of the pandemic slightly crazy and malnourished, but I will be alive, pretty good in Spanish, well versed in philosophy, proficient in calculus, skilled in econometrics, competent in development economics, and who knows what else. I’d rather be all that while also sipping a soy latte at a Starbucks in London, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Bookworm (but I sometimes go on real adventures) · Obsessive thinker · Inconsistent writer · “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” — Douglas Adams

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