MOSCOW - I arrived from Washington the day before Russia closed its borders to most traffic. It seemed dramatic. It was dramatic — until I got to Moscow.
Russians don't really "do" drama, maybe because they've seen so much of it before. All I know is, there were no tests. No questions. No thermo-gadgets measuring our health as we streamed off the plane.
The border agent noted that the border was closing to travelers from the U.S. the next day.
"What will you do?" he asked.
"Well I live and work here, so I guess I'll just wait it out."
He nodded and hit the green button. I was in.
Once I reached the apartment that I share with my girlfriend, I called up a newly organized government hotline to declare my arrival from the U.S., which had been newly designated an "at risk" coronavirus hot zone.
I was not ordered technically into "quarantine," but into what authorities are calling "self isolation." The experience was a bit like much of the Russian government's coronavirus response: It sounds good but leaves you with more questions than answers.
"So will someone come by and check if I'm here?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," said the operator.
"What do I do if he needs testing or feels bad?" my girlfriend asked.
"Just take care of him."
We live on the second floor, which proved a godsend during a two-week quarantine in which I didn't step out of my door. For a while, we lowered a basket from the balcony to pick up gifts (read: food and beer) from friends and family.
Pathetic? Yes. Also unnecessary, it turns out. Moscow has loads of small businesses eager to deliver essentials at will. I'm happy they are there and I hope they survive the economic fallout. A shout-out to the delivery guys, too. Tip them if you can.
I've been impressed by the acts of online kindness aimed at helping all of us kill time smartly: Great Russian actors read fairy tales nightly — to a mostly adult audience, I suspect. Online concerts — adaptation of the Soviet tradition of "kvavtirnik" apartment concerts – have been a godsend.
But the greatest gift by far has been a Facebook flashmob project called Izo-Isoolatsiya, in which Russians cosplay out re-creations of great artworks at home. The group is now half a million strong. The home-rendered re-creations of world masterworks are often funny and full of Russians' sense of self-irony in the best sense of the word. In self isolation, we're alone. But we're alone together.
I spend entirely too much time staring out the same window. It's not an exciting view. Little foot traffic. Not too many cars. The occasional bird. If I'd known I'd be spending ALL my time here, I confess I might have invested more in the view. A few floors higher? A view of the Kremlin? But boring has its benefits. Before, I didn't understand fans of Norwegian slow-TV. Now I do.
I admire animals … my cat most of all. Quarantine has nothing on her. When we look out the window longingly. Or complain about the view. Or just get bored. She gives a look. A reminder. "Oh coooome on …"
Listen, folks. I get that we're all inside and looking to do projects we've been meaning to do. I have mine too. But those neighbors who've chosen to engage in home renovation projects with drills and pounding hammers deserve everything bad that might happen to them. I meant that. Almost. Pass the voodoo doll.
It's worth remembering that amid all the grim news, good things ARE happening. I've had three — count them, three! — friends who've had babies since lockdown. I can't help but think 19th birthdays for Gen-COVID-19 are going to be something out of this world.
The Russian response to the pandemic is either wholly adequate or a disaster in the making. Or somewhere in between. Russia has far fewer cases than its neighbors in China or Europe. But there are serious questions about the quality of testing and, possibly, attempts to keep the numbers artificially low. My job is to talk to people. The things they tell me suggest it will get worse before it gets better.
Pajamas are your enemy, a Spanish friend — and quarantine veteran — told me. I've tried to follow the advice. Getting dressed. Most times. OK, sometimes. Help.