I was 25 years old and teaching English in Barcelona in September 2001 when terrorists crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center. With no TV or internet in my crummy apartment, I watched the news every night at the home of a student who’d become a dear friend, struggling to process the terrifying footage and what this awful event meant for my home country – and for me, thousands of miles away from my family and loved ones.
But the words of my friend’s mother, Rosa, offered deep comfort. “Don’t worry, Blane,” she told me. “The United States is very strong. Your people will come together and overcome this like no other country can.”
When I went home three months later, reveling in the collective spirit of patriotism and American flags everywhere, I knew she was right.
Nearly 20 years later, I’m again living abroad, this time in Berlin for my husband’s job, and again struggling to process the horror of another crisis – the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic – wreaking havoc on my home country.
But this time, the United States isn’t looking so strong.
My people aren’t coming together to overcome this disaster like no other country; in fact, we’re leading the world in cases and deaths. As the numbers continue to climb, so does my despair and fear about the uncertain future of my beloved homeland.
At the same time, I recognize how lucky my husband, almost four-year-old son, and I are to be in Germany, a country whose government has handled this crisis so well.
As a result, we’ve been able to settle in nicely, even during this chaotic time. We’ve enjoyed a summer family vacation and exploring the city on bikes. We’ve started making friends, an essential expat process, and my son is set to start daycare in just a few weeks.
But that gratitude comes with a heavy dose of guilt about what my fellow citizens are confronting back home. Will my loved ones stay safe and healthy? How many more people will needlessly die? When will I get to see my parents, who live in Florida and with whom I’m incredibly close, again?
These are the questions that keep me up at night since leaving the United States four months ago. We kept a close eye on the coronavirus situation before our move but decided to press forward, arriving in Berlin on March 6, a rainy Friday.
Within a week, lockdowns and border closures started across Germany and the world. We briefly considered returning home to ride out the pandemic but changed our minds; the risks of traveling through three international airports and staying with my parents, both in their 70s, were just too high.
While I don’t recommend making an international move during a global pandemic – many times, I’ve felt on the verge of combusting from the stress – I know we made the right decision to stay in Berlin.
Most importantly, we fully trusted Germany’s world-class health care system – in fact, one of the city’s coronavirus hospitals is about five blocks from our apartment – and its swift, coordinated response to the pandemic.
We were also lucky to avoid harsh lockdown restrictions like those in some other European countries. We could leave our apartment for shopping or exercise whenever we wanted, without official paperwork.
Playgrounds were closed, but parks remained open, and in those difficult, discombobulating early weeks as we adjusted to the double whammy of culture shock and a pandemic, my incredibly active kiddo and I spent countless hours outside.
That outdoor time every day saved my sanity, no doubt. I have no idea how parents in Spain, where children were not allowed out of the house for weeks on end, survived.
Another unexpected silver lining? The rare chance to explore my new city without the usual crush of tourists. Out for a solo bike ride one day, I took a turn and found myself by accident at the Berlin Wall and the East Side Gallery – the only soul at this world-famous landmark I first visited nearly 20 years ago.
I’ve also started noticing things around the city I might have otherwise missed, like the small brass plaques embedded in the pavement outside buildings that honor the Holocaust victims who once lived there.
On those rough days when I’m stretched to the limit, I take a walk around my neighborhood and the plaques just seem to pop out at me. I inevitably return home with a clearer head and perspective restored.
As we’ve adjusted to our new lives and Berlin has returned to a new normal, I don’t need those walks as much anymore. Restaurants, movie theaters and playgrounds are all open, and kids are back in school. Masks and social distancing signs are the only clues that we’re still not quite out of the danger zone – and I’ve never seen nor heard about a single issue with someone refusing to comply.
It seems like a parallel universe to the scenario in the United States.
I’m shocked and dismayed by the mask wars erupting on the news and social media. I’m heartbroken to see that my home state of Florida has reversed a hopeful start and is now exploding with new cases. And I’m furious about the many Americans who continue to downplay or ignore the severity of this disaster.
Watching the news sends me spiraling into a dark mood that’s hard to shake.
Thankfully, my parents are in the Florida Panhandle, which isn’t as hard hit as other parts of the state, and I feel reassured about the precautions they are taking. But I can sense that my ever-optimistic mom, though cheerful on our daily calls, is really starting to feel the isolation of the last few months.
When I lament about how much I miss her and my dad, she reminds me that four months is about the same stretch between our visits when my family was living in California. I know she’s right. But this pandemic has warped all sense of time: four months feels like it has flown by in a blur, and at the same time, stretched into an eternity.
Many of my American mom friends, meanwhile, are agonizing over the unappealing prospects of home school or sending their kids back to school in risky environments.
I’m keeping mostly quiet about my little guy starting “school” in just a few weeks: full-time, government-subsidized daycare where masks are required for parents during drop-off and pick-up and kids’ temperatures are taken every day before they enter – all at a small fraction of the cost of what we paid in the States.
In Berlin, when German friends and acquaintances learn I’m from the United States – and that we moved here right before the pandemic – their response is overwhelmingly sympathetic.
They ask about my family, how I’m holding up. But I suspect that they’re also wondering: “What the heck is wrong with your country? Didn’t you learn anything from what happened over here first?”
So I quickly give voice to those assumptions: That the situation in the United States is embarrassing, heartbreaking and reckless, and there’s little I can do about it except make sure my absentee ballot is on the way. I try to sound optimistic, though I’m usually fighting back tears.
But as often as I can, I also try to remember Rosa’s comforting words. Perhaps they’ll again prove true, and maybe our country can one day fix the fissures and fault lines exposed by this crisis to pave the way for a brighter future. For now, though, I can only keep my hopes up, my fingers crossed and my mask on.
Blane Bachelor is a Florida-born, Berlin-based journalist who writes about travel, outdoor adventure, parenting and women doing awesome things. Visit her website at www.blanebachelor.com.