By Wakanyi Hoffman
When we moved to the Netherlands in the summer of 2019, we didn’t know that we would be living in our first house as homeowners six months later. At the same time, nobody in the entire world would have known that a virus detected in one human being would jump and spread like wildfire to all of us, everywhere.
When we look back to life in the Netherlands, our pictures will always evoke memories of the coronavirus, and our first house will always be remembered as the Covid-19 shelter home.
We have lived in many homes, rented from local homeowners in countries where we have been temporary residents, but this is the home that has absorbed our real fears of an unknown future, the move that was supposed to mark the start of an independent, expat life.
The Netherlands was our invented reality, a place of our own, somewhere to plant our kind of culturally-diverse roots. “Think of it as a base,” my husband had said. “More like a transit point,” I would add, referencing our moveable lifestyle, perhaps leaving room for a chance to pack up and go at will. The sense of permanency, the idea of being in one place forever, was simply unfathomable.
But the pandemic brought permanency to our lives, along with the fear of losing our base. As soon as we had unpacked our last of 400 boxes, my husband transitioned out of his original full-time employment and launched his own company in lockdown. At that same time, I began writing my first picture book, which would be published later in the year.
As the pandemic began revealing the uncertainties of expat life, we both drowned our fears into new work. We reckoned that if we had to leave, we at least had something- a publishing career for me and the humanitarian consulting agency that my husband has always dreamed of establishing.
But for a guy accustomed to intercontinental travel on a fortnightly basis, having his wings clipped and slapped with an 8-hour zoom call schedule locked into his weekdays was the new unknown. He would jump from call to call, wearing the same t-shirt and shorts, and I would watch in horror as the once clean-shaven office guy began resembling a caveman. He grew a beard, abandoned his nicely polished shoes, and forgot that he ever owned a suit jacket. Sometimes I wondered if he’d forgotten to wash his hair! Our trusted dog, Thomas, also earned the title, “Zoom dog,” as he found a nice spot in the office to settle into his day naps.
Many nights, my husband crawled into bed well past midnight, eyes half shut, still talking about this client, that project, and the number of phone calls still left to be made. The pandemic had transformed the 8-5 job into segmented time zones, and for the new entrepreneur, work calls could be taken at the client’s daylight hours, even if that meant a 2.00 am call for us. We began worrying about sustainability. “How long can we keep this up?” One of us would ask every night.
Meanwhile, my book illustrator worked tirelessly in her home in Kenya. As she zoom-schooled her son, we exchanged weekly calls, and I managed a never-ending in-person, flexi-school, and zoom-schooling schedule for my four children.
As the whole world grappled with adapting to the ‘new normal,’ The Netherlands seemed to have a list of social experiments suitable for each stage of the pandemic. Sometimes we wore masks, and sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes the kids had swim lessons, and sometimes they didn’t. Team sports were allowed at one point, while in-person gatherings of more than two families were forbidden. Every month brought in a ‘new normal’ around us, but inside our home, we sheltered from it all.
We’ve had two lockdowns so far, and in between, we’ve had moments of family quarantine as we waited for a negative corona test whenever one of the children missed in-person school. All this extra family time felt normal for us, yet strangely controlled, but not by us.
Even though we are accustomed to being together and away from extended family, this isn’t something we planned to or consciously aspired to become; it is just who we are as expats. But COVID came around as if to challenge who we think we are. Are we living as real global nomads? Can nomads live in one place?
Long after the children went to bed, before my husband began his ‘night shift,’ we would watch the news while our thoughts traveled around our new home, looking for signs that would finally confirm if this was “the base” or “the transit point.” And when news of loved ones who lost their lives to COVID finally hit our doorstep, the home became a solid base, and the transit point a likelihood of the post-COVID world.
My Christmas book became a hit, both in my home country Kenya and globally. When it became Amazon-official, I counted more than 38 countries in which the book had found little readers. The feeling of gratitude expanded with each new order. Breaking into the publishing world has been years in the making, and our “Covid-home-base” made it a reality.
My husband’s hours on zoom have yielded more successes than the hours that he spent away, traveling to different countries, putting out little fires everywhere. He can be found tapping at his drums in his small home office while he pitches a big idea to a potential client. Sometimes we jokingly laugh at all the places that he’s traveled to in one day. “Welcome back from Bangladesh!” I’d tease.
If we have learned something about homeownership in the time of corona, it is that home for us will unlikely ever be one physical place. We have lived in too many places to ever claim one as ours. But at different stages of life, other homes will provide us with just the shelter that we need to endure the unknown, and this home will always hold the memories of a turning point in our lives.
When I look back to the year 2020, I choose to dwell not on the discomfort of adjusting to a life that none of us were prepared for, but on the privilege of having lived through it all, adapting, changing, loving, and laughing, despite the odds.
As 2021 sneaks into our lives, I no longer worry about what new fears it will bring, but I will allow it to reveal who I am becoming. I hope to become my husband’s better life partner, a more adaptive mother to our four children, and when I choose to string together words for another story, I hope to add more courage, inspiration, and hope for a better year and a better world.
Happy New Year!