From my window: Quarantine and hunger during the rentrée at the University of Geneva
View from the author's window. Picture by the author.
The first thing I learnt this September is that some events are beyond our control, and not even the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health is able to avoid or predict them. It was the second day of my quarantine in the Résidence Hugo-de-Senger, my student accommodation in Geneva, when the fire alarm went off. Back then, I was mentally preparing myself for not seeing anyone else in the next ten days, when the unbearable noise, and my survival instinct, pushed me out of my ten-square-meter room. I swung into action and ran downstairs and outside in flip flops, a disposable mask, and my pyjamas along with everyone else who happened to be in the building. Three fire engines and two police cars came immediately to rescue us but, as I learnt shortly after, that mess had been caused by a frying pan fire - a classic story! I came back to my room laughing out loud – and giving my sincere thanks to the inexperienced cook. My quarantine had unintentionally, and for fair reasons, been broken.
On 1 July, the Swiss Federal Council decided to introduce a mandatory quarantine for any traveller coming from a so-called COVID-19 high-risk infection area – indeed, a diplomatic way to close the borders. As a master’s student of Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva, I read the news while visiting my family and friends in northern Spain. As the number of infected drastically increased, Spain was added to the list on 8 August with only a two-day notice for tourists to return, which meant that a not-so-promising future was ahead of me.
Upon my return to attend the University’s September rentrée, I announced myself to the authorities of the canton of Geneva, and shortly received an official letter from the canton doctor which informed me of the stipulated measures to be taken. The letter, as any bureaucratic writing, categorically stated that any attempt to break the confinement would be punished with a 10,000 CHF fine (£8,530); its receipt, hence, marked the beginning of what happened to be a timeless and confined period. What follows is a reflection of those odd and immobile moments, and my encounter thereafter with the grim outside world.
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Having experienced a 55-day complete lockdown with my closest relatives in Spain from March to May, I thought I knew everything about self-isolation. However, as I noticed pretty soon, this time was different: I was by myself in my last year’s college dorm, now deserted, silent and for the first (and last) time clean. What used to be an international eleven-room dorm floor with a vibrant and flavourful shared kitchen was now a big empty space where memories of the good old days clashed with the tasteless present. This explained why the university allowed me to self-isolate the entirety of the second floor.
The routine soon became a matter of suffering and enjoying loneliness: I baked chocolate cakes just for myself; cleaned the kitchen for my sake; staged physical exercise (a.k.a. online workouts) in the common room; hung out screen-to-screen with a beer in hand. Isolation and the ubiquitous and disabling headache defined the rhythm of my lifestyle, as echoes of the lockdown in my hometown in Spain repeatedly occupied my mind. The strong feeling of déjà vu was obsessively, and irretrievably, besieging me.
While confined, one experiences time and space in a different manner: my world measured the size of my room; the clock was an ornament, a remnant of my time within community. It is perhaps the lack of – physical – contact, the very idea of sharing a chronotope with other humans, that makes self-isolation so hard and unique. As journalistic long pieces on lockdown experiences reflect, the literature of self-portrait dominates the narrative of COVID-19 – inevitably, this essay follows those lines. It is difficult to write about ‘we’, the flock, when the bird is in the cage, alone; writing mirrors one’s experiences.
During self-quarantine, windows prove to be essential: they provide a bridge between the cage and the outside world. My university accommodation, Résidence Hugo-de-Senger, is located right in front of the site of Uni Mail, University of Geneva’s hallmark building. Upon my arrival on 30 August, the entrance to Uni Mail was deserted – sunny, hot days were, obviously, much more enjoyable on Lake Geneva´s shores. The absence of people strengthened the sense of deprivation confirming my suspicion of missing out on something, the nature of which remained unknown. And when the freedom of mobility is denied, claustrophobia sets in. In my mind, the view to the entrance to Uni Mail, to be seen from my kitchen window but not touched, drew a parallel between migrants who do not hold a valid visa and those idyllic, and unreal, images of Europe; both, the site of Uni Mail and the images, portraying a promised land to be dreamed of and desired. We seemingly only wish on the star we can’t reach. That said, those solitary ten days also reminded me, once more and for good, of my privileged position. What are ten days of immobility in a lifetime? An uncomfortable but fleeting memory.
