Five lives, worlds apart - but in one global bubble

Living in isolation has brought Suzanne McFadden's global gang of friends even closer together

We met on a train. The five of us, from different points of the compass – Texas, London, Melbourne and Auckland – crossing Canada’s Rocky Mountains together.

It’s fast approaching four years since we were on that junket, rolling lavishly along aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, bonding over a shared sense of humour and adventure, a love of good food and cowbells.

Since then we’ve all stayed in touch. We connect often through typed conversation, photos and ridiculous GIFs in our Messenger group chats. And we've promised to all meet again one day.

Finally we did. Not in Dublin in 2017, or Melbourne in 2019, or even Bali in 2020. But four weeks ago, in our five different houses around the globe.

Although we’re all living in our iso-bubbles right now, this coronavirus pandemic has brought us that much closer to each other.

Since New Zealand went into lockdown, our party of five has been congregating once a week on video calls. Getting the timing right is the tough part – our Melbourne friend has to get up at dawn to catch our London friend before he goes to bed.

We are all journalists in some guise – Marika is the travel editor of a Texas lifestyle magazine, Paddy is a freelance writer and events producer in London, Donna is a senior radio reporter in Melbourne, and Nicola, a current affairs TV producer in Auckland.

Donna has been in Victoria’s stage three lockdown since March 24. Marika and her family are starting their sixth week of sheltering-in-place. She walks for two hours each day in the hot Austin sun (it’s already 33 degrees Celsius in spring) making her business calls as she goes. 

She likens the shutdown to waiting in a plane on the tarmac: “‘We’ll be another 20 minutes folks’ then another 45 minutes, then an hour. I’m telling my kids we will be out in early June.”

Paddy’s London lockdown has just been extended for another three weeks, but he was expecting it. It was his birthday yesterday, and the gregarious Irishman spent it eating chocolates and drinking prosecco cooped up in his flat.  

Five friends reunited by video call. Photo: Marika Cook Flatt 

We all miss the same things: drinking proper coffee, meeting up with friends, hugging our parents, and travelling.  And being able to leave the house without feeling guilty, Donna adds.

It’s also reassuring to know we all share the same problems, frustrations and fears in these unprecedented times.

We try to talk about a wide gamut of topics, but each time, the conversation inevitably circles back to Covid-19.

Two of us think we’ve probably had the virus. Three weeks ago, Paddy spent four days in bed with a fever and chronic fatigue. “I felt really shocking. I’m pretty sure I had it, because I never get sick,” he told us. He didn’t go out to get tested, but he self-isolated for 14 days.  

Marika had a fever four weeks ago, and still feels a tightness in her chest.

We discuss the peculiar things we do to stay sane. On weekdays, I try to look respectable from the waist up for fear of being caught out in video meetings in my activewear. Nic gets dressed in her finery to work at home on ‘Formal Fridays’. Donna is resisting following her neighbours in ‘Dressing up for bins night’, where they haul their wheelie bins out to the curb in cocktail frocks and tiaras.

We’ve all had our moments of exasperation, bordering on madness. When we do, we contact each other (I may have video-called Nicola from the back of my wardrobe). We convince each other that, of course, we’ll get through this. It’s just no one has the faintest idea when that will be.

We talk about what’s surprised us. Four of us have teenagers, and we all marvel at how they’ve stayed put in our bubbles and generally been much easier, calmer human beings to be around.

We compare our work situations – the profits and pitfalls of working from home, the rigmarole of leaving the safety of our houses to go into the newsroom, while maintaining social distance. And how bloody lucky we are to still have jobs.

Donna has a routine down pat where she can walk from her car and into her 3AW radio booth, only spying other people through glass. Nic goes into her TV studio once a week to put together a live show - always two metres away from the crew, and hundreds of kilometres away from the video-linked guests, who'd usually be filling the green room with banter.  

We laugh a lot. At Easter, Donna opened her Kinder Surprise egg to find a couple of plastic pangolins (the scaly creature is a prime suspect in transferring Covid-19 to humans).

The pair of pangolins that emerged from a chocolate egg. Photo: Donna Demaio. 

When Marika spoke at a book publishers' webinar last week, she spotted a woman in the corner of her computer screen with her head back, eyes closed and mouth wide open. “I must have put her to sleep,” she says.

For once, politics creeps into conversation. Everyone is in awe of the way New Zealand has ‘gone hard and gone early’ and of the leadership shown by our Prime Minister. “She’s set the benchmark around the world on how to be a human,” Paddy says.

The video calls aren’t perfect. Our faces are sometimes blurry or pixelated, and there’s the dilemma of getting your distance right - making sure your head doesn’t fill the entire screen. Voices – and our wifi - cut in and out.

That’s the problem with social video encounters: it’s not a meeting with an agenda, so there are no rules about who speaks next. Sometimes it’s a little like a Covid-19 press conference, with everyone speaking at once trying to get their question heard.

If there are ever awkward silences, the question “So, what TV shows are you watching?” is a popular, and invaluable, re-starter.

Personally, the novelty of mass video gatherings in general is starting to wear thin. They were exciting to begin with - the promise of G&T Fridays, Zoom Bingo, and shared dinners with absent family on an iPad at the end of the table. But still, I look forward to catching up with our Rocky Mountaineer gang and comparing our different stages of lockdown.

We’ve always talked about reuniting, in the flesh, somewhere in the world, but it’s just been too hard to choreograph. Our latest plan is to spend a Thanksgiving together in Texas – but we know it won’t be this one.

It looks as if we’ll have to be content with these grainy, but heart-warming, video calls for some time to come.

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