As former London residents, we’re familiar with U.K. travel and living, but knew this would rank as our most memorable trip, a once-in-a-lifetime wedding against the backdrop of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.
Forty-eight hours before our departure on British Airways, we completed the required U.K. Visa & Immigration Public Health Locator Form providing our quarantine address and other pertinent tracking details. Anyone without prearranged lodging would be offered government-arranged housing and be stuck with the bill.
The Dulles-Heathrow leg was aboard a roomy Airbus A350, only about 10 percent full. All passengers and flight attendants wore masks, and flight attendants also wore gloves to serve meals packed in paper bags. But our Heathrow-Edinburgh flight was surreal: Every seat was taken, and though passengers were all wearing masks, it was impossible to socially distance. We later realized that this single flight was an aberration: Our return British Airways flights were impeccably ordered, including strict protocols such as boarding from the rear to the front of the plane and upon landing, requiring passengers to remain seated and wait for their row to be dismissed.
We were grateful we could quarantine at our daughter’s future in-laws’ flat, which they rent to students during the school term, located in the quiet residential neighborhood of Marchmont near the University of Edinburgh. The apartment is in a quintessential 1800s-era Victorian-style structure; the enormous bay windows of the 12-foot-high-ceiling flat offered a glimpse of an old castle in the distance.
We were on the second floor and, apparently, so was Janet, an older longtime resident who was practicing shielding, the British term for self-quarantine, since she is classified as high risk for covid-19. Our hosts had briefed her about the Americans who would be living next door for a couple of weeks, and we were asked to resist any type of interaction with her or other neighbors to ensure everyone’s peace of mind.
We adopted a quiet-as-a-church-mouse lifestyle, readying ourselves for an unannounced government health official’s visit. Per the mandate, health authorities could drop by without warning to make sure we were all there, under threat of penalty (about $600 per person in Scotland). We were not permitted to leave our place of quarantine except for an emergency, which included medical attention and the much hazier category of purchasing food.
To err on the safe side, we set up an account with a supermarket for two deliveries, but to get us started, our future son-in-law stocked our refrigerator and pantry and also left champagne for our 29th wedding anniversary, which fell during quarantine. Of course, the best anniversary gift was the impossible — to hug our daughter and her fiance, who were agonizingly close but so far away.
We never received the check from government health officials, a bit of a disappointment because, to be honest, we would have enjoyed the visit — and we were excessively diligent.
Aiming to establish some semblance of work/life balance, we promptly dove into remote work each morning. With overnight temperatures dipping to the low 50s, I found myself chasing the sun from the front of the flat to the west-facing rear, where rays fell through kitchen windows overlooking the stonewalled internal gardens of the neighborhood. Through these back windows, besides dark stone buildings and bright green grass, we could see a shock of red geraniums lining a windowsill, blankets airing through open windows, and in one private garden, a swing, which a child — hugging her stuffed bear — would use, playing with her younger sister. In an adjoining garden, we saw a filled clothesline, with the woman of the house sipping from a mug.
When you can’t go outside, you’re a cat in the window, hungrily watching, observing even mundane neighborhood activities.
My son remarked that if you closed your eyes, the noisy swooping seagulls of the neighborhood were like “wailing flying cats,” a fitting image and nice change from the wailing sirens of my Washington neighborhood. Though the very fact of quarantine spoke to the global pandemic, I felt strangely disembodied from it, so stark a contrast was this place to home.
At the stroke of 5 p.m., my husband would hand me a gin and tonic and we’d toast another completed day of quarantine and shift into evening mode. We worked obsessively on a 1,000-piece puzzle featuring a map of the U.K., listened to Pink Floyd and, as the days wore on, caught up in the British gangster series “Peaky Blinders” on Netflix.
Taking out trash and recycling to the bins in front of the building became a favored chore, something we did in the evening, when the neighborhood had quieted. We rotated the privilege, wearing face masks and moving stealthily down the stairs and out the main door of the building. Once outdoors, we removed our masks so as not to draw unwanted attention; from observing pedestrians, we concluded that mask-wearing — unlike social distancing — was not emphasized as a basic practice to stop the spread of coronavirus. In fact, when my husband went to the front of our building to pick up our grocery delivery while wearing a mask, the unmasked driver looked him over fearfully and set the bags on the sidewalk far from my husband and drove away. The driver’s actions suggested that he suspected my husband was ill because he was wearing a mask.
Laundry has never been so exciting as it was during quarantine. Many U.K. homes rely on a foldable clotheshorse to air-dry clothes, but in our space-limited flat, a pulley system had been created to dry laundry, lowered to hang wet clothes and then raised high to preserve living space.
Like hanging clothes to dry, using hot water bottles to warm beds before bedtime is an unremarkable part of daily life. Scottish summers are temperamental, bringing cold wet days that make filling hot water bottles and turning radiators on sensible, along with wearing coats and boots. With clouds moving quickly and weather ever-changing, I saw people go from summer wear one day to winter the next, habits indicative of being so far north and tucked along the Firth of Forth, which connects to the North Sea.
Besides yoga, we used an exercise bike, positioned by the expansive bay windows with great views of the street, to stay active. Once my husband was using it and glanced outside only to meet the gazes of a socially distanced cluster of neighbors peering up at him.
It was an “aha” moment. Naturally, news had reached the neighbors of the Americans quarantining among them. Just as we could observe the neighborhood, the neighborhood could observe us.
Our suspicions were confirmed a few days later when the door mail-slot clapped loudly, delivering a handwritten note from “Lyn.” Apparently, our fresh pack of sponges in the kitchen had sailed through the open window and landed in her garden, thanks to one of many hardy gusts of wind. The sponges “decided they’d had enough of being indoors so flew out and landed on the back green,” Lyn wrote, and she was returning them, sanitized. She also empathized, “this is a miserable way for you to spend the prenuptial days” and sent “best wishes to the bride and groom.”
#AloneTogether has been trotted out a lot during the pandemic, but this was personal. I felt comforted that my Edinburgh neighbors, a group of strangers I’ll never meet, internalized our presence and the reason behind it. Though quarantining far from home, we were embedded in a neighborhood, surrounded by kind people.
Streeter is a Washington writer. Her website is kathrynstreeter.com.