240 hours later, the outside world was impatiently waiting for me. I hardly slept the previous night, after my Robison Crusoe-like journey the idea of encountering other humans was reasonably disrupting. How would the outside world look? Finally, having reached the end of my torment, Uni Mail looked pretty different to me: tangible, hygienic, undesirable. I kind of felt a strong sense of the ‘new normal’, this troublesome word now on the tip of everyone’s tongue – here in Geneva, and Switzerland as a whole, the idea of the epidemic belonging to a dark past and its control a matter of personal responsibility.
In the so-called ‘new normal’ world, I took a bus with some masked friends from uni to Corsier, a tiny village 20 minutes away from Geneva city centre. We then walked under the hot sun from Corsier to Hermance, the little charming village at the border with France. I was finally breathing freedom. It was ‘le jeûne genevois’, a public holiday in the Geneva canton, and the lake beach at Hermance was crowded; to my sincere surprise no one was wearing a mask. With the urgency of enjoying the last days of summer and the end of my quarantine, I set aside my previous concerns about public health and lost myself to the enjoyment of conversation and Swiss cheese. Life seemed pretty easy then.
Nonetheless, an event that took place the following week reminded me of the urgent need to write about ‘we’, the flock, instead of ‘I’, the solitary bird in the cage. The Résidence Hugo-de-Senger located on Rue Hugo-de-Senger at the heart of Plainpalais district in Geneva, one of the wealthiest cities of the world, is right next to the Club social rive gauche. Every morning, at eight o’clock, with the rush imposed by an empty belly, a large international crowd queues up to receive a hot drink, a sandwich and a lunch ticket in front of the University of Geneva. This is of course nothing new, but since lockdown underpaid and undocumented workers in Geneva have seen their situation dramatically worsened. The long lines for free food unveiled a social issue which, until then, was invisible and non-existent to the great majority of a city best-known for its bankers, UN meetings and CERN discoveries. In a town where chicken breasts cost 30 CHF/Kg (25.34 £/Kg), lining up for free food is primarily a political act – the consequence of the unacceptable economic inequalities. Peaceful and respectful, the Rue Hugo-de-Senger line grows longer every day, adding to the mounting tension.
It was a Friday morning of mid-September; I had woken up late as a result of my quite recent freedom of mobility and the beginning of the school term. I was in my room having breakfast when suddenly I heard the terrifying noises. I looked through the window, the very same window which had built a bridge with the outside world during my quarantine, when I saw three men fighting for a place in the queue. When I opened it to call the police, the ambulance, the neighbours, anyone, it was already too late: a man was lying, motionless, on the floor, badly injured.
As one of the social workers of the Social Club told me shortly after, due to the unprecedented economic crisis social tensions peaked in the last few weeks. And it is a matter of now or never to take steps to combat social exclusion and poverty, to place collective well-being above the individual. I went upstairs to my bedroom and started to write a draft of the next section of this essay, the first sentence which opens up with ‘us’, citizens of the world in the times of coronavirus. Echoing this new chapter, so begins: ‘The first thing we learnt…’. The memory of the injured man reaffirmed the need of a collective narrative to surmount this year; a narrative of the ‘us’, the flock, instead of ‘I’, the bird in the cage, alone.
Irene Praga Guerro
Irene comes from Valladolid, Spain. She is an MA student of the Comparative Literature programme at the University of Geneva, where she is researching on reimagining migrant narratives and biopolitics. A vocational writer and reader, she takes a particular interest in the political agency of literature that she believes can help redefine the so-called refugee crisis into political opportunity. She loves coffee, cheese and long discussions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/irene.praga