It really seems as though you can get used to pretty much anything, given enough time. Whatever was shocking and disruptive months ago has by now become a sort of new normality for many people – including the new rules, the masks everywhere and the slight unease whenever you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself in a larger crowd. Like many people, I have been away on holiday for a week recently. Being in academia (who else does this???), I still worked in the evenings, but was at least able to sit on the beach during the days. We were staying in Denmark, so the beach was not too busy (and very windy) and everything felt pretty relaxed on the whole.
What really got me was just how relaxed everything was – especially when I first went to the supermarket and no one, absolutely no one was wearing a mask. I was automatically rummaging through my bag on the way into the shop, locating the mask and about to put it on when I realised that everything around me was entirely normal. There was a sign telling customers to be respectful of other people’s space and to keep your distance, but that was not going to be too much of an issue in a supermarket that only had a handful of other customers in it. At first this felt totally confusing, and I went to the cashier to check whether I indeed did not have to wear a mask in this shop. The young woman smiled at me (from behind her shiny new perspex barrier) and shook her head with an expression that seemed to convey both reassurance and also a little bit of pity for my overactive sense of hygiene.
For a few minutes I just did not know what to do after that. Clearly, no one was required to wear this sort of thing here, and in such a context, wearing a mask could be interpreted as a sign that I am in fact ill and am trying to contain an infection. I was not ill, but on the other hand I was feeling fairly guilty for going on a holiday in the first place at a time when infection is spreading and every type of movement across borders (or anywhere beyond your usual circles) amounts to an avoidable act of exposure. I never really feel at ease as a tourist anyway, and always suspect that tourism is one of the excesses of modernity that we will be held accountable for at some not-so-distant point in the future – but now you can add being a potential vector of disease to this balance sheet. So I hung around the entrance for a few moments and then – very gingerly – went into the shop to pick up the things that I had come for. Without mask. It felt bizarre. There were no other people around, as it was just before closing time, but it still felt radical (and slightly unprincipled) in some way.
Over the course of the week, feeling normal became really quite normal once again – in a way, it felt like a holiday in an alternate universe in which everything was how it had always been. At the same time, reports were steadily trickling in about a potential start to a second wave of infections, caused partly (but by no means exclusively) by tourists. On the way back, everything was still calm, the German border did not require any particular checks, as Denmark was not on the list of risk areas. Our first contact with German normality took place when we finally stopped for a break somewhere along the Autobahn. Masks were back on everywhere, and people were studiously avoiding each other, glancing at each other furtively and with slight suspicion. The coffee queue was an exercise in socially distant passive aggression and exaggerated displays of politeness. What a bloody relief, I thought, ‘Endlich normale Leute!’
(in case this link does not work, this is a reference to 'Voll Normaaal', a German comedy from the 90s that I absolutely do not recommend watching)