It's not "over," but I'm dancing anyway

A pandemic letter from Prague

It’s isn’t the Summer I envisioned, but it’s the Summer I have, and it’s just fine. It’s a pandemic Summer in Prague (and later on to Croatia and Italy), where you mask up to walk indoors and get on the tram, and you check and double-check the country-specific COVID restrictions before you head for the airport. And otherwise, you largely go about your life.

Yesterday my partner and I took a long walk from her apartment to the top of Vyšehrad, a fort above Prague that dates back to the 10th century. We walked across the bridge, then along the Vltava River that cuts through the city, then up the stone steps to the top of the hill, where we admired the views and sat and drank two beers at an open-air tavern. It was so pleasant up there and cheap (about $2.50 for a pilsner on draught) that we lingered a while. Neither of us had any particular plan or place to be.

“What do you think it’s going to be like in the future?” she asked, talking about COVID.

“I think it’s going to be a lot like right now.”

The pandemic isn’t over exactly, but it might as well be, as over as it’s gonna get, at least for the vaccinated. Whatever risk is left is probably risk we should internalize and learn to live with—and whatever actions we take now to mitigate we should probably plan to take for years, if not forever.

Back in the dark of December, I looked forward to this moment in a long post titled When this is all over:

When this is all over, I want to go salsa dancing. To walk in to a new club, in a new city, down some dark stairs perhaps, into a pulsating low ceiling’d dance floor with couples pressed in close, music so loud the only thing you can do is go to someone new, look them in the eye, hold out your hand, take theirs — and dance. Dance close, dance sweaty, dance with joy and abandon until it’s so late they have to flick on the lights to get everyone to finally start clearing out.

Well, it’s not a new city (I’ve been to Prague maybe six times?), and it wasn’t down some dark stairs into a club. Turns out it was an open-air pavilion at the edge of a large park, where the DJ played salsa and bachata and the dance floor was just perfectly crowded:

My partner and I went and met her sister and her husband, and we all danced, and then I held out my hand to a stranger, and then another, and we danced close and sweaty and with joy and abandon. When we left it was late, but not too late—it was a Tuesday night after all—and this wasn’t any kind of coming-out celebration for an end to anything. It was just a night out dancing, and we’ll have another one next week. It was just how life is now.

They had checked our vaccination status at the door, and I had unfolded my white, fraying CDC card from inside my wallet, to show the two men at the gate. My partner explained in Czech that these were American cards, and they waved us in. But even if they weren’t checking, we would have gone anyway.

Life in Prague right now

What can I say about this moment? I escaped America just as the Delta variant began its surge in earnest, so now I look back across the pond from afar and watch a new wave of infection, hospitalization, and death.

I wrote the week before last that I wasn’t exactly angry at the people refusing the vaccine (the “vaccine freeloaders”) so much as I had given up on them. But that’s not quite right. In fact I am kind of angry: they are the ones prolonging the pandemic and making it worse. Their behavior is what’s leading to new restrictions. They are impinging my freedom, not the other way around as they seem to be very confused about. I don’t like wearing a mask—but I kind of loathe being asked to wear one when the purpose is to protect the freeloaders, which is exactly what I’ll be asked to do once I return to the U.S.

Here in Prague, there is somewhat more social cohesion, but there is still idiocy. You can never completely escape idiocy.

Everyone has settled into a new kind of status quo. Mask wearing is required on public transportation and in most places indoors, though not in bars, restaurants, or gyms. The new social contract is that we understand indoor transmission and try to mitigate it, but not at the expense of eating out, going for a drink, or, in our case, heading to the climbing gym. Of course, there are those who refuse to mask up at all, even on the tram, or who wear the mask down under their nose (like a real douche; link nsfw). And there are still vaccine freeloaders and a whole media misinformation ecosystem here in the Czech Republic, just like in the U.S.

Yet case numbers remain low, even as they surge in Western Europe. My partner speculates it’s because so many people got COVID over the winter here that there is already something close to herd immunity. Perhaps. Regardless, everything feels pretty normal. I wake, I make coffee, I work, I write for my clients, I do Zoom calls from “my European office,” as I like to think about the apartment here.

We go to the Smíchov climbing gym, which is a 25-minute walk down and across some train tracks. The gym is in an old industrial building: super tall and gigantic and with route-setting better than I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Entry is about $3 per day, or if you want a rope for leading it’s another $2. You can order beer and food at the grill, and the young Czech mothers bring their infants and young kids and leave them to nap or play while they climb, or sit and talk with their friends. It’s a great gym, honestly I can’t recommend it highly enough.

At night, we either go out to eat or make ourselves dinner and find something to watch. In other words: normal life, if a little changed. On the streets there are cigarette buts and the usual trash, the most common of which is now the ubiquitous white N95 masks that fall from people’s hands or bags or maybe from the pockets of strollers. People slide the masks up around their arm when they’re outside, almost like a fashion trend.

The moment is surreal, but life moves on. I keep thinking about Dostoevsky: “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything.”

So, if this is it: masks indoors and on public transportation, vaccine passports and booster shots, and various subsets of humanity either refusing to acknowledge it all, refusing to deal with it, or refusing to get used to it, well then… I suppose I can do as Dostoevsky described, and get accustomed to anything.